We are headed north through Jordan’s capital of Amman, en route to Ajloun Forest Reserve about 90 minutes away. Our obvious tourist shuttle is inching through the morning rush-hour when a loaded city-bus pulls up alongside, full of Jordanian commuters on their way to work. All windows drop, and the locals, ear-to-ear grins, start to wave, eventually breaking into song and clapping in unison to welcome us to their country. The cheer is infectious.
I wondered—would anything like this have happened back home? Have I ever led a Vancouver city-bus in song upon sight of a gaudy tourbus?
Jordan shattered perceptions immediately and continued to do so for the entire 10 days I toured the diminutive Middle Eastern country. Bordered by Syria to the north, Iraq to the east and Israel and Palestine to the west, Jordan is regarded as the Switzerland of the Middle East—maintaining neutrality and, in recent years, generally avoiding strife. It’s a welcoming and safe place to visit. It’s part of the cradle of civilization, home to locales noted in the Bible and iconic ancient ruins. And, oh man, the food... (Hope you like hummus!)
It’s also rife with outdoor recreation. Let’s take a look at five of the key adventure zones in Jordan:
Ajloun Forest Reserve
This is not likely what you’re picturing when you think of the Middle East. Located about 75 kilometres north of Amman—about 50 kilometres south of the Syrian border—Ajloun Forest Reserve is a lush, verdant park covering 13-square-kilometres of mountainous terrain. At about 1,000 metres above sea level, it’s temperate, with cool evenings and warm days in spring and fall—even chances of snow in winter.
Oak, pine, carob and arbutus trees grow with abundance. A section of the epic Jordan Trail stretches through the local area, and the reserve itself is home to a selection of guided and unguided hikes—ranging from a kilometre or two to a full-day trek.
If you’re lucky, you may spot a striped hyena, stone marten or crested porcupine. Ancient ruins speckle the landscape, many dating to Roman times. The best place to stay is one of the 23 rustic cabins run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature/Wild Jordan. wildjordan.com
When Christ was born, Petra was already a masterwork of architecture, commerce and religion. Once home to the Nabataean people, and originally settled as far back as 9,000 BCE, this citadel saw its heyday some 2,000 years ago—when seminal facades like the Monastery (Ad-Deir, pictured above) and the Treasury (Al-Khaznah, pictured at top) were carved into sandstone cliffs. By the time of The Crusades, and once the Nabataeans had swirled into the dustpile of history, Petra was abandoned. It was known only to the nomadic Bedouins until a Swiss fellow named Johan Ludwig Burckhardt grew a beard, got a tan and snuck in, lured by rumour.
That was 1812—when the modern excavation of this city, buried literally in the sands of time, saw its new beginnings. Today, Petra comprises some 250-square-kilometres of UNESCO World Heritage Site wonder. It’s mostly known for the Treasury, made famous in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but while Al-Khaznah is arguably the most spectacular of the ruins, it’s a voice in a choir. Petra has tombs and temples and at every turn.
Most visitors stay in the town of Wadi Musa and enter Petra through the Siq, a mile-long slot canyon that reveals the Treasury as their first, and perhaps only, stop. However, adventurous types hire a guide to walk them through the “backdoor”—a sweaty trek along the cliffs of a vast red-rock canyon that leads first to the mighty Monastery, before any crowds arrive if you start early, then against the flow of tourists to exit through the Siq with the iconic Treasury as your last breathtaking sight. Beyond that, it’s said to take five days to fully hike the scorching canyons of Petra and inspect every ruin. visitjordan.com
Playing second-fiddle to its nearby big brother, Little Petra is a worthy stopover. It’s about 500 metres from entry to terminus; once inside, you’ll wander past intricate facades carved into the rock faces of a deep slot canyon. Access is unparalleled. Most tombs and temples are open to wander within. Climb vertigo-inducing 2,000-year-old staircases to take in a bird’s-eye view. Meditate in the same nooks used by the Nabataeans in the first-century AD.
Little Petra was officially rediscovered in the 1950s, which saw an excavation that lasted more than 20 years. Today, it sees far fewer crowds than Petra proper and offers a fun way to work up a sweat while climbing sandstone and revelling in ruins forged two millennia in the past. visitpetra.jo
The Dead Sea
To answer the question right away—yes, you really do float like a cork in the Dead Sea. As the deep point in the massive Jordan Rift Valley, the Dead Sea is almost 10 times saltier than the ocean. It’s the lowest place on Earth, at about 450 metres below sea level. These two facts cause a pair of phenomena.
For starters, the saline-sea is so buoyant you bob like a rubber ducky—keep in mind though, the extreme salinity will burn your eyes and mouth, so always keep your head above water. Second, the low altitude creates an oxygen-rich environment—you’ll wake with more energy and find physical activity generally less taxing (as long as the heat isn’t wearing you down).
Although it’s said to have been home to Sodom and Gomorrah, relaxation is the keyword here. You can choose to stay at one of the many grand beach resorts, or visit the Amman Touristic Beach for a backpacker-budget option. (Make sure to take an exfoliating mud-bath.) visitjordan.com
The Jordan Trail
Welcome to one of the great eco-tourism enterprises on the planet—a 650-kilometre marked trail spanning the entire country north-to-south, passing through 52 villages and separated into eight distinct regions. Will you dare to tackle a through-hike—a month-plus endeavour to immerse in the best of Jordan? Hike the green mountains of the north, pass cultural ruins on King Hussein’s Rally Road, view Iraq-al-Amir—the oldest structure in the country, the Grand Canyon of Jordan, the fertile central plains, the red rocks of Petra, the expansive desert of Wadi Rum and finish at the crystal Red Sea.
Ultimately, the trail traces thousands of years of history as it roughly follows ancient trade routes forged when Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites, Nabateans and Romans wandered the land. Today, it's managed by the Jordan Trail Association as an international tourism draw and beloved recreation hub for Jordanians countrywide.
Spring and fall are the best times to hike; temperatures are cooler and the rains of winter have subsided or not yet arrived. You can hike the trail on your own, camping and booking hotels and homestays as you travel—or hire a guiding/logistics service to aid your trek. Multi-day sections range from 60 to 112 kilometres long—or road-trip the countryside, embarking on shorter day-hikes through accessible legs as you go.
Every year in March and April, the Jordan Trail Association organizes a though-hike event, where groups of trekkers tackle the 40-day epic in one push. jordantrail.org
Bonus: Masar Ibrahim Trail, Palestine
The Jordan Trail isn’t the only through-hike in the region. Enter the Masar Ibrahim Trail, in next-door Palestine. This route meanders through some 50 cities and villages as it traces 330 kilometres along the length of West Bank. Experience home-stays and Bedouin camps. Meet Palestinians and learn about their culture. View ancient ruins and religious sites. Challenge your expecations. masaribrahim.ps