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From our very first days of living in the Middle East, we knew we absolutely had to visit Jordan sooner or later. Shon longed to go to Petra ever since he watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a child. He couldn’t believe that the temple where the climactic sequence was filmed could possibly be real. When he found out it was in Jordan, it became a dream destination. Finally, we went to Jordan with a toddler, nicknamed Turtle, in tow.
What is Jordan like? Coming from the UAE it’s a bit of a surprise. It’s poor. There’s lots of trash on empty lots. White plastic bags and other litter degrade the landscape as you drive along. Buildings aren’t tall and splendid–they’re short or stunted, some missing an upper story, perhaps to be added at a later date when money has been set aside for that purpose. Cars are old and beat up. A layer of dust covers most everything. But the people are nice. They’re humble and friendly, and they work hard for what they own.
We flew into Amman and picked up our Sixt Rental Car. A distressed group of Westerners who just found out there were no more cars available made us grateful for the hidden advantages of traveling with a toddler – like preplanning and reserving a rental car in advance. We even brought our own carseat with us. Rental vehicle secured, we headed south to Wadi Musa with 2 stops on the way.
Our first stop was in Madaba – a city of about 60,000 that dates back to Middle Bronze Age. It’s so old, it’s mentioned in the Old Testament several times. The main tourist draw is the mosaic Madaba Map on the floor of the church of Saint John. The mosaic is famous because it is the only surviving original map of the Holy Land and Jerusalem.
As one can imagine, our 17-month old didn’t care much about old mosaics, but he did enjoy the opportunity to get out of his carseat and run around the church yard. By this point in our travels, we learned the importance of making stops to allow the toddler to do something that’s fun for him.
A word of warning: back in the fall of 2014 it was NOT a very good place to go with a young child because of safety issues. We have seen several uncovered wells around the castle and Turtle was not happy with having to be in our arms most of the time. However, if you keep your kids close, this Crusader’s stronghold – the largest one in the Levant – is worth a visit.
There used to be a time when tourists could camp out right in Petra. For better or worse, those days are gone and one needs to find a hotel, most of which are located in the neighboring town of Wadi Musa. The place we stayed at is not a hotel. It is called Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp and it’s a fantastic choice for a family. The price is perfect; the tents clean and reasonably comfortable; the breakfast simple but good (for a little extra, you can also have dinner and/or a sack lunch). There are bathrooms and showers but hot water and electricity are only available at certain times.
I thought it an ideal place to stay with an active toddler: there was nothing he could break and virtually no way for him to hurt himself. In the evenings, the guests and the hosts gather around a fire to drink very sweet tea and talk. The owner is extremely knowledgeable about Petra and is happy to help with one’s planning. There’s only one thing to be aware of: the local red dust never washed out of Turtle’s pants.
Next morning, we headed out to Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon. This section of desert is known in the West thanks to its starring role in the film Lawrence of Arabia. The Zalabia Bedouin who used to move their camps around Wadi Rum have mostly settled in the village now and run fantastic eco-tourism agencies. We selected Jordan Tracks and had a great experience with them. The first (and my favorite) part of the trip was camel trekking. Granted, the moment when the camel gets off its knobby knees is a bit scary, but once you are up, the experience is like nothing else. Our trusted Boba Air carrier that we’ve taken all over the world with us, came in quite useful and our toddler sat in it peacefully for the duration of the ride.
Once off the camels, we took in the view, tried sand-boarding, and got into a 4×4 with a local Bedouin guide whose family is among those who have exclusive rights to the national park. He told us that his grandfather is still leading a nomadic life! One of our stops was at the so-called Lawrence’s House (he may or may not have actually been posted there). The scenery was amazing.
And if you should spend the night there, either in a tent or a cave, as many people choose to, you would be amazed by the total lack of light pollution late at night. The stars present themselves in a way that it’s easy to forget is possible when you spend most of your time in the urban sprawl that encompasses much of our modern world.
We all enjoyed Wadi Rum, but I think it was Turtle’s favorite part of our trip. It was so toddler-friendly! He got to play in the sand and pick up rocks to his heart’s content, he got to ride in a Jeep without a carseat, he climbed things, and enjoyed the attention of the Bedouins.
Finally, the next day we made it to Petra. If you want to make it there before everybody else does, get up early. At 7.15 in the morning, we were walking in the perfectly empty Siq, rubbing our hands along canyon walls and singing, our voices reverberating. It was, indeed, something special to see the Treasury (that’s the Indiana Jones place, you know) present itself as we made our way through the Siq approaching it. The sun colored the rocks orange as it rose higher. To this day, I get goosebumps when I think about it.
You walk the Siq expecting to see THIS at every turn.</p[>
Some of us were less awestruck.
Seeing the Monastery was pretty awesome. It’s so big! There’s a great place to eat in the shade, on a bench, right there with a view of the Monastery (so named because it was repurposed as a church for a while) and we ate our lunch there. There several merchants up there and I bought a lovely silver ring.
By the time we got back down and walked the main street of the ancient city, we were hot, tired, and ready for dinner. Financially, it makes more sense to buy a 2-day ticket to Petra but one day was enough for our family.
The Dead Sea
We couldn’t go to Jordan and not make a stop at the Dead Sea. Friends strongly suggested that we book a nice hotel for this portion of the journey, and we were glad we did. For one thing, it was very nice to end the trip relaxing, but more importantly, it was the best possible way to access the Dead Sea, especially with a young child. Our stay at Crowne Plaza was brief but very nice. Even though the resort cost more than we’d prefer to spend on a hotel, it actually ranks as really affordable for a five-star hotel and, we agree, it’s worth every penny. A little word to the wise–plan to eat at the hotel, because there isn’t much outside of the resorts for dining.
The Dead Sea itself was a rather surreal experience. It felt like it was messing with my head: everything you’ve ever known about water suddenly becomes untrue! I didn’t expect it to be so hard to put my feet back down. We followed the accepted procedure and smothered ourselves with the Dead Sea mud after getting out of the water. Turtle didn’t like the idea of the sea and liked the idea of the mud even less.
Fortunately, there was a kiddie pool. With a slide. His happiness was restored!
So what is it like, then, to travel the country of Jordan with a toddler? It’s pretty great. Our traveling Turtle had a blast with sand, slides, celebrity status, and open space, and Shon and I got to experience the wonders of Petra (Wadi Musa), Wadi Rum, and the Dead Sea. That Sixt rental car gave us freedom to explore at our own pace, and each and every place we went was interesting. Jordan has much to offer, from camel tours to Bedouin camping, and we’d go back in a heart beat.
If you like reading, do check out Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite Van Geldermalsen–a New Zealander who, as the title suggests, married a Bedouin from Petra. She still lives in Umm Sayhoon Bedouin village and works with her son Raami selling unique silver jewelry that local women make.
To read more about traveling with kids, head over here.