In Qadisiyyeh, a small town located 27km south of Tafileh and 24km north of Shobak, a steep, cliffside road winds down off the King’s Highway to Dana. This hamlet lies at the eastern edge of Jordan’s flagship Dana Biosphere Reserve, which encompasses 320 square kilometres of terrain around the breathtaking Wadi Dana, stretching as far as Wadi Araba in the west. The village has been the scene of an extraordinary – and successful – social experiment to rejuvenate a dying community by protecting the natural environment. Clinging to the edge of the cliff below the King’s Highway, Dana is the starting point for a series of walks and hikes through one of Jordan’s loveliest protected areas. Or, of course, you could just hole up and enjoy the peace. Whether you stay for an hour or a week, you won’t want to leave.
Dana village overlooks the Dana Biosphere Reserve, an immense tract of wilderness centred on the V-shaped Wadi Dana. It’s a spectacular place to go walking.
The reserve’s terrain drops from 1500m above sea level at Dana to below sea level west of Feynan. Its geology switches from limestone to sandstone to granite, ecosystems varying from lush, well-watered mountain slopes and open oak and juniper woodlands to scrubland and arid sandy desert. The list of flora and resident fauna is dizzying: a brief roundup includes various kinds of eagles, falcons, kestrels and vultures, cuckoos, owls, the Sinai rosefinch and Tristram’s serin; wildcats, caracals, hyenas, jackals, badgers, foxes, wolves, hares, bats, hedgehogs, porcupine and ibex; snakes, chameleons and lizards galore; freshwater crabs; and, so far, three plants new to science out of more than seven hundred plant species recorded.
Once you arrive in Dana, it’s worth stopping at the RSCN-run Guesthouse – whether you’re staying there or not – both for the views from their terrace (binoculars are available if you’d like to do a spot of birdwatching) and to get some firsthand information about the reserve’s walks and wildlife from the experts. Bear in mind you have to book everything with the RSCN well in advance; you can’t just turn up and do a walk with a guide. That said, there are some self-guided trails available – and if you ask around in Dana village you may be passed to a non-RSCN guide who can take you onto trails outside the reserve boundary.
You can also access the reserve from Feynan, at the far western end of Wadi Dana.
The most obvious walking route in the reserve is the magnificent Wadi Dana Trail (14km; 5–6hr) from the village along the downward-sloping floor of the wadi, an easy walk passing from the lush green gardens of Dana through increasingly wild and desolate terrain to end at Feynan. This can be done alone or with a guide.
All other routes require a guide. The White Dome Trail (8km; 3hr; March–Oct only) is a beautiful one-way walk that follows a contour around the head of the valley, passing first through the spring-fed terraced gardens of Dana and then beneath the massive escarpment to Rummana.
Another highly explorable area is Al-Barra, a fifteen-minute drive south of the village, where lush woodlands give way to networks of canyons and gorges cutting into the mountainous landscape. This is the starting point for the superb Feathers Canyon Trail (3km; 3hr) to Shaq ar-Reesh (“Canyon of the Feathers”), a Nabatean mountain retreat. The walk begins in flower-filled meadows and quiet terraces, but involves a bit of scrambling and climbing through a narrow gorge to reach the spectacular summit, dotted with cisterns and water-channels. Al-Barra is also the start and finish for the Nawatef Trail (2km; 2hr), heading out to the springs and ruins at Nawatef and back on a different route.
The beautiful but difficult Wadi Dathneh Trail (16km; 8hr) also starts from Al-Barra, passing between the red cliffs of Wadi Hamra before reaching the verdant oasis of Hammam Adethni and following flowing water in Wadi Ghweir all the way down to end at Feynan.
A few kilometres northwest of Dana village, on the opposite flank of Wadi Dana, Rummana campsite is both an alternative entry point to the reserve (see The Dana–Petra trek) and an alternative place to stay. The White Dome Trail (8km; 3hr; guide compulsory) to Dana – the route is described in reverse under “Walks from Dana Village” – is highly recommended, or you could try the alternative Dana Village Trail (5km; 4hr; guide compulsory), following a rougher track.
All other trails can be walked without a guide. The easy Campsite Trail (2km; 1hr) leads on a circular route around the Rummana area, offering stunning views and birdwatching lookouts. The moderate Rummana Trail (2.5km; 2hr) follows a trail through the juniper trees up to the summit of Jabal Rummana (“Pomegranate Mountain”) for the views down into Wadi Araba: it’s also easy to spot raptors up here, and if you head up at dawn you may see ibex. Across from the campsite is the Cave Trail (1km; 1.5hr), a short, rough walk leading to a set of caves above Shaq al-Kalb (“Dog Canyon”), residence of hyenas, wildcats and wolves.
Near the Rummana campsite is a bird hide overlooking a small pool – ideal for early morning observation of birds and ibex – and should you fancy stretching your legs instead of sitting on the shuttle bus, the walk back up from the campsite to the “Tower” (the public access point for Rummana) takes about an hour.
A picturesque cluster of stone cottages huddled together on a cliffside outcrop, Dana village has rightly become celebrated as one of Jordan’s loveliest hideaways. Long settled as a farming community, it was abandoned in the middle of last century, only to become the focus for sustained projects of renovation and redevelopment. And the story continues: with recent funding from the US government’s USAID programme, Dana is being reinvented as the hub for ecotourism development in southern Jordan. At the time of writing the village was under reconstruction, with new infrastructure being laid for water, electricity and sewage bio-treatment, rebuilt streets and cottages, new parks and play areas – the focus is very much on retaining the village’s Jordanian character, both to draw local tourism and to create a base for sustainable, environmentally sound international tourism as well. Several of the stone cottages are being renovated as simple self-catering accommodation, to be run by the village co-operative; there are plans for a café-restaurant, a small museum and visitor centre, some souk-style shops and even, in time, a low-impact boutique-style luxury hotel.
Till then it’s worth taking a stroll around, to soak up the atmosphere and rural character. Drop into the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) offices, on the left side of the village as you face the valley. They can fill you in on the latest developments, and can advise on walks. An easy one to start with is the Village Tour (2km; 2hr), a stroll around Dana – and up to the springs and gardens on the slopes above – to enjoy the views and visit the workshops where local women make silver jewellery and prepare dried fruit.
Alongside the RSCN’s Guesthouse is a nature shop (Sun–Thurs 8am–4pm) selling local products such as herbs, fruit and jewellery, as well as textiles, gifts and other handmade items from RSCN projects around the country. Beside it is a kids’ learning zone, where informative displays give a sense of Dana’s natural context.
Dana is unique, not only in Jordan but in the whole Middle East – the setting for a positive, visionary programme combining scientific research, social reconstruction and sustainable tourism. For most of the twentieth century Dana was a simple farming community thriving on a temperate climate, three abundant springs and good grazing; indeed, some inhabitants had previously left Tafileh specifically for a better life in the village. But as Jordan developed new technologies and the general standard of living rose, a growing number of villagers felt isolated in their mountain hamlet of Ottoman stone cottages. Some moved out in the late 1960s to establish a new village, Qadisiyyeh, on the main Tafileh–Shobak road, and the attractions of electricity and plumbing rapidly emptied primitive Dana. The construction of the huge Rashdiyyeh cement factory close by in the early 1980s was the last straw: with well-paid jobs for the taking, most locals saw the daily trek up from Dana to the factory as pointless, and almost everyone moved to Qadisiyyeh.
Dana lay semi-abandoned for a decade or more, its handful of impoverished farmers forced to compete in the local markets with bigger farms using more advanced methods of production. This was what a group of twelve women from Amman discovered in the early 1990s as they travelled across the country to catalogue the remnants of traditional culture. Realizing the deprivation faced by some of the poorest people in Jordan, these “Friends of Dana” embarked on a project to renovate and revitalize the fabric of the village under the auspices of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Electricity, telephones and a water supply were extended to the village and 65 cottages renovated. People started to drift back to Dana. The RSCN quickly realized the potential of the secluded Wadi Dana for scientific research; in a project funded partly by the World Bank and the UN, they turned the area into a protected nature reserve, built a small research station next to the village and, in 1994, launched a detailed ecological survey.
Continued grazing by thousands of domesticated goats, sheep and camels couldn’t be reconciled with the need for environmental protection and so – not without controversy – was banned; studies were undertaken into creating sustainable opportunities for villagers to gain a livelihood from the reserve. The ingenious solution came in redirecting the village’s traditional crops to a new market. Dana’s farmers produced their olives, figs, grapes, other fruits and nuts as before, but instead they sold everything to the RSCN, who employed the villagers to process these crops into novelty products such as organically produced jams and olive-oil soap for direct sale to relatively wealthy, environmentally aware consumers, both Jordanian and foreign. Medicinal herbs were introduced as a cash crop to aid the economic recovery, and the last Dana resident familiar with traditional pottery-making was encouraged to teach her craft to a younger generation.
Dana soon hit the headlines, and in 1996 the RSCN launched low-impact tourism to the reserve, with the traditional-style Guesthouse going up next to the research buildings. Local villagers – some of whom were already employed as research scientists – were taken on as managers and guides. “Green tourism” awards followed, and, with Dana becoming better known as a tourist destination, locals opened small, budget hotels within the village. A campsite was established in the hills at Rummana, and in 2005 the RSCN opened a “wilderness ecolodge” at the lower, western end of the reserve at Feynan – both of them built and staffed by local people. Even before the 2012 renovations, Dana was receiving 100,000 visitors a year, around a quarter of whom stayed overnight, bringing money to the village economy and focusing attention on how sustainable tourism can benefit rural people.
In only one generation, moribund Dana has been given a new lease of life.