Aqaba is crammed into a little strip of land between the mountains and the sea. Across the water one can see the mountains of Sinai, and Eilat in Israel is only a few miles away to the west. Indeed, when arriving in Aqaba from the Desert Highway, it is not immediately obvious that one is looking at two towns (and countries) and not a single one. Just 20 kilometers to the south is Saudi Arabia.
Here is an aerial photo of Aqaba, showing the port on the left and to the south. Higher up, the town that you see is Eilat, while Taba in Egypt is immediately opposite to the port of Aqaba. This is a “thumbnail” photo, you can click on it for a larger version.
I find this a nicer town than Amman. It is a free trade area (the “Aqaba Special Eonomic Zone”), so many people from south Jordan come here to shop. Most prices are lower than elsewhere, but you are subject to customs duty when you take goods outside the area – there is a control point. However, the officials are reasonable, and if you have low taxed items for your own consumption, you are unlikely to be asked to pay. This does NOT necessarily apply to electrical goods. For those who are thirsty, the off-duty prices also apply to alcohol, beer and wine! Have a look at Sami’s Supermarket, opposite to the Cairo-Amman Bank. Imported cigarettes are also cheaper here.
Free ASEZ visas
The Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA for short) has introduced a special Economic Zone visa for Jordan, to be known as an “ASEZ visa”. This is a new rule, and the details have already been changed several times since its introduction in April. Right now the conditions are these:
Anybody arriving in Aqaba, whether at the port, at the airport or at the Arava crossing from Israel can get a free visa for Jordan. There is no obligation associated with this visa, providing they leave the country within 15 days and do not need to register their visa for “renewal”. Their passports are not subject to any special checks when they leave the Economic Zone.
People arriving at any entry point other than Aqaba, who say to the authorities that they are going to Aqaba can claim a free visa, but with the obligation to register with the ASEZA visa office in Aqaba within 48 hours of their arrival in Jordan. Failure to do this brings liability to pay for the visa plus a fine of 1.5JD/day for each day non registered.
Anybody arriving in Aqaba can if they wish, ask for a normal visa (usual price=10JD) instead of the free ASEZ visa. In this case if they want to stay longer than 15 days they can register at their local police station as per current practice.
Anybody holding an ASEZ visa, and wishing to stay longer than 15 days must extend it at the ASEZA office in Aqaba and not with their local police station as holders of a normal visa can do, so remember this and be careful about claiming the ASEZ visa if you will be in Jordan for longer than 15 days.
Everybody without a specific exemption must pay the 5JD exit tax whether holding an ASEZ visa or not and wherever leaving the country. Travellers staying in Jordan less than 24 hours are considered to be “in transit” and are exempt from the tax, as are certain cruise ship passengers.
In other words, if you are staying less than 15 days in the country and arrive in Aqaba, you can ask for a free visa without hesitation. If you arrive somewhere else, you must decide if you want the hassle of getting to Aqaba within 48 hours or if you prefer paying the 10JD (approx 16USD) for a normal visa.
This is a photo of the main beach in Aqaba. You can see a couple of glass bottomed boats waiting for customers – they are the white ones with the awnings.
There are frequent buses between Aqaba (the central bus station) and most of the towns in south Jordan including Wadi Rum – 2 services a day except Fridays – and of course to Petra and to Amman. This latter is one route where the Jett buses do come in useful, they leave from the Jett office on The Corniche, phone 03.201.5222. The Trust International Transport (An-Nahda Street) also offers six services to and from Amman every day including Fridays, their phone number is 03.203.2300. Locals much prefer their buses to the Jett ones. I have given the full timetables in the “Hard Facts” page under “buses“.
The sea makes a big difference in the atmosphere. The public beaches are a bit grotty and are much frequented by locals looking to ogle tourists – it is better to pay a small sum and use the hotel beaches. Many small hotels have an arrangement with one of the larger ones for a reduced price access to their beach. South of the port there are a couple of private places for hassle free bathing and sunbathing, that come equipped with snorkelling facilities and transport from the town (see below). The only problem here is that there isn’t all that much tranport back to the town.
The Royal Diving Club private beach is a fair way out of town, but they have a bus between the two. They will pick up outside most of the big hotels at about 9am and charge 1/2JD one way. The bus returns to Aqaba at 5pm. It would be a good idea to check with the RDC where is the pick up spot closest to where you are staying. The Royal Diving Club contact details are Tel +9188.8.131.523 Fax 03.201.8969 Address: PO Box 21, Aqaba. Remember that when you are in the RDC premises, however attractive it is (swimming pool, small beach and snorkelling facilities as well as diving courses) you will have a problem for returning to Aqaba in the middle of the day. Unless you are lucky enough to find somebody going back, you should ask the reception to call you a taxi, which will come from Aqaba with the probable double charge attached. A one way charge shouldn’t go over 5JD. On the credit side this is one of the places where you should be able to sunbathe in a bikini without being leered at. The simple entrance fee is 5JD.
Another good spot for hassle-free bathing is the Club Murjan run by the Hotel Alcazar (Tel. 03.201.4131), which is very active in the promotion of outdoor activities in Jordan. It is well away from the town, and therefore much pleasanter, with a swimming pool, toilets/showers and a bar and restaurant. Guests at the hotel enter free, non-guests are charged a 4JD fee which includes transport to and from the town so that it works out cheaper than the RDC. If you are diving with Seastar the entrance to the club is included in the dive price. Getting back to the town is a bit easier from here.
Transport leaves the Hotel Alcazar for the Club at 8h30am, 11h30 (12h00) and 1h30pm. The first and the last is transport intended for divers but non-divers/non hotel guests are welcome to use any of them – see note above about transport included in the price of entry. At any other time a taxi to the Club Murjan should cost about 2-3JD, ask the driver to put his meter on, and in no circumstances pay more than 3JD, 2JD should be normal.
Both of these two clubs are close to coral reefs and have a jetty built out over the water to facilitate entry into the water for easy snorkelling and diving – see pages on Snorkelling and Diving.
The glass bottomed boats are a big attraction and you shouldn’t miss going out on one. They usually wait for customers on the public beach, but several (the best equipped and the less easily bargained for!) are to be found on the hotel beaches. The price does depend on how well you bargain and how brisk business is. A two hour trip is likely to cost between 10 and 15JD FOR THE BOAT. A one hour trip doesn’t go much further than inside the harbour where the coral, however picturesque, is mostly dead. If you can find the money for a longer trip, you will be taken out parallel to the coast towards the Power Station coral reef where there are numerous fish to be seen, including flying fish of course, and a lot of coral, but you are looking at somewhere around 20JD here – again for the boat. If you just want to go out for a ride on the water, then a half hour is plenty, and in that case the boatman will usually go towards the west. Please see the page on diving/snorkelling if you should be interested in snorkelling excursions.
The Ali Baba restaurant is probably the best known sea food restaurant in Jordan, another good place for seafood is the Captains’. Cheaper than these two are the numerous restaurants on the town beach on the edge of the water : the only occasional problem is getting one’s feet splashed when a larger or faster boat than usual goes by (rather fun, this!). No special recommendations here, they change ownership and cooks fairly often! You pay your money and you take your chances! Hanni Ali’s place, next door to the Ali Baba is the best place in Aqaba to buy “sweets” or Arab pastries, the ice cream is also very good there.
There are a number of hotels in Aqaba suitable for all budgets. For the cheap end, the Red Sea Hotel and the Nairoukh One Hotel are quite pleasant. Rooms according to season, at this time you should be able to get something correct for 14/16JD. You can sleep on the roof of the Petra Hotel, which is strictly backpacker type accommodation but which does have a lovely view.
Slightly more upscale is the Moon Beach. The rate here is about 25JD for double room with breakfast, the rooms are clean with bath +TV + AC. Tel. +9184.108.40.20616/9 Fax +9220.127.116.1100. The Al Zatari Hotel close to the bus station, has also had good reports.
A quick warning : we nearly always want a room with a sea view (me too!). However, the sea being due south of Aqaba, a view of it means that you are going to get a hot sun on your window all day. If this is going to bother you, then decide if the sea view is worth it.
There is an official camping site on the South Beach. However this is getting what has been described as a “dubious reputation” and it seems likely to be closed down before very long. Anybody wanting to camp out will do better in the desert, and budget accommodation is to be found in town.
Some typical taxi fares “out of town” from Aqaba :
- Aqaba to the Club Murjan 2-3JD
- Aqaba to the Southern Camp Site 3-4JD
- Aqaba to RDC 4-5JD
- Aqaba to the Aquarium 3JD ( yes, I know, it’s closer and should be cheaper, but….)
- Aqaba to the ferry terminal 4JD (yes, I know, it’s closer and should be cheaper, but…)
- Aqaba to the Israeli border 4-6JD (what to do??)
You might like to check www.see-aqaba.com for general information about Aqaba.