This post was written by Holly, a Californian who marvels in her home state’s natural beauty and in the joy of traveling so that she can experience all the different people living all their different lives, around the world.
Wadi Rum: Valley of the Moon in English. There’s no place like it in the world – at least, in this world. You’ve probably visited Wadi Rum in the movies. It’s often the site of Mars on the big screen (The Martian, for example). It’s played Jedha in Star Wars: Rogue One, a desert in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and, of course, itself in the epic Lawrence of Arabia. Even Disney has taken advantage of this epic landscape by filming Aladdin there.
But, the movies (even Disney ones) just don’t quite capture its magic.
T.E. Lawrence (the real Lawrence of Arabia) described Wadi Rum as “vast, echoing, and God-like.”
When I’m 100 years old and think back over the course of my life, our days in Wadi Rum will be ones that I’ll remember.
Our time in Jordan started at the border crossing in Eilat, Israel, on the corner of the Red Sea. (At the end, I’ll talk a bit about the logistics of getting to and into Jordan, which was quite easy with a tour provider). It’s a border you cross on foot – about eighty meters – to Aqaba, a resort city on the Jordanian side. A driver from Desert Eco Tours met us at the Jordanian side and drove us to Wadi Rum.
The highway is dotted with trucks bringing goods from Aqaba’s ports to Amman, the capital of Jordan. Driving a big semi-truck was a man wearing traditional Middle Eastern attire – the first I’d ever seen in real life. He wore a thawb (an ankle-length garment) and a shemagh mhadab (a red and white square cloth wrapped around the head and kept in place with an agal, a black cord). Our own driver taught us a few Arabic phrases: shukran jazeelan (not just shukran – it’s thank you…very much – warmth and generosity are important in Middle Eastern culture) and as-salamu alaykum (may peace be with you, a more profound version of hello).
After an hour’s drive, we neared Wadi Rum, and the mountains changed shape to the distinctive collection of individual rocky mountains (or mesas) that dart straight up out of the desert. There’s really no way to describe them, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Wadi Rum is a protected area, and you can’t enter without a local Bedouin guide. The Bedouins are a nomadic people in the Arabian peninsula. A tribe of about two thousand settled in Wadi Rum village, but their culture remains tightly fastened to the desert that they have roamed for centuries and still do, to some extent, today. Our guide, and now friend, Salem, greeted us at the visitors center entrance. We hopped right into the back of his pickup truck and headed out for our first day exploring Wadi Rum.
We stopped at a spring where Bedouins collect water for their camels. Camels are treasured here – they are a source of travel and income. They are also funny, expressive creatures. We saw a lot of them in the next few days.
We also visited the Khazali Canyon, which has existed since a long time ago. Within the canyon walls you can see petroglyphs of horses, camels, and pairs of feet, all inscribed by the Nabateans, the last people to be conquered by the Romans.
The Red Sand dune was nearby, a beach of sorts, with vibrant, reddish pink sand. We took off our shoes and ran down the warm hillside. If you wanted to, you could bring a snowboard and slide down that way.
After those highlights, Salem drove us further into Wadi Rum for a quiet place to eat lunch. The further you go, the more beautiful it gets. He lit a fire under the overhang of one of the rock formations and made a lunch that reminded me of ratatouille – this Arabic version was called zarb. He also made the Bedouin tea that his people are famous for: black tea with a little sage and sugar. We talked over lunch about our families and our work. Salem grew up here and has been a guide in Wadi Rum for fifteen years. After lunch, we took the customary nap in the desert.
In the afternoon we visited Wadi Rum’s famed rock bridges: Little Bridge (which we climbed), Um Fruth Rock Bridge (watched others climb), and the Burdah Rock Bridge (viewed from a distance).
And, we visited Lawrence of Arabia’s home in the desert. It’s a formation of rocks built into the cliff of a mountain, where he slept and kept supplies during the Arab Revolt of World War I.
As the sun began to descend, we perched on a cliff across the desert floor for what Salem told us was the No. 2 sunset in Wadi Rum, which is in the Red Desert. Up high, we saw travelers in Jeeps, on Arabian horses, and on camels trek across the desert floor, all just a little larger than dots, as we made out their shapes. With another cup of tea, we watched the sun go down over the desert.
The idea for them came from The Martian movie set. The top is transparent so you can see the stars clearly in the desert sky at night, unhindered by the bustling lights of cities. We also had a shower and bathroom, along with heat and air conditioning, and a reeaalllyy comfy bed. (They don’t say this, but it’s important to note, Jordan is a water-stretched country, so please use the water judiciously).
We joined travelers from all over the world in the dinner tent for a spread of Asian, Indian, and Arabic food, all made by the camp’s chef that day. To close out the day, we laid on the bean bags on the deck of our bubble and watched satellites and shooting stars buzz above us. Later, in the middle of the night, I woke up, as I often do, but here reached for my glasses to watch the stars through the tent’s bubble for a while.
(Note that there are also more authentic Bedouin camp sites, one of which Salem knows well and is in the travel tips below.)
Here’s my best piece of advice for Wadi Rum: stay a second day. You get beyond the sites popular on Instagram, deep into the desert and more of its marvelous beauty.
We drove south of the Wadi Rum desert in the southernmost part of Jordan to launch for a hike in Wadi Nudra. Salem’s someone who can read people well and picked up on the fact that I’m comfortable with height, just not steep routes. So he picked a hike with a steady climb to a cave high above the desert. Along the way Salem pointed out fossils, sage brush for our tea later in the day, along with a woman’s shoe, left behind by one of the local women who herd the goats on the mountains.
When we arrived at the top, I was without words, again. We could see Jabal Umm ad Dami, the country’s highest peak, Saudi Arabia just three kilometers beyond, and Egypt off to the right. We had Bedouin tea and cookies together in the cave’s shade. Salem shared that he hikes Jabal Umm ad Dami, in his sandals, with friends after the tourist season to hunt gazelles. It’s easy to get up there, he says.
Back down on the bottom, we drove to another cave, this one on the desert floor, for lunch and a nap. I noticed a series of water bottles, the bottom halves, hanging from the cave’s walls, which I asked Salem about, as he poured water into them. Water for the birds. Something I noticed many times over in Jordan: kindness to animals. It’s a virtue in Middle Eastern culture.
I napped; my husband didn’t (he was more interested in drinking the Bedouin tea). I woke up to the sound of what I thought was a horse neighing. It was a bird flapping its wings. We were so far out, so quiet, that the sound amplified. Even when hiking in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I’m from, it gets quiet, but there’s always that hint of noise – another set of hikers, a plane, a car in the distance, waves from the ocean. But in Wadi Rum that day, we only saw and heard one other group of people before sunset. It was absolutely silent.
After lunch, Salem asked if I wanted to drive the Jeep. Sure! So there I was in the desert, Salem teaching me how to switch gears. I eventually got the hang of it and drove us through the soft sand, about halfway to our next destination, before my husband switched into the driver’s seat.
At our next destination, on a plateau with a spring that locals use to feed their goats, I spotted a mountain (Jabal Qatar) with a purple hue in the distance that stood out in some way from the rest: unique in the most unique of places. My husband said it looked like what you’d imagine the Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf’s castle would be. I don’t think it was on our plan for the day, but Salem wanted to take us over there so we could see it up close. It was towering and beautiful. Out front was a burial ground for Bedouins from a long time ago and, at the base of the mountain, a spring that has existed since before a long time ago, with water from dew absorbed by the limestone at the top of the mountain.
We then headed towards the White Desert to watch the No. 1 sunset. As we neared the golden hour, we started seeing other groups of “second dayers” also looking for another sunset in the desert. We found an elevated spot and climbed up a bit for tea made from the sage that Salem collected on our hike, along with a special treat. Salem must have noticed how we kept saying how much we liked pita bread, so he heated some up to go with the tea. You haven’t really had pita bread until you’ve had it cooked on a fire pit in the desert.
As we took in the magnificence of that last sunset, I realized something. I’ve often said that where I live, near San Francisco, is the most beautiful place on Earth. When we travel, I’ll often remark that a particular place is pretty but not quite as pretty as California. Sitting there, drinking tea, eating pita bread, with the desert sun inching down before us, I whispered to my husband: this might actually be as pretty as home. He nodded in agreement.
Desert Eco Tours arranged everything for our time in Jordan: border crossing, transportation in Jordan, guides, tours, meals, and accommodations. Desert Eco Tours came highly recommended to us by another traveler to Jordan. I’d second that. You can choose from group and private package tours or do like we did and customize things a bit. They have a partner group in Jordan (Why Jordan) and pair you with really wonderful people that they know well as guides and transports. Everything was well-planned.
Bedouins are known for hospitality and generosity, and I’m sure you’d have a wonderful time with anyone via Desert Eco Tours, but do inquire if Salem can be your guide! He is one of the kindest people we’ve ever met.
Where to Stay:
We stayed in the “Full of Stars” bubble tents at Wadi Rum Luxury Nights Camp. It was definitely a “glamping” experience, and we enjoyed it. If you’re looking for a more traditional Bedouin camping experience, Salem also works with Desert Lovers Camp where you’ll have your own bedouin tent (similar to a cabin), shared bathroom facilities, and shared meals with your guide and others.
How to get there (and what to do before or afterwards)?
We paired our time in Jordan with a trip to Israel, visiting Jerusalem before and Tel Aviv afterwards. We drove a Hertz rental car from Jerusalem, down along the Red Sea to Eilat, watching the sun come up over the West Bank and then Israel’s mountains on our right and Jordan’s on our left. We enjoyed the road signs: “Caution, Camels,” “The Fountain of Youth,” among others. Desert Eco Tours picked us up from Hertz in Eilat and took us to the border crossing. (You can’t take a rental car from Israel into Jordan and vice versa.) Flying is also an option (about a 45 minute flight). From the Eilat/Aqaba border to Wadi Rum is about an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and thirty minute drive.
Another option is to fly to Amman, Jordan’s capital, if you’d like to spend some time there first, and then take the four-hour drive south to Wadi Rum. Aqaba also has its own airport.
On the way out of Wadi Rum, during our third day, we visited Petra (one of the seven wonders of the world and deserving of its own separate post!), returned to the Eilat/Aqaba border crossing that evening, and spent the night in Eilat before picking up a rental car from Hertz the next morning and driving to Tel Aviv. If you wanted to add an extra day in Jordan, I’m told from other travelers that there’s pretty amazing snorkeling in Aqaba.
What to Wear?
It’s the desert, so it’s hot during the day and cool in the evenings. Keep in mind that modest dress is appreciated. I wore a sleeveless shirt and brought a loose shawl to tie around my shoulders, when that felt more appropriate or comfortable, and hiking pants that I could button up into capris. You’ll also want hiking shoes, a hat, and sunglasses. Women do not need to cover their hair. On the first day, you start your venture into the desert right away, so be sure to bring a bag with some handy things in easy reach (tissues, sunscreen, etc.).
Did I Feel Safe?
Yes! Jordanians welcome tourists. Tourism is a large part of their economy, and people in Jordan are very happy to see tourists and make them feel comfortable. Desert Eco Tours/Why Jordan always had us with a local person who knew their way around and where to get the best food.