“You might like our ‘Lychee Mac.’ It’s made with whiskey, fresh lime juice, ginger ale and real lychee.”
I’m currently sitting at a swanky rooftop lounge in Amman, Jordan, ordering cocktails and listening to Maroon 5 blast from the speakers. How is it possible that only hours ago I was driving by camels, roaming an ancient Greco-Roman city and wearing an abaya to cover my hair and skin in a sacred mosque?
There are many stereotypes that exist about the Middle East, and in only a few short days Jordan has managed to unravel all of them. Originally a Christian province, Jordan was the birthplace of both Christianity and Islamic faith. Moreover, its central location at the crossroads connecting east and west trading routes meant people from all over would travel through her’s diverse climates and terrains. Today, Jordan is a place where people from different tribes, religions, cultures and countries live in harmony, with people having the right to make their own choices about how they live their life.
Jordan’s capital of Amman provides the perfect place for getting oriented with the contrasting personalities of this mysterious country, as it doesn’t get more paradoxical than here. While east Amman is where you’ll find the old city and its history museums, Early Bronze Age-era Citadel and 2nd Century AD Roman theater, west Amman is full of big-name hotel chains, boutiques, malls, posh nightclubs and trendy restaurants like the one I’m dining at now, enjoying a whole-cooked Sea Bream accompanied by Cantaloupe’s signature Chili Garlic sauce and a lychee-infused libation. Within an hour of the capital, it’s also possible to explore historical attractions like the ruins of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Gerasa in Jerash, the 6th century Byzantine mosaic map of the area’s holy places at Saint George Church in Madaba, and the ancient town of As-Salt, once an important trading link between east and west.
Drive 45 minutes to the west coast of the country to the Dead Sea and you’ll see a new side of Jordan, one revolving around health and wellness. Littered around the area are myriad hammans and spas offering Dead Sea-inspired treatments. To really reap the benefits of the curative waters, however, all one must do is go for a float. There isn’t really swimming in the Dead Sea, as the extremely salty waters (the saline content is 10x higher than in the sea) prevent the body from sinking. That being said, it’s the high salt and mineral content of the water that gives it the ability to treat skin ailments, arthritis, hypertension, respiratory issues and other diseases and health issues.
The Dead Sea isn’t the only spa retreat one can find in the country. Wanting to escape the crowds and giant resorts but still wanting to relax, I head about 20 minutes east to Ma’in, an area full of curative hot springs. Evason Ma’in Hot Springs Resort and Six Senses Spa provides a destination spa resort, with a number of private and public hot spring pools, naturally hot waterfalls, organic gardens, inspiring olive trees, balcony views and a menu featuring both Jordanian and international dishes made fresh with homegrown ingredients. Despite the fact I’m in a country that’s more than 80% desert, Ma’in shows me Jordan can provide a tropical paradise and nourishing zen lifestyle.
Like many women, Jordan doesn’t like to wear one outfit for too long. While she’s shown me she can provide relaxing getaways and historical sides with confidence, it’s now time for me to see a side of her that is timeless and untouched. For a look at authentic Bedouin culture, I travel to Feynan, one of the few places you’ll still find true desert-dwelling Bedouins.
Hospitality is a big part of Bedouin culture, which I learn during a 9-mile (14-kilometer) hike through the Dana Biosphere Reserve — Jordan’s largest nature reserve — from the Rumanna Camp to Feynan Ecolodge. Because of its changing elevations, Dana showcases a diverse range of ecosystems, terrain and landscape. While at one moment you can be standing on a jagged cliff ledge taking in colorful rock formation and pointy spires, 10 minutes later you may be wandering through swamp grass or beach sand. The most interesting part of the trek, however, is undoubtedly interacting with the Bedouin community.
As I approach Feynan, black Bedouin tents made of goat hair come into view with families brewing coffee and baking bread, while children search for water. Despite the fact these people have very little, one Bedouin man sees my companions and I looking tired and thirsty and invites us to come sit in the shade.
“Would you like some goat’s milk?” the man asks, my guide Ibrahim translating.
For a moment I am taken back to just a few days ago, sitting on the roof of a posh gastro pub and being asked if I would like a handcrafted cocktail. That world seems oceans apart from where I am now, but in reality is less than a three-hour drive.
The Bedouin man calls to his wife to bring some goat’s milk to the group. We sit Indian-style on cushions in the yard under the shade of a tent, passing around a giant bowl of thick white liquid. While it tastes a bit sour for my liking, I appreciate the experience and can’t help but feel awed at this family’s hospitality.
“In Bedouin culture we value relationships, not money,” he explains. “If a stranger visits they can stay as long as they like, and we cannot ask them their name of why they are there until three days later.”
Like the nature reserve itself — through which I did not see one other tourist besides for my hiking companions — the area seems pure and unpretentious. While visitors can enjoy guided hikes and visits to Bedouin tents through the Feynan Ecolodge, there is no sign of mass tourism, despite the fact Petra is only about an hour away by 4×4.
Although Petra is Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, it somehow retains an untouched feel. Sure, there are people everywhere and Bedouins pressing you to take donkey rides and purchase souvenirs; but like a beautiful woman nothing can take away her magnificence. The impressiveness of Petra easily stands out against the stalls and horse-and-carriage rides. It almost feels like the Nabateans who built the ancient city will come out of the canyon-carved caves to greet us with pottery and exotic spices.
While I know this won’t happen, I am invited by a few cave-dwelling Bedouins to climb up the rock walls for tea. Even after giving it my best attempt, however, I realize I am neither nimble nor brave enough to scale an almost sheer cliff wall, and am forced to slide clumsily back down to the ground. Still, it gives me a sense of what the Nabateans may have gone through (a very small sense, since I only made it up about three feet) more than 2,000 years ago.
Along with the over 800 individual, ornately-carved monuments in Petra, I am surprised to discover Petra is a hiker’s paradise. Numerous trails litter the grounds, offering not just aerial views of the iconic Treasury and Monastery, but also slot canyons, shade-shifting sandstone, mountain peaks and red-rock monoliths. I opt to climb up to the “Best Viewpoint” (so says the sign) across from the Monastery, and after a tough uphill climb am greeted with about 10 different options for views.
My favorite is undoubtedly the cave — which was, oddly enough, completely empty despite the many tourists up at the lookout. Here I am able to get some inspiring silhouette shots with Petra in the background (Note: Once you make it to the top the cave will be directly to your right).
After saying goodbye to Petra, I’m off to get acquainted with Jordan’s more adventurous side. While there are adrenaline-pumping hikes and climbs all over the country, the lunar landscape of Wadi Rum undoubtedly provides the best variety of thrilling activities. Visitors to Wadi Rum — Jordan’s largest wadi (valley) at 280 square miles (720 square kilometers) — can skydive, paraglide, go hot air ballooning, ride camels, enjoy 4×4 safaris, rock climb, hike, base jump, mountain bike, camp and more. I choose a mix of activities and add in some traditional Bedouin camping for a cultural twist.
Captain’s Desert Camp takes sleeping under the stars to a whole new level, giving guests the opportunity to stay in authentic Bedouin tents weaved from goat hair. Activities include smoking shisha, taking part in traditional song and dance, desert star gazing and enjoying traditional Bedouin barbecue, called zarb, that is cooked in an underground “oven.” While my meeting with the Feynan Bedouins had been calm and subdued, the Bedouins in Wadi Rum seem to have poured some Red Bull into their hookah pipes, as guests are instructed to form a circle around these men as they get low and bust a move. The experience reminds me that just because a group of people takes part in traditions doesn’t mean they don’t know how to let loose. It also reinforces the idea that in Jordan you can’t judge a book by its cover (and in the case of Jordan, one cover is not enough to portray her many personalities).
Through Captain’s Desert Camp I am also able to enjoy the adventurous offerings of Wadi Rum. I begin with a 4×4 safari, which allows me to capture beautiful photos of the different parts of the desert as well as climb some precarious looking rocks. From there I take on an activity I’ve never encountered before on my travels, camel riding. To make your camel go faster, shout “yella yella!” to your guide, who will then try to make them gallop. That being said, if you’re going downhill be prepared to hold on tight, as these animals have a tendency to instinctually run. Not a light trot, but a full on Olympic sprint that may turn your land adventure into an aerial one if you’re not careful.
After a short 40-minute drive I find myself out of the desert, bikini-clad and boarding a snorkeling cruise from the beach resort town of Aqaba. As the boat drifts through the ironically turquoise waters of the Red Sea, camels, red sandstone rocks and goat hair tents seem far away. Once again, Jordan is showing me a different side of her delightfully schizophrenic personality.
Throwing on a pair of oversized shades, I sprawl out on one of the lounge cushions. In the shop-lined village I had purchased a 6-pack of Amstel, and I crack one open to propose a toast. Jordan, not only have you completely shattered any preconceived notions I had about the Middle East, but you’ve shown me the beauty of a well-rounded experience. I will be forever thankful to have met you, although I’m sure out paths will cross again soon.
For travelers to Jordan wanting to have a similar experience, here is some essential information and recommendations:
The national airline of Jordan is Royal Jordanian, although there are over 20 international carriers that fly into the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. Upon arrival, all nationalities are required to purchase a tourist visa for 20 Jordanian Dinars (about $30).
While public buses can take you cheaply along major routes, for example, between Wadi Rum and Aqaba, the country is small enough that using taxis to get around — even for long distances — is a convenient and affordable option. Moreover, to be able to take your time and enjoy the many scenic drives Jordan has to offer, renting a car can be worthwhile.
Local Guide Services
Ibrahim El-Wahsh was my guide throughout the two weeks I traveled around Jordan, and I highly, highly, highly (did I mention highly?) recommend him. Not only his he fun-loving, comical and knowledgeable, he’s well-connected allowing for any travel issues to be quickly sorted out. His contact information is Wahashi@yahoo.com and +962 7 95915879.
Excursions & Experiences
Adventure Jordan (Guided hikes)
Diva Aqaba (Diving in Aqaba)
Zumot Winery & Vineyards (Amman)
Petra Kitchen (Cooking class in Petra)
Marriott Amman (Amman)
Evason Ma’in Hot Springs Resort and Six Senses Spa (Ma’in/Dead Sea)
Movenpick Dead Sea (Dead Sea)
Rummana Camp (Dana Biosphere Reserve)
Feynan Ecolodge (Feynan/Dana Biosphere Reserve)
Captain’s Desert Camp (Wadi Rum)
Marriott Petra (Petra)
*For a visual of Jordanian culture, history and adventure, check out my Jordan Wanderlist on AFAR
My trip to Jordan was sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board. I was not required to write this post nor was I compensated in any way. All opinions are my own.