After Birthright ended it was time go exploring. After spending a few more nights in Israel, I headed to Jordan with Lionel (a friend from Birthright) to see one of the most beautiful man made places in the world, Petra.
After doing a bit of research, the border crossings seem to be the biggest challenge in making the trip to Petra. Jordan and Israel have been at peace for over 15 years, but one of the main crossings, the Allenby Bridge (King Hussein Bridge), goes directly through the west bank. Not wanting to put ourselves at risk or potentially face a 5 hour border crossing, we opted to cross the border in the south of Israel at Eilat. On the Jordanian side is the up and coming town of Aqaba. Aqaba is a perfect refuge for sun seekers, snorkelers, and scuba divers. From Aqaba we would journey to and from Petra and back to Israel.
With our route decided we left early in the morning from our friend Shimon’s home in Ashqelon, which is a mere 15 kilometers from Gaza and where we got to see one of Israel's Iron Dome systems. Our first bus went to Be’er Sheva, the most rapidly growing city in Israel, and from there we caught the second bus to Eilat for a total of 84 NIS (shekels) each. *A full account of our expenses minus food/gifts can be found at the bottom of the post.
After arriving in Eilat there were three options to getting to the border crossing – walk, hitchhike, or catch a cab. We were hoping to make it all the way to Petra, but the last bus leaves at 1 (or like all buses in Jordan, it leaves when it gets full so you never know). We decided to go for it and split a cab to the border for 30 NIS.
Arriving at the border crossing
Leaving Israel we each paid a 104 NIS exit fee and before I could protest we had our passports stamped (to my dismay). At the time I didn’t want to receive any type of stamp in case I visited an Arab country not friendly towards Israel. I later learned that you can tell I visited Israel by my entrance stamp to Jordan so it didn’t matter.
The best thing about using the southern border crossing is that you don’t have to pay for a Jordanian visa. Jordan does this in order to promote commerce and travel to Aqaba. After the breezy walk across the border we were in Jordan. We got our passports stamped, exchanged a bit of money, and had a fun conversation with some guards who spoke no English. I think one has a brother in LA and another an uncle in New York. After going through my routine of “I’m from Chicago, you know Michael Jordan,” we listened to the guards ramble on and joke with smiles on our faces until we decided it was time to go.
Outside the gate was a sign showing the prices for rides to Petra, Amman, and Aqaba. We were running late and I was preparing myself to take spending the night in Aqaba instead of Petra in stride. The first cab driver approached us and asked us where we were going. I responded saying Aqaba, but as the driver probably faces several tourists a day his instincts said we were going to Petra. He countered with an offer to take us on the 1.5 hour drive for 45 JD (Jordan Dinars – worth a bit more than the Euro).
It was 10 JD cheaper than posted on the sign, but if someone starts to offer me a deal I usually try to get it for less. I countered with 40 and stood firm. The driver turned to the other drivers and after some conversing in Arabic we had a different taxi agree to take us for 40 JD. In the end we just wanted to get there, the buses may have stopped running, and the price was okay combined with the cheaper cost of the hostel near Petra. So we were off!
Wadi Musa & Little Petra
Outside Petra is the town called Wadi Musa. Many places around Jordan include the term “Wadi” meaning valley. There are multitudes of beautiful hikes through the valleys in Jordan and they are on my list if I make it back to Jordan. After almost 2 hours in the cab we arrived at the Saba’a Hotel (9 JD a night) in Wadi Musa, a 15 minute uphill walk from the entrance to Petra.
After exiting the car and refusing to pay a deposit to ensure a cheaper return ride to Aqaba (a deposit for a cab in a foreign country, I’ll keep my 10 JD thank you), we entered into the hostel to be greeted by a lovely elderly woman from the UK. Her daughter, Gail, and son-in law, Ibraham who is from Wadi Musa, own the hotel. After two cups of tea and a sack lunch we took Ibraham up on his offer to visit Little Petra for the remaining hour of daylight.
Taking off in his little car, Ibraham sped us through the curvy roads of Wadi Musa to Little Petra. Upon arriving, we decided to pay a young man for a quick tour through the area. I don’t remember much of anything he said. In all honesty I couldn’t really understand anything he said, but the scenery was unlike anything I had ever seen. Nothing could have made me more excited for Petra the next day.
After a meal of mansaff at a restaurant back in Wadi Musa we were off to bed in preparation of an all day extravaganza in Petra. We were told that it takes most people two days to see everything, so we were gearing up to see if we could do it one.
Walking through the entrance gate of Petra (paying the 50 JD, wow!) I had no idea what I was in store for. After the gate we walked about 25 minutes down a dirt road. First we passed several Jordanians with horses and donkeys trying to convince us to take rides into Petra. Moving past them we walked on a cobbled lime stone path through walls of rock, a passageway called the Siq, until we were shot into an open area right in front of the treasury.
I was disappointed when we didn't walk through the open treasury door to enter into the rest of Petra. Instead, we journeyed around towards the right to begin the rest of our approximately 17 mile walk/hike through Petra. The idea of carving a city out of rock faces is astounding. Walking through the ruins I was in often left standing in awe, trying to soak up the breathtaking sights.
Here are a few of my highlights through the 8 hours day in Petra.
- Getting lost on a side trail only to be saved by an old woman climbing down from Wadi Musa to her shop in Petra where she sells trinkets to tourists.
- Climbing the 800 steps (it really didn’t feel like that much) to Ad-Deir (the monastery) and seeing the view over Jordan.
- Taking a hike along a pass over the royal tombs that brought us to an overlook above the treasury. We spent a long time trying to find a way down and to our disappointment had to return the way we came. After returning we had a chance to look at the map once more and see that the path doesn't actually go all the way down. I'm glad we didn't try to find our own descent.
Walking out I was drained after such a long day of awesome exploration. Luckily on the way back Ibraham spotted us on the side of the road and gave us a ride up the hill back to the hostel.
Back to Israel
The next morning we caught the first bus (7 JD) out of Wadi Musa to Amman in the morning. We decided it was worth it to see the capital city and experience the border crossing through the west bank on the way back to Israel. When we arrived we got a cab from the station into the city to our hostel (5 JD). After dropping our bags off we looked up touristy things to do in Amman and left to find some lunch.
Our joint lunch of two falafel sandwiches came with an extra bag of falafel and cost 1.20 JD (under 2 bucks!). After refilling and walking around, both Lionel and I were a bit underwhelmed and felt an inexplicable need to see if we could make it back to Israel that day.
Returning to the hostel we still had to pay the fee for the night (5 JD) and then made contact with our Israeli friend Yonatan who would be picking us up at the bus station to stay at his kibbutz. Since it was after 2pm the only way to the border was by taxi (35 JD). 50 minutes into the ride we started seeing signs for the border, but before we reached it our cab driver pulled over next to 6 waiting cabs. I think there is an understood rule of who can drive to the border between cab drivers. We got out and got into a new cab, while our first driver paid the second a couple of dinars. 7 minutes later we were at the border.
With high walls, barbed wire, multiple checkpoints, and various patrolling guards with guns, the Allenby Bridge/King Hussein Bridge border crossing was a stark contrast to its sunny southern counterpart. We paid the 10 JD exit fee and jumped on the bus to take us across (8.5 JD).
Upon arriving at the Israeli checkpoint we went through customs with zero problems. I expected the bus to take us further towards Jerusalem, but it stopped just across into the west bank and we had to catch a group taxi into Jerusalem (47 NIS). We got dropped off quite suddenly and apparently in a random location next to another cab. As he was the only one around he made us pay a hefty price to be taken to the central bus station in Jerusalem (100 NIS for a 7 minute ride).
Back in civilization we took the bus to Kiryat Gat (26 NIS) and were met by our friend Yonatan, one of the Israeli soldiers who we met on Birthright. He took us to his kibbutz, Beit Nir, where we were fed by his wonderful mother and met many of his great friends. Falling asleep we were both happy we made the effort to return to Israel.
*What I paid to visit Petra:
It was an amazing experience and worth the money, even on such a short venture. I shall have to return to Jordan one day to explore the countryside that is riddled with beautiful valleys. Now, back in Israel it is time to figure out what comes next.