Sorry for the long hiatus. An update.

I’ve lost track.

I’ve been on a blogging hiatus for the longest time in my ten years of blogging. Not writing anything for a month has been tougher than not eating chocolates for a month. ¬†I expected it. I didn’t fully wanted it – semi-quitting blogging and all but it happened. I still couldn’t believe I did it, shrugging it off with thoughts like, “who’s reading anyway?”

Do people still read blogs? If you have been a visitor to mine before, are you still there?

I tend to blame the loss of my blogging mojo to social media – myself posting updates on Instagram, Twitter or my blog’s Facebook page that I lose the spirit to really sit down in front of my PC and write like a true blogger does. Like my old blogger self.

Then I thought I’d still want to write again so here I am. I still would like to read blog posts I wrote from x years ago, I am writing a part of my life’s story here so I will continue.

Moving on,

The holy month of Ramadan has started last month; we’re already halfway through it actually. I’m not a Muslim so I don’t fast but irrespective of religion, employees and workers in the UAE do get shorter work times. I only work from 8 am to 2 pm. I do extra hour of work every day to avoid the rush on the metro and the blaring hot sun at 2 pm (it’s still hot at 3 pm though) so I arrive home just before 4 pm. It appears that I *do* actually have ample time to blog and I didn’t because I was focusing on other things: exercising, playing with the kids as this month is bliss for working moms like me. I love Ramadan mainly for this opportunity to be with my kids longer.

And speaking of Ramadan, I just realized this is our 11th Ramadan in Dubai. ELEVENTH, people!

I admit, lately I’ve secretly wished every Ramadan is the last. More than 10 years in the UAE and I honestly feel our time is up and I am ready to move on, somewhere. But I just don’t know where. YET. I hope we come around to that. SOON.

And in between staying here longer and wishing to go away, the much awaited vacation time comes again. This year, I managed to plan to include JAPAN. The last time was four years ago!

Four years ago means Benjamin was still in a stroller, only less than 2 years old, still breastfeeding!

benjamin at subway

It was during that time I really felt Tokyo is a city not meant for traveling families with small kids. I lived just outside Tokyo for almost five years and never really realized that…because I was single that time. For one, there are so many train stations without escalators or elevators. There were times I had to carry the child in one arm and a folder stroller on the other (the husband wasn’t with us that time).

subway scene

It’s hot in Japan in the summer so we took breaks from the concrete jungle of Tokyo to parks. If you’re around Shinjuku, don’t miss to check out Shinjuku Gyoen when you’re tired from all the walking and want to lie down on green grass.

benjamin at park

P and B in Tokyo 2

P and B in Tokyo 3

We’ll be in Japan for just 9 nights. It is not enough but I’ll take it. The weather in Japan in June is unpredictable but I plan to make the most of it, especially now that the children are older and they actually know what they want to do while in Japan: from simple things as wanting to eat as much ramen, gyoza or curry rice to shopping at convenient stores for different onigiris to exciting visits to the Ghibli Museum (even this excites me – Pristine was only 5 when we last visited Totoro’s abode!) and probably, I may sneak in a surprise visit to Tokyo Disneyland, weather and health permitting!

We’re visiting their grandparents north of Tokyo. They’ll be getting to know Japan’s Shinkansen (bullet train) for the first time!

niigata

The last time we’ve seen them was in 2009 and since they’re the kind of folks who doesn’t have an email address or WhatsApp, Facebook or anything online, they will be shocked how big the kids have become. (They have not seen Benjamin yet since he was born and now he’s almost 6!)

matsumoto

After Japan, we will be flying to where my parents live where the children will be spending their summer vacation. I hate to be away from them for about 7 weeks but they’re better off there than spend the whole day indoors in Dubai. If only I could stay with them for the whole duration of their summer vacation but alas, work awaits. I’ll fly out again to pick them up at the end of August.

I will be active on social media, mainly on Instagram and hopefully, I could have enough material to write blog posts about our travel to Japan this time. Benjamin is bigger this time so I suppose I could take lots of better photos too. I am excited. Meanwhile, I need to get back on my feet really soon – I am so sick with bronchitis that fully transformed into asthma. Very bad timing as I need to pack, plan, work and actually fly out in a few days!

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque 1

We had a long weekend last week for the Islamic holiday, Isra wal miraj and we chose to spend it in more laid back Abu Dhabi.

What is a visit to Abu Dhabi without checking out the grand mosque? We’ve visited so many times, taking friends and family visiting us in the UAE. I wrote 13 facts about the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque after we first visited it in 2008. We visited a few times years and years after but what makes it different this time? It will be Benjamin’s first time! I want to see his reaction.

LOCATION

The grand mosque, one of the few in the world open to non-Muslims is about an hour drive from Dubai.

So many things has changed since we last visited a couple of years back when a friend from Japan visited and we played tourist guides, and included Abu Dhabi and of course the never to be missed grand mosque in the itinerary (see that post for pics!). First – there’s already a cafe and an Etihad Modern Art Gallery souvenir shop. We loved hanging out at the cafe, with lots of natural light coming in and great view outside.

But one thing never changed and never will – that if you go visit this religious site with arms and legs exposed (we were in shorts and shirts), you will have to wear the abaya for women and khandura for men. Before it was just a black robe though but now, there’s brown and blue abayas for ladies with attached covering for the head, like a hood. I prefer it this way than the separate cloth for head scarf as it keeps falling off.

abaya
khandura

Some other change is that people can’t freely roam anywhere they want now. The main square is off limits to visitors when it wasn’t restricted area way back in 2008, 2010.

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Processed with VSCO with s2 preset

There’s security guy who sits at the square and wards off people trying to enter the area. Since so many people want to take pics of the beautiful view behind him, he must be in thousands of photos! He is so chill and would just do some sign language to tell people not to proceed further.

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gm 2

There’s a specific cordoned route for visitors to follow. The place is more crowded on, unsurprisingly, weekends, especially on Fridays that it’s impossible to take photos without someone’s uncle or auntie in the background. Hold your children and never leave them out of your sight, it’s going to be tough finding them through the crowd!

b happy
p and b

So what was Benjamin’s reaction after visiting the grand structure? He said, it’s beautiful and can’t take his eyes off the massive chandeliers inside the mosque. And then? He asked why we were in robes and he wasn’t!

Have you visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi? If not, maybe plan it in the near future. It’s definitely a very popular tourist spot with what else but throngs of tourists you can’t avoid but I still believe your trip will be worth it.

When the fear of travel creeps in

Peace-of-mind-5-ways-to-clear-your-mind

Stockholm and Alexandria were on my mind and in my travel plans this year.

By now, you must already know what happened lately to these two cities: a truck being driven into a crowded shopping street in Stockholm and there was a church bombing in Alexandria during a Palm Sunday mass at a Coptic Christian Church just a few days ago.

Stockholm was an easy choice for my first visit to the Scandinavian region – and not just because I am a huge ABBA or IKEA fan. It is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, where lakes meets the sea, where beautiful island towns stitched together by bridges and ferries creates an irresistible allure.

IMG_9797 wm

Alexandria on the other hand is home to my daughter Pristine’s best friend, Laila. Laila and Pristine had been friends since kindergarten. They love each other like crazy that summer vacations became agonizing and unlike most kids who enjoy no school days, they count days till they meet again. It’s very difficult to peel them off from each other on the first day they’re back to school.

Laila’s family migrated to Canada five years ago and at the tender age of 9, my daughter felt the hardest part of being an expat – losing¬†a friend through relocation.

Laila transferred to a school in Canada while maintaining contact with her best friend in Dubai, however, due to the huge time difference, the girls rarely sync their time for Skype but when they do, they are both grinning from ear to ear.

Now, after five years, Laila’s family with their resident status in Canada all settled, they are going back to their home in Alexandria for vacation! Isn’t it just a 3 hour flight from Dubai? Laila’s mom buzzed me last week to share the good news and asked if we could surprise the girls to meet and spend a few days with them in their Alexandria home. I’ve made arrangements for the kids to spend summer at my parent’s home in the Philippines for the entire months of July-August BUT I couldn’t pass up on this opportunity to go to Egypt and for my daughter to see her bosom friend again so a¬†couple of days ago, I called up the travel agent and asked to reschedule our flights out of Manila so we can come back to Dubai earlier and fly to Alexandria for the remainder of summer.

Cue my mother’s voice: “Wait, what? You’re going to Alexandria where there was a bombing incident? And you’re taking the kids, too?!”

I will not lie. I am anxious.

And you ask, well, if you are that anxious, then why go? Why not just stay at the comfort and safety of home?

I guess that the problem with me is that, even if I sometimes get scared of travel, that doesn’t stop me. I always have this¬†familiar mix of excitement and apprehension that comes before every excursion, especially to places I would visit for the first time.

Especially, if I am travelling with the kids.

Especially travelling to vulnerable areas this time (Egypt).

Then I do extensive research and preparation, be brave and walk out the door proudly but then, as I sit on the plane looking out the window as the carrier pulls away from the tarmac, I ask, “what am I doing? Am I making a right decision?” It’s a crazy mind game inside my head.

It’s unfortunate that there is so much hate and violence in this world right now that makes travelling to some places difficult, scary or even impossible. I feel lucky to have visited Istanbul and Jordan¬†(I was shaken though as only 2 days after we left Jordan, there had been a terrorist attack at one of the popular tourist spots) during more stable times.

I wish I had seen Damascus (Syria), one of the oldest cities in the Middle East before the war.

It’s sad to know that many people might never see these places for a while due to fear of safety. ¬†(And those are very legit fears.) However,¬†I found some tips how to stay safe while travelling to risky countries¬†which was informative and logical.

Over to you – are there any places you’d wish to visit but can’t or won’t due to fear of safety?

In search of sea glass on the shores of the Red Sea

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We were done with our floating in the Dead Sea and walking through the historic site of Petra in Jordan. We arrived in Aqaba, wanting to have a little rest before we venture out to breathtaking Wadi Rum.

(I highly recommend staying at the Movenpick Resort & Spa Tala Bay hotel when you’re in Aqaba – it’s a beautiful resort, a little outside the city and Aqaba is a great base if you intend to visit Wadi Rum as it’s less than an hour away by car.)

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red-sea-beach-8

One of the activities my daughter and I really enjoyed while we were in Aqaba¬†was spending time walking along the shores of the Red Sea, in the private beach resort of the hotel we stayed. It was winter when we were in Jordan in December 2016 and though Aqaba is relatively ‘warmer’ than say, Amman or Petra, it was quite chilly in the mornings (and evenings).

This was where I introduced my daughter Pristine to sea glas because I am fascinated by them.

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Every now and then, walking on the beach, Pristine stops, reaches down and plucks a piece of smooth glass out of the sand. We would spend at least an hour just looking down.¬†Who knew collecting sea glass can be an incredibly relaxing activity! Walking down the beach will clear your mind and finding a sea glass is such a delight, like finding a little treasure – I mean, it’s not everyday you get to pick up one from the Red Sea, right?

What is sea glass?

Sea glass is weathered glass, actually fragments of broken glass tossed/ended up in the ocean where wave action and salt water are the forces that give it its frosted look and a satiny feel.

sea-glass

sea glass 2
sea glass 3

I’ve read somewhere that it is also called beach glass and even mermaid’s tears. I don’t know about mermaid’s tears but it sure sounds fairy tale like. I like it.

Sea glasses are man-made, nature-perfected Рpieces of glass from broken bottles, broken tableware, or even shipwrecks that are rolled and tumbled in the ocean for years until all of their edges are rounded off, and the slickness of the glass has been worn to a frosted appearance. So cool, no?

We collected a lot and kept it. It felt good in our pockets, like worry beads.

Ever since I spotted a piece of sea glass on the sand, I have been in love with it. The thought of a broken shard of glass tumbling in the waves for all those years and transforming into jewel like pieces with bits of history as each piece came from someone whose story will remain unknown is intriguing, mysterious and I think, precious.

red sea beach 9

Now, here’s to collecting more sea glass from different parts of the world!

How to score ‘free’ hotel stays through your blog

Intercon DFC lobby

So, you’re a (travel) blogger planning to go somewhere nice and want to save up on accommodation costs. You would be writing about your travel – the destination, interesting spots you find and maybe, about your accommodation. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could cut the cost by setting a little sweet arrangement with a local hotel – a complimentary stay in exchange for a blog post or features on social media? I mean, you would be writing about it anyway.

In this post, I’m sharing¬†a few strategies on how to score free hotel stays but first,

Who am I to write this kind of post?

For a while now, this¬†little blog of mine has enabled me to enjoy sponsored/complimentary¬†accommodation¬†in and out of the UAE sponsored by the hotels since 2014. It’s a great travel perk since I do budget travel most of the time, if I can.

Deluxe Beach Villa With Pool-1

One of the first successful pitches I had was scoring a private villa with pool accommodation in the Maldives in 2014. It was a great stroke of LUCK!

Pitching for a sponsored accommodation won’t work for you if:

  • You prefer not to plan ahead. You travel spontaneously, wanting to take your own sweet time and change your itinerary on spur of the moment decisions.
  • You don’t want to feel the pressure and obligation to write about the accommodation (feel that it’s not worth your time and effort)
  • The accommodation options where you are travelling isn’t expensive anyway.
  • Writing about accommodation reviews do not suit well with the topics on your blog.

GUIDE TO APPROACHING SPONSORS FOR ACCOMMODATION

intercon prague

Staying for two nights at the Intercontinental Prague, central location, very near to the Old Town

1. List what you can offer

But first off, it is important to note that I only started sending pitches and proposals for accommodation sponsorships 4 years ago РSEVEN years after I started this blog and have built a decent base of readership and traffic.

However, the emphasis here is NOT¬†the number of years. You don’t have to wait for seven¬†years before you send your first proposal but personally, I think that¬†your attempts would be more fruitful¬†if you have at least one or two thousand unique monthly readers (unique visitors, not page views!), so you’re sure you have something to offer.

(It is also important to note that I started to send pitches only in 2014 because when I started blogging in 2007, blogging wasn’t really about collaborating with brands and I’ve not heard of “sponsorships” back then.)

2. Know the right person to send the email to

A lot of times you’ll email the general contact address which you‚Äôll find on the hotel‚Äôs website, which is fine. But if you can find the marketing manager‚Äôs direct email, that‚Äôs even better.

balcony view

Our room in Bohol, Philippines with balcony overlooking the sea

TIP: I receive a lot of press releases from different hotels and whenever I am interested in contacting that specific hotel, I reply back and ask for the contact person of the hotel at my destination. For example, if I get a press release from Intercontinental Dubai and I plan to get in touch with the marketing person at any Intercontinental Hotel Group in Prague or Manila, I ask the person from Intercontinental Dubai (who sent me the press release) for the contact details of their constituents in Prague/Manila.

3. Timing is a big factor for your proposals to get noticed

When is the best time to email hotels? The answer would always be, the earlier, the better. I always send my proposal email at least 2 months ahead. If your stay is going to happen sooner, just give it a shot but accept that they may not be able to arrange something for you.

Which day should you send your email?

The day of the week¬†is a big factor when sending your well written proposal. If you’re sending it to someone who has Monday-Fridays as their work week, do not send your proposal on Saturday and Sunday, even if you only have the weekend as time to send important emails like this. I prefer to send my proposals on Tuesdays when their work load are lessened. I don’t know, I think if I put myself in their shoes, I would set aside¬†emails asking for favors on Mondays for later…and would dig through other important stuff on the first work day of the week. Do not send the proposal email on a Friday too, since the person at the other end could go home early and won’t see your email till Monday.

Same rule when sending to areas where the work week is Sunday-Thursday. Do not send on Sunday or Thursday, nor the weekend days of Friday and Saturday.

4. Prepare to put in work

movenpick tala bay

I mentioned in the title, “free” hotel stays but in reality, nothing is really free because though you would not shell out cash, you’re shelling out your time.

Time to talk to the hotel duty manager during your stay, to take photos of the property, to update on social media. Time to observe the little details to include in your blog post and lastly, to write that blog post (after you’ve gone¬†through the hundreds of photos from your travel and editing them).

WHEW.

The reality is that if  hotels agree to host your stay it is because they are expecting something in return. You are in a partnership in which you trade something that you can provide (publicity through coverage on your blog) for something the sponsor can provide (a room for a night or two with no charge).

It’s always a trade off between the benefit of staying in a lovely hotel that you might not otherwise afford and the work you have to put in afterwards to pay back for your stay.

It is a lot of work to get hosted accommodations, tours, restaurant visits, etc and a whole lot of work writing about all the experiences.¬†If you‚Äôre already feeling exhausted at the thought of all this work just to get a free night in a nice hotel, then you may be better to stick to paying for your own accommodation which I mostly do – because sometimes a free night stay (or maybe even a few hours) isn’t worth it if after that I have to be away from the kids to¬†face the PC after my day job for hours on end to write a review blog post.

However, if you’re still up to the challenge, it’s time to compose that proposal email to send to potential sponsors.

HOW TO WRITE YOUR EMAIL PROPOSAL

Your email should be concise but complete with answers the hotel might be asking. These are the basic things to include in your pitch.

1. Who are you?

Keep it short. Mention your name, the name of your blog and what your blog is about.

2. Why are you emailing?

Here, I mention briefly that I am visiting a city on a certain date and inquire if they work with bloggers and willing to consider a collaboration.

3. What is your blog about and its vital statistics

Mention your blog and its analytics (current monthly page views, unique visitors). It also helps to add a note why you think X hotel is a good fit for your blog audience.

4. What are you asking for?

Be clear if you are asking for a media rate (discounted rate) or a free stay. For how many nights? And how many rooms?

5. What can you offer in return?

Don’t over promise. Tell them if they are getting 1 or more blog post review with links to their website or how many Instagram posts.

Under promise, over deliver. Always.

BONUS: Include links to hotel reviews you have done in the past. Word of caution: Send only ONE link or two, max. Sending many links in an email and that email could land in the spam folder of the recipient!

I would recommend that you initially send a tailored email to your 5 top choices for accommodation and if you have not had any positive responses within a week, target another 5, and keep going.

All the photos that I’ve featured in this article are some of the places where I’ve stayed either on a sponsored basis (clicking on the photos will take you to the hotel review blog post).

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Because of my blog, I‚Äôve been able to stay in some fantastic accommodation (5 nights in the Maldives!) that I couldn‚Äôt otherwise afford but I ALWAYS¬†put the work in to ‚Äėpay‚Äô for my stay, even if the payment wasn’t in the form of cash.

Subsequently, I get invites to stay complimentary at hotels with my family in exchange for a blog post or social media coverage because the hotels looking for online exposure has seen my previous work.

The thought of staying at hotels¬†at every destination you travel without paying in cash (or any other monetary form) is wonderful but most of the time,¬†I choose sponsorships carefully and not ask for it as often as I would love to (who doesn’t like stuff you didn’t have to pay with money?)¬†because of reasons like,

  • I would want to be in the moment and enjoy the hotel stay rather than be busy taking photos or updating social media
  • My blog schedule is full and I can’t commit time to write a review post after my trip
  • I feel that overdoing “free” stays could compromise my¬†personal voice which in blogging, is pretty much all I¬†have.
I know I’ve called it ‚Äėfree‚Äô in the title of this blog post because, like a good blogger, I’ve done my keyword research and found that’s what people are searching for so I used that word instead of ‘sponsored’ or ‘complimentary’. But I’ll say it again before I close this post: bloggers get complimentary stay as payment for the work they put in which involves¬†time, skill and effort – and these don’t come for free.

I hope you get something out of the tips I mentioned above and good luck on scoring your first “free” hotel stay! If you have any questions, fire away!

Is Wadi Rum worth it?

Wadi Rum 6

When Ridley Scott was directing the blockbuster film The Martian, he knew he needed a landscape that closely resembled Mars in order to keep the film as realistic as possible. He settled on filming in the Wadi Rum desert region of Jordan.

I have not seen that movie but when I got to Wadi Rum myself, it’s easy to see why this¬†location was chosen.

Initially, Wadi Rum wasn’t in our itinerary because given our very short time in Jordan (fly in Friday morning and fly out Monday night). We covered the Dead Sea on our first day (Friday) and Petra on the second (Saturday). We rested on the third day spending just a few hours strolling through the shores of the Red Sea, visiting the city center at Aqaba and hunting where to eat the traditional dish mansaf and just chilling at our very fascinating accommodation at Movenpick Resort & Spa Tala Bay. On our last day (Monday), we checked out at 9:30 am and headed to Wadi Rum.

WHERE IS WADI RUM?

Wadi Rum lies in the south western corner of Jordan 58 kilometers north of the coastal town of Aqaba. It can be reached easily by main roads from Amman (3.5 hours), Aqaba (1 hour) and Petra (1.5 hours). Car-hire and bus tours can be arranged through hotels and travel agents and taxis can be negotiated from Aqaba and Petra.

* We had a private van arranged by Amani Tours for the entire time we were in Jordan, including to Wadi Rum

HOW TO TAKE A TOUR OF WADI RUM

Wadi Rum 1

The first stop to Wadi Rum is at the Visitor’s Center. It overlooks the Seven Pillars of Wisdom –¬†an imposing rock formation with seven enormous folds, named after the autobiography by T.E Lawrence of the same name. There are several tours to choose from, depending on the amount of time you can spend. Two hours, three hours…the staff at the Visitor’s Center contacts the local Bedouin drivers as required.

The best way to enjoy Wadi Rum is to get on the back of a 4×4 pickup truck. Our guide contacted a Bedouin driver she knows personally to take us around. The Bedouins are still the people of the desert and you can trust them to show you everything there is to see. Just hop on one of their jeeps and enjoy the view.

We paid JOD50 + tip for a three hour excursion (that stretched into four hours in actual).

Wadi Rum 2

The truck is improvised to have ‘seats’ for four people at the back. There are no seat belts which could make you think twice about doing this – if so, you can sit beside the driver inside the truck. Otherwise, be a little adventurous (and face a little danger). The driver won’t drive fast so I never felt unsafe.

Wadi Rum 4

Prepare for a bumpy ride, but it will be well worth your aching bones. Don’t worry, you will have plenty of opportunities to get off the vehicle and admire the place on foot.

p with camel in wadi rum

There is nothing more exhilarating than speeding through a desert landscape in the back of an open-air pickup truck. We were there on the 2nd week of December when it’s winter and though the glaring sun makes it look like it’s hot, it’s not! On the contrary, it was very cold. See my daughter’s thick jacket! She wished she could fix the hood to cover her head but alas, the oncoming wind keeps on blowing the hoodie¬†off.

I loved the feel of the crisp, cold wind on my face.

back of truck in wadi rum

Jordan’s desert is, in a word, MAJESTIC. Its lunar-like landscape (Wadi Rum is also known as the Valley of the Moon), crevice-riddled cliffs and ever-evolving light took my breath away.

It was quite an experience but a word of caution: photographing out sitting at the back of a fast moving truck travelling in uneven pathways is so challenging – with both feet needing to anchor for safety, looking for the perfect timing and clicking the camera, trying hard not to throw it over or throw myself over.

Most of the “good” photos I have taken at the back of that moving truck is accidental, but I loved them all anyway.

Wadi Rum 5

camel in wadi rum 4
Wadi Rum 3

The desert can seem at first to be an empty expanse, save for some camels in the wild.

camel in wadi rum 1

camel in wadi rum 5

SHOULD YOU HIRE A GUIDE FOR WADI RUM?

I suppose finding¬†the right guide for your Wadi Rum tour is not easy. I did a lot of research before our flight to Jordan and still didn’t have a clue where to find a good guide and just left it all to ‘fate’. However, the best way to keep ‘fate’ on your side is by asking other travellers who had¬†“been there, done that”, to read their stories and personal recommendations.

mushroom rock 2

We got lucky with our guide and she made our trip to Wadi Rum even more wonderful. She did not only got us a good driver, she took us to places in Wadi Rum that isn’t in the list staple points of stop for tourists.

WADI RUM ADVENTURE

Before we got on the truck, our guide told us we will be doing a “little” climbing. One of my favourite parts of our Wadi Rum tour was the stop of at a rock bridge-arch structure. Yep, its pretty dangerous looking so I wasn’t really keen on climbing, lugging along my camera but I’m glad I did because once we were at the top the precarious looking arch, it really did feel like we were in an adventure movie.

arch bridge from far

arch bridge 2
arch bridge 1

I gave my camera to our driver, a local Bedouin, who, despite his outfit, could climb up and down the steep rocks as fast a cheetah! (The third one on the pic, in white is our guide)

Next, our guide¬†took us to a rock formation that she calls, “The Titanic”. Of course she invites us to climb again!

wadi rum titanic

So to come back to the essence of this blog post, is Wadi Rum worth it?

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T.E. Lawrence elegantly described Wadi Rum as “vast, echoing and God-like…” and I could not agree more. Wadi Rum¬†is a stupendous, timeless place, virtually untouched by humanity and its destructive forces. Here, it is the weather and winds that have carved the imposing, towering skyscrapers.

If you want to experience what I and other travellers refer to as “other-worldly”, include Wadi Rum in your Jordan itinerary. The scenery is truly out of this world. Miles of solitary sand dunes and rocky hills open up in front of your eyes, making you feel as if you were walking on Mars without having to set foot in a spaceship. There are options to stay for the night at the Bedouin camps. I can imagine the dark, starry skies sans light pollution in the big cities and howls of desert wolves or just the stillness of the night here.

Wadi Rum 8

I live in Dubai and I have been and seen deserts. However, if you ever thought that once you’ve seen a desert you’ve seen them all, think again. Wadi Rum, the red desert of southern Jordan is a marvel you shouldn’t miss.

* I tried hard to take decent photos to share the beauty of Wadi Rum but I think even the best photographers, not one photo would give justice to the actual beauty of the place. You simply need to go there and see it with your own eyes.

Where we stayed: Movenpick Resort & Spa Tala Bay Aqaba, Jordan

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If I tell you, “I was in a wonderful beach resort in Jordan!” would you look at me like I got my geography wrong? Or if you think of a “beach vacation” would you even think of Jordan?

When I thought of Jordan at first, beach was far from my mind (except the “beach” at the Dead Sea).

After our amazing time exploring the seemingly mystical wonder that is Petra, we moved to the south of the country to Aqaba –¬†a Jordanian port city on the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba is¬†Jordan’s year-round aquatic playground with its balmy winter climate and idyllic setting. Aqaba is a top destination for scuba divers, with notable dive sites including the Yamanieh coral reef.

(The distance between Petra and Aqaba is roughly 166 km and travel time is approximately 2 hours and a half by car.)

There are plenty of hotel resorts in Aqaba but we stayed at the Movenpick Resort & Spa Tala Bay. The hotel is both modern and and comfortable and provides a good option for those who prefer to stay outside the bustle of cities whilst still having access to all the amenities.

Aqaba makes for a good stop-off point on an itinerary for some relaxation, as it is located close to both Wadi Rum and Petra.

LOCATION

Movenpick Resort & Spa Tala Bay is a perfect base if you are going to visit Jordan’s only coastal city of Aqaba or see the majestic, massive wonder of Wadi Rum, which is less than an hour away by car.

ROOM

It was dark when we arrived and we were dead tired from all the walking we did at Petra. Thankfully, the staff at reception was kind and forgiving and made our check in process smooth and fast and whisked us to our room immediately.

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We had a room with a very smart, effective layout for families, with a big bed and two single beds in a partitioned section for the kids. Our room was facing the pool, a great view to wake up to every morning.

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FOOD

Breakfast was complimentary with international fares and live cooking stations for eggs, pancakes and waffles. Staff were attentive and very friendly. The all day dining restaurant serves lunch and dinner but we only had dinner once and the food was average for me. Many diners seem to be enjoying though so I must have been out of my usual appetite that night.

WIFI

There’s WiFi with great connection speed all throughout the property.

HOTEL GROUNDS

One of the hotel staff gave us a tour and took us to the hotel’s garden. The idea is to create a “fresh market” where guests can harvest for their own meal, healthy, organic and freshly picked ingredients. They just started it so it’s small for now but it looked promising. I like the concept.

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We  toured the property on our first morning there and it was very beautiful, well manicured, tidy grounds, with multiple pools, including a small heated pool so you can still enjoy in winter. I can imagine a lot of families with kids enjoying these amenities during warmer weather!

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BEACH!

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The hotel has direct access to the beach, too.¬†For many, Jordan’s¬†main attractions are its ancient historical sites¬†yet, despite the mystical beauty of Petra or the out of this world charm of¬†Wadi Rum, beauty can also be found along Jordan’s¬†coasts. I believe¬†Tala Bay in Aqaba¬†has some of the most beautiful resort destinations in the Middle East.

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That is the Red Sea by the way and those mountains in the horizon is Israel. It was cold in December but the view was so beautiful we couldn’t ignore it so we braved the cold winds and took a stroll here every after breakfast.

What a lovely place to stay, with all those pools and a beach resort where you can just chill and forget about time. Two days wasn’t enough so if you’re going to stay there, and now that you know that you can enjoy beach time in Jordan, make your stay¬†longer than two days at the Movenpick Tala Bay!

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We already miss the quiet mornings and our strolls at the beach. Hoping to be back when it’s warmer!

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Why I recommend staying at Movenpick Resort & Spa Tala Bay in Aqaba, Jordan:

  • A great option for families, with a Kids Club and Family Rooms (and yummy Movenpick ice cream!)
  • It has a great spa with hydrotherapy area – relieves those tired muscles! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • The resort has¬†a 150-metre long private beach
  • An ideal place for divers, the resort has its own dive centre and offers a number of snorkelling and diving trips (we did not go to any snorkelling or diving trips)
  • Located 15-minutes from Aqaba city centre, the resort is great for those who prefer to stay out of cities but stay in an accommodation with 5 star amenities
  • The staff goes¬†out of their way to assist so we¬†feel welcomed and they made¬†our¬†stay more enjoyable

*****

We were guests at the Movenpick Resort & Spa Tala Bay however, all opinions are mine.

Petra, from the Siq and beyond

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If you hear the word, “Petra”, the above photo¬†comes to mind. In fact, until I went there early this month, I thought this iconic building was all there is to Petra.

The Treasury is one of the most elaborate temples in the ancient Arab Nabatean Kingdom city of Petra. The great facade of the Treasury (“Al Khazneh”), the most ornate and beautiful of Petra’s tombs, is the first structure seen by visitors as they exit the narrow confines of the Siq. In spite of its name (assigned by local legend) however, the monument is a royal tomb, not a treasury.

Before you can see the Treasury, you have to go through what is called the “Siq” – a narrow canyon that leads into the the once lost city of Petra. This is my FAVORITE part of the whole journey.

This is the entrance to the Siq.

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To reach the start of the Siq, visitors must first walk about half a mile along the wide valley known as the Bab as-Siq. It seems rather long but 2 things: (1) you can use a horse or donkey to carry you till the entrance of the Siq* (2) there are several interesting sights to see along the way.

* the cost to ride the horse and donkey is said to be included in the ticket but you need to give a tip.

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The first major monument to encounter in Petra – actually two separate monuments stacked on top of each other the Obelisk Tomb (upper) and Bab as-Siq Triclinium (lower). The four great obelisks of the Obelisk Tomb, with a figure in a niche in the center, guard a rock-hewn cave containing burials.

The lower half, the Bab as-Siq Triclinium functioned as a dining room where feasts were held in honor of the dead.

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Only a few minutes after we entered the Siq, it blew my mind. It is winding, mysterious and in the early morning light and silence, it is truly breathtaking.

We walked the next half-mile, marvelling at the towering canyon walls letting out deep breaths at the grandeur of this place.

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The Siq, meaning “gorge”, is Petra’s most dramatic natural feature.

The path twists and turns between bizarrely eroded cliffs for over a kilometre, sometimes widening to form sunlit piazzas in the echoing heart of the mountain; in other places, the looming walls (150 meters high) close in to little more than a couple of metres apart, blocking out sound, warmth and even daylight.

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The Siq is not technically a gorge, as it was formed not by erosion but tectonic forces, which caused the rock to split dramatically in half. The waters of Wadi Musa then flowed in and the winds blew through the newly formed gap, gradually rounding the sharp edges into smooth curves.

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Horses are prohibited from entering the Siq, but horse drawn carriages in Petra, first and foremost for elderly and handicapped visitors. If you are able to walk though, I would STRONGLY suggest to walk your way through the Siq rather than sit down in a carriage with a roof over your head.

Along the way are some small niches, shrines and carvings to investigate (this is why having a guide is a smarter choice) and running alongside the length of the Siq are water channels carved by the Nabateans to provide water to the city of Petra.

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The walk along the Siq is punctuated with curious carvings and friezes, all the while building up to that climax: the first sighting of the Treasury.

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I was holding my heart for a few minutes at this sight, just staring at it from all angles. (Special thanks to our guide who took this photo of us!)

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Most visitors will have seen the building in the famous Indiana Jones scene, but the initial view invariably leaves them momentarily staring in awe before reaching for the camera and reeling off several hundred pictures. I know I did!

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As I’ve mentioned earlier in this post, before my trip to Jordan, I thought the Treasury was all there is to¬†Petra. Boy, I was dead wrong and embarrassingly misinformed. The below photo was taken on the right side of the Treasury (right side when it’s in front of you).

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Walking around the bend, you’ll find there is more to Petra than just the Treasury. We¬†leave behind the crowded Treasury area and head further into Petra. While the Treasury is the best-known part of this site, it‚Äôs just the tip of the iceberg.

Here is what you’ll see BEYOND the treasury!

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We walked a lot at Petra, exploring the sites, climbing on rocks and taking hundreds of pictures.

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We were already dog tired from all the walking and trekking (news flash – we live in Dubai when “trekking” and “walking a lot” isn’t exactly included in our daily lives…) but our guide took us to the Urn Tomb – when I was tempted to say no, my daughter was¬†glad to drag her butt uphill again to see the Royal Tombs up close and go inside so, I had to go too.

I’m glad I made the climb. The view from up here is beautiful.

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TIP: When you’re inside this chamber, SING. Yes, you may get some strange stares but this chamber has eerily wonderful acoustics you’ll feel you’re a pro singer. No joke!

Note that the vendors on the way to the Royal Tombs are relentless and sometimes no polite ‘no thank you’ will keep them at bay. Remember, times are tough in Jordan. We are thankful we have our guide with us who dealt with this stuff (in the local language).

We started to make our exit around 2 pm, after spending nearly 6 hours in Petra . The difference was astounding. People and vendors were milling about everywhere, and it would’ve been impossible to get a photo in front of the Treasury without 10 people with a selfie stick in the background.

******

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All you said about Petra is rose coloured, any negative points and tips to offer?

My main complaint about Petra would probably be the steep entrance fee of JD50 (approx US$70 per person (as of this writing). While I would still say, it was worth our time, JD50 for a day makes Petra more expensive than any single tourist attraction I have ever been to, and it is exorbitantly higher than anything else in Jordan.

Petra is one of the most fantastic places I‚Äôve ever been, so I‚Äôm not saying don’t go. Some tips you’ll find from other blogs would be to buy the 2 or 3 day pass as there’s not much difference in the cost with the 1 day pass. But personally, I don’t know if I have the energy to go again in a span of 24 hours. I may go back to Petra again but would like a considerable amount of time in between to reflect and miss it to explore it again. My wish is to take my parents there.

Next, I feel it’s unfortunate how local vendors have literally littered the place, some selling wares very aggressively up to the point I feel harassed sometimes. And I know I am not the first one to say or feel this – a simple Google search and you will find so many who can say the same thing.

While I understand it’s the only livelihood they know, if the current number of sellers increase, it could affect the visitor’s whole experience of Petra.

Ok to cap this really long post (thanks for sticking around!), if you do go to Petra, three quick tips.

1. Start your trip into Petra early ‚Äď at 6 am there are no trinket sellers (I won’t lie – I find the hard selling of the locals a tad annoying), no horses or camels, and all the major sites are deserted.

2. Be prepared to walk, walk, walk so wear sturdy shoes/sandals.

3. Bring your own food and drink –¬†Hiking the off beaten trails may take a couple of hours and into your meal times. It’s always good to have something to munch on and drink so you can spend more time exploring.

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Spending time exploring this massive red stone city is an experience you will always remember.

It starts with a walk through the kilometer long Siq, naturally carved rocks that shielded the city from prying eyes for centuries. The first glimpse every visitor has of the city is the famous Treasury building, highlighted in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But Petra is a lot more than just one building; numerous hiking paths allow guests to discover the full width and breadth of this beautiful complex.

Even with the recent unfortunate event in Jordan that threatened tourist security, I hope¬†for peace and wish all of you reading this would still have the plans and chance to see this part of the world with your own eyes. It’s truly a wonder.

Guide to visiting Petra for first timers

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This guide to visiting Petra is meant to make this glorious site just a bit easier to get to. Depending on when you stumble upon this blog post, the data and information (especially the entrance fee) may not be accurate anymore, so do check from Jordan Tourism Board’s official website.

*****

Ah Petra, how do I even start?

I’ve known about Petra before it became one of the new seven wonders of the world, through a movie.¬†Are you familiar with the last scene of the movie Indiana Jones and¬†last crusade? If not, watch the movie.

Petra is the jewel of Jordan, and is a must see.

It is Jordan’s A-list attraction, a ‚Äúlost‚ÄĚ citadel whose prime landmark ‚Äď the carved, colonnaded wonder Al Khazneh (‚ÄúThe Treasury‚ÄĚ) – has illuminated countless documentaries and films.

Over the centuries, Petra was known only to occasional plunderers and the Bedouins who remained in the area. It was altogether unknown to Westerners until 1812, when a Swiss explorer, masquerading as an Arab in Egypt, heard tales of an ancient city in the mountains 250 miles to the east and coaxed a guide to take him there.

WHY SHOULD YOU GO TO PETRA

Petra is one of the world’s most compelling historical sites. The Treasury and other structures are¬†sculpted from the red-rock cliffs of the Jordanian desert 2,000 years ago. Looking at the seemingly perfect symmetry and intricate details, you’d wonder HOW the Nabateans built the Treasury and most of Petra’s grandest buildings ‚Äď as sculptures, carving them into the sandstone cliffs. It is this display of human creativity amid such rugged surroundings that makes Petra remarkable.

HOW TO GET THERE

From Dubai, Fly Dubai flies to Amman twice a day and has the best flight schedule, leaving early morning from Dubai and taking off from Amman at night on the way back. Air Arabia, Emirates and Royal Jordanian also flies to Amman non-stop.

Petra is located 250 kilometers south of Amman, about 2 and a half hours by car from the airport. There are taxis available right outside the airport as well as a public bus called Jett Bus¬†from Amman. Unfortunately, I can’t vouch for either the taxi or the public bus since we had a private van with driver and tour guide arranged by Amani Tours¬†for the whole duration of our trip.

We went to Petra after a day trip to the Dead Sea, arriving after sunset. The journey from Movenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea to Wadi Musa (the village where Petra is located) took about 2 hours. Our driver drove through Kings Highway to Petra and there were parts of the highway which were not lighted at all. ¬†There were random checkpoints as well with the Jordanian police interviewing the driver, etc. It’s all to make Jordan safer.

WHERE TO STAY IN PETRA

There are several hotels in Wadi Musa, catering to the surge of tourists who visit the town to see Petra, after it was declared one of the seven new wonders of the world.

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If you‚Äôre staying in Wadi Musa, then Petra is a short walk away. We stayed at the Movenpick Resort Petra which is only across the street from the gate to the Visitor’s Center. One of the five stars hotel in the area, we had a clean, comfortable room but we did not have much time to explore other facilities and amenities since we arrived around 8 pm and checked out by 6 am.

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The duty manager Ms. Rania was very kind to welcome us into the hotel. Breakfast is a large buffet that starts at 6 am which allows early risers to get into Petra at the crack of dawn.

The location of the hotel is its biggest selling point. It is really worth staying that close to Petra. Though you can visit Petra any time you like, it’s always best to go there early so if in case you oversleep, staying in a hotel close by will not ruin your plans.

COST (as of this writing, December 2016)

I must admit, the first time I thought and planned of visiting Jordan and most especially, Petra, I didn’t expect there was an entrance fee to the site. Then I spent some time doing Google searches and found out.

The following fees information are from the Visit Petra website.

The following table are fees for the accommodated visitor: Visitor who stays at least one night in Jordan.

Entrance Ticket (per person) Price
One  Day 50 JOD (approx AED250 or US$68)
Two  Days 55 JOD (approx AED275 or US$75)
Three days 60 JOD (approx AED300 or US$82)

** Children 12 years old and under enter Petra free of charge. **

A horse ride from the visitor’s centre to the entrance of the Siq is included in the ticket price, though you’ll still need to pay a tip which varies. This is a tricky part and you might find yourself on top of an animal the whole time you negotiate for what you feel is the right tip.

We did not do the horse ride to the entrance of the Siq because it’s an easy 15-minute walk downhill. You might want to save the horse ride till the way back up as that final uphill stretch of sandy path after a whole day’s walking is a bit of a killer.

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My daughter was over 12 years old when we purchased the tickets to Petra at the Visitor’s Center so I¬†had to shell out for a normal ticket for her. ¬†The staff at the counter was¬†very strict, I actually wonder if any families with small framed kids over 12 got away for free by telling the kid is less than 12 years old?

Anyway, we paid 50 JD x 2 = 100 JD (approx AED500 or US$135). While I would still say that Petra is worth visiting once in your life, the fees are outrageous with no student discounts or special discounts for minors! I hope the Jordanian government do something with this hefty fee as it will surely backfire and affect tourism to Petra.

When I told my sister and some friends about the cost to enter Petra, they were shocked and asked me, “so, what was inside the Treasury?”. I said, I don’t know because tourists are NOT allowed to enter the Treasury! Yeah, contrary to what we have all seen from the Indiana Jones movie! They all thought the steep entrance fee was for a tour of what’s inside the Treasury!

That said, Petra should really be marketed as an archaeological park made for hikers who want to spend 2-3 days exploring a unique desert landscape, with some cool ancient buildings to see along the way.

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BEST SEASON/TIME TO VISIT PETRA

The weather and climate in Jordan can vary dramatically depending on location and altitude. In the summer the weather in Jordan, especially in the deserts and Jordan valley is blisteringly hot while at other times of year the deserts can be freezing and snow is not unheard of.

It was cold in Petra (and in Amman too) when we were there in December. I was hesitant to bring my daughter’s thick, down jacket but someone from the travel agency told me to bring winter clothes and I’m glad I did! It was freezing in the morning.

Opening hours to visit Petra are from 6am to 6pm during the summer and from 6am to 4 pm in winter.

To avoid the crowds and the heat, I strongly recommend making the effort to be there as early as you can – we were at the gate buying tickets at 7am. Going early means you will get a chance to walk through the Siq without anyone blocking the view for photos or see the Treasury with almost no one around.

HOW LONG DO YOU NEED TO STAY TO ENJOY PETRA?

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Petra stretches over a massive 60 square kilometre area and you’ll end up doing a lot of walking but to just see the highlights, you can comfortably see Petra in a day.

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Everyone has different levels of fitness, however, you could spend five to six hours exploring, or twice that time – but even so, a day gives you plenty of time.

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Also, Petra is a early bird game, start at 7 am and you can finish everything on or before closing time, unless you are a archeologist ūüôā

We spent 7 hours at Petra, starting at 7 am.

WHAT SHOULD I BRING TO PETRA?

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1. Water –¬†There is a mixture of places to eat and drink inside Petra, ranging from Bedouin tea stalls, simple kiosks to caf√©s but prices will be higher of course. Bring your own water not only if you want to save but also to have something to drink till you get to those places selling it.

2. Comfortable shoes –¬†You‚Äôll be walking over sandy and rocky ground so walking shoes are probably the best bet.

3. Warm winter clothing (if travelling during winter time) – I’m not kidding you on this, especially if you go to Petra in December like us. Don’t think this place is warm because it’s in the Middle East – it was 4C when we went on the 2nd week of December!

4. Cash – for tips in case you opt for a donkey/camel ride and buy food, drinks and souvenirs.

5. CAMERA –¬†fully charged and SD cards with ample storage as you will be taking a LOT of pictures! Also bring power bank for your phone, if you’re taking photos with your phone.

CAN I TAKE MY KIDS TO PETRA?

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This deserves a separate, more extensive post but to make it short –

I traveled to Jordan and went to Petra with my (almost) teen and had absolutely no problems. However, traveling with smaller kids, I bet would be challenging. Not impossible but there are things you’d have to do and give up if ever you decide to go with your little tots. Lots of walking are involved and putting the child in a stroller will not be comfortable for him/her as the roads are not smooth.

I hesitate to advise against being brave and trying, but realistically, looking after a baby/toddlers is likely to take quite a lot away from your enjoyment of the site.

IS PETRA WORTH IT?

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No questions asked, YES.

Never mind the outrageously expensive entrance fee, I feel exploring this massive red stone city is an experience you will always remember. I will be writing a separate post about our journey to the Treasury through more than a kilometer stretch of canyon. It was absolutely stunning and by far, my favorite part of our visit to Petra.

To hire a tour guide in Jordan or not

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One of the factors that made our Jordan trip very satisfying and memorable was our local guide from Amani Tours. Wafa is a very experienced tourist guide and goes out of her way to tell us stories of the place complete with history and humor. She speaks Arabic, very diplomatic and can ward off aggressive peddlers (without hurting their feelings!) which is helpful as I really find it hard to refuse to shoo away these kind of people aplenty on touristy areas, especially children selling goods or begging.

There are hundreds of Jordanian tour operators dealing with incoming tourism, but most are fairly set in their ways, offering virtually identical seven-day tours around a circuit of sights from Amman to Jerash, Madaba, Karak, Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba and the Dead Sea.

Only a handful has guides that take you off the beaten track and our guide took us to a more scenic route on our way to Aqaba after Petra and other significant places very few tourists reach.

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Fewer can take you out of the tourist bubble for one-on-one encounters with local people.

She introduced us to a handful of Jack Sparrows at Petra

She introduced us to a handful of Jack Sparrows at Petra

With her Bedouin friend, Salim who drove us on his pickup truck at Wadi Rum

With her Bedouin friend, Salim who drove us on his pickup truck at Wadi Rum

She wasn’t required to go into the water but was there so I can get¬†out of¬†the Dead Sea ALIVE. Don’t zoom in my face.

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She took us to an elevated area in Aqaba where the locals live, so we can see the whole port city and say goodbye to it properly.

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In all my trips, this is the first time we’re with a guide because in all other cities, I preferred to navigate all on my own, getting lost and learning along the way.

However, the sites in Jordan is massive and I think, without a guide, it’s easy to miss important, historical details that add more meaning to your trip.

Professional, licensed guides can be either hired to accompany you throughout your tour of Jordan (the best option), or at least to visit Petra exclusively, from the Visitors Centre at the entrance to Petra itself. I am not sure about the cost of a private guide to Petra.
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We connected very easily with Wafa.

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I love her positive attitude about life, her love for travel (oh her adventure-packed travel experiences and stories!) and passion for what she does. She ‘works’ tirelessly (I’m ashamed to admit she has more energy than I do!).

I feel so happy to have met our wonderful guide in Jordan and I’ve never been this excited to write about people I met during my travels. She was more than a tour guide for us – she didn’t make us feel we were tourists but instead, her long time friends who has come to Jordan to visit her.

And she gives the best hugs.

So yeah…I think a trip to Jordan without a guide, although possible would be different.¬†The majority of sites in Jordan are not well marked and you can miss a lot of important places/events because of this.¬† A full-time guide is by far the best bet as they will show you a truly personal view of their country which they are very proud of.

If and when you get to Jordan and decide to hire a guide, I hope he/she is as wonderful as ours. Good luck!

*****

Amani Tours (where Wafa is connected), is in the trusted tour agencies list of the official Jordan Tourism Board.They offer standard and tailored tour packages, car transfers and fully licensed local guides. You can reach them via their Facebook page or on Twitter or call +962 6 585 9696  & Fax + 962 6 585 9697.

Amani Tours provided a driver and a guide to take us around Jordan to fulfill our 4 days, 3 nights itinerary, however, all opinions are my own.