Giraffe Manor: The Most Magical Hotel In The Whole World

Tucked into 140 acres of indigenous forest in a quiet suburb of Nairobi, Kenya stands an old colonial manor.  It is a place where a herd of resident Rothschild giraffes roam freely, poking their heads into your bedroom windows eagerly looking for a treat, to share in a sun-downer, and then reappearing once more in the morning to share in your breakfast. Giraffe Manor offers an unparalleled experience to its guests.  It is pure magic.

Visiting Giraffe Manor has been on my list for quite some time.  If you have ever seen Instagram photos of the place, you’ll understand why.  In fact, we built our entire trip to Kenya around a stay at this incredible property.

Upon arriving in Kenya, we were greeted by one of the manor’s friendly drivers who told us all about the history of the manor before delivering us to the charming little manor of my dreams.  We had arrived just in time for afternoon tea!

Tea time is quite the event at the manor. Off in the distance, just as the scones and cookies are set out by the friendliest staff, a herd of giraffe emerge and make their way to the manor’s patio. They know you are there, waiting to feed them pellets, and they will happily pose for pictures and even give you kisses for a treat.  Don’t worry, their saliva is antiseptic, so it’s totally safe (and highly recommended) to kiss a giraffe.

As the African sun sets, the giraffes turn in for the night and guests of the manor prepare for a gourmet meal in the manor’s dining room. While dinner is being prepared, you can relax by the fire with a cocktail in hand or roam around the manor and admire the beautifully appointed rooms.  We visited the manor just after Christmas, and the fire place was still draped with Christmas stockings, one for each of the resident giraffes.

In the main house, dinner is served in three courses on a long table shared by all the manor’s guest.  You will want to turn in early for the night because you will have an early wake up call in the morning by the resident giraffes who poke their heads into your suite’s bedroom window, inviting you down for the most incredible breakfast experience you will ever have.

Breakfast is quite the affair at Giraffe Manor! In the main house, the breakfast room is framed by large picture windows.  The resident giraffes poke their heads in, waiting to be fed. The breakfast experience is really the reason to come to Giraffe Manor.  It is truly incredible, and the food is also fantastic.

After breakfast, at about 9:00 a.m.., the giraffes make their way to The Giraffe Center, located a short three-minute walk from the manor, to greet the waiting public who has come to visit (and feed) them for the day.

The Giraffe Center is a non-profit conservation education center that is open to the public, but free to guests of the manor. It provides visitors the opportunity to meet, learn about, interact with, and feed the giraffes.  While it pales in comparison to the personal giraffe encounters offered by the manor, it is worth a visit to learn about the different types of giraffes (the others being the Maasai and reticulated giraffe), the distinguishing characteristics  of each (each type has a unique and easily identifiable patterned marking), and the conservation efforts in Kenya through African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW).  You will also learn a few facts about giraffes.  In addition to learning that their saliva is antiseptic, we learned that giraffes barely sleep (less than two hours per day) and have such powerful legs that a giraffe kick can be lethal.  I also learned first hand that some giraffes are head-butters.

So, how do you plan a stay at the manor?  Well, you plan WAY in advance.  Giraffe Manor only has 12 rooms split between the original house, called the Main Manor, and the Garden Manor which is a replica of the original manor.  The property typically books up a year in advance. The Garden Manor is  reserved for guests who are staying at more than one Safari Collection property.  We were lucky enough to snag a cancellation in the Main Manor. You can check their availability right on their website.

While your stay includes all food and drink, it is still pricey at approximately $1,400 a night.  However, a one-night stay is plenty to enjoy the property, and, in my opinion, the experience was worth the price tag.  Just think of this as your vacation splurge, and maybe stay at more modest accommodations for the rest of your trip. Make sure you arrive in the early afternoon so you can really enjoy all that this the magical property has to offer.

The property is family friendly, but honestly, I wish it wasn’t. (Sorry, kids! It’s just too much going on with the giraffes and kids running around) There is an on-property spa and cute little gift shop as well. In addition to visiting The Giraffe Center, you can also schedule a visit to the nearby David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), an orphan-elephant rescue and conservation project.  At DSWT, you can attend the public feeding of the rescued orphaned elephants and even foster your own elephant. More on that in my next blog post!

For now, it’s time to bid adieu to this magical hotel, and its beautiful resident giraffes!


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Bwindi, Uganada: A Wonderfully Mysterious Forest of Gorillas

Seeing a gorilla in the wild, so close to you that you can reach out and touch it, it is one of the most electrifying experiences you will ever have.  It was this very moment that brought us to Uganda – one of only three places in the world where you can have such an experience.

Sadly, there are only two populations of mountain gorillas left in the world, and there are fewer than 900 mountain gorillas left in the wild. The first population lives in the Virunga volcanic mountains. The second lives in Bwindi in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  That means that in order to see these gorillas, you must visit either Uganda, Rwanda, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“DRC”).

Gorilla trekking has been on the top of my bucketlist for several years. This is certainly not a spur of the moment trip. A trip like this takes a lot of planning.  Planning through a travel agent is almost a must. Also, a trip like this takes a bit of saving, as it is not a cheap trip. But, this was Chad and my Christmas gift to each other, because seriously, what better gift can one get than face time with wild gorillas?

So, how does one get their trek on?  Well, first, you must get visa to visit Uganda.  You can purchase one for just Uganda or, for a few bucks more, an East Africa visa that is good for Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.  Next, you will need to get vaccinated for yellow fever, among other things, and have proof of vaccination to present at customs on arrival.  Finally, you need to obtain a permit to trek. There are a limited number of permits that are released each year. The tour operators buy up about 80% of them, so they can be difficult to obtain on your own.  They are also pricey.

Trekking in Rwanda costs $1,500 PER PERSON PER TREK.  Trekking in Uganda is $600 PER PERSON PER TREK.  Trekking in the DRC is $400 PER PERSON PER TREK.  Most people do two treks during their visit. So, you are looking at $3,000 for one person to trek twice in Rwanda, $1,200 for one person to trek twice in Uganda, and $800 for one person to trek twice in the DRC.  Ouch!  The only good news is that part of the permit fee supports the parks and local villages. Again, this is a priceless experience, so don’t let the relatively pricey permit fees deter you. It is WELL WORTH it! We chose Uganda because it was cheaper than Rwanda and more (politically) stable than the DRC. We were also able to obtain two permits to visit two different gorilla families.

Fittingly, getting to Uganda to trek was, in itself, a trek.  To get to Uganda, we flew from Miami to Amsterdam and then from Amsterdam to Entebbe, Uganda.  We spent an overnight in Entebbe, before boarding an early morning regional flight in a prop plane (not Chad’s favorite) to Bwindi. From the regional airport, we had about an hour long drive on a dirt road to our lodge, Mahogany Springs. This drive gave us some great insight into local life.

Mahogany Springs is considered a luxury lodge.  However, “luxury” in Uganda is different from luxury elsewhere.  If you have been on safari, especially in South Africa, you may want to adjust your expectations.  Don’t get me wrong, the property is very nice, but it’s not the Ritz Carlton.

Mahogany Springs is located in the Munyaga River valley, so the property is very lush.  The nice part about the lodge is that it is very close to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.

The rooms are like elevated tree houses, with wood finishes and mosquito netting draped over the beds.  They are basic accommodations, but clean and comfortable.  There is no A/C, but you can request a fan (and trust me, it is needed, even in the “winter”). The shower water was hot. The Wi-Fi is very spotty (in all of Bwindi). You can sometimes catch a signal in the common areas, but hardly ever in the rooms.

The staff is very friendly. They go out of their way to make you comfortable.  The meals are included in your stay, and the food is decent.  We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day there, and the lodge was decorated for the holiday.  The staff made a special holiday meal and had Christmas music playing.

On our first day in Bwindi, we took a walking tour of the local village.  We had to do this with an armed guard, but honestly, we probably didn’t need him. We met local artisans and visited a school house in Uganda where we donated school supplies and toys that we had brought for the children. We even got to see a special traditional dance performance by the local children.

On the second day, we went out for our very first gorilla trek. This trek originated from a part of the forest that was about an hour drive from the lodge.  We woke up early for our breakfast, and by the time we were done, the lodge had packed our lunch and provided a walking stick. We then made the hour long drive to the park where we would start the trek.

We were first briefed about what to expect, and then we were divided into groups of about 8 people.  The park service tries to pair people up based on your age and their perceived level of your fitness. You will be assigned a particular gorilla family.  We met our guide who explained that the trackers were already out finding the gorillas for us. We were offered the option of hiring a sherpa to carry our things.  Remember you have to carry at least 4 water bottles per person, your lunch, and your camera for several hours through rough terrain.  Trust me, hire the sherpa. It was a worth the $20. Not only do they carry all your gear, but they will also help you trudge through the forest, which turned out to be a very important! Also, you employ a local for the day, which is important to the community and conservation of the gorillas!

The hike through the forest can be pretty challenging, and can last anywhere from 2 to 6 hours before you find the gorillas.  Each group is lead by a trekker in front with a gun, one in the rear with a gun, and a ranger with a machete. Our guides had to machete a path through for us.  You should have a reasonable level of fitness to go on the trek.  There is no marked path way.  You will, at times, be knee deep in brush.  You will have to sometimes crawl or slide on your butt, due to the relatively steep inclines of the forest.  You will get a little muddy and very sweaty.

After about 4 hours of hiking (mostly uphill), we found our gorilla family. Our family was one of the largest in the area, at 19 gorillas.  Our trekking guides and rangers  prepared us for what to expect and gave us the ground rules before we got close to them. The trekkers lead you in with guns and tell you where to sit and how close you can get.  They communicate with the gorillas by making certain grunting sounds. On that particular day, our gorilla family was active, on the move, and little aggressive. We literally had to chase them as they moved around, but we did get very close to them on the rare moments that they stopped for a break. At one point, too close. We accidentally cut the family off as they were crossing the river such that half the family was on one side of the river and the other half on the other.  This agitated the silver-back.  And, the next thing you know, we got charged by a silver-back!  More on that below. Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but you could tell that the trekkers and the guides were worried! At the time, it was terrifying, but looking back, it was absolutely exhilarating.

In case you were wondering, don’t: You WILL know when you are getting near the gorilla family. How you might ask? Well, there is no graceful or witty way to put it, so I’ll  just say it: Mountain gorillas smell like piss. Apparently, this is primarily thanks to the patriarch silver-back/head of the family, and it is unmistakable. It’s one of those things where, you’ll know it when you smell it! With that said, let’s move on, shall we? You are not allowed to touch the gorillas, but sometimes they touch you.  In these moments, you have to sit extremely still and look down, do not make eye contact.  You get to spend about an hour with the gorilla family.

We later learned that all the other groups had found their families pretty early on and got to spend a chill hour observing them as they lazily laid around posing for pictures.  Not our group. We were the last group back. The gorillas charged at us at least two times.  One of those times, the silver-back male – all 500+ pounds of him – brushed past Chad and knocked over another member in our group who went flying into a pile of leaves. He later said that it was the hardest force he had ever felt, like being hit by a boulder. These gorillas are super strong. They can literally kill you with their bare hands.  The first thing the rangers told us was to not run away if we were approached by a gorilla.  Everybody forgot that rule! So, needless to say, we were all on edge.

After our hour was over, we hiked about another hour until we could find a place to stop for lunch.  It was an exhausting day, but absolutely exhilarating. Truly one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Back at the lodge, everyone traded trekking stories.  Ours was by far the worst (or, in hindsight, the best!).

The next day, we were scheduled for our second trek.  This time, we would be visiting part of the forest that was a close 10 minute drive from the lodge. Chad and I didn’t know what to expect.  We sat through another briefing and got assigned to trek the M family. We began our trek, but about 2 hours in our rangers and guide aborted the trek because it was reported that the M family was literally in a territory skirmish with another pack of wild gorillas, making it unsafe for us to visit them.

Our guides decided to re-route and found us the R family. I was elated to find the R family.  The R family is what trekking dreams are made of.  They are a pack of about 12 to 15 lazy and friendly gorillas.  They had a super-chill silver-back leader and 4 of the cutest babies I ever saw.  They could not have cared less that we were there. They laid around eating, while the babies played with each other and climbed the trees.  It was pure bliss! I felt like we were being rewarded after the trek we had the day before. The experience lived up to all the hype!

At the end of each trek, we were awarded with our trekking certificates! After that much physical activity, the least you deserve is an award!

So, what does one wear to trek gorillas?  Well, I’ll tell you.  Here’s a little hint: you are going to look ridiculous while you are trekking.  But, the good news is, so does everyone else. Relax. This is not a fashion show.  It’s a jungle.

Anyway, you will need a good, lightweight pair of breathable pants (preferably with pockets) and a breathable long sleeved shirt.  You MUST wear hiking boots with a sturdy pair of long socks. If you have boot covers, bring them.  Otherwise, you MUST tuck the bottoms of your pants into your socks.  If you do not, you will get ants in your pants.  Big, fire ants.  In your pants. You should bring a lightweight rain jacket and probably a hat or some other head covering. You MUST bring a sturdy pair of gloves, like gardening gloves.  If you do not have them, the park’s visitor center will rent or sell them to you.  During the trek you will be grabbing on to branches, vines, and plants, many of which have thorns. Finally, you will need a backpack that can hold your lunch, some snacks, your water, baby wipes (for when nature calls; you may also want to bring a Ziploc bag for your waste) your rain gear, and your camera equipment.

I am so glad that Chad and I got to check this one off the list.  It was really an incredible experience.  If you have ever though about doing it, go.  Just go. It was amazing. It was worth every dime we paid, and all the soreness we felt afterwards. It truly was an awesome way to close out a year of remarkable adventures!



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Luxor, Egypt: The World’s Largest Outdoor Museum

After the hustle and bustle of Cairo, we were glad to have landed in Luxor.  Luxor is much calmer and a lot greener. The pace in Luxor is a lot slower, and you feel at ease while you are there.

Indeed, no trip to Egypt would be complete without a stop in Luxor, known as the world’s greatest open-air museum.  Modern day Luxor was the ancient city of Thebes.  Today, the ruins of the temple complexes at Karnak and Luxor stand within the modern city.  Right across the River Nile lie the monuments, temples, and tombs of the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, and the Necropolis or tombs of the nobles.  To really appreciate all the history and the sites, you need at least two full days in Luxor.

We hopped a short one-hour flight from Cairo to Luxor and immediately began exploring.  Our first stop was to  the Colossi of Memnon, which are two massive stone statues of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, who reigned in Egypt during the Dynasty XVIII. This site is a quick, free stop on the way to the Valley of the Kings.

The Valley of the Kings is basically a royal cemetery.  It is a valley where tombs were created by excavating deep into the mountainsides for the pharaohs and powerful nobles.  Ancient Egyptians were VERY concerned about their death.  In fact, they spent their entire adult lives planning for their afterlife, and these tombs are the proof.  Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death, the pharaohs were expected to become one with the gods.  As a result, they built elaborate tombs in preparation for their afterlife.

The underground tombs were well stocked with all the material goods a ruler might need in the next world, such as clothes, furniture, tools, weapons, and jewelry. The tombs were also stocked with food and drink for royal feasting in the next world.  Sometimes, when a pharaoh died, his slaves and pets were killed with him and put into the tomb to help the pharaoh in his afterlife. Mummification was used to preserve the body so that the eternal soul would be restored in the afterlife.

There’s an old adage that life doesn’t come with a manual.  That may be true; but, for the Ancient Egyptians, death did.  On the walls of the tombs, the Book of the Dead was painted or carved.  The Book of the Dead was a collection of spells to assist a dead person’s journey through the underworld and into the afterlife.

On arrival to the Valley of the Kings, you will enter a visitor’s center.  You can purchase your tickets from here.  The cost is about $11.00 per person.  The tombs (well, the ones that are open on the day you happen to be visiting) in the valley are accessible with your entrance ticket, except one — the tomb of King Tut.  To visit King Tut, the most famous tomb onsite, you must buy a separate ticket.

Just a heads up, all the tombs in the valley are not always open to the public, so you on any given day you can expect three to four tombs to be open. The tombs that are open rotate in order to minimize damage to them or because restoration work is needed.

Also, if you are going to take pictures inside the tombs, you MUST purchase a photo ticket for each person who will be taking pictures.  It’s only about $3.00, so it is worth it.  The moment you whip out your camera or phone, someone will demand to see your photo ticket.  If you don’t have it, they will take your phone or camera and delete the photo and/or kick you out of the tomb. There are NO photos allowed in King Tut’s tomb.

There is a tram that will take you from the visitor’s center to the entrance of the tombs.  It is about $.50 per person to ride the tram, and, in my opinion, worth the money.

Each of the tombs are different inside.  Some you can walk straight into, some you will need to walk on a ramp to get down, and some have stairs.  None of them were particularly strenuous.  We visited four tombs, including that of King Tut.

The first tomb we visited was the Tomb of Ramses VII. It is a small, unfinished tomb, and the artwork inside is not as impressive as the others.

The second tomb we visited was that of Ramses IV. This tomb has very intricate artwork and very vibrant colors. Speaking of the paints and colors, it’s incredible when you realize that they have not been restored; yet, in many instances, they remain almost as bright and beautiful as they were when they were first applied thousands of years ago.

Up next was the tomb of King Tut.  This was the only tomb for which we had to wait in line.  It is also the only tomb that contains a sarcophagus and the mummified remains, of the one and only King Tut!

We left the Valley of the Kings and made out way to the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This temple is dedicated to the sun deity Amun and is next to the mortuary temple of Mentuhotep II.  The temple is considered one of the incomparable monuments of ancient Egypt.  Also, the temple is aligned to the winter solstice sunrise, which makes it popular with spiritual people and yogis who come to the temple and sit there all day soaking up its energy and meditating.  The mortuary is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and costs $10.00 to enter.  It takes about an hour to visit.

After lunch, we hopped a river boat and crossed the Nile as we made our way to the Karnak Temple.

The Karnak Temple was one of my favorites in Luxor; and, considering it only costs $5.00, it is must! It is a large complex that is like is a vast open-air museum.  It is the second largest ancient religious site in the world, after Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It is believed to be the second most visited historical site in Egypt,the Giza Pyramids in Cairo being the first. Also, you can do this temple by day, which is magnificent, and by night, which, honestly, was kind of cheesy (but only $4.00).

From there, we visited the Temple of Luxor. Luxor is known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Museum, and together with the Karnak Temple, the Luxor Temple is the reason.  It is one of the best preserved of all of the ancient monuments with large amounts of the structure, statuary, and relief carvings still intact.  It too is one of the most impressive sites in Luxor, and it is only about $3.00 to enter.

We ended our day at the Luxor Bazaar where we stopped for a rest, some famous Egyptian coffee, and bought some beautiful spices.

At long last, it was time to check into our hotel.  If you are going to Luxor, there really is just one place to stay, and that place is the Winter Palace.  This hotel has a long history. It is a historic British colonial-era 5-star luxury resort hotel located on the banks of the River Nile, just south of Luxor Temple. It’s claim to fame is that it was the choice accommodation for Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter during their discovery and excavation of King Tut’s tomb. The hotel is a living antique, and the grounds are beautiful.

Day Two started with a trip to the Luxor Museum. This museum is often overlooked by visitors.  Most of the artifacts displayed at the Luxor Museum were discovered in the temples in Luxor. It’s a small museum that is open until 9:00 p.m. or 10:00 p.m. (depending on the season), and only costs $4.00 to enter. We got there just as it was opening for the day and basically had it to ourselves. Sine it’s relatively small, you can get through it in about  60 to 90 minutes. I highly recommend it.

Fun fact about the mummy below: It is the mummy of Ramses I. His tomb was robbed, and his mummy sold and re-sold on the black market.  By the time it found its way to Canada in the 1800s, its incredibly important royal pedigree had been lost, and it spent the next 140 years as an unknown mummy, unceremoniously housed with several others, some coffins, and other Egyptian artifacts as part of a “freaks of nature” exhibit. The museum changed hands, and crossed and re-crossed the Canadian border several times until it closed in 1999. Thereafter, the Carlos Museum at Emory University purchased the Egyptian collection for around $2 million USD.  They began testing the mummy for identification and after years of study,  the scientific community concluded that this is indeed the mummy of Ramses I. On October 24, 2003, Emory University returned the mummy to Luxor, Egypt, and it has been on display at this museum ever since.

Our second stop was to the Temple of Edfu. It is one of the best preserved shrines in Egypt.  It was also not as heavily visited by tourists. It had beautiful art work on the columns and ceilings with bright colors. It also has some of the deepest carvings in all of Egypt.  And, at less than $4.00 for admission, it is well worth a visit.

We ended our day with a trip to the Tombs of the Nobles. Unlike the funerary monuments for the kings and queens, these tombs are dedicated to administrators, governors, and other figures of minor nobility.  They are a cluster of tombs carved into a rocky hillside, and they are one of the least visited sites in Luxor.  In fact, when we were went, we were the only visitors there, which I loved. Also, there are active excavations going on here, and we got to see one in action!

While certainly smaller, these tombs were amazingly well preserved with the most vibrant color of any site we saw in Egypt.

But, before we headed to the airport, we made one last stop, and that was to get custom perfumes made using fine Arabic oils! These make great gifts, and they are so unique! The array of scents is dizzying, and they are made right in front of you using the bottle and size of your choice!

They say all good things must come to an end, and such was the case with our short, but amazing time in Egypt.  I am glad that we ignored our friends and family and took this trip.  We had a great time, we never felt in danger, we saw some amazing historical sites, and we did it all for such a reasonable price! Seriously, if you have ever thought of going to Egypt, GO! You will not regret it!

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Egypt: What To Know Before You Go

After vising in Egypt, I can tell you that we were happy we went.  But, there are some things we wished we knew before we got there that would have made our trip better.  Below if a list of those things, as well as some things we did that we were glad we had:

1.  You must purchase a visa when you land.  There are no signs that assist in this regard.  Our guide took care of this for us, but if you have to do it alone here is how: when you land you will be funneled into an arrival hall before you collect your luggage and go through customs.  On the right hand side, you will see a bunch of bank kiosks.  You can buy the visa there and also change money at the same time.  The visa must be paid in cash and costs $25.00 USD per person. Once you get the visa, you can proceed to passport control and then to collect your luggage.  The Cairo airport is a disaster when it comes to luggage collection. It takes FOREVER. If you can get away with just a carry on, that will be your best bet, and a HUGE time saver for the rest of your trip.

2.  Hire a local guide and driver.  This will be the best spent money for safety and peace of mind. Comparatively speaking, it’s not that expensive, and it makes navigating the sites and the city A LOT easier. Trust me, you do NOT want to drive in Cairo, and you also do NOT want to take what they call public transportation. It is little more than a mini van crammed to the brim with people. It is so full that they often can’t even close the door! People just jump on and off mid-traffic! Do you want to be stuck in that, in the most insane driving ever? I don’t think so. The photo above was borrowed from Mr. Google, but it is a pretty accurate representation of what goes on on the road: cars in every direction, livestock, and some pedestrians peppered in for fun.  Also, there is Uber, but again, it’s local drivers, with local cars, who likely don’t speak English. And, don’t get me started with the taxis.  All I read and heard about were horror stories of bait and switch pricing and not letting you out of the car until you paid. Plus it is a lot easier to have a local do all of the translating, hassling, and negotiating for you. Finally, with a guide, we rarely waited in line for anything anywhere.

3. Spend two days in Cairo and two days in Luxor and take the cheap and short flight to get between the two.  Everyone kept recommending a Nile River cruise; but honestly, unless there is a way to do it with a very small group or privately, this is not for me.  See those big ass boats, back there.  Those are the Nile cruise boats.  The boats are huge, kind of old, and they do not look that comfortable. As in,they did not look as nice as the lowest level cruise liner in the U.S. But, it is a great way to cover a lot of ground and see some beautiful countryside.

4.  You must change money into local currency (they prefer their own currency and USD and credit cards are not widely accepted), but be sure you have a lot of smaller bills because …

5.  EVERYONE expects a tip for every single little thing.  If a worker at a site takes a photo of you, their hand will be out.  If someone gives you directions to the bathroom, they expect a tip.  They are not shy either.  They will ask, hand out, and follow you around continuing to ask.  To avoid this, get your own guide and ignore everyone around you. Don’t let them take photos for you. Don’t let them show you a “special” place. Just ignore them and avoid them.

6.  This brings me to your bathroom experiences in Egypt.  Bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer everywhere. This was the best thing we did.  There will either be no toilet paper or paper towels in any of the bathrooms or they purposefully take them out so a person can hand two squares of toilet paper to you (like, literally two squares) for a tip. Also, sometimes you have to pay to use the restroom, so keep small bills with you at all times.

7.  On the other hand, it is very much a pay to play economy.  If you want to stay at the pyramids after they close, offer the guard some cash. If you want to enter a prohibited or closed off part of a site, pay the site keeper.  There is a price for everything here; and honestly, I am not so sure that they do not purposefully “close off” portions of sites just so people can pay to get into them.

8.  Negotiate. Negotiate. Negotiate.  Never pay the asking price of anything. Ever. Well, except in restaurants.  Everything else is up for negotiation.

9.  Often times you will see a no photo sign. In most sites, if you are caught taking a picture they will take your phone or camera and make you delete the photo and kick you out. This is, of course, sporadically enforced. However, almost every single site sells a photo pass.  If you buy the pass, snap away.  Keep the ticket on you because they will ask you for it, but once you buy it, take all the photos you want. Is it a scam to make more money? Probably. But the ticket is usually like $2.00, so it’s worth it to be able to take pictures.

10.  This one sounds obvious, but don’t drink the water anywhere.  Make sure you have bottled water to brush your teeth.  Also, make sure all ice is made from filtered or bottled water.  The better hotels will have free water for you.

11.  There is security everywhere so be prepared for that.  When you enter a site or the property of a nice hotel, there is a law enforcement stop.  They will question the driver and search the car and its trunk with dogs and under-car mirrors. Once you get through that, you will have to go through security again at the entrance of  every site and before you enter any hotel. You will go through detectors while your bags get scanned.  Sometimes they will open the bags and check inside. I didn’t mind this one bit.

12. The locals are fascinated by Westerners. They will whip out their phones and take photos of you.  They will even come up to you and ask you to take pictures with them. One word of caution: if they see you are willing to pose for a picture with them, they will line up for pictures, and you can be there all day taking pictures with complete strangers and sometimes entire families! What are they doing with these pictures?!?  Actually, I don’t want to know. My advice is to be nice and take a few photos, but then say no. Trust me, if you don’t, it will never end. Which brings me to my next thought, should I have asked for a tip for allowing them to photograph me?!? Just kidding.  Kind of.

So, with that, I hope that my primer here helps to make your trip more enjoyable and less of a hassle. Again, Egypt is a wonderful place that offers a multitude of unique opportunities to experience legendary antiquity, up close and personal, and I highly recommend that you go. I just prefer to know what I’m getting into before I get there and figure you do too!  Have you been to Egypt and have any tips to add?  If so, I’d love to hear from you!

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Cairo (Giza), Egypt: Land Of The Pharaohs

“Egypt?!? Why would you go to Egypt?!?  Isn’t it really unsafe there?”  If only I had a dollar for every time I heard this (or some variation thereof) from every single person who learned that Chad and I would be spending Thanksgiving in Egypt this year.

Granted, the Egypt of today is probably not like what it was.  It is not the easiest country to navigate, and some of the locals can be a little overbearing by Western standards.  But that shouldn’t stop you from visiting Egypt. It is, after all, the home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as well as numerous other historically significant and interesting sites.  There are fewer tourists, giving you a more personalized experience.  And, it happens to be a super affordable trip, even when it is completely privately guided and staying in the best and most iconic hotels that Egypt has to offer.  As for safety concerns, I am sorry to say, but those are concerns for everywhere in the world these days.

So, we set off over the Thanksgiving holiday to spend four action packed days in Egypt.  Unfortunately, only one of those days was spent in Cairo.  Hindsight being 20/20, I would have added an extra day in Cairo because I think you need half a day to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza and probably another day for the Egyptian Museum – especially starting 2018, when the new museum is slated to open! Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum will be the world’s largest archaeological museum when it opens in 2018, and it will have an expanded exhibit dedicated to King Tut.

We started our day off at the Mena House Hotel in Cairo, which I guarantee you has the best breakfast view in all of Egypt! It used to be a palace, so the digs are not too shabby!  Book a pyramid view room because there is nothing like a sunrise or sunset with a pyramid view!

We booked our entire trip, which was privately guided, with Memphis Tours. Their guides and drivers were excellent, which is important, especially in a city like Cairo which has the worst and most chaotic traffic I have ever experienced anywhere else in the world.  They were also very responsive during the booking process.

After breakfast, we headed to Coptic Cairo to visit Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, also known as the Hanging Church. The Hanging Church is the most famous Coptic Christian church in Cairo.  It named for its location above a gatehouse of Babylon Fortress.

We also visited the Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Segra).  The church is believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus Christ, rested at the end of their journey into Egypt.

From there, we made our way to the Egyptian Museum to explore the wonders of the pharaohs and of King Tut. Now, if you are really into museums (like my husband, Chad) or Egyptian history, set aside a full day to visit the museum.  It is uber-crowded and showing its age, so I can’t wait to go back and see the new museum.  This one will remain open, but all of the King Tut relics will be relocated to the new museum. Also, the museum is not very well laid out and the artifacts are not well marked at all, so I highly recommend you visit with a guide.

If you only want to hit the highlights of this museum then you should definitely go to the second floor where you will find the King Tut artifacts, including a room with his sarcophagi and the famous death mask, which can be found in room three.  Along the way, you will see all the items that were found in his tomb, which is located in Luxor in the Valley of the Kings.  These items include his bed, his chariot, his cane, his shoes (his sandal game was so on point), and his childhood games.

A couple of lesser known, but not to be missed pieces are the Seneb Statue in room 32 and Kaaper Statue in room 42. But other than Tut, the other MUST see in this museum is the Mummy Room. Now, the museum entry fee does not include a visit to the mummy rooms, which costs an extra $15 (and which must be paid in cash at the entrance of the exhibit), but it is probably one of the most fascinating exhibits in the entire museum, especially if you are going to visit the tombs of these mummies in Luxor! Each mummy occupies its own temperature-controlled case, and they are very well preserved.

We ended our day at the Giza Plateau, where we visited one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Great Pyramids of Cheops, Chefren, and Mykerinus, and, of course, the Sphinx. I would HIGHLY recommend a guide for this site.  Not because it is complicated and requires a lot of explanation.  I say this only because it reduces the amount of harassment you will encounter at the site by vendors who want to sell you crap, locals who want you to take camel and horse rides, and scammers who claim to work there and can show you around and take your picture.

Also, our guide showed us this pretty cool ancient ship exhibit, which we would have totally missed if it weren’t for him. It is located in the Solar Barque Museum, which is located behind the Great Pyramid. The ship was thought to transport pharaohs to the underworld.  You have to buy a separate ticket for this exhibit, but it is only a few dollars, and you get to wear these super stylish shoe covers!

In case you were wondering, it is now illegal to scale the pyramids. You can, however, go into them.  First, while you can visit the pyramids every day, all year long, you can only access two of the three pyramids each day- the Great Pyramid and then one of the two smaller pyramids.  Each requires the purchase of a separate ticket for entry.  Allegedly, there are only 300 tickets sold per day, the first 150 tickets are sold early in the morning and the next 150 tickets in the early afternoon.  We got there two hours before closing, and were able to get tickets without a problem.

So, what’s inside? Nothing really, but it’s kind of cool to be IN an ancient wonder. So, I definitely recommend going into at least the Great Pyramid, unless you have severe claustrophobia.  Chad is a little claustrophobic, but he was able to do it.  Also, when we went, there weren’t that many people coming in and out. If there were, I can see where it would be a little anxiety inducing.

Here is what you are in for. First, you climb up a brief way from the outside until you reach the entry way.  Once inside, you will go through a small two-way tunnel where you are able to stand up right.  It will take you about a minute or two to get through this tunnel. You will then reach another tunnel that is two way but looks like it should only be one way.  This tunnel goes up at an angle and has handrail on each side with wood planking on the ground, but you have to crouch to get through it.  It is about three to five minutes long. You will then come to an open space where you can stand up right.  On either side will be a make shift ladder that you climb so that you can walk upright at an angle into the chamber room.  This will take you another three to five minutes. At the end, you will step into an empty room with a vault in it. The pathway to get here is lit, but kind of hot.  The chamber room is dark and hot.

The treasures from inside the pyramids have been removed and can be viewed at world-famous museums around the world like the British Museum, Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, and Italy’s Turin Museum.

After exiting the tunnel, we were driven to a view spot where you can get a great view of the Great Pyramid.  From there, we took our camel ride around the complex to see the six pyramids.  This particular activity conflicted me. I discussed with our guide that I did not want to engage in this activity if the camels were treated inhumanely.  He assured me that while that was the case with some camels and camel herders, their company worked with locals who did not engage in this practice. Our camels looked healthier, but, honestly, I am not 100% sure that they were treated completely humanely.  In hindsight, I wish I would’ve asked if we could walk the trail or drive it instead because it is actually quite an amazing view and it is almost as if you are there alone as there are few other people around.

We stuck around for the sound and light show.  It is about 30 minutes, and it is kind of cheesy.  It explains the history of the pyramids in story format with lights and music.  We upgraded our tickets to VIP so we could be in the first row for about $4.00. It was pretty nice to see the pyramids and the sphinx lit up.  I wish they would’ve left them lit up after the show so we could get some pictures.

At the end of that action packed day, it was time to get back to our hotel to prepare for our trip to Luxor the next day. The one thing we did not have time to do was to visit Khan el-Khalili bazaar, and I am still annoyed by this. It is a major souk in the Islamic district of Cairo, and, from the photos, it looks beautiful!  The shops sell souvenirs, antiques and jewelry, but there are also still many traditional workshops that continue to operate in the surrounding area. There are also several coffeehouses, restaurants, and street food vendors, including one of the oldest and most famous coffeehouses, Fishawi’s, established in 1773. Until I can get back to Egypt to take my own, photos from Mr. Google are going to have to do to give you an idea of what the market looks like.

Anyway, if you’ve been to Egypt, I’d like to hear about your experience.  If you have always wanted to go, stop hesitating and book it!  Our entire trip, including international airfare, one in country flight for two people, private guides and drivers, all transfers, stays at two five star hotels, all breakfasts and lunches, and entrances to all sites for two people for four days was under $4,000.00 total. We probably spent an extra $500 in country on visas, tips, dinners, extra entrance tickets, and incidentals. And, we were surprised to see more Americans than we anticipated there, including families with children. So, fear not! The pyramids await you!

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Amsterdam, Netherlands: An Accidental Adventure

After spending 10 days in Jordan, I landed in Paris to the news that my flight home to Miami was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma, and that it would be at least three days until we could get home. To some, this might have been terrible news.  To me, it was the best news! Two extra days of vacation courtesy of Delta?!? Yes, please!

The only problem was, Paris. I mean, let’s be honest, Paris is NEVER a problem.  But, I (and my travel companion) had kind of been there done that.  At least twice that we could each remember. So, what did we do? We decided that we would hop the next train to a city that neither of us had ever been. Hello, Amsterdam!

Admittedly, you probably need a little more than two days for Amsterdam. I mean, we didn’t even get to go out to the Flower Strip (the tulip fields) or to the windmills. But, two days was perfect to get a taste of the city.

We arrived via the high-speed Thalys train and took an Uber over to a little boutique hotel we booked on the ride over called the Hotel Banks Mansion. It is a cute little art-deco style hotel that had a great breakfast and a cute little happy hour every day for guests.  The rooms were a little dated, but decent and a nice size.  The hotel was literally two blocks away from the Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt).

In existence since 1862, the Flower Market is the only floating flower market in the world. The flower stalls stand on the houseboats and front a small pedestrian street. Today, the market is pretty touristy, but still cute and worth a quick stroll.  It is also a great place to pick up some souvenirs.

In case you didn’t know, the Netherlands is famous for tulips, and the history of tulips in the Netherlands is rich.  In fact, tulips were once used as currency and caused a crash in the market. In the market, you will find all sorts of tulips, narcissus, geraniums and many other types of flowers. While there are export services, there are plenty of terrible reviews from people who never received their orders.  If I were you, I would buy the bulbs and put them in your checked luggage.

I mean, you had me at flower.  So, naturally, we made a beeline for that market as we killed time before our FREE walking tour later that afternoon.

Amsterdam is pretty well known for its free walking tours.  We took the tour as a way to orient ourselves with the city. Now, if you read this blog, you know that I am NOT a fan of group tours. I made an exception here because it was our only option.

We booked with Free Dam Tours. The tour was decent, but it reinforced my dislike for group tours.  All the regular cast of characters was present: the Americans whose first time it was in Europe (or out of the country really), the friendly Canadians, the German couple wearing short sleeved shirts in the pretty crisp temperatures, the couple who doesn’t speak/understand English that well (I mean, why? Why take this tour?), the weird couple who seemed to hate each other, the annoying guy who asked too many (stupid) questions, the couple who was still wasted from the Red Light District the night before (hell, maybe even from earlier that day), the solo female traveler, and the young backpackers.  Check.  Gang’s all here, let’s get this tour on the road.

The tour lasted about three hours.  It actually starts in the Red Light District and makes its way through the city in one big circle. During the tour, we learned about the dark history of city, particularly during World War II and how freedom and tolerance transformed a simple fisherman’s village into the center of a vast trading empire. We also learned about the city’s liberal attitudes in modern day life, particularly when it comes to sex and drugs. Exhibit A: A man in a long trench coat with stocking and heels walking around the city in the middle of the day.

At the end of the tour we got vouchers to take a reduced-priced canal tour (which you should do, but we just didn’t have time for). Also, etiquette dictates that at the end of a FREE tour, you are supposed to tip. People are so savage!  Most did not tip at all. I felt so bad for this poor guide who relies on tips to earn a living. One guy actually told her he was not tipping because he didn’t like the tour! I was so shook! I mean, he stayed until the end.  Why stay if you hate it? Others were tipping 5 Euros. Really?!?! For three hours? That’s barely a Euro per hour! So, of course, my friend and I over-tipped to save this poor girl from humanity. And that, my friends, is another reason why I despise group tours.

But, I digress.  Let’s be honest, all anyone cared about during the tour was the Red Light District, the sex workers, and the coffee shops, a.k.a the places that sell weed and weed-based products.

First, let’s talk about sex (baby… you have to be a witty child of the 90s with a flair for Salt-N-Pepa to understand what I did there). Here’s what you need to know: the sex workers enjoy a lot of protection in Amsterdam.  They have their own union and are frequently tested. Whatever you fancy you can find.  There is a row of “Big Mommas” as  they are called in Big Momma Alley.  These are the plumper ladies. There are the typical young, hot girls of all races. If you are looking for men, you can find that too.  There is even something for the LGBTQ community. Here is a good rule of thumb: red lights for straight activity, purple lights for gay activity. The Red Light District is littered with store fronts that have big picture windows.  In the windows sit ladies in waiting, sometimes on stools, sometimes, standing, sometimes lying down.  They are usually dressed in lingerie, but sometimes partly nude.

But there is one very, very, very important rule:  you are NOT allowed take photos of the women.  This is strictly enforced, not just by the police, but by the women themselves.  They will literally come out of the establishments, chase you down, and demolish your phone or camera.  Like stomp on it. Break it. Maybe even keep it. Also, the area is under 24-hour video surveillance. Lastly, you have to be super vigilant about pickpockets here.

Otherwise, it is a bustling area full of tourists, restaurants, and shops. In fact, at the end of Big Momma Alley is a kindergarten. The children pass by he windows, which are open 24/7, as they head to school because real Dutch people live in this area. Next to the kindergarten is the Prostitute information Centre (or PIC). Founded by a former prostitute, visitors can stop by for information on the district or for tours.  It is also a resource for sex workers who can get advice and information on how to get in and out of the business.

But the most interesting thing you will find in the Red Light District, again in Big Momma Alley, is a huge Catholic church, called the Old Church. In the 1500s, sailors used to go to the red light districts and sin and then go and absolve their deeds by begging for forgiveness from the church. In order to get forgiveness, the sailors had to pay an indulgence fee, which went straight into the church coffers. Lots of sin = lots of indulgence money = BIG church. By the way, if you like churches, you may want to make time for the Secret Catholic Church or Our Lord in the Attic.

It is no coincidence that the Red Light District is adjacent to the coffeeshops. No, not Starbucks. Marijuana. If you are going to partake in this sort of thing there are some things that you should know.  First, weed is tolerated, but not legal in Amsterdam.  In fact, the suppliers that the coffee shops get the cannabis from aren’t supposed to be growing or selling marijuana at all (go figure that one out). So, you are supposed to consume it only in the coffee shops.  I didn’t find this to be strictly enforced. Also, apparently, you are only allowed to visit the same coffee shop twice in one day, but there are over 200 coffee shops in Amsterdam so fear not!

The most important thing you need to know is which establishments sell and tolerate marijuana and which don’t. A licensed seller of cannabis products is always referred to as a coffee shop. A koffiehuis (coffee house) or a cafe does NOT sell marijuana.  These are places you go to for light meals or a casual restaurant and/or bar. Do not post up in here and spark up a joint. If you’re still confused, look for a green and white sticker in the window, a license which designates the establishment as a coffee shop. Also, if you are looking to get high and buzzed at the same time, sorry about your luck. The coffee shops do not sell alcohol. I mean, it’s only fair.  The other businesses need to make some money too! I have no other guidance for you on getting high in Amsterdam, but lucky for you, the internet is a blaze (see what I did there?!?) with such information.  You can start here or here.

Okay, enough debauchery! There are other things to do in Amsterdam other than get high and get laid. You could, for example, visit one of their many museums. We had limited time, so over the span of two days, we visited three museums. The first was the Anne Frank Museum. Do not miss this museum. Honestly, I was both fascinated and haunted by it. I am assuming that you know who Anne Frank is.  I mean you literally would have had to be living under a rock your entire life to not know.

The museum is located in the actual house (the Secret Annex) that Anne Frank, her family, and four other people hid from Nazi persecution during World War II. The lines to get in are incredibly long.  It takes about an hour to go through the home, so I recommend visiting a few hours before it closes when the lines are significantly shorter. There are a lot of stairs to climb and narrow hallways to walk through, so keep that in mind when choosing your footwear. The most interesting part about the museum is the bookshelf that blocked the entrance to the Secret Annex. Also, the original diary is kept in the museum, which to me was the coolest artifact.

The second museum we visited was the Van Gogh museum. I am huge Van Gogh admirer, so I loved this museum.  We got there right as it opened and did not wait in line.  However, soon after, the museum was a mad house.  It is a pretty well-laid out museum with a tremendous collection of Van Gogh’s work throughout his life. Pack your patience for this one, though.

The Van Gogh museum is located in the museum district, so as we were walking out, I saw a sign for a Banksy exhibit. Banksy is an anonymous England-based graffiti artist.  His work consists almost entirely of political and social commentary and has been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world. I am a huge fan of his work, so we made an impromptu stop at the Moco Museum. This turned out to be my favorite art museum because the exhibition space is so uniquely perfect for art. The museum is modern art, but it is exhibited in  a beautiful, old 1900s townhouse.

The only reservation I made in Amsterdam was to De Kas, a Michelin starred restaurant located inside a greenhouse. The restaurant is located in a beautiful park and features a tasting menu only, which changes weekly and features the garden produce that is cultivated on site. The restaurant was beautiful and the food was delicious. The dishes focus on the veggies, but it is not a vegetarian menu.  Also, for a Michelin restaurant, it is not that expensive.  The lunch tasting menu ranges from 33 to 43 Euros and dinner is 53 Euros.

And, that my friends, is how we spent two unexpected days in Amsterdam. If there is one thing you take away from this post, I hope it is an appreciation for the long or unexpected layover in a new place.  It is a gift. A chance for an accidental adventure.  Stop complaining and enjoy it!

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Jordan: The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea. It’s dead. The End.

Just kidding. Kind of. I mean, it IS dead. And, you should save it for the end of your trip.

After 10 days of action-packed touring in Jordan, we decided to end our trip with a little R&R.  Because, after all, is it really a girls’ trip if there is no pampering? No, it’s not.

We were fresh out of the desert and covered in sand. We had spent hours walking and climbing in Petra. We had taken a biblical journey. What we needed now was naps, pools, beaches, and icy cold drinks. So, we headed to the Dead Sea to do nothing. To play dead. It was perfect!

I bet you are thinking that the Dead Sea area is some kind of resort town.  I know I was. It’s not. It’s kind of, well, dead. There are a bunch of resorts around, but not much else. No real restaurants or shops other than what is in the individual resorts, which have pretty tight security. So, it’s important that you pick a good resort, because you will be staying there for pretty much your entire stay.

We chose the Hilton Dead Sea Resort and Spa. It is the newest property in the Dead Sea area. The property is nice with two pools, a beach, and seven dining options.  There is an adult pool and a kids’ pool, but they are kind of joined.  In fact, they are only separated by a rope, so if you want to be kid-free, sorry about your luck.  There is a swim up bar on the adult side, and there are a lot of pool chairs, but they fill up VERY fast. The crowd is mostly young Arabs from surrounding countries.  The pool plays pretty loud electronic dance music, so it’s not exactly the pinnacle of relaxation. Also, because there are so many people, the food and beverage service is kind of slow. It is also VERY hot. Like dry desert hot.

However, this property is one of the only ones that has a sand beach with chairs, but the beach is a LONG walk from the pool.  There is an elevator to get you there quicker, but that was not operational when we were there. There is also golf cart service to get you down quicker. Once by the beach, there is an elevated deck with chairs,chairs on the sand with umbrellas, towel service, a beach bar, and food and beverage service by the beach as well.

The water in the Dead Sea is extremely salty. It is actually the second saltiest major body of water in the world. Because the water is so salinated there is literally nothing that lives in the Dead Sea. Hence the name.

The Dead Sea also has no outlet streams, and the Jordan River is its only major source. Like many other bodies of water around the globe, the Dead Sea is also shrinking, and the loss is evident as you drive through the region. The high evaporation rates of the Dead Sea is due to the man-made reduction of the Jordan River.  Today, all the shallow waters of the southern end of the sea have been drained and are now salt flats. As a result, measures are currently being proposed to siphon water from the Red Sea through a series of tunnels or canals in order to replenish the rapidly shrinking waters and provide water and electrical solutions to the surrounding countries.

Because it is so hyper-salinated, it is nearly impossible to sink in the Dead Sea.  But, you can still drown. This typically happens when people do not obey the only rule for the Dead Sea, which is to only float on your back. The water is uber greasy due to the amount of salt.  If you have a cut, it is going to sting when you get in (so don’t shave on Dead Sea day!), but it will probably heal up pretty quickly after being submerged in the salt water. If it gets in your mouth or in your eyes, you are basically screwed, so try to avoid that.

While it is rocky and jagged on the shore line because of crystallized salt (water shoes are recommended for entrance, but I would take them off after that), once you get in, it is very muddy.  Almost like quicksand. In fact, you will see that the hotel staff actually collects the mud to do the Dead Sea treatments.  The Hilton is a resort and spa, but the spa was not actually opened when we were there.  Instead, they offered mud treatments free of charge down by the Dead Sea.

First you will have the mud rubbed all over your body. You need to let it dry for about 20 minutes.

Then you get into the Dead Sea to soak and wash all the mud off.  You finish off with a nice fresh water rinse and a dip in the pool!  Your skin will be SO soft after this treatment.

But the best part of the Dead Sea visit was the beautiful sunset over Israel, which is visible just across the sea.

I personally think that one or two nights spent at the Dead Sea is plenty.  If you are going to stick around for longer, here are some cool day trip options for you.  The first is a visit to the Mujib Biosphere Reserve of Wadi Mujib.  It is the lowest nature reserve in the world, located in the mountainous landscape to the east of the Dead Sea. It is dissected by several river-filled canyons that offer the best river and adventure hikes in Jordan. The Mujib valley is being developed for adventure tourism, and a number of facilities have been established including a Visitors’ Center and a beach area on the Dead Sea. Another popular spot are the Ma’in Hot Springs or Hammamat Ma’in. This is a remarkable series of natural hot springs and waterfalls, some of which have been channeled into pools and baths.

No trip to Jordan would be complete without at least a day-trip to the Dead Sea.  It is truly remarkable to float on top of the saltiest water on Earth, and your achy muscles will also thank you.



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Wadi Rum, Jordan: The Valley Of The Moon

No visit to Jordan would be complete without a visit to Wadi Rum Desert. And, honestly, if ever you thought of glamping, the desert is the place to do it!

About an hour away from Petra lies a valley cut into the sandstone and granite rock.  It is the largest wadi in all of Jordan.  Wadi Rum lies on an ancient camel trading route to the Arabian Peninsula and Rum has been inhabited for over 2,500 years.  In fact, many Bedouins still live there today in traditional goat-hair tents.

Once inside, you make your way through the desert until you reach your camp. We chose SunCity Camp, which is located in the heart of Wadi Rum’s majestic desert. The experience of living in the desert and living the simple Bedouin life is unmatched. But, that being said, one night in Wadi Rum is enough to enchant you. After all, it is the desert, and there is not that much to do.  But, if  you are looking for some quiet R&R time where you can walk barefoot and bury your toes in the warm sand, there is no better place.

There are two types of accommodations available at SunCity. The first are basic black tents with no air conditioning. You can see them in the background of the photo above. These are the traditional Bedouin tents. Let’s digest that for a moment. Black canvas tents. In a desert. With NO air conditioning. Um, no thanks.

Or, you can splurge a little and live the Martian experience in the fancy martian domes, which DO have air conditioning. There really is nothing to think about on this one. The domes are luxurious and comfortable, and the views are unbeatable. I mean, how many times in life are you going to sleep over in the desert?!? Might as well make it a memorable experience!

During the day, you can draw the shades to keep your dome cool.

Inside, the rooms are nicely appointed with comfortable beds and linens.

The domes come with a pretty decent sized, western style bathroom with hot and cold water.

And the starry views at night are not too shabby either.

There is a common area where meals are served and with WI-Fi.

At night, they serve a delicious buffet style dinner.

And the after-dinner tea service comes with a show, singing, and dancing.

Also, every single person who works at this camp is delightful. They really went out of their way to make sure we were having an unforgettable experience. And, that started as soon as we arrived.

After whisking away our luggage, we were met by our driver who would be taking us out into the desert to enjoy the views and watch the sunset.

The landscape is really otherworldly with warm pink sands, red rocks, and miles and miles of solitude and silence, except for the occasional camel herd that you encounter.

Because it is so unique and scenic, Wadi Rum has been the back drop of several movies, including Lawrence of Arabia, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Martian, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The landscape and views are truly spectacular.

Wadi Rum has been inhabited by many human cultures since prehistoric times, with many cultures–including the Nabateans–leaving their mark in the form of rock paintings, graffiti, and temples.

After playing in the sand for a few hours, our driver took us to a spot where we kicked off our shoes and sat in the warm sand as he prepared a sweet, warm tea for us to enjoy while we watched the sunset.

The next morning, we were up way before the sun was to rise so that we could meet our guide and our camels.  On the agenda was a sunrise camel ride through the desert and some play time with our camels.

Those lashes tho…

Nothing beats a camel kiss.

We came back to our camp to eat a hearty breakfast before we set off to our next stop, the Dead Sea.  While it was a short little visit to the desert, it was so memorable. It is moments like these that remind me why I fell so in love with travel and with this amazing little planet we call home.


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Petra, Jordan: The Lost City

It may have once been lost, but now it has been found. First, by Hollywood. And then, by travelers, globetrotters, instagrammers, and bloggers. It seems like every legit traveler had made his or her way to Petra. And, each one has taken one jaw dropping photo after another. So, I just had to go and see for myself what all the hype was about.

For fans of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, I have a simple explanation of what exactly Petra is. Ready? Petra is the Greek word for “rock.” This entire city was carved out of rocks.  Petra is rocks. The city is made of rocks. So, there you go!

But seriously, in 1985, Petra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.  In 2007, Petra was named as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. It is called the Lost City because it was essentially lost to the Western world for hundreds of years until it was discovered in 1812. Petra was once a thriving trading center and the capital of the Nabataean empire between 400 B.C. and A.D. 106. The Nabataeans were known for their great ability to construct water-collecting methods in barren deserts and for their talent in carving structures into solid rocks.

Petra is an enormous complex located in a basin among the mountains which form the eastern flank of Arabah (Wadi Araba), the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba.  Its structures have been carved into the rose colored stone, giving Petra its other nickname: The Rose City.  Amazingly only 15 percent of the city has been uncovered. Which means the vast majority of Petra—85 percent—is still underground and untouched.

So, now that you know what it is,allow me to provide you with everything you need to know about visiting Petra! Also, while Petra is certainly one of the main attractions in Jordan, it’s not the only one. Amman, Wadi Rum, and the Dead Sea are certainly worth your time.

The first thing you need to know about Petra is that it is NOT a day trip. You need to spend one night in Petra to really enjoy the site. In my opinion, the city that has cropped up around the site is not really worth your time. So, spend all your time focusing on visiting Petra.

If you are going to spend the night in Petra, then there is only one place to stay– The Petra Guest House Hotel. It is the only four-star hotel in Petra, but that is NOT the reason to stay here.  If we are being honest, this hotel is a three-star hotel on its best day. Giving it four stars is generous, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong.  The rooms are sufficient. The staff is friendly. And, there is an adequate breakfast buffet. But if you are expecting an American four-star hotel, this ain’t it.

The coolest part of this hotel is the Cave Bar, which is the hotel’s bar but is also part of the ruins of Petra.  However, at night they have live entertainment – a singer and a musician – playing American music, but it is literally some of the worst singing I have heard in my life. Like it was comically bad. Okay, so then why am I telling you to stay here. Two reasons.  The first is that it is the best option in Petra. But most importantly (in real estate and in travelling) Location. Location. Location. This hotel is quite literally at the entrance gate of Petra. I mean, hello, the hotel bar is part of the ruins.

So, since you are staying overnight, you should buy the two-day ticket.  It is the better value. A one day ticket is 50 JD (about  71 USD), while the two-day ticket is 55 JD (about 78 USD). Also, there is enough to see in Petra to occupy your time for two full days, especially if you opt to do one or more of the hikes.

I would start as early as you can.  The site opens at 6:00 a.m. every day. It closes at 6:00 p.m. in the summer and 4:00 p.m. in the winter. The day trippers arrive around 11:30 a.m. to noon.  Late afternoon is also a good time to visit. You can find transportation information to get to Petra here.  I also recommend hiring a licensed guide from the visitor’s center on the first day.  The monuments don’t really have signs, so unless you have done a ton of research before you get there, you won’t really know what you are looking at.

Just a quick point about planning for your visit. You are allowed to bring backpacks and bags in, and, unlike other places in Jordan, there is no security or bag checking at the entrance.  I would wear comfortable, light active-wear, a very comfortable pair of sneakers or hiking boots, a lot of sunscreen, and something to cover your head.  You will notice that most people are wearing Jordanian head scarves. I would also pack some water (you can buy more inside) and power bars or protein bars.

When you first walk in, you will have to walk on a dirt road for about 15 minutes before you reach the siq, a narrow gorge that leads you to the treasury in Petra.  The minute you walk in, you will be accosted by local Bedouins to take a horse ride or a donkey ride to the treasury site. They will tell you that it is included in your entrance ticket. And, it is. But PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do not accept the ride.

These poor horses are NOT treated well.  It is heart breaking.  They work all day, pulling huge carts behind them full of people. And, it is hot. Too hot for these poor horses to work like they do. The Bedouins hit them to make them go faster, and the horses are literally running on very rugged terrain. If that doesn’t motivate you, then maybe this will. There is no such thing as a free ride. Even though the ride is included in the ticket, they will demand a tip. Look, you came all the way to Petra.  You must’ve had some idea that this was going to involve some degree of walking. Do everyone a favor and dress comfortably and resign yourself to doing a lot of exercise on this day.

It doesn’t end there. Once you are in Petra, there are more Bedouins (who all seem to look like Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean) who will follow you around and harass you to take a donkey ride or a camel ride. Seriously, just ignore them. Literally, ignore them. If you say later, they will find you later. They are pretty aggressive. They will follow you around and keep asking. Don’t engage with them, and don’t believe a single word that comes out of their mouths. In my opinion, they are all con artists. Sometimes, they get mad that you are blowing them off and they insult you. We began referring to them as the “Donkey Boys.”

Getting insulted by a man on a donkey or camel who is wearing eyeliner (yes, you read that right) is kind of funny, actually. I mean, dude, you are wearing eyeliner. Eyeliner. The Donkey Boys have mastered the smokey eye. Their eye makeup is so on point. They could probably teach a master class at Sephora. Marilyn Manson and the front man for Green Day have nothing on these guys. Trust me, the Donkey Boys did not appreciate this detail when I pointed it out to them. They immediately got defensive and told me it was to protect their eyes from the sun. There is a whole invention that solves this problem.  They are called sunglasses. If you can get your hands on an iPhone in the desert, then I am confident that you can also find a pair of sunglasses. But, I digress.

Allow me to introduce you to the enchanting Siq. The gorge that will lead you to one of the most amazing first looks of Petra.

After walking for about 15 minutes on the dirt road, you will come to the entrance of the Siq. The Siq is a gorge that leads to Petra. It is one of the only shady spots you will encounter, so relish in the next 15 or so minutes that it takes to pass through the siq.  You will soon catch a glimpse of the reason you came to Jordan, and this first impression does not disappoint.

It is truly magical to see the rose colored treasury building. It is one of the most recognizable images of Petra. If you go early in the morning, you will have it all to yourself with great lighting. In the late afternoon or early evening it will be he same, but maybe not as great lighting. Also, there will usually be a few camels lounging around, waiting to pose for your selfie!

By 11:00 a.m., there will be a lot more people in front of the treasury, so if you like people-free pics, get there early or stay later. Here’s a pro tip: the best picture of the treasury is taken from the right corner facing the monument. You get the best lighting and the best view of the monument from here.

Also, if you walk to the right of the monument, on the opposite side, there is a cave that also gives you a great vantage point for photographing the treasury building.

Probably the most famous (instafamous, really) picture of the treasury is the one taken from the top looking down. I will tell you how to get that shot later in this post, but, spoiler alert, it requires a lot of climbing.

One thing you will notice as you explore Petra is that the locals have turned the ruins into a flea market. Some are established shops.  The rest are pitched tents. Sometimes the actual ruins themselves are used to drape useless junk.  Thankfully, though, nobody is trying to sell you selfie stick!

There are stands selling food, drinks, souvenirs, jewelry, and eyeliner, of course. Well, not the actual eyeliner, but for a small price, the Donkey Boys will line your eyes with coal so you too can look like Johnny Depp! I suggest you skip this service as it does not appear that cleanliness and hygiene are high on the list or priorities.  They literally use the same charcoal to line everyone’s eyes without cleaning it in between.  Hello, Pink Eye! How do I know this? Well, let’s just say that someone in our group was brave enough to try it out, and that someone was NOT me.

There is one shop that is worth a visit. You will immediately notice a difference in the interaction. This shop sells spices, teas, oils, and perfume solids.  The shop owner is lovely and speaks perfect English with a British accent.

Coincidentally, this shop is located next to the only other interesting shop.  That of Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a New Zealand-born nurse who came to be married to Mohammad Abdallah Othman, a Bedouin souvenir-seller. She wrote a book about her experience, and, while the Bedouin husband has since died, Marguerite still lives and can often be found at her shop in Petra.

Once you pass flea market row, you will find yourself in the heart of Petra where you can explore different ruins like different the Royal Tombs, the Nabatean Theatre, the Byzantine Church, and the Great Temple.

Also, while the Donkey Boys are relentless and annoying, there are some opportunities for some cool interactions with locals, so don’t miss out on those!

At this point, I suggest that you stop for lunch and contemplate your next move.  There are two restaurants in Petra. One is more of a stand and the other is a sit down place with both air-conditioned indoor and out door seating that is owned by Petra Guesthouse.  It has restrooms, WiFi, and serves a buffet style lunch. If you are a guest of the hotel, you get 20% off at this eatery. So, I’ll let you guess where we ate. The food was average. Speaking of restrooms, there are actually three or four actual American-style bathrooms in Petra. I would, however, bring your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

Okay, so if you have made it this far, it is probably late afternoon. And, since you are close by, I would opt to take the hike up to the monastery after lunch. This is a good option because you’ve rested, cooled off, and fueled up.  Also, it’s later in the day, so it’s cooler.  All these factors are important because to get to the monastery, you have to climb about 950 stairs!

You to yourself: “I’m sorry, but did she just say I have to climb up 950 stairs?” She did. But, TRUST ME; it is SO worth it.  The climbing isn’t that bad (I’ll show you), and there is hardly anybody there so you get a really cool piece of Petra all to yourself.

Now, you can take a donkey up. And you may be tempted to do so. But, for reasons we have already discussed (animal cruelty, annoying Donkey Boys, and a desire to not be ripped off), you will resist the urge and count this as a double cardio and booty blast day! After about 45 or so minutes (depending on your pace), you will get here:

Amazing, right?  There is a small cafe up there, so kick back, have a drink, and enjoy the silence.

But wait, there is more! If you can stomach 15 more minutes of walking, you will be handsomely rewarded with the most amazing view! I think you have 15 minutes in you.  Just turn around with your back facing the monastery and start walking diagonally to the right, following the signs for the view point. You will come to a fork in the road and will have to choose the view to the left, which is a little closer, or the one to the right.  We chose left.

This is the PERFECT place to watch the sun set.  But, a little side note, this is VERY high up. If you are scared of heights, don’t sit where I am sitting. Chad would have needed a diaper change by now. The only thing is that, you want to make sure and leave yourself enough time to get back down before it gets dark because there are no lights in Petra, unless, of course, you are staying for the Petra By Night experience.

Petra by night is a two-hour experience where you get to visit just the treasury at night.  They light the path from the ticket entrance, through the Siq, and all in front of the treasury with paper bag lanterns. They serve hot tea and play traditional music.  At the end, the they light the entire treasury up with colored spot lights.  The Petra By Night experience only runs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.  It starts at 8:30 p.m. and costs  17 JD (or $24 USD). There is an unlimited amount of tickets, and it is pretty popular.

If you have stayed until sunset and want to do Petra by night, I suggest that you don’t leave Petra and just hang out in front of the treasury. Why? Well, if you leave, you have to walk about 20 minutes out just to come right back in with a crowd of people.  If you stay, there are ticket vendors who sell tickets right in front of he treasury for the same price. You can save yourself the walk, and you can get some sweet people-free pictures before the crowds come in (because trust me, once they are there, it is impossible).

Is it touristy? Yes, it is. But the way we did it (staying in and seeing it all set up before the crowds) was amazing, and we really enjoyed it.

There was just one thing left to do, and that was to make the climb up to see the treasury from the top. On the second day we got up very early and were one of the first in the gates at Petra. This meant that we were able to get some pretty great shots of the treasury with literally nobody else around.

Now, if you thought the hike to the monastery was bad, the treasury trail says hold my beer. I mean this hike, in my opinion, was more difficult. Once you get in and go through the treasury and through the main drag, passing all the stores, you will come to a fork in the road.  If you go left, you will head towards the monastery road, if you stay right, you will find the trail to get to the viewpoint for the treasury.

Just past this site:

You will see this sign:

You want to stay to the right of the sign.  It will take you to a trail that looks like you are going behind the ruins.  You will encounter this path of stairs:

This is where you start climbing.  It is deceiving because it looks more organized and in better shape than the monastery climb. You do this for about 20 to 30 minutes. It’s.A.Lot.Of.Stairs. After 20 to 30 minutes of climbing, the stairs stop, and now its another 20 to 30 minutes of hiking on the worst marked trail ever.  Once in a while, you will come upon these signs:

Do you see any directional signals? Exactly. Then you get:

By the way, this is a lie. It is not 10 minutes. And just for fun, the Bedouins add these signs to confuse you and lead you to their shops:

Finally, you will see this sign:

Two to five minutes? Yeah, right! As President Bush (a.k.a. W) once said  “…fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Once you see this sign, you won’t be sure if you should go straight (kind of towards the right) or go to the left.  Go left. At some point you will see this:

It will be the loveliest site because that means you made it! Behold the view:

And then, the climb down (cue the Price Is Right Loser Music). No, but seriously, the climb is absolutely worth the view. Just do it early or late in the afternoon, so you can have the view from above and below all to yourself.

Side note: there is a site called Little Petra. It is located about 40 minutes north of Petra. We went there, but, honestly, you can skip it.  It is a very small site, and it is in terrible condition.  It literally does not compare to Petra at all.

So that is it.  You have now done it all in Petra! Get your pen out and cross this one off the bucket list. Up next, Wadi Rum Desert. You do not want to miss Wadi Rum when you are in Jordan.

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Amman, Jordan: The City of Seven Hills

A lawyer, an accountant, a pharmaceutical sales representative, and a teacher board a plane. Sounds like the beginning of joke, right? Well, it’s not.  It was the beginning of an epic girls trip to the Middle East.  To Jordan to be exact, home of Petra, the Wadi Rum desert, and (part of) the Dead Sea.

I know what you are thinking. The Middle East? Who takes a girls trip to the Middle East? Why not got to the beach or wine country?

Blah! We live at the beach! We are, after all, from Miami. We wanted something different.  We wanted adventure. We wanted bespoke experiences. We wanted to Eat.All.The.Hummus! So, Jordan it was.  And, honestly, it was the best decision.

Most trips to Jordan will begin with an arrival in the capital city of Amman. You may be thinking that you can just skip the capital city and get to the good stuff.  That, in my opinion, would be a mistake. Amman has a lot of interesting things to explore. We spent two days in Amman.

Amman is an old city.  It was settled back in the Neolithic period.  Today, it is one of the five most visited cities in the Arab world. Like Rome, it was initially built on seven hills. Amman is considered one of the most liberal and westernized cities in the Arab world. It is also a great base for visiting other interesting and important sites, like the baptism site of Jesus Christ, Madaba, and Mt. Nebo.

We stayed at the Intercontinental in Amman. Not only was the daily breakfast buffet delicious (complete with an omelette station and fresh squeezed local juices served daily), but it was also in a great location! It is walking distance to Rainbow Street.  Rainbow Street is the restaurant, nightlife, and shopping hub of Amman.  It is also the home of Souk Jara, a street food and handicraft outdoor market. Also, check out King Faisal Street.  It is totally Instagram worthy!

This photo is courtesy of Mr. Google because, sadly, we missed this spot. #TravelFail

Our hotel was also one block away from what most consider the best shawerma joint in the city, Reem.  Reem is open late and serves up shawerma to the long lines of locals for approximately $2.00 US dollars a piece.

King Abdullah I Mosque

We started our first day of exploration in Amman at King Abdullah I Mosque. The mosque was completed in 1989 as a memorial by the late King Hussein to his grandfather.  It is capped by a beautiful blue dome, and adorned with beautiful blue mosaic tiles. This is the only mosque in Amman that allows both women and non-Muslims to visit.

Women are required to wear abayas in order to visit the mosque.  The abayas are available free of charge from the small gift shop located at the entrance of the mosque.  All visitors must remove their shoes to enter the mosque.

By the way, I have a new appreciation for the struggle of Muslim women who wear abayas in their every day life. These babies are HOT! And not like, OMG, that outfit is so hot. But more like, OMG, I am temperature hot. The fabric is not breathable, and the dark color was not helping! Also, they are wearing full on modest street clothes underneath the abaya. In the desert. Even in the summer. Think about that for a moment. I wore one for an hour, and I was positive I had suffered heat stroke!

At the entrance to the men’s side of the mosque, we met the first of many Mohammeds that we would meet on this trip.  This Mohammed, however, loved Greek people, Greek culture, and especially Greek music.  Here he is singing us his favorite Greek song by George Dalaras.

The men’s side of the mosque can house up to 7000 worshippers.

Another 3,000 people can worship in the courtyard.

The women’s side of the mosque is supposed to be able to fit 500 women, but I would be surprised if that is the case.

There is a small museum inside the mosque with a collection of pottery and photographs of His Majesty King Abdullah I.

The mosque is open from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., but you should be careful not to visit during call to prayer (5:20 a.m., 6:25 a.m., 12:29 p.m., 3:55 p.m., 6:31 p.m., 7:38 p.m., and 1:43 a.m.). It costs about 3 Jordanian Dinar to visit, which is about $4.oo USD. You only need about 30 minutes to get through the entire mosque complex.

After our visit to the mosque, we returned to the gift shop.  The shop was quite large and had a great selection of souvenirs.

As is the custom, we were offered tea. The tea was warm and sweet!

We purchased handmade, traditional Jordanian head scarves and even got a tutorial on how to properly tie them.

Amman Citadel

Our next stop was to Amman Citadel. This is a historical site in the center of downtown Amman which is significant because it has a long history of occupation by many great civilizations. There are two  important structures at the site.

The first is the Temple of Hercules, a Byzantine church. Behind the structure is what is left from a giant statute of Hercules, his hand, and a small carving of Medusa. This temple is considered to be the most significant Roman structure in the Amman Citadel.

The second most important structure in the Citadel is the Umayyad Palace.

There is also a small archaeological museum in the citadel that is free to visit with your paid admission into the Citadel. The most fascinating part of the Citadel is that the majority of it remains unexcavated.


Our final stop for the day was in Jerash. But, by now, we were pretty hungry.  So before our visit to the Roman City of Jerash, we stopped at the Green Valley Restaurant.

This was one of the best meals we had in Jordan. While the menu is in Arabic and many locals eat here, it is also touristy in that a lot of tour groups stop here as well. Don’t let that scare you away.  This is the one exception, where the tourist trap is actually worth it!

Our guide ordered for us. All of a sudden, a parade of food appeared.  I had the BEST hummus and babaganoush I have ever tasted in my life here. It was so creamy, and as I type, my mouth is watering. The pita was large, warm, and plentiful.

It was at Green Valley that my love affair with limonnana began. Limonana is a Middel Eastern frozen mint lemonade. It is sweet, but tart. It is so fresh. It is life. Hello, my name is Anastasia, and I am addicted to limonana.

After tasting this sweet nectar water, I would seek it out and order several every single day.  I’d like to have one right now.  I wish I knew how to operate my blender. Anyway, I digress. On to the Jerash ruins. But first, a camel, because why not!

The Jerash ruins of Jordan are said to be the best-preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy. In fact, they are often referred to as the Pompeii of the East. After Petra, they are the most visited ruins in Jordan.

The most notable sites are:

  • Hadrian’s Arch: the entrance to the city

  • Hippodrome: a restored Roman-era stadium

  • Forum: the main attraction, surrounded by 160 Ionic columns

  • The Cardo: colonnaded street running the length of the city.

  • Temple of Artemis: temple ruins dedicated to the ancient Greek goddess

  • Agora: the city’s main market

  • Nymphaeum: an ornate fountain dedicated to nymphs

  • South Theatre: still in use today

  • Jerash Archaeological Museum: houses a collection of artifacts found during the numerous excavations.

You can get to Jerash by car or bus.  There are regular buses to and from Jerash from Amman that run throughout the day until late afternoon. Tickets cost 1 JOD, which us about $2 USD. Taxis can be hired in Amman for 10 JOD  (or $14 USD) one-way or around 40 JOD (or $56 USD) for the day. Admission to the site costs 10 JD (or $14 USD) and includes the Jerash Archaeological Museum. Summertime hours are 7:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.  Winter hours are 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. You can hire a guide right at the entrance of the site (not where you purchase your tickets).

After a long day like this, it was time for a treat. A sweet treat. Enter into my world Kunafa/Knafeh. More precisely, Kunafa from Habiba!

Kunafa is a popular Middle Eastern desert.  It consists of a layer of crisp pastry sitting on top of a layer of soft white cheese which is baked lightly in an oven then covered with sugar syrup and nuts. It tastes way better than it sounds. Here’s a recipe for you to try, but I doubt it comes close to the glory that is Habiba.

But if Kunafa is not your thing, Habiba has a host of other desserts to try.  Some with cream inside. Some with nuts, like baklava:

Or you can pick some up for gifts or for later:

The Baptism Site of Jesus Christ- Bethany on the Jordan River

Remember the movie Free Willy? You know how at the end they play that Michael Jackson song Will You Be There? You know, the one that goes Hold Me; Like the River Jordan; And I will then say to thee; You are my friend.  That song references this place! And this is where we headed on day two in Amman.

Most modern scholars believe that John the Baptist performed a baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River, which borders both Jordan and Israel at the baptism site.  I have not been to the one in Israel, but the one in Jordan has many significant sites to see prior to reaching the actual river, and has now been recognized as the official baptism site of Jesus.

To enter the site you must first walk about 1o minutes on a trail that looks like this:

You will first reach the John the Baptist Church which has the baptism pool.  The exact place where Jesus was baptized has not yet been discovered, but it is believed that the garments of the Lord were taken care here at the time He was baptized:

On the opposite side is the Basilica or the Church of the Trinity:

Today, a Greek Orthodox church sits near the river:

Across from the church is the entrance to the Jordan River:

Once at the river, you can rent white baptismal gowns from the church for $15 USD and actually get into the river.  Across the river is Israel.  You will see people coming into the river from Israel as well. Apparently, you can hire a priest to perform an actual baptism at the site. Bring an empty water bottle if you want to collect “holy water” from the Jordan River.


Our next stop was to the Christian town of Madaba, which is known as the City of Mosaics. Here, we visited the St. George Greek Orthodox Church.

The church contains the masterpiece of Madaba, a Byzantine map of the Holy Land that dates back to the 6th century, called the Madaba Map.

To this day, the Madaba Map represents the oldest map of Palestine in existence.

Because I am Greek and Greek Orthodox, I am partial to Greek churches.  In my travels, I have been in A LOT of churches from all denominations.  I think the Greek Orthodox churches are the most beautiful!

Apparently, an archaeological park is located a short walk from the church which houses the remains of several Byzantine churches, including the mosaics of the Church of the Virgin. I would have been interested to see this, and, honestly, I am kind of annoyed that we missed it.

By now, we were pretty hungry.  In an effort to top Green Valley, our guide told us he had called ahead to a local, family-owned restaurant called Hikayet Sitti, or the Food Basket.

This little gem is an old home that has been owned by this family from Amman for several years.  They decided to turn the home into a restaurant.

There is no menu at the Food Basket.  You call ahead to see what’s cooking or to make a request. But, regardless, the food is incredible and tastes authentic and homemade. The meal starts with mezze (or appetizers), and then momma brings out enough food to feed an army. The portions are very generous.

This is the cook and her husband who entertains the guests.

Her sons are the servers, and the service is great.

Mt. Nebo

Next, we visited Mount Nebo.  Mt. Nebo is the place where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land by God. The view from the summit provides a panorama of the Holy Land and, to the north, a more limited one of the valley of the River Jordan. The West Bank city of Jericho is usually visible from the summit, as is Jerusalem on a very clear day.

The mount is marked by this stone:

As you walk through the site, you will find a sculpture called The Brazen Serpent:

On the highest point of the mountain, stands the remains of a Byzantine church.  The church has the most beautiful mosaics inside.


Our next stop was to Machaerus or Mukawir. Mukawir is a fortified hilltop palace that is believed to be the location of the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist.

It is quite a hike to get up to the site where only two columns remain. The hike starts at this gate and is about 2 miles long.

At the top, you see this:

There are some pretty great views along the way, but, unless you are making a religious pilgrimage/tour or feel like doing some exercise, you can probably skip this site.


We were scheduled to visit Kerak Castle. But, due to a planned protest that blocked the roads and the entrance to the site, we could not. So, the shots above are courtesy of Mr. Google. But, if you have time, you should this castle. Kerak Castle is the largest crusader castle in Jordan. Kerak was the capital of the biblical kingdom of Moab.

Needless to say, it was an action packed two days, and we haven’t even gotten to the most popular sites yet! I hope I was able to give you a small taste of Amman.  Please stop by to read the next four posts I have planned on Jordan, including one on Petra, one on Wadi Rum, one on the Dead Sea, and one on things you need to know before you go to Jordan.  Leave me a comment, and let me know what you think.

Also, in case you were wondering, we used Jordan Select Tours to plan this trip.  They were fantastic, responsive, and affordable! The entire trip was privately guided by the best driver in Amman, Hytham! He was so patient and entertaining.  Thanks for putting up with four crazy Greek-American girls for the week, Hytham!

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