After spending a beautiful morning watching the sunrise over Wadi Rum at our Bedouin Camp, it was time to continue our journey exploring Jordan. A popular place to stop and spend a day or two after visiting Wadi Rum and before heading to Jordan’s crown jewel, Petra, is Aqaba. Located on the Red Sea, Aqaba is a relaxed seaside resort town that is known for some of the best snorkeling and diving in the Middle East. With its 27 kilometers of prime coastline, Aqaba also has its share of lovely beach resorts for those who would like to spend a few days enjoying the beach and the Red Sea. With a dry, arid temperature rarely dipping below 70 degrees F. Aqaba is a nice break between the sultry desert of Wadi Rum and the crowds of Petra. Best of all, the fish is caught daily and it is one of the only places in Jordan outside of Amman that you can somewhat easily get a cold mug of beer or a glass of wine with your meal. I was sold on the snorkeling and was really looking forward to our stay in Aqaba with visions of colorful fish and soothing, calm waters. Little did I know, this part of the trip would end up being a big disappointment.
Our group set off shortly after returning via camel to the entrance of Wadi Rum. While you would have thought a camel ride would be quite the adventure, it proved to be a darn right uncomfortable experience and I could hardly wait to get off the camel. The smooshy vinyl seat in our air-conditioned van sounded like heaven compared with the bumpy, miserable ride on a camel’s back. I even almost would have traded our cold, miserable ride on the back of an open-air pickup truck in the middle of a hailstorm the previous day to not be riding on a camel’s back. It is that bad.
One thing that I truly like about traveling in Jordan is its compact size and ease of getting around to all the major sites. The Kingdom of Jordan is roughly the size of Portugal, making it easy to see a lot of cool places in a week. We never spent more than a few hours in the van, and all the roads we traveled on were paved and well-maintained.
From the gates of Wadi Rum, Aqaba is only a short, hour drive southwest. Aqaba began as an ancient trade route dating back as far as the 5th century BC and later became a popular gathering place for pilgrims making the trek to Mecca. Thanks to its prime location along the Red Sea, it developed into a laid-back beachside resort and world-renown diving destination. Unlike the other major cities in Jordan, there are not a lot of cultural attractions to see in Aqaba. Therefore, if you are not into relaxing on the beach or participating in water activities on the Red Sea, there really isn’t much reason to visit Aqaba.
After we checked into our hotel, it was time to throw on our bathing suits and head down to the beach to go snorkeling. Although the weather was quite warm, the beach was completely empty which I found strange. I began to wonder where were all the tourists. Wadi Rum was packed and I knew Petra was going to be insanely busy. But Aqaba was deserted or at least the town of Aqaba was. Perhaps most of the tourists were staying at a fancier, more luxurious beach or dive resort nearby? I never did find out the answer or solve the mystery.
We found a colorful rustic painted glass-bottom boat to take us out for a snorkel in the Red Sea and hired the guide for a two-hour tour. I should have known right then and there that this tour was not going to be too great based on the lousy condition of the boat and the lack of enthusiasm by its driver. But I tried my best to remain optimistic and forget about all the amazing dive boats I’d read about previously in my Lonely Planet.
Our group of six boarded the boat with a picnic lunch and headed out. As we inched out into the sea, our driver chose to take us on the not too scenic route. Instead of launching out into the Red Sea and breathing in the warm, fresh air, we veered left of the beach and went directly by the commercial container port. Sadly, the Red Sea was filled with plastic water bottles and garbage that had made its way from the port into the Sea. It was hard to see as it reminded me of the huge environmental crisis of too much single-use plastic in our oceans and seas. Instead of passing it by, I would much rather have been picking it up and getting it to where it belongs.
About five minutes past the port, our driver pulled over to our snorkeling spot which was located right off the road. Another painted glass-bottom boat pulled up nearby and the tourists on it were not as polite as us and refused to get off the boat to snorkel in a bunch of garbage. We said nothing and reluctantly got on our goggles and fins. My initial excitement about snorkeling in the Red Sea had sadly disappeared and instead disappointment set in.
I was the last to jump in and admit that there was some pretty colorful coral but nothing like I’d seen in other places. I realized that there was no way possible that this tour would ever do the Red Sea justice. Based on all the reviews I’ve read from reputable sources, I know that the Red Sea has some of the best corals in the Middle East but we simply didn’t get the opportunity to see it. Instead, we snorkeled around for twenty minutes, got back on the boat and were taken to see an old sunken army tank and airplane instead. For $50, it was a big disappointment and a lesson learned. However, on the flip side, it was one of our fellow traveler’s birthday so we did enjoy an ultra-sweet piece of birthday cake on the boat!
We also got to drive by the resorts and admire them from afar to see what we could be missing. (Since we were so far away however it was hard to tell how crowded they were).
And, we got some interesting views of the unusual landscape.
We got back to the hotel just in time to take a quick shower and head out for dinner. While the meal was lovely, I personally couldn’t wait to get out of Aqaba. It was the one and only flop of the trip. Little did I know, my next two days in Petra would make up for the disappointment.
I think you mean 70 Fahrenheit, chuckle.
I think it’s the saddles they use in Jordan. I also found the camel ride there really uncomfortable, but we did a long camel ride in central Australia and it was fine.
I guess we were luckier – our tour leader booked a boat for us and we went way past the port to a place where there was nothing much around us, and no garbage, and the snorkelling was pretty good but nothing compared to other places I’ve been. From what you say you read about the snorkelling in Jordan compared to what I saw there, and compared to the Great barrier Reef it sounds as if all the guides have Jordan a bit overrated. I was not that impressed but it certainly sounds as if we had a better experience than you did. Also we were on a much bigger boat.
After snorkelling Don and I spent some time on the beach right in town and got to interact with some of the locals and that was really fun. But yeah, Aqaba is not that interesting overall.
Thanks for the comment Alison. I guess I would have skipped Aqaba all together. For the Dead Sea, we only went there for a day to float in it and bask in the mud. I know that the Dead Sea is a huge resort area too but for me the afternoon there was enough as well. As for the camels, maybe just maybe I will give it another try someday! 🙂
Looks like a fun trip, Nicole! Great pictures especially the Wadi
It was a fantastic, eye-opening trip. I especially loved my stay in Wadi Rum and Petra. Hope you are doing well!
I’m Nicole. Happy to hear you had a great time in Jordan.
Thanks so much! I loved it! 🙂 Especially Petra.
We stayed briefly in Aqaba and, like you, I had high hopes for it. We were there during Ramadan, to which I attributed the kind of dead feeling around town, but maybe it’s always that way! We had a decent dinner in town one night, and our hotel was attractive and right on the (empty!) beach, but all in all, I can’t say it was a highlight for us either. Strange. It has potential!
Interesting. Did you do any snorkeling? Curious if you had better luck than we did.
You can’t win them all, Nicole 🙁 At least you had beautiful sunsets 🙂 🙂
Yes very true Jo! 🙂
Nicole it is so interesting as Aqaba was my disappointment too. We were in one of the luxury resorts which was packed with people. It was the lack of authenticity that left me yearning for the red sand of the desert. Although I did not snorkel a few from our group took a 320 minute boat ride and their snorkel experience sounded incredible. Sorry to hear that yours was disappointing.
That is good to know Sue. I am sure the snorkeling would have been amazing if we went with a proper outfitter. When we arrived and I took one look at the dilapidated wood boat, I had a feeling that it was not going to be good and I was right. Based on what I read in Lonely Planet, there is some seriously amazing snorkeling and diving in the Red Sea.