Visiting Jordan – a quick guide to the country where east meets the west

The first thing that probably comes to one’s mind when thinking about Jordan as a tourist destination is safety. With the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict and the rise of Islamic State, it is a pretty legitimate concern. But for some reason, call it a reckless decision, we didn’t have any second thoughts when we zeroed in on Jordan for our next trip. A decision that we’ll never regret. Jordan is a beautiful country, and for some reason, I can only associate all the Arabian Nights stories I grew up reading with ancient Jordan, and not with any other Middle East country like Saudi Arabia or even ancient Persia.

Talking about safety, Jordan is extremely safe, and is probably safer than most European countries or even India where you run the risk of being chased by a stray dog. The biggest danger you would face in Jordan is the heat. Jordan is a desert after all. But there is definitely paranoia in the air and for good reason – the country is nestled in an extremely hostile neighbourhood – there is Syria in the north where Jordan has an active conflict with the Islamic State, and then there is Israel and Palestine to the West. Jordan is one of the two Arab countries other than Egypt to have full diplomatic relations with Israel, and the border between the two countries seems to be the most popular option for western tourists to enter the country, though some tourists we spoke to faced some tense moments during the stamping because of strict visa policies. But I digress. The paranoia is pretty evident – do not be surprised by the sights of automatic rifle-toting soldiers stopping your car on the highway to check your passport, or combat-ready heavy guns mounted on Humvees on standby in Downtown Amman opposite malls. The bus we took stopped for a routine check where half a dozen soldiers checked each bag loaded in the cargo bay.

But don’t let all the grimness in the air fool you. Most cops or military personnel would be quick tell you a much-rehearsed “Welcome to Jordan.” An overtly friendly cop even told us how much he loves Indian movies, and even broke into an Indian song-and-dance routine jig with us. Almost every Jordanian we met claimed to love the likes of Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif.

Visa for Indians

Indians get visa on arrival in Jordan. There doesn’t seem to be any documented process but after going through various forums on the internet, the requirements are somewhat as follows:

  1. $1000 in cash per person. No Jordanian Dinars, no Indian Rupees. Just US Dollars. It doesn’t make sense as no place in Jordan accepts USD. You have to convert it right after immigration to dinars. And it’s cash. No travel card, credit card statement or traveler’s cheque.
  2. Proof of payment for accommodation. I remember reading somewhere that you have to show $2000 in cash per person if you have just reserved and not paid for the accommodation.
  3. Return tickets.

Now, we weren’t asked anything by the immigration officer, not even the dollars. He just stamped our passports and we were on our way into the beautiful country. Visa on arrival costs 40 JD but if you’ve purchased the Jordan Pass, you are exempt from paying the visa fee.

(Though we weren’t asked to show the required cash, I strongly recommend you carry the cash as a lot of people we spoke to were asked to show.)

Jordan Pass

The Jordan Pass is this beautiful little document you can purchase online. It costs 70 JD (approximately $100) and gets you access to most important tourist attractions like Petra, Jerash, etc. Entry at each place would set you back by around 10 JD and you would end up shelling hundreds of dinars at the end of your trip without it. Buy the Jordan pass, and do the right thing!

Now bear in mind, Jordan is an expensive country to visit, or even live in, if locals are to be believed. Jordan is the fourth driest countries in the world with scarce water and scarcer natural resources. The sudden influx of Syrian refugees from the Syrian civil war has not helped things either, and has further hampered Jordan’s economic growth. One local we met said there is more strain on taxes to compensate for the refugees. Jordan has the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp – the Zaatari refugee camp has an estimated 83,000 Syrian refugees. For perspective, France entirely has only around 12,000 refugees from Syria. But I digress.

Getting around

Although an expensive country to visit, Jordan is a very small country. Driving from Amman, the capital in the north to the Red Sea city of Aqaba in the south takes around four hours by road. There are two main highways connecting the north and the south. The Desert Highway (Highway 15) is the road to take if you just want to get to Aqaba – it’s wide, well laid and consists of four lanes. The King’s Highway (Highway 35) is the road to take if you want to see places in Jordan. The King’s Highway is more than 5,000 years old and has been an important trade route since ancient times connecting Egypt and modern day Syria. The King’s Highway is also found mentioned in a number of Biblical passages.

The King’s Highway

After spending a good two days exploring the city of Amman, we took a taxi to Petra through The King’s Highway. It paid off as we took the scenic route through the famous wadis of Jordan that has been in use since the Iron Age and we got to visit two important places – Mount Nebo from where Moses was granted a view of the promised land and the Kerak castle, the largest Crusader castle to be built in the Levant. This castle was of extreme strategic importance because of its location at the crossroads between Egypt, Syria and Mecca. The castle fell into various hands, and eventually found itself in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. This was a common fate for many castles around and hence the architecture itself is a rich amalgamation of various cultures – Byzantine, Crusader, Ottoman, Sultanate, Arab, Roman, etc.

We found this symbol of Cornucopia in the Ajloun Castle, another example of different rulers reusing blocks of stones for construction of newer structures.

Hence, it was common for the current ruling empire to alter the castle to suit its purposes, and to reuse building blocks. It is not surprising to notice Roman Catholic markings in a Muslim prayer room of one such castle in the region. Another example is the Ajloun castle in northern Jordan where the burial room of the previous Arab-held castle was converted into the church after the Crusaders took control of the castle.

Mount Nebo offers panoramic views of the Dead Sea and Israel. Our driver told us that on a clear day, one can even see the West Bank city of Jericho and even Jerusalem. Our day was unfortunately hazy. The Byzantine church that was discovered there much recently in 1933 was closed for renovation.

About getting around, most taxis can take you across the country. There are no meters, so be prepared to negotiate a bit. It cost us 100 JD by cab from Amman to Petra while making stops at Mount Nebo, Karak Castle, etc. and it took us 25 JD to go from Wadi Rum to Aqaba. There is the JETT bus service that takes the Desert Highway which you can take if you just want to go to one city from another and are not interested in stopping to do touristy things on the way. Also, do note that the JETT buses only stop at the designated stops and most Bedouin camps are a good hour’s drive in a 4WD across the desert. So if you plan to stay in a Bedouin camp, it’s best to take a taxi. Take help from the taxi driver to coordinate with the Bedouin camp whose staff can pick you up from a common place.

Mount Nebo offers panoramic views of the Dead Sea and West Bank. Our driver told us that on a clear day, one can even see the West Bank city of Jericho and even Jerusalem. Our day was unfortunately hazy.

Amman

The capital of Jordan, Amman is a bustling, cosmopolitan city that is known to never sleep. We spent a couple of nights here and the main tourist attractions are the citadel and the amphitheater. There is also Jerash and Ajloun castle which are a couple hours’ drive to the north. We also got to explore Downtown Amman and Rainbow Street, two happening localities in Amman.

Rainbow Street is the most happening place in Amman and it comes to life in the nights. A popular hangout for the city’s youth, you see hip hookah lounges, fancy cars and a vibrant ambience at Rainbow Street. Downtown is where you can spend a lazy evening on one of the balcony cafes smoking shisha while watching the street below. Downtown Amman is pretty close to the Grand Husseini Mosque too.

Every house in Amman is limestone coloured. One local explained that the municipality has ordered every building to be painted in the same colour.
Graffiti is a common sight across the city of Amman
Downtown Amman. Notice the balcony cafes. A common evening activity for locals and tourists alike is to sit in a balcony, sip Turkish coffee, smoke shisha and watch the traffic below.
Grand Husseini Mosque in Downtown Amman
This huge flag of Jordan proudly towers and flutters over the city of Amman, and one can spot it from almost anywhere in the city. As one local puts it, you just have to look up.

Jerash

Jerash is an hour’s drive from Amman, and is one of the Roman ruins in the country. It used to be a thriving Roman settlement till an earthquake destroyed the town in 749 AD. The ruins have two magnificent theatres, markets, columns of pillars, a Zeus temple, an Artemis temple, a hippodrome, among other structures.

The city originally named Gerasa (meaning old age in ancient Greek) is said to have been founded by Alexander the Great with the purpose of giving his old soldiers a place to retire to.

The city fell to various hands from the Greeks to the Romans, the Byzantines, the Crusaders and finally the Ottomans. Jerash is considered a key archeological site and is one of the most important Roman excavations in this part of the world.

Jerash is an hour and a half drive from Amman and you can do it in one day if you combine it with Ajloun castle. The entire round trip cost us 50 JD.

The south theatre in Jerash.
Roman columns. You can also see the modern city of Jerash in this photograph.
Climbing on top of stairs and small structures guarantees panoramic views.

Ajloun Castle

The Ajloun castle was built by Saladin during his military campaign against the Crusaders. The castle was built to control the Bedouin tribes and was strategically built as the most important communication route between Syria and Egypt passed through. The castle also overlooked the three most important wadis and controlled the major iron mines in the region.

The Ajloun castle overlooks the most important communication route between Egypt and Syria.
Arrow slits around the castle provided castle archers to provide a good line of defence against invaders.
There were also provisions to pour boiling oil to block invaders from entering the castle, if the archers failed to check their advance.
Panoramic views of the surrounding wadis meant whoever held the castle controlled the region.

Petra

Now Petra doesn’t need an introduction. Petra was single handedly responsible for making Jordan a tourist destination since it was named one of the New7Wonders of the world. Our host at our Bedouin camp offered to take us to Petra through the back. We trekked the mountain instead of taking the regular stairs and it paid off as the steep cliffs are scenic and one gets panoramic views of Wadi Arabah desert and even Israel. Interestingly, our guide got a “Welcome to Israel” text message while we were climbing the rocks.

You get to reach the first check-post in a 4WD as the approach road is pretty rocky. However, this drive and trek saves you about two hours and is great, especially if you only one day in Petra and don’t have much time.

The road to Petra.
We had to drive across good roads, bad roads and literally no roads to get to the trek starting point.
The trek has some steep cliffs, making for some scary moments if you’re scared of heights.
Refreshing tea overlooking the Wadi Araba desert. Far ahead, beyond the other hill is Israel. One can apparently see lights from Jerusalem at nights. There was a local Bedouin shepherd who was selling tea here. Out of the thousands of tourists visiting Petra, only around 20 climb the trek. Notice that I’m wearing a shirt? More on this below.
The welcoming sight of the Monastery after the tiring trek.
The Monastery in all its glory
The Great Temple, Petra
The Great Temple
View from The Royal Tombs at Petra
The Royal Tombs at Petra
Closer look at the royal tombs. Look closely at the people for perspective of size.
Panoramic views of Petra from the royal tombs
The Treasury. This monument is actually a Nabataean tomb, but a local Bedouin legend goes that a Pharaoh hid treasure inside. If you look at the photograph closely, you can notice bullet holes (between the pillars, next to the main door) thanks to explorers looking for treasure.
The Siq (meaning canyon in Arabic) Now imagine Indiana Jones riding his horse through these Siqs.
Horses, camels and mules are popular at Petra.

Wadi Rum

Visiting Wadi Rum was a last minute decision and we couldn’t be happier. There is not much to see or do in Wadi Rum except take one of the jeep desert tours. Now the jeep tour of the desert looks like a scam to me. There is supposedly the house of T. E. Lawrence, popularly known as the Lawrence of Arabia. We trekked the small hillock which ‘housed’ his base from where he ran covert operations against the Ottoman empire during the first world war, but couldn’t find any trace of a house. We did have some delicious Bedouin tea at the foot of the hillock brewed by some Bedouin tribes.

Another popular touristy thing to do in the deserts of Wadi Rum is to watch the sunset sitting down in the middle of the desert while smoking shisha. Check. And then there are Thamudic inscriptions made thousands of years ago. And of course, the famous rock bridge. We were unfortunately stuck with a driver who spoke scant English – all he said were “no problem” and “photo.” Maybe if we had an English speaking driver, we could have learnt more about the place.

But from what I understand, there is really nothing else to do in the deserts of Wadi Rum, but I would say it’s an experience.

The only train and railway track we spotted in all of Jordan was spotted on the way to Wadi Rum.
The deserts of Wadi Rum
“No problem” Mohammad, one of the staff at Salman Zwayed Camp, who also doubled as our driver.
One can spot the Jordanian flag fluttering in every remote part of the country.
We tried our hand at driving the 4WD across the deserts of Wadi Rum. The deep sands and the right-hand drive made it a real challenge.
The “rock bridge” in Wadi Rum
And some more desert.
Salman Zwayed Bedouin Camp at Wadi Rum, where we stayed overnight.
We took the Toyota out to watch the sunset at Wadi Rum.

Aqaba

Our hotel offered amazing views of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. This is probably where Moses crossed over from Egypt in search of the promised land after parting the Red Sea with his shaft. The actual place of the Biblical crossing is still a mystery, however. If one takes a boat into the Gulf of Aqaba, they can see four countries from the same spot — Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Date night overlooking the Red Sea at Diwan, the rooftop on The Doubletree by Hilton. They had excellent food and beautiful live Lebanese music.
Sharif Hussein bin Ali Mosque on the banks of the Red Sea in Aqaba.

Dead Sea

No visit to Jordan or Israel is complete without a customary dip in the Dead Sea. Or a customary float if you may. Though harmless, the locals are known to stare at women so if your budget permits, book a room in one of the resorts in the area that has private beach access. The public beach did seem to have facilities like shower rooms, etc.

The private beach at The Movenpick Dead Sea Resort and Spa. The land mass you see on the other side is West Bank.
Bragging rights.

Food

The best thing about contemporary Jordanian cuisine (and I am guessing most Arab cuisine) is that there is a lot of influences from Mediterranean, Persian, North African and even Indian cuisines.

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that Jordan is an extremely vegetarian friendly country. In fact, we felt more welcome asking for vegetarian food in Jordan than we would feel in India. Every meal has Arabic flatbread and mezze – a number of dips like hummus (a smooth dip made with chickpeas and a generous helping of olive oil), Moutabal (an eggplant based dip with rich flavours of lemon and garlic), yogurt-based dips (very similar to raita) with cucumbers, etc. It’s good fun to try various cut vegetables and flatbread with different dips. By the time you try the various permutation and combinations, you realize that you’re almost full. Rice is a very important part of the Jordanian meal – both lightly buttered/flavored white rice and Indo-Persian biriyani-inspired rice made with chunks of lamb. Lamb is also another important part of the Jordanian cuisine – this includes both meat and dairy. There’s plenty of cheese and yogurt.

Apart from Moutabal, the eggplant is also used to make baba ganoush with cooked tomatoes, onions and served with rice. We found it pretty delicious to have with the flatbread.

And then there is Galayet, delicious, tangy sautéed tomatoes served with bread. Another interesting dish we discovered is the Manakish, Jordanian pizza. It’s basically flatbread topped with various vegetables, cheese and a generous serving of olive oil. Olives are produced in abundance throughout Jordan and can be found in various salads – olive oil is commonly used for cooking purposes.

Salads are also abundant in Jordanian meals. Arab salad made with tomatoes, cucumber, onions and olives and tabbouleh, a couscous based salad are staple salads in every meal.

There is usually an assortment of local cheeses that locals prefer to eat as desserts. But my favourite dessert was the lokma, flour made to balls, deep fried and later dipped in sugar syrup – basically the good old Indian jalebi, but ball shaped.

Some quick Jordanian snacks include sambousek, falafels, sandwich (flatbread with falafel, cheese or fresh salads).

Bedouin chai

We stayed at a couple of Bedouin camps, one at Petra and one in Wadi Rum. Both had pretty basic facilities, but these are where we had the most generous hosts in terms of food. Tea was abundant, and our gracious hosts made sure that our tea cups were almost never empty. Tea was had without milk and was usually strongly flavoured with mint, basil or thyme. In the evenings when the desert cold was harsh, the kettle was always kept on the coal next to the camp fire to keep it warm and one of the Bedouin hosts usually went around refilling empty chai cups. It is highly recommended that you stay in a Bedouin camp, especially for the chai.

We also had the most delicious Batata Wa Bayd Mfarakeh at the Seven Wonders Bedouin camp in Petra. Batata Wa Bayd Mfarakeh is potato cooked with scrambled eggs, a delight to have with rice and flatbreads.

Sambousek, a Middle Eastern/North African snack pretty much like the Indian samosa.
Moutabol, an eggplant dish cooked in tomato sauce
Galayet, tangy tomatoes sautéed and served with bread
Batata Wa Bayd Mfarakeh and beans, served with flatbread and hummus.
Carakale, a delicious locally brewed craft beer was had at Cantaloupe Gastro Pub, Rainbow Street.

Stay recommendations

Hawa Guest House, Amman

We stayed at Hawa Guest House in Amman for a couple of days. It’s ideal if you want to visit the places of historic importance like the Roman citadel and the amphitheatre, and also if you want to explore the city. Rainbow Street is a couple of dinars’ cab ride from Hawa Guest House and so is Downtown Amman.

Do note that the owners of Hawa Guest House have converted their own home into a guest house, so they have a number of house rules and the owners can look a little indifferent at times. But make no mistake, the owners are lovely people and are very helpful in getting friendly English speaking taxi drivers who can take you to nearby archeological sites like Jerash, Ajloun castle, etc. If you plan to visit Amman, I would highly recommend the services of Mohammad (+962 797071798), our taxi driver who drove us to Petra. He made sure he stopped at the right places and showed us sites like Mt. Nebo and Kerak castle.

And the cats at Hawa Guest House are a complete joy.

View of Amman Citadel from Hawa Guest House

Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp, Petra

Our stay in Petra was lovely, thanks to the hospitality of the people at Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp. The facilities are pretty spartan with shared but clean bathrooms, and there is power supply, WiFi and hot water only in the night from 8 PM to 10:30 PM. There are scores of cats in this camp that are friendly and the felines make your stay better!

Seven Wonders Camp, Petra
The camp at night
Osman, one of our hosts and driver. He insisted on never letting our tea cups go empty. I can still hear his boomy voice shout at me across the campfire — “More tea, Indian?”
L: Our Petra trek guide and Captain Jack Sparrow lookalike, Murad. R: We had to climb the hillock next to the camp to watch the sunset.

Salman Zwayed Bedouin Camp, Wadi Rum

The stay at Wadi Rum was a last minute decision and luckily, our hotel at Aqaba, Doubletree by Hilton were gracious enough to cancel our first day and accept check in for the second day only. There is anyway not much to do in Aqaba apart from snorkelling and diving.

We stayed at Salman Zwayed Bedouin Camp and it was probably the best accommodation decision we made in this trip. The facilities are ten times more spartan, and the atmosphere ten times much better than the camp at Petra.

Do bear in the mind that this is right in the middle of any kind of civilization for all practical purposes. Your nights would be surrounded by strange sounds of animals (hopefully). We were up almost till midnight drinking tea, trading stories with our newfound German friends around the campfire.

Salman Zwayed Bedouin Camp, Wadi Rum

Doubletree by Hilton, Aqaba

We wanted a hotel right next to the beach as there is practically nothing else to do in Aqaba other than the ocean. Booking.com had some nice offers at this place to Genius members and I got a good price. We had a really pleasant stay here, with some really helpful staff. We finally had access to comfort, thermostat, internet, private bathroom and hot water throughout the day, after three days of living in spartan surroundings.

But we certainly did miss the Bedouin camp experience, and would go back there any day.

Amstel has a brewery in Jordan, and is considered a local beer by many Jordanians. Date night with habaebae on a rooftop overlooking the Red Sea. Check. Also habaebae. Get it? ;)
Breakfast view of the Red Sea

Movenpick Resort and Spa Dead Sea

We booked this place because we wanted private beach access. Big mistake. Avoid this place like the plague. For a popular tourist spot, no one speaks English and they want you to pay up front for everything – they treat guests as if they are going to run away with their money. Plus staff lacking empathy, including everybody from the front desk staff to the buggy drivers. The only friendly staff are the ones who are looking to sell you something – their friends’ taxi services, their uncles’ souvenir shop selling dead sea products, etc. There are other options nearby with private beach access like Hilton, Marriott etc. And the food is exorbitantly expensive in Movenpick. However, there is a mall nearby called the Samarah Mall. It is around 10 minutes by walk, but has a number of restaurants with reasonably priced food.

People and culture

People are extremely nice, helpful and friendly throughout Jordan. Everyone smiles and have a much rehearsed “Welcome to Jordan, enjoy your stay.” Be wary of people in tourist spots like Jerash and Petra where everyone is trying to sell you something. If you’re getting a taxi, negotiate the price beforehand. And do not be surprised at the drastic price changes that can happen. For example, when a taxi driver demands 10 JD, you can well negotiate till 5 JD. One guy demanded 5 JD for our ride from Rainbow Street to Hawa Guest House in Amman. Another guy demanded 2 JD and we finally settled for 1 JD. There are no fixed prices anywhere. You would hear a “10 JD. But for you I make 5 JD” in a lot of places. Retail things would have printed price scratched out and it looks like shopkeepers just pluck a random number out of thin air. Even at a 5-star hotel like the Movenpick resort where we asked if there is vegetarian options in the buffet, the guy thoughtfully looked at us and said “Buffet 20 dinars, but for you 15 dinars.”

Learn a few simple Arabic words. I learnt the following words and used them throughout our stay, and these usually made locals pretty happy.

Assalam Alaikum – Greeting

Wa Alaikum Assalam – Reply for greeting

Marhaba – Hello

Shukran — –Thanks

La shukran – No thanks

Yalla –Go/Let’s go

Inshallah – If God wishes.

If you are a woman, locals would stare at you if you are a non-local wearing western clothes. But the locals are mostly harmless and we never felt uncomfortable. Though Jordan is relatively a much liberal country despite being in the Middle East, it is generally a good idea to dress conservatively. Shorts are fine, but wearing ankle length trousers is a good idea. Shorts are considered underwear in local culture and Arab men mostly don’t wear shorts or t-shirts, though the youth is very western in terms of dressing. Local men can be seen wearing shorts and t-shirts, but the local modern women still dress conservatively. I had packed t-shirts for Amman and Aqaba, and shirts for Petra and Wadi Rum. I was surprised to find the young hosts at the Bedouin camp wear t-shirts. The elders in the camp mostly wore thawb.

Also buy a local headscarf and get help from locals in tying it on your head. There are various styles and each person would tie it for you in a different style — Arab style, Bedouin style, Palestine style etc.

I don’t really remember which style each is, but the one in the top middle is Arab style. The one on the top right was referred to as the Islamic State style jokingly by the person who tied it for me. And the bottom right style is the Bedouin style.

Jordan is a beautiful country of beautiful people, delicious food and is a melting pot of cultures. A lot of people we met in our week at Jordan were surprised we weren’t combining the trip with Israel and/or Egypt. But trust me, Jordan is worth more than just a week’s visit. I really wish to visit the beautiful country again. And I think we will. Inshallah!