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 all.damn.day 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.

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.

Jerash

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.

Madaba

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.

Mukawir

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.

Kerak

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!

Living Life To The Fullest: In Memory Of A Friend And Great Adventurer

“I can’t believe that we would lie in our graves, wondering if we had spent our living days well.”

Lyrics from Lie In Our Graves, Dave Matthews Band.

You always hear these adages, encouraging you to live life to the fullest.  To live with no regrets.  But what does that really mean, and, honestly, how many of us really heed that advice? How many people do we know that actually live these full lives?

I recently lost a friend in a tragic and unexpected way.  To me, he was the living embodiment of what it means to live life to the fullest, and to never take a single day for granted.  He was the one person I knew that lived these truths.

Neither my friend’s identity nor the details of his death are important.  What is important is the person that he was.  He was the kind of guy that had seemingly lived 100 interesting lives.  I met him 10 years ago in law school.  We were in the same section, and, if you know anything about law school, you know that means that we spent the next year together because we had the exact same schedule– every class, every day for a whole year. We bonded over our mutual love for travel and for animals, dogs specifically.

He was the kind of guy that basically excelled at everything he did, but not in an annoying way. In an inspiring way. He attended the Portuguese Air Force Academy where he graduated first in his class. He had a career as a military pilot and as an airline pilot for one of the largest airline companies in the U.S.  He was an accomplished private, commercial, instrument and ATP rated pilot as well as a Gold Seal Flight Instructor. He once told me that he enrolled in law school as a result of a bet/dare from his wife.  True to form, he was accepted to the best law school in the State of Florida and graduated second in our class, booking almost every class he took (non-lawyer translation: at the end of every class in law school, they give out an award (often endowed), called a book award, to the person who has the highest grade in that class). I always wondered if finishing second annoyed him since he was so used to being first.

He had an affinity for adventure and speed.  He loved fast (German) cars and fast motorcycles, and had both. He also loved to fly. He was the only person I knew in law school who had a plane, and that includes the faculty and staff.  He loved taking his fellow classmates up in the plane.  Two of my girlfriends and I once flew to his home to meet his wife and puppies (all 5 of them) and have dinner.  He let me take control and fly the plane on the way back, which was so exciting because I had never before (or since) flown a plane.  I saw a light in the distance and told him that he should probably resume control of the plane since there was some air traffic up ahead.  He laughed and said, “That’s not a plane, Anastasia; that’s a planet!” Whoops!

He was the kind of guy that always had time for conversation (especially if the conversation was a debate). He as not afraid to take a position, even an unpopular one, and he stood by his convictions. He believed in himself. He was also the kind of guy that never said no. He was always willing to help.  If you were struggling to understand a concept, he would take time and explain it to you the way he understood it.  I sat next to him for an entire month during our bar preparation course, which I was in charge of running.  He was early every morning, ready to help. He was an authentic and genuine soul.

After law school, we kept in touch through Facebook.  He briefly worked at a law firm, but hated the structure, so he started his own firm with his wife who was already a lawyer. He also provided safety consulting services to the offshore and land-based oil and gas industry. In his spare time, he volunteered his time and his plane to provide free air transportation to financially distressed people with medical needs and to health care organizations through a non-profit charitable organization.

As a law school graduation gift, his wife got him a climbing trip to Kilimanjaro.  He was certainly no stranger to travel or to adventure. He  was a skydiver, mountain biker, sea-kayaker, and scuba diver. But, I think this gift began his love for the climb. My law school friends and I followed his travels on social media, and every time I would open Facebook, he would be in some other corner of the world, conquering some unimaginable feat.  Waldo had nothing on this guy.

Over the course of two and a half years, he completed the Seven Summits Challenge.  That means that he summited the highest mountain on each of the seven continents: Mount Everest in Asia, the Aconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa (twice), Mount Elbrus in Europe, Vinson in Antarctica, and Puncak Jaya in New Guinea (Australia).  Because there is a debate about whether Mount Kosciuszko or Puncak Jaya is the tallest in Australia, he climbed both. I teasingly told him that I would be impressed only after he also summited K2. He matter-of-factly told me that he already summited the highest mountain in Asia and the world. Touche.

In between climbing mountains, he had some other pretty epic adventures, including gorilla trekking in Uganda and Rwanda, expeditions to Antarctica, and 100s of “trips of a lifetime” to the Galapagos Islands, Australia, South America, North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. It seems he that he always immersed himself with the locals wherever he went, and he always found dogs to love all over the world. His pictures are National Geographic amazing, because he was, of course, a professional level photographer. He was my travel icon, and we often compared notes on travel, although my travels paled in comparison to his.

On the rare occasion that he wasn’t off on some bucket list journey, he spent time at his second home in the Bahamas, which he built and dedicated to his squad of adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.  In my next life, if I can’t come back as him, I want to come back as one of his dogs. He would load up the pups in his plane, put the  protective earmuffs on them, and fly them down to their island home, Sandy Paws. They would spend time exploring the island in their golf cart and taking to the seas in their boat, the Barkardi. He and his dogs would go paddle-boarding. These dogs live a charmed life, and I loved it.

He got involved in a local charity in the Bahamas that built homes for and fed stray Potcake dogs on the island, which is a mixed breed dog commonly found on the Caribbean Islands.  He flew plane loads of supplies to the island from the States to support this cause and the these dogs. He loved all animals and our environment, but he especially loved dogs. He had tattoos of the face of every one of his dogs on his body. I judge the greatness of a person by the way they treat animals, and he was one of the greatest.

The last country he visited was Bolivia, where he was hiking up a volcano. Before he died, he was working on completing the Explorers Grand Slam, which he planned to start next month. That involves skiing to both the North and South poles. I am sad that such a great adventurer will never get to complete this feat.

He was truly the most interesting person I have ever known (and probably will ever know). His life was remarkable, inspirational, and one that deserves celebration. He lived life to the fullest. The last time I spoke to my friend was on March 15.  He died four days later.  I never got to tell him how much I admired him, and for that I am sorry.

As news of his death spread, his Facebook wall was loaded with pictures and messages of condolences from people around the world. Literally, around the world: his climbing friends, his Island friends, his local community, his law school friends, even people who had met him once in passing.  It is amazing to see the impact and reach that one person had on so many. The messages are similar: “amazing man”, “great human”, “inspiring person”, “authentic”, ” positive, fun-loving and gregarious” “remarkable and wonderful[ly] accomplish[ed]”. In times where humanity can’t seem to agree on anything, scores of people from different cultures, races, and religions seemingly agreed: he was good people.

They say all dogs god to heaven, and if that is true, on March 19, heaven’s dogs met their greatest angel.  I hope that he is resting peacefully in heaven, surrounded by dogs, gazing over the highest and most amazing peaks. I hope he died feeling like he spent his living days well. 

Luang Prabang, Laos: A UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Chances are that Luang Prabang, Laos (pronounced Lao, without the “s” at the end) is not on your travel list (it wasn’t on ours), but it should be.  There is something spiritual about this little city that just mesmerizes you. We actually had some of the most memorable cultural encounters in little-known Luang Prabang. We came to Luang Prabang on the recommendation of our travel agent, and I am sure glad we did.

I am almost hesitant to write this post.  I kind of want to keep Luang Prabang a secret and all to myself and those who have discovered it. Luang Prabang has a small village hippie vibe. It is a backpacker’s paradise. It is considered the best preserved city in Southeast Asia, which also earned it its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Unlike other major Asian cities, the pace of life in Luang Prabang is slower and the scenery more rural. We spent three days there, but Luang Prabang is the kind of place that you think you only need three days for, but wish you had a little more. In fact, a lot of people we met along the way came to Luang Prabang with the intention of staying a few days, but extended their trip for several more days, or, in some cases, weeks.

Before you go, you should know that a visa is required for U.S. citizens who visit the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. To get a visa, your passport must have 6 months of availability on it, and you must have two blank pages available for the visa. You can purchase the visa at the airport upon arrival, but, I strongly recommend you get a visa before you come as many visitors purchase the visa on arrival or are unaware of the visa requirement and then purchase upon arrival.  Since most people are in line for visas, the lines can get quite long. If you purchase a visa on arrival, you get a 30-day visa.  If you pre-buy the visa, you get a 60-day visa. Since we already had visas, we bypassed all that mess and went right through customs in a matter of mere minutes, with no lines at all.

We stayed at the Luang Say Residence, which is a colonial-style boutique luxury hotel set in a lush tropical garden. The hotel is very tranquil and serves an excellent American-style breakfast.  The property is also worth exploring. We arrived in Luang Prabang just in time to visit the night market. Apparently, there are a lot of unexploded ammunition left over from the Indochina and Vietnam wars. The locals take these wartime leftovers, turn them into keepsakes and jewelry, and sell them at the local markets.  We had some action packed days in Luang Prabang! Along the way, during our all-too-short time in this magical little place, we had some very meaningful experiences and encounters with locals.

On our first full day, a visit to the Pak Ou Caves was on the itinerary.  The Pak Ou Caves are about two hours by boat from Luang Prabang.  So, to get there, we had to first board our very own slow boat, which was an adventure in and of itself.  Check out the gang plank we had to walk: On the two hour journey down the peaceful Mekong River, we got to see a lot of rural everyday life along its banks. After a couple hours, we arrived at the caves! The caves overlook the Mekong River and are  hidden in a mountain side.  Inside the caves are hundreds of old Buddha statues. There is something very spiritual and peaceful about climbing into a cave full of treasure! Little golden Buddhas glittered from every corner.  The caves are guarded by monks… After our visit to the caves, we stopped at a local village, the Muangkeo Village, to try rice whiskey. We came to a village where we were greeted by an older woman who makes the rice whiskey at her home. Rice whiskey in clay barrels: I’m not gonna sugarcoat this part– the village rice whiskey is not smooth. It is unlikely to ever win any tasting awards. It tastes like liquid fire. But it’s all part of the experience, so, by all means, drink up!

We stayed a bit to explore the village and meet the local people. Walking through this village, which only got electricity the year before we arrived, you get the sense that it is set up as a cultural stop for tourists looking for a village experience. There were several “shops” where locals sold handicrafts and I questioned whether they were really made by these particular locals. The best part about this visit was stopping in at the local school house, where we got a chance to visit the local children at school. They were so cute that we ran out into the market and bought them all snacks. Word gets around fast in this little village because the next thing you know, little kids were coming out of everywhere lining up for their snack! It was like Christmas came early for these little kids! They were so happy and appreciative that they sang us songs as they ran around eating their treats! At last it was time to bid adieu to our new village friends and get back into town. After a long day on the Mekong, we came back into Luang Prabang to visit the museum and have some lunch.During lunch, we saw a group of monks crossing a make-shift bridge.  We decided to follow them and explore the temple on the other side. By the way, the reason why this bridge seems so ill-constructed is because it only exists for several months. Every rainy season it is destroyed by flooding, so, every year, they construct a new ramshackle bridge to replace the one destroyed the year before. The next day started way before dawn! This was probably my favorite day because we got to do three very cool things that gave us a more authentic experience. The first, and probably my favorite, is that we got to participate in the daily ritual of givings alms (or thanks) to the monks. This is a sacred ceremonial tradition in Laos, and our guide set it up so that we could not only witness it, but participate in it.

This ritual takes place a sunrise in the streets of Luang Prabang, but you have to get there way before that to secure a spot and set up. Our local guide set up our mats and brought our offerings for us.As the sun rises in Luang Prabang, around 200 Buddhist monks depart from their various temples to gather their daily meal (as monks only eat once per day). All the food that is collected is shared by the monks of each temple.

There are many rules to both attending and participating in this ritual, but the most important is that it is a silent ritual, so you are not supposed to talk, break up, or follow the processional. If you are giving alms, you must be dressed modestly, you must kneel, and must remove your socks and shoes, and you must not touch the monks. You typically sit on the floor to give your alms as the monks pass you by. Offerings are typically rice and fruits.  We had traditional offerings, but we also brought along some American treats, like peanut butter, almonds, and snack bars, which the monks were very excited to receive.  The monks carry a large bowl which they keep open, and you place your offering in their bowl as they pass by. This processional goes quickly and there are a lot of monks, so you need to be on your game, as they will not stop and wait for you.  Here’s a pro tip: when you get your big bowl of sticky rice, roll it into balls so you are ready make an offering at lightning speed!  At the end of the processional, the monks line up in front of their temple and chant a prayer before heading into their temple to share their food and eat their daily meal.

After the ceremony was over, we were invited to explore the inside of one of the temples. First, we left an offering of sticky rice in the tree. When the locals visit the temples, they typically bring an offering of marigolds, and our guide came prepared.  She gave us this beautiful cone of marigolds that we offered to the temple. Our next order of business was to go to the morning market and buy all the ingredients we would need in order to cook a traditional meal at our guide’s home which we would share with her family. She gave us our lists and our money, and we were on our way.The morning markets are fascinating.  They are a great way to get a glimpse of everyday life and interact with the locals.  There is an array of fresh vegetables, fruits, and fish on display. And then there are these: Insects and snakes?? My adventurous spirit only goes so far… No thanks!

After our shopping was done, we went into to town for a different kind of shopping, which leads me to the second coolest thing we did on this day: a visit to a Hmong village! We were so intrigued with our cultural village visit, that we asked our guide to take us to a true local Hmong village that is not set up for tourists. Before we went, we stopped off at a local market to purchase snacks and educational materials to give to the children, and then we were off.

On the nearly hour-long drive, we got to see some more rural areas of Luang Prabang.We arrived at the village with our goodies in tow! The Hmong are an ethnic group that live up in the mountains. There is a long history of persecution of these people, which you can read more about here. But, we were here to visit the children of this ethnic village, and help them practice their English!The children were so excited to receive their treats and clapped along as we sang the English ABCs. They were very curious and excited to see Western tourists in their village. We happened to visit when UNICEF was there for the purpose of vaccinating the children. They come once a year to hold a vaccine clinic and provide basic medical care to rural populations of children.On the way back from the village, we stopped at the famed Kuang Si Falls. These falls, while certainly not as large as Victoria Falls (which we visited the year before in Zimbabwe), are stunning in their own different way.  They are a series of smaller falls that collect in beautiful turquoise pools.  The cost to get into the park is about $2.50 per person. There are a series of trails and bridges that you can use to walk among the falls. You can even swim in them, although when we were there in late November, the water was cold; but that didn’t stop this spectacle.  Allow me to introduce you to the Amazing Asian Man, with whom I fell in love. Not only was he wearing a magnificently small Speedo, but he would climb up to a tree or rock, strike a pose, and demand that his friends photograph him before he jumped into the water.  I was mesmerized by this creature, and he has inspired in me a book idea! After studying this jewel for a very long time, we made our way over to the bear sanctuary on property. These black bears are an endangered species because their bile is used by the Chinese for medicinal purposes. This sanctuary rescues them and houses 23 bears. I love animals, so I just loved watching these bears roam and play.Our next stop was to Ok Pop Tok to get our weave on! Ok Pop Tok is a living crafts center set in the jungle on the Mekong River. It teaches traditional weaving techniques in demonstration style classes or you can sign up for half day, full day, or multi-day classes. You can even stay on the property while you attend classes. They have a shop that follows fair trade principles and have Village Weaver Projects, where their weavers work with local NGOs to teach skills to artisans in villages in 11 different provinces, using their knowledge of the market to help villagers make a better living from their handicrafts, as well as buying, selling and promoting their products.

We came for a half-day class where we learned about the different fabrics, how the dyes are made using natural ingredients, how to create and then to dye the fabrics, and how to use the weaver’s loom to make different patterns.  The cool part about our class is that we got to come home with a scarf that we made! But, our day of learning was not over.  It was time to go to our guide’s home and learn to cook a traditional meal that we would share with her family, which is where we had the third coolest experience!

First, we had to get dressed for the occasion…Then we got to work cleaning, chopping, mincing, and cooking. While we worked in an outdoor kitchen, inside, the elders prepared the centerpiece that they would use to offer a blessing to us. They used banana leaves, marigolds, and sweets for the offerings. Candles were placed in the center and poles of white string were placed in the center. Our guide’s uncle, a former monk, led the blessing ceremony as the elders sang.One by one, each elder removed a set of white strings and came around in a circle placing one string on each of our wrists as they gave us a blessing.  At the end of the ceremony, they offered us the marigolds.  After the ceremony, it was time to eat and party! We shared the lovely meal we prepared with her family.You see the guy in the back row, third from the left? We nicknamed him “Uncle Crunk”! He kept coming around with a growler of Beerlao (the main, locally brewed beer in Laos, which Chad says is actually a pretty good lager) and  doing the ‘ol “one for me and one for you!” It wasn’t long until Uncle Crunk, was well, Crunk!  He turned on the tunes and then it was time to dance; and, let me tell you, Uncle Crunk LOVES to dance, especially with his new American lady friends. Here is also where my sister, whose name is Haroula, solidified her nickname: Colorado, Asian Temptress. If you are wondering what I am talking about, then you need to read this.

Although we only spent few days in Laos, they were truly excellent days! That’s the thing about traveling; sometimes you come across a gem and love it more than you could have ever imagined, and it changes you as a person. That is how I feel about our short time in this charming little country and city. I hope you too make it to Luang Prabang one day, and when you do (or if you already have), I’d love to hear from you! Sa Bai Dii!

Krabi, Thailand: Koh Lanta

No trip to Thailand would be complete without a visit to one of Thailand’s breathtaking islands. I strongly urge you to skip the overly commercialized Phuket and opt for one of the less developed islands.  During our trip, we chose Koh Lanta, which is located in the Krabi Province. Conde Naste Traveller has listed Koh Lanta in the top 10 islands to visit in Thailand. If you are looking for a low-key boho vibe and nearly deserted beaches, then this is where you want to go; and, may I suggest that you make this destination the splurge part of your trip.

To get to Koh Lanta takes some effort, which is why the party crowd has not yet overtaken this paradise.  We took a regional flight from Bangkok to Krabi.  Once we got to Krabi, our resort staff was waiting for us with a sprinter van. We drove for almost two hours to their private dock where we boarded the property’s speed boat for a 45 minute ride through utter beauty.We chose the Pimalai Resort and Spa, which is Lanta’s first five-star hotel. It is set in a tropical forest on the edge of white-sand Ba Kan Tiang Beach near Lanta Marine National Park.  We stayed in their Chairman’s Villa, which is totally private, beach-side, and has its own infinity pool! The resort itself is a destination. The on-property restaurants are delicious and the spa is top notch!  The resort also has an array of activities you can book, including diving, snorkeling (which Chad loved), island exploration, cooking classes, and treks. I am going to shut up now and let the photos tell the rest of the story (although these pictures don’t do the natural beauty of the island justice, nor do they properly convey the absolute peace and tranquility that this resort provides to its guests; I HIGHLY recommend that you make it to this Heaven on Earth sometime soon!)…

Chairman’s Villa: Private foot path to the nearly private beach: The sunsets were unreal: Relax, snorkel, float…