One week in Jordan – driving from Madaba to the Red Sea via Petra

In honour of my friend Paula being back in Europe, on a flying visit from New Zealand her adopted home, we decided to do a one week road trip around Jordan. Here’s the highlights!

Hiring a car in Jordan

Hiring a car in Jordan is definitely the way to travel the country and even if you’re on a backpacker budget, it’s still affordable. It cost around £120 for a week’s hire. Originally I’d planned the trip using buses (and some shared taxi’s to go where buses don’t) and while travelling around Jordan by bus would have been simple enough, I decided a car would give us far more flexibility and allow us to stop and admire the scenery.

Although Jordanian drivers don’t exactly follow the road rules that we’re used to in Europe, I still found them to be courteous drivers and it was simple enough to pick up (and follow) the local road practices.

Jordan Pass

It’s definitely worth buying the Jordan Pass, which is a prepayment of the Jordan Entry Visa (the visa is then automatically given at the airport) but also covers entry to Petra, the famous must-see ancient Nabean rock city, as well as several other tourist attractions. The cost of the Pass is cheaper than buying the Visa and the Petra entrance separately, so I would recommend buying this in advance.

Easy one week Jordan driving itinerary in a rental car

Day one – landing at Queen Alia Airport

The car pick up, even arriving at 11pm on a cheap London Luton to Amman flight, was simple and by midnight we were in our hotel in Madaba, an easy 20 minutes drive.

Day two – Madaba to Dana by car

There’s lots to see in Madaba but with a busy day ahead of us we opted for a quick walk through town and a look at the ancient mosaic in St George’s Church, the oldest map of Palestine in existence which was once 15 to 25 meters long and six meters wide.

A twenty minute drive took us to Mount Nebo, where Moses stood to view the sacred Promised Land before his death. From here we had our first sight of the Dead Sea down on the plains below, as well as a direct view over to the Holy city of Jerusalem in Israel.

Next stop was Umm Ar-Rassas, a jumble of ruins which was once a Roman military camp, then a Christian site of worship and later an Islamic center. We continued on to reach Kerak Castle, a Crusader stronghold from the 12th century. It is one of the largest remaining crusader castles in the Middle East and was an important centre of power for the crusaders, as well as a major trading stop.

Before that though we had one of the best scenic sections of the Kings Highway, tackling the steep zigzag road down into Wadi Mujib canyon then all the way back up again on the other side.

The Kings Highway is an ancient trading route or Roman Road. It’s a slower road than the Desert Highway to the east (used by truck drivers and badly potholed) or the Dead Sea Highway to the west. However it’s picturesque with some fantastic views, as well as passing through small and large Jordanian settlements. Just after sunset, we arrived into Dana Biosphere, a few houses built into the rock far below the Kings Highway.

We were excited to stay at Hobbit Village, three hobbit style “houses” built by four brothers, a short walk from the village. Their mother cooks the evening meal (and breakfast) and they carry it down the path and serve it to guests over a roaring fire.

Day three – Shobak castle and Little Petra, exploring the Kings Highway in Jordan

The main attraction in Dana is a day hike to Feynan. We didn’t have time to do this but after breakfast and rosemary fragranced black tea (a Jordanian staple) we enjoyed a one hour hike to appreciate the fantastic views.

A two-hour drive led to Shobak castle, another Crusader castle, perched high on a hill just off the Kings Highway. We were virtually the only visitors and enjoyed a scramble around the castle ruins, trying to guess what it looked like in its heyday. At the cafe by the carpark, we enjoyed a fantastic mezze style lunch and of course a cardamom flavoured coffee served Arabic style (half the cup is coffee grounds!) which I seem to have developed a taste for now.

Soon after, we turned off the Kings Highway onto the back road to Little Petra. Here the landscape changed again. Still rocks but different rocks!! It’s free to look around Little Petra, just a few kilometres from the main Petra sight and we had the canyon virtually to ourselves, marvelling over the carved facades and small chambers hidden inside. The canyon ends with a steep climb to a dramatic viewpoint and of course a Bedouin tea shop and souvenir point, where we decided it would be rude not to stop and enjoy a hot beverage!

We spent the night in Wadi Musa, a modern and quite relaxed town outside the main entrance to Petra.

Day four – exploring Petra via the back door hike to the Monastery

Petra was the capital of the ancient Nabatean people, who carved this beautiful atmospheric city out of pink and red sandstone, giving it the moniker “the pink city”. After being taken over by the Romans and the Byzantines, the city was abandoned (apart from the local Bedouin tribe) until a Swiss explorer “discovered” it in 1812. Within 140 years the Thomas Cook Holiday Company was offering tours (cave or tent accommodation only!) and today Petra is the key reason most travellers come to Jordan.

First thing in the morning a taxi took us back to Little Petra, ready to tackle a two hour hike to the Monastery, one of Petra’s main sights. This is known as the “Petra back door hike” as you enter Petra at the furthest point away from the entrance. It’s still another two hour walk from the Monastery to the main entrance though! That’s if you walk directly there – we took around 5 hours to get there, looking at all the amazing rock facades and buildings on the way.

After climbing down a long rock staircase from the Monastery, lined with souvenir stalls (look out for the constant parade of donkeys going up or down carrying weary tourists), there is the Castle and the Grand Temple, the Theatre and a collection of Royal Tombs, and then finally, the piece de resistance, the Treasury. This is the infamous Petra sight, featured in the Indiana Jones movie.

Day Five – the High Sacrifice trail at Petra and arriving at Wadi Rum desert

We’d purchased a Jordan Pass giving us two-day access to Petra, so we went back in for the morning to tackle the High Sacrifice trail. It’s a steep climb from the main thoroughfare, passing through narrow corridors in the rock, presumably cut by the Nabatean stone masons. We were rewarded with stunning views down into the valley, from the altar area, where the goddess Dushara would likely have been worshipped, with smoking of frankincense, animal sacrifice and possibly human sacrifice.

After a quick falafel lunch at one of the snack bars outside the main entrance, we drove the last kilometres of the Kings Highway, before joining the Desert Highway to continue south to Wadi Rum for a desert adventure.

Another Bedouin tribal area, the Rum desert is scattered with tourist camps, each owned and run by a Bedouin family (although most now actually live in the scrappy, breezeblock town of Wadi Rum, where there’s running water, schools and facilities. You choose your camp (and level of comfort) then decide what tour you want to do. The desert is full of jeeps crisscrossing each other with tourists hanging out the back taking endless photos of the lunar-esque landscape (Dune and The Martian were filmed here). You can choose anything from a two hour jeep tour to a full day, 8 hour, tour and can add on a sunset camel trip.

No private vehicles are allowed in the desert so we left the hire car in the free car park at the Wadi Rum Rest Camp. A pick-up from here is included in the desert stay.

Day Six – Wadi Rum jeep tour and swimming at Aqaba South Beach

After a cosy night in our tent, layered under three fleecy blankets, we headed off on our two hour jeep tour. This is only long enough to see four stops but we really enjoyed it. I scrambled up a near sheer cliff face to see the source if Lawrence Springs, we clambered up a giant sand dune, visited the Alkazali Canyon to see ancient rock carvings and posed for photos on an impressive stone arch.

By lunchtime we were on the road again for the short one hour journey to Aqaba on the Red Sea. This is a prime location for diving and snorkeling, as well as enjoying some beach life. The public city beach is a sight in itself, with glass bottom boat tours jostling for space with small children and men paddling, as women prepare shishas and BBQs on the sand. Down the coast near the Saudi Arabia border is the South Beach area, a 7km stretch of quieter public sands (no boat tours!) but many people choose to pay around 10 dinar to hang out at a private beach. We were happy enough with the public beach, enjoying a swim and a walk and admiring the views across to Egypt and Eliat in Israel.

Day Seven – driving the Dead Sea Highway from Aqaba to the top of the Dead Sea

This was our longest driving day, heading all the way back up through Jordan, almost level with Madaba again, to reach the top of the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea Highway was a joy after the winding roads of the Kings Highway and the terrible potholes on the Desert Highway. The biggest problem was passing the continuous flow of slow moving tomato laden trucks. The area around the Dead Sea is very fertile, with fields of tomatoes, onions, squash and courgettes clearly visible, as well as large date palm plantations.

We stopped to check out the Museum of the Lowest Place on Earth. We also walked up to Lot’s Cave, where Lot and his family supposedly retreated after fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Halfway along the Dead Sea, there’s great free beach access to the salty water with amazing views of the salt crystallisation and colours. Be ready for lots of tourists getting their ubiquitous floating photo!

Day Eight – Dead Sea to Jerash

For our last day we decided to drive up to Jerash, a collection of well-preserved Roman ruins and the second most visited Jordan sight. Although we had to deal with the Amman traffic as we bypassed the city, it wasn’t as bad as I feared and we enjoyed a couple of hours looking around Jerash.

In 64 BC the Romans conquered Jerash, leading to a thriving city lasting until the 7th century. In the 3rd century over 20,000 people lived here but after a massive earthquake in 747 many left and the city lost its significance.

After safely getting Paula back to the airport for around 3.30pm, I dealt with the car dropoff before taking the public bus from the airport into Amman, to have a brief look round, before crossing the land border to Jerusalem, Israel the following morning.


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