Not to throw my husband under a bus, but… those three letters, “b-u-s,” made his palms sweat as we began discussing Intrepid Travel’s Trek Jordan trip. “Will we be stuck on some mega bus rolling all over Jordan?” he asked.
Though I had not yet participated in an Intrepid trip either, I knew enough about the company to be certain this is not how they roll. “Intrepid is known for small group, sustainable travel. No mega buses,” I promised. “Besides, we will be walking all over Jordan.”
It was the walking bit that attracted me to this trip, though I admit feeling a bit apprehensive, too. The word that made me nervous was “itinerary.” You see, Matt and I have been traveling the world, independently, for nearly four years. To describe our travel style as “spontaneous” would surely elicit laughter from anyone following the journey. We rarely plan in advance, often selecting destinations at the last minute based on airfare deals or departure boards of the nearest train or ferry station.
Could we handle eight days packed full of scheduled activities? Would our independent natures conflict with the group dynamic? Would there be space for spontaneity? What does the group tour offer that we can’t achieve on our own?
The answer to the last question is what inspired us to take the leap. Trek Jordan’s route highlights a range of landscapes from hiking along shepherd trails descending to the Dead Sea to scrambling up sand dunes in Wadi Rum, experiences nearly impossible to re-create on our own, in limited time, if at all.
READ MORE: WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO JORDAN
I had long dreamed of visiting Jordan and yearned for this kind of experience, beyond snapping Instagram-worthy shots of Petra, I dreamed of pilgrimage.
We agreed that this immersive travel philosophy was a fit (even for stubbornly independent us) and enthusiastically joined the trekking group. And once in Jordan, we discovered that every step along the path revealed more diverse and beautiful landscapes than we realized existed in this area of the Middle East. Though epic settings would come to be only part of the magic. Sharing this pilgrimage with like-minded fellow travelers and knowledgeable guides offered the opportunity to connect and engage on levels we never imagined.
Here’s what we loved about traveling with a group:
It turns out that anxiety-inducing “itinerary” was one of the biggest perks. When we travel independently, the time and attention required to coordinate logistics is often overwhelming, sometimes enough to diminish the joy of travel. With the group tour, nary a precious moment was wasted navigating transportation schedules or haggling taxi fares. There was no fretting over directions or accommodations.
We were free to focus fully on the experience and beauty unfurling in every direction, which was nothing short of liberating.
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Cultural immersion with every step
Did you know Jordan has a literacy rate of 95.4%? Or, do you know the moves of a Bedouin wedding dance? Neither did I. Traveling with a local guide, in a small group setting, offers wide-open opportunities for discussion, learning and understanding.
Our guide Usama became our window into all things Jordanian, from history and religion to food and music. Every activity, whether trekking through the sand or riding in the van, was accompanied by stories, conversation and – yes, even dance demonstrations. Usama shared his vast knowledge and passion for his culture in a manner that was engaging and relatable. No guidebook or app could bring us independent travelers close to this level of immersion or insight.
Speaking of guide books, those trusty tools can point you to a good restaurant, but can they walk you there, introduce you to the owner and order up a feast of local specialties? Nope, but your group tour guide can and likely will.
Usama shared his expertise not only on the trail, but also with suggestions for our downtime and optional activities. When we arrived to the village outside of Petra, he asked if anyone wanted to join him for dinner in a friend’s home. Though everyone was exhausted from the sweltering trek, every member of our group enthusiastically accepted the invitation.
As we sat together on our host’s living room floor with their children and extended family, we shared a home-cooked feast of Jordanian specialties, along with stories and laughter. Through our guide’s connections, we gained access to the very soul of Jordanian culture and hospitality – an unforgettable privilege.
READ MORE: 7 FOODS YOU SHOULD TRY IN JORDAN
Traveling with a group allows you to view experiences beyond your own lens. Take for instance, day one of our trek. As we walked 14 kilometers to reach Earth’s lowest point at the Dead Sea, Usama talked of the footsteps we followed, sharing stories of religions layered in these Jordan Valley sands (Christianity, Islam and Judaism).
Interfaith dialogue was only part of the discussion, however. Along the way, a geologist in our group pointed out features in rock formations and an engineer talked about the impact of damn projects on River Jordan.
My cycling-obsessed husband engaged a conversation about bike trails (There is a new Cycle Jordan tour, by the way.) Me? I wanted to know everything about the intersection of culture and fashion. Do colors or patterns convey meaning in the keffiyeh worn by many Jordanian men? What about hijabs worn by some women? (Turns out, yes to both.)
As random as these topics may seem, each became part of the cultural patina. And, as each traveler’s unique background revealed through questions and stories, the group gained a diversity of insights and perspectives.
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Partners in adventure
Traveling with a group encourages you to jump in – sometimes literally – to new experiences. Upon reaching the Dead Sea resort hotel, we had a few hours of downtime before dinner. Matt and I ventured to the beach alone to dip in the famously salty waters. As the shore came into view, the scene was surprisingly intimidating. Dozens of bathers, in every direction, covered head-to-toe in thick, dark mud. “Do we really want to do this?” I wondered.
Then, someone shouted our names and we looked to see a spontaneous gathering of our fellow trekkers at water’s edge. Together, we braved the full-body mud masks, then took the plunge, bobbing and laughing through the whole weird experience.
READ MORE: 8 THINGS YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY DO IN JORDAN
Built-in support team
From lost luggage to dehydration, our group was what you might label, “incident-prone.” Through each issue – those pesky things that can and often do go awry when traveling – we rallied around each other, offering support, encouragement and needed doses of humor.
Whether administering first aid or traveling en masse to the local police station to file a report (to ensure insurance luggage reimbursement) – an experience in itself – we functioned as a team. Far from feeling alone in the world, as Matt and I often feel as we travel independently, for eight beautiful days, we were offered a support network, safety net and tribe of friends.
That companionship is perhaps the grandest bonus of group tour travel, at least it was for us.
Ready to experience the magic of Jordan for yourself? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours there.
(All images courtesy of Jess Simpson and taken on Intrepid’s Trek Jordan trip.)
Thanks Jess for your article! Love the view of the Dead Sea. It’s an awesome experience to be there in person that cannot be caught by photos, never the less I have also written a travelers review of Petra, and some photos and videos if anyone would like to check it out, called “20 Pictures Of Petra To Inspire Your Travels”. Visit Jordan and you will not regret it!
Stay cool guys!