When I found out Lonely Planet were sending me to Jordan, I could barely contain my excitement. The job? To film unique travel experiences for the Lonely Planet digital platform. I knew it wouldn’t be hard to find these in a country where you can wild camp in the desert with Bedouins one day and wallow in a therapeutic mud bath on the shore of the Dead Sea the next.
Whilst it’s evident from the dwindling numbers of tourists at resorts and big attractions that many people have been scared off by neighbouring troubles in Syria and Iraq, Jordan is still safe to visit. Security is reassuringly tight and yet with so many tourists giving it a wide berth, it’s the perfect time to visit Jordan’s iconic sites free from the hoards.
It’s also the perfect entry-level Middle Eastern country to visit – accessible roads, super friendly locals (who pretty much all speak English) and diverse enough to feel like you’ve been a pretty epic trip in just a few days.
As far as sight-seeing goes, you’ll be spoilt. For historians and pilgrims, there are biblical monuments, religious sites and relics. For wilderness-lovers and outdoorsy types, there are eco lodges and protected bio reserves, hiking trails to suit every fitness level and astounding rock formations to go scrambling through (more on that later).
I was anticipating, as a woman directing an all-male film crew, to encounter some prejudice. But this wasn’t the case. After filming, I had a couple of days travelling alone and still found the country welcoming and easy to navigate as a woman.
Here’s my suggested 5 day itinerary based on my visit…
DAY 1 and 2: AMMAN
Begin your trip in Amman, Jordan’s friendly but frenetic capital. A first visit downtown can be quite overwhelming if you haven’t visited the Middle East before – streets congested with traffic, rowdy market traders vying for your attention and mosque speakers blaring out their regular call to prayer. But this is the hub of life and you’ll find the best falafel, freshest juices and most intricately embellished clothing available here. So go armed with a full wallet, open mind and – I beg you – alert senses when attempting to cross those roads!
As you might have gathered, Amman is all about food. So tick off the Citidel, Mosque and Colliseum but try to leave half a day to visit Beit Sitti, meaning Grandmother’s House in Arabic. Located in the city’s oldest neighbourhood, this atmospheric cookery school retains the feeling of a family home. Furnished with mosaic-inlayed Syrian furniture, Sepia family photographs and Islamic film posters, it’s oozing with character and interiors ideas to steal. I swooned over the colourful glass chandeliers, wood burner and retro orange Smeg fridge – a nostalgic and wonderfully authentic setting to learn the secrets to Jordanian home-cooking. Whilst the interior design is on point, the food is the real show-stealer…
The concept was the brainchild of three sisters who wanted to share their cuisine and family’s heritage with outsiders. At the same time they’ve created a sustainable social enterprise, which trains up local women who run the cooking courses. You can also arrange to source produce from the city’s vegetable market or take a visit to the family’s own farm where they produce their own olive oil.
If you have ANY room left in the evening, there are two restaurants in the city I can’t recommend enough. The first is a casual, family-run join with no menu. It’s here I tasted the best falafel and hummus of my life – it’s called Hashems on King Faisal Street. Just point at a neighbouring table and order whatever they’ve got – you can’t go wrong. If your pockets are a little deeper, take a stroll down the atmospheric Rainbow Street and book a table at the gorgeous Sufra. Set within the chalky walls of a bougainvillea swathed villa, this is the perfect place to try Mansaf – a famous Jordanian rice dish with slow-cooked lamb.
DAY 3: DAY TRIP TO JERASH
Due to our tight filming schedule, we didn’t have time to venture here but I would suggest factoring in a day trip to Jerash if you have time. This well preserved Roman City is home to the Great Temple Of Zeus and has more than enough to explore as a day trip from Amman.
DAY 4: DRIVE THE KING’S HIGHWAY
If, like me, you’re a believer than the best travel experiences are about the journey as well as the destination then be sure to make a detour onto the famous King’s Highway. Just taking a road trip in Jordan is an experience in itself and travelling on a stretch of this historic road, once a famous spice route used to transport fracencsne and myrrh, is pretty spectacular.
Driving it should be taken at a leisurely pace and with its dramatic hair-pin bends and steep ascents, you’ll want to crawl along at a snail’s pace and leave time for the multiple photo opportunities along the way. If you can, aim to arrive in time for Petra at Night. Again, something I didn’t have time to experience (it’s only on twice a week) but I’m assured it’s absolutely magical.
DAY 4 and 5: PETRA
Petra is on most travel junkies’ bucket list or if it isn’t, it damn well should be. More than likely you’ve seen photographs of the rusty-pink facade of the Treasury, an elaborate and intricately carved temple carved into the sandstone cliffs but like many world wonders, it’s even more incredible in the flesh. A trip to Petra is an unforgettable experience and will leave you in awe of the Nabatean people who dreamt up this marvel sculpted.
Whilst my trip there was consumed by our jam-packed filming schedule, I’d suggest setting aside a day or two to explore this vast archaeological site. Many of the architectural details have been eroded away during the past two thousand years but it’s still extraordinarily well preserved. On arrival there’s a visitor’s centre where you can buy your ticket. You’ll have options to rent a camel (‘air conditioned ferrari’), mule or tackle the site on foot, which I recommend.
Our first stop was to film historical reenactment group, made up of retired servicemen. Two groups of supposed Nabatean soldiers put on a spectacular re-enactment performance throughout the day at the site’s entrance and by the Treasury. Try and catch it if you’ve time, it only takes 10 minutes and is, if nothing else – hugely entertaining.
It’s then a fair walk through the Siq to reach the dramatic entrance to the Treasury, for that iconic shot of Petra. It’s remarkable to think that this eerie gorge was formed when tectonic plates split the mountain into two seperate pieces.
You’ll want to leave time to reach the Monastery and also to tackle the 40 minute uphill walk to get the best vantage point of the Treasury (see photo below). Spend the night in the scruffy town of Wadi Musa, just outside the gates of Petra. We stayed at the Hilton but there are plenty of hotels to suit all budgets.
DAY 6 and 7: WADI RUM
Also known as ‘valley of the moon’, this other worldly landscape was the filming location for The Martian as well as the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia. It’s every bit as cinematic as it looks on the big screen. This dramatic landscape is home to the Bedouins, which is what we came to film. The once nomadic people call this barren but beautiful environment home. They may not be as nomadic as they once were because tourism has proved a profitable income for them but they retain many authentic parts of their culture, which they are always keen to share with you – be it a communal, traditional meal or teaching you to make their aromatic Bedouin coffee the way generations prior have.
We spent two nights in the desserts and stayed at a small Bedouin-run campsite right in the dunes and only accessible by jeep. Don’t expect too many modern comforts, most camps have a similar set up – private but primitive tented rooms, a cold communal shower and a large communal tent to take breakfast and dinner, normally huddled around a fire and with some traditional music and dancing for entertainment. And yet there’s something liberating about being off grid for a couple of days. Deep in the Jordanian desert and sleeping beneath a canopy of stars each night, I guarantee you won’t be pining for a wifi code.
There are various hikes and scrambling trips you can go on but a guide is strongly recommended. It’s not an easy landscape to navigate and can quickly become disorientating. Many of the hikes are also pretty dangerous unaccompanied, but the Bedouins seem to have inbuilt sat nav and will safely guide you up and down using the safest and easiest routes. Our guide, Salah, took to see the famous Burdah Rock Bridge which is an astounding sight and likely to induce temporary vertigo!
On the second night, we opted to ‘wild camp’. Our Bedouin guides threw our mattresses and blankets on top of the jeep and drove us to a sheltered spot in a cave not far from the main camp. As it turned out, this was also the spot where the Bedouins slaughter their livestock! I’m no vegetarian but even I got a bit squeamish as we bedded down for the night next to a goat skin and a pool of dried blood. Despite the grisly setting, we slept remarkably – swaddled in blankets to keep away the desert chill and drifting to sleep beneath a canopy of stars.
DAY 8: Feynan Ecolodge
Frequently topping the list of world’s most sustainable lodges, Feynan Eco Lodge is the jewel in Jordan’s eco tourism crown. The entire hotel uses candles instead of electricity, making it a romantic little bolthole come sunset. It serves only vegetarian food and natural soaps made by local women come packaging-free. Bottled water isn’t sold, with clay bottles in your room which can be re-filled on request. You feel like your carbon footprint is minimal staying here but it’s not just the eco brownie points that make it so special…
It’s extremely tricky which adds to its allure. Set within the heart of the mountainous Dana Biosphere Reserve, at the end of a rocky track only accessible by jeep. Once you’re there, the staff do their utmost to keep you entertained – free star-gazing lectures on the roof, daily sunset hikes and opportunities to learn about the local Bedouins through coffee-making, plant hikes and community visits. You’ll experience some of the best hospitality in Jordan staying here and will leave feeling utterly recharged, even if your phone isn’t.
DAY 9: DEAD SEA
At the end of our road trip and after such an action-packed adventure, I was ready to simply kick back on a beach so made a pilgrimage to the famous Dead Sea. It’s every bit as magical as it looks in photographs. As my taxi approached, the most striking thing was the scallop pattered shoreline of aquamarine water contrasting against the crystallised salt banks. I gaze at the West Bank on the horizon, which reflects on the mirror-like glaze of the sea’s oily surface.
There are plenty of luxury hotels dotted along the shore but I’d recommend the jewel in crown – the Kempinski. I’m not usually a fan of big hotels but the stunning Kempinski resort makes you feel like a house guest thanks to its personable staff who ferry you around in their golf buggies, greet you by name and constantly fuss to ensure your every whim is catered to. This is 5 star luxury with the personality of a family-run B&B.
After hiking and scrambling, I couldn’t wait to restore my weary limbs by floating in the Dead Sea’s bouyant waters and wallowing in mineral-rich mud, famed for its therapeutic qualities. Wading into this salty water is a serene and surreal experience. It’s also something you should do soon, before this natural wonder disappears forever. Just be VERY careful not to get it in your eyes and be even more careful not to taste any – it’s revolting.
Book a villa room with your own balcony, relax in the sea and wade into its piece-de-resistence – a circular infinity pool overlooking the crystalizing water below. With its own private beach to smear yourself in mud and float like a human lilo, you’ll never want to leave.
Suggested Items to Pack
- Sturdy hiking boots
- The desert nights can drop really cold so definitely pack layers and a warm jumper
- Sun protection – hat, sunglasses, sun cream, neck scarf
- It’s a predominantly Muslim country so prepare to cover up and take a scarf for your shoulders and neck for visits to markets (at Petra you’ll see tourists wearing tiny shorts and strappy tops but if you want to be more culturally respectful, opt for leggings and a long, loose cotton shirt)
- Rucksack for day hiking with camel bag.
- Portable battery pack for charging electronics on the go and power bars for energy during the day
- You won’t need to take a sleeping bag unless you plan on hiking the Jordan Trail for example, but you may want to take a sleeping bag liner as I sensed the bedding in the Bedouin camps doesn’t get washed every time.
- First aid kit including blister plasters and antihistamines
- Head torch or torch
- Baby wipes and plastic bags
- Anti-bacterial hand gel
Have you been to Jordan? Is there somewhere I missed? I’d love to hear your tips for my next visit…