I spent two full days in southern Jordan on a loosely-packaged deal from Israel, which included assistance with the border crossing (more essential on the Jordan side than the Israeli one), an overnight stay in the center of Aqaba, a guided group tour to Petra, and a guided small-group tour to Wadi Rum.
Petra ♥♥♥ is well deserving of its selection as one of the New Wonders of the World. It is a humongous site that is full of impressive features. There is no way to cover all of the main points of interest in a single day – and I only had about 5 hours, all things considered. But the main highlights can be managed in that time box, including the Treasury, the Royal Tombs, the Temples, and one or two elevated viewpoints. It is a pretty crowded destination, as you would expect from an attraction of this high profile; too many trinkets-sellers as well; but on balance, a must-see in one’s lifetime.
It is a long walk through the canyon from the visitor center to the heart of the ancient city (and eventually, back) – no less than 20 minutes for the most athletic of visitors, so plan your time accordingly. You can make part of this distance on horse (nominally free, but tipping is practically compulsory), and then on a horse-driven carriage (not too expensive). But the latter will be a very bumpy ride, and you will miss some of the interesting features of the canyon. Once at the site, the distances from the Treasury to the Royal Tombs and Temples, and beyond, are also non-trivial. You can hire a donkey as a sort of taxi for a very nominal fee; there are also camel rides offered from the Treasury area.
Having a guide in your employ is a good idea – otherwise, you are likely to miss some of the context and details. Not all guides are made equal, but in this particular instance, it is better to have a mediocre one than none at all. Structuring your visit so that you’ll have at least a couple of hours of free time after the conclusion of the guided tour is the best approach.
There are a couple of buffet restaurants inside the ancient Petra, which are located deep into the city beyond the Temples – a couple of kilometers from the Treasury at the canyon mouth. If your time in Petra is limited and has to include a meal at one of these, you have to carefully consider at which point of your visit to stop for food, in order to avoid unnecessary long trips back and forth.
My guided driving tour of Wadi Rum ♥♥♥ included a stop in the main village and the ruins of the Nabatean temple nearby, the “movie shot” point where a single tree guards the mouth of the desert valley, the caravan way station at Lawrence Spring (where a camel ride was an activity on offer for an additional fee), a small climbable mountain in the middle of the desert with 360° views, and another climbable point called the Little Bridge. Fantastic and otherworldly landscapes all around, made more immense by the tiny dots of people, vehicles, and camels in the distance.
There was also lunch in the mountain shade at the end of the touring program, prepared by our guide. One of the most serene meals that I ever had outdoors.
At the visitor center of Wadi Rum, if you come without a guide, you can easily hire a bedouin with his own vehicle, who will give you a tour of the desert very similar to my itinerary. The main note of caution here comes from whether you’d prefer to be riding in the desert in an open vehicle, or in the comfort of an air-conditioned one. I was at first disappointed when I learned that my ride (arranged in advance as part of the package deal) was in a regular SUV, but the sand and the wind would probably make an open vehicle a lot more uncomfortable to ride.
I only had a couple of evening hours to explore the central part of Aqaba, which is full of eateries, shops, hotels, and various tourist services. The city is clearly built on tourism, and many Europeans are around; the feel remains undeniably Oriental, but bustling in a tourist-focused way. In the morning, I had a look at the city from the hotel rooftop open terrace – Aqaba is big enough without many eye-catching features, so likely that the central area where I stayed is the only part of town worth exploring.
The tour was organized by DesertEcoTours (link) on one of their more standard packages; they offer many customizations. The trip was not without small hiccups, which was probably unavoidable with a venture that required nearly a dozen handovers in the space of two days, but overall it felt relatively well organized.
I never considered self-touring in Jordan – and I certainly do not recommend self-driving. There are too many police checkpoints everywhere that will quickly become a big nuisance if you are not driven by a local. If you are crossing the border from Eilat, there is a large parking lot outside the crossing where you can safely leave your car.
Crossing the border in either direction is a multi-step process on each side, with the passport inspected several times, Israeli guards questioning you in a somewhat random manner, and pieces of paper issued at one point and then taken away at another. On the Jordanian side, all was smoothed by an agent of the touring company; on the Israeli side, I was largely on my own. I suspect that the procedure is less nervy if you cross on the tour bus.
On one of the nights, I lodged at the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp outside of Petra. The camp is simply mesmerizing at night since the nearby rock outcropping is lit by hundreds of lights. The regular room is but a square tent fitting one large bed, a nightstand, a few hooks, and nothing else. Showers and toilets are shared with the entire camp. The bed has four blankets on top of one another, which may be excessive for some and welcome by others as it gets rather chilly throughout the night. Sound isolation is non-existent, as you would expect in a tent. Wi-Fi only works in the designated area, and outlets to charge electronics are only available there as well. Dinner and breakfast are buffet-style, a much smaller choice than at a hotel but sufficient on balance. You can get unlimited hot sweet tea in the communal central area that surrounds a campfire – a wonderful place to spend time after dinner. Overall, a fun experience that keeps a good balance between rustic and comfortable.