An Adventurer's Guide to Traveling Jordan

In 2007, Jordan’s famous archaeological site, the ancient city of Petra (Arabic: البتراء,) was named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Despite being surrounded by countries in conflict, Jordan has maintained an impressive degree of peace, tolerance, and safety.  With access to the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, the Wadi Rum desert and a plethora of archaeological sites, Jordan is a traveler’s paradise.

Living in Toronto, Canada, my partner and I would have to pay a hefty flight fare to get ourselves to Jordan. So when Ukraine International advertised a flash sale, we snagged it in a heartbeat. $390 Canadian dollars, and 18 hours of air travel later, we found ourselves in Amman, Jordan.


While there were many big “travel moments” on our trip, from seeing the city of Petra (you can read more about Petra here) to sleeping in a Bedouin camp in the Wadi Rum desert, many of the insignificant moments were our most memorable. My partner went to a small barber shop one evening in Amman for a haircut. The shopkeeper spoke no English, but popped out of the shop and came back with a cardamom spiced coffee for me to sip while I waited. After a buzz cut and a shave, my partner’s barber began threading his face. Lucas exclaimed to me, “what is he doing to my face!?” I giggled as I explained what threading was. A relatively newly adopted hair removal method in the West, threading has been used to remove facial hair and shape eyebrows for centuries in the Middle East and South Asia. It is a technique that rolls looped, twisted cotton threads across the face, ripping fine hairs out in a swift motion. I only knew what this was thanks to Arabic friends of mine, and I was thrilled to see how it’s done. The shopkeeper noticed my enthusiasm and next thing I knew he was ushering me into the other chair in the small shop. My face was fully threaded within minutes. Once both Lucas and I’s faces were beautiful and smooth, we sat for another coffee, explaining in broken Arabic what our plans in Jordan were. “Welcome to Jordan,” both men shook our hands as we said goodbye.

Days later our car stalled near a Bedouin village. Within moments a Bedouin man was there to help us, and soon after cars were pulling over. A young guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth tried jumper cables, a trucker offered to tow us to the nearby town to a mechanic. One particular man stayed with us nearly an hour, examining our engine and calling mechanics to consult. In the end, our rental company saved the day by making an adjustment remotely (more on that later). As we drove away, waving to the Bedouin goodbye, Lucas and I agreed that we were overwhelmed by all the help that was so generously offered to us. This generosity was constant. Recommendations from shopkeepers as to where we should visit, what we should eat. A free postcard given to me along with the purchase of a fridge magnet. Early one morning a stuffed pita (this is called ‘sfeeha’) handed to us on a side street of Madaba. The baker saw we’d been eyeing them.

It was moments like these in which we felt genuinely welcomed in Jordan. After years of travel, we have learned that feeling welcome can be rare. For good reason, tourists are often treated like a nuisance. Our trip across Jordan was beautiful in every way. Bucket list experiences mixed with lazy afternoons, shisha, and many shawarmas, we learned the history of the region and discovered Jordanian customs. At one point, I Googled an interesting fact about Jordan: one third of the country’s inhabitants are refugees from nearby countries. Perhaps this is why Jordanians were so happy to hear we are from Canada. Both Canada and Jordan are diverse havens for those who need refuge from war.

Before I completely romanticize Jordan, I want to acknowledge that our experience was brief, and it was shaped by our privilege. We traveled as educated, white North Americans with no financial barriers, and we traveled by rented car. We were sheltered from the many realities of Jordan and the surrounding region. We did not see the refugee camps on the Syrian or Iraqi borders. Za’atari refugee camp is Jordan’s fourth largest city, home to 80,000 Syrian refugees who have fled the Syrian war. More than half of those refugees are under the age of 24. Meanwhile, the Bedouin populations of Jordan are facing threats to their lifestyle and impending poverty. With modernization, their semi-nomadic traditional lifestyle has been challenged, resources that they rely on have dwindled, and the Bedouin have recognized the importance of educating their youth, meaning they are more inclined to settle in permanent locations. According to a World Bank study, about one third of Jordan’s population experience “transient” poverty, meaning that during some periods of a year a third of the population lives below the poverty line. With all this said, Jordan is considered a middle income nation. It does not lack economic strength, rather its poverty issues stem from distribution of wealth, influx of refugees, and lack of natural resources. As tourists my partner and I’s visit to Jordan was valuable to the country’s economy. Our friendly welcome may very well have stemmed from local cognizance of the importance of tourism dollars. As with all our travels, my partner and I felt incredibly privileged to have had such a positive experience. We left with precious memories and a better understanding of Jordan and the Middle East.  

Here is Pina’s adventurer’s guide to traveling Jordan.

Exploring the Wadi Rum desert.

Exploring the Wadi Rum desert.

ITINERARY

Jordan is a small country, well connected by three main highways: the Desert Highway (15), the King’s Highway (35), and the Dead Sea Highway (65). Running from north to south, the classic Jordan itinerary includes Jerash (Roman ruins), Amman (the capital city), Madaba (small city with many biblical sites), the Dead Sea (resorts!), Al Karak (a castle), Petra (one of the 7 new wonders of the world!), Wadi Rum desert, and Aqaba (resort town - access to diving). Though it seems like a lot, this itinerary can be accomplished in 1 week thanks to the short distances between locations. If you have more time, you can take a slower pace. Many opt to spend two to three days in Petra (read more about Petra here!), or several nights in Wadi Rum. While we simply stopped by the Dead Sea for a quick dip, others prefer to spend a day or two in a Dead Sea resort.  

The Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea.

TRANSPORT

The transport infrastructure in Jordan has yet to develop to accommodate tourism well. While there are public buses available, they tend to be irregular and slow, so most tourists opt for a private driver, or taxis for long distances. Those who are on an organized tour travel by tourist bus. You can also do as my partner and I did: rent your own car. Our decision to drive ourselves was based on a couple factors: economically, it was cheaper to drive ourselves than to hire a driver. We did not feel inclined to rely on public buses - and many of the public buses would not operate at the times that we needed. Jordanian friends and internet research assured us that roads in Jordan are good (they are!), and driving is generally not too chaotic. Having driven in South East Asia, Europe and India, we felt confident in our ability to handle driving and navigation in a foreign country. With all this in mind, renting a car was a comfortable choice for us. Should you choose to rent a car, keep the following in mind:

  • Some rental cars are not well maintained. Be sure to research reviews of the rental company that you hire through. We hired through Eras, and they provided a good car with reliable support via phone. They called us regularly to check in throughout our trip.

  • Do not speed in Jordan. While driving conditions are good, stray animals and often people will venture out onto the road, even in the middle of the desert. Ensure that you have enough break time should a goat appear on the highway.

  • Be aware that rental companies can shut off your engine. We made the mistake of surpassing the 120 km per hour limit, and to teach us a lesson our rental company shut our engine off! This is how we ended up stranded on the side of the road. Luckily, a quick phone call and apology got us our driving privileges back.

  • Avoid night driving. This is based on all of the above. We avoided driving after dark for safety reasons.

  • Note that Jordanian drivers do things differently. In cities, there are no designated lanes and lots of roundabouts. Many drivers will not utilize their turning signals, and expect to hear horns honking all the time.

  • Be cautious of accidents. It is important to know that if you are involved in an accident with a pedestrian, the driver is always considered in the wrong. This can result in hefty fines and in extreme cases, imprisonment. Ensure you have insurance bought from your home country. While this sounds scary, most tourists do not find themselves driving in busy cities, so the risk of such an accident is relatively low.

  • Invest in a SIM card with calling and data. SIM cards can be bought at the airport upon exiting. I went with Orange. The SIM cost 15 JOD and included calling with 4 gigabytes of data. I also recommend downloading an offline map application. My partner and I prefer Maps.Me. Using offline maps ensures that if you run out of data, or want to minimize your data use, you can still use maps for navigation.

  • Lastly, navigating Jordan was very simple. We had zero issues with directions. Parking was highly accessible and was in most cases free.

The Monastery of Petra (Al-Dayr).

The Monastery of Petra (Al-Dayr).

FOOD

You will be well fed in Jordan! Expect to eat chicken, lamb, rice, shawarma, hummus, moutabel, falafel, mansaf and lots of Arabic sweets. While in Amman, drop by Hashem Restaurant. In downtown Amman, it is one of the city's most well known spots for Jordanian food - many royal family members have eaten there! Open air seating and no menus, they serve classic Jordanian dishes. Our favourites were the stuffed falafel and the moutabel (eggplant dip). This delicious spot won't break the bank! We checked out for less than 4JD.

Note that it is safest to drink only bottled water, which is readily available at most shops. We quickly became addicted to Bedouin tea and coffee. Jordanian coffee is brewed Turkish style, and flavoured with cardamom and sugar. While alcohol is available at designated shops, drinking is largely taboo and having a beer or glass of wine should be done with discretion, and not in public. Instead, smoking shisha is a customary evening social event. Shisha lounges are marketed as “tea houses,” and you’ll often find them on the 2nd or 3rd floor of a building. We loved sitting in these lounges, watching locals as they played cards or dominos, sipping on tea and enjoying watermelon shisha. We found out later that shisha is terrible for you, so we don’t recommend bringing this habit home with you!

If you are vegan or vegetarian, it will be challenging but not impossible to find meals. Vegetarian dishes are available on most menus. Vegan options will mean very limited meal choices, but if you stick to a diet of hummus you will be alright. I travel with a severe peanut allergy. This allergy did not prove too difficult to manage as peanuts are typically only used in desserts, which I avoided. If you are allergic to other nuts you will need to be diligent. I presented the following translation (courtesy of my friend, Karam) in most restaurants, and it was well understood. Note that Arabic is read right to left:

“Please make sure there are no nuts in my food, even pine nuts. I’m allergic.”

لوسمحت تأكد إنه هذا الأكل لا يوجد فيه اي نوع من المكسرات حتى الصنوبر انا عندي حساسية

Jordan106.jpg

BUDGET     

Most of the travelers we encountered in Jordan agreed: Jordan is expensive! But as with all travels, it is as expensive as you make it. While some expenses are inescapable, there are ways to save on your budget. We controlled our budget by staying in budget hotels and eating mostly street food. Our hotels never cost more than 25 JOD for a private room (around 40 CAD), and all the rooms were decently outfitted and clean. No complaints there! We enjoyed dinners in restaurants in the evening, which typically cost around 5 - 8 JOD. For lunch we stuck to simple street food: hummus, moutabel and shawarma. We supplemented our meals by swinging by markets and grocery stores to stock up on fruits and snacks.

In the end, our daily budget worked out to approximately 55 JOD per day - this included food, water, tourist sites, hotels, souvenirs, shisha and gas for our car. All told this was one of our more expensive trips, and we feel we did quite well for ourselves in pulling off that daily budget!

Hot tip: ATM withdrawal fees are VERY high, so if you’d like to save on those fees take out large sums of JOD. You can read my tips for budgeting on your travels, here!

Average cost of water bottle: 0.50 - 1 JOD
Average cost of meal: 2 - 8 JOD
Average cost of short bus trip: 1 - 3 JOD
Average cost of dorm bed: 5 - 10 JOD
Average starting cost of private rooms: 15 - 20 JOD
Average cost of tea/coffee: 0.50 - 2 JOD
Average cost of shisha: 2 - 5 JOD

The animals of Petra.

The animals of Petra.

JORDAN PASS

The Jordan Pass is a must when going to Jordan. The pass is bought in advance to your trip, and includes your visa fees as well as access to most tourist sites, including Petra and fees to visit Wadi Rum. We purchased the basic Jordan Pass (70 JOD) which was well worth it. The pass must be printed and presented, along with ID, at each site to be stamped. When entering Jordan you will present that pass when receiving your on arrival Visa - the pass will waive all Visa fees. There are tiered types of Jordan Passes. If you intend to spend more than one day in Petra, consider buying the 2nd or 3rd tier pass. The more expensive the pass, the more sites you will have access to without fees. Be sure to look at all the passes before deciding which one is most suitable for your trip. For more information on the pass, visit the Jordan Pass website.

A popular spot in Petra. It is a difficult hike but worth this view of the Treasury.

A popular spot in Petra. It is a difficult hike but worth this view of the Treasury.

A Word on Safety

Jordan is deemed safe, but be mindful of local custom, culture, and adjacent conflict. It is important (as with traveling anywhere) to respect local practices - for example, dress modestly, refrain from most public displays of affection, and show respect for Islam and the Jordanian royal family. Because Jordan is situated amidst conflict zones, it is also important to familiarize yourself with regions to avoid (borders) and be sure to stay away from protests, large gatherings, and maintain a general degree of alertness. Canadians have the option to register their trip with the Canadian government. This is a convenient precaution to take, because should any security issues arise during your trip the government will inform you via email or text message. If you identify as a woman or LGBTQ+, I recommend reading up on local laws and customs relating to your identity. I’ll note that I (cis-woman) felt secure and safe for the entirety of my trip to Jordan - but was accompanied by my male partner throughout.

The Citadel of Amman, Jordan.

The Citadel of Amman, Jordan.

Our Bedouin guide, Wadi Rum desert.

Our Bedouin guide, Wadi Rum desert.

Alongside the Red Sea in Aqaba, Jordan.

Alongside the Red Sea in Aqaba, Jordan.