Taking an organized tour once you arrive in Jordan can turn out to be the most rewarding way to get to some of the more isolated attractions in the hinterland – and to get closer to the people, too.
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There are hundreds of Jordanian tour operators dealing with incoming tourism, but most are fairly set in their ways, offering virtually identical seven-day tours around a circuit of sights from Amman to Jerash, Madaba, Karak, Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba and the Dead Sea. Only a handful can take you off the beaten track – and fewer still can take you out of the tourist bubble for one-on-one encounters with local people. Some of the best are listed below, along with a handful of voluntourism and responsible tourism operators. To get an idea of the terrain, as well as some route descriptions and advice, have a look at general Jordan-enthusiast websites, such as the well-informed w jordanjubilee.com and w nomadstravel.co.uk. We list recommended desert guides at Wadi Rum in our account of the destination.
Adventure operators and specialist independent guides in Jordan
t 079 975 5551, w bedouincamp.net. The Ammarin tribe run this wonderful camp at Little Petra, and also offer hiking and adventure guiding in and around the outer fringes of the Petra region.
t 079 554 8133, w baitali.com. Ambitious desert camp on the outskirts of Wadi Rum. Their connections with the Swalhiyeen tribe, who occupy the lands north of Rum, give access to terrain that other guides in the area do not cover. As well as camels, jeeps and hiking, they offer adventure sports such as quad biking and horseback safaris.
t 03 203 3508, w desertguides.net. Aside from trekking and climbing in the southern desert, this respected outfit run by qualified mountain guide and old Jordan hand Wilfried Colonna can arrange guided multi-day wilderness treks on pure-bred Arabian horses.
t 06 569 7998, w discovery1.com. Long-standing ecotourism operator, focusing on the luxury end of the market and speciali-zing in corporate getaways, with tailor-made adventure tours on request.
t 06 464 5580, w feynan.com. Managed by the engaging (and award-winning) Nabil Tarazi, the Feynan Ecolodge in the southern deserts of Wadi Araba works with a number of trained guides from the local tribes in the area, offering an unparalleled calibre of backcountry expertise and cultural insight for hikes and wilderness adventures both short and long.
t 07 888 02045, w jordanbeauty.com. Specialists in hiking and trekking, specifically in the Petra area, with excellent local knowledge. Also able to construct innovative, keenly priced tours around the country.
t 06 552 7230, w jordanexplorers.com. Experts in horseriding tours in and around Wadi Rum (including a six-day ride from Petra to Rum), led by renowned adventure guide Hanna Jahshan. Also with a full deck of adventure options nationwide.
t 077 609 7581, w jitours.com. Small, flexible company based in Wadi Musa, with a wide range of tour options in Petra and around the country.
t 079 648 2801, w jordantracks.com. Specialized team based in Wadi Rum, focusing on desert services but also able to put together modest trips around Jordan.
t 03 215 7099, w labeduinatours.com. These specialists in fully supported adventure trips and treks in and around Petra also offer nationwide itineraries including diving, mountain-biking and horseriding.
t 077 725 4658, w mahmoudtwaissi.wordpress.com. Born and bred in Petra, Mahmoud is in the top rank of Jordan’s national tour guides, highly experienced and with a particular focus on hiking and nature tourism.
t 03 215 6665, w petramoon.com. One of Jordan’s leading adventure tour operators. Very well connected, they can set you up with good local guides for hikes, low-impact jeep trips into the remote countryside around Petra or long-distance horse or camel rides, with full backup support all the way.
t 03 215 4551, w raamitours.com. A bedouin-owned and -operated tour company based in Umm Sayhoun outside Petra, offering specialist knowledge and unrivalled access to far-flung corners of the southern deserts. Raami himself has travelled the world – and knows how to deliver tip-top experiences.
t 06 582 9333, w sarha.jo. Knowledgeable local adventure firm with deep roots in Jordan and a wealth of experience in everything from rural hikes in the Ajloun forest to canyoning above the Dead Sea or desert trekking in the wilds of Rum.
t 06 581 3061, w terhaal.com. Outstanding eco-aware adventure tour company that has been instrumental in opening up new hiking and mountain-biking routes off the King’s Highway around Madaba. Specialists in canyoning in the Dead Sea gorges, with many unique routes and combinations. Also with scuba and other options, including Petra hikes and scrambling in Rum – alongside a full programme of regular group trips that are open to all.
t 079 543 8708, w tropicaldeserttrips.com. Run by the tireless Hakim Tamimi, these experts in outdoor adventure specialize in trekking, canyoning and rock-climbing in all sorts of out-of-the-way places. Check their Facebook group for details of regular weekend excursions.
Wild Jordan (RSCN)
t 06 461 6523 or t 463 3589, e [email protected], w rscn.org.jo. Wild Jordan is the ecotourism arm of Jordan’s pioneering Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), which creates and protects all of Jordan’s nature reserves as part of a national programme emphasizing nature conservation (including wildlife reintroductions) and environmental issues. They have exclusive responsibility for developing sustainable tourism in the reserves: no other operator runs trekking and camping inside the Dana reserve, canyoning and gorge-walking within Wadi Mujib, forest walks in the woodland reserves at Ajloun or Dibbeen, or birdwatching at the Azraq Wetlands (all of which are protected areas). Their environmental credentials are impeccable, and they work closely with local people, developing socio-economic projects to support communities living in and near the reserves. The eco-friendly lodges and cabins they design to accommodate visitors are staffed by locals. Prices are higher than elsewhere – but your money could barely go to a better cause. Their headquarters are in Amman.
t 079 564 1911, w adventurejordan.com. One of Jordan’s most prominent and experienced adventure tour guides (with certification in mountain search and rescue and first aid), Yamaan knows the country’s wilderness areas like nobody else. From rugged, first-hand experience, he has opened up routes all round Jordan, following paths no other guide follows and offering first-rate historical, archeological, geological and cultural insight along the way.
Social programmes and voluntourism in Jordan
w engagingcultures.com. Very unusual Jordan-based operation, offering the kind of insight and cultural immersion on touring itineraries that is generally extremely hard to find. Detailed knowledge of the whole country and great contacts among local communities means they can get you under the skin of the place quicker than just about anyone else, on a variety of broad general-interest trips and excursions. A fine choice.
t 079 663 7377, w hamzetwasel.com. Social programmes in low-income districts of Amman designed to build bridges between communities which also include a tourism element – make contact with the indefatigable Raghda Butros to explore possibilities for a day of urban sightseeing like no other.
w zikrainitiative.org. Award-winning voluntourism outfit which seeks to draw both Ammanis and foreign visitors into the world of Jordanian village life, showcasing craft and culinary traditions in the deprived communities of Ghor Al Mazraa, at the southern end of the Dead Sea, and other locations through paid “Exchange Tourism” programmes.
It’s easy for anyone of moderate ability to embark on half- or full-day country walks from most towns – as the modest local enthusiast site w WalkingJordan.com attests. What you can’t expect is any kind of trail support: no signposts, no refreshment facilities and often no trail markers; there are also virtually no maps useful for walkers available. In recompense, you’ll generally be walking alone in pristine countryside. For greater insight, and a full range of detailed route descriptions, your best bet is to get hold of almost the only book on the subject – Jordan: Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs and Canyons by Di Taylor and Tony Howard.
Trekking is in its infancy in Jordan, other than in the unique mountains and deserts of Wadi Rum, where it plays an important role in the local economy. As at Petra, trekking services at Rum are offered by local people who still proudly consider themselves bedouin. Plenty of the best routes in and around Rum – as well as ancient caravan trails around Petra – are known only to the locals.
Elsewhere, only a handful of individuals and the RSCN (Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature) understand the theory and practice of trekking. Through its “Wild Jordan” office, the RSCN offers carefully controlled access to the country’s nature reserves – environmentally fragile, protected landscapes that are largely off-limits to visitors: the RSCN allows trekking only on designated trails with qualified RSCN nature guides. On no account should you enter the reserves without permission, or stray off-trail.
Outside these places, in the rugged mountains near Aqaba or the green hills of the far north, for example, there are no marked trails and very few guides. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that while walking you’ll come across anyone other than locals, some of whom may be happy to guide you – and all of whom will welcome you with the full warmth of Jordanian hospitality. Offers of tea and refreshment are likely to flow thick and fast as you pass through rural villages.
Jordan’s terrain is spectacularly varied. Anyone expecting a desert country will be astonished by the alpine-style meadows of north Jordan, which are carpeted in flowers in springtime, when warm breezes carry the aromas of herbs and pine. The hills of Ajloun in April are simply captivating – a gentle terrain, with no real hazards other than the lack of water. The RSCN’s forest reserves at Ajloun and Dibbeen offer access into the area, as does the locally developed Al-Ayoun Trail.
The Dead Sea hills, also dubbed the “Mountains of Moab”, offer a more savage prospect, gashed by wild canyons which flash-flood after rains. They require respectful treatment. Their northern reaches fall within the boundaries of the RSCN’s Wadi Mujib reserve, where you can tackle the spectacular descent of the Mujib gorge, though independent adventure guides also offer access to similar exploration of neighbouring canyons outside the reserve such as Wadi Zarqa Ma’in or Wadi Mukheiris.
The southern part of the Moab hills around Karak, with excellent trekking and canyoning, is also outside the Mujib reserve. Hiking here, alongside water in the midst of harsh desert terrain, is always a pleasure. This part of the country is still very much off the beaten track, but you may be able to find a company or a specialist guide organizing trips to the beautiful and varied canyon of Wadi ibn Hammad.
Further south is the RSCN reserve at Dana, its ancient village perched like an eyrie above the wild Wadi Dana. This is, understandably, the pride of the RSCN, who organize some excellent treks past oases and ancient copper mines down to the Feynan Ecolodge in the Wadi Araba desert, as well as other routes in far-flung parts of these hills, including around their remote Rummana campsite.
The fabulous ancient city of Petra is concealed beyond the next range of hills to the south. While you could spend days hiking around this remarkable site, most walkers will feel the urge to explore further. Navigating paths through this craggy range of mountains is, however, extremely complex, and waterholes are few: until you gain confidence in the area, you should take a local guide. Independent guides offer a superb four-night wilderness trek from Feynan all the way to Petra, and local companies in Wadi Musa can set up excellent week-long camel- or horseriding treks from Petra to Rum.
At Wadi Rum, don’t let the multitudes of tour buses deter you. Out in the desert, away from the very few, well-travelled safari routes taken by day-trippers, all is solitude. The rock climbing in Rum is world-famous, but for the walker there is also much to offer, both dramatic canyon scrambles and delightful desert valleys. Again, be sure of your abilities if you go without a guide: bedouin camps are rare and only those intimate with Rum will find water. Far better is to get to know the local bedouin and hire a guide: a real desert experience is just as much about the people as the place. The rigorous ascent of the mighty Jabal Rum by a bedouin hunting route – well known to qualified guides – or the relatively easy scramble to the summit of Jabal Umm ad-Daami, Jordan’s highest mountain, is a world-class experience open to any fit and confident person.
Clothing, equipment and preparation
You should take a minimalist approach to clothing and equipment. Heavy boots aren’t necessary; good, supportive trainers or very lightweight boots are adequate. Quality socks are important and should be washed or changed frequently to keep the sand out and minimize blisters. Clothing, too, should be lightweight and cotton or similar: long trousers and long-sleeved tops will limit dehydration and are essential on grounds of modesty when passing through villages or visiting bedouin camps. A sunhat, proper protective sunglasses and high-factor sunblock are also essential, as are a light windproof top and fleece. Basic trip preparation also includes carrying a mobile phone (bear in mind that coverage can be patchy, particularly on mountains and in canyons), a watch, a medical kit and a compass, and knowing how to use them all. You should carry a minimum of three litres of water per day for an easy walk, perhaps six or eight litres per day for tough treks. On toilet procedures, if you’re caught short in the wilds, make sure that you squat far away from trails and water supplies, and bury the result deeply. Toilet paper is both unsightly and unhygienic (goats will eat anything!); the best way to clean yourself is with water, but if you must use paper, either burn it or store it in a plastic bag and dispose of it correctly when you get back to a town.
Part of your preparation for trekking in Jordan must involve familiarizing yourself with the dangers of flash floods, most pertinently if you intend walking in narrow valleys and canyons, even in the desert: deluges are life-threatening.
There are no official search and rescue organizations. However straightforward your hike may seem, you must always tell someone responsible (such as a reliable friend or the tourist police) where you are going. You must then follow or stick close to your stated route, and check in when you return or reach your destination.
Hiring trekking/adventure guides
Fees for trekking guides can vary. In Rum, you should reckon on roughly JD40–60 per person for a high-quality full-day jeep tour with a knowledgeable English-speaking guide in a vehicle seating four to six people (per-person prices drop the more of you there are), including dinner, overnight desert camping with everything provided, and breakfast. (Cheaper deals are widely available – but you get what you pay for.) Guiding on scrambles and climbs that require ropes for safety costs considerably more, in the order of JD150–200 a day, and rightly so: it’s a responsible job. To be guided on a private one-day adventure trek – for instance through a gorge such as Wadi bin Hammad near Karak, Wadi Ghweir near Dana or one of the canyons above the Dead Sea – expect to pay in the order of JD100–120, less if it’s on easier terrain (and less if you join a scheduled group trip, such as through one of the operators we’ve listed in this section). The RSCN sets its own rates within each of the reserves, publicised on its website. Whatever you’re planning, it’s always best to book ahead.
If you’ve enjoyed your trip, tipping your guide is entirely appropriate. Ten percent would be fine, but you may want to give more – or perhaps a gift of a useful item of clothing or equipment. RSCN guides working in the reserves are not allowed to accept tips.
Jordan’s Royal Aero Sports Club based at Aqaba airport, runs sightseeing flights over the Wadi Rum desert in ultralight aircraft (JD75 for 20min, JD200 for 1hr). They also offer a serene one-hour journey at dawn by hot-air balloon over the deserts of Wadi Rum (JD130 per person, minimum three people). All these must be booked in advance. Occasionally, the company brings in skydiving instructors from Dubai for tandem jumps from 10,000 feet above the sands: check the website for dates and details.
The Royal Jordanian Gliding Club, based at Marka airport in Amman (with additional sites in Aqaba and Rum), can take you up for a uniquely silent view of the capital (JD30). They also have ultralights and single-engine aircraft.
Many visitors from the West come to Jordan never having laid eyes on a camel, yet almost all arrive with received wisdom about the creatures; myths about the simplicity of desert life, the nobility of the bedouin and the Lawrence-of-Arabia-style romance of desert culture all seem to be inextricably bound up in Western minds with the camel. In truth, the bedouin long since gave up using camels either as a means of transport or as beasts of burden: Japanese pick-ups are faster, sturdier, longer-lived and less bad-tempered than your average dromedary. However, some tribes still keep a few camels, mostly for nostalgic reasons and the milk, though some breed and sell them. The bedouin that live in or close to touristed areas such as Petra and Rum have small herds of them to rent out for walks and desert excursions. There are no wild camels left in Jordan: any you see, in however remote a location, belong to someone.
If you’re in any doubt about whether to take the plunge and have a camel ride, then rest assured that it’s a wonderful experience. There’s nothing to compare with the gentle, hypnotic swaying and soft shuffle of riding camel-back in the open desert. Wadi Rum is the best place in Jordan to try it out, with short and long routes branching out from Rum and Disi all over the southern desert. Take as long as you like, but anything less than a couple of hours’ riding isn’t really worth it.
As a beginner’s tip, the key to not falling off a camel is to hang onto the pommel between your legs – the animal gets up from sitting with a bronco-style triple jerk that flings you backwards, then forwards, then back again. If you’re not holding on as soon as your bottom hits the saddle you’re liable to end up in the dust. Once up and moving, you have a choice of riding your mount like a stirrupless horse, or copying the locals and cocking one leg around the pommel.