If you’re planning on exploring Jordan properly, prepare to get extremely grubby. A day exploring the desolate, rocky landscape of Wadi Rum leaves your feet and a few inches of trouser leg covered in ancient dust. Tank it over Aqaba’s dunes on a quad bike for an hour or so and you’ll find your hair matted and crunchy with sand. And as for Petra’s archaeological ruins, there’s not a crumbly wall or old monument you can touch that doesn’t leave a piece of itself on your skin. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Jordan’s natural and man-made wonders are characterised by their epic scale (in terms of both size and time) that surely only a few destinations in the world can match. Until recently, the country served as a relatively minor stop on the Middle Eastern tourist trail, but since the Arab Spring rendered much of the region out of bounds, travellers are beginning to treat Jordan as a destination in its own right and taking the time to really explore its ancient history, movie-set scenery and liberal, welcoming culture.
Quad biking in Aqaba
Nothing gives you a sense of place like quad biking in the southern city of Aqaba. Most hotels in the area can arrange for bike hire and transport to a sandy expanse on the coast where you can let rip over the dunes and valleys against the backdrop of the Gulf of Aqaba. For the first half hour, you’ll be concentrating furiously on following dirt tracks and avoiding rocks, dry bushes and sprays of sand. Then once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll probably start driving too fast, testing out just how sturdy the quad bike is, and possibly letting out a few embarrassingly giddy whoops. Finally, you’ll bounce to the top of the highest sand dune you can see, pull off your sweaty helmet and take a look around. That’s the Red Sea right in front of you. Clearly visible on the other side of the water, to your left – Egypt. To your right, that landmass is Israel. And behind you, miles of sand dunes as far as you can see. Feel like you’re in the Middle East now? Good.
Exploring Wadi Rum
Any attempt to describe Wadi Rum inevitably lets it down, as it’s essentially little more than a valley of enormous rocks. But everything about this place, from its dizzying mountain peaks, to its striking palette of Martian pinky-reds against the bright blue sky and the heavy, brain-filling silence that pervades the wadi, genuinely feels otherworldly. There’s plenty of interest here for history buffs - British officer T. E. Lawrence based himself here during the First World War Arab Revolt, and numerous scenes from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ were actually filmed on site. Hiring a 4x4 is the best way to get around as the main sights – prehistoric Nabataean rock carvings, the natural Burdah Rock Bridge, Lawrence’s Spring and numerous fascinating sandstone rock formations – are too far apart to cover on foot. Finish off a day’s adventures here by climbing to the top of Alfla Dune (be warned, this is no mean feat) to watch the sunset. Excursions with Wadi Rum Tours (+962 795 445 966) start at £50 per person.
Ancient history in Petra
A visit to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra is the shivers-down-your-spine, tick-it-off-the-bucket-list adventure that most visitors come to Jordan for. Built in the 6th century BC by the ancient Nabataean people, it was taken over by the Romans in AD106 and the beautiful temples, tombs, sacrificial sites and statues carved into the iconic red stone show the influences of both cultures. Begin by walking through a long passageway called the Siq, where you’ll catch your first glimpse (or your second, if you’ve already seen ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’) of the elaborate and intricately carved Treasury. The path onwards takes you past the Street of Facades, which is lined with statues and tombs, the Roman Theatre, and the Monastery. As Jordan’s biggest tourist attraction, making the most of Petra will take every ounce of energy you’ve got. Along the way, you’ll be forced to fend off hordes of slightly aggro kids selling postcards, dodge donkeys, camels and horses carrying fatigued tourists through the city and take numerous breaks from the scorching heat while absorbing as much of the awe-inspiring scenery as you can. It’s an intense, exhausting, exhilarating experience.
Café culture in Amman
When you’ve soaked up all the history and natural wonders that Jordan has to offer, leave yourself at least an afternoon to hang out in Amman before you fly home. After the epic scenery of the rest of the country, Jordan’s capital feels refreshingly down to earth and small in scale. The city is spread over 19 hills, meaning you get fresh views of boxy white houses, leafy avenues and narrow, chaotic streets round practically every bend. An artsy, creative community is based in Rainbow Street, where you’ll find a great collection of independent galleries and bookshops among all the trendy cafes. Stop into Café des Artistes (+962 6 463 8239) on the main stretch to flick through local magazines, tap up some free wi-fi and take in the flamboyant artwork that covers the walls. Alternatively Books@cafe (+962 6 465 0457) – a bookshop, bar and café rolled into one – is close by on Omar Ibn Al Khattab Street, and is a great spot for a beer on the sunny terrace while mixing with a young Jordanian party crowd.
If you’re prepared to do a bit of driving, Aqaba is a smart place to base yourself during your trip to Jordan. Wadi Rum, Petra and Amman are all within a few hours by road, and the relaxed, seaside atmosphere at the resorts here make Aqaba a good place to unwind after hitting the busy tourist sites. Try Radisson Blu Tala Bay Resort (South Beach Road, +962 3 209 0777), which has pools, a gorgeous beach, cooking demonstrations, and fitness classes to keep you occupied during your downtime. Rooms start from £88
Bmi flies direct to Amman from London Heathrow, with return fares starting at £401.