The Salty Dead Sea and Awe Inspiring Petra
by Patrick and Andrea Conway
From Amman our bus took to the King's Highway in the direction of Petra, first travelling through the fertile Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea. I was pretty excited about visiting the Dead Sea - at an elevation of 400m below sea level; this is the lowest place on earth!
The easiest way to visit the Dead Sea in Jordan is through one of the swish hotels that line the shore. These each have a piece of beach front so you can have a float, and most sell a day pass that gives you access to their regular pools so you can have a bit of a proper swim after you just can't take any more salt. And boy is it ever salty!! Normal sea water has about 3-4 percent salt, but the Dead Sea is about 30 percent salt, so you really don't want to end up with a mouthful of this stuff. In fact, our guide (a Canadian who picked up our tour in Amman) stood on the shore with a bottle of clean water so he could rinse out the eyes of those unlucky types who got the salt water on their face. There's so much salt in this water that it cakes the shore like little snowdrifts!
So, the experience? Awesome!!! We gingerly tip toed our way into the water - with all the salt and minerals in the water the bottom of the sea is covered by a layer of minerals and muck miles thick...the top layer of this is rather crusty and covered in what feels like sharp salt crystals (I pulled up a handful of what appeared to be rock salt), so you want to get into float mode as quickly as possible. Because of the high salt content of the water, floating is unreal. You could literally float standing up, perfectly upright, with absolutely no effort. The water itself felt pretty strange and almost had a slimy consistency...one author I read compared floating in the Dead Sea to being in wonton soup - you know how you can't keep those broth-covered wontons down??? I felt like one of those wontons!
The salty water starts to sting after a while, so once we had our fill of floating, we headed closer to the shore to cover ourselves with the magic Dead Sea mud. The Dead Sea and its sulphurous mud is said to have all sorts of healing properties (I read that the health plans of Sweden and Austria actually pay to send their psoriasis suffering clients to the Dead Sea for a dip!) The mud was pretty incredible - it has a consistency unlike any other mud I have seen...smooth, thick and soft - it really did feel like we were covering our bodies with a spa treatment. After showering off all the mud we took to the pool for a bit of fun before a deluxe lunch (the hotel buffet featured roast beef - I don't think we have had real beef in over 2 months!) All in all, an awesome experience.
I'm pretty glad we got to experience the Dead Sea - they say that in as little as three decades, the Dead Sea could be bone dry. It is falling by a meter in depth each year. To save the shrinking sea, there are plans to build a canal from the Red Sea to bring up the much-needed water, but as this would mean mixing marine water with the unique mineral composition of the Dead Sea...a solution not everyone agrees with.
After the Dead Sea fun, we drove through the countryside to Wadi Musa (the Valley of Moses) where Petra is located. The drive itself featured pretty dramatic landscapes, which I found surprising for a country that is 83 percent desert. We cruised up winding roads through the changing mountain ranges, watching out the window where little villages nestled on cliffs that tumbled down into valleys. I can usually sleep on the bus trips, but the scenery was so incredible here I didn't want to miss a minute. It almost felt like I was looking through one of those kids' kaleidoscopes...the landscape just kept shifting and changing, morphing and melting then suddenly ta-da, a burst of green would explode in the rocks where a bit of water reached the surface. Awesome. There are some serious nature reserves here in Jordan, and judging from our drive, they would be spectacular places to visit. Maybe on the next trip!
And then Petra. Seriously, Jordan gives the traveller beauty overload!! The rose red city of Petra is described as the most mystical and glorious of Jordan's ancient treasures, and I think that about sums it up. The site you visit is what remains of an ancient Nabataean city built in the 3rd century BC, and it spreads through a narrow desert gorge as a testament to the grandeur of Nabataean vision. The Nabataeans were Arabs who controlled the frankincense trade routes from Damascus to Arabia before the Romans showed up, and back in the day their Petra was admired for its refined culture, ingenious complex of dams and water channels, and its incredible architecture. The architecture that remains, imposing facades of temples and tombs carved into the rosy pink rock, simply takes your breath away.
To get to the 'hidden' city, you walk through the towering Siq, a canyon ripped apart by tectonic forces and then smoothed by water millions of years ago. Walking the path through this multi-coloured narrow gorge feels like an exercise in foreshadowing as every step raises your anticipation of the grand monuments waiting at the end...but the Siq is so beautiful itself that you are torn between wanting to race to the end and making every minute count. And then you turn the final corner, and there's the Treasury looming dramatically before you. For you movie buffs, the Treasury was the spot where Indian Jones went to find the Holy Grail in 'Indian Jones and the Last Crusade.'
In addition to simply sitting and marveling at the incredible facade of the Treasury, we climbed up to the city's Royal Tombs which stand elegantly in various stages of erosion. And then we tackled the hike up the winding path that leads to the monastery. Maybe travelling has got me really out of shape, or maybe it was the +40 heat, but this was a hard hike (however, I stayed tough and didn't give in to the temptation of riding a donkey up to the top, mainly because they didn't look too steady themselves!) However, well worth it, not only for the monastery, but also for the views out over the surrounding cliff tops.
We spent a full day in Petra (from something like 7am to 4pm) but I think you could easily spend another day in the region exploring. If you are lucky you may arrive on a day when the Siq is decked out for a night viewing of the Treasury. We missed this but friends saw it and said it was pretty incredible - the path through the Siq is lined with candles and as you get close to the Treasury the candles spill out from everywhere, making for a pretty spectacular first viewing.