“This is the lowest point on Earth, we’re hiking to today,” Usama says.
We’ve just passed the last Bedouin settlement—a cluster of makeshift homes and farm animals belonging to the nomadic tribespeople—we’ll see for the next nine miles of our downhill trek. Leading us to the East Bank of the Dead Sea, our local guide is sharing something the guidebooks didn’t: With the steep drop in elevation will come an oppressive spike in temperature.
Ungluing my eyes from the blue expanse of water below, he points out Jerusalem and Jericho on the horizon. It’s our first view across the Jordanian border into Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Face to face with the conflicted state that’s dominated the headlines of news alerts streaming through my phone all week, though, the only thing I’m concerned about is whether or not I’ll be able to change into shorts before the heat takes over.
This is why I came to Jordan: to hike the “Switzerland of the Middle East.” A country that many travelers mistakenly regard as unsafe, Jordan has set itself apart as an exception—and sometimes an antidote—to its region’s conflicts.
When the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings brought protests to the streets of Amman, for example, tourists safely joined the crowd. Our guide Usama was there, with an Intrepid Travel group similar to mine, translating what was happening while members of the military looked on and passed out water in the hot sun. The king had encouraged peaceful dialogue, and Jordan’s parliament passed dozens of amendments to the constitution later that year. The country quickly moved on from the Arab Spring, unlike other Middle Eastern nations—but Jordan travel has still seen a drastic drop in visitors since 2011. A nation of 10 million, Jordan has also set itself apart from nearby tumult by taking in millions of refugees from the violence in Syria and Iraq.
But a track record of peace is, of course, not the only reason to visit. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is teeming with ancient ruins and religious sites, beaches on both the Dead Sea and Red Sea, desert landscapes straight out of Lawrence of Arabia, a new Jordan Trail with over 400 miles of hiking, and warm people known for their hospitality. And that’s all outside of Jordan’s beloved, stylish cities: Amman and Madaba’s hip art cafes, tantalizing shawarma shops, al-fresco shisha patios, and rooftop bars are also not to be missed.
For the first time since 2011, Jordan’s tourism numbers are again climbing, signaling the rise of a Middle East that’s safe for travelers. Jordan travel is best done with hiking boots on hand, but pausing to indulge at some of the region’s best hidden wonders means you won’t need them the whole time.
Working for a Float in the Dead Sea
Our downhill hike began at the ancient hilltop of Mukawir, or Machaerus—the fortress where John the Baptist is said to have been executed in biblical times. From the foothills, visitors can make out two Ionic pillars at its peak that once supported King Herod’s palace, and now link one of the region’s many scriptural tales to the modern day. The hiking trail from Machaerus to the sea is conquerable only with the help of Intrepid Travel’s local guides, and wound us down canyons, through herds of sheep, and past Bronze-Era burial caves to the promise of a rewarding float in the buoyant Dead Sea.
Downhill hiking, as I found out, is not an easy task. Sweaty and sore-kneed, however, might be the best way to wade into the salt-rich Dead Sea waters that take away all your weight and worry. Bobbing effortlessly on your back is best done with a handful of “free mud” from the shoreline that can be slathered all over for even more of the minerals’ skin-softening benefits. Underwater swimming isn’t recommended—it’s too salty for anything to even live below the surface—but the high oxygen levels here might elate you enough to coax an attempt.
The local-run Dead Sea Spa Hotel has access to a stretch of Dead Sea beachfront as well as outdoor showers to wash off the salt (you’ll need it) and multiple pool decks for some true swimming once you’re done with the floating mud facial.
Roman Ruins in Amman
Relaxing at the Dead Sea can feel a world away, but in fact it’s just an hour south of bustling Amman. Most international visitors arrive to Jordan through its capital and barely pause before making a break for Petra, the Dead Sea, and the Red Sea resorts of Aqaba. But Amman is just as necessary a stop on the itinerary, in part for its own ruins. You might feel more like you’re in Italy or Greece at the 6,000-seat Roman amphitheater from the second century, the column-strewn Temple of Hercules on the Amman Citdadel hilltop, and on the olive-tree-lined side streets make it easy to forget you’re in the Middle East. The Jordan Museum, Umayyad Palace, and mosques, however, will remind you.
At night, Amman comes alive. Piano music and Elvis tunes fill art cafes and rooftop bars on Rainbow Street, where some of the city’s best views bring together locals and tourists for food, drink, and shisha smoking. Bustling souks near Grand Husseini Mosque stay open late selling spices, crafts, and the traditional red-checkered head wrap keffiyeh. Neon-lined minarets poke out from behind palm trees to ensure everyone hears the call to pray amidst the madness.
Eat at a beloved Rainbow Street spot like Sufra, or go no-frills for cheap, delicious stuffed falafel at Hashem Restaurant downtown. Stop for an ice cream or a traditional knafeh cheese dessert at Habibah Sweets, and don’t be afraid to ask a friendly local for directions around the steep, winding streets. If you’re fit enough to conquer hills, the city center is easily walkable.
A Night on Mars via Wadi Rum
Camping on Mars is possible here on Earth if you count Wadi Rum, the red-sand desert made famous as the setting for movies like Lawrence of Arabia and, much more recently, The Martian. Get away from the city at a Bedouin-run camp nestled in Wadi Rum’s glowing cliffs for the ultimate nomad experience: Stays typically include traditional meals like mansaf—the national dish of Jordan, lamb cooked in yogurt—and zarb, a Bedouin-style barbecue cooked in a pit underground.
Stargazing at Wadi Rum is almost predictably magical, with a depth of constellations and the occasional shooting star turning every city dweller into a kid again. But the unexpected highlight of Wadi Rum (which means Valley of the Moon) comes courtesy of the trekking many opt to do here. Rising with the sun for a four-hour hike before the mercury rises means you’ll have earned your long, peaceful afternoons spent relaxing in the shade, drinking tea with your hosts, and then reading, napping, or rock climbing. Hiking is the only way to access the orange-hued caverns of Wadi Rum’s 270-square-mile protected area, home to ancient cave paintings and fantastical rock formations. Vast, red sand dunes and cracked orange earth as far as the eye can see make it seem as if you’re truly on another planet. The complete quietude in the Valley of the Moon makes it even more otherworldly.
The Lost City of Petra
North of the desert lies the Lost City of Petra, a highlight that draws the most international visitors. One of the official New Seven Wonders of the World, Petra was chiseled entirely out of pink sandstone cliffs some time around the first century before it was annexed by the Roman Empire, then abandoned, and laid empty for centuries. Petra’s towering ruins hid in the Petra Basin’s remote canyons until a Swiss explorer located the Nabatean ruins in 1812.
Petra is truly a city, and perhaps the best example of why hiking is necessary when it comes to to seeing Jordan. You’ll need to explore on foot for a full day at least, climbing steps and mounting trails to see the best ruins. Even if you just want the highlights, you can’t get to Petra’s hand-carved wonders without navigating the Siq, a narrow chasm that winds for a mile before parting to reveal Petra’s most detailed edifice: the Treasury, which never held any treasure. Bedouin tribes believed it did, however, and kept it hidden from the Western world accordingly. Despite its name, the structure is thought to have been built as a mausoleum.
Intrepid’s Trek Jordan itinerary includes two days in Petra for two distinct ways to see the stunning ruins: as the tourists do, and as the Bedouins long have. Day one gives the classic reveal of the Siq, arriving from the main entrance for an easy walk to the iconic Treasury. Day two, however, makes you work for an even more impressive view of it, plus another hidden Petra gem: The Monastery. The Monastery is noticeably larger than the Treasury (above), its doorway alone measuring 26 feet tall.
The Back Route to Petra
The “back route to Petra” starts from Little Petra, a smaller Nabatean archaeological site six miles from the main attraction, and continues along a bite-sized piece of the massive Jordan Trail—yielding incredible canyon views along the way. Nimble goats navigate tiny ledges with their shepherds, in our case a school-aged boy who slipped around smooth cliff faces with bare feet as we trudged down the trails.
Turning a corner to the larger-than-life Monastery feels somehow more satisfying than the first peek at the Treasury, and yields just as many (but this time crowd-free) photos. From the Monastery, hikers head back into central Petra via hundreds of steps chiseled into its pink cliffs—a climb which this route allows you to skip.
From here, don’t miss the added option of a final ascent to see the Treasury from above. After conquering the rugged stretch of steep trail, pay a few dollars for a cold drink at the peak’s Bedouin camp and soak up the bird’s-eye view that reduces the tourists below to ants. You might be lucky enough to have a feline friend follow you in for a nonchalant sun bath, making for a post-climb reward that’s no small pleasure.
Unwind in Madaba
For a cozy end to an exhilarating Jordan travel experience, Madaba is the perfect finishing point. It’s both an understated cityscape and an easier airport access point than busy Amman—which you’ll appreciate before a long flight home.
At the foot of Mount Nebo, another scriptural wonder, Madaba is known for its larger Christian population. Even the mosque here is named after Jesus Christ. Churches and Byzantine art are the highlights, including the mosaic map that dominates the floor of the Church of Saint George—and is one of the oldest remaining depictions of the biblical Middle East. Explore the town square and Archaeological Park, eat plenty of mezze at an intimate spot like Bawabit Madaba, and head to a low-key shisha patio or alfresco hotel bar for some relaxed nightlife. For one last opportunity to soak in a uniquely Jordanian travel experience, the nearby Ma’in Hot Spring draws visitors for waterfalls and thermal pools.
A week of Jordan travel is easily manageable thanks to a new array of local-guided options that clock in around eight days on the ground, but the country will no doubt leave you wanting more. Slow down at the highlights and revel in the small pleasures of your first visit: “A hiker’s paradise” might be a more apt moniker for the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”
More from SmarterTravel:
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- What to Pack for Jordan: 26 Essentials
- Video: A Float in the Dead Sea
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