When most people think of Jordan, they immediately think of the Dead Sea along the border with Israel and of Petra to the South with all of its glorious ancient tombs. One least expects to find the ruins of ancient Roman cities in addition to a sprinkling of legendary places that inspired the stories from the Bible. Northern Jordan is the country’s open secret and only a lack of transportation to these places keep the tourists away. Renting a car is the best way to take advantage of these world class sites that you will mostly have to yourself. Claire and I took advantage of this as we grabbed a car for three days and hit the road, exploring all of what the area around Amman had to offer. Let’s just say there was a lot.
Driving in Jordan
Be warned that driving in Jordan is not for the faint of heart. In Jordan, road markings and signs are treated more as suggestion than law, and drivers are very aggressive, much of the time relying on faith that others will stay where they are or get out of their way. Large speed bumps are randomly placed everywhere, so expect a few unexpected bumps. Seriously… you are driving along at 70 km/h and then all of the sudden, with no sign or anything, you realize there is a speed bump in front of you… not fun! Be on the look out for these as much as you look out for people, farm animals, and crazy drivers along your path. I’m not trying to scare you here, I just want you to be prepared when you get behind the wheel.
Most of the difficulties you will encounter are while driving through towns and other urban areas. Highways are rather tame and easy to use. Driving in Jordan is really slow, especially when passing through towns. From our experience, double the time your navigation system projects and that’s about how long it will take you to get from point A to point B. As long as you drive defensively and keep your wits about you at all times, driving in Jordan should not be a problem, most likely only leading to some elevated blood pressure, a few nervous sweats, and a lot of laughs after you make your way through the demolition derby course that is Jordan’s roads unscathed.
Renting a Car in Jordan
Your best bet for renting a car in Jordan is Amman. After a lot of research we ended up using Reliable Rent a Car. These guys had good ratings and were located within walking distance to our Airbnb. An economy class car will run you around $30 USD a day with basic insurance. As is common practice, the car will most likely be given to you without a full tank of gas (ours was almost empty) which is annoying as you need to make sure you don’t buy more fuel than you need without running out of gas when you try to return it back empty. To have an idea, over three days, we ended up using one full tank of gas and there were plenty of gas stations along all the routes we took. Other than the empty gas tank, we had no problems doing business with these guys as everything went smoothly and the rental process was easy.
Road Trip #1 Ancient Ruins Tour
Distance Traveled : 230 km (143 miles)
Total Time (including sights): 12 hours
The Theater at Jerash
Northern Jordan is blessed with two world class archeological sites that are neglected by most tourists. Jerash, The City of a Thousand Columns is the largest set of Roman ruins outside of Italy. Others have left their mark here as well including the Byzantines, Umayyad Caliphates, Crusaders, and the Ottomans. Walking through Jerash is to walk through thousands of years of history. The ancient remains are largely overlooked, with only 180,000 visitors a year, meaning you will have this unforgettable array of columns and ancient temples mostly to yourself.
Farther north, lies Umm Qaiss, a collection of Roman and Ottoman ruins sitting on top of a hill that overlooks the Sea of Galilee and Syria. What sets these ruins apart from Jerash is the local volcanic rock used to construct most of the city. The result ended up creating a city of black. With Um Qaiss’ unique appearance and the sweeping views into Syria and Israel it would be unfortunate to miss it while in Jordan. Due to its location way up north, you are practically guaranteed to have the ruins all to yourself.
While Jerash can be visited using public transportation, visiting Um-Qaiss would be nearly impossible so it makes sense to rent a car and do both yourself at the same time. This is a very long route and requires you to get up early if you want to take your time and appreciate everything there is to see. The most enjoyable way to do this route, is to first head to Jerash via the main highway early in the morning. The ancient Roman city takes at least three hours to explore what remains before heading towards the Syrian border to the ruins of Um Qaiss. Rather than heading back the way we came, we decided to turn this route into a loop. On the way back, you can take the road that hugs the border between Israel and Jordan along the lush and green Jordan Valley (The land of Milk and Honey). The road winds its way down to the bottom of the valley, passing through small towns and green landscapes that lie in stark contrast with the desert landscape that covers most of the country. To learn more about Jerash, click here. To learn about Umm Qais, click here.
Road Trip #2 Pretty Mosaics, Epic Drives, and a Dead Sea
Distance Traveled: 150km (93 miles)
Total Time: 9 hours (including stop time)
Don’t let the total distance fool you on this one. The route passes through many towns and uses a lot of local roads rather than highways; But making your way down to the Dead Sea via the cliff hanging switch backs, while slow, will perhaps be the most vivid memory you take from this journey (which is saying a lot considering you also get to float in the Dead Sea!)
If you want to make the most of your epic drive to the Dead Sea it is best to start this route by heading to Madaba. This bustling town is scattered with little treasures, sprinkled about in the town’s many ancient churches. This is where most of Jordan’s Christian population has settled which makes up 30% of the population here. While in town, you will often hear the accompaniment of church bells along with the usual call to prayer heard throughout all of Jordan. Most of the sights are within walking distance of each other so it is best to park your car in the lot located next to the Madaba tourist office. From here you can browse about the ancient mosaics, some dating back some 2,000 years, while the highlight is the Oldest surviving map of the holy land, a floor mosaic from the 6th century. For more information on Madaba, check out our post on the town here.
After you have your fill of mosaics, make your way towards the Dead Sea but first take time to make the detour to Machaerus, the hill top with what remains of Herod the Great’s fortress. The hill top is also supposedly where the story of John the Baptist losing his head took place. Not much remains of the castle, which was destroyed when Romans conquered the region, but the reason for coming here is not for the ruins themselves. Herod choose a million dollar view which hasn’t appeared to have changed much since the King occupied the throne. The hilltop provides sweeping views of the Dead Sea, Israel and Jordan. To learn more about Machaerus, click on our link here to go to our post about it.
From Machaerus, the Dead Sea is 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) below you. The road connecting the two is Jordan’s best drive and will have you stopping frequently in order to pick your jaw offthe floor due to the sweeping views of parched mountain tops slowly making their way down to the glimmering Dead Sea below. There are several pull offs where you can stop to take in the views and capture some photos. It’s 19 km (12 miles) of steep switchbacks, so be sure to use your low gears when heading down if you want breaks by the time you get to the bottom. Out of all the places we saw in Jordan, this short drive is one of the moments that stick out most vividly in our minds. If we ever, come back to Jordan, this will most likely find its way on our itinerary again.
After catching your breath, it’s time to get your float on in the Dead Sea. While this body of water certainly isn’t dead (Bacteria lives here) and also isn’t a sea (it is a lake), you won’t have time to ponder that as your mind will be focused on how it is possible to float so effortlessly. Floating is only half the experience as slapping the mud found along the shore all over yourself is supposed to be great for your skin. Feeling like a cork bobbing in the water was too surreal of an experience to only do once, as Claire and I made two trips to the Dead Sea.
Visiting the Dead Sea can be expensive as resorts will often charge upwards to $40 for day access to their beaches. Even the public beach charges $20 a head. While the majority of coastline is free to use, it is often impractical as much of it is lined with sheer cliffs and have no access to a fresh water source (trust me, you need it). Good for you, there is a place where locals go that is free and is located next to a hot spring, providing a relaxing rinse off after floating around for a bit. To find out more about this specific place, how to get there, and other logistics, follow the link to our post about the Dead Sea here.
Road Trip #3 Biblical Stories and Dead Sea Floats
Distance Traveled: 160 km (100 miles)
Total Time: 9 hours (including stop time)
For those interested in Biblical sites, this drive is a must do. A stone throw away from Amman lies Jesus’ baptismal site along with Mount Nembo, the supposed site of where Moses glanced out towards the Promise Land before dying. While you can find plenty of tours that will take you to these sites, their proximity to the Dead Sea make the salty lake a worthy detour which is most easily accessed (and most affordable) via your own car.
It is best to visit Mount Nebo in the morning before the tour buses arrive and completely cover the mountaintop with neon colors and cheesy tour guide flags. There is a parking area on the opposite side of the road from the ticket office where you can park. On a clear day, you can see far into Israel and the promised land. This is the supposed view described in the biblical story where God granted Moses a view of the Promise Land before he died. In addition to the view, there is a church that dates back to the 4th century. Inside are some of the best preserved mosaics from the time period. To find out more about Mount Nebo, check out our post of the mountain top here.
The road back to the main highway from Mount Nebo is incredibly scenic, involving a steep decent of switchbacks, taking you slowly down into the valley below. It is important to use your low gears while descending. Once back on the highway, follow the signs for Jesus’ baptismal site.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan is the site that the majority of historians and archeologists agree is where Jesus was baptized. The area is part of one of the heaviest guarded borders in the world, with a heavy military presence, meaning you will have to go on an organized tour in order to visit the site. The ticket office arranges tours on an hourly basis, so you can sign up when you arrive. The tour takes you to the site of the baptism and also to the current location of the Jordan river (the only place you can actually touch it from the Jordan side). The site itself is rather uninspiring, but the legend behind the story of what happened here makes it a pretty epic place to visit. Find out more about the Baptism Site in the link to our post here.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan is a hot place… like oppressingly hot. What better way to cool off than to take plunge err.. float in the Dead Sea. Due to the fact the sea is located below sea level, the UV rays are actually healthy. Find out more about how to do the Dead Sea for free by following the link here.
Northern Jordan: Epic Drives, Epic Places
Taking matters into your own hands and getting behind the wheel is most likely to be your lasting memory of Jordan. Even after taking in the wonders that are Petra, driving along the barren switchbacks hills leading to the Dead Sea, and the incomparable ruins to the North are what I think of the most. It is incredible the number of legendary places, beautiful landscapes, and epic ruins we encountered in our three days driving around Jordan. So what are you waiting for? Hit the pedal to the metal (not too fast in Jordan though), and get after it!