Northern Oman: a backpacking experience

We’ve visited Oman in December 2018, starting our journey from Dubai, UAE. We decided to do so because of the low travel costs from Dubai to Muscat by public bus (Mwasalat, Omani owned) compared to the airplane tickets costs. We definitely took the best decision for us, since travelling with locals (and on ground) gives you the opportunity to have a more authentic experience and immerse yourself in the local culture.

Oman is currently rulled by Sultan Qaboos, leader who is loved by everybody that we met. They are also an important producer of dates, these being an icon food for them. It is a very safe country (one of the safest countries in the world) with extremely nice and welcoming people. Back home, when we started planning for this trip, I have to admit that we got a little scared, fuelled also by the lack of relevant information available online. After reading some reviews from other travellers it seemed that renting a car would be quite difficult because the traffic is quite chaotic (?!). Completely wrong! The traffic, even in Muscat, was a lot lighter than in Bucharest, Romania, people were driving safely and almost everybody showed respect towards the traffic rules. The roads are amazing (even in the middle of the desert you will find highways in perfect condition), the road signs are bilingual (both Arabic and European alphabet) and in case you get lost be sure somebody will stop and try to help you. In addition to this, once you will start planning you will discover that inside the cities busses are not that many and choosing this will make you loose a lot of time.

Below you can find our 7 days self-drive itinerary:

Day 1:

We took the bus from Dubai (Mwasalat office near Deira City Center, also found on Google Maps as Oman National Transport Company) at 7:30 AM and stopped 2 hours later at the Hatta border crossing point. Here you need to pay 10 euros/4 OMR/35 Dirhams/person for exiting the UAE. You can also pay by card or withdraw money from the ATM inside the building. We were here 10 minutes away from the next stop, the Oman border. Here the luggage and bus check was quite strict, a policeman lined us up, together with our luggage, and together with police dogs checked everything.

After another 10-minutes drive we got to the Omani visa point, a very beautiful and clean building. Due to the fact that we already had the E-visa the process lasted for 2 minutes and got the visa stamp in the passport in return for the E-visa confirmation papers received by e-mail. The bus trip lasted for 6 hours in total.

We rented a car from the Muscat Airport (among the last stops of the bus) and also bought a SIM card from Omantel (7 OMR for 3 GB and 2 OMR for calls and text messages).

For the rest of the day we chose to spend some time at the Azaiba beach, a secluded place used by people for social gatherings, walks or working out. We found there a trailer selling freshly cooked chicken kebap, paratha, grilled corn and drinks, and for 1.5 OMR both of us had a perfect dinner.

Day 2:

We started the day very early, as follows:

  • Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (starting with 8 A.M.): amazing mosque, this is a must visit if you find yourself in Muscat;
  • Oman National History Museum (1 OMR/person): small natural history exhibition, also including the skeleton of a Whale;
  • Oman Oil and Gas Exhibition (free visit): highly recommended, you will find there 2 impressive and educational exhibitions – EcoOman and Oil and Gas;
  • Muttrah District: the parking fee is 100 baisa/hour, paid at the automatic machines (free between 14:00-16:00). Here you can enjoy a walk on the seafront towards the Corniche, the Incense Burner monument, Muttrah Fort and the souq;
  • Al-Alam Palace: this impressive palace with a beautiful square around it is also a must visit in Muscat;
  • Old Muscat Gate;
  • Royal Opera House;
  • Azaiba Beach: be careful to the road, since you need to cross a significant sand lane.
Muttrah District
Incense Burner
Corniche
Al Alam Palace by night
Gardens of the Al-Alam Palace

Day 3:

We left towards Sur in the early morning. The highways are in an extremely good condition, illuminated everywhere, and you can find gas stations very often (prices of goods sold here are the same as in supermarkets). On the way we stopped for:

  • Wadi Dayqah Dam: impressive dam with a view towards the mountains and a small park near it;
  • Bimmah Sinkhole (free): you need to cross through a small park to get to the beautiful hole filled with water. You can take a swim either here or across the road where there is a beautiful natural beach. Be careful to the goats that are very attracted by people (‘gimme some food hooman’) that might get into/on your car;
  • Coastal road between Bimma and Fins: our AirBnb host in Muscat gave us this amazing tip. If you get the coastal road from Bimma to Fins and drive very slowly you have high chances to spot Arabic Gazelles. And we did! Lots of them! This will be your on-your-own safari experience and as a plus you will cross through beautiful small villages;
  • Wadi Tiwi: leave your car at the beginning of the wadi and take a 1-2 km walk throughout this natural beauty to its highest point. On the way you will for sure meet locals;
  • Sur: the accommodation we chose was located in the old part of the city, near the main market/souq, which became alive at night. People were selling everything, from fish directly placed on the ground, to fruits, vegetables and clothes. We were the only tourists in the market at that time;

If you visit Sur make sure to plan at least a dinner/lunch at Zaki Restaurant (we ended up coming here for all main meals in Sur). They have separate areas for men and families (single women need to go to the family side), and also separate small rooms for a traditional dinner with your family/friends. The food was very good (try their paratha and biryani) and the cost of a 2 persons dinner/lunch was 3.5 OMR.

Wadi Dayqah Dam
Bimmah Sinkhole
Arabian Gazelles – coastline from Bimma to Fins
Wadi Tiwi from its highest point

Day 4:

For the next day we chose to visit the surroundings of the Sur area:

  • Old Castle Museum in Al Kamil Walwafi: entrance fee 2 OMR/person. The museum is quite secluded, located on a non-paved street but it is definitely worth a visit. The owner turned his house (which is more like a small castle) into this museum, gathering all types of traditional Omani objects. He invited us for a coffee and dates and had the chance to discuss more with him. He is a very open person and interested to get to know his guests;
  • Al Saleel National Park (free): they accept only small group without a prior reservation. We were the only tourists and were able to enter the gazelles area;
  • Sharqiya Sands: we took one of the roads going out of the city of Al Wasil until the end of the pavement. In that point we parked the car and continued going on foot towards the heart of the desert. Here you can witness an amazing sunset.

Day 5:

We left Sur in the early morning and drove to Nizwa. We used this day to get to know the city and just observe the people. What you can visit:

  • Nizwa Fort: 5 OMR/person. Closing time is 18:00;
  • Nizwa Souq.

Day 6:

You cannot visit Nizwa without visiting the Goat Market. I will include below our itinerary for the day:

  • Nizwa Goat Market: organized every Friday, make sure you get there around 6:30 A.M. You will be able to see the animal market (goats, sheep, bulls), guns market and food market as well. There were only a handful of tourists, but this is an amazing experience and although you might not trust me now make sure you get there. You will understand my point;
  • Hiking in the Jebel Shams Canyon: we arranged this hiking trip with a local guide through the recommendation of our AirBnb host, guide who became our friend thanks to this experience. The price per person was 60 Euros and included the off-road trip from Al Hamra to the start of the trail. The hike lasted for around 4 hours roundtrip, including a stop for swim in a secluded natural pool in the mountain.

Yahya was an amazing guide, very open to share with us everything about his culture, so do not hesitate to contact him if you want to have an interesting experience in the area:

  • Name: Yahya Alabri
  • E-mail: Yahyaalbri100@gmail.com
  • Phone no.: +968 93233988
  • Website: www.canyonadventurestours.com
  • While in Al Hamra, stop for a traditional Yemeni meal at Reem Al Yamen Restaurant & Kitchens. Do not expect to find a fancy restaurant, the tables and chairs are made of plastic and the actual outside eating place is on the sidewalk, but the atmosphere is special and unique.
Nizwa Goat Market
Nizwa Guns Market
Jebel Shams Canyon
Natural pool inside the canyon
Al Hamra from above

Day 7:

We started this morning with a traditional Omani breakfast in Al Hamra, from where we left to:

  • Al Hoota Caves: 7 OMR/person. It starts with a trip towards the beginning of the cave by train, am then a 30 minutes tour inside;
  • Bait al Safah Museum: 3 OMR/pers. This is a must see if you want to know more about the traditional Omani lifestyle;
  • Misfat al Abriyyin: took a walk throughout the old city, stopped at Al Misfah Hospitality Inn and had lunch at Misfah Old House (5 OMR/person).

After the noon we left to Muscat in order to catch the Mwasalat bus to Dubai, with a stop at the Azaiba beach. Inside the bus women and families are arranged to sit in front, and single men at the back of the bus. There were 3 stops:

  • 1st one: at the exit border from Oman;
  • 2nd one: at the Hatta border for the UAE entering formalities;
  • 3rd one: luggage check: women and men are separated in 2 lines and taken to different buildings, together with their luggage and a rigorous check is conducted (all the belongings are checked, with a special interest in personal medication, cosmetics and electronics).

Accommodation costs:

  • Muscat: 60 Euros/2 persons/2 nights, link here
  • Sur: 58 Euros/2 persons/2 nights, link here . However, although people were very nice and the location was perfect, the place was not that clean, so I cannot reccommend this hotel
  • Nizwa: 74 Euros/2 persons/2 nights, link here

Transportation costs:

  • Bus ticket Dubai-Muscat: 90 DHS/person/roundtrip, bought 1 day in advance;
  • Rental car: Kia Rio, 230 Euros/7 days with full insurance from Thrifty (the office from the Muscat International Airport) via RentalCars.com.

Other costs:

  • Gas prices: 211 Baisa/litre;
  • Food costs: generally very affordable prices for very good traditional food.

What to eat:

  • Dates: all types of dates, you fill find them everywhere and they are truly a landmark of the area;
  • Omani bread;
  • Kayak tea;
  • Omani sweets: you can find them also in the supermarkets, freshly made;
  • If you like Indian food Oman is the place for you to be, since there are a lot of Indian imigrants here, and thus lots of Indian restaurants.

Good to know:

  • Keep your eyes open, you might see local wildlife everywhere outside the big cities, walking freely: camels, Arabic Gazelles, donkeys, goats, etc.;
  • Do not be afraid to interact with locals! This is the only way for you to have authentic experiences and for sure you will make some friends also;
  • The roads are in a perfect condition and the traffic is light even in the capital city;
  • Public transportation is not the fastest mean of transport, the distances are long, thus in case you have the possibility try to rent a car;
  • Respect the local traditions and laws. The Omani system of law is a tough one and you might risk prolonging your vacation (but not for pleasure 😊 );
  • Locals are very helpful and a big part of the population speaks English;
  • The best season to visit Oman is the European winter, since in summer temperatures are quite high (around 50 degrees Celsius);
  • Drones are forbidden in Oman. Amthough we crossed the border easily with one, we found out during our stay that you might even go to jail for using it;
  • Try to apply for the E-visa since it cuts a lot of waiting time and trouble for you at the border. The application process is simple and online, and you get your answer in a few days maximum.

Useful links:

https://mwasalat.om/en-us/

www.canyonadventurestours.com

https://evisa.rop.gov.om/

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