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).
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.