I’ve seen images of Petra floating around the internet for years and finally it was time for us to visit Jordan and see the ancient city for ourselves. But there’s a lot more to Jordan than just Petra, we also planned to float in the Dead Sea, stay in a Bedouin desert camp and snorkel in the Red Sea. It was going to be an action packed trip!
We landed in Amman and received a very cold welcome from the immigration officers, not the best start after hearing how hospitable the Jordanians were. We opted for the airport bus into the city centre and luckily the driver was a lot more chirpy and gave us a jolly “Welcome to Jordan!”. We were dropped off at what’s known as 7th circle, a roundabout a fair chunk away from downtown so we needed a yellow taxi to take us to our hostel. Of course a group of taxi drivers were waiting and ushered us to a taxi, asking us how much we wanted to pay. I demanded the meter be put on and they said no, which is technically illegal so we walked up the road and hailed a different taxi who kindly put the meter on and took us 8km for just £2.50 (2.5JD). He wasn’t very smiley but when we attempted our basic Arabic on him he began to warm to us.
Our hostel was a basic place but a proper backpacker hangout. The furnishings were old fashioned and a leopard-print blanket covered the beds – the sort that’s too thick to wash regularly but they didn’t provide a flat sheet so I guess Jordan is going to be a country where we sleep in our silk liners. Luckily it was situated in the bustling downtown and directly opposite one of the cities most popular eateries. I had no idea what to expect of Jordanian cuisine but I was in for a treat as falafels and hummus are staples. The restaurant didn’t have menus so the jolly staff brought us some mezze dishes and we dove into the deliciously creamy hummus, perfectly crispy falafels and warm pita. We tried babaganoush too which we didn’t like as much and a big plate of tomatoes, onions and mint, the latter we added to our sweet teas.
We popped into a few shops around town, one of which was selling every variety of nut and dried fruits. The shop-owner had the strangest accent, he was a local from Amman but sounded like he was related to Queen Elizabeth and I had to ask him where he learnt to speak English – tv he said, he really liked British films. He gave us so many tasters and he did it with such charm, throwing glass jars in the air and presenting honey coated pecans to us. I felt like I was in Harry Potter and he was a wizard selling us potions. Suddenly we found ourselves buying some pecans from him and we got back to our hotel room and realised we’d just paid £1 for 9 pecans. He definitely used his magic on us.
While many locals were modernising in their clothing there were still plenty of men in the full body sort of gowns with the typical red and white scarf atop their heads. A few tourists were donning the same look but on them it looked more like a misplaced picnic blanket or a wise man from a nativity play.
The following day we wanted to visit the Dead Sea which is about 1 hour from Amman. There’s a bus that goes to the main resorts but we really wanted to visit the lesser known area to the south but we didn’t know what hitchhiking would be like in the area. In the end we found out our hostel offered private car trips which could be shared with other travellers and it ended up being the cheapest option. A couple of French girls wanted to visit the Dead Sea via some historical sights which we weren’t really interested in but when the driver said he could also take us to the southern area to see the salt formations we decided it was the best option for us.
So at 8am we set off for the city of Madaba to visit a church filled with mosaic artwork. The most famous of which was a mosaic map on the floor. It’s said to be the oldest map of Palestine in existence, made in AD 560 and it marks the biblical sights from Egypt to Palestine.
There were broken tiles around the edge of the map as if at one point a priest hadn’t appreciated the artwork and asked for it to be tiled-over. I guess someone finally realised it was pretty significant and they began the process of chipping the tiles back to unveil the map. The walls were covered in mosaic portraits but it was hard to appreciate the work with so many people around. There were big tour buses of Indians and Chinese and they just took a photo and walked off without looking at anything with their own eyes.
The next stop was Mount Nebo. Except for Petra we didn’t come to Jordan for its historic sights, which it has many of. But there we were, at Mount Nebo which is supposedly the sight where Moses saw the promised land – but was forbidden from entering it. I don’t know who said ‘no’ to him mind you, I can’t imagine many ‘Do not enter’ signs back then. It seems he arrived there when he was 120 years old, probably riddled with Alzheimer’s and a bit delirious from the relentless heat. Maybe the view of the Dead Sea is why he thought it was the promised land, any parched person would probably think the same….shame he didn’t know it would become so salty and inhospitable. The strange thing about this place is that people say this is where Moses was buried but they don’t know where exactly, his grave or remains have never been discovered. Call me a pessimist but it all sounds like Chinese whispers to me. How can someone of such religious importance pass away and be buried but no one thought to pop a stone or cross at the site? There were more mosaic artworks inside but to be honest we just wanted to get to the Dead Sea.
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, down at -408 below sea level so we had quite a decent through the barren, hazy desert to reach the shores. The ‘sea’ has no outlet so it’s basically a lake now with seriously high salinity which is why you float in the water (although I was still skeptical and wanted to prove otherwise). Our driver headed south, driving parallel to Israel and The West Bank across the water. After about 30km we came to the area where I wanted to take photos, I’d found pictures online and showed the driver in advance on google earth that this was where we wanted to visit, but he drove on another 3km before he stopped. Then he said “ok quick picture of the salt and we leave”. It was the shittest location to photograph the salt, and the french ladies were wondering why I’d wanted to add this to our day trip. So I asked the driver to stop at the other location on our way back and he was being such an arsehole, reluctantly saying “yes but no walking down!!”. I don’t know why but he was the worst guide ever, he didn’t want to please us. Originally when we were arranging the trip and I mentioned wanting to visit the salty shores he was adamant we weren’t allowed to walk down to the shores “it’s not possible…it’s too dangerous…there are police stopping you”. It was all lies – we pulled up amongst a few other cars and a clear trail led gradually down to the shores where tourists were taking nice photos. I just don’t get why he wouldn’t let us go down? Anyway, the view was amazing, from here we could see the unusual shoreline with salty white shapes curving into the blue water. Behind us was Wadi Mujib, a nature reserve where we’d hoped to go canyoning but it had closed a few days ahead of schedule for the season due to high water levels. But the red rock formations made a pleasant backdrop to the azure waters.
After our ‘quick’ photo we headed to Amman Tourist Beach for three hours of Dead Sea fun. There’s a bit of a monopoly on the beaches here; most of which you have to pay to visit and the minimum cost is around 20JD (£20). There were some free options further south with natural waterfalls to rinse off in afterwards but our guide wouldn’t allow us there, obviously.
I’d actually read some terrible reviews about the Amman beach but I was pleasantly surprised. Upon entry there was a huge crystal clear swimming pool with twinkling blue water. Palm trees and colourful flowers lined the grounds and we made our way down some steps to the vast beach. The beaches aren’t nice at the Dead Sea, mostly made of a mix of brown sand and salty crust.
There were a few important things I read before arriving:
1. Don’t shave your legs beforehand (do them a couple days before arriving or it will really sting)
2. Do not put your head underwater. Salt in the eyes is extremely painful, same with if you have any cuts.
3. Don’t touch your camera, phone etc with your wet salty hands! It will ruin them.
I nominated myself to go in first and it didn’t feel any different to the normal sea as I waded ankle-deep through the shallows. It was lovely and warm, and surprisingly clear water. Finally I slipped my body into the water and I bounced right up to the surface. What the heck? I got the giggles straight away and Craig was wondering if I was lying so he came in and he also bobbed up like an ice cube floating in a cocktail. It was the most bizarre sensation. Swimming was almost impossible and we could even float on our side and lift a leg and arm in the air. It went deep quite quickly so Craig and I started trying to push our bodies down (heads above water of course) but we’d ping straight back up, it was hilarious.
The mineral rich water and mud of the sea have many health benefits so we opted for a mud mask. Annoyingly they charged extra for this and after us feeling around in the water and failing to find any free stuff we had to pay. I of course wanted to get my £3 worth so I slathered the stuff on my body in a thick black layer. We then waited 15 minutes for it to dry hard but with the amount I put on it took much longer and I was starting to overheat. Being below sea level means it’s much hotter at the Dead Sea so with temperatures of around 35° it was getting very hot and uncomfortable, especially as I had too much mud around my mouth to take a sip of water. I couldn’t take Craig seriously as he was wearing black boxers it was hard to tell where the mud started and ended. After about 25 minutes our faces had hardened so much that we could barely smile so it was time to submerge ourselves in the sea. It washed off easily and our skin felt ridiculously soft!! We showered to get rid of the salt and then I couldn’t resist another dip. As I exited the water though my foot sunk into something squidgy “oh my god Craig – I’ve found the damn mud!!”. It was the smallest area and very easy to miss but it was pure Dead Sea mud and we decided to have a second body mask, why not ay? This stuff was more of a brown colour and had a funny smell to it, pretty sure it wasn’t poo but who really knows. There was sand amongst the mud so we rubbed it over us like an exfoliator and regretted it instantly as the rubbing and salt seemed to sting our skin.
We decided to spend the rest of our time relaxing by the rather cold swimming pool. We both jumped in and felt like we were drowning. It was the strangest sensation after effortlessly floating, now we were having to work to stay afloat in the freshwater and it was quite exhausting!
Even though we had a very grumpy driver the day was filled with laughter and new experiences. Who’d of thought you could have so much fun with a bit of salt, water and mud.