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Aqaba

The desert is one of the best vacation spots in Jordan

I get asked this a lot. “Where’s your favorite place?” “What’s the best place you’ve been?” So in today’s pandemic-fueled If you can’t look forward, look back world, I thought I’d tell you about the places I’ve been that left a lasting impression. That’s actually a bit misleading. I LOVE everywhere I go. Because I love to travel and I find something interesting or memorable in every destination. Even the bad experiences, of which there are few (although a “hike” through an unexpected rather buggy, really muddy, rainforest in a sundress and dressy sandals springs to mind…). So I wanted to tell you about my favorite vacation spots in Jordan.

First, you might be wondering if it is safe to travel to Jordan. That was the whole purpose of my trip. The country’s tourism bureau wanted to show tourists that it is safe to travel to Jordan. The country places a very high priority on ensuring that its visitors are safe no matter where in the country they travel. And I can tell you in my 10 days there, whether I was in the desert or the crowded city of Amman, I never felt unsafe.

Favorite #1: Jordan

Back to that question I’m often asked about my favorite trip. I generally answer with, “It depends.” It depends on the experience I had rather than the place.  So if I’m talking about learning a new culture and pure once in a lifetime experiences, Jordan would definitely be my favorite.

Read more: Why You Should Add Jordan to Your Bucket List, ASAP

Traveling to Jordan

Hands down, it was Jordan. When the trip was first offered to me, I honestly had little interest. I’m not much of a history buff, and at the time, I was not that adventurous of a traveler. This trip, however, would change all of that! I was apprehensive about going, but a friend who had been on the same trip the year prior said, “You have to go. It’s the trip of a lifetime!” So I committed to going but had my usual frequent “I’m just going to cancel” internal discussions up until the day I left. 

I did minimal research on the country (note to self: get better at this) mainly to ensure I packed appropriately. The cultural norms and the weather dictate attire. You have the heat and dust of the desert, but women are expected to cover most of their arms and legs (capris and three-quarter length tops are acceptable). I even bought a one-piece bathing suit for the Dead Sea portion of the trip — only to learn that bikinis are perfectly acceptable in these tourist-heavy areas.

I would meet the other ten people traveling, only two who I knew at JFK Airport on the afternoon of our flight. I didn’t know if we’d all be sitting together on the plane, and it was doubtful since I jockey my long-haul seat assignments much like a Vegas oddsmaker. I wanted a row to myself to sleep (I don’t sleep well sitting up on planes), so I watched the seating chart several times a day leading up to the flight. Anyway, we would all meet, nine women and one man, at a restaurant for dinner before boarding our flight to Jordan on Royal Jordanian.

Believe it or not, as much as I travel(ed), I’m still nervous and anxious through that whole boarding process until we’re in the air. (Thank you, Xanax.) As I sat on the plane, in my empty row mind you!, getting my area and all of my nighttime comfort accouterments in order, I pulled out my wallet to get my credit card for my nightcap(s), and it was not there!  I suddenly realized that my anxiety in the evening got the best of me, and I had left my credit card in the portfolio at the restaurant. At this point, the cabin doors were closed. I texted my husband, but by the time he responded, we were in the air. I panicked. Despite being an accomplished traveler, no, I did not carry cash, and I did not have a backup debit card. I did have another credit card, but it was not set up for cash withdrawals. And despite my bank advertising that they’re a 24/7 business, when I landed in Jordan, their phones went unanswered. I eventually worked it out, so I’ll get on with the details of the trip. 

We landed in the capital city of Amman, where we’d spend the first night before we began a 10-day, 10-hotel (!) journey around the country. I barely remember that first night after our long, arduous journey, but the city was teeming with activity as we walked the streets to dinner. Again, in my awake-for-24-hours-hungover-by-Xanax-and-wine coma, I vaguely remember dinner, WAY too much food as generally happens on these trips, but my palate absolutely loved the new flavors I was experiencing. But honestly, all I really wanted was a good night’s sleep. 

food vendors in Amman

So I better get to the highlights of why this is my favorite trip ever and tell you about the vacation spots in Jordan or I’ll lose you. Keep in mind that we were in 10 different areas of the country with multiple excursions and experiences. Every single experience left me feeling giddy with that “I can die happy now” feeling but I’ll share the highlights with you here.

The Wadi Rum Desert

Again, I’m a bit of an unapologetic diva when it comes to traveling. I like comfort — things like soft bed sheets, room service, and a luxe bathroom. So, the desert doesn’t fit into my travel mantra. But, hands down, this was (so far) the best experience I’ve ever had in a things-you-only-get-to-do-once-in-a-lifetime sort of way. 

Our guide Ramzi looking contemplative

Wadi Rum is a vast desert in Jordan with virtually every type of geographic wonder you could imagine – colossal sandstone mountains, desert valleys, canyons, dunes, and stone arches. It has served as the film location for several movies, including ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘The Martian,’ and it’s one of the best vacation spots in Jordan for those up for a little adventure.

Me, (hating myself in photos) in front of “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” from Lawrence of Arabia

Our Wadi Rum experience began as we climbed into the back of pick-up trucks and took off across the sandy desert, racing each other, stopping for the occasional photo opp, and just experiencing the amazing scenery. Clearly, our hosts wanted to impress this group of travel writers because we arrived at a spectacular spot in the desert just as the sun was falling, where our guides created a semi-circle of luminaries as we sat and watched the sunset across the stillness of the desert.  It was one of those sights I will never ever forget. 

Wadi Rum is one of the best vacation spots in Jordan
riding 4x4s across the desert

There would be no luxury hotel for my weary head. To fully immerse in our desert experience, we would be staying at a Bedouin campsite, Rahayeb Desert Camp. It was camping, albeit in individual yurts with attached yet primitive bathrooms. But like a true camel in the desert, I learned to “hold it” as I entered my bathroom before the 10 p.m. power curfew only to find a spider larger than my hand perched on the mirror above my sink. I was in for another sleepless night. 

Read more: Camping with the Bedouins in Southern Jordan

Our desert camp
my room (sans the spider)

Fortunately, my night would be short as we had a pre-dawn wake-up call to ride camels across the desert to watch the sunrise. Three Bedouins, one who looked to be about ten years old, helped us each mount a camel (three words I thought would never come out of my mouth as a phrase) in the pitch dark. If you’ve never mounted a camel, it’s a great feat of strength, both mentally and physically, as the camel lurches forward onto his front legs, making you feel as though you’re going to fly over the so-called handlebars. Still, the trick is to relax and just let the wave of the animal’s movement take over. It was pretty spectacular. A group of us traipsing across the desert as the sun rose above the mountains. Me. In the Middle East. On a camel. Watching the sunrise. Best moment of my life! (Wow! I got misty-eyed writing that sentence.) Truly a highlight and one of my favorite vacation spots in Jordan.

this boy got up early!
Apprehension, adrenaline, exhaustion
camels at sunrise – spectacular!

And then my cell phone pinged. Seriously! A text message. In the middle of the freaking desert!

The City of Petra

Again, I’m not much of a history buff, but the city of Petra gave me pause! We stayed at the nearby Petra Marriott Hotel, which offered quick and easy access to this iconic site. The travel diva in me came out as right after check-in, I ventured down to the hotel’s spa for my first hammam, or Turkish bath, experience. When in Rome… er Jordan. Right?

The spice man at the market in Petra; yep, I bought some!

Petra is one of the top vacation spots in Jordan for history lovers. Two pieces of advice. 1) Get an early start. Seriously. I could have spent two whole days there just exploring.  2) Splurge and hire a guide. If there’s anything I’ve learned as a travel writer, it’s how much more enriching a destination or site can be if you have a professional guide.  And as with many adventurous tours, wear comfortable shoes, take plenty of water, wear a hat, blah, blah, blah.

our group walking the siq

So what exactly is Petra? Because I didn’t pay much attention to history in school, I decided to let Google answer this. “Petra is a famous archaeological site in Jordan’s southwestern desert. Dating to around 300 B.C., it was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom. Accessed via a narrow canyon called Al Siq, it contains tombs and temples carved into pink sandstone cliffs, earning its nickname, the “Rose City.” Perhaps its most famous structure is 45m-high Al Khazneh, a temple with an ornate, Greek-style facade, and known as The Treasury.”  So there. To most people, The Treasury is best known as the site in the “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” movie. 

Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. In 2007, Petra earned the designation as one of the New Seven Wonders of The World. 

Read more: Petra’s Fascinating History

Our tour of Petra started with a walk down the Siq, a narrow gorge bordered by towering pink sandstone cliffs.  It’s about a one-mile walk to The Treasury but can (and should) take longer, especially if you have a guide. The trail has so much history along the way marked by facades, tombs, and residences.

walking the siq
more of the siq
things you’ll miss if you don’t have a guide

The gorge gets quite narrow, claustrophobic almost, but suddenly, The Treasury comes into view. And it is stunning! It’s a massive 43-meter tall Greek-style temple carved into the sandstone. And while most people consider this Petra’s main feature, it’s really only the beginning. There are so many uncovered civilizations and ruins spread throughout the area. 

The Treasury behind me

The Monastery sits high on a hill and is just as spectacular as The Treasury, in my opinion. It’s not easy to get to. It’s a hot, dusty climb up 850 steps carved into the rock. So the adventurers in us decide to take the donkeys up. This is not for the faint of heart. We were terrified, but laughing so hard, as the donkeys mechanically prance up the stairs, occasionally fighting each other for position, as you’re hanging on for dear life. A nerve-wracking but hysterical experience!

Riding donkeys up to The Monastery
NOT riding the donkeys downhill!
The Monastery

At night, people walk the Siq to see The Treasury at night when it’s surrounded by luminaries and guides put on a brief show. You’ll need a flashlight as the towering sandstone walls block out even the moonlight but the night I went, it was fairly crowded. 

Petra is simply amazing and something everyone should see if given the opportunity. But I’ll be honest, the not-so-history-savvy in me was equally impressed with Jerash, another site of ruins in Jordan that were only unearthed in this century. I definitely recommend a few hours at this site as well.

The columns of the oval forum in Jerash

I can’t possibly share this level of detail on everything we saw in Jordan. But it was like each day built upon the one prior. But here are a few other highlights.

The Dead Sea and The Red Sea

The two seas are perhaps the most popular vacation spots in Jordan for water lovers. The Red Sea is home to several stunning diving sites, as is The Dead Sea.

Snorkeling and lounging on a yacht on the Red Sea
Floating in the Dead Sea; this is the view of the Sea from Marriott. I’m not posting a bathing suit shot!

The Jordanian People and Countryside

There are so many unique vacation spots in Jordan. One of our stops included a stay at Feynan Ecolodge, which is located at the southwestern edge of the Dana Biosphere Reserve (Jordan’s largest nature reserve), near the villages of Qurayqura and Feynan, respectively. The property is about 215 km (or 133 miles) south of Amman.

We piled into the back of beaten up pickup trucks and bumped and tumbled across the desert passing a few Bedouin camps as our scarfed driver navigated the dusty path. The 26-room, open-air ecolodge sits alone in the middle of the desert. This destination ranks up there as one of the best places in the world to see the stars. At dusk, we all climbed onto the roof on the lodge and spread out the cushioned mats and laid back as our guide took us on an incredible stargazing journey.

My room at the ecolodge
Picking olives in the countryside
Beekeeping in Um Qais
Learning to cook in the home of a Jordanian

A lot of people ask, “Who are the Bedouins?” The Bedouins are simply the Arab nomads who traveled across the Middle East. They typically travel(ed) in caravans with camels carrying their provisions and set up campsites along the way. They are tribal and live communally with some interesting cultures and traditions.

Up next: My favorite tropical beach experience! Turtle Island, Fiji