Road tripping the Desert Highway: How to get around in Jordan – Taxi, Bus, Rental Car Options
The major North – South highway in the Hashemite Kingdon of Jordan is known as the Desert Highway. As it runs through Amman, it is known as Airport Road and North of the Capital City, it is known as the Northern Highway. It connects the Arabian gulf with Eastern Europe and continues through Syria and Turkey.
Visitors to Jordan often wonder how to get from Amman to Petra, or Amman to Wadi Rum, or Petra to Aqaba, or even Amman to the Dead Sea. Fortunately, there are plenty of options to ensure you can tick off your Jordan Bucketlist during your visit.
The Desert Highway, A seemingly inhospitable landscape, yet not uninhabited. Shepherds are seen with their herds of goats or sheep grazing the bits of green grasses and shrubs along the side of the highway. Literally on the side of the highway. The shepherd’s watchful eye ensuring a goat does not stray onto the road. A stick or cane waved from their hands keeps the goats back if they stray onto the pavement.
Trucks outnumber cars two to one. Either flat bed container trucks moving goods from the port in Aqaba or trucks carrying massive pieces of limestone or other materials are plentiful. Cars and busses make up the rest of the traffic, you do not see mopeds, motorcycles or bicycles along the roadways in Jordan.
Shreds of rubber litter the sides of the highway, and tire shops are plentiful, easily identified by their stack of tires on the side of the roadway. The shredded mess of rubber shows that the desert highway claims many tires and we even passed by the black smoke of a burning tire just off the side of the road.
Coffee shops boast large drawings of teapots, with neon lights to attract eyes of late night drivers. They offer turkish coffee or tea and sometimes snacks. I was able to order “shay ma sukar” (tea with sugar) from a local, but had no idea how much he wanted me to pay. I suspect it was a half dinar (50 piastres) but I had no small change and gave him 1 dinar.
Armed police vehicles escort a white truck carrying high value prisoners from the Swaqa prison to court appearances. 4×4 trucks with high powered machine guns on top, manned by police, follow the truck to deter any would-be hijackers. Police checkpoints emerge in the middle of no where, their small stop sign indicating to pull over and provide your driver’s license. While I was stopped 4 times on my drive south on the Desert Highway, I was quickly waved on my way, without having to show any ID. Others were also quickly checked, while some detained for a few minutes. Some checkpoints even crossed the road, checking each vehicle, whether car, truck or bus. The checkpoints are not intimidating, police friendly and polite. Sometimes a quick look at a driver license and you are on your way, other times, they will take it to their vehicle and run your name.
Roadkill, impossible to not look at, was prolific on the sides of the highway, discarded among the plastic bags and garbage caught up in the weeds.
The Desert Highway runs through Wadi Rum, its red sand and “moonlike” landscape looks like no other place on Earth. Wadi Rum has become popular in movies as of late, being used to film portions of the Martian and the most recent Star Wars film, Rogue One. It is well worth turning off and driving deep into the desert, visiting the visitors centre and taking a 4×4 tour of the sandy desert.
Wadi Rum was one of our favourite parts of Jordan, and it is quite reasonable to spend a night camping in the desert. Highly recommended is Hasan Zawaideh Camp, where Mohammad will take good care of you during your stay. You will not find a better price for luxury in Wadi Rum
Back along the highway, silhouette of a village sign and a speed bump ahead sign indicate you are entering a town or village and cars slow from 110km/h to ride over the speed bumps and then resume their highway speed. Raised pedestrian sidewalks have been built over the highway for pedestrians,in most towns, but people still cross the highway, even ducking through vandalized fences, that have been put in place for their protection. Small children are seen running along the side of the road, their street sense taught at a young age.
The Desert Highway sounds terrible. It is not all bad. It travels through small towns, up and down hills, green with grass from the spring rain, past castles and ruins. You will see phosphate mines in the distance, Jordan’s main export commodity. The road is decently maintained, two lanes eachway, It is the main access point to Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba. I am still getting used to seeing the trash everywhere and even the mess of discarded concrete. It is much easier to ignore in the spring, as the centre median and sides of the highway are green with spring grass, but in the hot summer and fall,a the garbage sticks out in the barren land.
Along the Desert Highway you will see the Ottoman Railway, built in the 1800s, connecting Turkey with Saudia Arabia. The railway’s purpose was to make it easier for the pilgrims to travel to Saudia Arabia. The Jordan stretch now carries phosphate, from the desert, to Aqaba.
Another well known route in Jordan is called the Kings Highway. Kids and Compass has a great post on it here.
Ways to get Around in Jordan:
Guided Tours, Car Rental, Taxi
There are many ways to get around in Jordan. Many tourists opt for a fully guided tour where everything is taken care of. Hotels are often pre chosen, meals can be included and a guide and driver will follow an itinerary outlined in advance. Other tourists arrive and decide to navigate Jordan on their own.
If you plan to visit Jordan on a guided tour, you will be exempt from having to purchase a visa on arrival at Queen Alia Airport (JD40). If you are coming in without a tour, I suggest purchasing a Jordan Pass for JD70-80. You get the visa and entrance to 12 sites in Jordan. Petra is JD50 for just one day, so you get you money’s worth for sure if Petra is in your plans. The only thing I do not like about the Jordan Pass is that it is only valid for one week upon activation. While I am sure this is fine for most visitors, with our extended stay, it meant we had to plan smartly.
How to get around in Jordan?
Local Bus in Jordan
local busses are available and go throughout the country. They do not have a set timetable and sometimes will not leave a stop until full. When driving the highway you will often see people standing on the side of the highway at non-existent bus stops.
JETT Bus In Jordan
Similar to greyhound, JETT offers tour bus transportation to cities and major tourist sites. Short for Jordan Express Tourist Transportation, I found it full of locals and only a few tourists. Some busses have bathroom and food and drink on board. A one way ticket from from Amman to Petra costs JD10 per adult and leaves at 6:30am. A return trip to Amman leaves from Petra in the afternoon for those who do not want to spend the night in Wadi Musa. A one way trip from Amman to Aqaba costs JD8 and runs several times per day
Taxis in Jordan
Taxi’s are quite cheap to get around in and there are a LOT of them. A 20 minute taxi ride costs less than USD 5.00. Note that meters are calculated in piastres, not dinar’s and if you mistake the two, the driver will not likely correct you.
Private Vehicle Driver
These are drivers offering an alternative to a taxi. However, be careful with your choices as these drivers are not licensed Tour Guides. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities is the only body to certify Tour Guides, who have extensive training and knowledge of Jordan. They wear a badge from the ministry with their name and photo. Be careful of others who call themselves “tour guides.” Another note on guides: Most of the sites in Jordan will have local guides inside the sites, who will show you around for a fee. You can inquire at the entrance if you would like a guide. The Citadel, Jerash and Petra are examples of sites that have local guides available to hire inside the sites.
Rental Cars in Jordan
I was quite surprised when I arrived in Jordan as I found rental cars expensive. About JD25 per day. This is because insurance is not optional and included in the price.
Driving in Amman is a hodge-podge of crazy, as traffic rules around lanes and merging are up for interpretation. Streets are narrow, winding and steep in and around Amman, but the highways are easy to navigate with clearly written signs in English and Arabic. The traffic circles in Amman can be characterized as “crazy” as I cannot come up with another word for it, but overall, I found driving in Jordan to be predictable. There were a few lane changes where I said “WHOOOOA” but otherwise, other drivers often indicated when they wanted to cut you off! Unusual, Yes, But not impossible to get through.
Hopefully these tips will help you on your Desert Highway trip when you visit Jordan!
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