Updated: Jan 14, 2021
Visiting Petra in Jordan was a dream of mine for a very long time, but until recently, I had this idea in my mind that the whole middle east was this big 'no go' zone for someone LGBT+…
I didn’t know anyone who had visited the region nor had I seen many travel vlogs on the country. So I decided instead to travel to Tel Aviv, Israel and book a tour to Jordon from there (Tel Aviv was, and still is, considered a safe haven in the Middle East for the LGBT+ community). This was in my mind at the time a much ‘safer’ option than flying directly into Jordan and staying there. (Don't worry - I will detail my trips to Tel Aviv and Israel generally in a later post!)
Myself and a female friend booked a 3-day tour with Tourist Israel (https://www.touristisrael.com/), at a price of €500pp. Included in this price was all transport costs, one night in a 3 star hotel in Wadi Musa, one night in a desert camp tent in Wadi Rum, a meal in each accommodation, and a lunch on the first day.
The tour began in Tel Aviv, with pick up at 4am outside the Hilton hotel in the north of the city. There were about 25 people in our tour group. From there it took us across Palestine to the Jordan River/Sheikh Hussein Crossing.
Crossing the Israeli–Jordanian border
If you do choose to do a tour starting in Israel, be prepared… the Border crossing can take up to two hours. We arrived to the border around 7am; you have to get off and on the bus about 4 times. After you get your Israeli exit stamp you’re loaded back onto the bus and ferried to the next building which is where you get the Jordanian Visa stamp.
Because we were there as part of a tour, there were no “What is the purpose of your travel” type questions (and no one on our tour had any problems); however they do have a flick through your passport. We were through and all back on the bus about an hour and half later.
A member of the Jordanian tourist police will board the bus once on the Jordanian side of the crossing. He is armed and stays with the group for the entire journey (coming from Ireland where police are not armed, this can seem a little strange!) But it is not something to be fearful about; he is only there for added security. Attacks on tourists are extremely rare in Jordan (2 in the past 10 years)
*Important notes for pre-departure & border crossing*
· Make sure you go to an ATM before you board the bus as there is rarely a chance to get to one once over the border and paying by card is not a thing outside of the capital city in Jordan. Make sure you have enough for the border crossing fees at the end of the trip too, (105 New Israeli Shekel exiting Israel and 10 Jordanian Dinar exiting Jordan)
· Make sure you have full charge on your devices because it’ll be over 12 hours before you find a place to charge them.
· Be sure to pop into an AM:PM (Similar to 7/11) store before you depart to pick up snacks and plenty of water.
· If you haven’t been to an Asian country before, majority of the time they do not have toilet paper, it’s a hose… If you’re uncomfortable with this bring along some toilet paper!
With the border crossing finished we headed south, towards the small town of Jerash, arriving there around 9am. This town was my first look at life in Jordan, my first time truly stepping off the bus into the country that I knew so little about. The first thing that hit me…. THE HEAT. I made the mistake of going to Jordan at the end of August / start of September. (It’s recommended that you go in the cool months like spring or late autumn). It was around 42 degrees Celsius, and coming from Ireland I had never in my life been somewhere so hot - I felt like I was in a sauna.
The town of Jerash is home to the magnificent and one of best preserved Greco-Roman ancient cities, it’s nicknamed the “Pompeii of the East” and because the vast majority of visitors to Jordan bypass Jerash and head straight to Amman, the capital city or directly to Petra, Jerash is rarely busy. So think Pompeii but with only 30 other people there). Some of the best preserved sites at Jerash is the Arch of Hadrian, which was built in 129AD to honour the visit of Emperor Hadrian to Gerasa. An extremely long colonnaded street connecting to an oval plaza completely lined with columns and two ancient theatres.
*Important notes for Jerash*
· There are toilets at the visitor centre and there is another set of toilets close to the Southern Theatre. You can also find cafes and places to grab a snack in the visitor centre.
· Jerash is not a religious site, so if you’re going in the summer months dress for the weather, of course within reason as you’re still in a Muslim country, so long trousers and a top (I will post next week on appropriate clothing for travelling in the Middle East).
· Make sure you bring good walking shoes and plenty of water. The Ancient city is almost as large as the town of Jerash itself, so be prepared to do a lot of walking over uneven ground.
· There are the typical tourist shops inside the visitor centre (confession - I did buy a baseball cap with the Jordanian flag on it here), and lots of teenagers walking around selling postcards. They can be quite pushy, but just stand your ground if you do not want anything.
After around 3 hours in Jerash. We were back on the bus and off to our second stop of the day. The journey time from Jerash to Madaba is roughly an hour and 20 minutes. Our route took us around the outskirts of Amman, showing you what the Jordanian equivalent of a western suburb would be like, and boy, was it a world away from home!!
Arriving into the City of Madaba around 1:30, we unloaded the bus in the car park of the visitor centre; and set off on foot to the St. Georges Greek Orthodox Church. Madaba, is famous for its Byzantine and Umayyad era mosaics, the most famous of which is a very large mosaic map of the holy land in the Greek Orthodox Church. This short 5 minute walk from the Visitor centre to the Church holds one of my favourite memories from my trip.
On a small seemingly unexciting street corner was a small shop selling dried fruits and sweets. This little old woman walked out and with a massive tray larger than her, stacked high with Dried Jordanian Medjool dates. She wanted no cash in return, simply for us to taste them (a smart marketing ploy on her behalf because almost all of us headed inside to pick up a bag of dates for ourselves.) This was my first time tasting Medjool dates. It was so chewy and tasted like caramel, absolutely amazing.
As the Orthodox Church is a religious site, you must be dressed accordingly. For men, that’s long trousers so your knees are covered and a t-shirt or shirt. For women, long trousers and a top that covers your shoulders or a shawl or a light scarf to drape over your shoulders. The grounds of the Church and inside have a sense of calm. It is also still in use as a church so there may be people inside praying, therefore it is important to speak in low hushed voices and be respectful for those who may be there. After roughly an hour and a half in Madaba, we headed to the next stop, Mount Nebo, a short 20 minute drive from Madaba.
*Important notes for Medaba*
· There are toilets just next to the visitor centre car park, however the next stop is only a 20 minute drive so don’t worry.
· Make sure you conduct yourself in a respectful manner while at the Orthodox Church and give way to locals who may be coming and going to the Church.
Mount Nebo has a strong religious significance for multiple religions. In the Hebrew Bible it is the place where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land. Christian tradition states Moses was buried on the mountain and some Islamic traditions also state the same. The site was even visited by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
From the summit of the mountain, on a clear day (which I was lucky to have when I visited) you can see the valley of the River Jordan which you crossed over earlier at the border, the Palestinian city of Jericho, and even Jerusalem some 40km away.
The site also has numerous art pieces, sculptures and even an olive tree planted by Pope John Paul II. Be sure to check them out if you’ve time.
As you would expect for a religious site, the area is extremely well preserved and inside the Church you step up onto raised platforms to view the beautiful mosaic floors below. Similar to Medaba, conservative clothing is best here, with knees and shoulders covered.
After about an hour and 30 minutes we left Mount Nebo, we stopped at a mosaics shop just down the road. It is here that I have my biggest regret from my trip – so don't you make the same mistake! Inside the store there were young Jordanian men making handmade mosaic pieces, from small coasters to large dining room tables. If you buy a piece the Jordanian government pays for shipping to your home country. I set my eyes on a small round patio table that was within my budget. I decided against it, but to this day I wish I did buy it. There is a small shop next door to the mosaic shop to pick up food and drinks. This is the last chance before a 4 hour 30 minute drive through the desert to the hotel for the night.
*Important Notes for Mount Nebo & Journey to Wadi Musa/ Petra*
· As I’ve mentioned, conservative dress is essential.
· There are toilets to the left as you enter the site from the car park (there are also more at the mosaics shop down the road) these are the last chance you have to go for a couple of hours.
· The site has a calm atmosphere (as you’d expect for such an important religious site) so try to speak in a low voice and avoid shouting.
· It begins to get dark around 7pm, meaning 2 hours of the journey are in pitch black darkness. The road is one long highway through the desert (it’s not called the desert highway for nothing)
· We had one stop halfway at this random furniture store that was literally in the middle of nowhere – good for a toilet break and to re-stock snack and water supplies.
Petra / Wadi Musa
Arriving into the town of Wadi Musa at around 9pm, which is the town in which the entrance to the ancient city of Petra is, we checked into our hotel for the night which was the Alanbat Hotel and had a late dinner and a beer (Yes, beeeeer!! Alcohol is legal in Jordan however it is EXTREMELY expensive…)
I was travelling with a friend so we had a room together. If you do this tour on your own you have the option to be assigned a room with another solo traveler on the tour to lower the cost, or you can have a room to yourself by paying slightly more.
In the morning, we were up and having breakfast at 7:30am and ready to head to the main event, One of the 7 new Wonders of the World; PETRA. The entrance and visitor centre are located right next to the Movenpick Hotel. This is where I found the first ATM since leaving Israel. It was deep inside the Movenpick Hotel and was probably the slowest ATM I'd ever used…
We had 8 hours inside the Petra site, which may sound like an absolute ton of time to do it, but the site itself is absolutely massive and can take up to 3 hours to get to the furthest point and 3 hours back to the gate. If you’ve rented a car and have the time I would recommend spending two days doing Petra. There is even a night time candle-light experience for Petra.
The walk to the Treasury (which is the image you're most likely to see when you google Petra) takes you through a winding gorge, called the Siq. No matter how prepared you think you are to see it, it will take your breath away when it begins peering out from behind the tunnel walls.
There are many sites to see in Petra so make a plan before you go of the main ones you want to see, so that you don’t waste any time deciding while there. I highly recommend taking the time to go to the furthest site
e, called the Monastery. It’s difficult to get to, up very uneven rocky steps and it can take over an hour, but it is SO worth it. I was drastically unprepared for the hike up - I didn’t bring enough water and literally nearly died from the heat (41C). Learn from my mistake and bring enough water!! At least I had good solid shoes on…
Once at the Monastery you can go even further up to a ledge, I didn’t go because the hike up nearly murdered me but others from my tour did and they said it was amazing. Bonus – I'm told that there is a young Bedouin man up there who gives you a cup of Bedouin tea and chats with you. It sounds amazing and I'll 100% be doing that the next time I go.
Important notes for Petra:
· Petra is EXTREMELY busy. This shocked me because I had seen so few tourists the whole trip then BAM they’re all there. If you’re travelling with children or vulnerable people keep an eye on them, because there is no cell service in the desert.
· If you’re going in the summer months like I did, be prepared for it to be as hot as the surface of the sun…. A battery powered hand held fan or a Spanish fan (heyyy) is a good idea to keep cool.
· BRING LOADS OF WATER, I cannot stress this enough. I brought 4 litres and that was not enough I ended up buying 2 more litres of overpriced water inside the site. Don't let dehydration ruin your vacation!! But really, hydration is critical in these desert conditions.
· SUNCREAM, sunglasses and a sunhat. Nothing can ruin your day more than a bad sunburn.
· Watch your footing when walking as the ground is very uneven and rocky. A sprained ankle or worse, a broken ankle would end your trip there and then.
· There are snakes and scorpions about, so avoid putting your fingers and hands into cracks or holes in the rocks (that said, the only snake I saw was being thrown about by Bedouin children…)
· There are small stalls selling trinkets along the route - you can buy from them at your own discretion. Do not buy any type of Arabic daggers or swords. This can cause all sorts of issues back at the Israeli border (trust me, a couple on my tour did and then tried to conceal them in their luggage… it was a big mess).
· Don’t pack too much into your time, you want to be able to have a little photo shoot for the ‘gram and then take some time to truly take it all in.
· The sand in Jordan has a reddish colour to it and the dry air and wind is extremely dusty, be prepared to always be covered in dust and for your shoes to be stained red.
· There are toilets and places to get food and water scattered throughout the site.
After setting off from Wadi Musa / Petra at around 4:30pm, we headed back on the desert highway and headed south towards the red sands of Wadi Rum desert. This journey is close to 2 hours long through the most barren, dry landscape I’ve ever seen, sprinkled with the odd Bedouin tent.
We arrived at camp around 7pm, our accommodation for the night?... A tent. I wouldn’t call this the same type of tent you bring to a festival, nor would I call it a glamping type tent. It was somewhere in-between. We threw our bags in our tent, and quickly climbed up the rock cliff in front of the camp to watch the sunset. I will never forget the sun setting over the rocky red land in the Jordanian desert.
Later that night we all gathered around to watch how our dinner was being made, the traditional Bedouin way, in a big pit in the ground. The meal is mostly meat, spices and rice. There was beer available here but it was about the equivalent of €16 a bottle!, so we each only had one for obvious reasons. That night was spent filled with laughter and conversation with our fellow tour members as we all sat around a fire pit, a truly magical experience (what wasn’t magical was that the tents had no fans, only one socket so we had to choose who had the best phone camera to win charging rights, and you could hear EVERYTHING coming from the other tents).
At 8am, we were up for a beautiful buffet style outdoor breakfast, before piling into the back bed of 4 pickup trucks and speeding off into the Jordanian desert. Wadi Rum is famous for its red sand and Mars like landscape (remember how I said the sand at Petra stained your shoes? Well here it stains your skin). It’s where many movies such as Transformers, The Martian and most famously, Laurence of Arabia have been shot.
After 2 hours driving in the desert, climbing dunes and exploring rocky crevasses, we headed back to camp to grab our belongings before venturing to the southern coastal city of Aqaba.
Important notes for Wadi Rum
· Sun cream and a sunhat are essential because as you’d expect there is absolutely no shade in the desert. (Some of the pickup trucks have a cloth shade roof, ours did not)
· The sand is red, and will permanently stain your shoes. I would strongly advise against wearing shoes that you love. (Definitely do not wear flip flops, the sand is scorching hot)
· Similarly to Petra, if you’re climbing the rocky hills, be sure not to put your hand into cracks because there are snakes and scorpions lurking about.
Upon arrival in Aqaba, we had 4 hours free time here. First we went to a bank to change some dollars into Jordanian Dinar (myself and others on the tour had spent what we brought for the border tax on water). This was a stressful experience as the bank wouldn’t let us convert our cash without letting them take a photocopy of our passports. This caused a lot of tension and wasted over an hour of our time in Aqaba (in the end we let them photocopy them; I guess I’ll never know why they needed that). A small group of us went for lunch and then just lounged around and chatted. However Aqaba has lots of things to do and see. It has some really beautiful beaches, the 6th largest flag and flag pole in the world, the Sharif Hussein bin Ali Mosque, and Aqaba Heritage Museum to name a few.
We were picked up at 6pm and ferried to the border crossing. On the Jordanian side they simply stamp your passport with an exit stamp. However the Israeli side is a whole different ball game. Be prepared for intense scrutiny on your trip - where you’re staying, purpose of travel and have your travel documents ready to show. After the border we were brought back to Tel Aviv arriving back at around 11pm.
Important Notes for Aqaba:
· If you have your Jordanian Dinar for the border crossing already you can avoid the mess I had of having to go to a bank and you’ll have more time to do an activity in Aqaba and get the most out of your trip.
· As Aqaba is a coastal city and is full of resorts and hotels, you’ll see a lot more westerners dressed in more casual beach attire. To avoid any unwanted attention, it is best not to wear revealing clothes unless you’re on the beach.
*Overall Notes for the LGBTQ+*
This maybe surprising to many but homosexuality was legalised in Jordan in 1951. However, this sadly does not mean you can be openly gay in public as there are ‘public morality’ laws. Jordan is also the home to the Arab world’s first LGBTQ online magazine by activist Khalid Abdel-Hadi. Below are some tips on how to be safe in Jordan:
· To avoid any unwanted attention, or to attract the attention of the Tourism Police (under the public morality laws) it is best to avoid any show of affection to members of the same-sex in public (including handholding, hugging or PDA)
· It is common in Islamic and Middle Eastern cultures for men of family relationship to hold hands. This is a cultural thing and is NOT an invitation for us to do the same.
· Normally if you’re members of the same sex you’ll automatically be assigned a twin room in hotels, its best to just take this and not ask for a double bed (you can always just push the single beds together yourselves when in the room – where there's a will there's a way!)
· Dress in a conservative manner, as with all countries in the Middle East bar one (Israel) this is an Islamic society. This means the best attire is trousers or jeans to cover your knees, men in the Middle East rarely, if ever wear shorts, this is a very western trend, Jeans or trousers is recommended. In more tourist areas like Petra and Wadi Rum, shorts that reach the knee are okay. For your top, any kind of t-shirt or button down shirt is recommended. For women, trousers, jeans or long summer dresses / skirts that go below the knee. Women should also cover your cleavage and ideally your shoulders. A shawl or light scarf is essential for the times you may need to cover your shoulders or hair.
· For those of us in the community who are quite flamboyant, caution should be exercised when in public or when interacting with locals (I am quite a camp man, and there is no way to hide that). That said, all the Jordanians I met were extremely friendly and loved welcoming people to their country. Just keep your attire on the more conservative end.
· Dating apps such as Grindr and Tinder do work in Jordan; however I wouldn’t recommend using them to meet up with people to stay on the safe side. Grindr will give you a warning on using it in Jordan each time you open the app, turning off the distance can also be a good idea.
· If you’re staying in Amman, the café/ bar Books@Cafe is a well-known LBGT hangout and even becomes a club on the weekends. If you are looking to get into the underground gay scene, this is a good place to start.