A few decades ago, Wadi Rum, Jordan, was an off-the-beaten-track stopover for travelers hungry for cultural experiences and a hangout for rock climbers. But over the last 20 years, the stunning desert landscapes have become a magnet for a much more diverse set of visitors, many of whom aren’t ready to head up a vertical cliff.
The locals quickly developed a business model to satisfy their new clients with less time to spare, and the full-day Jeep tour with an overnight stay became the most frequently booked tour.
If you’re planning a visit to Wadi Rum, read up on my insider tips, and make sure you have the best kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience.
One of the biggest problems in Wadi Rum is the lack of transparency around camps, their names, and location. Because, well, every camp is in the desert, it’s easy for you to believe you’re at such and such camp, when in fact you’re somewhere else.
Some people who don’t have a camp or have a camp but no bookings hang out at the Visitor Center or the entrance to Rum Village, and they come to meet you when you arrive. They ask you who you’ve booked with and then say, ‘Oh yes, that’s who I am, come with me. This doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have a bad experience, but if you do and leave a review, you’re not leaving the bad review at the right camp. It also messes up the bookings of the business that stole you because that business may have turned away other bookings expecting you to arrive. Not to mention having prepared food for you etc. etc.
Another problem compounds the kleptoparasite issue. After building up a bad reputation online, some camps rename their camp and add a new listing to TripAdvisor and Booking.com.` Or one camp may have several brothers or cousins using the exact same location for their guests, each person operating under a different business name. I call all these camp listings ghost camps.
Lastly, on Google Maps, the pin doesn’t always coincide with the actual location of the camp. Some people pin their house in the village, hoping this will prevent the first problem I mentioned – so their guest arrives. Others just randomly put a pin where they hope tourists browsing Google maps will see them and book with them.
So what do you do?
Well, first thing, don’t start with booking.com. The platform doesn’t fact-check at all, and there are lots of ghost camps listed. Furthermore, booking.com only lists the accommodation, but the business model in Wadi Rum is to combine the tour with meals and lodging at one rate. What happens next is you’ll get annoyed when you arrive and find the camp owner expects you to book a tour with dinner, and the cheap deal you thought you’d booked isn’t cheap anymore. He’ll lose money if you don’t, so you might find he suddenly gets unfriendly once you don’t want to book, or you end up pressured and talked into booking a tour for a price you haven’t prepared for.
So what do you do?
Sit back, take a little bit of time and look for businesses that have been around for ten years or more. These are not necessarily #1 on Tripadvisor, but you can find their location, a website, see pictures of the camp posted online (and the images are consistently the same).
Look out for blogs written by people who went and enjoyed where they stayed. You can usually see their pictures of the camp and cross-reference those with TripAdvisor and other sites.
Then, book directly with the business you’ve chosen and agree on the package you want in advance. Then you will save yourself from surprises on arrival. Don’t think you’ll end up paying more. You won’t. You’ll end up paying less.
Lastly, when you arrive and people ask you who you’ve booked. Ask them to tell you who they work for first. Don’t tell them where you’ve booked or show them your booking paper. Make sure you have a working phone with you, get a Jordanian Sim when you arrive in Jordan. It’s worth the cost (around 5JD + 1-3JD credit) to know you’ve come to the right place. When you arrive, call the number you have for your guide.
I already covered this above, but book directly with your camp, do your research, and book in advance. The best experiences in Wadi Rum come with planning, not with rolling up and hoping for the best.
Most established camps have a website – if they don’t, they’re probably not established, which means you might be booking with a ghost camp. From the website, you can usually find an email address or contact number. Guides increasingly use WhatsApp, which is easier for them because they can do voice messages. While speaking English is widespread in Rum Village, reading and writing English is less common.
They will appreciate the direct booking – all those platforms charge them a percentage and squeeze their profits considerably. Plus, many people don’t have bank accounts. The villages in Jordan function as a cash economy, so paying the platforms can be difficult.
It’s hard to know what to expect before you’ve been somewhere, but there are frequent complaints from visitors to Wadi Rum, and sometimes these stem from misplaced expectations.
Most people will book a Jeep tour, which usually takes you through the protected area making various stops at places of interest. However, sometimes people will find their guide doesn’t give them enough information about what they visit. On the other hand, some guides provide a lot of information, but they’ve made it all up – to satisfy and please their guests. You’ll be happier if you get one of those guides, but still none the wiser. One of the successes of Wadi Rum is that almost exclusively, the people who take you on your tour are locals (unless you’ve booked a group tour with a Jordanian tour operator who provides a guide for the whole trip – usually from Amman or another large city). Overall, the businesses are strongly locally-led, but Bedouin are not academics. They have fascinating and extensive knowledge to share, but it’s not hinged around the sites you visit—instead, the environment and their culture as a whole. I usually suggest printing off information found on the UNESCO world heritage site and taking it with you. The information can inform your tour and help you to better appreciate the significance of where you visit.
Furthermore, while the archaeological sites and transcriptions found in Wadi Rum have considerable significance and interest, they are not the main reason Wadi Rum is famous. Wadi Rum is not Petra. Wadi Rum is a natural phenomenon, so your tour’s ultimate goal is to experience the desert environment. The Jeep tour is the vehicle that helps you to do that.
Some people want to see something new and unknown, rather than the same places everyone else sees. But when they created the protected area, they also dictated zones as a conservation measure. Jeep tours should only take place inside the red zone on the map and thus, what you can see is limited. You can find guides who will take you into the other zones, but there aren’t defined sites in those zones, so people will complain that the guide didn’t stop at enough places. I don’t recommend you take a Jeep tour outside the red zone because the Jeeps cause damage to the environment, and for the zoning to work, Jeep use does need to be reduced.
Lastly, remember locals lead the tours in Wadi Rum, and it is still a rural area. Schooling isn’t at the best standard, and many boys drop out early – and boys are the ones working with visitors to the site. If they speak English, it’s because they learned from working, not at school. The people who can speak the best English run the business and don’t always take the tours. So have some patience with your guide, and remember you can still enjoy each other’s company without always understanding each other perfectly.
If you plan to visit Jordan, Wadi Rum is an absolute must-see. Words can’t adequately describe the impact the landscape has on people who explore it. Many people say Wadi Rum is the highlight of their time in Jordan, and there are good reasons for that. So now you’re all set with my insider tips. All you have to do is plan, book and go.
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