Today, going to Jordan isn’t as dangerous or exotic as once perceived. Its famous sights, Petra and Wadi Rum, are overrun by group tours, but seeing the kingdom in this mass-market, highly-commercialized way held no appeal for me. I wanted a personalized approach, that while hitting the main sights gave me a glimpse into what real life and real people are like in Jordan. Enter, Ramzi.
Ramzi Nawafleh, co-owner of the VIP Jordan Allure Tours, is a Petra native from one of the area’s most historically prominent families; he began his guiding career as a 12-year-old “horse boy” in the ancient city. Today, he’s the go-to guide for high-level delegations, celebrities, athletes and me, who want to have an authentic adventure in Jordan.
Aleksandra H Kossowska / Shutterstock
Ramzi met me at the Jordanian border after I had walked across from Israel, near Eilat. We jumped into his blessedly air-conditioned SUV and drove two hours to the iconic Petra. Named one of the Seven Wonders of the New World in 2007, Petra is one of the most famous archeological sites in the world. Scholars date the capital of the Nabataean Arabs to at least 1 B.C. Petra was eventually swallowed up by the Roman Empire, but an earthquake and changing trade routes saw the city abandoned in the seventh century. It wasn’t until 1812 that Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt rediscovered the lost city. Since then, the Rose-Red city, so named for the red rocks, has been calling to travelers.
With more than 2,500 acres in Petra, it’s imperative to have a guide like Ramzi to lead you to the most important sights like The Siq, The Street of Facades and the most famous Treasury. Visitors should know that the must-see attractions are about a mile walk into the park, but you can ride a horse or take a carriage ride if you prefer not to walk in the desert heat.
As we walk through Petra looking at the amazing rock carvings, he gives me a detailed history of the Nabatean people, how they lived, their religious beliefs and how they were eventually conquered in order to put what I’m seeing in perspective.
After several hours exploring Petra’s past, it’s time to slip back to the 21st Century at the recently renovated Old Village Hotel and Resort. Just outside of Petra in Wadi Musa, the luxury accommodations are a reconstruction from the abandoned ruins of the original village. Today, the property is run by descendants of the original families of that village, and proceeds from the hotel support more than 150 families in town. The friendliness of the staff is driven home when the gift shop clerk tells me to take the ring I want to buy, and come back and pay later!
That night, Ramzi takes me to his sister’s house for a home-cooked dinner featuring traditional Mansaf, chicken marinated in yogurt and served with local Shrak bread, rice and yogurt sauce. At the table is another American couple who recently moved to Jordan, and throughout the meal various family members come and go including a few of Ramzi’s 11 siblings, their children and scores of cousins. It’s the weekend, and it’s wedding season, so that means the evening soundtrack consists of a parade of horns honking and guns (some shooting blanks, some not) firing to celebrate the newly married couple—it’s quite a thing to experience.
This is the reason to travel; the chance to really get a glimpse into a different culture, and see how people are people wherever you go.
After dinner we sit outside talking, smoking the shisha and being plied with more and more food and drink. The famous Arab hospitality is on full display. This is the reason to travel; the chance to really get a glimpse into a different culture, and see how people are people wherever you go. Here we were, a group of Americans, Arabs, Europeans, Jews, Muslims and Christians—and none of that mattered. We were simply people interested in each other and having a great time. This is the Jordan I had hoped to find.
The next day it was time to see the Wadi Rum desert. It’s been inhabited since prehistoric times and is the traditional home of Bedouin tribes. The area drew international acclaim after being featured in Lawrence of Arabia in the 1960s. As travelers came, the Bedouins transformed from goat-herding nomads to tourist-herding guides. Ramzi arranged a jeep tour to traverse the massive desert. As we bump along our route, we share the “road” with camels. Along the way Ramzi explains the history and sites, and we stop to climb a sand dune, walk through a grotto and cross a few natural bridges. The landscape is stark, quiet and peaceful.
Wadi Rum is sometimes known as the Valley of the Moon, but it resembles Mars far more than the moon. To that end, “The Martian” was filmed in Wadi Rum, and several of the luxury Bedouin camps now offer Martian bubble domes. These unique accommodations are where Elon Musk chose to stay when he recently visited the desert, and are available at the Memories Aicha Luxury Camp.
The camp, opened this year, is conveniently one of the first camps you come to in the desert. But tucked into a side valley, it is still isolated and serene. In addition to bubble tents, canvas-tented junior and executive suites decorated in rich, jeweled textured décor and local furnishings are available. According to Ramzi, the cuisine at the camp is the best in the area. After dinner most of the camp heads to the outdoor coffee bar to enjoy tea, Turkish coffee, shisha and the music of a local band. Soon, Ramzi is goading me to bring my two left feet and join in the group dance, something of an Arab conga line, that is weaving its way through the bar.
Later that night, staring at the multitude of twinkling stars lighting up the desert night so far from home, I marvel at what a small, small amazing world it really is.
Memories Aicha Luxury Camp photos by Maarten van Der Voorde