Despite its recent bad press, Jordan – and especially Petra – still remains high on many traveller’s bucket lists. Here, recent travel writing graduate Margherita Ragg (from The Crowded Planet and The Writer and the Tramp) and her photographer husband Nicholas Burns show us exactly why you shouldn’t miss this intriguing country; be prepared for some serious travel envy…
Think Jordan – think Petra. I can guarantee there’s a lot more to the country than the millenary archeological site. A week-long trip to Jordan left me amazed by natural beauty and stuffed with delicious food. Jordanians are some of the kindest and most welcoming people you’ll ever meet, the country is completely safe, small and easy to travel around. The current state of affairs in the Middle East has led to a drop in tourist numbers; visit out of season and you’ll pretty much have the place to yourself.
Aqaba, the only city on Jordan’s Red Sea coast, is the ideal gateway to the country’s main tourist attractions. It is a lot closer to Petra and Wadi Rum than the capital Amman, and enjoys year-long sunshine and clear skies. Unlike many other Middle East coastal towns, Aqaba still retains a drowsy fishing-village atmosphere; the public beaches and promenade might not be much to look at, but the area is great for people watching. The smell of barbecues and spices mingles with the scent of hookah pipes, while glass-bottomed boats zip across the bay and children paddle around in styrofoam boxes. For those in search of relaxation, the best bet is Berenice Beach Club a few kilometers south, connected to downtown Aqaba by a free shuttle bus. The reef starts a few steps from the shore, making it a snorkelling and scuba diving paradise.
Aqaba is also one of the few places in the world where you can see four countries at once. As the sun sets into the Red Sea, the lights of Eilat in Israel and Taba in Egypt twinkle on the left, and the silhouette of a ship looms in front of the Saudi coast, on the right.
The desert valley of Wadi Rum is only 45 minutes away. A quick drive, and we leave beach-loving Aqaba with its fishing culture to reach the abode of the Bedouins. The scenery takes your breath away. Sandstone cliffs rise out of the brick-coloured desert. The landscape changes around every corner, with canyons and sand dunes, natural arches and bridges, sculpted by the desert wind. Adventure-lovers will be spoilt for choice; activities available range from rock-climbing to microlight and balloon flights. No visit to Wadi Rum is complete without a stay in a Bedouin camp. After dining and dancing with the Bedouins, while the camp sleeps, I climb to the top of a sand dune. I lie on my back counting the stars. The Milky Way slices through the night sky, and the trail of a shooting star breaks into a thousand sparkles.
Petra needs no introduction. The capital city of the Nabateans truly is one of the world’s great wonders. A mile-long walk through the Siq, the narrow canyon of Indiana Jones fame, takes you to the Treasury. The best things are hidden where you least expect them, our guide says, as I get my first glimpse of the rock-carved façade, orange and pink in the morning sun.
Petra is not only a marvellous sight, but also an engineering wonder; a complex system of dams and canals was devised by the Nabateans to provide the great city with water.
The site stretches for miles and miles, one different columned façade after another. Make sure to save some strength for the climb up to the Monastery, eight hundred rock-carved steps winding their way through souvenir stalls and Bedouin families having lunch.
The crusader castle of Shobak
The Crusader castle of Shobak, an hour drive north of Petra, is one of Jordan’s most underrated sights. Only a few other tourists and archeology enthusiasts walk around the crumbling towers and walls. The castle lies on top of a hill; the view stretches for miles over the surrounding valleys. Underground there are two water reservoirs, a tiny church is hidden in the bowels of the castle. The site has never been completely excavated; I can’t help but wonder what lies below.
Just as I can’t help but wonder what else this country has to offer. One week was barely enough to scratch the surface of a country that is welcoming and mysterious at the same time, with some of the best landscapes I have ever seen. And Petra. Of course, we can’t forget Petra.
- In Aqaba, the Jardaneh Hotel was awarded the Green Key eco label for its environmentally friendly policies. Conveniently located in downtown Aqaba, it offers comfortable rooms and mini-apartments.
- In Wadi Rum, the Rahayeb Desert Camp has basic and VIP tents with private bathrooms in a stunning desert location. The camp is committed to environmental sustainability and is run by local Bedouin families.
- In Wadi Musa, the town closest to Petra, the Tetra Tree Hotel offers four-star luxury at reasonable prices.
- In Shobak, the Montreal Hotel was recently restored and offers beautiful rooms with views on Shobak Castle. For budget minded travellers, Jaya Tourist Camp offers tents and shared rooms. The owner leads hiking trips in the surrounding areas.
- Jordanian food is delicious; specialties include mansaf, the national dish of lamb cooked in yogurt and served on a bed of rice, and sayadieh, from Aqaba, grouper cooked with onions and almonds. For quick eats, try Al Mohandes in downtown Aqaba.
- Public buses travel once a day between Aqaba, Petra and Wadi Rum. Minibuses leave when full. If you’re pressed with time, consider renting your own car or hiring a taxi for the day.
- Dress code for women is liberal compared to other Middle Eastern countries, but it is still advised to wear long and loose-fitting clothes, and to carry a scarf to wear when visiting mosques and religious sites.
- Alcohol can be hard to find everywhere except Aqaba, where there are licenced restaurants and liquor shops.