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Aqaba Jordan, Dana Biosphere Reserve and the Dead Sea: Which Is Worth It?

The kids looking down into the canyon before our hike.

Should you leave time in your Jordan itinerary for all of these?

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Recently, we spent six days in Jordan on an amazing road trip. We packed A LOT into our six days. Probably one of the craziest 48 hours was when we left Wadi Rum to spend the day in Aqaba Jordan. Then, the following day, we visited Dana Biosphere Reserve and the Dead Sea. We covered a lot of ground in that time. When all was said and done, I was glad that we visited each of these destinations. Having said that, I do not think that all of them are of equal value.

In this blog, I am going to highlight our experiences in each of these places. I will discuss our accommodation and the activities that we did. At the end, I hope that I am able to help you figure out how best to spend your time in Jordan.

 

Dana Biosphere Reserve
One of the many beautiful views in Dana Biosphere Reserve.

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Collaboration with Jordan Direct Tours

I worked with Suha Kopti at Jordan Direct Tours, a local tour operator in Amman Jordan, to help me create our 6 day itinerary for our family of 6 (14, 15, 18 and 21 years old). She was amazing and endlessly patient with my questions. We had our own large van with a lovely and knowledgeable driver/guide. He was a wonderful source of information about Jordan’s history and politics. I chose and booked all of our accommodation. However,  all other aspects of our itinerary – transfers, guided tours, excursions – were booked through Jordan Direct Tours.

 

Wadi Rum to Aqaba Jordan

We started our day in Wadi Rum. The previous day we did an incredible 3 hour sunset jeep tour which uncovered beautiful petroglyphs and hidden bedouin camps. We climbed enormous red sanded dunes and stood on giant craggy rocks with awe-inspiring views. At night, we participated in a star gazing experience and finally, fell asleep under the starts in a luxury bedouin camp of our own. I wrote all about this amazing experience in another article, Wadi Rum: An Epic Guide To Exploring Its Hidden Treasures. For ideas about where to stay and how to spend your time in Wadi Rum, I would recommend taking a peak!

 

Wadi rum
One of the many spectacular views in Wadi Rum.

 

The Drive To Aqaba Jordan

Our guide drove us just over an hour from Wadi Rum to Aqaba. It was an effortless transfer. The roads were generally well paved and wide, although there was the occasional pot hole and speed bump in the unlikeliest  of places. There was hardly another soul on the highway.

The scenery continued to be beautiful. We were continuously surrounded by desert. Initially,  it was the red sand and jagged mountains similar to Wadi Rum. However, as we approached the Red Sea and Aqaba Jordan, the colour of the desert and the mountains evolved into the soft yellows I normally associate with deserts. – different but also beautiful.

 

Aqaba Jordan

Aqaba Jordan is on the Red Sea and the only coastal city in Jordan. It lies at Jordan’s southernmost point, on the Gulf of Aqaba.

Jordan is a landlocked country except for the 24 km (15 miles) of coastline at Aqaba Jordan. Incredibly, Saudi Arabia and Israel are located on either side, and Egypt is a maritime border only a 2 1/2 hours ferry ride away. Remarkably, all three countries are within a one hour drive of Aqaba. It goes without saying, but there is a lot of history and politics packed into this tiny part of the world!

 

Aqaba Jordan
Relaxing on our boat with Israel and Egypt in the background.

 

What is Aqaba Jordan like?

My overall impression of Aqaba Jordan is that it hasn’t really figured out its role in Jordanian tourism or in its economy. I would like to say it is a beautiful resort town with gorgeous palm trees, an immaculate beach, with fantastic beachside hotels, pools, restaurants and bars ready to satisfy all sun seekers. However, that would not be entirely accurate. It is pretty. The beach is welcoming and and there are some nice hotels near the beach. However,  Aqaba Jordan feels more like a populous town in Jordan that happens to have a beach than a resort town. I don’t think that Aqaba is far away from becoming an incredible sun destination that encourages tourists to walk, explore, shop and find restaurants outside the hotel, only that it isn’t quite there yet.

 

Aqaba Jordan
A view of our hotel and Aqaba beach from our snorkelling excursion.

 

On a separate note, it was a little unsettling being mere kilometres from Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. There was nothing obvious that caused my discomfort. On the contrary, if our guide hadn’t pointed it out, I would have had no idea how close we were to any of these countries. However, once I knew, I definitely felt a little vulnerable knowing how contentious and often violent the relationships are amongst these countries at any given moment. Overall, a very interesting experience spending time in this tranquil coastal town.

 

Accommodation at Aqaba Jordan

We spent one night at the Movenpick Resort & Residences. This was a lovely hotel with a gorgeous pool and its’ own private beach.  The hotel staff were all very friendly and helpful.

They very graciously upgraded our two rooms to a three bedroom suite with a nice view of the Red Sea. Our suite had fresh fruit, water and other treats.

 

Aqaba Jordan
Our view from our hotel room.

 

For accommodation at the Movenpick or elsewhere in Aqaba Jordan, I would recommend searching below in booking.com and using the amazing interactive map to find your ideal location at the best prices.



Booking.com

 

What we did in Aqaba Jordan

We spent around 4 hours (from late morning) on a large boat cruising on the Red Sea. This was booked by Jordan Direct Tours through Sindbad and cost around $45 USD per person. We snorkelled in a couple of spots, lounged on the deck and ate an incredible barbecue seafood and kebab meal. It was the perfect easy going way to spend our time after all of the exhilarating experiences that we had in the previous days exploring Petra and Wadi Rum.

 

Aqaba Jordan
Our delicious seafood and kebab lunch.

 

The snorkelling was just ok. I have snorkelled in many spots all over the world and I didn’t find that this snorkelling was anything exceptional. However, that does not diminish how much we enjoyed the boat, the crew, relaxing on the deck, and swimming in the Red Sea.

 

Aqaba Jordan
Harrison about to go snorkelling in the Red Sea.

 

Aqaba Jordan
Snorkelling in Red Sea.

 

Would I recommend Aqaba Jordan?

Yes. We very much welcomed the relaxing day on the boat and on the water. Later, we sat by the pool and enjoyed delicious cocktails.

Having said that, you need to manage your expectations. This is still a developing resort town. Further, I would not give up any of our experiences in Petra, Wadi Rum or Dana Biosphere Reserve in exchange for time in Aqaba Jordan. If you can’t “do it all” in Jordan, then this would be one of the days that I would exclude. For more information about our time exploring Petra, both during the day and at night (a magical experience), please read Petra Half Day Tour: Was It Enough? and Petra By Night: Secret Tips For A Magical Night.

Later in this blog, I will discuss our time at the Dead Sea. Without getting into too much detail right now (more information follows below), I did prefer our time in Aqaba on the Red Sea to our time at the Dead Sea. Accordingly, if you had to choose between more time in Aqaba or the Dead Sea, I would definitely pick Aqaba Jordan.

 

Aqaba Jordan To Dana Biosphere Reserve

The next morning, our guide drove us 2 1/2 hours from Aqaba Jordan to Dana Biosphere Reserve. Again, it was a very pleasant drive with beautiful scenery.

 

 

Dana Biosphere Reserve

Established in 1989, Dana Biosphere Reserve is Jordan’s largest nature reserve, covering some 320 km2 (or 80,000 acres) of rugged landscape along the face of the Great Rift Valley. It is comprised of mountain ridges as high as 1500m (5000 ft) and desert plains below. The landscape switches between limestone, sandstone and granite, often with lush vegetation scattered throughout. Remarkably, you can walk from Dana Reserve to Petra which would take between 4-5 days.

Dana Biosphere Reserve is the most diverse nature reserve in the country in terms of habitats and species, hosting several vegetation types. More than 800 plant species can be found within the reserve, three of which have only ever been recorded in Dana Biosphere Reserve and can not be found anywhere else in the world. Dana is very cold in the winter. According to our guide, it can get colder than Siberia!

 

Dana Biosphere Reserve
A view from our hike.

 

Dana Biosphere Reserve
One of the beautiful trees that we saw on our hike.

 

Dana Biosphere Reserve supports a wide variety of wildlife, including many rare species of plants and animals. It is home to several globally threatened species of birds and mammals, such as the Syrian Serin, Lesser Kestrel, Fox, and Nubian Ibex. Finally, Dana Biosphere Reserve has the largest breeding colony in the world for Syrian Serin.

 

What we did in Dana Biosphere Reserve

We did a 2 hour hike in Dana Biosphere Reserve with a bedouin guide. I LOVED it! First of all, Dana Reserve was spectacularly beautiful. The views were astounding. It was also a very untouched area of Jordan. There was a small modern hotel perched on top overlooking stunning drops down into the valleys. However, right next to that, was a small and traditional village with cute little shops, cafes and welcoming locals. The village was built in Roman ruins in the Ottoman style over 500 years ago. However, it was renovated in 2003 and has a wonderful feel to it.

Jordan Direct Tours booked this hike through Dana Guest House. It cost $22USD per person for a 2-3 hour hike with a minimum of 4 people.

 

Dana Biosphere Reserve
Part of the Village above Dana Reserve.
Dana Biosphere Reserve
A friendly local insisted on a photo. We were happy to oblige.

 

Dana Biosphere Reserve
Returning through the village after hike.

 

Our guide took us on a moderate hike and told us personal stories about growing up in Dana Biosphere Reserve. His family lived at the bottom of the mountains. He had about a dozen siblings and they herded sheep. Every day, he had to climb from the bottom of the mountain to the top to go to school, something that took over an hour each way. The headmaster was cruel. If he was even a minute late, he would take a tiny rock and grind it into his earlobe. Fast forward 15 years, and he is pursuing an English degree at university, hoping to help his family have a better life in a modern world.

Dana Biosphere Reserve
A local’s house at Dana.

 

A highlight of our hike was when he built a fire and made us the best tea that I have ever had with cardamon and cinnamon. I would have happily spent a day or two more with him hiking in this beautiful part of Jordan.

 

Dana Biosphere Reserve
Our guide making tea for us.

 

Dana Biosphere Reserve To The Dead Sea

After our hike, we climbed back into our car and set off to the Dead Sea. The drive from Dana Biosphere Reserve to the Dead Sea took another 2 1/2 hours. This was when the day began to feel a little long. The drive itself was pretty. We drove along the highway but also in the mountains and through small villages. However, our goal was to reach our hotel and experience the Dead Sea before sunset. The next day we were flying out to Cairo in the early morning on our way to Kenya. Accordingly, there was a sense of urgency to make it to our hotel in good time.

 

For more information about our layover tour in Cairo the following day, please have a look at my article Cairo Layover Tour: Was It Worth It?

 

Accommodation At The Dead Sea

We stayed one night at the Hilton Dead Sea Resort & Spa at the Dead Sea. This was a beautiful large hotel with multiple pools, decks, bars and restaurants with endless views. It had its own beach with private access to the Dead Sea. For accommodation at the Hilton or elsewhere, I would recommend searching below in booking.com and using the interactive map to find your ideal location at the best prices.



Booking.com

 

What To Expect At The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is the lowest point in the world at 394.6 m ( or 1269 ft) below sea level. It is considered the second saltiest major body of water in the world. In addition, its name is derived from the fact that it is so salty it is close to impossible for there to be any marine life.

For humans, the salt density means that it is almost impossible to sink. We tried to disprove this theory by raising our feet and arms in the air while floating. Indeed, we bobbed along easily. The mud along the shore of the Dead Sea contains many minerals and is believed to have medicinal and therapeutic benefits. When we arrived at the shores of the Dead Sea at our hotel, we were met by dozens of hotel guests entirely covered, from their faces to their toes, in mud. It was quite a scene!

 

Dead Sea Jordan
Where guests go to cover their bodies in the Dead Sea mud.

 

Dead Sea Jordan
What most of the guests looked like after covering their body with mud from the Dead Sea.

 

Dead Sea Jordan
Look no hands!

 

It is very important to avoid getting any salt water in your eyes. Further, I would avoid the Dead Sea if you have any open cuts. Both would sting and it would be very unpleasant.

 

Would I Recommend the Dead Sea?

My family definitely got a kick out of going into the Dead Sea and experiencing the bizarre floating sensation. Also, the Hilton was gorgeous. It was a pleasure sitting around the pool, drinking cocktails and experiencing the views. However overall, this was probably my least favourite time in Jordan. Apart from the 30 minutes or so in the Dead Sea and at the beach, there wasn’t anything remarkable about our time there. I found the hotel and the immediate surroundings to be artificial in the sense that there wasn’t anything that really connected us to all of our other experiences in Jordan. It felt like a very western environment.

 

Dead Sea Jordan
The private beach and Hilton hotel from the Dead Sea.

 

Dead Sea Jordan
The view of the Hilton hotel and the Dead Sea.

 

As I said earlier, I preferred our time in Aqaba to our time in the Dead Sea. I mentioned that Aqaba Jordan was an unpolished resort type of experience. However, that wasn’t a complaint on my part, but an observation for those looking for the resort-style sun destination. I liked that Aqaba offered modern pleasures without sacrificing its connections to Jordan, its history and its beautiful landscape. In Aqaba, I never once felt like I was anywhere but Jordan. At the Dead Sea, I felt that I could have been in any luxury hotel in any country in the world.

It is hard not to forego going to the Dead Sea because of how unique of an experience it is to freely float in water. However, if you are challenged for time, I would seriously consider skipping this destination for much more worthwhile, interesting and authentic Jordanian experiences.

 

Conclusion

I enjoyed spending time in Aqaba Jordan and having a relaxing day exploring the Red Sea. The next day, I was blown away by how beautiful and untouched Dana Biosphere Reserve was. I loved our Bedouin guide, his stories of his childhood, and our hiking tour which only gave us a small glimpse into what this area had to offer. Lastly, I am glad that we were able to make it to the Dead Sea. However, I am also happy that we did not sacrifice anything on our 6 day itinerary in order to spend time there. In my opinion, there is so much more to explore and experience in Jordan that provides a more authentic look into its history and its surroundings.

We had many amazing experiences in Jordan. For more helpful tips for getting the most out of your time in Jordan, please refer to my other articles:

 

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We did a road trip that took us to Aqaba, Dana Biosphere Reserve and the Dead Sea in Jordan. I'm glad we saw everything but each destination is not of equal value. Find out why. #travel #familytravel #middleeast #gofargrowclose Amman, middle eastern destinations, Asia travel guide, Travel destinations Asia, destinations in middle east, Wadi Rum, Bedouin, Hilton, travel tips, family travel tips

 

 

24 Comments

  • I visited the Dead sea in Izrael, it was expensive but gorgeous, but also a little bit boring. And thanks for your tips, I was thinking about Jordan for a very long time

    • I agree. Other than spending 10 or 15 minutes floating, there really isn’t anything else to do specific to the Dead Sea.

  • I appreciate your very honest review here. I am fascinated by Jordan and will consider your recommendations when I travel there. The Red Sea and the Dead Sea are both fascinating.

  • So floating in the dead sea was one of my major bucket list items. I did it from the other side though. Still need to step foot in Jordan.

    • I think it is a bucket list destination for many people and it should be! It is a very unique and cool experience. However, I wouldn’t spend more time than necessary at the Dead Sea in Jordan. There is just too many other things to see and do in Jordan that are just amazing.

  • What a great country, always wanted to go there. Dana Biosphere Reserve seems like a place I would like to visit the most, I just love our mother nature’s beauty.
    Thanks for sharing your experience. 🙂

  • I’ve always wanted to visit Jordan, especially Petra and Wadi Rum. Now I have the Dana Biosphere Reserve to add to my must-sees! I also like your idea of doing a boat excursion at Aqaba just to relax after all the traveling and sightseeing. Jordan is bumping up closer to the top of my list now! Thank you for the tips. 😀

  • Thanks for the thorough review! Jordan is on my bucketlist to visit, as is the Dead Sea. This definitely helps give me a good idea what to expect in each area.

  • I just love reading about this less touristy or more unknown places. Thank you for the tips, I will keep them in mind when traveling to Jordan.

    • I totally agree. I want to see the key sites, but then, I want to find untouched areas so I can try and see what the “real” country is like.

  • The landscapes here are so beautiful. I would love to see this places one day whenever I find myself in Jordan. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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