Aqaba is a sleepy tourist destination. You cannot walk the streets of Aqaba without hearing the city’s green taxis honk 2 times to signal that they are free for a tour. It’s December and low season and on every street corner, taxis are queuing. They all have a lesson they have learned in English. “Need a taxi, sir?” And when we politely decline, they continue: ”May be next day, cheap price. Want to go to Petra or Wadi Rum?”
We continue along the streets in Jordan’s southernmost city, exact on the border with Israel. We look across to Eilat and can count the number of high-rise buildings. In the midst of the Red Sea, both Jordanian and Israeli naval vessels are patrolling the border. And a stone’s throw farther south we see the mountains of the Sinai desert in Egypt. But here in Aqaba there is little that reminds us that we are in a conflict area. Daily life in Aqaba runs like normal with some stalwart tourists who defy the cold wind and are sun bathing on the luxury hotels’ private beaches. Most of them are Russians, but occasionally we capture a conversation in English.
I first heard about Aqaba when I saw the film “Lawrence of Arabia”, the long version with Peter O`Toole, where Lawrence along with the Arab army rebelled against the Ottoman Empire in David Lean`s film from 1962. Here in Aqaba, the Arab uprising and fight for Aqaba in 1917 is honored with a 130 m high flagpole that are supposed to have the Arab revolts flag at the top. We spotted no flag and the old fort was closed, as was the museum. The flagpole is located right down to the sea between the port and the public beach and in the evening you can see the flashes on top.
In 1917 Aqaba was a small town with a settlement around the fort, but still an important city because it was and is Jordan’s only access to the sea. Aqaba is the center in an economic zone where you do not pay sales tax on goods. It means passing a toll station when driving into Aqaba and that some items are cheaper here. But the assortment may seem quite gaudy for a western eye.
But there are exceptions, if you are looking for proper crafts you must visit Johud Al-Ayadi which is a cooperative outlet with goods made by local women and a few men. The place is run by a foundation with Princess Basma as chairman and is situated opposite the tourist information. You will surely find a souvenir to take home and you support a good cause at the same time.
At the tourist information you can also hop on the red tourist bus running around in Aqaba. But if you do not have difficulty walking, you should walk around the city instead. The city center is small and safe to walk. It is the best way to experience the street life of Aqaba.
The town was previously named Ayla and you can still find ruins along the seaside, including the ruins of a Byzantine church. Around 600 AD the city was conquered by Islamic rulers and named Aqaba. Since 1917 the city has expanded, seemingly without an overall plan. Aqaba is no pretty town; too many large concrete buildings stand empty and decay. Several newer malls are half empty. Nevertheless, there are building sites everywhere and perhaps it might be nice once it’s done!
Corals and wrecks:
Along the beach north of downtown, lays the major 5 star hotels in a row, built in different styles and with beautiful gardens behind high walls. Below the center and south is the public beach with a boardwalk and garden allotments within. It is pleasant to stroll along the beach, but do not let yourself be tricked into a deal about an hour’s ride in a glass boat to see corals. It is not worth the price. Corals so close to the city is contaminated by dust and mud and there’s not much you can see through the small glass in the bottom of the boat. Then it is better to buy a snorkel and a mask and swim 30 meters from the beach. Corals and a sunken tank are almost at the surface and are easy to see and find. Further south, past the harbor there are plenty more to see and it is where most diving centers are situated.
The center of Aqaba begins around Ayla Square and inwards from the beach. To the southeast, behind the Grand Mosque, you will find the old district with markets, bazaars and cheap food. Towards the east you’ll find more modern restaurants and tourist streets. Prices vary enormously between the two areas. In the old town we ate a delicious lunch including a coke for 2 JOD, while in the other area, we paid 5 JOD for 2 cups of tea, not Arabic tea but Lipton tea bags!
Delicious seafood in Aqaba:
There are several restaurants in the old town, which serves delicious traditional cuisine and tasty fish and seafood. Do not be put off by neon lights and plastic chairs and a sterile exterior, take the chance and enjoy the Jordanian cuisine with many dishes. Order a little of everything, especially the various Arab / Lebanese appetizers like humus, egg plants in various forms, tabbouleh and yoghurt salads. We can recommend the little restaurant Mr. Seafood!
If you are not diving or enjoy lying all day on the beach, it quickly becomes boring in Aqaba. But the advantage is that you can take day trips to many wonderful places north in the country. Petra is only 110 km north and there are good roads. Wadi Rum is about 45 minutes with a cab north and is well suited for a day trip. Jordan is a small country in prevalence and you may well take a day trip to the north of the country as well. Precisely this strategic location has helped Aqaba as a tourist destination. But with the current situation in the Middle East the tourist industry is struggling and it can easily lead to a negative spiral despite the fact that Jordan is the most peaceful country in the area.
Our tour of Jordan took 14 days and we managed to travel most of the country. It was a wonderful trip and a meeting with a country that can offer a landscape that takes your breath away and with a great history. You will eventually find other posts about our trip to Jordan.