Egypt / Jordan Tour - 2008

This will be the third Christmas in the row that I'll be spending by traveling somewhere. As all the extra vacation days are in the middle of the working week this year, traveling to some warm and non-Christian country to avoid all the Christmas hassle is basically mandatory... Strangely I'll be returning to a place I just recently visited (Dahab that was part of my Egypt tour 2007 last Christmas) even though my main destinations are this time on the Jordan side of Red Sea.

Last year I had a very painful 10-hour journey to Cairo because of the long transfer in Istanbul - this time I wanted to avoid this kind of situation and therefore booked the flights from a charter flight that flew to Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt.

Check out the photo gallery.

24.12.2008 Helsinki - Dahab
My flight takes off at around 9 AM on Christmas Eve. Helsinki-Vantaa airport is really silent. I somehow manage to stand in line for the wrong check-in desk for quite a while before I realize that the others are going to Canary Islands... (I thought that all the charter flights will be checking in from area 4!) The flight is delayed for about half an hour and the plane is fully booked (and there are six seats per row so the space is more than limited). Actually the flight is quite good, not much disturbance from the kids. And there is a massive landing clap - haven't heard them for ages!

I need to queue for visas for about half an hour (actually you should not need visas for Sinai area but for some reason the travel agency forces everybody to buy one - probably because of day trips to Cairo and Luxor). The next thing after immigration is to start bargaining for taxi. My intention is to take a taxi all the way to Dahab, unfortunately the drivers at the taxi stand outside seem to be systematically overpricing. I finally need to settle for 260 ŁE (that is way above the the fair price of 100-150ŁE).

The driver is a madman that keeps the speed constantly between 120 -140 km/h - therefore it does not take a long time to get to Dahab. The small town has not changed much since last Christmas. This time I'll be staying in downtown area in a place called Bedouin Lodge. The room is otherwise OK apart from the lousy shower. I'll spend the rest of the evening by overeating in the bedouin restaurants by the beachfront. The chicken sandwich that I intend to have as a snack turns out to be quite huge - later in the evening I'll still have some shish kebab and squid as the main courses. It's not a surprise that I cannot eat everything from my plates...

25.12.2008 Dahab
I slept quite well even though there seemed to be a Christmas party in the nearby club until very late (ie. loud music). The night was also rather chilly and the windows did not quite block the cold air from coming in... Anyway the morning is sunny again, temperature being at around 20 degrees. I decide to spend the day by exploring the famous diving / snorkeling site called Blue Hole. There should be transportation from my hotel by Jeep there at 11.00. And yes, there is transportation but the price is 80ŁE instead of the 50ŁE that I was told yesterday (because of lack of other participants as they are having hangovers as a result of the party yesterday!). Anyway the Jeep leaves at around 11.00 and it does not take too long to reach the destination. The final kilometers are a rough ride through a wasteland with lots of bumps and rocks.

The site does not look too promising in the first place - there is a narrow and rocky strip of beach lined with restaurants and dive shops. There are lots of people - obviously they are making lots of day tours from Sharm El Sheikh here? I get my snorkeling equipment from one of the dive shops and ask the driver to pick me up at three o'clock in the afternoon. I'll leave my daypack there and head for Red Sea! Right after getting to water I hurt my right foot - just a couple of meters from the shoreline there was a very deep pothole that basically absorbed my foot knee-deep! Fortunately I just got some bruises even though the incident hurt quite a lot.

Anyway I realize that I'm standing at the edge of the famous hole - just about 10 meters from the shoreline! There is a vertical drop of about 100 meters just in front of me - the diameter of the hole being pretty much the same. As diving site the place is obviously very dangerous - during recent years several divers have died because of narcosis (as a result of diving too deep too soon?). I swim slowly around the hole - it looks really fascinating as there is no way to see the bottom. The place is quite crowded in the morning and you need to be careful to avoid collisions with other people. There is not too much marine life in the hole itself and after swimming around for the first the time the place feels a bit like disappointment. Not too much to be seen unless you have diving gear!

Fortunately I soon find the area behind the hole where the slopes are not that steep and there is very wide variety of corals and fish - definitely one of the better spots I've seen so far! The water is quite cold though so you need to have regular breaks on the beach (or wear a wetsuit). I manage to make three snorkeling rounds before it gets too cold - it is actually afternoon already so my pickup should be coming in an hour. That is unfortunately not the case as it is already 15.30 when I start asking the dive shop staff for sightings of my driver. Somebody says that he called the guy and the Jeep should be arriving in "10 minutes". Time passes slowly and it is soon already past four - the guy is nowhere to be seen! It seems that they are closing the dive shop for today and a pickup truck arrives to carry the equipment back to Dahab. I ask for a ride and finally get moving (sitting on top of a pile of diving equipment with about 10 other people!) Surprisingly we meet the Jeep and driver midway between Blue Hole and Dahab. The guy says he's sorry but does not offer any explanation for not showing up... Back at the hotel I complain and the guy at the reception gives a (huge) discount of 10 pounds - I'm too tired to argue! Anyway Blue Hole is definitely worth a day trip.

I have changed my room to a cheaper one - now the shower is also working properly. After resting for a while I head to the beachfront boulevard and have some fresh red snapper for dinner. This time the soundtrack is pure reggae, later I return to hotel's "lounge" to sip some tea and listen to miscellaneous chillout tunes and listen to waves of the sea in the background. Tomorrow it is the time to move on and head to Jordan!  

26.12.2008 Dahab - Nuweiba - Aqaba
I have a quick breakfast at the hotel and pack my things. My intention is to catch the 10.30 bus to Nuweiba but the guy at the reception says that there is a minibus going at 10.00 (coming in 10 minutes). I'm bit skeptic after the no-show yesterday but as the price is reasonable (35 ŁE) I decide to buy a ticket. Surprisingly a fairly modern minibus leaves exactly at 10.00 - there is only one passenger in addition to me. The guy seems to be going to Jordan as well (but by using the land route via Israel - I should have done the same as I soon realize...) Anyway I've decided not to get the Israel stamp on my passport as I need to apply for a number of visas soon.

I arrive in Nuweiba port after 11 and buy a ticket for the ferry as the first thing. At the ticket sales booth I meet two Americans, Eric & Craigan - I'll be traveling together with these guys for a while... I gradually start to realize that the next 12 hours will be the most painful ones during this trip - I did read the excellent report from Tripadvisor before buying the ferry ticket but could not believe that things would be so bad. Actually this ferry crossing was just similar to the one described in Tripadvisor: the ferry finally left Nuweiba at around 20.00 and we arrived in Aqaba downtown after 22.00. Interestingly the ferry was an old Tallink ship that had recently traveled between Helsinki and Tallinn - they had even left the Finnish advertisements and signs there!

I shared a can with the Americans and we started looking for a hotel. The first place tried to charge double prices compared to what LP was saying so we decided to try a nearby place called "Jordan Flower Hotel". The place looked rather rundown and dirty but as I decided to continue to Petra early in the morning I thought I can stand such shithole for a couple of hours. That proved to be a mistake as my room was so cold and uncomfortable that I could not sleep properly. I could not even close the windows without using some duct tape!

We asked the reception to order a taxi at 6.30 - the total price of 30JD (about 35€) shared by 3 people sounded acceptable for a trip of 150 km.

27.12.2008 Aqaba - Petra
I wake up feeling really dizzy after only an hour or two of sleep. Seems that the taxi driver has already arrived ahead of time as he has called my mobile a couple of times already. He had been at the reception already and the guy there seemed to be unaware of our deal. Anyway the driver shows up in a couple of minutes and proves to be very helpful. He speaks proper English and tells interesting facts about Petra and the sights on the way there.

After about 2 hours of driving we arrive in Wadi Musa (the village next to Petra). We check out a hotel that the Americans were considering but again it turned out to be much more expensive than what LP was saying. For some reason the research in this volume of the trusted guidebook seemed to be outdated or not very reliable?

Anyway be continued to Sunset Hotel that the taxi driver recommended. It was just next to the gates of Petra.18JD sounded a bit expensive for a single room but I accepted this offer. The first impressions of Wadi Musa were the surrounding mountains and the chilly weather. The temperature must have been below 10 degrees in the morning and the wind made it feel even colder! The Americans started exploring Petra as the first thing after checking in - I felt I needed a nap. Even though I felt dead tired I just could not get any sleep, probably I was too excited about Petra? So before noon I decided to start my tour as well.

The visitor center was just about 300 meters away. I decided to spend another day here as well - I was feeling too tired to explore the huge area properly today. This proved to be a good plan as the area is really big and you can only move there by foot (unless you want to buy an overpriced horse / donkey / camel ride). To reach the actual "gate" of Petra you need to walk about 1.5 km through a narrow gorge built of tall and interestingly colored cliffs - very impressive indeed! There are some smaller monuments on the way there but the most photographed sight ie. "The Treasury" comes only after this lengthy walk. As said it is really impressive both from distance and when standing below the huge structure carved in stone wall.

The small interior chamber is a disappointment - there is pretty much nothing in there. The same applies to all of the huge facades in Petra. I continue walking towards Petra City - on my way I see numerous similar (but smaller) facades on the steep cliffs of the surrounding mountains. You can easily spend hours just by admiring and photographing the magnificent architecture! Other interesting sights are "The Theatre" and the temple ruins in the Petra City area. After more than 2 hours of intensive sightseeing I'm starting to feel really tired and decide to leave the rest of the sights and some off the beaten path type of exploring for tomorrow.

I have a chicken sandwich in a restaurant near the hotel for late lunch and again try to get some sleep. When it gets dark after five in the evening I finally fall asleep and sleep peacefully for about 12 hours. Petra seems to be a very fascinating place but you just need to be fully awake to explore it properly!   

28.12.2008 Petra - Aqaba
I wake up early (at around 7.30) and eat the complimentary breakfast (nothing special really, just pita bread!). The weather is still chilly but sun is shining - actually a perfect weather for sightseeing combined with some hiking in the mountains! I again make the 1.5 km walk to Treasury that is very crowded this early in the morning. I continue up to the mountains by following narrow stone staircase that should take me to "High Place of Sacrifice". Actually I get a bit lost as I follow the trail directly to the south and after a couple of hundred meters I just loose the trail! Anyway I notice being in the middle of awesome mountain scenery and in perfect silence - very impressive indeed. I'm still not quite sure whether I've lost the trail and try to descend to the valley below but it proves to be too dangerous. I walk back to the stairs and realize that I have made a mistake... High Place of Sacrifice is not far - the ruins are not very impressive but the views are gorgeous! I continue along the path that should take me to Petra city after about 2 km. There are several tombs and other monuments by the path - not as impressive as Petra's main sights but the mountain scenery is awesome!

I reach the "Colonnade Street" in Petra City after an hour and spend a while to explore the two museums in the area. The other one seems to be closed and the other (that should be better according to LP) proves to be very small and uninteresting. I continue walking towards my main destination for the day: The Monastery. Yet there is a rough climbing ahead - there are about 800 steps of stairs made of stone that you need ascend in order to reach the highest point in Petra. It is definitely worth the climb - The Monastery is even bigger than The Treasury and the views are again breathtaking! There are excellent viewpoints in front of The Monastery and you can easily spend an hour there just by admiring the mountain scenery and the sunshine.

Now I had seen all of the main sights in Petra and it was about the time to return to Wadi Musa. I'm starting to feel a bit tired because of the excessive walking but it is about 3km to the main gate from The Monastery still.. On my way back I check out the remains of an old Christian church - not much to be seen apart from the fairly well preserved mosaics.

I want to return to Aqaba but it is not quite clear whether there still are buses there today. The guy at the reception said that there will be one at 14.00 whereas LP (that has proved to be not very reliable) is saying that there is one at 16.00 still. It is almost three already but I anyway walk to the bus station (again a steep climb of about one kilometer!). There seems to be a lone minibus there but I could not really find out the destination or departure. Anyway the driver was saying that it is not going to Aqaba. Some local guy was saying that all buses are gone already and tried to offer his private taxi services to Aqaba. Suddenly a Canadian couple riding a local taxi shows up - they are also looking for a minibus. After some bargaining we decide to charter the taxi for three (30JD) and arrive in Aqaba at around 4.30.

This time I have the time to find a decent hotel - a place called Moon Beach by the beachfront. 12JD for a small but clean room is fine for me. I return to downtown - there are still three tasks to complete today: 1) have dinner 2) book a tour to Wadi Rum for tomorrow 3) go to Turkish Bath. The dinner is actually a quick eat in a fastfood place (some chicken kebab with fries). The only place that seems to offer Wadi Rum tours is a company called Wadi Rum Desert Services (price is quite expensive - 65 JD - but I don't think that it would have been much cheaper if I did the tour on my own).

As for Turkish bath the visit to "Aqaba Turkish Baths" proved to be a pleasant one. For the price of 15JD you could have a steam sauna, hot bath and massage. A very nice experience after the sweaty walks in Petra! Feeling quite exhausted I return to hotel after the bath...

29.12.2008 Aqaba - Wadi Rum
Today I'll visit Wadi Rum. It's about 50 km north of Aqaba and the trip starts at 12.00 so I have a couple of hours to explore the city. One sight you cannot avoid is the enormous flagpole (with a Jordanian flag of course) just next to my hotel - it must be almost 100 meters tall?  There are also ruins of a small castle and the local museum in the vicinity. The local "beach boulevard" is also nearby - the beachfront is lined with numerous restaurants and cafes. There are lots of ships and boats floating in the blue waters. The area is basically filthy - there is litter everywhere and I can smell urine in many places... Unfortunately the same applies for most of Aqaba - it is a port town and transportation hub rather than a major tourist attraction.

I try to find the office of the ferry company - after some wandering around I manage to find it and ask for the schedule of tomorrow's ferry. The clerk says it should be leaving at 13.00 - I almost ask about the expected delay but decide not to behave impolitely... I buy a ticket a go quickly back to hotel before returning to the tour agency.

The tour starts on time - there is a fairly new Mazda 4WD pickup truck waiting outside. The driver and guide is a Bedouin that speaks quite bad English. Before leaving Aqaba we stop at a nearby hotel - three elderly Norwegians with gray hair join us. I'm expecting the worst but these people turn out to be quite good company. After an hour of driving we reach the "Bedouin Camp" that is our first stop. It is a modernized version of a desert camp that includes things like toilets and electricity... There is also another group of Scandinavians - four younger travelers that intend to stay overnight in the camp. After having some tea we'll start our desert tour - it is very hard to say anything about directions or locations as our guide is not too talkative.

Anyway for the next couple of hours we can admire really beautiful and extraordinary scenery including both desert and fascinating sandstone mountains that are in the middle of heavy erosion. The shapes of the cliffs are really impressive - you can see lots of animals, ships and buildings there - just use your imagination! The scenery actually reminds me of the temples in Angkor Wat - the carvings there look from a distance pretty much the same as the cliffs here. We make lots of stops to take pictures as there is no shortage of interesting shapes.  The truck is too small for five people - therefore I decide to travel in the back of the car under the open sky. A very good move as you can enjoy the scenery even better! The Norwegians don't quite understand my move though... The only drawbacks are the chill wind and the sand that gradually gets into my eyes.

It is hard describe Wadi Rum by words, you need to see the pictures. As it is almost five o'clock it is time for sunset. We stop on a low hill to take the compulsory sunset photos before returning to the camp. It is getting really cold but there is one tent with open fire - feels really good just to sit by the fire and enjoy the warmth. We are served some food and tea that is actually very good indeed! After an hour we leave the camp and return to Aqaba. The tour was definitely interesting even though still a bit expensive.

I'll have a shower at the hotel and have some rest before making a brief visit to downtown. I would like to taste a local fish specialty called "Sayadieh". A place called Ali Baba seems to serve this dish but it turns out to be a slight disappointment. Nothing special really - just fish and rice. But the wine leaf rolls that I order as a side dish are very good!

30.12.2008 Aqaba - Nuweiba - Dahab
Today it is again the time to take the notorious ferry back to Egypt. I'm prepared for a long day as I take a taxi to the port at around ten o'clock. There should be a bus connection as well but I'm not quite sure about the routes and schedule. Exiting Jordan goes very smoothly - it takes just 10 minutes to have your passport stamped (includes paying the departure tax of 5 JD). I wait for about an hour outside before they start boarding the ferry. It is much more crowded than when coming from Egypt - anyway the boarding goes a lot faster and the ferry leaves only 45 minutes behind the schedule. Surprisingly the immigration in Egypt goes really fast as I don't need to buy a visa this time - you just get a stamp that allows you to travel in the Sinai area.

There was still one painful task before returning to Aqaba - arranging transportation from Nuweiba. It was not quite clear whether there are still buses today - nobody seems to know. So taxi was the only alternative - fortunately there were other travelers around. Everybody seemed to be on a really tight budget and it took almost half an hour before we agreed on a fee that was ok for seven people that were needed to get an old 70s Peugeot 504 moving. The car was a wreck - the engine was making loud bangs every now and then and we needed to stop twice on our way to fix various things... The driver was more or less lost and did not have a clue about streets in Dahab. I'll leave the others looking for some unknown address in Dahab and head back to Bedouin Lodge that is unfortunately full already. After some walking I find a nice and cheap place nearby. I'm too tired to do anything special anymore - I'll just pick one of the Bedouin restaurants (a place called "Chill Out Cafe") and enjoy some Barracuda.

31.12.2008 Dahab - Helsinki
Time to return home and celebrate new year! I have couple hours still to enjoy the sunny weather in Dahab before I take a taxi to Sharm El Sheikh airport. This time it is another wreck called "Sahin" that seems to be a licensed version of some 80s Fiat model? It is actually quite slow ride as the car obviously could not go any faster than 100 km/h? I notice there is a Burger King at the airport - what a pleasant surprise! But unfortunately they serve only chicken there - it seems that they have run out of beef! So no double whoppers this time... The plane leaves exactly on time.

So it is the time for wrapup... Lots of good moments and fascinating places: Petra (of course), Wadi Rum and Blue Hole. On the other hand too much waiting, hassle and cheating during just a couple of days. I somehow feel that I won't traveling in Middle East for a while - now it is the time to explore some other areas of the globe soon. Jordan was actually a pleasant experience - people in general friendly (but not too friendly). Weather was surprisingly chilly (especially in Petra), seems that I caught a cold! If you just want to see Petra and some other sights in Jordan I would recommend flying to Amman - the ferry was one of my worst experiences of traveling by sea. But no hard feelings really!

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