If you like canyoneering in the southwestern United States, it might be time to take it to the next level—the Middle East.
Moving to the United Arab Emirates with five children may sound overwhelming, but for the Hyde family it was the perfect adventure. The Hydes had enjoyed the scenic national parks and canyons of the American Southwest for years—they loved climbing, hiking, and swimming. But they were itching for their next adventure. They found it near their new home when they discovered the neighboring country of Oman.
“I might prefer the views of Zion National Park over the views in Oman,” Marc Hyde admits, “but Oman has such a raw, rugged feel to it that one can’t help but be impressed.” In Oman, “there is no canyon rescue, the trails aren’t maintained, marking is marginal; you are really on your own,” Hyde explains.
Fortunately, because the Middle East is a common site for study abroad and business programs, spending a week in Oman while you are in a neighboring country is usually as easy as a quick drive to the border and a flash of your passport.
Here are a few of the best spots that await you in Oman—along with a glance at how they compare with their geographical counterparts found in the southwestern United States.
For the Grand Canyon lover, Jebel Shams offers the highest point in Oman as well as the deepest canyon. It has even been nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Oman. A small cleft near the top of the canyon wall is your trail for a breathtaking hike. This hike leads you to the abandoned village of Sap Bani Khamis, an Omani settlement literally built into the wall of the cliff.
Oman’s “well-worn trails are usually that way because they are still in use by locals as a means of travel from one village to the next,” remarks Hyde. This same raw quality is what makes Jebel Shams so unique. If you spend a long day there exploring the village, no worries. Just go to the nearby tent community where you can rent a room—or Arabian tent—for the night.
For cave swimmers of New Mexico’s Blue Hole, Wadi Shab is a must-see destination in the middle of Oman’s dry, rocky desert. This canyon starts out barren, but it leads you to a cave through thick tropical foliage, boulders, waterfalls, and aquamarine water. Brave adventurers can swim under the rocks and come up in a glittering cave with a huge waterfall to jump from. For the thrill seekers in your group, there is also an underwater tunnel to explore. The tall cliffs and rocks are also perfect for cliff diving—in fact, Wadi Shab was the final stop of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series in 2012.
But these canyons aren’t mere tourist spots. Hyde remembers feeling amazed when he saw somebody doing laundry in a river, as well as a shepherd boy caring for a herd of goats in a canyon. “They weren’t up the Wadi for adventure,” Hyde points out. “That was their home.”
For hikers of the slot canyons of the Subway in Zion National Park, Oman’s Snake Canyon provides a hiker’s heaven for advanced adventures. With huge boulders to climb on, high cliffs to jump from, cool cave pools to swim in, smooth rocks to slide down, and sheer rock walls to gape at, Snake Canyon is completely unforgettable.
Be sure to check the season’s water levels before you go—and bring some rope and a friend to be safe. Though the drive to find this canyon is long, the road winds through incredible sights and past tiny, seemingly forgotten villages that will take your breath away.
For fans of Gypsum Sinkhole in Capitol Reef National Park, Bimmah sinkhole is an intriguing destination in Oman. Bimmah is easy to miss in the middle of the rocky desert near Wadi Shab, but it’s worth discovering. According to geologists, this 65-foot deep, bedrock-edged chasm was created ages ago from the collapse of a limestone cavern in the middle of the desert. The locals say that a piece of the moon fell from the sky and made the hole. They call this gigantic sinkhole Bait al Afreet, or “House of the Demon.” Bimmah is perfect for the thrill-seeking cliff jumper. But if you like to keep your feet on the ground, take the stairs down to the clear blue waters to go for a swim.
Time to Unwind
Your body can handle only so much hiking, so when the sun goes down, the party turns up! There are great possibilities for spending your free time in the evenings.
You can’t claim to be a shopping pro until you’ve haggled at an Omani s’ouq, or market. Here shops are filled with gorgeous housewares, rare spices, and beautiful clothing that will have your friends begging for souvenirs. Grab traditional Omani hats for your guy friends and candora housedresses for your girlfriends and you’ll be voted best shopper of the year.
And don’t forget about food! There are shwarma restaurants all over, so be sure to get the spiced meat, cucumbers, tomatoes, fries, and sauce all wrapped up for a delicious—and inexpensive—meal.
But don’t leave the restaurant without getting the amazing Omani “juice.” To make these incredible dessert smoothies, locals simply blend up fresh mangos, avocados, strawberries, or any other tropical fruit and layer these fruit flavors in a tall glass, leaving all their different colors visible. Then, of course, they top it off with a creamy Omani version of vanilla ice cream. How do you say bon appétit in Arabic?