Jordan by Bike: In Search of a More Meaningful Experience on Two Wheels

Dead Sea View
Looking out over the Dead Sea.

Photo by: Tamara Elliott

Halfway through our ride for the day, we stop to take a quick snack break at the top of a climb, giving everyone a chance to regroup. The support truck pulls up next to us, Arabic music blaring. Our cycling guide, Firas Al-Hmood, gathers a bunch of the men together for an impromptu Jordanian dance lesson. Left foot forward. Left foot back. Step in front. Repeat. Seems simple enough but our slightly uncoordinated group is making a dog’s dinner of it. When in doubt, just shrug your shoulders up and down.

I’m delighted to be back in Jordan for a second time, this trip as part of the AdventureNEXT Near East conference held in Aqaba. Jordan’s place in history, depth of culture, warm hospitality, and sheer beauty of its varied landscapes give the country gravitas as a meaningful travel destination. It offers the perfect blend of adventure, sightseeing, and cultural experience that work together to positively transform anyone who visits. And the tourists have quickly caught on, with numbers steadily growing since my last visit in 2013.

But I’m here to experience more of the country than your average tourist on their one-day tour bus trip to Petra. I’ve signed up with local tour operator Experience Jordan for their Taste of the Jordan Bike Trail adventure before the conference. Over the course of 5 days, we will ride along rocky canyons, over rolling green hills, and through deep red desert sand while exploring the top historical and natural wonders along the way.

Our route flows south from the capital city, Amman, rolling straight down to Aqaba along the Red Sea. Three full days of cycling, with daily distances of 25 to 35 miles, leaves plenty of time for sightseeing. A fully supported trip, a bus transports our luggage each day to the next hotel or Bedouin camp, with the music-at-the-ready, snack-filled, off-road support truck trailing behind us on the bikes.

The Jordan Bike Trail

The Jordan Bike Trail is a 730 kilometer or 454 mile, mixed-surface bike route that crosses the entire length of Jordan. Starting in Um Qais at the north tip of the country, the trail takes in the varied landscapes of Jordan, from olive groves and farms to dramatic rocky canyons and wide open deserts, before finishing along the glamorous shores of the Red Sea.

There are a number of ways to experience the Jordan Bike Trail, from a fully supported trip without the need to carry any gear or reserve accommodation, to a minimalist bikepacking adventure. For this trip, we are going the fully supported route to get a quick taste of the southern section of the trail while taking in some of the most popular sights in the country.

Tour Guides

While they offer all types of adventures across the country, from hiking and biking to more cultural excursions, Experience Jordan is in the perfect position to guide the Jordan Bike Trail as they were instrumental in its creation. As we mill about adjusting our bikes the first morning, I learn that Firas is an Olympic-level triathlete. I instantly start to worry we are in for a bit of a hammerfest until he starts cracking dad jokes — at that moment I know we are going to be fast friends. Also joining us from Experience Jordan are Matt Loveland, founder of the company, Anton Batanov, Cycling Tours Manager, Baraa Alasfar, and our lead guide Jawad Abu Rumman, all knowledgeable about everything Jordan, thoughtful, and incredibly fun to be around.

The Ride

Day 1: Mount Nebo to the Dead Sea

Leaving the traffic choked streets of Amman behind, we head to Mount Nebo and the Memorial Church of Moses. It is said this is the spot where Moses died after looking out over the Promised Land. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Dead Sea, the Jordan River Valley, Jericho, Bethlehem, and even the hills of Jerusalem far in the distance. The modern church acts as protector for a variety of colorful 6th century mosaics that depict everything from pastoral and hunting scenes to plants and flowers.

After a quick visit, it is time to hop on the bikes. Even though our ultimate goal for the day is the lowest point on Earth — the Dead Sea at 1,380 feet below sea level — we first have to navigate a multitude of rolling, rocky hills peppered with goats nibbling on thorny shrubs.

We stop for lunch at an overlook above the Dead Sea — from this vantage point, the glimmering sun makes it feel more like the ocean. One thing I’ve quickly come to appreciate about Experience Jordan is their cooperation with local families and communities to provide food and accommodation for their clients when possible. We eagerly tuck into a generous spread made by the shy matriarch of a local Madaba family, where we get our first taste of chicken maqluba. Translated as “upside down”, maqluba includes meat or chicken on the bottom, rice, and spices, all cooked together in one pot. Once ready, the pot is flipped over onto a communal tray and garnished with parsley and nuts.

Belly full and a bit wired from multiple cups of sweet tea, I imagine our scrappy little international peloton as part of the Tour de Jordan during a fast asphalt downhill, complete with full-on police escort into our hotel along the Dead Sea.

No trip to the Dead Sea is official without slathering your entire body in mud and having a float in the briney, mineral-rich waters. I am thankful I am not sunburned as I rub gloopy mud over every exposed bit of skin. We stand like scarecrows on the shore, waiting for the mud to dry to reap its full healing benefits, then gently wade into the cold buoyant water to scrub it all off. According to experts, the Dead Sea is dying rapidly, so who knows how much longer you can experience the novelty of struggling to stay upright as you swim.

Day 2: Dead Sea to Petra

The next morning, we drive up to the Crusader-era Shobak Castle for the start of our ride. Along the way, we stop to peek into the self-proclaimed “smallest hotel in the world,” a VW bug converted into a bedroom. I’m tempted to stay and enjoy a Turkish coffee or two in the unseasonably chilly weather, but we need to get on our bikes for the hilly ride to Petra.

I have a hard time concentrating on the rocky ridge road in front of me as I continue to stare out over the Grand Canyon-like Wadi Arabah — the colorful valley that separates Jordan from Israel. Hard to believe that last trip I was down below in that same valley, hiking through Wadi Ghuweir and stargazing under the warm night sky at Feynan EcoLodge. As we speed by, butterflies fly up out of the wildflowers, delightful and utterly unexpected in an arid country like Jordan.

On a small asphalt climb just off the King’s Highway, I hear a incessant beeping car horn approach from behind. Thinking they want me out of the way, I move as far as I can to the right. I can’t help but smile and laugh as two women, dressed in the conservative jilbab, drive past, arms out the windows, cheering me on. This is why I love Jordan.

Lunch comes again from a local family, accompanied by more bottomless cups of sweet tea. From there, Firas promises us it’s all downhill to Little Petra. I know by now this means there are still a few climbs or “Jordanian flats” in our future.

Our bed for the night is the Ammarin Bedouin camp, nestled amongst the egg-shaped, whitewashed rocks just north of Petra. Even with all the cycling, there is no fear of losing weight on this trip as we are treated to a zarb buffet for dinner. Normally cooked underground, the camp features a clay oven where a mix of meat, rice, onions, potatoes, and carrots are placed, filled with flaming hot coals, and covered. After a few hours, everything is cooked and the meat is fall-apart tender.

Day 3: Exploring Petra

Technically our rest day, we spend the entire day hiking up and down the red sandstone cliffs of Petra, exploring her seemingly endless prehistoric treasures. Even though I’ve seen the Treasury before, I’m awed at the first glimpse of those rose colored windows peeking out from behind the dark canyon walls of the Siq.

After lunch, most of the group head up to the Treasury overlook. As I experienced that perspective during my last trip to Jordan, Matt offers to take me to a little known spot in Petra where tourists rarely, if ever, go. I’m all in.

In our quest to reach the summit of Umm al-Biyara, we pass through a small Bedouin village on the outskirts of the main site, before finding a set of stairs that take you steeply up the side of the mountain. After a good hour-long stairmaster workout, we are rewarded with 360-degree views of Petra all the way over Aaron’s Tomb. Even with gaelforce winds threatening to knock us over, I don’t want to leave.

We begin the long trek back out to Wadi Musa, the town that sits next to Petra, and my thoughts turn to the Nabateans. This once thriving trading center was welcoming of anyone and everyone, and I can’t help but wonder if this is why Jordanians continue to be such a hospitable people today.

Day 4: Petra to Wadi Rum

We awake to a cold, windy, and rainy morning – quite a change from the last time I visited the country. The alternating rain and hail don’t dampen our spirits, however, as we egg each other on to see who can power through the deep sandy sections that indicate we are growing ever closer to Wadi Rum.

We pull into a small village where kids from the local school rush out to give us high fives. Just down from the school, in the middle of seemingly nowhere, sits our lunch spot for the day — a traditional Bedouin tent belonging to Abu Sabbah and his family.

Before entering the tent, Firas first announces our arrival a stone’s throw away. Invited to enter, we sit on cushions in the part of the tent reserved for guests as Abu Sabbah lays out our traditional mansaf lunch — lamb from his own flock cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and spices, served over a bed of rice and bread.

Firas shows us how to eat the meal with our hands, careful to use only the right one. We try to mimic him, grabbing handfuls of lamb and rice, shaping them into a little ball, before popping them in our mouths. I give up and scoop up the delicious mixture with mounds of homemade shrak or thin bread.

And that school with the high-fiving kids? This, we come to learn, is where Abu Sabbah is now able to send his 14(!) children thanks to tourists like us stopping at his tent along the Jordan Bike Trail for food and shelter.

After a harrowing open-bed truck ride at the end of the day, we settle into the Milky Way Camp beneath one of the sandstone islands in the vast red sea of sand. Wadi Rum is one of my favorite places on earth and despite the ever-growing, Instagram-happy crowds, this trip reaffirms it. I don’t know if it’s the rose-colored sandstone mountains that mirror the humps of camels in the foreground, or if it’s the “vast, echoing and God-like” quiet of the desert, but I remain perpetually under her spell. Each time I leave, the place haunts me, pulling me back.

Day 5: Snorkeling the Red Sea

Red Sea
Relaxing on the Red Sea.

Wanting to end the trip on a high note, we join all the Experience Jordan pre-summit adventure groups together for a boat ride on the Red Sea. Nothing but snorkeling, beers, and barbecue are on the agenda.

After a week of adventure, the numerous pools, bars, and five-star luxury showers of the Hyatt Regency Aqaba are very welcome but foreign. I feel instantly out of place in my campfire-smoked clothes and sand-caked hair. As I relax into a gin and tonic next to the pool under the warm Aqaba sun, I can’t help but plan my return to see more of the wild parts of this country on two wheels, the wind in my hair and the desert beneath my feet.

If You Go

bike group
One happy bike group.

Photo by: Matt Loveland

Experience Jordan offers a variety of Jordan Bike Trail tours starting at $1,995 per person, excluding flights. There is no need to bring your own bike as they supply Scott Aspect 740 hardtail mountain bikes with 27.5-inch wheels and even a helmet if you don’t want to carry yours to Jordan (I brought my own helmet and pedals).

Getting There

Royal Jordanian offers numerous daily flights from the US direct to Amman, returning from Aqaba via Amman.

Who Should Go?

Anyone who wants a unique experience in Jordan while still taking in the touristic highlights. My ideal way to see a country is on a bike, so this trip was right up my alley. But you don’t need to be an avid mountain biker to enjoy it as the route is not that technical. You just need to be relatively fit and comfortable riding a bike for a few hours a day. And remember, the support truck is always there if you feel tired or not confident enough to tackle any section (or you drank too many Petra Lagers the night before).

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