If you think a visit to Jordan is confined to Petra, Jerash and Wadi Rum, think again. While Jordan’s natural wonders and archaeological marvels are fascinating and truly worth the visit, they are sights for another story.
For me, once I discovered the Hashemite Kingdom’s sheer limestone cliffs, deep narrow valleys, and colourful underwater expanses (not to mention the crazy crews that boldly navigate these regions), I can no longer imagine exploring the country any other way. And as adventure sports are yet to be fully exploited in Jordan, travellers can still enjoy – far from the eyes of rubbernecking vacationers – unspoiled and unfrequented spots. This is Jordan, beyond the tourist-trodden tracks.
“Clamber up the rock against the river’s swift current, try to avoid swallowing mouthfuls of water, and hold on to the embedded rope for support,” I tell myself. Why I only reflect upon the fact that trekking against a flowing river doesn’t seem like the brightest idea when I’m already far inside the Mujib gorge is beyond me. But it’s too late; I’m here, in the lowest nature reserve on the planet, surrounded by massive multilayered rock walls, treading deeper into the river of an ever-narrowing canyon.
A protected area under the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), Wadi Mujib (“wadi” is Arabic for valley) is a spectacular reserve adjacent to the Dead Sea. When I finally reach the end of the trail – tired and thoroughly drenched – I see the reason for a route that so blatantly defies nature: a cascading waterfall that drops from 20m above. This beautiful sight washes away my original doubt and I bask in the awesomeness that is wild Jordan.
If you’re into trekking, with five impressive trails that ascend and descend the Mujib valley (and cross paths with biblical remnants, like the rock pillar that’s said to be Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar of salt in the Book Of Genesis), this is one of Jordan’s must-see destinations. But, as the RSCN boasts multiple nature reserves specialising in hiking trails, you can’t go wrong choosing any one of their sanctuaries.
HOW TO DO IT
Visit a RSCN visitor centre (rscn.org.jo).
WHERE AND WHEN Mujib Nature Reserve, Ajloun Forest Reserve, Azraq Wetland Reserve, Dana Biosphere Reserve. GETTING THERE As most of the RSCN reserves are out of the way, renting a car would be the best choice for avid hikers. Monte Carlo Rent-A-Car offers decent cars at good daily rates – about £36 to £45, including insurance (montecar.com). CONTACTS See rscn.org.jo
DIGS Each RSCN reserve boasts lodgings. The cost of an overnight stay can range from about £40 to £104.
THE DAMAGE Treks vary in price from £8 to £50. The charge includes equipment (if necessary) and reserve entrance fees.
The sun is beating down, the wind is picking up, and I’m halfway up a pockmarked sandstone wall. I’m told that if I can get high up enough, I’ll see the expansive Wadi Al Arab Dam Lake we drove past to get to this climbing spot in Irbid, an hour north of Amman. Even more amazing, apparently above us, past the overhang, sits a plateau that holds an archaeological site still uncovering the remains of a village that dates back to the fourth millennium BC. Rock-climbing is pretty exciting on its own, but Jordan always knows how to show off that little bit more.
Home to a steadily growing population of avid rock-climbers, Jordan’s outdoor routes are continually being discovered and bolted. Whether you’re a top-roper, a sport climber, a trad climber, or even an ardent boulderer, the Kingdom has vertical terrain for you to tackle and refine your technique on. And once you reach the top, you’ll pay no heed to your aching limbs, as the spectacular sight of the countryside below re-energises your body and mind.
HOW TO DO IT
For safety reasons, rock-climbing trips are usually only open to already proficient climbers. All climbing equipment can be provided by the operator. WE LIKE Tropical Desert – see tropicaldeserttrips.com
WHERE AND WHEN Jordan boasts hundreds of different climbing routes, which range in difficulty. If the weather has other plans, Climbat Amman is a great indoor climbing centre (climbat.com).
GETTING THERE Transportation to the rock-climbing sites is provided by the operator, but to begin the trip, climbers meet at Tropical Desert’s offices. Located by Amman’s 3rd Circle, it can be reached by taxi for a few dinars.
DIGS The guy who runs Tropical Desert, Hakim, also runs Rainbow House: a bohemian-style commune where a bed costs about £5.50pn. See tropicaldeserttrips.com
THE DAMAGE Tropical Desert doesn’t charge for its rock-climbing trips; however, as this group drill and bolt practically all of Jordan’s outdoor routes, donations for the “bolt box” are always welcome.
There’s nothing like enjoying a vista while dangling from a cliff 60m off the ground with nothing but rope to hold you.High above me, waving enthusiastically is the group I left behind when I started my descent, moonwalking down the rocky limestone face of the Zarqa Ma’in canyon. To my left is a thin, fresh-water waterfall that ends in a green pool below, where the other half of my group awaits, shouting up words of encouragement and obligatory jokes about their view of an arse in mid-air.
Jordan is home to countless wadis making it the perfect place to take up canyoning, whether that means abseiling 12 consecutive falls at Wadi Feid or – an experience that avid canyoner Leah describes as, “just you, rope, and air!” – descending the Kingdom’s highest waterfall at Wadi Himara. And the best part: as few groups have ventured out to explore the Kingdom’s wild backyard, most don’t even know that these parts of Jordan exist.
HOW TO DO IT
Canyoning trips are open to all, whether or not you’ve abseiled previously.
WE LIKE As with rock-climbing, Tropical Desert is Jordan’s best operator for canyoning.
WHERE AND WHEN From north to south, there are plenty of canyons throughout the country. The best times to go are from April to October. However, groups still go out (sporting wetsuits) in winter.
THE DAMAGE Expect to pay around £36 to £50 for a single day’s canyoning (with multiple abseils); overnight trips can cost up to £72. Fees include transportation, food, water, and equipment.
Slithering on my stomach in the dark, between the muddy earth and a great slab of rock that’s pressing down overhead, I ask myself: “How did I get here again?” Then I recall that it was I who wanted to see what caving in Jordan looks like. And after experiencing the descent into a cavern by rope, a dark and peaceful subterranean hike, and the discovery of a second floor underground – all created by lava that flowed centuries ago – I conclude my decision to voluntarily climb down deep into the earth was not so crazy after all. Potholing remains Jordan’s most untapped adventure sport as only a handful of caves are currently being explored for sport. The Beir Al Hamam Lava Cave is the best known.
HOW TO DO IT
Anyone can partake in potholing trips.
WE LIKE Wild Spirits. (+962 77 7285747 or join the Wild Spirits Facebook group).
WHERE AND WHEN The Harrat Ash Shamah volcanic field, which starts in southern Syria and extends to Jordan’s eastern basalt desert, has created many lava tube caves.
GETTING THERE Operators provide transportation to the desert potholing sites.
DIGS Farah Hotel is a backpacker-friendly hostel in the heart of Downtown Amman; beds from £5.70 (farahhotel.info).
THE DAMAGE Approximately £31. This covers equipment, transportation to the cave, food, and drinks.
Click below for more – diving, cycling and an insiders guide >
Here I am, enrapt by the gleaming coral below and surrounded by magnificent schools of tropical fish, when most unexpectedly – considering that I’m about 18 metres deep – I come up against an imposing barnacled wall.
This is the Cedar Pride Wreck, an 80-metre long cargo ship whose life was taken in 1982 by a violent fire that spread through her hull. She was deliberately sunk three years later to create an artificial reef off the coast of Aqaba. Today, home to lion and angel fish, barracuda and snappers, the ship has taken on a new life… and damn, is she impressive.
Although Egypt’s and Israel’s side of the Red Sea has received more touristic attention, Jordan’s side – known as Aqaba – should not be underestimated. In fact, because Jordan has been less commercialised as a diving destination, Aqaba’s dive spots (more than 20 sites) remain pristine.
WE LIKE SeaStar Water Sports (aqabadivingseastar.com)
WHERE AND WHEN Red Sea, Aqaba. Jordan’s south enjoys sunny weather all year round, which means it’s generally always a good time to dive.
GETTING THERE It’s about 350km from Amman to Aqaba, so the trip can be done by car, bus, or plane. JETT Buses depart from Amman to Aqaba daily, every two hours, and a single costs about £6.70 (jett.com.jo).
CONTACTS See aqabadivingseastar.com DIGS Bedouin Garden Village is good choice for budget travellers. A single room goes for about £22.50, but if you’re travelling in a small group, you can get a shared room for £50 (aqaba-hotels.com).
THE DAMAGE It’s about £27 for a shore dive (including dive equipment) or £72 for a day of multiple dives off of a boat (including dive equipment, food, and drinks).
BEST OF THE REST WHAT TO DO, WHERE TO GO
If you’re into wheels, check out Cycling Jordan. This group of cyclists meets every weekend to explore Jordan by bike. They provide all the equipment (including the bikes), transportation, and water, for between £13 and £18.
See: facebook.com/cyclingjordan; +962 79 8854454
Or, if you’ve had enough sport, take a Friday to explore Souk Al Jum’a, an open-air market found in Amman’s Abdali district. Here you’ll find everything from well-known European and American clothes and shoe brands to vintage accessories and antique books. Foraging is a must!
Most of Jordan’s budget travellers avoid staying by the Dead Sea because it’s predominantly five-star resorts that dot the coast. A cheaper (not to mention, more eco-friendly) alternative, however, are the Mujib Chalets. These single-room adobe houses sit on the water’s edge and cost a couple – including breakfast – about £58pn, less than half the price of staying at any one of the big Dead Sea hotels. See: rscn.org.jo
The Insider’s Guide
Hakim Tamimi is the founder of Jordan-based adventure tour operator, Tropical Desert. He lives in the capital, Amman.
What is Jordan’s best-kept secret?
Our two-day trip in Wadi Hasa. You’re crossing the mountains and there’s nothing around, and at night, we camp out in the middle of nowhere under the stars. The next day the hike ends at the Dead Sea, in what used to be Gomorrah.
What’s your top tip for people travelling to Jordan?
Negotiate, but be generous. As the guidebooks say, you can bargain; however, you should still tip. An extra dinar doesn’t make a big difference to you, but it’s a big deal to the person you’re giving it to.
What three Arabic words should travellers know?
IBM! Inshallah (“God willing”), bokra (“tomorrow”), and mumkin (“maybe”)!
Where’s good to party?
In Jordan, clubbing is very expensive, so house parties are better. I would suggest people go to La Calle (Rainbow Street, +962 77 7266928) or Café de Paris (Paris Square, +962 78 6544447), because these are places where you can meet people. And eventually someone will say that there’s a house party going on.
What’s your favourite thing about Jordan?
I love the fact that Jordan is still essentially a village. Just like in a village, everyone knows each other, everybody gossips, and people are wary of outsiders (except for tourists, of course!). And, because it’s like a village, Jordan is still very safe.
Words KAREN SIMON