Jordan is not a huge country. There are people who go to Jordan who do a day trip, they drive in the northern borders, they see one or two sites in Amman, maybe the religious sites or maybe historical sites, they drive down to Petra and they finish the whole thing in a day. I wouldn’t recommend doing that. I was in Jordan for about 10 days and there was certainly enough to do for at least that amount of time.
Table of contents: ()
When to Visit Jordan
I visited Jordan in late May. I had been invited by the Jordan tourism board and was their guest. Waleed, my guide, told me that the tourism season in Jordan is mostly March through mid-May, and around May 15, the tourism really drops off. He said if we’d been there a month earlier, he would have lost me in the crowds but most of the places that we visited from May 17 to May 27, were empty. We had good weather but normally the weather would start to get hot in the second half of May. How warm it is, depends a lot on the elevation. Amman, which has an elevation of 1,000 meters above sea level has a Mediterranean climate but when you go down into the Dead Sea, which is down below sea level, it’s quite hot. Petra is somewhere in between in temperature.
The main part of my itinerary in Jordan was a circle. I flew into Amman but immediately headed to the Dead Sea area. I explored that region from north to south heading down to Petra, before heading back north again to Amman. I have re-sorted my itinerary a bit to put things in a more logical order than we did them. But keep in mind that this is a small country and you can easily drive from north to south in a single day.
Bethany – Baptism Site of Jesus
One unique site on the Jordan River north of the Dead Sea is the Baptism Site of Jesus. The other name for this site is Bethany, which is translated House of John as in John the Baptist. There were three ancient churches built here which strengthens the claim that this is the spot where Jesus’s baptism took place. The site itself is no longer on the river as the river course has moved over time. In the picture above, the river is just behind the line of trees at the top of the photo. It is easy to get to by car or there are numerous tours to Bethany.
I had the unusual opportunity to return to the site during a visit by the Pope and the Jordanian Royal Family which I wrote about in My Day as Paparazzi for the Pope in Jordan.
While you are there walk over to the river. This river is the border between Jordan and Israel and it is not very wide. A number of pilgrims on both sides of the border come down into the Jordan River to be baptized. We watched from the Jordanian side as groups would do that from the Israeli side. The only thing that marks the border between these two countries at that point is a couple of ropes.
We went to the Dead Sea. It’s an interesting experience. I knew ahead of time that you were much more buoyant but even with knowing that fact that I was surprised at how buoyant I was, and how difficult it was even to stand up in the water. If you’re a woman it is a bad idea to shave your legs the day you float in the Dead Sea because the water will irritate any small cuts. I had made sure that I had not used a razor that day. Unfortunately, the activity that we had done just before that was to hike the Wadi Mujib (see below).
Crowne Plaza Dead Sea Resort
At the Dead Sea, I stayed at the Crowne Plaza Jordan Dead Sea Resort, which is the largest hotel in Jordan. It is a very, very beautiful resort very western-style resort. So if you’re trying to connect with a culture, it’s not necessarily ideal.
One of the things that it’s interesting in Jordan is how surprisingly stable the country is when you consider all of the things that are going on around it. Jordan has taken in many refugees over the last 50 years. They took in refugees recently from Syria, before that Iraq, before that from Palestine, before that from Armenia, before that from Chechnya. Yet somehow they seem to make this country work, despite all of the differences that many of the people in the country aren’t native Jordanian. It’s not the richest country in the region. It doesn’t have a lot of oil. They make a lot of their money on tourism. But it really works in a way that is very surprising. And I think quite a credit to the people of the country. There was no point in the 10 days that I was there where I thought that people were looking at me weird or that I felt at all uncomfortable.
But the one thing I did notice is that when you are in these very western-style resorts, these five-star resorts, as you drive your car into the resort they are going to stop you and they are going to inspect the trunk and look under the car. There is an emphasis on security to protect that valuable tourism business. When I was in Jordan there wasn’t anything going on that would warrant that level of security except way over by the Iraqi border.
One of the great things that I did in Jordan was hiking up the Wadi Mujib. If you have ever been to Zion National Park in Utah, one of the best hikes in the country is the hike up the Virgin River. That’s a hike up a slot canyon where you’re literally hiking in the river.
Wadi Mujib is much like that, except that at the time we were there, there was more of a river actually flowing through the canyon. At times you had to grab onto a rope and pull yourself up over boulders against the current. You can hike the canyon to a waterfall. If you have more time and you’re interested, you can also do a technical climb of the waterfall. I think the hike to the waterfall took about an hour. It is a very beautiful area and a great hike.
Unfortunately, it did mean my legs were all scraped up. That would not have been a problem except that we did the hike just before floating in the Dead Sea. Ouch! Float in the Dead Sea before you do the hike instead of the order that we did.
Evason Ma’In Hot Springs
The first night after I arrived I stayed in a resort in the wadis by the Dead Sea. It was the Ma’in Hot Springs Resort. To get there you drive through a very desolate portion of Jordan, down by the Dead Sea. To me, the landscape is very similar to the Death Valley region in the US. But then you get this hidden valley with waterfalls and hot springs, which is the Ma’In Hot Springs area. We didn’t stay there very long. We arrived in the late afternoon and then took off relatively early in the morning. I loved having dinner out on the veranda just watching these waterfalls in this very dry desert area. It is certainly someplace I could have spent more time.
Feynan Ecolodge in the Dana Nature Preserve
I spent the next night at the Feynan Ecolodge in the Dana Nature Preserve. There are two different ecolodges at the two ends of a trail, you can hype it uphill away from the Feynan Ecolodge, or downhill the other one, which would be preferable it’d be a lot faster hike that way. But there are also a number of different hikes, trails, or activities that you can do from the ecolodge.
You can go learn how to bake Bedouin bread. You can go explore some of the oldest copper mines in the world. Some of the first copper mines in the Bronze Age were in this area. It’s also a bit of a sacred site. During the Roman era, a lot of Christians were sent to work themselves to death in these copper mines which are a two-hour hike away from the lodge.
There is no electricity in your room there just candles. The only Wi-Fi you’re going to find is in the lobby and even that wasn’t that strong. So this is really a more rustic experience. As we ate breakfast out on the veranda, we were out there with the goats. Again in mid-May, there were six of us staying there and I understand earlier there’d be 150 tourists there in the March and April timeframe. Tourists also come in early fall, but most people avoid Jordan in the heat of the summer.
I had a guide Mohammed who was a member of one of the local Bedouin families. We stopped by their tents to see them setting up two large tents for a wedding celebration the next day. These big Bedouin tents were made out of a course camelhair wool. They had one tent for the men and one for the women because they would party separately. That night we heard them firing guns up in the air as they were celebrating the wedding. It’s great that the local Bedouin families are involved in the Eco Lodge, not just on the staff, but also supporting it, and about 50% of the money from the lodge does go back into the local communities as well.
It was just a fascinating stop. I had a chance to head out in the wadi on mountain bikes with Mohamad to an archeological dig. I covered more of my visit in this article: Places to Visit in Jordan besides Petra.
Shobak Castle / Montréal
On the way to Petra, we stopped at one of the crusader castles in Jordan. This castle was built in the early 1100s by Baldwin I the first King of Jerusalem which was a crusader state. This castle sits on a hill that dominated the main route from Egypt to Syria. The castle is mostly in ruins. It does not take that much time to visit but it is a fascinating spot.
The best-known tourism site in Jordan is Petra which some of us first got a glimpse of in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. Petra is a Nabatean city that was carved into the sandstone rocks in southern Jordan. It was built by the Nabatean people right around the time of the Romans. It was a trading city. It was a city that made its money from the caravans that came and brought the spices of frankincense and myrrh. Petra was captured by the Romans in the second century AD.
The Nabateans traded with the Far East and became a rich city and rich culture for a period of time. Petra was exactly what I expected and so much more. For one thing, it’s about a two-kilometer walk from where you get your tickets to the main part of the city. The second of the two kilometers, you walk through this slot canyon and suddenly come upon this hidden city. As you walk through the slot canyon, you will see a water channel carved into the wall on the side of the canyon which supplied the city with fresh water. You can hire a horse-drawn cart to take you from the entrance to the Treasury for 20 JD round trip.
Unliked in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, the Treasury does not have an inner chamber with the Holy Grail, in fact, it does not have an inner chamber at all. The structure is thought to be a tomb.
So many of the pictures that I had seen of Petra were just that one spot standing in front of the Treasury. My guide, Waleed, said 20% of some tour groups never even make it as far as the Treasury, they just turn around, go back to the hotel and swim in the pool. Waleed said that a lot of tourists, by the time they walked the two kilometers to the Treasury, take the same picture everyone else has seen and then just turn around and go back.
If you have the patience, go further into Petra. It’s a huge site. There’s the Old City and then past that is the Roman city. And then if you have more time and some stamina, you can climb the 900 steps up to an area they call the Monastery.
Petra is a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site. I took a lot of pictures. We got there early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day.
My schedule was overscheduled. We went to Wadi Rum on the same day as Petra and I would not do that. I would have liked to do the long climb up the steps to the Monastery but we didn’t have the time. If you have more time you can also visit Little Petra in the area for another Nabatean site with smaller crowds.
The entrance fee for Petra is 50 Jordanian dinars for adults. Typically, all the other sites in the country are much cheaper at about one Jordanian dinar, and that’s about $1 50. USD.
Petra by Night
Your ticket for Petra does not include the Petra by Night program when you can visit the city in the dark. The Petra by Night program runs Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday and costs 17 JD, but is free for children under 10 years of age. When you reach the Treasury building you will find a musical program and the area will be lit up with scores of luminarias. It is quite pretty and I think worth the additional admission and the hike. We actually did the Petra by Night program the night we arrived and then came back to the city to see it in daylight the next morning when it opened.
If you are a photographer, It is worth coming back to Petra for the nighttime program. If you plan on coming practice doing some nighttime photography before you come and make sure your camera is in the right mode for best results (mine was not).
Another popular UNESCO World Heritage Site is Wadi Rum. You have seen Wadi Rum in movies. It is where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed and also where the more recent The Martian was filmed. The recent for that is that it is a majestic barren landscape that looks like Mars. It reminds me of Death Valley or of Monument Valley in Arizona. It is a desert a sandy desert with rock outcroppings, some of which have paintings on them of caravans that may have marked the caravan routes through this area.
Wadi Rum is very important to the Jordanian people because it’s really where the home of the great Arab uprising happened against the Ottoman Turks. If you want to know more about that, you might want to rent Lawrence of Arabia before you go because that is very much the history of this area. There’s a monument there to Lawrence. The family that is still ruling Jordan is the family of the leaders of that revolt.
We took a four by four tour and then we also stayed in a desert camp. And when I say desert camp, it sounds like it’s way out there in the middle of nowhere, but it’s really just off the road. We slept in tents, ate a wonderful meal, and also enjoyed Beduin musicians. It was a great experience, and I would recommend it. Just don’t do it the same day you visit Jordan.
Salt – Home Visit
We stopped in Salt on the way back to Amman from Petra. Salt is an easy day trip from Amman. In Salt, we did a home visit with a local family. It was a chance to try some of the typical local food, learn more about the culture and, of course, take the obligatory photo earing Bedouin garb. It is always a bit richer travel experience whenever you can spend some time with community-based tourism like this.
Speaking of food, I should say I really enjoyed the food in Jordan although I didn’t find there to be a lot of variety, at least at the nice restaurants we went to. We had a combination of Lebanese food and Jordanian food, which is fairly similar. It seemed like there was always at least two or three times as much food as we needed. They would first bring out say 10 different bowls of appetizers. There would be olives, a tabouli salad, a salad with onions and tomatoes, olives, and feta cheese. There would be a bowl of olives, a couple of different types of hummus, and baba ghanoush (like hummus except made with eggplant).
You’d have about 10 of those bowls and some flatbread, you’d eat until you’re full, and then they would bring out the main course. I found that no matter how many times we went, I kept forgetting to leave room for the main course. The main course would typically be some sort of grilled meat, or three different types of grilled meats, some chicken, some lamb, and some beef, all wonderful. Obviously not a lot of pork in the country. Even in the hotels, you’re not going to get a pork sausage or bacon, but you’ll get a beef sausage and beef bacon.
St George’s Church – Madaba, Jordan
An interesting site not far from Amman is St George’s Church which dates from the 6th century. It is most notable for the Byzantine mosaic tile floor which is a map of the middle east in the 6th century. If you want to be able to read the labels you will need to be able to read Greek so it does help to have a guide there with you who can point out significant sites. The floor was partially destroyed by earthquakes over the years. Some of the damage may also have been from iconoclasts who sought to destroy some of the iconography and artwork in the Orthodox church.
This is a significant site for some Orthodox visitors. Some tourists to Jordan will actually fly in just for a day, for instance, from Russia. They might visit only 3 sites: St George’s Church, Mount Nebo, and the Baptism Site of Jesus.
Mount Nebo, which is where Moses saw the promised land, but then wasn’t able to go in and died on that mountain. From Mount Nebo, you can see for miles over the Dead Sea and into Israel just as Moses would have.
Because I knew so many people who enjoyed the capital city of Amman, it was high on my list of places to see. And I enjoyed Amman. There was quite a lot to do there. There’s both a Western and an eastern portion of the city. The eastern portion is the older portion of the city, not quite as Western and not quite as expensive either. There’s a series of eight traffic circles that extend from west to east across the city. I stayed in the Grand Hyatt Amman hotel near the third traffic circle.
All the hotels I stayed at in Jordan were great and Amman was no exception. In fact, they were probably some of the nicest in the country, probably a little nicer than I would normally stay in just because I was a guest of the Tourism Board and they wanted me to try out these wonderful hotels, you can get a cheaper hotel than where I stayed been around the first traffic circle.
Amman was one of 10 cities on the eastern Roman frontier in the 1st and 2nd century known as the Decapolis. The Decapolis was mentioned as a place of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew 4:23–25. This 6,000 seat Roman theater comes from that time when the city was known as Philadelphia.
The high point of the city is the ruins of the Amman Citadel. The best-known site there is the Roman Temple of Hercules from the 2nd century. There is little left of this template but there is a wonderful small archeology museum near there. This is one of the older parts of the city. It was the site of a Bronze Age fortress around 1800 BC. Many different civilizations have occupied the spot. There is also a palace from the Umayyad Caliphate built in the early 700s.
Royal Automobile Museum
One of the museums we wanted to go to was closed, which was the Railroad Museum. And so we ended up going to the Royal Automobile Museum that is dedicated to the cars of the late King Hussein who was a collector of automobiles as well as a racer of automobiles. And they have a really fascinating museum because it doesn’t just show these cars, but it shows the news clips of when he is riding in this car and places all of these within the history of the country. It was very interesting and very well presented. The movie the Martian was filmed in Jordan in the desert at Wadi Rum (see above). This museum has the Mars Rover used in the movie.
I loved the Roman ruins at Jerash, which is further north up in Jordan. A lot of people don’t get there because they’ve already seen the Roman ruins at Amman. If you had to choose between the two, go to Jerash. as it is a much larger site, I’d only seen pictures of one temple sitting up on top of the hills. And I was surprised by the scale of Jerash.
I’ve been to other Roman ruins across the Mediterranean area. I’ve been to Italica in Spain, or the Greek and Roman ruins from Ephesus. This is actually a larger site than those.
You start at the arch of Hadrian. They still have a bunch of the old Hippodrome where they would have raised chariots, still standing, there are numerous temples, there’s the cardia, the main way into the city, a number of temples along the way and some churches as this became a Roman Christian area. I loved it.
And again, because we’re there in May, we had the place practically to ourselves. Waleed said if we had been there a month earlier in April, he probably would have lost me about five times because the crowds would have been so much greater.
Also north of Aaman, we stopped at Ajloun castle which is a castle that dates from the late 1100s. This castle is not a crusader castle. It was built by a general in the army of Saladin to control the road from Damascus to Egypt. This castle is in better shape than Shobak Castle in the south. It has a great view of the surrounding area near the Syrian border.
I loved Jordan. The climate is warm but so were the people. As a lover of history, there was just so much there. It just seems like you couldn’t turn over a stone without uncovering something Roman, or something from crusades or from ancient biblical times, or 10,000 years old. I really don’t think that anyone should be intimidated to travel to Jordan. It’s just such a welcoming country and so easy. I found that it was very easy to get by in English, which is good because I only really learned two words of Arabic. You can easily sea Jordan on your own although many of the sites will be more enjoyable with a guided tour.
See all my photos from Jordan.