Built by the Nabataeans in the 4th century BC, Petra (or Raqmu as it was known before the Romans renamed it) is without a doubt one of the most stunning places I have ever been to. Hidden at the end of a narrow gorge known as the Siq, you’ll find huge buildings with intricate designs that have been carved directly into the rocks. The fact that the city was pretty much abandoned after an earthquake in the 550s destroyed most of the free standing buildings, leading to it remaining largely hidden from the wider world until the 19th century, only adds to Petra’s wonder. Named as a UNESCO world heritage site in the 1980s and as one of the new seven wonders of the world in 2007, Petra is now most definitely known to the wider world. Arrive early to make the best of your trip.
Top 5 things to know before you go to Petra
It’s worth getting up early.
Arriving early made such a huge difference to our experience, and I would strongly advise you to do the same. We started our visit at 7.15am (it opens at 6am so go earlier if you can) and left at 2.30pm, and the difference in the crowds was remarkable. Once midday hits, all the day trips from Amman, Aqaba and even Israel have arrived. Our walk through the Siq in the morning was a peaceful stroll that allowed us to take in and appreciate the breathtaking scenery. Our walk back out was busy, loud, and largely spent navigating our way around tour groups and avoiding the horses and traps that come hurtling down the bumpy path at an impressive speed. If you do decide to venture into the middle of the path to take a picture, you won’t have long – as soon as you hear the shout of ‘beep beep, no steering, no brakes!’ it’s time to get back to the edge sharpish.
You’ll walk a lot.
Be prepared for LOTS of walking (I think we did 20km over 7 hours), so wear comfortable clothes and appropriate shoes. There’s also not a lot of shade, so take a hat/umbrella and sun cream. The main tourist trail is largely flat, but there’s lots of stairs you’ll want to climb and hills you’ll want to hike so you can see more. You can get camel and donkey rides to reduce the walking, but be weary of the people selling them telling you it’s another one or two hour walk from wherever you are to wherever they’re offering to take you – I promise they’re exaggerating.
Take your own food.
Once you’ve gone past the ticket office there’s only one place to get a meal inside Petra. It’s expensive and not that great so I’d strongly suggest you bring a packed lunch. (You can’t go out and come back in again, and it would take too long anyway). Most hotels will make you a lunch if you let them know the night before, or there were a couple of small shops near our hotel if you want to do your own. Make sure you bring plenty of water too – you’ll be walking a lot and again, the water inside is extremely overpriced. We ate out in the evening before and intentionally bought too much pizza. We wrapped it in foil, put it in the fridge in our room, and it made a for a very tasty lunch the next day!
Go over two days if you have the time.
Our schedule was too tight to allow it, but I think the best way to experience Petra would be over two days. That way you can have two early mornings there without so many other people, and have plenty of time to wander and explore some of the sites off the main tourist trail. There are other advantages to going over more than one day: you can do more of the hikes and on day two you can go in through the back entrance via Little Petra. If you do intend to go for more than one day remember to buy the right Jordan Pass.
Petra by night.
If you can, be there on a Monday, Wednesday or Thursday evening so you can enjoy Petra By Night, a candlelit tour starting at 8.30pm which costs 17JD. We weren’t able to do this, but have a look at this fantastic post from the walk my world blog to find out more.
Planning your time in Petra
There are a number of ways to spend your time in Petra, with a range of walks and lookout spots (including the High Place of Sacrifice and the Monastery) beyond the main tourist trail. My advice would be to do the main trail and then work out what you have time for, bearing in mind that there’s a 2km walk from the ticket office to the entrance of the city itself. If you’re dead set on doing the Monastery Trail, head to that point fairly quickly as the hotter it gets the harder it will be.
When you first arrive at the visitors’ centre you’ll need to buy your ticket or show your Jordan Pass. This is the best place to get a guide if you want one. It’s 50JD for two-three hours, and they’ll take you from there to the Basin at the bottom of the Monastery Trail. We didn’t get a guide but I have a friend who did and said she got a lot out of it. There’s plenty of signs throughout, plus an endless amount of information online, so I think this one just comes down to personal preference. Look out for the information stand though – the man there gave us a really great overview of what to expect and look out for, and was really helpful.
Once you’re done there you can walk through the market stalls to the start of an 800m path which will take you to the beginning of the Siq. Included in your entry is a horse ride along this path, but a tip will be expected at the end. We were told that if you offer 5JD they will say 10JD, if you offer 10 they will say 20, so to give what you’re comfortable with and then walk away.
At the end of this path you’ll come to the start of the Siq, a tall and narrow gorge (just 13 feet wide in some places) which helped to keep Petra hidden for so long.
After 1.2km you’ll get your first glimpse of the Treasury, which is a truly awesome moment.
This is the best preserved building in Petra, and it’s genuinely mind blowing to think people used hand tools to carve this huge structure directly out of the rock thousands of years ago.
If you’re fit enough, there’s a steep climb to a lookout on your left which will give you some great views.
From this point, just keep following the main trail to see all of the most impressive parts of Petra.
At the end of the path you’ll reach the base of the Monastery Trail. It’s 800 steps up, but they are spread out over 1.3km with some flat and some not so flat sections in between. With an OK level of fitness you can make it up here in around 50 minutes, longer if you want plenty of breaks. Alternatively a donkey ride, costing 10-15JD one way, will take about 25 minutes. Be warned though, two of us started this and only one of us finished. Going up steep uneven paths on a donkey which seems to enjoy going near the edge is not for the faint hearted. I’m not sure that being told by the handler to ‘close your eyes and open your mind’ helped much either…
If you do decide to get a ride, make sure you check that the animal looks in good health and well cared for – there have been reports of maltreatment.
Either way it’s not an easy path to the top, but it’s totally worth it. The Monastery is the largest building in Petra, and it’s beautiful. There’s a cafe and some bathrooms, and, if you have any energy left, another short hike to a stunning lookout.
On the way back down I discovered that while holding on to the donkey for dear life I’d made a number of promises to visit various stall holders on my descent. I didn’t have time to stop, and while some were understanding others were less so. (I did get my hopes up at one point when my sister thought she had made the promise to a particular woman, but apparently it was ‘donkey lady’ – not the best nickname I’ve ever been given). When my sister and I apologised to another woman and said to have a lovely day, she responded by shouting to ask how she could have a lovely day when it had started with a LIAR on a donkey? Brutal.
Once we’d had lunch, we didn’t have enough time (or to be honest energy) to do the High Place of Sacrifice Trail, but I’m told the views are pretty impressive. As we walked back out of Petra there were so many more people than there had been in the morning, and all of us felt the 6am wake up was absolutely worth it.
Where to eat in Petra
We had breakfast in the hotel but ate out in the evening. The restaurant we went to, Oriental, had decent food for a decent price (56JD for five meals and soft drinks – remember Petra is expensive), took card, and was really close to our hotel. This is where we got the extra pizza to take for lunch.
Where to stay in Petra
You have two areas to choose from: the main part of Wadi Musa, the small town on the hill above Petra, or the collection of accommodation and restaurants that have opened immediately next to the visitors’ centre and entrance of the ancient city. There’s more choice up the hill, but it’s a 25 minute walk each way if you don’t have access to a vehicle.
We stayed down near the visitors’ centre in the Petra Palace Hotel. It was an amazing location, taking us just a few minutes to walk from there to the entrance of Petra. The decor was quite dated and the rooms fairly basic, but it included breakfast, had friendly and accommodating staff, and was a good price – one night cost 152JD for five of us over three rooms. Book here and use code 05007AEC to get A$25 off.
We left Petra just after 3pm, which meant arriving to the wonderful Wadi Rum just in time to see sunset at 4.45pm.
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