When you think of Jordan, what comes to mind? Biblical stories? Ancient archaeological sites? Perhaps the “lost city” of Petra, the Middle Eastern country’s most recognized (and most Instagrammed) landmark. Those are all certainly part of Jordan’s allure, but last year, I had the chance to discover a fascinating place and culture beyond the highlights in the guidebook. Led by Jordanian tour guides Hatem (driver) and Mahmoud (interpreter), I went on a 10-day journey across the country, visiting unique places like the Wadi Rum desert and the impressive Jerash — “The Crossroads of Civilization” — just to mention a couple.
We travelled north to south, from the ancient northern Decapolis city of Gadara, where we took in vistas of the Sea of Galilee and Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, to the vibrant national capital Amman, to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth — all while sampling delicious food and meeting friendly people.
My journey started at the St. Regis Amman hotel. Situated in the upscale 5th Circle district, it is one of the most luxurious hotels in all of Jordan. Every night in the lobby, a bottle of champagne is opened with a sword and a glass offered to each guest in grand St. Regis tradition. If you like to be pampered, a personal butler will take care of all your needs during your stay.
Amman has a lot to offer the cultural explorer, from splendid restaurants featuring traditional Arabic cuisine to the Citadel, where you can admire stunning views of the city and visit the Jordan Museum, with collections ranging from the Stone Age to the 15th century. Or, just wander the buzzing streets and markets of downtown Amman and soak up the atmosphere.
Jerash and Gadara
Located about an hour’s drive north of Amman, Jerash has had continuous human occupation for more than 6,500 years, and is now known to be one of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world. I easily spent half a day walking around, exploring the remnants of various civilizations that have laid claim to the city over the millennia, including the Greeks, Romans, and Umayyad caliphate.
Mount Nebo and Madaba, “The City of Mosaics”
After another night in Amman, the following day saw us drive about 30 kilometres along the 5,000-year-old Kings’ Highway to Mount Nebo, one of the most significant places in the Holy Land. Mount Nebo is where Moses is believed to have been buried and is probably the most revered holy site in Jordan. From the top we admired — as Moses likely once did — the panoramic view of the Jordan River Valley, the Dead Sea, Jericho and Jerusalem.
After another short drive, we arrived in the city of Madaba, best known for its spectacular Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics, including the famed 6th-century Mosaic Map of the Holy Land. We concluded our visit with a traditional lunch, which always starts with hummus and freshly baked pita bread.
From Medaba, we travelled to the heart of the mountainous Dana Biosphere Reserve, where a couple of 4x4s were waiting to take us through the desert to our next overnight stay at the Feynan Ecolodge — an experience made possible by a partnership between EcoHotels and the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, a Jordanian NGO devoted to the protection of the Kingdom’s natural landscapes. Before arriving at the lodge, we were greeted with tea at the top of a hill, where we could admire the desert sunset.
After dinner, we went to the rooftop to stargaze and enjoy another cup of tea before settling down to sleep in our candlelit rooms. The following morning, we walked to meet a Bedouin family, where under a tent we shared tea and traditional bread cooked inside the desert sand.
Petra and Wadi Rum, “The Valley of the Moon”
The next stop on our adventure was Petra, Jordan’s most recognizable treasure and greatest tourist attraction. I spent almost a full day walking the immense archeological area, carved out of the rose-red rock cliffs more than 2,000 years ago. If you want to see all of Petra, you will need at least a couple of days. One of the highlights of the visit was when, after walking for a couple of kilometres through a narrow canyon, we emerged right in front of the Treasury — probably the best-known site in all of Petra.
Arriving at our next destination felt like pulling up to a movie set meant to represent Mars — and in fact some sci-fi movies like 2015’s The Martian have been filmed there. The Wadi Rum desert is one of those places that seems to defy description because it’s so utterly unique. Our accommodations at the Captain’s Desert Camp resembled Bedouin tents. Activities to enjoy in the area include a sunrise camel ride, a 4×4 sunset tour, and lunch in the desert with a local family.
No trip to Jordan would be complete without visiting the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, where you float on the water as if you were weightless because of the concentration of salt in the water, which is 20 times that of the ocean.
I’m still amazed by how much Jordan has to offer, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to go back.
Javier Frutos is Canadian Geographic Travel’s creative director. Follow him on Instagram.