Along the northeastern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba is the city of the same name, a fast-growing town of over 100,000. Much of the modern city has been built quickly and without great regard for aesthetics, but the natural surroundings make up for it – if you can take the heat. Seaward, the gleaming blue gulf offers coral reefs, snorkeling, diving, and opportunities to view a wealth of marine life, including numerous endemic species. Landward, the imposing Aqaba Mountains appear to be an impenetrable wall separating the sea from the inland deserts. The striped, multicolored granite forming these mountains begins to turn a rosy pink at sunset; and in winter, a rare snowstorm might dust their peaks.
The city has long existed in some form, despite the inhospitable surroundings and intense heat throughout much of the year. Trade ships have always stopped here to deposit goods bound northward; and forts, churches, mosques, and manses have piled one atop the other, still rendering a brief stint of historic sightseeing possible in a visit to the city. Most visitors, though, will either head for the beaches to sunbathe, swim, or dive or make for the mountains to visit Wadi Rum. Aqaba does offer a wide range of very affordable restaurants (as well as a wide range of pricier ones) and is a popular resort destination among Jordanians.
While most tourists simply travel along one of the two steep highways that cut through the relatively few passable routes through the coastal mountain ranges to reach the Desert Highway, the Abraham Path route offers a back-country option seen by very few. A four-day hike through breathtakingly stark and colorful landscapes will bring you to Wadi Rum from the south, and you’ll pass only one tiny, windswept hamlet along the way. The coastal ranges, though one of the least welcoming landscapes available to human navigation, also contain plenty of hidden passageways and peaks with unrivaled views – some of them towering a kilometer above the nearby shoreline. If venturing into the treacherous crags of these ranges, a guide or a high-degree of self-sufficiency is a must; but the rarely-tasted adventure that awaits there is sure to tempt some.
Aqaba’s status as an important port city is emphasized by the establishment of a special economic zone (ASEZA) in the area, which, among other things, means free entry to tourists who enter the country through the city! If leaving through another border, the normal entry fee will be retroactively charged; but in this era of painfully high visa fees, the ability to visit Wadi Rum, Petra, and the nearby great outdoors for a much more reasonable cost is something to be thankful for.