Jordan: The Long Way Out
The shortest route is not always the best route.
After 30-minutes of negotiating hairpin turns down a narrow, potholed road, the asphalt gave way to gravel and narrowed further. Boulders jutting from the mountainsides forced our rental car dangerously close to the unstable edge. It was impossible to turnaround. We were somewhere between Petra and the Dead Sea, playing chicken with the sun. If we lost to the sun, we’d be forced to camp in the middle of nowhere. None of us were prepared for this back road adventure, much less an overnight stay in the Jordanian backcountry. We had to keep inching forward.
Petra and the Dead Sea had been on my “to do” list for quite some time. So, when my mom and step-dad mentioned a trip in that direction, my wife and I decided to tagalong. A few days before the start of the trip, my wife learned that she was pregnant. Research into our travel stopped. The trip went from planned to impromptu.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan shares international borders with Iraq, Syria, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It’s a volatile region, for sure, but Jordan has remained relatively safe. Still, most Westerners travelling there would be wise to thoroughly research their trip, take a few precautions, and note any travel warnings issued by their government.
Driving was our biggest oversight. Jordanians have a reputation for being aggressive on the roads and I’ve been told that many Jordanians believe headlights impair their ability to drive at night. According to the U.S. Department of State’s website, “traffic accidents are very frequent and continue to be the largest cause of injury and death in Jordan.” The site goes on to warn, “In the past year, the [U.S.] Embassy has received reports of firearms being discharged at vehicles being driven by Westerners.”
Caution meet wind.
After an uneventful flight, we picked up a rental car at the Queen Alia International Airport. The sub-compact had seen better days. Although a potent blend of body odor and cigarette smoke still lingered from the previous drivers, the vehicle seemed reliable enough for our needs. With the windows rolled down, we headed off. Small bumps caused the car to creak, the shocks threatened to break away at any moment. A large bull’s-eye advertisement for the rental car company adhered to the trunk confirmed the obvious: we were tourists.
Getting from the airport to the Dead Sea Resort Hotel should’ve been easy—and fast. A couple of turns and a long stretch of highway is all it takes. However, in order to get the full Jordanian experience, we opted out of driving the easy route. This safety conscious family was going to take a goat path to the resort. The backcountry road, which was only wide enough for a single car in places, weaved through a mountainous, moonlike landscape. Herds of unattended sheep often swarmed the road. At some point, probably after the wrong turn that led us into Amman, we found ourselves on The Kings Highway, an ancient trading route mentioned in the Old Testament. Pilgrims, crusaders and tourists have used the route for at least three millennia. It begins in Amman and ends 207-miles later at the Gulf of Aqaba. We took it to Madaba, and then headed west towards Sweimeh, to a swanky resort perched on the banks of the Dead Sea.
There was still enough light left to enjoy the Dead Sea. This body of water and the surrounding area are unique. Over 1300 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest exposed land on Earth. Salt encrusted rocks glisten in the sunlight. The deep black mud pulled from its banks gets peddled in spas worldwide. I covered myself in the mineral rich mud, floated effortlessly in the saltiest body of water in the world. It was a welcome respite from the daylong car journey, and a good way to relax before the next day’s driving adventure.
Next stop: Petra.
The road to Petra isn’t for the weak. Tucked away in the Valley of Moses (Wadi Musa), it is 124 miles from the Dead Sea. While the road is paved, and the hardball is in relatively decent shape the entire way, locals treat the winding route like an F1 track. Most tourists take tour busses to Petra, but even that method can be hair-raising. I have heard of people sobbing because of wild tour bus journeys. It isn’t a stretch you would want to navigate in the dark.
Arriving at Petra’s ticket booth, we each forked over 50 Jordanian Dinars ($71) for single entry tickets, the cheapest option available. The most expensive single entry ticket costs 90 Jordanian Dinars ($127) and it is unclear how they differentiate who pays which cost. A horse ride from the ticket booth to the main entrance is included with all ticket purchases, but the quarter mile ride led by locals is nothing more than an attempt to upsell tour packages followed by a shakedown for tips.
The path from the Visitor Center to the end of the main city, the route most tourists take, is about 2.5 miles. It begins as a dusty trail that meanders through a narrow gorge called The Shaft (siq). At points, the curvy, red-walled gorge nearly closes in on you. It’s dark on sunny days. Horse carts race up and down the path, rarely slowing down for anybody or anything. Then, a sliver of Petra’s most famous building, The Treasury, appears through a gap in the gorge, cut into the mountain and framed like a picture. In 1812, 27-year-old J.L. Burckhardt rediscovered the “lost city.” He walked the same path, and wrote the following in his journal:
[T]he situation and beauty of which are calculated to make and extraordinary impression upon the traveller, after having traversed for nearly half an hour such a gloomy and almost subterraneous passage as I have described. It is one of the most elegant remains of antiquity existing [in the region]; its state of preservation resembles that of a building recently finished, and on closer examination I found it to be a work of immense labor.
Nothing can prepare you for seeing something like Petra: a city that was carved into pink and red hued sandstone cliffs over 2000 years ago. It’s one of four UNESCO World Heritage sites in Jordan and was included on the New 7 Wonders of the World list. Portions of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were filmed there, too. Brochures recommend at least one full day at Petra. We, on the other hand, had a self-imposed four-hour window. The threat of driving in the dark outweighed the grandness of the place.
Walk fast. Snap photos. Walk faster. More photos. Back to the car. The ancient city deserved more attention.
Leaving Petra we decided to use the “best route” feature on the GPS. We hoped the suggested route would get us to the hotel faster, and before sunset. Two tense hours later, the mountain road spilled into the desert. Small pickup trucks full of local men appeared. They zipped between the Bedouin camps that dotted the landscape. Again, the U.S. Department of State’s travel site warns against this kind of thing: “Tribal violence in Jordan remains a concern. Clashes between feuding clans or families periodically erupt without notice and sometimes involve an escalation in violence, including the use of firearms.”
Nothing bad happened on our driving tour through Jordan. Although I probably wouldn’t do it again, taking the long route proved to be the most exciting route. Had we done our research and read the travel warnings, we would have missed out on all of it: the sights, the adventure, and the experience of travelling around Jordan’s backcountry in a creaky rental car.