The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see. - G.K. Chesterton
My very first solo-travel adventure was a study abroad trip to the beautiful land of Jordan! During my undergraduate career, I was studying Arabic for my “Middle East Studies” minor. In order to finish the minor in time, I had to go on the trip. Studying abroad is a great way to travel when you’re young, and especially when you’re still in university. Try to look out for opportunities at your school through its study abroad office.
I traveled to Jordan around late May/early June in 2015. I spent that summer in an apartment with a few other ladies from my university that had gone on the trip as well. We stayed across the street from our school; a small academy named Qasid Arabic Institute in Amman.
The great thing about studying at Qasid was that they didn’t assign any weekend work. This way, we had free time to travel the country. Qasid also organized their own trips and we could pay to join. As locals, the teachers knew the best, must-see spots that some tourists tend to miss when visiting the kingdom. I’m going to tell you about three of my favorite hidden gems in Jordan!
Ajloun Castle, Jordan
This, I would say, is probably one of the better known places that I’m going to name. Ajloun Castle is a must-see for you history buffs. Located in Ajloun, Jordan, this fortress dates back to several hundred years ago. The castle can be found on top of Mount Ajloun, or Jabal Ajloun in Arabic. At one point in time, it was of strategic importance to the military that controlled the area. According to our local guide, the reason why it was so important is because, on a clear day, you can see in all directions the modern-day countries of Syria, Palestine/Israel, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Now, you won’t literally see the countries, but back then, the armies of these lands would be spotted ahead of time because of the castle’s location.
What’s great about this trip is that the tour guides allow you to venture all throughout the castle. Of course, these are ruins, so be careful not to damage the castle or yourself. Having the freedom to explore it does really make the trip that much more exciting, though. Prior to entering the castle, if you’re lucky, some employees might show you how to “dabka,” the dance of many Levantine countries (Palestine, Jordan, Syria, etc), to the beat of a “riq,” a Jordanian traditional tambourine.
This was a free, organized trip as part of an introduction to Qasid. For that reason, I honestly can’t tell you how much anything was or how to get there. We went on rental buses and it took about an hour and a half to reach the castle. However, I’m sure it’s accessible by microbus. Microbuses are found in nearly every city or town in Jordan. It would also cost a lot less than a taxi or Uber drive.
As for food, there is an excellent restaurant along the route to Ajloun! Qasid rented the space out for us students to enjoy. This food was, hands down, some of the best food I have ever had! It was so great, I took a picture of the sign for future reference (see above)! I don’t know the cost of the dishes because, again, Qasid paid for everything. What I can tell you, though, is that it’s probably pretty expensive because the restaurant is marketed as a “tourist” restaurant.
The Mosaic Town of Madaba
Contrary to what you may hear about the Middle East, there are large populations of Arab Christians that inhabit Jordan and other bordering countries. While Muslims are the majority, you can still find many Christians and churches across the countries. In Jordan, there is also the famous town of Madaba. This town is well-known in Jordan for its large Christian population, its beautiful Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics, and the St. George Church. It’s basically an archeological goldmine. The church, which also hosts the shrine of the beheading of John the Baptist, allows tourists to tour the underground chambers unaccompanied. It’s eerily beautiful! The church also allows tourists to (carefully) climb the bell tower, which overlooks the entire town.
I also suggest you visit the Madaba Archeological Park where you will see beautiful remnants of ancient mosaics. Many local shops also sell handmade mosaics for relatively good prices. Some shop owners will haggle with you, so you can try to get yourself a better deal. There are shops selling handmade, woven rugs that are also open to negotiation.
Madaba is well-known among Jordanians, but I barely saw any tourists exploring this ancient town and taking advantage of the beauty and history it boasts. From Amman, you can take a microbus from anywhere between 3-7JD. A group of students and I hopped on a microbus from outside the University of Jordan and it cost us each approximately 4JD, if I remember correctly. I believe the drive there was around an hour. The length of time will shorten or lengthen depending on the amount of stops made by the microbus you’re on.
Madaba is southwest of Amman, towards the Dead Sea. If you’re planning on visiting the Dead Sea anyway, I would make it a point to stop off and check it out. It’s a great place for historical sightseeing and for beautiful, handmade souvenirs. As for food, you can find plenty of restaurants open. Even if you happen to visit during Ramadan, you’ll find a few places that stay open, primarily because the town mostly consists of Christians. There are also lots of shops that sell snacks and bottles of water.
Wadi Mujib, Jordan
I saved the best one for last! By far, this is the best memory I have of Jordan! The Siq Trail of Wadi Mujib is located right next to the Dead Sea, but it is so easy to miss! If I hadn’t heard about this place from a fellow student, I wouldn’t have even known it existed. Wadi Mujib is basically a river that enters the Dead Sea. This river created what can best be described as a park of natural water slides, known as Siq Trail!
Once passing admissions, you enter via a ladder that connects to a pool of water. You swim over until the water is shallow enough to walk. After that, you can hike through the water and over the rocks using the built-in ropes. Because you’re climbing against the water, some areas are dangerous, and the trail itself can be pretty difficult. There are local guides that can help you for an extra cost. At the end of the canyon, you’ll see a beautiful waterfall! The way there is the most time-consuming, but on your way back you can just slide down the rocks you just climbed!
TIP*** You will definitely get wet! Make sure you bring a bathing suit to wear underneath your clothes, and please wear something that will cover you up because you’ll likely get some minor scratches from the rocks without something protecting your skin. I also recommend some sort of water footwear that doesn’t have any holes to allow little rocks and pebbles to get in. I wore some shoes meant for the water, but it turns out there were little holes throughout the top. All the rocks that entered the shoes left my feet scratched and blistered. If you plan to visit the Dead Sea then go there first. DO NOT go through the trail then attempt to enter the sea – like me, you will regret it!
As I mentioned, go prepared with a towel, a change of clothes, a bathing suit underneath some protective clothes (short-sleeves are fine for shirts, but I definitely recommend pants that cover your legs), a protective covering for your phone or camera, and change for admissions. I believe the entrance fee is roughly around 15JD, give or take a few. If you want a guide, you’ll have to pay an extra 20-30JD at admissions. Honestly, the guide isn’t really necessary. My friend and I did just fine on our own. On a less crowded day, the guides post themselves along the route and help you out anyway. I recommend you leave all personal belongings in a car. You can also rent a waterproof bag for around 10JD if that’s not possible.
To find Siq Trail, you will head to the Dead Sea as normal. Once you come across the resorts on your right side, you’ll keep going straight on ahead. It’s about another 10-20 minutes, or somewhere in-between. You’ll pass a checkpoint and it will be on your left shortly after. This area is pretty dead, so you can even access the Dead Sea from the side of the road for free, but just be careful where you step. The trail is best when it’s empty, so definitely go on a weekday when not many people are out. Even if it’s hot out, the shadows of the canyon and the coolness of the water will make you forget the blistering heat!
If you ever find yourself in Jordan, definitely add these places to your must-see list. Let me know if you’ve ever been to these places, or if you plan to add these in your upcoming trip. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter for future updates!