“You went to Jordan? With Sabrina?!”
Read those sentences with a slightly shocked voice in your head and you come close to what I hear most any time I tell of our travels through Jordan. Often those making such exclamations are US citizens who may, or likely do not, have a passport themselves. Anything beyond Mexico seems exotic and uncertain.
That last analogy is interesting as I felt safer with my 10 year-old daughter in Jordan than I would in the border states in Mexico, which is incredible considering the neighbors Jordan keeps. And safe we were. That sense of safety brought with it the most important aspect of any vacation: relaxation.
Fun is important when traveling with kids and keeping everyone sane. If you have discerning children who want to spend hours reading displays about ancient civilizations, then you might travel differently than most of us with kids. Most kids need some kind of fun in their day (and travels, by proxy).
What, then, to do in Jordan that will keep a family happy and excited to continue exploring?
Oh my. Jerash has a few tricks up its sleeve for the young traveler, as well as Mom and Dad. In short, the ruins at Jerash date mostly to the Roman period of conquest in the first century AD, although evidence shows the city was inhabited for 3000 years prior.
Arches at either end of town stand proud and invite explorers inside the city. Walk along ancient Roman roads still rutted from the trade caravans passing through and lined with classic columns scratching at the sky, paying tribute to form and function. And the amphitheater!
For me, the amphitheater was a highlight, even with a temple built for Zeus standing high upon the hill next to it. You might have seen amphitheaters in the movies but this one is real and tangible (and still in use today as a stage was being erected for a show). Not only that, the acoustics are amazing for the era they were built. Have your child climb to the highest set of seats maybe 40 feet over your head and set back another 40. Now, standing in a precise location in the center of the theater, marked by a small indent in the stone, speak in a normal voice. You child will be astounded that they can hear you clearly and you will hear your own voice echoed back to you. It’s better than any THX theater I’ve been in. Now tell your child to be careful as they run down the stairs to try it themselves. Physics and history were never so fun.
There is a hippodrome at Jerash as well and this is where learning is again fun. Can you tell I like my daughter to learn a little while we travel? No better way than having a reenactment of classic Roman legion fighting techniques. The show is a little campy and the equipment a little dated, but the lessons on soldier life in the Roman Empire are accurate and entertaining. The chariot race around the hippodrome (it’s like a small race track) is also packed with action. Shade is provided making this a good stop when little feet are tired.
Jordan doesn’t have a lot of beachfront property but the sliver on the Red Sea is worth a trip when wanting ‘chill’ time. The beachfront resorts offer privacy and relaxation while the option to adventure out on the waves looms near. If your kids like water, I suggest chartering a boat for a swim down the shore from Aqaba in the small coral reefs found under the waves.
It was in Aqaba our guide told us, “Ok, we will drop you off here and you can walk back to the hotel. You know the way?”
I had been paying attention to the few turns we had taken since dinner and as we stepped out of the car into the slightly humid night air, I glanced around to get my bearings. Lucky for me, my daughter enjoys markets and street vendors as much as I do. Not only that, as we walked on, hand in hand checking out the trinkets or shoes or necklaces for sale on the side of the street, I began to loosen up. Night time in Aqaba, especially in the hotter summer months, is when individuals and families are out and about doing their daily shopping. We saw no other tourists until nearly to our hotel and it was wonderful to mingle. Not only that, I felt safe and relaxed (except when it came to crossing the street because, frankly, you need to step lively and assume there are no pedestrian rules as in some US cities).
Aqaba is a classic beach town, Jordanian-style.
I can’t compare the Red Sea with the Dead Sea in any meaningful way. Nearly the same letters in the names but two totally different experiences. The Dead Sea is all about the water. And the salt. And the mud.
Start your introduction to your kids about the Dead Sea this way: “Did you know there is a sea where you can’t sink no matter how hard you try?” If your child has spent any time in water, they will refuse to believe you. Until they see you floating in the water with no hands and no feet helping to stay afloat. It’s a trippy experience for sure and one your kids will remember.
The Dead Sea doesn’t have a town like Aqaba but it is only an hour from Amman, the bustling capital of Jordan. If you want to totally get away and just sit on a beach for a couple of days before heading home, the Dead Sea will suit you fine. Many resorts dot the coast and holiday-seekers often unpack at their resort and rarely leave, playing in ample resort pools and the waters of the sea.
Some points of caution here for little ones. Do not allow your kids to dunk their head. The salt content is so high in the lake, it will make eyes feel like burning and need to be washed out. Also, no cuts or scrapes. Those burn as well and bad memories instead of good will be made at the sea. The bonus for most kids? At the end of a dip they can slather medicinal mud taken from the banks of the sea all over their body, let it dry and then wash it off. What kid wouldn’t want to play in mud?
If you have older kids and they have the spirit of adventure in them, take the family to Wadi Mujib. There is an age limit as the waters in this slot canyon are pushy. My daughter was 10 when we visited and not allowed to enter, even with a life-jacket.
Wadi Mujib is spectacular and I could spend a month exploring and photographing it if given the chance. Sheer walls of dark sandstone were cut with a river that still flows through to the Dead Sea (well, almost. It is diverted near the end to quench the thirst of Amman). Today those walls are over 100′ tall in places and the river still flows, dark, mysterious and warm.
This is no trip for lazy people. Your child will be battling the oncoming water and that can include climbing and rappelling waterfalls if they desire. Bring a waterproof camera but make sure you have good shoes to give you traction (don’t worry, they will dry out in no time while you relax back at your Dead Sea resort).
I can’t imagine a child, walking out of the narrow Siq pathway that leads to the Treasury in Petra, not standing in awe with their jaw open. No matter your age, the site is amazing and only the start of what can be days of exploration. Or, if you are pressed for time, a day of the highlights such as the King’s Tombs and the Monastery.
Petra is a World Heritage site for very good reasons and a chance to sneak in some learning if you are so inclined.
How did they get water to the city?
What do the number of steps on the tops of tombs mean?
What spices were traded through here?
How old is this place?
Who built it?
I’d suggest a quick and easy digital guide for your kids with smart phones or laptops, such as Guide to Jordan: Temples and Tombs of Petra by Approach Guides.
Be warned, in the summer months the walking can be hot, so arrive early. There is a restaurant at the site by the Great Temple and it has air conditioning. The cooler Winter months allow for more unfettered exploring and this is an area where kids can wander and be kids. Let them walk in and out of the tombs (long since cleared and most recently covered in thin layers of soot from local Bedouins cooking in them).
Now this is a castle. A Crusader castle to be exact. Built around 1140, Kerak Castle is large and impressive. Still largely intact, the castle boasts an impressive visitors center with many relics from over the centuries. Not only that, two large wall coverings will teach your children history relevant to what they are experiencing.
Then it’s time to explore! And wow this castle has options aplenty. Winding passageways. Small rooms. Big rooms. Views to the Dead Sea. Again, more questions abound as excited minds recreate the past they see in the intact and crumbling walls alike. How grand a site it must have been a thousand years ago.
To be sure, I have skipped many more sites and activities than this post can contain. There are castles in the desert and ancient guesthouses. There is Wadi Rum with camels and bedouin camps and a million stars at night as you listen to traditional music around a fire. There are roadside fruit stands and markets to explore.
Your family doesn’t need to be hardcore explorers to enjoy what Jordan has to offer (while noting there are options to hike, mountain bike, rock climb, SCUBA dive, etc…). All you need is a sense of adventure, a willingness to learn about a lively and authentic culture and a desire to have fun.
By: Peter West Carey – www.thecareyadventures.com.