Deserts, dunes and Red Sea: Why there’s so much more to Jordan than Petra

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Wonders of the World have a tendency to hog the spotlight. When most people think of Peru, for example, Machu Picchu automatically floats to the top of imaginations and itineraries alike. The same goes for Rome’s Colosseum, India’s Taj Mahal and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. All are officially among the New Seven Wonders of the World – epic, show-stopping locations that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. 

But aren’t we doing the greater destinations a disservice by always fluttering moth-like towards those brightest of lights? Especially if we don’t bother taking enough time to explore the rest of the country around them?

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I wanted to explore the more secret, lesser-known side of Jordan

This is something I was pondering before a recent visit to Jordan, home to another of the New Seven Wonders – the ancient Nabatean city of Petra.

It was my second visit to the country, and although I was genuinely gobsmacked by the majesty of Petra on my first trip, I wanted to make a point of digging a little deeper this time and explore the more secret, lesser-known side of Jordan beyond its headline act.

The good news? There’s way more to this Middle Eastern country than its antediluvian desert metropolis. On this adventure, I headed south from the bohemian capital of Amman (where I absolutely loved the Beit Sitti cooking school on my last visit), and straight for the Red Sea port of Aqaba at the foot of the country, next to Jordan’s border with Israel.

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My plan was loosely centred on beach time and watersports, but that was before I fell for the bewitching charms of Aqaba’s famous backyard – namely the vast red desert of Wadi Rum.

In old Nabatean, Wadi Rum means “open valley”, but that’s underselling this stellar dunescape in the extreme. Wadi Rum is more like a boundless, ever-shifting red sea of sand, with mountainous islands erupting from its windblown waves as far as the eye can see. 

The entire place bears an uncanny resemblance to Mars, which is no coincidence: it’s doubled for Earth’s neighbour in multiple Hollywood movies, from Red Planet to The Martian (not to mention standing in for Arrakis in the recent Dune films).

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Starring in my very own action film, I elected to quad bike, roaring and bouncing across the restless red dunes with a local Bedouin guide. But however you choose to explore this protected desert wilderness, from hot air balloon to camel back, it’s the kind of place that leaves your mouth ajar as your brain struggles to process the sheer ethereal beauty of everything around you.

The Bedouins themselves are a major part of any visit to Wadi Rum, with their warm, hospitable nature (“welcome” is the first word you’ll hear from all of them), well-honed adventure offerings and comfortable desert camps, many of which now boast Martian-style domes to overnight in

Camping out is a brilliant opportunity to immerse yourself in the Bedouins’ time-honoured culture, from sampling zarb – their delicious meat dish, slow-cooked beneath the ground – to joining traditional dances around the fire.

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But it’s also a great way to unplug and destress beneath blockbuster desert skies. It was here that Lawrence of Arabia felt “shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars” and where travelers have come for centuries to strip the soul back to basics. 

I ended up spending three amazing days in Wadi Rum, before finally making the easy 30-minute drive into Aqaba. This relaxed coastal city is criminally overlooked by most visitors to Jordan, despite its thriving beach scene and immediate access to the warm, welcoming waters of the Red Sea. 

As no river opens into it, the Red Sea is both calm and crystal clear, with an abundance of coral gardens making it an ideal spot for snorkeling and diving. Better still, there’s now an awesome new experience which takes underwater exploration to another level. Sea Trek, which opened last year at Aqaba’s Royal Diving Club, allows you to hike along the sea bed in astronaut-style helmets, getting up close and personal with the colourful sea life, without having to worry about scuba gear, buoyancy – or diving qualifications.

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The food scene in Aqaba is great, too

The adventurous activities came thick and fast in Aqaba, from parasailing and waterskiing to a spice-themed tour of the souk and a James Bond-style gyrocopter flight over the city. It was so close we could shout greetings at the pedestrians below, then clearly see old shipwrecks beneath the glassine waters as we hovered over the water. 

The food scene in Aqaba is great, too, and surprisingly different to my experience of Amman. Down on the coast, seafood takes centre stage, with the city’s signature dish, sayadieh, consisting of delicately spiced fish, served with rice in a moreish onion and tahini sauce. 

When a destination is as luminescent as Petra, it’s hard to see past it. But my second trip to Jordan was just as rewarding as my first, if not more so, as Wadi Rum and Aqaba both exceeded all of my expectations.

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Wonders of the World should only ever be seen as starting points

They say Jordan – traditionally the safest and most peaceful country in the Middle East – is a quiet house surrounded by noisy neighbors. That’s undoubtedly true. But it’s also a quiet house with plenty to shout about beyond its famous sandstone façade. 

The trick, of course, is to stay longer and dive deeper, whether into the dramatic sand dunes and oases of Wadi Rum or the balmy, translucent waters of the Red Sea. Because Wonders of the World – as spectacular and unmissable as they are – should only ever be seen as starting points. And modern Jordan has way more to offer than just Petra. 

Jonathan Thompson is an award-winning journalist, SOLO columnist and presenter of Adventure Cities on the Discovery Channel. 

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Images: Courtesy of Mat Wilder/Heliconia Productions

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