Road to Petra – Getting Lost Driving in Jordan

Note: if you have trust issues, particularly with strangers in foreign lands, reading most of this post may not help. Spoiler alert – we lived!  But it was an adventure.

This is the story of our attempts to drive from the Dead Sea to Petra, one of the wonders of the world. We were on a travelers high, having just floated in the Dead Sea, witnessed an amazing Dead Sea sunset, and had a modeling photoshoot. As we drove down the Dead Sea highway, we looked at the rather poorly marked map and noticed that the directions to drive from the Dead Sea to Petra had us driving on a road that wasn’t on our map, which presented some obvious challenges as the sun was going down.  How could that be?

Petra and the Dead Sea might be Jordans two biggest tourist attractions and they’re almost directly across from each other, but all the books and websites said the way to get there is to go back up to Amman and then go down, or go down to Aqaba (the Red Sea), and then back up. That seemed rather inefficient, given how close Petra is to where we were in along the Dead Sea highway, so we decided get in touch with our inner Lewis & Clark and start exploring.

We stopped to ask for help, but given that neither of us speak any Arabic whatsoever, we couldn’t quite figure out if people were saying that there’s no way to go directly east, or if the people we asked just didn’t know the way. Either way it required some investigation because the road we were looking for either wasn’t there or more likely wasn’t marked.

He Drew Us A Map?? Hunger forced another stop and asked for help but couldn’t find anyone that spoke English. One guy seemed to understand us, and after three minutes of struggling to find the words to direct us, he actually decided to draw us a map. How kind is that??  He spent nearly 15 minutes drawing it. I’ve spent a couple of years living in Hells Kitchen in NYC, right near Times Square, so I know how many people routinely for help with directions, and I know how frustrating that can be. Perhaps it was a Kitty Genovese moment, as he was the only guy that seemed to speak enough English and have an idea of where to direct us, but it was very much appreciated. Unfortunately it still wasn’t clear but we went along our journey.

Sometimes You Trust the (seemingly) Creepy Man: After driving further down the Dead Sea highway we decided that we must have passed it, so we’d stop at the next exit with a rest stop. Waiting. Waiting. You have no idea how spoiled you can be with US highways, where every few exits include a rest area with restaurants, a gas station and bathrooms. We didn’t even see another vehicle for ten minutes, and another 20 minutes before coming across a place we could stop for a “bathroom.”  While the side of the road worked fine for me, she understandably strongly prefers an actual bathroom, and we needed directions anyway so we tried to find an entrance. A man was at the front of the gate and offered to let us in. Unlike most people we met, he actually spoke broken English. Unfortunately he didn’t have any idea where that road might be (a bit of a troubling sign, as it appeared that the road to Petra would be the only sign of life within a half-hour on either side of him), but he was kind enough to invite us to use the bathroom while he looked it up so we trusted him.

If our Jordan trip was a horror movie, this would be one of many scenes where the audience would be screaming “don’t go in there!”  Everything this guy said and did were super nice, and perhaps it’s our own fears, experiences, and prejudices, but sometimes someone just comes off as creepy. We decided to be bold and trusting, and went to follow him. Would our car be there when we returned? Would this be our demise?

We followed the man in the gate, and he locked the gate behind us. We both cringed as we heard the click of the pad lock close, wondering if we’d be able to get back. We walked down a small hill from the highway. We followed the man down a path, around the corner to a building to his office. At this point we couldn’t see the highway at all. This is usually where you throw popcorn at the screen because the characters aren’t making good decisions. It’s about trust (or desperation?).

We walked in and the guy offered us some drinks (declined!). While she was using the bathroom he started talking about the King and the royal family. At that point I noticed every wall was decked out in framed photos of the King and Queen of Jordan. So…directions?  He asked me to wait there – he’s coming back with a weapon, I know it! He came back with a phone number. Does Jordan have a “411” to call? His first call was short and he looked disappointed. His next call got heated – he was arguing with someone, and I certainly had the “this may have been a bad idea” thought creep into my mind. Again, not speaking any Arabic whatsoever, I felt rather helpless when you can’t understand the language, particularly when you’re away from tourist attractions, during moments like these. His temper seemed to rage but to this day I have no idea what they were saying – it could have been unrelated to anything involving me!  As it turns out the man called his brother and asked for directions.  The brother hadn’t heard of it either. We tried – now what??  The man asked us to stay and said he had an idea. He continued making calls – they were in Arabic so we have no idea what they were talking about, but at some point he came back with some info on how to find it – we apparently drove past it – and that he doesn’t recommend that we continue. He invited us to stay over there until morning. Whaaaat?  No thank you. Very kind of him to offer.

Stopped by Jordanian Military:  We finally found the road from the Dead Sea Highway towards Petra. It was dark and quiet, until we ran into a road block. We saw a Jordanian Security checkpoint with a military vehicle with really large weapons. They were wearing their purple “camo” in a military vehicle and had their guns drawn. Oh my!  You’d think they were looking for a dangerous fugitive!  They directed us to open the trunk, and while one soldier inspected it, the other guy suspiciously asked lots of questions. Where are you headed?  Why are you going there?  Who’s vehicle is this?  Can we see your airline ticket out?  Who do you know there? In some countries, this is a prime opportunity for them to extort some cash out of tourists and plant some contraband items until the ransom is paid, but after some questioning they said they’d let us go.

The road turned out to be going through a mountain range without any lights (or guardrails!).  By mileage our destination seemed rather close, but given the road conditions, we were moving really slow. It was actually ok…until the fog hit. Suddenly visibility was only one car length on a mountain and I was driving reeeeeally slowly. We hadn’t seen another car for an hour – just the military vehicle, and considered turning around on multiple occasions.

As if that wasn’t scary enough, add random wild dogs and other wildlife  – a surprise cameo from a donkey! Seriously – we hadn’t seen vegetation in miles, how are there donkeys there?

Besides being lost on a road with no signs of life for miles, in the fog, and almost driving off the narrow road, the next challenge: gas. You have to fill up your tank every time you see a gas station and we did, but we got a little lost earlier and now we added petrol to the list of concerns. Can you imagine being stranded in the middle of the mountain in the fog?  We wouldn’t see a car event one came by and could help. Suffice to say, it made for an interesting adventure!

In broad daylight and without the fog, I imagine it would have been a really beautiful drive.

Advice to people that may visit Jordan: they say the only way to get to Petra is to go from Amman in the north or from Aqaba in the south, but there is a road. Drive it during the day – you’ll thank me later! The Dead Sea is just west of it, but the roads are terrible.

Advice to the Jordan tourism board: Petra is your #1 tourist destination, and the Dead Sea is also a top destination, so given their proximity, there should be a convenient way to visit both without backtracking. Please update your maps, fix the road, and add some street lights.

At multiple points during the trip, we found ourselves saying that Jordan is incredibly beautiful, but they could make it easier for people to get around if they’d like more people to visit.

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