An Otherworldly Desert Adventure in Wadi Rum
Today we’re going to talk about one of the coolest days ever. In the awesome sense, that is, not temperature. Temperature-wise it was HOT.
It was a bucket list day (followed by a day that literally knocked out my #1 bucket list item, visiting Petra). So…not a bad week, all-in-all. Today we’re going to talk about visiting Wadi Rum, Jordan.
This guy says heyyyyy!
I’ve never really been around deserts, so in a lot of ways I didn’t really know what it would feel like. But I can’t imagine that there are too many deserts on this earth that can rival Wadi Rum. The landscape has such an otherworldly feel to it, but you can also feel the weight of millennia of history. And it feels like you’re right in the middle of it, like Moses and the tribes of Israel will come wandering around the corner.
I was kind of in love…
If you’re planning a trip to Jordan (and possibly Israel) you might find these posts helpful:
So this post is kind of long, but I wanted to share some of my tips for planning your visit, and also some of my favorite photos and details from the experience. I hope this is helpful in planning your own Wadi Rum tour and Bedouin camping adventure!
What is Wadi Rum?
Also known as the Valley of the Moon, Wadi Rum is a protected desert wilderness in southern Jordan. It literally means “sand valley” in Arabic. It’s famous for a few reasons beyond its stark, sometimes-harsh beauty—particularly for its history and culture. In ancient times, this area was settled by a people called the Natabeans, who left their carvings and ruins all over the area (including building the famous Lost City of Petra). In more recent times, this was the stomping grounds of Lawrence of Arabia (a British officer and author) during the Arab Revolt of 1917.
Most of Wadi Rum’s current residents are Bedouin, and experiencing this culture is one of the great parts of visiting. Historically, the Bedouin tribes were nomads, goat and sheep herders who moved frequently around the desert and lived in temporary settlements. This is still how some of the Bedouin live, but others live in permanent settlements, such as in Rum Village. Spending the day with a Bedouin guide and staying overnight in a camp was one of the highlights of the trip for me.
How to get to Wadi Rum
There are a few different ways, depending on how your itinerary is situated. One of the most common ways is to cross the border on foot at Eilat, Israel, over into Aqaba, Jordan, then take a taxi to Wadi Rum or wherever else you want to go. Getting through the border didn’t take us too long, we first went through the Israeli side and then through the Jordanian. Then there was a parking lot with a bunch of taxi drivers waiting. They were nice and shared their coffee with us while we waited for our driver to arrive, since we’d pre-arranged with the Wadi Rum tour company to send a taxi for us.
One important thing to know is that, even if you’re taking the bus from Aqaba to Wadi Rum or Petra, you’ll have to take a taxi to the bus station. The border crossing is out in the middle of nowhere, so you have to have a way to get into Aqaba, even for the bus.
Finally, our driver Abukaid (I have no idea if that’s how it’s spelled) arrived and whisked us away. The drive takes about an hour along the highway. He took us to Mehedin’s house, who runs the tour company. Mehedin offered us some tea while we waited for a couple other folks to arrive, so we sat in the shade and chatted with him.
A few tips for visiting Jordan:
- Jordan is a cash economy! There’s an ATM in Aqaba, so the first thing we did was ask the taxi driver to take us to the ATM (it’s in his best interest, since that’s how he’ll get paid). We had to have cash for literally everything—paying for housing, the tours, taxi, bus, food. I ended up having to use the ATM a bunch, since I never took out enough money.
- If you enter in and out of Jordan by a land border, you will get a stamp in your passport. That means that if you cross at one of the land borders that Jordan shares with Israel, any other Middle Eastern country can easily tell you’ve been in Israel. That’s how we did it, but just something to be aware of.
- The Bedouin culture, like many Middle Eastern cultures, is much more conservative than what most of us are used to. Visitors—particularly women—should choose their clothing respectfully. This means no short shorts or skirts, or skimpy tops. I wore loose and breathable hiking cropped pants and a loose v-neck t-shirt (which sometimes dipped a bit low, but I kept things PG).
- It is a male-dominated culture, and if you are a woman traveling with a man (or even by yourself), it will be common for men to not make much eye contact with you, and address the man who is with you even if you asked the question or made the plans. This happened a lot with me and my dad, and while it was disconcerting at times, it was never disrespectful or hostile—just a cultural difference.
- Is Jordan safe? I’ve answered that and more in my ultimate first-timer’s guide to Petra post.
To give you a sense of our itinerary, we’d spent a few days in Israel, then we spent a day in Wadi Rum and a day in Petra, followed by another couple days in Israel. It’s just how it worked out itinerary-wise, and it was much cheaper to fly in and out of Tel Aviv rather than Amman. You can read about our Israel adventures here.
Our two days in Jordan were very scheduled to make sure everything worked out—we got to the border right after it opened (you can check times here), spent the whole day and night in Wadi Rum with the tour group, then took the bus to Petra. The bus took a little longer than we’d planned so it cut our time in Petra short, but we still got to see a ton (including the magical Petra by Night!).
So without further ado, here’s what we did in Wadi Rum…
Eventually, our guide Mohammed showed up and we jumped in the jeep for our full-day tour. We’d picked a private tour, so it was just Dad and I rather than being crammed in with a bunch of people. Our first stop was Lawrence Spring.
From what I read, it’s where Lawrence of Arabia washed during the Arab Revolts. You can see in the first picture below where the water from the spring pops out of the rock—it’s where the greenery grows! Mohammed showed us some Nabatean carved writing on some of the stones, and then sent us up the hill toward the spring.
And whew, we got our first taste of the “light scrambling” that the day would entail. I don’t think either Dad or I had thought it was going to be a particularly physically-taxing day, but we ended up doing more exercise than we’d initially thought. The climb up was pretty steep and quite hot even though it was only about 10:30 in the morning, but we managed despite our bum hips. The view from the top is totally worth it.
When we returned to the jeep, they offered us some hot sweet tea, a staple of Bedouin life, and omnipresent all throughout the Middle East (I talk about it in my guide to Turkish cuisine as well). I didn’t think that hot tea would sound good in the hot, dry desert, but it was shockingly refreshing, and I quickly realized why they drink it so often. Throughout the day I started looking forward to the little tea stops we’d have.
They had some scarfs for sale, and I couldn’t resist. Mohammed helped show me how to tie my scarf to keep my head cool and let the breeze through. It should be noted that this isn’t a headscarf like you’d think of as traditionally Muslim (or like I wore in the mosques in Istanbul), rather it’s a traditional Bedouin scarf. Dad got a traditional scarf headdress thing, and joked that this is his new passport photo…
I was pretty obsessed with my scarf, particularly after I realized how much cooler I was with it on, and how it protected me from sand blowing in my face!
Our next stop was a small canyon (leading to a dead end) with more carvings, but also just a really cool showcase of the unique geology and rock formations that Wadi Rum boasts. Look at those weird bubbly layers on the rock—literally the only way I can think of to describe it.
Yes, you read that right. Next up was a chance to hike up a dune and ride the waves (of sand) down. I went first, and BOY I sometimes forget how much I hate walking in sand. It is the absolute worst on my hip. So I actually only made it halfway up the dune before deciding that was quite far enough thank you very much, and strapping the board on.
I felt pretty badass up there. And then I got sandblasted (the second pic) and was thankful for my scarf. But it surprised me how easy it was to board down. I’d tried a bit of surfing and some snow sport previously, so approached this with some trepidation—but it was really awesome and easy.
Lawrence of Arabia House
One of the best views of the day, and only a tiny little climb. This was a brief spot, but I loved this view because it really gave a sense of the vastness. In the first pic below, you can see the tiny little people down at the bottom…that’s how big this rock face is!
Obviously we were driving around in the jeep for most of the day, so I have approximately 2,783 pictures kind of like these ones. We spent hours just staring at the alien landscape…lots of flat desert, criss-crossed by jeep tracks, occasionally framed by a border of rocks or with a Bedouin camp popping up. And then these massive rock cliffs jutting out of the desert out of nowhere.
It was finally time for some chow. It took us a couple tries to find a place we could stop that wasn’t too windy…the last thing you want is wind whipping around the corner into your little alcove and getting sand all up in your food. We finally got settled on a blanket, a combined group with about 10-15 people including a few guides.
The guides prepared a fairly typical Bedouin meal for us, a few salads and a hot vegetable stew. Their culture isn’t super meat-heavy (I’m guessing partly due to scarcity?), so they rely on vegetables and bread a lot. The food was very good, though there was surprise cucumber in both the salads—very sad in my world because cucumber is the WORST. But I persevered.
Both salads had tomoatoes and cucumbers, while one had corn and one had tuna. We also had some eggplant hummus (it was like hummus and baba ganoush had a baby…yum), bread, and then a hot dish of cooked tomatoes and other vegetables.
After lunch we made a quick stop at Mushroom Rock, a very oddly situated and giant boulder monstrosity.
And me, for perspective. That’s a big boulder.
Then more driving, more desert. More crazy cliffs.
Um Fruth Rock Bridge
In mid-afternoon we stopped at the Um Fruth Rock Bridge. I think there are three natural rock bridges in Wadi Rum. This isn’t the biggest, but it’s still quite large and it was easily accessible for us (though did require a scramble up and a butt-scoot and leap of faith on the way down).
Abu Khashaba Canyon
It was mid-to-late afternoon at this point, and Dad and I were feeling pretty tired and sore and windblown. Then Mohammed dropped us off at the mouth of Abu Khashaba Canyon with a “see you on the other side”. And we were *not* feeling it. We might have been a little cranky.
But it was actually a really lovely walk, out of the sun and wind, and we were happy that we did it. Inside the canyon it feels very refreshing, and there are a few trees that make it feel a bit like a (super mini) oasis.
As we exited the canyon into the barren landscape again, I decided Dad looked like he was in The Martian in the second pic below (I think my exact joke at the time was something about replacing Matt Damon in The Martian 2).
And then I looked it up later and The Martian actually was filmed in Wadi Rum because it is a good substitute for the landscape of Mars! Hard to disagree with that…
Thankfully, Mohammed was waiting for us on the other side with some more hot sweet tea. Mmmmmm.
Random dune area
I think this is an area they often bring tour groups for sunset, but it was a little early for that when we arrived. Instead, we just chilled on the untouched rippled dune and got some down time. Dad and I got there before a few other groups arrived, so we had the place to ourselves. It’s worth mentioning, though, that this was one of the few places we were around other people at all—it really was a private tour most of the day. I was mesmerized by ripples in the sand.
Chicken Rock (or Cow Rock, depending on who you ask…)
It was clear at this point that sunset wasn’t shaping up to be as glorious as we’d hoped, but we had one spot left to hit. As the sun plummeted toward the horizon (behind hazy clouds), we parked next to Chicken Rock. I can definitely see the chicken, but also think it looks kind of like a human heart.
I climbed up on the big rock next to it and settled in for an underwhelming but still pretty and peaceful sunset.
Sleeping in a Bedouin camp
Once the sun had done its thing, we loaded back into the jeep and Mohammed drove us to their camp. Dad and I had a little tent cabin thing, so we got settled in and then joined the other people in the main dining tent for some tea and dinner. They’d prepared a traditional meal where they cook meat and vegetables in a big container under the sand. They also had some delicious meatballs and a bunch of the same salads from lunch.
Dad and I definitely spent some time stargazing before heading to bed. The stars in Wadi Rum are pretty amazing, largely due to lack of light pollution.
In the morning, I tried to shower in the very cold trickle (the bathroom also has an open ceiling, so I felt kind of exposed), and then I devoured some bread and honey and halva, with some more tea.
We were headed straight back to Wadi Rum to catch the bus to Petra, but some of the girls in the jeep with us had booked a camel ride. So we stopped partway there and a bunch of camels met us. They were pretty awesome and Dad and I got to snap some great pics of the whole party. We could have booked this ourselves, but I didn’t think our hips would be up to a long ride (learned my lesson with horseback riding in Costa Rica).
Back at Mehedin’s house, we sat and chilled for a while, and he called the bus to come pick us up at his house rather than us going to a bus station. It felt a little loosey-goosey to me, but all worked out and that’s just how things work there. It’s not a bad system.
About our tour in Wadi Rum:
- We booked our tour and overnight in the Bedouin camp with Bedouin Directions, and had a great time with them so I’d highly recommend.
- The cost when we visited was 130 JOD (at the time, about $183 USD) for me and my dad, and that included the all-day jeep tour, lunch, dinner, overnight in the tent/cabin, and breakfast the next morning. It was another 35 JOD (about $50 USD) for the taxi from the border.
- In addition to a full-day jeep tour, the company has tons of other tour and activity options, like camel rides, guided camping and hiking, and multi-day tours. If you’re looking for something special, you can arrange a hot air balloon ride at sunrise via another company (something I was dying to do!).
So there you have it—all about my amazing day in Wadi Rum! In case you can’t tell, I absolutely loved every minute. I’d love to know what questions you have as you’re planning your own trip!
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