While I was visiting my friend Rasha in Dubai we took a two-day road trip to Oman, the UAE’s bordering country to the east. Oman isn’t well-known as a tourist destination, but it’s beautiful and I’m so glad we made the trip!
We left Dubai on Wednesday morning, heading to Muscat, the capital of Oman. Rasha had a rental car for the time she was staying in the UAE, so we were okay to drive there. However, in order to cross the border, you must have a letter (which costs money) from the rental company saying it is okay.
I had never crossed a country border by car before. The border is a lot wider than I expected. We had to find the customs’ office to get our passport stamped and pay an exit fee for leaving the UAE and entrance fee for entering Oman. The office is not well labeled at all and we got some interesting looks as we were driving through. After you get your passport stamped, they send you through to the next checkpoint where security briefly checks the car. That’s it and you’re through!
On our way back Thursday night, customs coming into the UAE was packed! Since you must have a working or tourist visa to live in the UAE, many people take advantage of the tourist visa by making “visa runs” on the weekends. This just involves driving across the border and coming right back into the country to get a new 30-day visa. In middle eastern countries, the weekend is on Friday and Saturday, so it makes sense why customs was so crowded on Thursday night.
Evening in Muscat
We drove straight to Muscat and arrived in about 5 hours. We stayed at the Tulip Inn, a very reasonably priced hotel in the heart of Muscat. The hotel upgraded us to a suite! I felt like a queen in our huge rooms. Definitely worth the money.
Oman is more conservative than the UAE, so we made sure we were fully clothed before we went to dinner. Rasha let me know that the Omani women tend to not socialize in public, but will gather in each other’s homes when they want to visit. We only saw a few women out the whole night, and they looked to be tourists as well.
Rasha’s friend had recommended that we go to the Kargeen Cafe for dinner that night. I’m so glad we did. The hostess sat us on two couches outside on their large patio. This place has the best atmosphere. I would go back even if the food was terrible (it wasn’t). The restaurant is also a hookah lounge which completely added to the atmosphere. We got an appetizer of hummus and pita and I ate the shawarma (my favorite) for my entre.
Morning in Muscat
We got up early the next morning and hit the road. On our way to our final destination, Wadi Shab, we stopped in Muscat to check out a few sites. We noticed a beautiful mosque when we were coming into town last night so we went up and took a few pictures. I didn’t have a scarf with me and didn’t want to pay the fee to rent one so we observed from the outside.
I had read somewhere that you could go to the outside of Al Alam Palace, one of the ceremonial palaces of the Sultan of Oman. We drove towards it, passing by many white government buildings. When we got to the palace, there were no other tourists around and it felt like we shouldn’t be there. We drove by and snapped a quick picture while in motion before hightailing it out of there. We saw the impressive Al Mirani Fort on our way out of town.
Driving in Oman
Oman has an amazing highway system! I was honestly expecting it to be two-lane roads the entire way for some reason, but it was just as nice as any highway in the US if not better. The highways are relatively new and we could tell by the way the locals used them. The first small town we drove through, we freaked out when we saw a person walking in the middle of the road. Not something you want to see when you’re driving 120 km/hr (~75 mph)! It looked like they plopped down the highways right on top of these towns, with no other way for citizens to get across, so they just walk.
One annoying thing about these highways is that lots of the exits aren’t named. The sign just says “exit”. That made navigating challenging. We noticed that we were going through a ton of roundabouts and on the way back we decided to count them to pass the time. Turns out, they’re strategically placed every 7 km (4.35 mi). Another thing to mention is that we saw several donkeys on the road. They were confused because they had found a break in the guard rails and then couldn’t figure out how to get back to the other side of the rails.
When Rasha suggested stopping at a sinkhole on the way to Wadi Shab, I didn’t really know what to expect. We pulled off the highway on a small road and ended at a nice little park. You walk through the park for a bit and then you see it! A giant hole in the ground with pretty blue-green water in the bottom. They even put a staircase into the hole so you can climb down inside and get in the water if you wish. We went down to the bottom and there were a couple people swimming. I decided to pass because the water didn’t look super clean.
We decided to use their bathrooms because we had no idea when we would get another chance. They didn’t smell great and were out of toilet paper, so luckily we had a couple napkins with us in the car. We hit the road again with our next stop being Wadi Shab!
We pulled into the parking lot and I was amazed by how beautiful it is. The term “wadi” is the Arabic word for a valley or canyon. Wadi Shab has a river going through it and lots of vegetation along the way. Visitors can hike along the upper canyon for the first part of the trail, and then you must swim or wade in and out of the water for the second half. At the end of the water, there is a cave with a waterfall inside.
The water is a breathtaking turquoise color. When we got out of the car, a herd of goats approached us hoping we would feed them. The Wadi hike actually starts on the other side of the river. There are several men hanging around by their boats to take hikers across. It costs about $3 per person to get across and you only have to pay on the way there.
Rasha and I started the hike. I couldn’t help but think that this place looked like a mirage, with the beautiful water and palm trees everywhere. It was a hot day: 90 degrees the whole time we were there. Since the culture is so conservative, we hiked in long pants and short sleeve tops. I wore Tevas so I could keep my shoes on when I got in the water.
You start out hiking up on the upper rim of the canyon, looking way down to the river below. Then you climb down a series of steps and rocks to get closer to the water level. You even walk over an aquifer at one point that is still used for agricultural irrigation in the surrounding area! At one point the trail ends and you can only continue by water. Since we planned ahead, we didn’t have anything that couldn’t get wet so we jumped in and continued on. The water is cold and it felt amazing once we had worked up a sweat from our hike. The river is mostly shallow enough to walk, with the exception of a few parts.
When you get to the cave at the end, you have to swim through a deep and very narrow passage to get inside. The current from the waterfall had me struggling a little. The waterfall inside has a rope to assist jumpers to climb to the top, but we just hung out on the side and observed.
Once we got back out to the dry part of the hike, we laid out on a big rock to dry off a bit. We had kept our pants on during the swim to stay conservative. The dampness helped keep me cooler on the hike back. We got back to the car and changed in the restrooms near the parking lot.
The drive back to Dubai was about six hours so it was dark by the time we crossed the border. I noticed that there were street lights everywhere out in the middle of the desert. You really don’t even need headlights. Driving through the desert reminded me of being on a ship in the ocean, with nothing else out there. So peaceful.
Oman Road Trip
You may also be interested in: