Just Back from the Jordan Trail
Most first-timers to Jordan make a beeline for Petra, then after spending a day or two exploring the site – an ancient metropolis carved from stone that's like nothing else on earth - head off to float in the Dead Sea. I prefer my travels a little more off the beaten path, which is why I was so excited to learn about the just-launched Jordan Trail, a 400-mile hiking route that runs the length of the country from the ruins of Umm Qais up north all the way to the Red Sea in the south.
As I trudged along an old shepherd’s path toward a Jordanian eco-lodge that shimmered like a mirage in the heat, however, one recent May afternoon I wondered what I'd signed on for. (February - April temps average more in the mid-70s, I later learned.) But like so many challenges, our 10-mile slog that first day turned out to be worth every step: My week in Jordan was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I look forward to returning to explore more of this ancient land. It offers the archaeological adventure of a lifetime.
I’d been invited by Jordan to join a group of travelers trekking a six-day segment of the trail, from Dana to Petra. It was thrilling to visit the Middle East for the first time. The idea behind the trail is also inspiring: to bring tourism back to a region that’s been hit hard by political instability around it. Although Jordan continues to be a safe place to travel, tourism has fallen more than 60 percent since the 2011 Arab Spring. I was curious to find out how it felt on the ground, one foot in front of the other.
I stumbled on through the sand toward the cool interior of Feynan Ecolodge, our first night’s stay, where we were greeted with glasses of chilled fresh-squeezed lemon juice swirling with mint. A kind Bedouin offered a hand carrying my heavy duffle to my room. “My name is Suleiman,” he said, as we reached its blue-painted door. Inside there was a lovely spare space with a king bed draped in netting and a balcony open to the sky.
“See that black tent?” Suleiman grinned, pointing out a goatskin roof across the arroyo. “That’s my family tent, where I grew up. And that’s my birth spot,” he added, pointing out a lone juniper. “I was born a little to the left of the tree.”
Such was my first introduction to Bedouin hospitality, graciousness so natural you have to experience it to believe it. And I highly recommend you do! Walking through Jordan challenged all my assumptions about the Middle East. To be honest, I was worried about a lot of things before I went: Would hiking in this part of the world be safe? Would we see anything beyond dirt and rocks? Would it be too hot? And what about the two nights of “wilderness camping!?”
As it turned out, walking through Jordan was one of the coolest things I’ve done in a long time. Hiking is a relatively new concept in the Middle East, and it feels thrilling to be traveling in such a novel but simple way – just walking – across such ancient landscapes. Despite the constant negativity fed to us by the media about the dangers and instability in this part of the world, I felt completely safe. ISIS couldn’t have been farther from my mind once I was embedded in our ragtag group of hikers on our remote and rugged trail. And most of all there were the Jordanians themselves, incredibly warm and welcoming people. Bedouins are descended from nomadic tribes. I’m convinced the family who outfitted our wilderness camps (and served us dozens of glasses of sweet tea along the way), must have had hospitality hardwired in their DNA.
Our tireless guide Ayman Abd-Alkareem, “chief experience officer” for Experience Jordan – and one of only a handful of licensed hiking guides in the country – turned out to be one of the best guides I’ve traveled with anywhere. And that’s saying something. When half our group (including yours truly) balked at hiking in the extreme heat on Day 2 (an even tougher 15-mile climb), he commandeered a Toyota truck and had its driver, Mohammed, ferry us up and over the Sharah Mountains on a road that proved to be nearly as thrilling as the hike. When we reached the campsite, an overlook high above the ancient plains of Wadi Araba, Ayman was already there, personally tending to people’s blisters and keeping spirits high.
We learned why the Bedouins move their tents and flocks to the mountains in summer: there is a delightful breeze at that elevation! After restorative glasses of hot sugary tea with fresh mint (think Jordanian Red Bull) brewed by our Bedouin hosts, we settled into our tents. As the evening cooled, everyone feasted on fresh lentil soup, roast chicken, and Middle Eastern salads beneath the starry night sky.
Mornings were my favorite: “Temps much milder. A breeze! Delightful to be out walking!” my trail notes read from Day 3. Maybe we were better hydrated. Maybe our boots were finally broken in, but everything seemed brighter – the sculpted sandstone more striated, the juniper trees greener, the vistas greater. We hiked past an Islamic stone watchtower from the 1500s, our first Nabataean tombs (1st century!), and kept an eye out for fossilized sea urchins that popped up at our feet.
There is something powerful and humbling about walking through ancient landscapes – Paleolithic, Neolithic, Nabataean, Roman, Ottoman. You feel like such small humans in that sea of time. There’s the extreme quiet, the silence of stone. And the farther you walk, the more you settle into an almost biblical state of mind: This is time so long ago you can’t really grasp it, but there’s a kind of Zen clarity too.
Since hiking is still relatively uncommon in Jordan, we had the trail entirely to ourselves – save for random encounters with Bedouin families and camel-herders. On the morning of the fourth day, we rose early and started out again beneath clear blue sky. The temperature was a lovely mid-70s, and as we hiked past Nabataean cisterns and aquaducts and gnarled juniper trees with their herby scent accompanied by the soft chirping of birds, our excitement grew. We were nearing the trip’s highlight: the lost city of Petra (!), which we’d soon enter through the rarely used “back door.”
The back entrance (unlike the tourist-thronged front with its idling tour buses), turned out to be no more than a small checkpoint manned by a black horse and a jeep. I couldn't believe there was no one else there! That’s what makes this week-long trek incredible: it can be grueling, but it sets you up to have Petra’s grandest monuments to yourself.
A half-mile later we climbed an ancient stairway carved into the red rock and encountered a Bedouin trader selling decades-old postcards, centuries-old coins, trinkets, tea. A thin coat of dust covered everything. He told us his name was Springtime Christmas, and that 50 years ago, his family lived in these caves.
We began climbing again, ascending a series of newer stone steps built by Bedouin tradesmen. I was thinking about how remarkable it was to be here at all, how Indiana Jones it all felt, how Petra had disappeared from the maps in the 7th century – only to be rediscovered in 1812 when Johannes Burkhardt, a Swiss man studying Arabic heard rumors of a “lost city” and set out to rediscover it – when we rounded a sharp bend and suddenly without warning were stopped cold. There stood the exquisite carved sandstone façade of Petra’s Monastery, perhaps Petra’s grandest monument. It’s astonishing at any time – but especially in mid-morning quiet when you’re the only one there. This is a bucket-list-worthy privilege to be sure, witnessing this sight in near solitude having experienced every step of the way, walking on a path less traveled.
Over ice-cold glasses of chilled lime juice in the deserted Monastery Café, Ayman told us how Petra is only 30 percent excavated. And also, how on the first Jordan Trail trip he led, a group of kids in an isolated area threw stones at him. On the next trip, they threw fewer stones. And the time after that? They tried to sell the group bottled water and juice.
"For these kids it was like, Who are these people? Why are they walking? Because in our culture it's not common to walk. But it was great: they'd figured out how to start a business."
We marveled at the site – how extensive it is – and continued on, descending a stone path, then exploring a series of Nabataean tombs. The Nabataeans, it turns out, spent most of their waking hours carving elaborate tombs for their lives after death.
It’s strange, I think, as we encounter the first tourists we’ve seen all week coming up the trail. But in a way the Nabataeans did achieve immortality: they created these cool and inviting timeless earthworks.
A few hours later we’d hiked into the Petra Guest House, kicked off our boots, and met up to celebrate the end of our trek with a round of beers in the world famous Cave Bar. The beer tasted cool and clean after a week in the arid desert. Luckily, Ayman had taught us a few words of Arabic along the way…
An enthusiastic “shukran!” (“thank you!”) seemed just the right way to toast not only newfound friends but a new discovery: the rugged and wondrous Jordan Trail.
You can book the Dana to Petra Trek through Experience Jordan. It’s run as a private tour, tailored to your group. The best months to go are February – April. It's a similar level of adventure to, say, trekking the Inca Trail or Salcantay Routes in Peru, but without the altitude challenges. The greatest difficulty for me was the heat, but that’s less of an issue the right time of year. By walking through this remote landscape you’ll be giving back to the Bedouin communities who call this ancient terrain home.
For four trekkers with a licensed guide, the six-day Dana to Petra Trek including all guest lodges, wilderness camps, meals, and transportation costs approx. $1,500 per person. For six trekkers with a guide, approx. $1,200 pp. For eight trekkers, approx. $1,000 pp.