Tackling Petra in Two Days

Very few people journey to Jordan without making their way to the ancient city of Petra.  In fact, it is the very reason most people decide to visit the country.  Now Jordan’s most visited site by a wide margin, it wasn’t that long ago that Petra was a forgotten wonder to most of the world.  It remained a secret only known to the local Bedouin until 1812 when Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, under disguise as a Syrian, traversed through the remains of the ancient capital and shared his stories with the outside world.  Since then, the city has been thrust into the world spotlight, enchanting travelers ever since and is now recognizable by most due to its role as a backdrop in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  While Indiana Jones and the inhabitants of the ancient city have long moved on, the decedents of the ancient Nabataeans still roam the dusty pathways and streets, making a living by inviting outsiders into their ancient city of wonder.

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Petra is covered in ancient tombs left by the Nabataeans

What is Petra?

Most of what you see today in Petra was left by the Nabataeans, a nomadic people from western Arabia who arrived in the area around 700 BC.  Due to its strategic location, the area now known as Petra became a lucrative trade center and a permanent settlement for the tribe.  A complex water system developed which allowed the city to grow to over 30,000 in its heyday.  Not having an architectural heritage of their own, the Nabataeans took architectural influences from their neighbors such as the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Romans, as well as Hellenistic influences, creating the unique style found in Petra.  Most of what remains in the park are tombs due to the fact that the Nabataeans lived in tents.  Burials however, were performed in the soft rock of the cliffs that surrounded their land.  While most had to suffice with a simple tomb, the elite and wealthy took extravagant measures in order to make sure they were never forgotten.

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Looking up at Urn Tomb’s impressive facade

By 100 AD, trade routes shifted from land to sea, which shifted them away from Petra.  This cut off the city’s major source of funding and as a result, the city began to fall from glory.  Rome took over the kingdom sometime around the same century, adorning the area with the freestanding structures that you see in along the main ancient street that runs through town.

With the decline of Rome and a series of earthquakes between 300-500 AD, the city fell off the world map and would remain a close kept secret by the local Bedouin until being rediscovered by the outside world in 1812.

Petra Entrance Ticket

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Petra is more than just an archeological site as the geography of the area is stunning

Getting into Petra comes at a high price.  Visitors can purchase one, two, or three day passes.  A one day ticket will cost you 50 Dinars ($70).  Each additional day you choose will cost an additional 5 Dinars ($7).  Yeah… that is pretty pricey when it comes to visiting world monuments but what you get out of the archeological site here is worth it.  Not only do you get to explore the unique remains of the ancient Nebataeans, the national park within the site is worth a visit in its own right.  Rather than buy tickets when you arrive in Petra, it is advisable to buy a Jordan Pass before you enter the country (will explain in a later post).  This post will focus on our two days in Petra, showing you how to get the most out of your trip.

Too Big to See in One Day

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View of the Monastery, One of PEtra’s largest tombs

The Petra archeological site is massive and requires A LOT of walking, unless you want to shell out a lot of cash for a four legged friend and local to guide you around.  To put the size of the site in perspective, just to get from the ticket booth to the main archeological site is a 2.5 km (1.5 mile) walk.  So just getting in and out by foot is going to cost you 5km (3miles) on your feet.  The two most visited sites, the Treasury and the Monastery, are on opposite ends of the site, 3.7 km (2.3 miles) from each other.  Trying to see both of these in the same day means a minimum of 12.4 km (7.7 miles) of hiking and that is leaving out other must-see sites and places to visit while in the park.  Add in the oppressive heat and lack of shade, trying to Super Man your way through the whole site in one day would be hard to enjoy.  Our advice is to split everything up over two days and use two separate entrances in order to get the most out of your time here and to save your feet some unnecessary walking.

Day 1: Treasury and a High Place

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A horse carriage passing through the Siq, the ancient entrance into Petra

All first time visitors to Petra HAVE to enter Petra via the iconic Siq, a narrow winding canyon that makes its way some 2.5 km until opening up to Petra’s most famous site, the Treasury.  Getting to the Siq means visitors should enter the park through the main ticket gate which is just a short, 2km, taxi ride away from the center of Wadi Musa, the main base for tourists visiting Petra.  From the ticket office, shake off the touts offering a ‘free’ donkey ride and follow the wide path until it eventually narrows down to the entrance of the Siq.

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First view of the Treasury from the Siq

Few entrances offer as grand of an opening statement as the Siq.  The deep, narrow gorge remains mostly out of the sun’s view throughout the day, as the narrow path snakes its way down to the Treasury.  Just before the end of the gorge, the Siq takes a dramatic turn to reveal the most well known monument found in Petra, The Treasury.  So recognizable yet still so inspiring, the Treasury’s red columns and decorated facade carved directly into the bottom of a cliff face makes you stop in awe at first site.  The monument, as well as the Siq now behind you is so impressive, that Hollywood chose it as the resting place of the Holy Grail and where Indiana Jones would ride into the sunset until they made that abomination of a fourth Indiana Jones movie (aliens… seriously?).

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View of the Treasury which was used as a backdrop for Indian Jones and the Last Crusade

We feel it is important to let travelers know that it will be difficult to have an intimate experience with the site as it is the place EVERYONE goes to while in Petra.  We visited the Treasury at several times of the day and couldn’t find one without a dozen or so shouting touts and even more tourists snapping pictures away.  Early morning and late afternoon are the quietest times, and I use the word quiet liberally.  Don’t let the crowds disappoint you, as the park is big and offers plenty of individual experiences, even ones that include a view of the Treasury.

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Claire and the Treasury

After taking in the Treasury, take the main path down into the main archeological site.  Comprising of mostly tombs of the wealthy and elite, the rows of elegantly carved out memorials are just a shadow of their former selves, with all of their plaster and paint no longer remaining.  All that remains is a shell of what once was but that shell is more than impressive none the less.

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The street of Facades is fun to explore

When the valley opens up, keep left and take time to look at the Street of Facades.  This line of tombs, set in rose colored stone is the prettiest collection of tombs that are often overlooked by passing tour groups.  Next to these tombs is the Roman theater, one of the very few that were carved rather than constructed.  Opposite the theater is another set of tombs, with the Urn tomb standing prominently above the rest.  This tomb, due to its size and prime location, which looks out into the valley, was later converted into a monastery by the Byzantines.  Follow the path that leads up to the impressive monument and after taking time to explore and take in the view, make your way down the path and hit the trail with the sign indicating the path to the high place.

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Urn tomb seen from below

From here, it is a 1.5km hike up to the high place (place of sacrifice) that offers one of the best views of the Treasury from above.  Along the way, be sure to stop by the Silk tomb and Corinthian tomb that sit next to the Urn tomb.  While the silk tomb is badly damaged, the coloration of the stone, with its smooth swirl of colors is the reason for its name today.  Corinthian tomb is impressive due to its size, which required builders to build a facade above the cliff in order to complete the top of the structure.  After spending time here, start making your way up the path which continually heads upward and is very difficult to lose track of.

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Petra has so many wonderful tombs to explore

The pathway offers many viewpoints, providing an ample amount of excuses to stop and catch your breath and take in the view along the way.  Be sure to check out the theater viewpoint which offers you the best view of the monument, considering they no longer allow people to enter the theater itself.  From here, it’s a downhill walk to the viewpoint area.  Instead of heading directly to the tea tent at the end of the path, head out to the outcrop before it in order to get your first views of the Treasury from above.  This is a perfect spot to eat the hard earned lunch you brought along with you.

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The Roman theater as seen from above

There is something special about observing all of the noise and thoroughfare from above.  From up above, it is usually just you, sunshine, and the silence of the upper valley, which was the  case for us.  Take your time up here, as this will be one of the highlights of Petra.  After you have had enough sun, the two guys that run the tea tent are friendly and do not pressure you to buy anything.  After taking some shots of the Treasury from a different angle, we sat down for some tea and chatted with the friendly locals who ran the place… until they got distracted by a pair of young ladies that dropped by 15 minutes later.

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The High Place above the Treasury is an excellent place to relax and have lunch away from the crowds

Getting back down involves the same route you took up.  By this point, the sun has probably gotten the best of you and you will want to relax for a bit.  The tombs opposite of Urn and Silk Tomb will offer ample shade during this time a day and is nice place to relax and take in the site.  When you’ve had your fill, you can head back towards the Siq where the treasury should be quieter than it was when you first saw it.

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Heading down to the viewpoint of the Treasury

When you get out of the park, don’t let taxi drivers bully you and be firm with your price.  If they refuse, simply walk away and someone is bound to call out after you.

Day 2: Monastery and the Leftovers

On our second day in the park, Claire and I’s primary target was the Monastery, a much larger version of the Treasury perched high up on a mountain top.  There are many notable places to visit along the way, while the hike up to the Monastery offers Petra’s best views and scenery.  Rather than enter the park via the Siq, entering through the side gate outside of the town of Umm Sayhoun will save you a lot of walking and gives you a different view to take in as you enter the park.

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The alternate entrance offers a different view of Petra

The gate entrance is rather basic when compared to all of the bells and whistles invested into the main gate.  With no scanning devices they really have no way of telling how many times you have entered the park.  Because of this, you could arguably get an extra day in Petra if you wanted to.  They will most likely question you why you are entering through this gate and check your passport.  Just smile and tell them you are heading to the Treasury so you wanted to use the closer gate.

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Ancient tombs along the road from the alternate entrance

After getting through the gate, Claire and I followed the road that makes its way down to the valley floor.  Along the way there are some tombs but only one is really worth a look. Turkmaniyya tomb has an impressive inscription in ancient Nebataean which is largely intact.  It is one of the rare examples of this written language.

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Ancient inscription left by the Nebataeans

After getting down into the main archaeological area, keep to the right and follow the signs that indicate the route towards the cafe and Monastery.  Just after the cafe and bathrooms there is a small trail that leads into a valley covered in brush.  A short walk down and a climb up the right side you will find one of the only tombs that actually has frescoes remaining on its inner walls.  A gate prevents anyone from entering the tomb but from the door, it is easy to see all of the artwork that remains, retaining a surprising amount of its color.  It was one of the few remaining fragments that hint towards how impressive the tombs that cover the park must have been.  To head to the Monastery from here, you will need to backtrack to the cafe and make a left.  If you’re unsure of where to go, just follow the line of camels and donkeys accompanied by their owners.  If people aren’t asking you if you want a ride… you’re probably heading in the wrong direction.

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Fragments of some of the only remaining frescoes in Petra

Just 500 meters up the beginning of the trail, there is a small gap to the left that leads to the Lion Triclinium.  The tomb is wedged tightly between the enclosing cliffs and still retains many of the carvings on its outer walls.  Roman looking faces peer out from the top corners of the facade while two lions guard the door of the tomb.  Be sure to check this tomb out either on your way up or back down.

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Lion Triclinium is just off the trail that leads to the Monastery

From Lion Triclinium, the stairway switches back and forth up the valley for another 1.5km before reaching the Treasury.  The valley, surrounded with steep red cliffs that open up to awestriking views every now or then make the hike up to the Monastery worth it even if the Monastery didn’t exist.  You won’t have the place to yourself however, as the Monastery is a popular spot with tourists and touts looking to sell you everything from tea to a second scarf even though you are already wearing one.  Many parts of the route are lined with tents filled with trinkets, while coolers full of water tempt the foolish who didn’t bring any with them.  Despite the rather busy scene, the atmosphere and surrounding nature make it easy to forget the little annoyances that surround you on your hike up.

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The path leading up to The Monastery opens up to some incredible views along the way

The Monastery looks like an exact copy of the more famous treasury down below except for the fact that it is a whole lot bigger. The giant monument was actually a giant tomb, but due to its size, was converted into a monastery during the Byzantine period.  Heading up to the rocks just behind the Monastery makes a perfect spot to stop for lunch and is a lot quieter than the bustle of people down below.  From here, heading to one of the high places in the immediate area are worth while.  On a clear day, you can look all the way out into Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

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The Monastery is much bigger than The Treasury

The Monastery gets pretty quiet in the late afternoon, so if you linger around long enough, you will eventually have the place mostly to yourself.  Once your ready to go back down, it’s a very long walk back down and out of the park.

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Up close to The Monastery

Down below, you will pass the ruins left by the Romans and Byzantines who expanded the city during their respective control over the area.  What remains isn’t that interesting but is worth a look in order to give yourself a break before the long walk out via the Siq.

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Remains of Roman ruins in Petra

Food and Accommodation in Petra

Given that Wadi Musa’s sole existence is to cater to tourists, the town’s reputation has a scam ridden vibe to it.  Have your wits about you and if you feel like you are being ripped off, move on to the next store.  In terms of food and accommodation for budget travelers, don’t expect much.  Both are grossly overpriced and the quality bar is set very low.  When it comes to food, Al Arabi and the Shawarma place next to it are hassle free and offer decent food at an inflated but reasonable price given the rest of town.  Near the center square there are plenty of shops that sell basic necessities and lunch essentials where you can stock up each day.  If you are in need of some sweets or fresh bread, be sure to head into Sanabel Bakery. The staff here is super friendly and often offer you some of their treats every time you stop by.

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Petra views

Hotel deals are some of the worse value in Jordan here.  Expect to pay more than you want for a very basic and just manageable room.  With most options looking the same, we ended up choosing Sabaa Hotel whose only positive quality was a good all you can eat, albeit simple, breakfast.  The cleanliness of the room warranted us to pull out our sleeping bag liners and the bathroom was anything less than desirable.  The majority of the time we spent trying to shower ourselves in scalding water… the only temperature for long periods of our stay.  The room also had poor ventilation, making the room rather humid and making it impossible to dry laundry (after three days my socks were still wet!).  If you decide to use Sabaa Hotel (or any other in Wadi Musa), be sure to view a few rooms as some tend to better than others.

Petra: The Rose City Fit for the Indiana Jones in all of us

Perhaps it is part Hollywood’s fault, but Petra helps bring out the adventurer in all of us.  It might not be the undiscovered ruins we all pretend to find, but it is truly impressive.  Around every corner there seems to be something else to explore in Petra.  Another abandoned tomb, another high place to get a bird’s eye view, another path to take.  Petra is that unmissable sight to see while in Jordan and for good reason.

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Enjoying the view of The Treasury from above

Petra Tips

Petra is located in a rather harsh landscape.  Follow these tips and you should enjoy your time while there!

Bring Plenty of Water

Don’t take a ‘Free’ donkey ride… it isn’t free

Wear a light long-sleeved shirt and pants… there is very little shade

Petra has more than one gate, use the one that is closest to what you plane to see

Get a headscarf.  They work great for keeping the sun off your head and add to your pictures (I think…)

Pack a Lunch.  There are few places that sell food inside the park and it will cost A LOT

Get to a High Place… You won’t forget it and will have it to yourself

Visit the Treasury either late morning of afternoon when crowds are light

Visit the Monastery in the late afternoon

Bring sunscreen with you

Wear sturdy shoes or better yet, hiking boots

Take two days to explore the ancient city and its surroundings

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Petra’s former glory is slowly fading to dust, but what remains today is truly impressive

 

Let us and others know what you think!