I’m not the most seasoned traveller I know: sure, I’ve done a bit, but there are plenty of people with a million air-points, diamond status or decades spent living out of a suitcase who put my efforts to shame.
But as I say, I’ve done a bit. And I research where I’m going and try to be prepared for what I’m going to come across. Which makes my efforts getting from Jerusalem to Petra so embarrassing.
It started off well enough – I had done my research on flights. Petra doesn’t have an airport and neither does Jerusalem, so plan B is to check the other airports nearby. Tel Aviv is the main airport people use to get in and out of Jerusalem, and Amman is the capital of Jordan, so I checked those. Despite being so close, there are only two flights per day, one at 8:15am and one at 11:45pm. And the price! One way for £237. Hmph! I can do better than that!
So the only other airport in Jordan is the King Hussein Airport in Aqaba, so I looked at flights there. £259 instead. Hmmm, seems a bit pricey to me. I decide to have a look at the land options.
A bit of googling gives me a jaundiced view of the three land borders – and makes me aware that the situation is always in a state of flux depending on both changes to the official rules plus the attitude of the officials on the ground at the time. So – the options:
Allenby Bridge / King Hussein Bridge
- Doesn’t give you a Visa on Arrival, so immediately discounted it. I could have tried to organise a Visa before travel, but I wanted to explore less bothersome options. Apparently it takes at least two weeks to get the visa and I needed my passport for other travel.
Beit She’an / Jordan River / Sheikh Hussein Bridge
- This is practically in Syria it’s so far north – I would then spend most of the day getting to Petra (6 hours), plus by all accounts it can take most of the day to get through customs etc. So call it a backup plan.
Eilat / Aqaba / Wadi Araba / Yitzhak Rabin
- Which leaves Eilat/Aqaba. There are a lot more options to get from Jerusalem to Eilat – a night bus, and flights from both Tel Aviv airports (Ben Gurion as well as the regional airport of Sde Dov). I have seen a one way from Sde Dov to Eilat for as low as £31.
I read up on what to expect and it seems straight forward, and so I book a cheap flight from Sde Dov to Eilat, leaving at 10:45am and getting to Eilat at 11:45am. I figure it’ll take maybe 30mins to get to the border after landing, and then we’re in the hands of the gods.
The first leg of the trip is a taxi to the regional airport of Sde Dov from my hotel in Jerusalem. I arrange it through the hotel and am kept waiting a bit longer than I’d like for the taxi to arrive – I’ve built in a lot of safety time because I have heard airport security tends towards the extreme in Israel for understandable reasons, but would have expected a pre-ordered taxi to be waiting at the appointed time!
The trip itself is relatively uneventful until we come to how to actually get to the airport in Tel Aviv. I’ve made a point of referring to the airport as Sde Dov instead of “Tel Aviv Airport” so there is no possibility of the drive taking me to the wrong one. The driver stops a couple of times to ask a local how to get to the airport, so I guess the regional airport is a little less well-frequented. We arrive and it is quite small – a line of buildings with the first step being a security check.
My experience in airports tends to be that you only go through security once you’ve checked in so I’m a little flummoxed at not having a boarding pass already (I hadn’t checked in online), and decide that there must be an office of my airline nearby where I will be able to check in. There is an office, but they just point me to the main building where the security check was, so i head back there.
When I’m travelling by myself and have lengthy downtime, I sometimes take along my travel guitar to fill the time. It’s a eMosquito guitar* (great guitar, terrible website!), and folds down very nicely to fit in a backpack. Whenever I travel with it, it always draws attention from security at airports, so I always allow that extra little bit of time to accommodate the inevitable questions:
Security: Whats in your bag?
Me: It’s a guitar.
Security: What, like a ukelele?
Me: No, a full sized electric guitar.
Security: *disbelieving look*
Me: Yeah it folds down – the neck detaches from the body
Security: *realising how its put together* Oh! Cool.
So they put the bag through a few times and intersperse the conversation with checking what time my flight departs to ensure that their questioning won’t put my trip at risk, which I appreciate. Multiple security folk ask me questions and I have nothing to hide and have plenty of time, so I enjoy myself. I think they’re trying to rattle me but I treat it like an interview and eventually they’re satisfied and I get to check in.
I had bought a back pack especially to take on this trip and had bought the Deluxe laptop backpack* because the dimensions complied with all the maximum carry on luggage dimensions of all the flights I’d be taking, plus it could take the guitar in its fold down configuration. I also liked the idea of the hidden pocket for valuables, the different compartments and the fact that it could take a large laptop as well. The brand was good as well.
So I get onto the flight first and start to wrestle the bag into the overhead compartment – it takes forever but with a bit of grunting and contortion, I manage to make it fit. The maximum size of the cabin baggage for once was a match for what the plane can take.
The only other thing of note with the flight were the three guys sitting across the aisle from me in business class. Two huge muscle guys and one guy of average build, all wearing shades and all very obviously security – I assume all internal flights get the security treatment rather than anyone being worried about the tall goyim with the funny guitar.
Touch down at Eilat and I grab a cab from outside the airport to the border. I know that the exit tax will be ₪100, so make sure to keep that amount aside, but apart from that I’m looking for a way of getting rid of the rest of my shekels. I tip the driver and head to the border crossing.
There are very few people around and the sun is absolutely baking. There is a sign with an easy 1-2-3 description of what has to happen and the counters are clearly marked. I pay the exit tax and get ushered through with minimal waiting. There’s a gift-shop just before the border so I try and use up my shekels there. The ladies manning the counters aren’t allowed to take tips so I end up just getting water. I saunter out of the shop across the border thinking smugly that doing all my research has paid off and that the border crossing is a doddle.
There’s a stretch of road before the Jordanian side of the border which is unsheltered – maybe 300m. Crossing it just after noon brings home just how ill advised it would be to do any sort of walking to or from the border – things you see people periodically suggesting on TripAdvisor forums for example.
The distances from Eilat or Aqaba to the border makes it appear a valid option but the sun makes a mockery of that plan. There are some low slung buildings on the side and I make it to them thankful for the shade.
There are a whole bunch of counters, but no indication on what each one is for, some are manned, some not, there are a few other travellers making the crossing. Armed soldiers wander around. I make the first of a bunch of mistakes, and wander along, waiting for someone to tell me where I should go. Nobody looks up or makes eye contact. I look around for some sort of indication of where I should go but again, nothing.
I decide if there’s no yelling or indication that I’m going the wrong way it must mean that what I’m doing is ok, so I continue on my way past the border controls and towards the exit of the border. A small hut marks the exit beyond which is the car park holding the infamous taxi drivers of the Border.
Lazily avoiding the sun are four or five assault rifle-toting guards. They don’t seem interested in me so I head towards the exit. I’m kind of relieved when one of them calls out to me – it seemed like i was a ghost floating through the border crossing so its nice to be acknowledged as existing.
He asks for my passport and starts flipping through it. Stamp? He says. I shake my head and ask where I get one from. He points back to the building I’ve just passed and I try to ask which counter I need to go to. He just shakes his head and goes back to his mates.
OK, I think to myself. It would be unreasonable for me to just be able to walk through – time to get a stamp and pay the entrance visa fee.
So I head back to the start of the building, and resolve to pay more attention to the counters – surely there should be some sort of large sign featuring what you need to do at each point through the process? I head to the first window and enter into a discussion on how long I will be spending in Jordan.
“Aha!” think I, this matches with my experience – there’s a different fee depending on how long you’re in country. As I will be here for three days I get a cheaper fee, so I hand over my credit card with a little swagger, only to have it thrust back at me and a gesticulation towards a little sign saying “Cash Only”.
Panicking only a little, my blank look does more than an Arabic phrase book and the guard takes pity on me and indicates a decrepit old building behind me. It looks like a boarded up old shop – standard Coke billboards everywhere, grubby exterior, no lights on inside. I look back at the guard but they are already looking over my shoulder at the next person in line, so I shuffle resignedly towards the building.
The windows are not only boarded up but the roller door covering the obvious entrance is padlocked. I’m about to turn around and trudge back to the counter when I spot an ATM. A grubby, cracking plastic covered ATM.
Sighing at my lack of foresight in getting Jordanian Dinars before entering the country, I resign myself to getting some cash out. The transaction goes smoothly enough: I’m hyperalert for any card skimmers or shoulder surfers but the only creatures interested in my existence are some very skinny cats lolling in the shade. I decide to only get out enough to cover the cost of the Visa and the standard price for the taxi to Aqaba to lower my risk.
I don’t quite thrust my handful of Dinars into the guards face, but there is a slight sense of accomplishment in negotiating this particular obstacle. Upon turning over my new-found cash and passport, I receive a stamp and am waved along.
I don’t quite skip along, but figure that despite my bungling the border crossing, its still taken about the length of time that I have read about. My friends at the end of the border crossing get up as I approach and smile as I hand over my passport.
The smiles freeze as they look at my passport. “Stamp?” He says. I point to the stamped receipt for my entry visa and smile reassuringly. He shakes his head and says something about a stamp and points back the way I came. Truly dejected, I head back to the building yet again.
It’s only when I approach the last counters in the building that I notice above each one in faded and barely legible stencils counter numbers and descriptions of what role each counter performs. I eventually find the correct counter and hand over my passport.
A brief inspection to find the receipt stamp later, I get my actual visa stamp plus a special “Residence for one month” additional stamp. Almost hysterical with frustration, I tramp determinedly towards the gun toting guards and practically thrust the passport in their faces. “Stamps!” I say “Look, I’ve got all the stamps! One, two, three, four stamps!”
The guard refrains from shooting me and instead nods, embarrassed for me and waves me through. A border crossing which people have said takes 30-45 minutes has taken me 60 when, with practically no one there, it could have taken me 15-20.
The border crossing is in the middle of nowhere. On the map it looks like a doable hike to Aqaba, but the desert sun bakes the road, there’s no cover at all and it would be sheer folly to attempt it. Which leaves dealing with the infamous taxi mafia. It’s been my experience that whenever there is a monopoly there is corruption. There’s something about a commercial power imbalance which lends itself to abuse. So there is a single group responsible for taxis from the border crossing to… well, anywhere else.
The prices are listed on a board and set by the Jordanian authorities but if the locals feel that they can get more out of you they will try. Various websites recommend appealing to the armed guards from the border crossing if that is attempted so I’m prepared for the worst.
I’m not sure if the taxi commissar has seen me bouncing between the crossing guards and the crossing, or whether the look on my face says “this guy has nothing to lose”, but I am quoted the standard rate to be taken into Aqaba. The taxi is a drab affair, with open windows instead of air con and suspension which drives my spine into my skull with every pothole.
I’m trying a trick to get to Petra – to avoid a price gouge from the border taxi drivers, I’m going to try to catch a bus or taxi from Aqaba instead. If the driver learns of this apparently they will insist on being the one to drive you there themselves, so I am claiming to stay at a hotel in Aqaba which is not far from the bus stop: I figure that I’ll be able to either get the bus or a decent priced taxi to Petra from there.
Apart from feeling every pothole, the trip into Aqaba goes well. On the way I had casually enquired about the bus to Petra from Aqaba. Apparently you have to get a ticket the day before travel and there’s only one bus each day which leaves early in the morning.
When I ask how much a taxi should cost for Petra the driver almost pulls over the cab – if I want to go to Petra we will have to go back to the border he says – I’m only allowed to take you to Aqaba. I explain to him I was only asking for when I got to Petra in the future – not for today and he drives on mollified. He periodically looks at me suspiciously though: I guess the boss keeps a tight reign on his drivers.
We arrive in Aqaba and I wait til the driver heads back to the border before deciding which way to go. I figure regardless of whether there is a bus or I decide to take a taxi that I will need to get some cash out, so I decide to take some more cash out.
Cursing my decision at the border ATM, I can’t see any ATMs or even what looks like a slightly more commercial area of town. Frowning slightly, I enter the air-conditioned coolness of a backpackers and ask the guy behind the counter where the nearest ATM is. He points me to the main street which isn’t far away and I ask him about the bus to Petra. “Ah,” he says, “there is only one bus each day and you have missed it by quite some time. If you are interested, I could drive you there.”
I put on my “bemused tourist who is aware you’re trying to take him for a ride” look and ask how much it would cost. “50 Jordanian Dinars” comes the answer. I pause as if thinking about it and sigh. He senses the sale slipping away. “It’s a good car – very comfortable – AC!” The guy had given me a glass of water and seemed a nice enough guy. “I tell you what, I’ll go to the ATM and get some cash out and then come back”.
He doesn’t believe me but wishes me well and I head off to the main street. On the way to the ATM a taxi driver slows down and the driver leans out the window and asks if I need a taxi. It’s the same sad, old model of taxi that the border driver took me into Aqaba and all I can think of is the bone shaking trip and how that would be multiplied ten times. I tell him that I’m fine and then get some money out of the ATM.
I’m torn. I don’t know how much it should be for a taxi to Petra, I definitely want to go today which rules out the bus. I can afford whatever the going rate is but I just hate being ripped off. So I look around for the taxi to ask how much it should be and nothing. No taxis anywhere. It’s like a bubble around me, repelling taxis.
I get out my phone and switch on mobile data. Muttering an apology to my future self who will have to pay the cellphone bill, I ask google how much a taxi from Aqaba to Petra should be and read a couple of pages of answers. Anything from 20 – 70 Dinars apparently, with the 20-40 dinar opinions being from over five years ago.
I decide that the 50 dinar option in AC comfort doesn’t sound too bad and head back to the backpackers. My new friend beams when I tell him that I’ll take him up on the offer. I had momentarily toyed with the idea of trying to negotiate a lower rate, but decided at the last minute to consider any potential savings as a worthy social lubricant to keep the driver on side.
Petra or Bust
He bellows something to a colleague in a different room which may or may not have been “I’m just taking this idiot to Petra, be back in a jiffy” and then we head out to take the car cover off his very nice Mercedes. Not a late model one but very well preserved, and well-appointed with luxurious leather seats and the promised air conditioning.
I then spend an enjoyable hour and a half being entertained by a very good conversationalist as we traverse the distance between Aqaba and Petra. I see the entrance to Wadi Rum and the beauty of it coupled with the stories Ibrahim tells me make me regret my decision not to spend some time in the desert as well as visiting Petra.
We stop in the hills above Wadi Musa which is the village at the doorstep of Petra, and I take a photo of my new friend and we discuss the drop-off at my hotel. My hotel is directly opposite the entrance to Petra and that will mean there is a strong security presence. Ibrahim then says that we will need to jump out of the car quickly and that I should pay him now. I can’t see the problem with that as long as I am in the car – after all I also have his photo to show the police should he abandon me anywhere.
So I pay in advance and we drive through the one horse town of Wadi Musa. As promised there is a guy with an AK47 at the entrance to the hotel and he yells at me through the window of the car. I’m a bit nonplussed and just stare at him. Ibrahim gently tells me that this is the bit where I get out out of the car. I smile my thanks and gingerly get of the car and wave as Ibrahim returns to Aqaba.
And that’s the story of the time I went from Jerusalem to Petra taking way longer than it should have, causing way more stress than it should have, but at least costing about the right amount that it should have. Shall I itemise my errors for you?
- Didn’t have dinars before the border
- Didn’t see the lettering above the counters
- Didn’t ask where I should go next (the Israeli side spoiled me!)
- Didn’t time the trip to take advantage of the cheap bus
- Didn’t know what a good fare from Aqaba to Petra would be prior to being in the country.
*no consideration received for these recommendations.