Jordan is very easy to add to your itinerary if you are visiting Israel. Many tour companies based out of Israel offer trip packages to help get you across the border into Jordan, and we were tempted to use one of them to avoid managing the logistics ourselves. With a little research and planning on our end we were able to organize the exit on our own and save money as a result.
How We Left Israel
The Wadi Araba border is one of three border crossings in Israel, and seemed to be the most commonly traversed of the three by tourists. This crossing is in the southern part of Israel, closest to the city of Eilat. We rode a public bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat which lasted five hours and had the perfect amount of rest stops. You cannot reserve a public bus online as the website for booking is in Hebrew but we were able to call and purchase tickets over the phone.
Once we arrived in Eilat we took a taxi to the Wadi Araba border to cross by foot. As expected we proceeded through a series of windows to show our passports and to pay an exit fee. Yes, Israel charges you to leave the country via land. The fee is higher if you pay with a credit card and an ATM is not available onsite, so make sure you bring cash. The process was relatively quick and it was only a few minutes before we were walking into Jordan.
The Jordanian side of the crossing was less straightforward and more confusing. Officers shuttled us around to multiple areas and windows to have our passports inspected before we finally received our stamp. We proceeded away from the border into Aqaba, where we were greeted by a parking lot of rundown taxis. Seeing the condition of the taxis was my first clue that we were indeed in a new country. The taxis barely appeared drivable, quite the contrast from the pristine and luxury vehicles we saw throughout Israel. Jordan is a much poorer country than Israel, and within moments of arriving we were able to see the evidence.
We rented a car in Aqaba to get us around for the three days we had in Jordan. Our first stop was taking a look at the Red Sea. The majority of the beachgoers were modestly covered from head to toe, making the two or three bikini-clad women seem out of place. While the beachfront was developed in Aqaba, it was not exactly glamorous or impressive.
It was becoming late afternoon and we had not yet decided if we would stay the night in Aqaba or drive to another city. The sun was still out and we were running on the excitement of being in a new country, so we decided to drive to the Wadi Rum desert. The highway had several security checkpoints where we were stopped and benignly questioned by the police. It was intimidating at first but every single officer ended their mini interview by saying, “Welcome to Jordan”. It came across as sincere and made me feel comfortable as a tourist in their country.
Wadi Rum Desert
We arrived in the desert close to sunset and were surprised to learn Wadi Rum is not a place you drop-in. Not much is available to view at the entrance, meaning you really need to explore it with a tour to get access inside. Employees approached us and encouraged us to find a Bedouin camp in the desert to stay the night. I briefly read about the Bedouin in the past but knew very little about them. I mainly knew they offered camping experiences to tourists as a format to share their culture. Camping in the desert on short notice was not high on my list but neither of us wanted to miss out on the opportunity. S and I both started to feverishly search online for a camp since it was becoming dark. We finally found one with availability, and the host instructed us to drive to the Wadi Rum Village where someone named Riyadh would meet us.
We drove to the village and saw Bedouin men lining the road with their trucks, waiting to pick up tourists. The scene we encountered was chaotic with a lot of foot and vehicle traffic, horns honking, tourists jumping into the backs of trucks, and random men approaching our car. Somehow Riyadh was able to identify us as we drove down the street and instructed us to follow his truck to the company “office”. As soon as we began following him into the village I became unsettled. The homes in the area were poorly lit if they had any light at all, and it was almost pitch black by this time. We were not seeing any tourists around, and as we drove deeper into the village the place grew more desolate. Things did not improve once we arrived to the “office” because nothing about it emulated a professional setting. It was a family home with few people around, and several dark vacated structures surrounding it. I am fully aware I have a bias toward feeling scared in places which lack adequate lighting. Riyadh motioned for us to park our car in a spot that sort of resembled a parking space, and informed us we would be leaving it in the village for the night. At that moment we were unclear as to why we could not drive ourselves to the camp but later we realized why it was not possible. Something about abandoning the car and allowing a stranger to supposedly drive us to a camp without an actual address was starting to freak me out.
While Riyadh was distracted and loading our luggage into his truck I asked S if he was okay with everything (such as leaving our car and driving through the desert at night with a random guy trusting it will all end positively). His response was, “I guess?” The reaction was not exactly confidence inspiring. It was one of the most strange experiences in my life where my head was trying to alarm me but in my gut I really did not sense I was in any real danger. Despite all of the intense internal dialogue I was having I got in Riyadh’s truck. We drove into the darkness, over the sand dunes, and toward what I hoped was camp. I felt nervous but simultaneously at ease because I had an unexplained inherent trust in Riyadh…I think it also helped he spoke English and was being conversational. As we drove I saw for myself why we were unable to take our car—roads do not exist, street lights do not exist, you need a truck to negotiate the terrain, and only someone who has grown up in the Wadi Rum could navigate through the unlit and vast desert.
We finally arrived to our camp and I was relieved to see other tourists (it meant were weren’t going to be killed after all!). We made it just in time for dinner, which was cooked in the ground and quite delicious. Served with dinner was traditional Bedouin tea, a staple in their diet and a huge part of their social culture. Following the meal our hosts put on a bonfire tucked under an overhanging rock, where we drank countless cups of tea and watched the sky become painted with stars.
Neither of us slept great that night. It turned out to be a good thing because we snuck outside our tent to stargaze and watch for shooting stars. It was one of the most magical and adventure-filled nights of my life…The type of night I wish I could replay. We waited up for sunrise, and it was incredible to see our slice of the desert come to life in the daylight.
Historically Bedouins are nomadic people who live in the desert. From our perspective they are world class hosts. We had all of our needs met and they were generous enough to give us a glimpse into their culture and traditions. A trip to Jordan would not be complete without experiencing the Bedouin hospitality and trying their tea!
We continued our tour of the Wadi Rum with a “Jeep” ride around the desert (it’s funny to me because the locals advertise the tours as Jeep drives but they all own Toyotas). In order to see the rock formations and depths of the desert you are required to do a ride with the locals. The three-hour option was enough for us to see the highlights without having to contend with the heat for too long.
If you’re thinking this desert looks familiar to you, you may have seen it in a movie. The Martian was filmed here, and it turns out Wadi Rum is exactly what I would expect Mars to look like.
After driving around, climbing on rocks, and melting in the sun, it was time to return to the “office” where we were hoping to reunite with our car. I am pleased to inform you our car was left untouched. I snapped photos of the village and location of our car on the way back but of course it looks less frightening in the daytime.
Our first night in Jordan turned out to be one of the most memorable nights of our lives. Believe it or not, Petra was a worthy follow-up. More on Petra next time!