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Hiking the Jordan Trail 2018
Originally published on TravelingJackie.com
In May of 2018, I took a group of 7 travelers with me on my own bucket-list inspired 9-day adventure to Jordan. We spent 5 days hiking the Jordan Trail from Dana to Petra, then a few more exploring the Mars-like expanse of Wadi Rum, ending with a celebratory float and mud session in the Dead Sea.
Listen to my recent podcast episode about all things Jordan: people, culture, language, magic…
Some Words About Jordan
Jordan: Officially the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a sovereign Arab state in Western Asia on the East Bank of the Jordan River. It borders Saudi Arabia to the southeast, Iran to the northeast, Syria to the north, Israel and Palestine to the west.
Bedouin: A nomadic Arab of the desert.
The Jordan Trail: A long-distance hiking trail crossing the entire country of Jordan from Um Qais in the north over 650 kilometers to Aqaba in the south.
Magic: “the M word” (adj) wonderful; exciting. Synonyms: fascinating, captivating, charming, glamorous, spellbinding, magnetic…
Those are the facts. Now, for the stories.
Bedouin Hospitality… and Arabic Pick-Up Lines
“Emshi ala remshi, ‘Walk on my eyelashes,’ (I don’t want you to touch the ground),” Feynan Ecolodge guide Ali Hasaseen was teaching me pick-up lines in Arabic as we headed out to watch the sunset. “Can you put your finger in my tea?’ (You are sweet).”
As a language-obsessed world traveler and anthropologist by default, I felt like a kid in a candy store observing the cultural genius in these creative pick-up lines. He continued, “We have too much romantic. That’s why we need four wives, we have too much romantic for just one. Bedouin are from Jupiter, heart as big as Jupiter, full of romantic.”
Perhaps now you’ll believe it when I say there are 14 degrees of love in the Arabic language. So much romantic!
Before he could teach me another one, we came upon his family’s “winter home” near some trees, protected in a canyon, which they were preparing to take down and move to their summer location, around the corner near some other trees where it would be much breezier and more comfortable for the impending heat of the season.
His home was constructed of black goat-hair tents held up by stick poles and tethered ropes. On the ground were rugs and pads to sit on, and outside on a tarp, they were shearing the goats. “Would you like to shear a goat?” he asked us.
When a guide asks you if you want to do something special, ALWAYS SAY YES.
We entered the camp and he gave our guide Ayman the shearing scissors. Ayman went to work as we watched and learned. Before we could take a turn, Ali Hasaseen spotted me eyeing the baby goat pen nearby. He marched right over and picked one up and plopped it into my arms.
I melted that very instant. I think the goat did too, it didn’t move a muscle, but appeared to be with me in a state of magical bliss for about 15 minutes until I had to go.
While we watched the sunset over the Jordanian desert (or were we on Tatooine?), Ali Hasaseen made a fire and prepared tea for us. It was about the eighth time that day that we had been invited by a Bedouin to have tea. It’s just what they do.
Earlier that day, one Bedouin we met on the trail had pulled out a flute and played it for us. Another insisted we use his antique army binoculars to view his goats, about 60 of them high up on the mountain above. They later passed us on the trail as we ate lunch. That night another Bedouin took us up to the rooftop of Feynan Ecolodge after dark and told us stories and legends about how the stars came to exist in their constellations.
That was Day One on the Jordan Trail, the first of five that we would spend hiking from Dana, down a steep canyon into the desert, and back up and over the mountains, through wilderness, until we reached Petra.
Wild Camping on the Jordan Trail
On Days Two and Three, we were accompanied through the desert wilderness by Auda, a Bedouin guide, and his donkey Raul. Raul was a girl, and she was seriously a badass. She took cliffs and sketchy spots like the pro that she is, having grown up on these trails, showing us how it’s done.
Auda made us tea over a fire whenever he had the chance, and once he even cooked us up a little pita bread and tomato sauce snack in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Raul the girl donkey obediently carried extra water for us through the hottest days of the trek and kept guard of the camps at night while we slept in tents under the stars.
A team of Bedouins set up camp for us and broke it down each day, moving it via old Toyota Pickups to the next spot. We had a “shower” about the size of a porta-potty which came with tented walls and a big bucket of water inside, with a cup to pour it over us and do our best to wash off the dust and sweat of the day. They magically transported an actual porta-potty for us as well.
Our tents were good quality Coleman tents with sleeping pads, blankets, and pillows. Our luggage was transported from camp to camp, so we only carried on our backs what we needed on the trail each day.
And they cooked. Oh man can those guys cook! I have never seen such beautiful, delicious, healthy spreads while wild camping.
Food in Jordan is a magical subject in itself. Regional harvest means goat cheese, quinoa, spices, beans, hummus, vegetables, lamb, chicken, rice, Jordanian bread (pita bread), lebneh (similar to sour cream) and all the combinations that create an absolute party in your mouth. We indulged.
Little Petra and Black Eyes
Before reaching Petra, we arrived to Little Petra, which is exactly what it sounds like: a small version of Petra. It was similarly built and used to be a decoy for untrustworthy traders back in the day, to keep them out of the real Red Rose City.
Today, there are a few Bedouin shops inside Little Petra’s canyons, and they have built some permanent camps outside for tourist lodging. We would stay at one of these camps that night, so we took our time exploring the caverns of Little Petra.
The Jordan Trail (from north to south) leads hikers into the back of Little Petra, through a Canyon and narrow passageway, straight into one of the Bedouin shops. Here we had tea, of course, and with it, our first opportunity to get that black Bedouin eye liner painted on our eyes. Sign. Me. Up.
The Bedouins make kohl, an eye-liner powder substance made from coal, olive oil, and herbs, and they apply it to their eyes using a small metal rod. They use it for four reasons:
- To keep dust out of their eyes,
- To reflect sunlight in the bright desert,
- To clean dust out of their eyes,
- To make their eyelashes grow, which further keeps dust out of the eyes.
The 5th reason may or may not be because it ranks them up there with Captain Jack Sparrow as far as looks go. I mean, wow. Real, live, gorgeous pirate-look-alikes… and then there’s me… “Ummm.. Can I walk on your eyelashes?”
Seven Wonders “Camp” has real beds inside of individual goat-hair constructed “cabins,” if you will. The tented cabins are unforgivingly hot during the day, which encourages everyone to come together in the beautifully designed common areas to share conversation and, you guessed it, tea.
By night, the surrounding rock hills light up with hanging lanterns, underneath a black sky sparkling with stars, and the M word dances across our tongues again.
Indiana Jonesing Through Petra, with Goats
It is not normal to enter Petra from the back of the city, but as that’s where the Jordan Trail goes, that’s what we did. After a few hours of hiking through cliff roads, rolling hills, and rocky canyons that led us from Little Petra into Petra that day, we came upon the Monastery, as if out of nowhere. As if we weren’t actually expecting it to truly exist, yet there it was. A grand façade carved into a canyon wall, silently bursting at the seams with ancient history and stories. (No, this is NOT the famous one from Indiana Jones, that’s the Treasury, just wait).
I could feel the collective energy of excitement and accomplishment from the entire group as we high-fived each other, celebrating having hiked 50 miles through the Jordanian desert to arrive at this very place.
Since we chose the unconventional route into Petra that day, our guide Ayman chose an unconventional route OUT of Petra that day as well. He was so insistent that we approach the Treasury the traditional way through the Siq (instead of anticlimactically from the back), that he took us on a secret bypass route, through a canyon that you can’t find on a map, so that we would intentionally miss the Treasury altogether (we would see it the next morning).
This is where “Indiana Jones” becomes a verb.
As soon as we entered the canyon, we had to hold the walls, navigating one by one, jumping from rock to rock through a deep puddle and helping each other climb up a massive boulder to a narrow passageway: the point of no return.
That’s when the herd of goats showed up behind us, pressuring us forward, deeper and deeper into the canyon, following us closely the entire way.
We Indiana Jonesed that slot canyon like pros. In the above photo, the phone that you see Ryan holding up on the left was blasting the Indiana Jones soundtrack for us as we made our way through what ended up being one of the best highlights of Petra for me.
We ended that triumphant slot canyon journey, and our 5 days hiking through the desert, with a couple rounds of draft beers at the famous Cave Bar in Wadi Musa (the town outside of Petra). Yes, it was Ramadan, but that didn’t stop our guide Ayman from properly rewarding us all with frosty, fresh, hard-earned brews. In a cave. He spared us the goats this time.
The Moments We Had All Been Walking For
Everyone talks about the Treasury, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In order to properly approach the famous Treasury (yes, that is the one from Indiana Jones), one must first navigate the Siq. On Day Six, we got up early to beat the crowds as we hiked, one last kilometer into Petra, via the famous, incredible Siq.
Promise me one thing. When you go to Petra, go with a guide. If you don’t, you will miss the stories in the canyon walls that accompany you the entire way through. If you want the best guide in Jordan, ask for Ayman at Experience Jordan. Ask him to take you Indiana Jonesing through Petra, and you will get to have all of these experiences for yourself.
The Siq is… magic. The way the light filters through the tall canyon, reflecting the colors of the rocks. The way the gusts of wind come around corners like they’re being chased by a giant boulder from Indiana Jones. The thunderous sound of the horse hooves pulling chariots that, as they approach, you aren’t sure which way they are coming from until they are nearly upon you and you’re leaping out of the way to let them pass. The prevalence of rock paintings and aqueducts fixed high on the walls by an ancient civilization.
It is alive with history, and it moves as you move with it. And then, when you’re so engrossed in the Siq itself and nearly forget why you’re there, the great façade of the Treasury begins to reveal itself at the end of the canyon.
It’s the real deal, people.
It also comes with a kiosk that boasts free WiFi, Bedouins offering camel rides to tourists, a couple of stray dogs, and a plethora of selfie sticks. #tourism
We were in for quite a unique experience that morning at the Treasury, unbeknownst to a certain female among us. After lining up for an epic group jump photo, my brother Daryl and his girlfriend Chelsea lingered for a few extra moments so that our photographer could get some photos of just the two of them. That’s when my brother dropped to one knee and proposed to my future sister-in-law. Right there, at one of the Seven Wonders of the world, forever raising the bar on the spectrum of epic marriage proposals.
What followed was another amazing show of Bedouin hospitality. Their first official engagement/wedding gift was a camel ride in front of the Treasury, followed by a gift of Frankincense and Myrrh from one of the shopkeepers down the way. No kidding.
We had smuggled in some champagne, which we popped and enjoyed on top of a rock overlooking the Roman Theater (Petra is pretty big, in case you haven’t figured that out by now). Then we all got our eyes painted black again and had fun picking out some local silver jewelry, oils, and spices to take home with us to remember this day, this place, this accomplishment, this perfect morning suspended in time.
I Sat Where Matt Damon Sat
Day Six was far from over when we left Petra. We still had to go all the way to Mars that day! Ahem, Wadi Rum.
I didn’t understand what Wadi Rum was or why everyone said we needed to go there, but I trusted them and put it on my itinerary anyway. First of all, “wadi” means canyon or valley, so there are lots of wadis all over Jordan.
Wadi Rum is a vast desert with sand dunes and rock formations that you go zooming through on a “jeep safari” (actually a Toyota truck safari). You stop for tea with the Bedouins, you race each other down sand dunes, you admire ancient rock paintings, you watch the sunset over the desert, you enjoy a feast of lamb cooked in a hole in the earth, you star gaze, and you sleep in a dome with a view of the milky way.
While on our jeep tour, we went to the exact spot where Matt Damon spent a depressing scene sitting on a rock, alone on Mars, and since it’s no secret that our group was full of movie geeks, we recreated the scene.
Matt Damon is cool, but he’s not the reason you go to Wadi Rum. Basically, going to Wadi Rum is like going to play on Mars. It is other-worldly, it is like entering a porthole and magically coming out the other side on a different planet. This is why experiencing Wadi Rum is a must.
That night, after a feast of more of the finest Bedouin camp cooking in Jordan, we enjoyed a couple bottles of Jordanian wine on the deck of one of our private Martian domes in the desert, under the stars, toasting to a most epic, MOST-EPIC, day. Imagine getting engaged on a day like that.
The Dead Sea Giggles
We ended our adventure with a hard-earned vacation to the spa, aka the Dead Sea (our hotel was literally called the Dead Sea Spa). Of all the things you can do in Jordan, one that you cannot see in pictures and MUST experience for yourself, even more so than visiting Petra, is floating in the Dead Sea.
When we first got in (all adults, mind you), we essentially sat down and leaned back into the strange, supported embrace of the water, and then proceeded to giggle like tickled school children for about 15 minutes straight. I cannot even express to you what a funny feeling it is to not only not sink, but to bob around with hands and feet flung blissfully into the hot air, without worry of submerging. It is so surreal and so much fun.
Salt is magic.
There are three steps to a successful dip in the Dead Sea:
- Get in and get through your giggles while your skin gets used to the water (don’t shave first, and don’t touch or accidentally splash your eyes).
- Get out and play in that amazing Dead Sea mud. Smear it on nice and thick! Stand around like muddy giggling sea monsters while it begins to dry. Be sure to take lots of photos.
- When it’s almost dry, get back in the sea and gently remove the mud, which leaves your skin SO SILKY SMOOTH!!!
If this is not on your bucket list yet, put it there right now. Floating in the Dead Sea was without a doubt one of the single best highlights of my entire three weeks in Jordan, and it is a most incredible way to end a group adventure on the Jordan Trail.
Somewhere in between our Dead Sea dips and deep-tissue massages for those worked muscles, we headed to the pool to order some adult beverages. Yes, even during Ramadan. I’m not pool-goer, but in the 110+ degree heat after a crazy epic week, a pool never felt so good.
“Jordan is Magic”
I had heard it said multiple times about Jordan by several people before I went there myself, but I never understood it and couldn’t appreciate it. As much as we try, we can’t wrap our heads around magic. It leaves a lot to be explored, because simply saying those words doesn’t actually describe anything, it just shrouds it in mystery and whimsy.
Hearing these words did, however, instill a deep desire inside me to go and understand for myself why the M word is so often used to describe Jordan.
So, I went. I explored, I experienced, I interacted with Jordan, and I get it now.
“Jordan is magic” is not a description after all, it’s an invitation. And this is where I pass it along to you. Go to Jordan yourself. Feel, see, float, taste, touch, communicate, laugh, and discover the spellbinding charm of this incredible country on your own.
There is no doubt in my mind that you’ll get it, too.
SHUKRAN! Huge thank you and shout out to my fellow adventurers on this trip: Carley, Ryan, Shawn, Daryl, Chelsea, Charlie, and Maryileen, and to my partner on the ground Experience Jordan for helping me make it happen, to Ayman, the best guide in Jordan, and of course, to my fearless photographer Hassen Salum for capturing this experience so beautifully for the rest of us.