The most magical part about Jordan by far was experiencing true Bedouin hospitality and the vastness of the Wadi Rum Desert in all its sparse beauty. In this post, I explain the lessons I've learned about modern Bedouin life, what you should know before visiting a Bedouin family, discuss camping out in the middle of the Wadi Rum desert, and show some incredible views of the desert. Read more & see more incredible photos under the cut!
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A Quick History of the Wadi Rum Desert
Despite the intense heat in summer, the Wadi Rum desert has been inhabited for thousands of years and you can still see the marks of history on its many rocks. The photo below illustrates the early camel caravans routes in Aramaic to help traders locate the way to Mecca. Jordan has historically (and remains) a major trading point in the Middle East, so traders from all over the Asia, Africa, and the Middle East would often traverse these routes. In many spots of the desert, you'll notice rough drawings of animals, early forms of Arabic, and even people inscribing their name into the rock for prosperity.
When you're in the middle of the Wadi Rum desert, it's easy to imagine the camel caravans with hundreds of camels making their way between the mesas. The Jordanians still use the Wadi Rum desert as a water source due to the vast amounts of water within the mesas and underground, which means that you'll sometimes spot a pipe going all the way up the mesa with fresh water coming out. Despite being a desert, the land is quite fertile and supposedly there's a lot of interesting plants that bloom in better weather. (For more info on traveling in Jordan and Petra, part I is here.)
About 40% of Jordanians are Bedouins. This fact shocked me as I imagined that modern Jordanians wouldn't have such a strong connection to their country's past, however this connection is what makes traveling in Jordan so interesting. You'll notice a lot men in Jordan, including both of the guides that we had, wearing the red checkered scarf known as the shemagh mhadab, which indicates that someone is Jordanian and quite proud of it. You'll see other color variations (such as white and green), but these indicate that someone is Saudi or Palestinian.
Is Jordan modern? Do Bedouins still live in the desert?
Jordan is modern. Buses run on-time, the health care is supposed some of the best in the world, and it is arguably one of the safest areas in the region. Despite the modernity and the reality that most people have a home in a more urban town/city, people still feel a deep connection to the land. Due to this connection, a lot of the land you'll see in Jordan, including the Wadi Rum desert, doesn't belong to anyone in particular and you can camp there if you please for free. As a result, people often pitch tents in the desert, bring their families, and live out in the desert for a while while their houses in town sit idle. Why? It's a way to bring down the costs of raising your animals and people enjoy camping for the sake of it.
While you're driving along the Desert Highway or even in the Desert itself, you'll just see tents, people going about their daily lives, and lots of livestock. Despite living out here, people aren't roughing it in: they're staying in warm tents thanks to a constant burning fire, replenishing their supplies by going into town every 1-2 weeks, carrying large water tanks out to their tents, and sometimes getting things they forgot at home. Despite it being a very cold January, the tent that we visited was very toasty.
Experience Bedouin Hospitality in Jordan
We had the privilege of visiting our guide's family's tent while visiting the Wadi Rum desert and experiencing true Bedouin hospitality. This was something that we were relatively unprepared for as our guide just happened to mention that the kids love snacks--and I should consider getting some snacks before we stopped at the tent seen above, only to be welcomed by his wife, uncle, aunt, and kids. There is a reason why Bedouin hospitality is famous.
Bringing a gift is a good idea. Quality Jordanian dates are a good gift to give to Bedouin families in Jordan as a thank you!
We were immediately welcomed into their warm, large tent and offered sweet black tea. Guests are allowed up to three cups of a beverage, which is exactly the amount that we were offered. Coffee is also traditional though tea is considered to be social. Despite the language barrier, our guide's uncle tried quite hard to make conversation with us and asked us some questions about our time in Jordan.
Within what seemed like a minute, fresh pita was made over the pita stone over the fire and we were offered fresh goat cheese along with the pita. Despite both of us being allergic to dairy, we couldn't help but partake in the delicious farm-fresh cheese made from the goats just outside. Combined with the fire-fresh pita, it was a great meal. Something to be aware of is that it's considered rude to use your left hand to eat/do anything with, even if you're a lefty.
After enjoying a little conversation, we both thanked our hosts in Arabic (How to say thank you in Arabic: Shukran اﺮﻜﺷ) a touch that they very much appreciated, before showing them our small token of thanks: some snacks for the kids, which the kids excitedly grabbed (and saved for after dinner). In retrospect, I wish I had loaded up on quality dates to thank them properly. Below, a photo of our guide, his wife, the kids, and the tents.
For the record, you cannot stay with a Bedouin family's tent when visiting Wadi Rum as this is a very personal area where strangers will be welcomed, but staying over in their tent is something that is not possible.
Experiencing Bedouin Hospitality in Jordan and Staying out in the Jordanian Desert
If you can't stay with a Bedouin family, you can stay in one of the many Bedouin camp sites intended for tourists dotting the Wadi Rum Desert.
We stayed at the Bait Ali Campsite , which is where the cast/crew of the Martian stayed when they filmed in the Wadi Rum desert. Although it's called a camp site, it's closer to glamping due to the incredible amenities on site.
There is no ATM in the desert and the closest one is in Petra, Amman, or Aqaba. You can use functionally ANY currency, but if you have an uncommon debit card company (like Maestro), double-check that you have enough money to pay for everything you'll want to do in the desert.
A review of the Bait Ali Camp
The weather in Jordan in January was quite cold (35-40 degrees F (4 degrees C) at night, Our tent (pictured below) was wind-proof with two beds, but that was it. We really had not planned for weather this cold, but on our budget, this was a good deal: only 40 Jordanian dinars per night. We bundled underneath the 4 blankets given to us and vowed not to leave the tent, which was a good decision. If you stay in a tent like ours (tent with 2 beds), you can use the shared facilities (incredibly clean and well-maintained) for toilets, meals/drinks, and showers. Meals can be included for a small extra price.
There are MUCH nicer "tents" available at Bait Ali that are functionally luxury hotel rooms with private bathrooms and air conditioning, You still have access to the shared dining room, but a little more privacy.
My favorite part of Bait Ali was the shared dining room where we could enjoy the warmth of furnace. Using some ingenious engineering, the tent spread the warmth all over the room and you could enjoy sitting on camel saddles while you sipped on tea, smoked hookah, or even local Jordanian beer. In summer, there's some outdoor tents with a similar set-up that you can enjoy while looking up at the full night sky. In winter, you can just stand outside. With no lights for miles, the sky is full of stars.
The best part of staying out in the desert: the access to the mesa, which you can hike on top, the many activities cheaply (including paragliding, jeep tours, camel rides, and hot air balloons), seeing the stars, and experiencing the famous Bedouin hospitality. Even if you don't get the chance to visit a tent, you'll find people to be incredibly friendly and hospitable.
4x4ing in the Wadi Rum Desert
We took a tour of the Wadi Rum Desert in a 4x4 from the Bait Ali Desert. Our guide lived in the area and grew up closeby, so he was full of stories about the filming of Lawrence of Arabia, which is based on the true story about Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in Jordan. It was filmed entirely on location, including the incredible stone below. He was quite patient with us while we hiked into little gorges filled with water to see early Arabic, attempted climbing up sand dunes, explored Nabatean ruins, and took in the desert.
The rock is sandstone, which is responsible for the famous red color that semi resembles Mars. The area used to be covered by a sea around 150 million years ago, however the mesas (seen in the photos) were a byproduct of tectonic activity that separated the large blocks of sandstone and elevated the mesas. Over time, there has been erosion by wind, water, and sand, which has resulted in the unique shape of the mesas.
If you have the chance, spend at least one night in the desert. go hiking in the Wadi Rum desert, climb Jebel Um Adami, and experience Bedouin Hospitality. For more information, check out Lonely Planet!
Have you ever been to Jordan or experienced Bedouin Hospitality? I would love to hear about your experiences!
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Karen and Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Now in Paris!
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