Oh man, what a great stop!
Come on, I couldn’t finish my world trip without at least one stop in the Middle East! Well, that and I had about a week gap to fill before meeting with a friend.
Oman couldn’t have been a better option (some might say Jordan though….ha ha).
I have been interested in going to Oman for quite some time so I was more than happy to finally make it. Somewhere exotic as I know very few people who have been so it seemed off the beaten path to me. Now trust me it gets plenty of tourists but maybe less from the Americas and most tourists end up next door in UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi on layovers) instead. I guess I did too ha ha (I spent a few days in Dubai before arriving…to Oman)
Dubai was nice if you like a Las Vegas feel mixed with Panama, that is very international, an Arab nation with flexibility, loads of shopping, desert beach and luxury type of place.
To me it felt fake since most things were copies of other places in the world, or best of the best (tallest building in the world, largest Led Screen, etc, etc…) Large buildings felt like a crazy Panama to me mostly half occupied and unnecessarily built due to masses of money that is available there (when really Dubai has the 3rd highest number of skyscrapers in the world…after Hong Kong and NYC)… However I did enjoy the multicultural vibe (with the most expats in the world it makes it the second most diverse city in the world), the beaches, being in awe of the Burj Khalifa (Burj means tower) at 2722 ft (829m) high (didn´t go up, I´m waiting for the mile high one ha ha) and for me I actually loved the Dubai mall because it was so entertaining (a dinosaur, aquarium, waterfall and fountain shows wisking you away between the many cool stores, etc etc) – even if I agree that the Mall of the Emirates has a better layout/format lol.
My few days (…I stayed an extra day) in Dubai were spent seeing friends, meeting new ones, exploring, eating and exercising (ha). Then I took an overnight bus (11 pm) to Muscat! (bus information below) I arrived at 6 am to the Muscat, Oman airport where I would pick up a reserved car for the next 5 days. The airport was very nice and quite comfy as I had to wait – aka sleep – a few hours before I could get the car!
I was off on the adventure at 9 am with the luxury and freedom of a car! Such a great change from buses!!!! Randomly ran into one of the Ethiopian Running Coaches I had yet to meet at the airport also renting a car…so I said hello and onward I went. Driving was easy peasy in Oman. Freeways were awesome as if at home, drivers were not in a frenzy, gas was cheap (5Rial for 3/4 tank…um 16$ usd) and unless it was the weekend you had the roads pretty much all for you. You did have to watch out for the random goats (so cute) crossing but they seemed to understand when not to cross lol (donkeys and camels also crossed – these fellas not as smart – less of them though) which made me feel somewhat like I was still in Africa with the animals crossing at anytime. Something good for my transition back into first world, some peculiarities still but nice luxuries I’ve not had in 4 months was quite nice (Dubai malls also fit this bill even if over my budget!) Oh and you should know the highways all have speed cameras…every 2.5 km…which gets annoying – especially when you have no cruise control 😦 – Max speed was 120kph (but you could go 10 over without issues – cop I met told me that) I actually got carried away being as desert driving can be soo boring I actually did pass one going about 132 kmph (2 over the limit!), saw a flash and later found I indeed was issued a $14 usd ticket…bummer but cheap. I recommend bringing a good playlist since the radio was basically in Arabic (yes that is what they speak but plenty spoke English too), call to prayer (Muslim country) and classical music… I had mine on repeat but after hours with the same songs over several days I was over it and better with silence ha ha…I am not sure if the radio is usually better because I visited after the Sultan’s death (Jan 7, 2020 – he was oldest Sultan in Arab nations, 78 yo) so everyone was mourning (for 40 days!) and maybe why the radio was quite boring too…
Anywho, I headed towards Sur along the coast my first day, making stops to see a sink hole (popular but I was not impressed, go if it is really hot out but still a beautiful beach is right there….it is free though and maybe 30 minutes of your time…you decide), the gorgeous but cold (in winter) beaches, hiking in my first wadi (river valley) and just enjoying my drive.
The wadis were one of my favorites from the trip. Great places for adventure, hiking, swimming, places to cool off, lush with plants, peaceful and gorgeous!
I stopped at 2 on my trip, Wadi Bani Khalid and Wadi Shab, but would have loved a visit to Wadi Damm (access only with 4×4 or longer walk from town), Sahtan, Bat or al Ayn (likely also 4×4 access or longer walk). Had I had more days on my trip I would have gone to these. Wadi Shab was first along the coast..a 45 minute hike over rocks in the valley until you reach a pool where you must swim to continue to the waterfall (swim, walk, swim, walk, swimmm). The water was fresh, cool and greenish colored splashed against various shades of reddish and white rocks, some date palm plants and other greenery with a flash of blue sky above the canyon walls…the place to be during hot months (March to November? In the the 40-50s Celsius…sizzling). Wadi Bani Khalid was more on the interior after Sur and seemed more local since the road basically ended a 5 minute walk away. It was required to swim with shoulders and legs covered out of respect for the local culture that shows basically no skin (in the other Wadi you went as you wished but I was shocked to see men without shirts and believe the one piece for women is a better bet since locals do also visit). Here (Bani Khalid) pools are longer and deeper, hiking again is available and there is even a restaurant. I originally went to swim at this wadi because I knew it was big but it took me awhile to decide if I really would since I now had to have clothes on…Eventually, after taking photos and wandering around the canyons and other pools, I did manage to go change and swim with some capri tights and a running t-shirt (swimsuit underneath lol) a nice 800m or so swimming the length of the pool (approx. 125m according to strokes I counted….I am sure it was a tad more knowing me). Bani Khalid also has a restaurant inside (easier access means more developed)…so might not appeal to everyone but for swimming A+.
I skipped Muscat actually and left it for last so my first city was Sur and it was bigger than I expected but it had a nice beach where people ran and played football (soccer) on in the evening, some Omani towers off in the distance and my favorite – the maze of paths between homes full of beautiful doors – cool castle looking roof edges that even water tanks had copied their form to fit in – mosques and other hidden surprises around every turn. Many people go to see the turtles in the evening or early morning just South of Sur but I just wanted to rest so I skipped it though I heard it was great so if there you might check into that (I also heard it can be quite crowded but apparently available year round so up to you).
Day 2 was Desert time for me! It was one of the top things I wanted to do in Oman actually since I have never visited any real desert sand dunes. I didn’t rent a 4×4 so I couldn’t actually enter the desert but found a few spots to see, walk, camp etc among them. I chose to camp at Al Reem Desert camp, not cheap but I splurged and was happy dinner, breakfast and all the tea and dates you wanted were included. The tent was nice…more of glamping, food good, bonfire and guests fun but the camp definitely isn’t on or near dunes except those surrounding the camp which was upsetting since before arriving I was literally a town over climbing real dunes that were amazing…expectation vs. reality. Such a disappointing desert camp (even if accessible by car) that I returned to the actual dunes 15 minutes drive down the road for sunrise….Besides these dunes I was later able to enter the real big ones with 15m high inclines the next day with a couchsurfer I met along my journey. I wasn’t planning on surfing but in Sur I met a guy while in my car who came up to me and after chatting a bit he invited me to join him for coffee (Omanis are very friendly people btw). He happened to be a couchsurfer and he recommended a fellow surfer where I was headed so I actually ended up staying a night with him unexpectedly (I thought I would just do lunch then be on my way). After lunch he took me up to see the town from above…mountain desert oasis’ with white houses and date palms dotted the area…and from there we decided to head to the dunes for sunset…he has a 4×4…so I stayed, and could have stayed more days…but again the time I had was just too short 😦
These dunes were red, golden and massive. I ran up one…well 25 meters (15 meters is vertical but the actual distance walking up is maybe 200m…add another 100m for the loss of distance with each step lol) then a rest…huff puff and again running, repeat until I was on top of them and the road, cars and camel tracks all disappeared… I had the place all to myself. I watched the sun slowly get eaten by the dunes on the opposite side of the horizon but left before it was completely gone since he was waiting in the car (otherwise I would have stayed for a long time). All was good because the cold desert was creeping upon us so I headed down, of course joyfully running down the massive dunes…some places soft while others sturdy…one never knows what you will get with each step at the top but the actual slope down was as soft as can be! We stayed a bit longer to watch the stars from another spot on top of the dunes then called it good. Leaving with a glorious hovercraft type feeling (what I imagine that would feel like floating on air across a surface) back through the sandy road (felt like this because they take air out of their tires before entering the dunes for more traction and comfort too…we do the same in cycling).
The next day I left early to do castles and forts. I had seen two forts already (in Sur) but I was headed to a bigger one so I made my way there.
I arrived to Nizwa (2 hour drive from Muscat – for me it was 3 from Wadi Bani) and what a treat it was, not just a castle but a citadel, full of original homes and all (great for a wander). The castle had been renovated and many rooms were open with traditional objects, decor and it even housed a museum (most other castles lacked this so it was a real treat). It is the most expensive castle to visit…also the most popular but worth it. It cost 10 Rial, each rial being 2.6$ usd! The views from it were nice (especially from the big round tower); the architecture, curves, shadows and lines were impressive; museum was full of information; and well there is plenty to see and many angles to photograph. I spent a few hours inside though you can spend less, I just took my sweet time…which you should do even on a short 5 day trip. It would have been nice to stay the night here and continue to wander around but instead I did only an hour walk, had lunch and headed to Al Hamra, where I could see more intact traditional Omani homes. Once I spotted the homes across the date palm field (dates come from palm trees by the way…I had no idea!…and no it was not season – primarily June to August) I headed over wandering the streets, climbing the stairs of the abandoned, nearly destroyed ancient homes. Each was different, I loved the stairs, the nooks and crannies, different layouts and the colorful ceilings. It was sad to see the homes crumbling but also great to see what they looked like before any renovations… several were already done while others were underway to convert them into guesthouses. Most tourists only go to one renovated house called Bait al-Safah (3 rial), I also visited it and it was quite nice as you can see how coffee, traditional bread, make up and essential oils are made (I even saw some Omani women buying the oil while we tourists visited). Then there are the usual complimentary, not to be missed coffee/tea and dates offered at the end. From here I made my way to one more town, similar to this but on a hillside, a few kilometers away called Misfat…took some photos, watched sunset and then looked for a place to stay. I had decided to take advantage that I had the car and sleep in it…glad I had my sleeping bag liner on me that would be just fine (it was).
My last day plans were to hike for sunrise (did part of W9 trail or route to Birkat Sharaf near Misfat – more info below) which I did but the mountain blocked the sun (semi fail), see two castles (on my way) which I did but forgot my camera charger at lunch and had to return then start again, visit the coach from Ethiopia who was in town (fail because my phone is so full that my whatsapp sometimes doesn’t open – re-fail), run the Muttrah corniche (success), see the Sultan Qaboos Mosque (fail, only open 8-11 am for visitors, do not try on Fridays either)…see Old Muscat (semi fail – all that I saw was at night, which in the end was great because I had it all to myself! and it is well lit) and catch a midnight flight (epic fail – canceled and only partially rebooked…the unbooked was done by phone on hold for hours that never went through – epic loss of life! Grr)
The first castle/fort I visited was Bahla Fort, it was the largest of all of them, seemed more original – still with much of its mud and grass building style visible and was a massive maze to wander around and lose yourself in. It was way cheaper (maybe 3 rial) and is a the only fort/castle Unesco site in Oman (rooms were empty but countless)…I really liked this one, soooo fun getting lost here and climbing stuff. The next one was Jibreen Castle, by far the prettiest of all of them since the inside had colorful ceilings, intricate windows and Arabic writing and design found within. It was small, 5 rial in price (with Audio Guide) and again simply gorgeous! (Some rooms had decor of the past to compliment). My favorite here was the honey date storage room! All castles had them but this was the most intact I´d seen….I loved entering because you could still smell the dates (or maybe that was just me..haha) and think it is so unique to see in a castle but really date farming is simply a huge part of the culture that is was a must…the date palms were gifts to sons and fathers taught their sons how to care for and harvest each tree…by the way Omani dates are delicious, it is the main agriculture for the country, they are the 8th biggest producer in the world and I got a whole kilo for 2 dollars! Both of these payment was in cash but if they felt bad for you, they took out the debit machine…ha ha.
It is easy to see that I really enjoyed my trip here, it is not really a backpacker destination though. Renting a car is almost a must since buses are almost non-existent you might have to hitchhike, the currency is really strong (1 rial is 2.6$usd), hostels I don´t think even exist and the cheapest hotels were maybe 30$ a night if you negotiated well (not all were places to negotiate but you could try). On the flip side the culture is quite intact here, the Omanis are very friendly, it´s safe/safe/safe, food was cheap if you stayed local (I got a dish for 1.5 rials) avoiding the main restaurants, there is so much to see and do, the landscape is diverse (though a desert landscape it does surprise with greenery too), very modern everything and a great entry level Arab country where some flexibility is still found.
Buses were available from the metro station Abu Hail 3x a day for 55 dirham (15$usd) …the bus ride is 6 hours and stops at airports too (useful for renting cars like I did or getting a cheaper flight through Dubai). Bus departs at 7:30 am, 3:30 pm and 11 pm daily…at Terminal 2 in Dubai 10-15 minutes later. I bought tickets at the station on arrival…I did not find an online option
The visa is online (e-visa) to enter Oman was 13$usd for 10 days and took less then 24 hours to process (though can take up to 3 days).