With the opening of the Jordan Trail and Jordan Bike Trail, Jordan has become a hot spot for outdoor activities, including guided canyoning organised through the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN; www.rscn.org.jo), camel riding and ballooning in Wadi Rum through Bait Ali Lodge, water sports in Aqaba and driving off-road along the Eastern Badia Trail to Burqu.

Hiking

Hiking (and canyoning) are exhilarating activities in Jordan because of the varied quality of the landscape and the historical allusions that underlie each path. While the epic Jordan Trail offers the quintessential hiking route in Jordan, it's not the only trail: smaller routes meet all levels of fitness and challenge.

When to Go

Always check local conditions before setting out as flash floods can occur throughout spring and may make wadis impassable. Bear in mind that GPS units and mobile phones may not function between steep canyon walls.

Best Mid-March to late April when it’s not too hot, the rains have finished, the flowers are blooming and wells are full.

Good Late September to mid-October when it’s dry but not excessively hot.

Avoid November to March when rains make it dangerous to hike or camp in narrow wadis and flash floods can sweep unheralded out of the hills. Paths are often washed away, so routes change frequently. It’s also very cold for camping.

Where to Go

When pondering where to go along the Jordan Trail, the obvious resource to consult is the Jordan Trail website (www.jordantrail.org), which describes individual legs of the route. National Geographic voted the Dana to Petra leg of the trail as one of the top 15 hikes in the world.

Among numerous other hiking options, the RSCN-protected areas of Ajloun Forest Reserve, Dana Biosphere Reserve and Mujib Biosphere Reserve offer the most structured routes in some of the most beautiful destinations and provide guides along many of the trails. For more DIY options, there are some exciting hikes in Petra and in Wadi Rum. Bedouin guides also offer accompanied hikes along the old caravan routes that link these two spectacular locations.

What to Bring

Lightweight trousers and long-sleeved shirts are culturally sensitive and best for the terrain. Other essentials include a hat, sunscreen, water bottle, torch (flashlight) and insect repellent. Lightweight walking boots are ideal, and bring a watertight bag for wet wadi walks. Warm layers are essential in winter.

How to Organise a Hike

The best way to organise a trek is through RSCN's Wild Jordan, the visitor centre in Petra or Wadi Rum, or a private tour company that specialises in hiking. If you engage a Bedouin guide independently, make sure you understand exactly what services are on offer to avoid disappointment on either side. Rates vary (and are negotiable) between JD30 to JD120, depending on the skills required.

Wild Jordan Wide range of guided hikes in Jordan’s nature reserves; can arrange long-distance treks if given prior notice.

Experience Jordan A recommended tour company for facilitating hikes along part or all of the Jordan Trail.

Terhaal Encounters (www.terhaal.com) For individual or group adventure hikes, including abseiling and canyoning, that minimise environmental impact and bring benefits to local communities.

Tropical Desert Trips (www.tropicaldeserttrips.com) Hiking, climbing and canyoning trips across Jordan.

Desert Guides Company (www.desertguidescompany.com) Specialises in adventure hikes, treks and climbs throughout Jordan.

Yamaan Safady (www.adventurejordan.com) Leads weekly hiking trips to places such as Wadi Yabis and Wadi Hasa as part of the Adventure Jordan Hiking Club.

Resources

It’s best to buy both maps and books before arriving as their availability in Jordan is sporadic.

Trekking & Canyoning in the Jordanian Dead Sea Rift by Itai Haviv contains numerous trekking and canyoning routes in the wadis of Central Jordan; its cultural and environmental insights alone make it worth the trouble to find.

British climbers Tony Howard and Di Taylor have spent much of their lives exploring and mapping the hiking, trekking and rock-climbing possibilities in Jordan. Their books include the following:

  • Treks & Climbs in Wadi Rum
  • Walks & Scrambles in Wadi Rum
  • Jordan: Walks, Treks, Caves, Climbs & Canyons
  • Walks, Treks, Climbs & Caves in Al Ayoun

The Jordan Trail

More than 650km from top to toe, the newly established 36-day Jordan Trail (www.jordantrail.org) covers the entire length of Jordan and threads through some of the country's most iconic landscapes, including Petra and Wadi Rum. The trail is segmented into eight legs averaging around 80km each.

Those who have already completed this route recommend taking 42 days to cover the distance, allowing for one or two rest days along the way. The Jordan Trail Association, established to preserve the trail and help ensure its accessibility, maintains a useful website that describes each leg of the trail and recommends tour operators who can facilitate travel along all or parts of its length. These include Experience Jordan. The Dana to Petra stage is particularly rewarding and has been described by National Geographic as one of the best 15 hikes in the world.

Diving & Snorkelling

Crystal-clear water, coral gardens and multicolour fish: these features have drawn expert divers to the Red Sea for years. But in Jordan you don't have to be certified to have fun – even the casual swimmer can easily and affordably don goggles and enjoy the spectacle.

When to Go

The water temperature is warm (an average 22.5°C in winter and 26°C in summer), making the in-water experience pleasant at any time of year. That said, it is important to bear in mind the high temperatures of summer, which can make it uncomfortably hot on shore with a high risk of sunburn during the day.

Best Times

Late January–mid-May This is the best time to dive weather-wise. Bear in mind that late winter attracts holidaymakers from Amman, pushing up the price of accommodation in Aqaba. Spring is peak tourist season for international visitors and the busiest time for dive centres.

October–November The second-most popular time to dive but prepare for the odd overcast or rainy day, which makes for comparatively disappointing viewing of marine life.

Avoid

Mid-May–September The shore is usually miserably hot in the middle of summer and the risk of burning is high both in and out of the water.

Late December–late January Although usually mild in Aqaba, freezing-cold weather and occasional thunderstorms can sweep in from the desert at any time during winter. Wetsuits are a must and locals will wonder why you're bothering with the sea in chilly weather when you could be just enjoying a mint tea and chatting with friends.

Where to Go

Jordan’s short coastline along the Gulf of Aqaba stretches between Israel and the Palestinian Territories and Saudi Arabia. Diving and snorkelling is focused between the port of Aqaba and the Saudi border. This stretch of coast is protected within the Aqaba Marine Park, part of the larger Red Sea Marine Peace Park, run in cooperation with Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Reefs here are in excellent condition, and the soft corals, especially those found on the Cedar Pride, are beautiful and varied.

There are about 15 sites worth visiting. The majority can be enjoyed by snorkellers as well as divers as they are easily accessible from either a jetty or the beach. Although you can enter the water at any spot along the coast, snorkellers tend to gravitate towards the private beach at the Royal Diving Club.

Sites are not signposted, nor are they remotely obvious from the road. If you want to dive or snorkel independently, you’ll have to ask for directions, or take your chances and search for 'obvious' offshore reefs. On the whole, to avoid wasting half a day trying to find an interesting stretch of water, it's better to take local advice.

Jordan’s Best Dives

The Power Station
  • Location: Around 500m south of Aqaba
  • Rating: Intermediate
  • Access: Shore or boat
  • From a shallow fringing reef of fire coral, a sloping plateau of coral and sand patches leads to a 200m sheer wall, dropping from 12m to a narrow shelf at 40m.
First Bay
  • Location: Next to the Marine Science Station
  • Rating: Novice
  • Access: Shore or boat
  • First Bay is a shallow reef plateau with lagoons and sandy channels leading to a fringing reef of fire coral. Just south is Cazar Reef, noted for black coral trees.
Cedar Pride
  • Location: 5km north of the Royal Diving Club
  • Rating: Intermediate
  • Access: Shore or boat
  • Intact and festooned with soft corals, the wreck of the Cedar Pride is a true highlight with magnificent sea fans, basket stars and rainbows of fish caught in the sunlight.
Japanese Garden
  • Location: 4km north of the Royal Diving Club
  • Rating: Novice
  • Access: Shore or boat
  • Just south of the Cedar Pride, this reef sports large coral heads, including black coral. Lionfish, angelfish and schools of snapper and butterfly fish inhabit the magnificent colourful reef.
Gorgonian I and II
  • Location: 3km north of the Royal Diving Club
  • Rating: Novice
  • Access: Shore or boat
  • Gorgonian I and II take their names from large, solitary fan corals. Nearby wonders include giant cabbage corals and green turtles that feed on the sea grass.
Big Bay
  • Location: 2km north of the Royal Diving Club
  • Rating: Intermediate
  • Access: Shore or boat
  • There are four sites in Big Bay – Blue Coral, Kalli’s Place, Moon Valley and Paradise – which feature lacy blue and black coral. The ‘long swim’ (1km) to the Royal Diving Club is popular.
The Aquarium & Coral Gardens
  • Location: Offshore from the Royal Diving Club
  • Rating: Intermediate
  • Access: Shore or boat
  • The Aquarium is home to a spectacular fringing reef with a giant wall of fire corals. Immediately south lies Coral Gardens, home to lots of reef fish, seahorses and moray eels.

Planning your Dive or Snorkel

The Red Sea has a legendary reputation among underwater enthusiasts. Conglomerations of coral rise from the seabed, shallow reefs teem with brightly coloured fish, sheer drop-offs disappear into unplumbed depths and an eerie, ethereal blue pervades the cut-glass water.

While it is no secret that the Red Sea is one of the world’s finest marine destinations, it’s less known that Jordan has 27km of precious access to this underwater wonderland alongside the Gulf of Aqaba. This is good news for those divers and snorkellers who seek pristine reefs. It is also good news for those who favour an altogether low-key experience; indeed, the whole diving scene here is delightfully relaxed and unpretentious. Even if you have no intention of diving and snorkelling, you may just find yourself lured into the water regardless by the friendly staff at the travellers' camps along the shore.

For a more structured experience in luxury surroundings, the Tala Bay complex offers a full range of underwater activities without the need to shuttle to and from Aqaba.

Clear Visibility

Surrounded by desert on three sides, the Red Sea was formed 40 million years ago when the Arabian Peninsula split from Africa, and it is the only tropical sea that is almost entirely enclosed by land. No river flows into it and the influx of water from the Indian Ocean is slight, resulting in minimal tides and high salinity. It is also windy – on average the sea is flat for only 50 days a year. This unique combination of elements means that visibility underwater is usually unfailingly crystal-clear, contributing to the almost surreal sense of encounter with kaleidoscopic marine life.

High Accessibility

Enjoying the wonders of the deep is easy to organise, with many of the dive sites readily accessible to snorkellers. Dive centres offer accommodation close to the shore – handy for those who want to make diving and snorkelling the main focus of their visit to southern Jordan, and fun for those who just want to enjoy a laid-back, sociable time among fellow travellers.

Those who prefer the buzz and amenities of Jordan’s seaside city can easily find transport to and from Aqaba, making the dive sites accessible as a day trip from town. Tala Bay nearby offers mid- and top-end resort accommodation.

Dive Centres

Trips are easily organised through specialist operators in Aqaba or along the Red Sea coast and many hotels facilitate diving and snorkelling trips as well. There are a number of dive centres with a long-standing reputation for excellence.

Choosing a Dive Centre

  • Choose a reputable dive centre that makes safety a priority.
  • If you have not dived for more than three months, take a refresher dive. The cost is usually applied towards later dives.
  • Check hoses, mouthpieces and valves for cuts and leakage.
  • Choose your wetsuit carefully: it may sound patronising, but in the heat of summer they perish, easily leading to a chilly and unpleasant experience in winter months.
  • Check that there is oxygen on the dive boat in case of accidents.

Costs

The satisfying part of diving and snorkelling in Jordan is that it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. In fact, for under JD10 per day you can bask above fan corals, swim with sardines, tread water among angels and float among clowns. The following table gives a rough idea of what costs to expect. With competitive rates for courses, Jordan is a good place to learn to dive or to enhance your skills at all levels.

Two dives from shore with full equipment and guide

From

JD60

Two dives from boat with full equipment, lunch and guide

From

JD100

PADI open-water diver course

From

JD350

Advanced open-water diver course

From

JD250

Emergency first-response course

From

JD150

Rescue-dive course

From

JD350

Snorkelling Costs

From

From

Full-day mask, fins and snorkel

From

JD15

Full-day wetsuit

From

JD5

Whole-day trip by boat with lunch

From

JD35

What to See Underwater

According to the Royal Marine Conservation Society of Jordan (www.jreds.org), the gulf has more than 110 species of hard coral and 120 species of soft coral forming spectacular reefs. These reefs are home to about 1000 species of fish, including colourful clownfish, parrotfish and angelfish, and a whole variety of life from dolphins to molluscs and sponges. Protected green turtles frequent the dive sites and harmless whale sharks pay a visit in summer.

Buy the plastic Red Sea Fishwatchers Field Guide, which can be taken underwater to identify species of fish and coral.

Internet Resources

Among the hundreds of internet references to help inform your underwater experience, the following are recommended.

Wind Finder (www.windfinder.com/forecast/aqaba) Check on current conditions to ensure you pick the best day for your dive.

PADI (www.padi.com/scuba-vacations/jordan) Jordan is a good place to learn to dive and PADI arguably gives the most trusted certification. Its website has details about dive courses and other diving-related information on Jordan.

Reef Check (www.reefcheck.org) A membership organisation working to save coral reefs in the Red Sea and elsewhere in the world.

Safety Advice

Any underwater adventure incurs some element of risk but with planning and a bit of common sense, the risks can be minimised. It's also worth brushing up on key diving tips before you book your trip. If it’s too late for that, the excellent Princess Haya Hospital in Aqaba is well-equipped for diving mishaps, including cuts, bites and stings. It also has a decompression chamber, where the staff is trained to deal with diving accidents. The reputable dive centres are equipped with emergency oxygen tanks, a first-aid kit and a mobile phone.

Dangerous Creatures

It’s worth familiarising yourself with the main marine hazards before snorkelling or diving – single-page colour guides to the Red Sea’s common culprits can be bought in hotel bookshops around diving areas.

Stonefish A poisonous fish with a nasty habit of lying half-submerged in the sand: wear something on your feet if you’re wading out to a dive site. If stung by a stonefish, you should see a doctor immediately.

Lionfish These have poisonous spikes like stonefish. Calamine lotion, antihistamines and analgesics may reduce the reaction and relieve pain. Some swear by the application of urine!

Jellyfish Sometimes occurring in enormous groups, jellyfish can be something of a scourge in warm waters. Depending on the species, their sting can be very painful. The best remedy is to douse the rash with vinegar.

Sharks In this part of the Gulf of Aqaba, you’re most likely to encounter white- or black-tipped reef sharks. Tiger sharks and the enormous, plankton-eating whale sharks are generally found only in deeper waters. Attacks from these apex predators are extremely rare in this area but obvious common sense applies if you have a bad cut or bleeding wound.

Coral The cuts from coral are notoriously slow to heal. Make sure you clean wounds thoroughly to avoid infection. Unlike the cold waters of northern seas, subtropical sea water is full of troublesome organisms that can cause serious infection.

Crown of Thorns Starfish Known as COTS, these invasive starfish feed on and kill local coral. Divers should notify their divemaster if they spot them.

Other Creatures to Avoid Moray eels, sea urchins, fire coral, blowfish, triggerfish and turkeyfish are better left alone.

Feature: Dive Safe Checklist

Before You Go
  • Are you insured? If things go wrong underwater, treatment in the decompression chamber can cost thousands of dollars. If you hadn’t planned to dive before arriving in Jordan, many of the better dive centres can provide insurance.
  • Have you informed your doctor? Diving can affect your metabolism and if you’re on medication, your dosage of prescription drugs might need to be changed.
  • Have you been drinking? Alcohol dehydrates, especially in Jordan’s dry climate, and increases susceptibility to decompression sickness.
During the Dive
  • Do you know your diving depth limit? The Red Sea’s clear waters and high visibility often lure divers into going too deep. The depth limit for casual divers is 30m – stick to it.
  • Will you remember what your boat looked like? Some dive sites get crowded and boats can look similar from underneath. It’s not unknown for divers to be left behind because they didn’t realise that their boat was leaving.
After Care
  • Have you allowed 24 hours before flying? Divers are in serious danger of decompression sickness if they attempt to fly too soon.
  • Have you allowed 12 hours before leaving Aqaba? As most routes out of town involve an uphill drive, the change in altitude may trigger decompression sickness. If you’re heading for Petra or Wadi Rum, leave your journey until tomorrow.

Feature: The Red Sea – A Seventh Wonder

Ever wondered where the Mare Rostrum (Red Sea) got its name? Some believe it was named after the red sandstone mountain ranges that surround the sea. Others insist it was named after the periodic blooms of algae that tinge the water reddish-brown. But whatever the etymology of the name, the Red Sea is now synonymous with underwater spectacles par excellence – and that’s official! In 1989 a panel of scientists and conservationists selected the northern portion of this 1800km-long body of water as one of the Seven Underwater Wonders of the World.

Feature: Responsible Diving & Snorkelling

The Red Sea’s natural wonders are just as magnificent as Jordan’s historical and cultural splendours – and they need just as much protection. To help preserve the ecology and beauty of the reefs for posterity, please heed the following advice:

  • Do not touch, remove or stand on coral and avoid dragging equipment across the reef. Reefs are easily damaged by unthinking contact with feet and flippers.
  • Minimise your disturbance of marine animals. In particular, do not ride on the backs of turtles or give food to the fish. Yes, sadly, it happens!
  • Avoid large surges of water or kicking up sand with your fins; this may smother the delicate organisms of the reef.
  • Do not throw rubbish into the sea or leave it on the beach. Plastics in particular are a serious threat to marine life. Turtles often mistake plastic for jellyfish, their favourite food.
  • Ensure boats are anchored to buoys, not attached to precious coral, and are not grounded on coral. If your captain is unmindful of this rule, report any misconduct to your dive centre on return to shore.
  • Practise and maintain proper buoyancy control. Major damage can be done by divers descending too fast and colliding with the reef.
  • Resist taking marine souvenirs, which depletes the beauty of a site and is illegal in Jordan. Remember, too, that shells are the 'castles of the hermit crabs'.

Feature: Red Sea Royals

Sultan Ibrahim, king fish and king soldier bream are not the only royals in the water. Diving in Jordan enjoys support from the very top, with King Abdullah II reported to be an avid diver. In fact, his patronage was instrumental in the establishment of Jordan’s premier artificial reef, the wreck of the Cedar Pride. Running aground after a fire in the engine room, this Spanish-built cargo ship was towed back out to sea in 1986 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and sunk as an artificial reef. Today, the freighter lies on her port side at a depth of 25m, within easy reach from the shore, and is now one of the premier dive sites in the Red Sea.

Sidebar: Best Water Activities

  • Best Dive

Cedar Pride The coral-encrusted hulk of this sunken ship is Jordan’s most famous dive site.

  • Best Snorkel

Japanese Garden Shore access and a gradual slope to a colourful reef make this the best place to hoist a snorkel.

  • Best Underground Garden

Gorgonian I Renowned for 16m fan coral and house-sized cabbage coral.

Gorgonian II Spectacular trimming of fire, stony and raspberry corals.

  • Best Turtle Encounter

Power Station Turtles regularly frequent this dive site. Don’t be unnerved by the hammerheads – shark attacks are extremely rare.

  • Best Watering Holes

Darna Divers Village This is the current favourite to dry your flippers while you wet your whistle.

Bedouin Garden Village Swapping fishy stories under a Bedouin tent is an ‘après dive’ highlight.

Cycling

With its beautiful and diverse scenery, relatively uncongested roads, short distances between accommodation and minimal worries about bike theft, cycling is becoming increasingly popular in Jordan. This is slightly tempered by the odd stone-lobbing tot, poor road and route maintenance, and lack of spare parts, but the excitement of the new Jordan Bike Trail more than compensates.

For information and costs for cycling tours, contact Bike Rush in Amman (offers weekly trips), Experience Jordan, founder of the epic Jordan Bike Trail, Baraka Destinations in Umm Qais (half-/full-day tours) and Feynan Ecolodge, with its locally run Bedouin bike shop.

Jordan Bike Trail

The biking equivalent of hiking's Jordan Trail, the epic Jordan Bike Trail (www.jordanbiketrail.com) navigates a path from Umm Qais to the Red Sea. The website has detailed information on the route, including GPS waypoints and elevation charts for each stage, and is highly challenging, even for experienced riders. Described as not very technical, this canyon-crossing trail does, however, include lots of stiff climbs.

Camel Treks

Camel riding is available for getting around the ancient city of Petra (from JD20). In Wadi Rum, camel trekking costs from JD5 for 30 minutes to JD60 for an overnight camel trip. Choose a mounted rather than a walking guide for a more authentic experience.

Horse Riding

Given the Bedouin horse-owning heritage, Jordan is a great place to ride, offering a rare chance to saddle up an Arabian stallion. As these animals are notoriously highly strung, prior knowledge of horse riding is generally necessary.

As well as day rides, Rum Horses, a long-established stable in Wadi Rum, offers multiday camping trips (helmets provided). For a more ad hoc experience, horse riding is available in and around Petra from around JD50 for a two-hour trek.

Rock Climbing

There are many routes in Wadi Rum (www.wadirum.net) best tackled through Shabab Sahra, the only internationally accredited climbing operator in Wadi Rum. This company belongs to the Jordan Mountaineering Association and represents Wadi Rum in this new national forum designed to uphold standards. In Amman, Climbat has a good climbing wall for all abilities with instructors on hand. Popular climbs all around Jordan are detailed in excellent books written by Tony Howard and Di Taylor.

Spas & Turkish Baths

The sky's the limit when it comes to booking a Dead Sea spa at one of Jordan's best hotels. A cheaper option is to book in for a scrub down at the local hammam (otherwise known as a Turkish bath). Costing around JD25, including massage, Wadi Musa has the best selection. It's a great antidote for aching muscles. Women should call ahead for a female assistant.

Running

Runners can email Hash House Harriers (HashemiteHHH-subscribe@yahoogroups.com) to be added to its mailing list for alerts on forthcoming runs. In addition, look out for two annual events: Dead Sea Ultra Marathon and Petra Desert Marathon. Dubbed ‘drinkers with a running problem’ on its website, the HHH organises local runs each Monday from Amman.