As is often the case with travel expectations, there’s so much more to a site than what we can see in the confines of a screen or read in black and white letters on a page. Often the real place is a shock of depth, colors and aromas, and the way all our senses are engaged eventually blows past the limits of our own imaginations.
Petra makes just about every influential travel list – top places to see before you die, wonder of the world and it’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. Most aptly named, Petra is Greek for “rock,” and this capital of the Nabateans is carved into the surrounding desert cliffs and sandstone mountains. A trading center and formidable fortress accessible now by a narrow gorge called the Siq, Petra was a bustling city around the 6th century BC, but forgotten by the Western world until rediscovery in 1812.
There are a variety of ways to enter the city, and the Nabateans made sure none were easy. The walls of the Siq reach up to 650 feet high, wrapping you in rose and rust rock striations for about 20 minutes until you spill out at the end of the mile-long path to take in the first peek of the imposing Treasury.
Jordan’s compact size makes it easy to day trip from main cities to most of the top destinations, but Petra is one of those spots you want to give ample, adequate time to explore. Even one whole day and night was not enough to see all I could’ve seen, so factor in plenty of time.
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A rose-red city half as old as time...
John William Burgon's poem describes Petra aptly. A visit at sunrise is a must (the park opens at 6am). The pinks, reds and oranges of the rocks are simply breathtaking in the soft morning light. Best of all–you'll have Petra to yourself (!!) for an hour or two.
Coming from Israel, I organized my visit to Petra/Jordan via private guide through Desert Eco Tours in Eilat (www.desertecotours.com). Our contact there was Ellen–she's a rockstar!
I had wanted to see Petra for as long as I could remember. Knowing nothing about it, simply did not matter. The best advice is to go very early in the morning when people are at a minimum. You enter through the Siq, a long and narrow rock alley. Take your time and take a deep breath before you get your first look at the Treasury. Soak it in. If you're lucky and there are few others, sit on the ground and just stare.
Then move on and explore the ancient city of Petra. There are few if any spots you cannot access; no doubt you could spend three days in this UNESCO World Heritage site. Talk to the vendors selling jewelry, many are original residents of Petra, who only moved out in the last decades.
You can't help but hum the theme to Indiana Jones as you come to the end of the magical Siq - the winding, sand and rock, kilometres long prelude to what has to be one of the most stunning sights of the Middle East. As soon as you see it appearing, your eyes widen, the heart literally pounds and you toss up between running towards this amazing sight or being still for just a moment longer, to absorb the wonder that's in front of you.
Its mammoth monuments, chiseled out of towering cliffsides, are splashed in swirling, natural rock colors of yellow, orange, and red. Petra is more vast than you can imagine (bring decent hiking shoes) and contains so much more than you'd expect. And no, the Treasury, of Indiana Jones fame, is not all there is to see. The Treasury is just the tip of the iceberg.
Spend two or three days here scrambling amid the ruins and hiking narrow trails across the cliffs, far from the main tourist route. This ancient city has much more to offer than its walk-on role in a Hollywood film.
For views of the rugged mountains, take the stone-cut stairs that twist up the hillside, just before Petra's Roman Theatre, to the high place of sacrifice. On the summit of Jebel Madhbah, a preserved altar platform marks the area where the Nabataeans made ritual sacrifices to their gods.
For great photographs overlooking the vast Petra area, walk past the altar, along the summit ridge.
Some of Petra's most interesting monuments to explore are the Royal Tombs, which sit on a ridge, east of the Roman Theatre. The weathered facades lead into empty chambers with walls that display colorful swirls of pink and orange rock colors.
The Urn Tomb is the most popular to visit and is the best preserved, but to get away from the crowds it's worthwhile walking along the ridge to see all of the other monuments that only a handful of Petra's visitors bother to see. The Palace Tomb's three-story facade is particularly impressive though worn and battered by the elements.
Everybody is after the "money shot" of the Treasury glimpsed between the cliff edges of the siq, but an even better way to capture the Treasury is from above.
Just after the Palace Tomb (along the Royal Tombs ridge), a set of weather-beaten stairs leads up to the summit of Jebel Khubtha where there are traces of a Nabataean high place of sacrifice. The views across Petra's central city ruins all the way up the trail are magnificent and would be worth the 40-minute hike alone. At the summit, though, another prize awaits. Take the trail that leads you from the summit and down to a ridge where you can sit and survey the Treasury from above.
The big-hitter monuments of the Treasury and Monastery get all the glory, but Petra's central city ruins are a fascinating place in which to spend some time. Right at the valley basin, overlooked by the Royal Tombs high on the ridge above, a colonnaded street leads you into what was once the heart of the Nabataean capital. The huge Great Temple and Qasr al-Bint are the main ruins to explore, while on the hill opposite are the remains of two Byzantine era churches (only discovered in the 1990s) with some vivid and intricate preserved mosaics.
It's a bit of a hike up to the Monastery, but it's worth all the sweat.
Just past Petra's central city ruins, a steep trail twists and turns up the hill leading you, finally, to the plateau where the Monastery sits. The name is something of a misnomer, as the building was likely used as a temple by the Nabataeans. But whatever its original use, this mammoth monument is one of Petra's most impressive.
Take time to sit at the tea shack directly opposite, to admire the towering facade, and then head up the slope to the lookout point on the hillock above.
Petra is so vast, it doesn't take much to get away from the crowds. If you want to discover more than just the main monuments, pull on your hiking shoes and hit the backroad trails that crisscross the hills surrounding the main valley. Here you'll find shepherds herding flocks of goats in the fields beside monuments that are only visited by a handful of hikers every week.
For a dramatic entry into the Nabataean city of Petra, you can't beat this hike.
Starting from Little Petra (a small canyon with rock facades that once served as a camel caravan trading post) 8km from Petra's entry gate, the trail cuts through the sandy plains of the Wadi Arabah until a stone cairn marks the beginning of a rock-cut staircase threading across the cliff. The views along the way, across undulating craggy mountains, are stunning, but the real prize lies at the end of the trail, where you get your first glimpse of the Monastery's urn peeking over the hill slope.
Everyone marvels at the Treasury upon first entrance to Petra in Jordan. And they should. It's amazing in the "wonder of the world' sense. However, the complex of Petra is not just the Treasury. The Nabeteans, the Romans, and the Turks were busy living and constructing over millennia. Hire a donkey or lace up your hiking boots and head back through the canyons and cliffs to the Monestary - an enormous building carved into the sandstone cliffs.
I walked through the Street of Facades and saw remnants of tombs and homes stacked one on top of the other. The doorways were so dark I wondered if they were a black hole able to transport me to another place and time if I crossed the threshold. I walked past a 7,000-seat amphitheater. I walked on a colonnaded street modernized in the 2nd century AD with columns and porticoes-courtesy of the Romans. Standing there it was easy to picture a bustling city where people lived, worked and thrived off of silk and spice trades. I walked towards the massive Qasr al Bint Temple built of stone around the time of Jesus. Despite what still stood, time and weather had taken its toll on the city. The facades appeared rubbed smooth like a stone used in a stone skipping contest.
After an hour of hiking up into the rocky desert hills surrounding Petra, Jordan, we turned the corner to find a 50-meter-high, columned façade emerging from the side of a cliff. The Monastery is carved out of a solid rock face like most of the ancient town of Petra, and I found it as breathtaking as its more well-known cousin, the Treasury, which stands at the opening of the narrow canyon that serves as the town’s entrance. Established in the sixth century BCE as the Nabateans’ capital, Petra is now Jordan’s most-visited historic site, and the number of tourists can be overwhelming. However, few visitors make the 800-step trek up to the secluded Monastery.
The trail starts behind the Basin Restaurant and Nabatean Museum, and it’s best to go in the afternoon when much of the path is shaded and the sun lights up the face of the Monastery. Another path continues from the base of the Monastery and climbs the facing hill. From the top, you can see the façade below and the hills fading into the distance.
Petra is one of the wonder's of the world and so it is no surprise that people from all over the world converge in this beautiful location. The Bedouin were so friendly and helpful, even when I wasn't buying a donkey or camel ride from them. I met one who took me on a three hour hike to see the Treasury from the cliffs on the other side. Bring good hiking shoes, water, and your camera and just wander through the vast area of Petra and explore the many trails and buildings.
After a day of exploring, I came across a large group of Saudi men which was a bit surreal in the between the towering rocks of the Sikh. Just a reminder that I'm not at home.
You arrive at the gates of Petra, not knowing what to expect. You begin the 1+ mile walk in on a path, seeing caves in the distant mountains. Then you walk through the sikh with the towering rocks on both sides and imagine how many people from distant lands walked the same path before. At the end (and you don't know you're at the end), the sikh opens up. If you walk from the far left wall, this is the first glimpse you'll get of the Treasury. It is magical as it peaks through the cracks and then you step out into the vastness of what we all know as Petra.
Petra deserves more than one day. I spent two days hiking around and was rewarded on day two with this beautiful (and harrowing) view. On my hike up to some sacrifice point, I met a Bedouin man. I asked him about the secret hike to see the Treasury from the cliffs on the opposite side. He offered to take me and so begins four of the most memorable hours of my time in Petra. He took me out of the kindness of his heart and shared stories of living in Petra (yes, some of the Bedouin still illegally live there), of tourists that have come ... and fallen, and more about their culture. I could not have found my way to this spot without him, traveling down and up cliffs, across flat plains, but it was an amazing site.
A little less adventurous? Take the safer route and hike to the cliff on the other side by taking the route behind the Royal Tombs.
But it is beautiful and peaceful to be so high above the tourists down below and so rewarding to meet a local.
Petra is this lovely shade of rusty red. But some of the rocks have these beautifully marbled colors of red, yellows, greens, and whites. I came across this one wall that was so brilliantly colored it just took my breath away. I literally sat there for 30 minutes to enjoy the colors, amazed at what nature can create.
If you go, this rock was on the way to the Roman Soldier's Tomb - well worth the trek.
Staying at The Rock Camp outside of Petra was such a special experience. The camp is about 20 minutes outside of town (but easy to get to) and tucked away in the hills. I don’t know where I read about camping with the Bedouine but once I knew I was going to Petra, I knew this was something I wanted to do … but I also didn’t want to totally rough it (sleeping in cave sounds more glamourous than it actually would be).
Usually they have more guests but the night I was there - it was only me and four Jordanians. What a wonderful night communicating in what little English/Arabic we knew, a lot of smiles, and laughs.
Don't miss out on this opportunity when you go to Petra. You can also camp in Wadi Rum with the Bedouin.
My friends and I had been told of a mineral spring, located off of the Colonnaded Street in Petra, where we could go to cool off. So without thinking twice, we began following an empty side street away from the tourist-populated sites, and ended up on an unmarked path that took us straight into the mountains. Tiny pink wildflowers bloomed on all sides, and the city's infamous rose-colored cliffs were a wonder to look at.
But in ten minutes, we were thoroughly lost.
Luckily, a 13-year-old Bedouin boy, sitting in the shade while his donkey grazed, offered to take us to the spring. Unable to speak much English—and chain smoking the whole time—the boy led us on a silent two-hour trek through dense thickets, over streams and narrow ditches, under scary-looking barbed wire fences, and across some rather precarious bare rock faces that almost had me tumbling into the abyss.
But finally, after much perseverance, and more than a few scratches and scrapes, we reached a medium-size pool wedged in between two vertical cliffs. Our guide remained seated, but we immediately stripped off our clothes and slipped into the cool, neon green water, which felt even more refreshing after the haul.
I took this shot of the boy, whose name we never got, taking a break as we dried off in the sun. He never asked for any money, didn't seem to care who we were or where we were from, and yet managed to offer what was probably the most enjoyable experience I had in all of Jordan.
Tucked away inside the vertiginous rock walls of the siq is the famous Treasury of Petra. In front of its Greek columns, Bedouin men with harnessed camels and donkeys offer rides to tourists, a small shop sells overpriced knick knacks, and people from every country on earth snap photos of the great and mysterious facade carved in stone. If you continue along the path that winds through Petra, passing the amphitheater and tombs on the southern cliff face, you will eventually get to a restaurant, where the buffet-style meal includes several types of hummus. Though there is much more to explore even farther along the path, the crowds will have thinned considerably, allowing you an unobstructed view of the beautiful street of facades, and the time and space to take in the astounding, ancient sites.
This is an experience that you do not want to miss, it is on 3 days a week at 8:30 pm, it cost 12 Jordan Dinars. If you arrive early you will have enough time to wonder around “The Siq” and maybe do a small peekaboo around the corner (if you bring a flashlight) also if you want to take a picture during this bring a tripod
It is totally worth it
PS this is my first post on AFAR
I will say you will need as minimum of 2 days to know 70% of Petra, it is a huge site also i recommend that you bring a camel back that will ease your life and stop carrying those bulky bottle of water that un-educated people throw away inside the ruins
I think i missed a lot an I walked around 40 km on 2 days
Sitting outside the Byzantine Church, deep inside the archaeological site of Petra, Jordan, this serious young lady was set up selling sand to tourists. (Since this is not allowed and something no one should do, most I saw just donated to her for taking her picture.)
She was also willing and charming as a tour guide.
Everyone knows the facade of the Treasury at the entrance of Petra, but what few know until visiting is that Petra is a vast site that encompasses many historic periods. One of the more recent excavations is down the Roman road and up a hill--the Byzantine Church. The mosaics still being unearthed are some of the finest and most diverse I have seen. Be sure to climb up and have a chat with the archaeologists. But remember-you will have about a 1 hour hike back out of the siq from here--almost all uphill!
It was a long walk up to our guide's "special" lunch spot, but well worth it. At the top a very hospitable gentleman was up on the "patio" selling delicious hot tea.
Petra is so amazing!
It was much bigger than I had expected.One needs a few days to do it justice and pictures just don't seem to do it justice. I particularly liked spending time interacting with the people of Petra.
In November 2012, I set off on a 6-day trek across west-central Jordan with Wildland Adventures, from the Dana Biosphere Reserve to the fabled city of Petra, hidden behind an impenetrable wall of towering sandstone cliffs. Our launching pad, and last place of civilization was the Feynan Ecolodge, a shimmering mirage of beautiful, serene accommodations seemingly carved out of the desert itself. Around 4-4:30A, I awoke suddenly. Whether from jet-lagged rhythms or the barking of a dog or just the overwhelming light of a desert sky full of stars, all thoughts of going back to sleep immediately left me. I sat at my window and felt the cool night air, a slight wind swept into the room, breathing and moving like a presence, stirring the silk ribbons hanging from the mosquito netting above. I watched as a sliver of moon rose gold and glowing over the dark embankment just beyond the lodge, instantly recalling one of my favorite passages from Rumi, “The madmen have seen the moon and are running to the roof with ladders.” Following suit, I dressed in the dark & slipped through the silent passageways of Feynan, to climb a narrow staircase to the rooftop. As the sky lightened, young Bedouin shepherds at a nearby encampment released their herds of goats, setting out into the desert along the same ancient paths as countless herds before. At that moment, Jordan - its landscape, its timeless rituals - became a part of me.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade did much to make the Treasury the most recognizable landmark in Petra, and it is truly a breathtaking sight to behold. However, it is the Siq, the gorge that leads from the entrance to the Treasury, that makes the site magical. This 2 km long sandstone canyon is a geological curiosity. The sandstone is a warm spectrum of color and contrast that stretches up hundreds of feet. Along the route, the path is never wider than 3 meters. This adds to the excitement of dodging the horse-drawn carriages that transverse the Siq at break-neck speed. Finally, I understood the wonder that every traveler before me experienced as we walked into the heart of Petra. The last curve of the Siq revealed an obstructed view of the Treasury. The anticipation is almost overwhelming as you walk the last few yards, but at last, the Treasury comes into view. This is the moment that the Siq promised. It is the moment when you think ‘yes, everything I did to get here was absolutely worth it!’
Nothing can compare. You have history, stunning architecture, natural beauty, a landscape that is so rugged that it takes you to the limits of your endurance and a sampling of cultures not found anywhere else I have traveled.