Days in the Jordanian Desert
February 20, 2015
For the final leg of my Middle Eastern adventure, I got to visit a place I've longed to see ever since watching Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade: Petra, Jordan. After researching the hell out of the Internet to find the best guided tour or day trip, we decided to go it alone and rent a car instead of doing a day tour, which would give us a whopping four hours in the park. And it's a good thing we adventured on our own because you need much, much more than four hours to see everything this historical wonder has to offer. We ended up having two days in Petra and barely saw all the highlights. Reminiscent of Southern Utah, wandering sandstone slot canyons spit you out directly in front of the famous treasury where the residents of the park (yes, there are people who live in Petra) will offer you trinkets, tea, camel rides, donkey rides, horse rides or anything else tourists are interested in. These offers are constant throughout the park, so if you think you will find isolation while getting lost in the desert, think again. But it's not so bad once you start hiking and exploring, and in the off season there are hardly any other tourists there. We practically had the place to ourselves. After watching the sunset at the top of the monastery, we hiked out of the park on our first day in the dark with the company of a few of the residents who sold donkey rides. If I were to end up in Petra again, I would make time for a solid four days to really experience everything.
We didn't just spend out whole time in Jordan at Petra. We started by crossing the Israel-Jordan border at Eilat, a surreal experience since we were the only ones heading across and it was completely silent. We stayed for a couple nights in Aqaba, a city which was aptly described to me as the Tijuana of the Middle East. Aqaba isn't really that bad of a city. The snorkeling is great and the prices are cheap, but don't expect luxury living.
We then spent a day getting beat up in the back of a pickup truck driving around sandy Wadi Rum, another desert wonder in Jordan. We bounced over sand dunes, climbed over cliffs and dined on tender chicken and veggies roasted underground.
Traveling in Jordan was definitely an adventure. So I want to jot down a few tips for those thinking about going. I mentioned above that we had intended to rent a car to get from place to place. There is a sort of bus system that will get from Aqaba to Petra, but the busses don't run on a particular schedule and only depart when they are full. Our rental car plans fell through, which is actually a good thing because driving on the highways from Aqaba north was a pretty frightening sight (speed bumps in the middle of the highway, motorists going the wrong way, people randomly stopping and getting out of their cars, etc.). A problem we ran into was the famous taxi mafia who operate at the Jordan-Israel border in Aqaba. They'll over charge you to take you to town, but there are no other options, so you eat the $20 and move on. But only have them take you to town. If you want to take a taxi from the border to Petra or Wadi Rum, they will give you a seemingly good price, drive you to the middle of the desert where another taxi is waiting and essentially "sell" you to the other taxi. The first taxi will take your money and drive off, the second taxi will charge you a higher price to take you anywhere, and you pay or get stranded. Luckily, we ran into our Wadi Rum guide on the highway and he set things straight (after a tension-filled shouting match with our taxi driver) and gave us a ride. Getting from place to place in Jordan would probably be worth getting a tour for.
The thing about Petra is that it's the largest tourist attraction in Jordan, and one of the largest tourist attractions in the Middle East. It sees hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and charges $70-$125 per person. But the ticket office does not accept credit cards. There are ATMs in town and a currency exchange office at the Petra gate, but don't rely on plastic to get in. However, the Bedouin people who live in the park--live in the caves and operate ramshackle souvenir shops and tea huts--do accept Visa. Go figure.
Like I said, Jordan was an adventure.