On my last day in Jordan, there was one culturally and historically significant place left to visit: The Dead Sea. After an incredible week exploring this magical kingdom, I had opened my mind to an ancient world from the surreal beauty of the Wadi Rum to the Roman Ruins of Jerash and of course the icing on the cake, a day and a half exploring the ancient city of Petra. I was disappointed with our visit to the Red Sea, overwhelmed walking the hot, dusty streets of Amman and wishing I had more time to spend a night and hike in the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Yet taking a float in the Dead Sea was that last one thing on my traveler’s bucket list to do in Jordan and thankfully I’d get to experience it before I left.
The Dead Sea has been a place of refuge and mystique since Biblical times. Formed over 3 million years ago, the Dead Sea is the saltiest body of water in the world with a salinity of 34% (9.6 times saltier than the ocean) and its salty waters and nutrient-rich mud have been attracting humans to its shores for millennia. Due to its high levels of salt, no animals or plants can survive hence the name “Dead Sea” however tourists and industry alike flock to the Dead Sea to reap the health and financial benefits of its products. In fact, the global market for Dead Sea mud-based cosmetics hit 678 million US dollars in 2015 and is predicted to grow. Tourism to the Dead Sea is also significant with an explosion in tourism. I could hardly wait to be one of those tourists, covering myself in mud, basking in the sun like a turtle and then floating in the Dead Sea.
After a delightful morning exploring the Roman Ruins of Jerash, we set off for an hour and a half drive south to the Dead Sea. Many people chose to spend a night or two at one of the fancy resorts and spas located along the Dead Sea however since we were on a set seven-day tour of Jordan we would only have the afternoon. For me, that was all I needed as I’m not one who likes to lounge around however there were a few fellow travelers on our tour who opted to spend their last few days in Jordan there. Either way, the Dead Sea is only an hour’s drive from Amman so it is easy to do for a half a day or full-day trip from the capital.
As we left Jerash, we learned from our Jordan guide about the importance of the olive tree in Jordan culture and industry. The northern part of Jordan, where Jerash is located, is considered to be the breadbasket of this arid nation and is where 72% of the olive trees are grown in Jordan. You cannot find a breakfast table in Jordan without olive oil and Jordan is the 10th largest producer of olive oil in the world. It was surprising to see a greener landscape but it wasn’t long until the trees disappeared and the landscape returned to its dusty, sandy self.
Located in the Jordan Rift Valley, the Dead Sea sits at the lowest point on Earth at 422 meters (1,385 feet) below sea level. As you descend to the Dead Sea, your ears begin to pop similar to how you feel when descending in an airplane. It is a rather strange sensation but perhaps not as surreal as catching your first glimpse of the Dead Sea. It first appears almost as an apparition off in the distance of hazy, stirred up sand and it is hard to get a true idea of how big it is. The Dead Sea measures roughly 50 km (31 miles) long by and 15 km (9.3 miles) long and borders Jordan to the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west. The main tributary is the Jordan River and that has been part of the problem. The Dead Sea is rapidly shrinking at a rate of 3 feet (1 meter) annually and humans are to blame. Without swift intervention, the Dead Sea could almost disappear by 2050 some scientists warn.
We arrived at the Dead Sea just in time for yet another buffet lunch. Many hotels and tourist attractions have large buffets set up offered at a very reasonable price (typically under US $10) for all you can eat Jordanian food. While it is generally good quality and tasty, I was tired of eating a buffet lunch with the masses of tourists. But the Amman Beach Resort was nice and had a refreshing pool that I enjoyed after my float in the Dead Sea.
While we were in a Muslim country, it was fine to wear whatever swimsuits we preferred at the “tourist” beach which was something I was curious about. I did see a few burka swimsuits for sale but there were no non-tourist swimmers in the water or on the beach save one woman dressed in a black burka sitting in the sun. Women in Jordan are not required to wear the burka (most wear the abaya and a hijab) however I did see an occasional woman completely covered in a full burka and niqab. I’m not sure if they were from Jordan or a neighboring Muslim country. However, generally in Jordan women dress very conservatively and tourists should try to dress modestly as well. While I did not cover my arms by wearing a long sleeve shirt while I was in Jordan, I did wear long pants despite the heat. So you can imagine how strange it felt to put on my swimsuit and walk down to the Dead Sea after a week in Jordan.
As I stepped into the Dead Sea, I was gratefully given a few key tips. First, whatever you do, do not get any water into your eyes or mouth. It stings, burns and is extremely uncomfortable and it does not taste good either. Second, do not even try to swim. Given the water’s high concentration of salt, your body naturally becomes buoyant and the best way to “float” the Dead Sea is to simply slowly lay back. Third, do not stay in too long. Twenty minutes maximum. Fourth, make sure to bring your reading materials! (P.S. Did you know I can read Arabic? Lol).
As you enter the Dead Sea, the first thing you notice is the unusual feeling of the water. It is a little silky feeling. I gingerly walked out to about waist deep and then followed the instructions. I slowly laid back and when my back finally touched the water, surprisingly my feet popped up. As you see in this photo, it is hard to submerge yourself fully into the water. I floated for a while with our group of travelers, laughing and marveling at what an odd sensation it was to be floating like a baby in the Dead Sea.
After a brief float, it was time to head over to the “mud” bar where you can lather yourself up in the famous Dead Sea mud which is rich in magnesium, sodium, potassium, and calcium. I grabbed my first fistful and honestly was a little creeped out by its texture. But when in Jordan, I did what everyone else did. I slathered it all over myself except for my salty, sticky hair and then went to bask in the sun to let the mud dry for a long ten minutes. Once the mud was so hard that it started to crack, it was time to head back into the Dead Sea to wash it off.
So how did I feel after? I do admit that my skin felt luxuriously silky after my outdoor spa treatment but honestly, I was pretty excited to get back to the hotel and wash it all off. My hair especially felt a bit off being filled with salt. However, it was a pretty unusual experience and I am very glad I got to do it especially since the Dead Sea is disappearing at an alarming rate and someday may be entirely gone unless actions are taken to stop it.
Since the 1980s, water has been diverted from the Jordan River (the main tributary to the Dead Sea) to agricultural, urban and industrial areas causing the Dead Sea to shrink at a perilous rate and create thousands of dangerous sinkholes that are changing the unique, natural environment and threatening the ecosystem of the entire area. Given its cultural, historical and financial importance, losing such a natural treasure as the Dead Sea would be devastating.
In 2003, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestine Authorities proposed the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance Plan which would pump billions of liters of water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea using 180 km of pipeline. With an estimated cost of over 7 billion Jordanian dollars, the plan comes at a hefty price but would work to save the Dead Sea and also address another problem this arid region is facing due to climate change: It would provide a new source of water for the region. Water has always been scarce in this part of the world and is predicted to become even scarcer over the next decade. The Plan includes the building of a handful of desalination plants that would convert salty water into drinking water.
While it is the first plan in decades that has been agreed upon by the three major parties at stake – Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authorities, not everyone is pleased and environmentalist groups warn about the environmental damage that could occur if the plan is not carried out properly. Yet they may have even greater worries ahead if the plan doesn’t move forward soon. After decades of discussions, unfortunately, politics have gotten in the way and to date the plan is on hold. Only time will tell what will happen and perhaps one day, just like our glaciers, the Dead Sea will be gone. What a loss that would be.