It is probably fair to say that you can’t visit Jordan without going to Petra. In fact, you are probably more likely to go to Petra as the main point of a trip to Jordan and the rest will just follow on.
Being one of the ‘new 7 wonders of the World’ (the others being The Great Wall of China, The Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, The Roman Colosseum and Rio’s Christ the Redeemer), it’s a world treasure and, having visited most of the other wonders (I haven’t been to the Great Wall of China), I can say that Petra is easily the most impressive and enjoyable so far!
Even compared to the Egyptian Pyramids (an original Wonder), I prefer Petra. Yes, the Pyramids are way older and were a feat of engineering but the way the whole Petra complex unfolds is more of a sight and definitely more wonderous.
So, onto some tips and tricks…
Petra is in the south of Jordan, about a 3 hour drive from Amman. We hired a car and came via the Dead Sea (see my Jordan post for the full itinerary) but you can go direct if you prefer.
Driving in Jordan requires you to stay alert – partly because of the randomness of the locals driving style and partly because there are random road humps everywhere (including on the main freeways) and they aren’t very well marked.
Once in Petra, you realise the town is set in the bottom of a valley and that the roads can get very, very steep. Also, like most Jordanian towns/cities, the road layout is ‘complicated’ so make sure you have a satnav and don’t be afraid to double back if you find yourself approaching a dirt track.
As for getting to the ancient Petra site itself, we got there early and parked outside. Most hotels, however, will offer some sort of transfer.
Where to stay
We stayed in the Marriott which is about 1km out of town. To be honest, we would have rather stayed in the Movenpick (which is right outside the Petra site entrance) or the Petra Moon hotel but they were both full. The Marriott is OK but it’s not really a Marriott – It’s a dated faux-castle on the top of the hill but it’s clean, the view is good, it has free parking, and the restaurant and bar are reasonably priced.
Rule No. 1 – get there early! The park opens at 06:00 hours and if you want those precious people free photos, the early start is well worth it. It also means that you can explore the site before the midday heat hits you and before the site fills with merchants selling you camel/donkey rides and tourist tat.
It’s worth remembering that in Jordan the sun rises early and sets earlier than you might expect. We were here on 31st October and the sunrise was 05:50 and sunset was 16:50 so even though we started early, the sun makes it feel later and the light is good for photos.
We also found that you can’t buy tickets in advance so getting there early helps to avoid the queues (it costs about 50JD per person for a 1 day pass).
The first attraction, and the most famous, is the Treasury. To get to it you walk through the Siq (canyon) and wind through an impossibly awesome ‘crack’ through the surrounding mountains. It’s totally magical and so much more enjoyable in the quiet of the early morning.
On your way down, you’ll be offered a horse ride to speed up the process. We declined as it’s actually nicer to walk; it is only a 10 minute walk; and we didn’t think that the animals were being well looked after so we didn’t want to encourage the handlers. The horse ride is actually included in your entrance fee but you will be expected to pay a heavy tip.
Once at the Treasury, you can climb out of the valley to get an alternative view. The locals will try to charge you for a guided tour but it’s not hard to find the route. If you like exploring, just follow the steps to the left of the Treasury (or wait for someone else to pay and just follow them).
Continuing on from the Treasury, the path opens out to the main ‘city’ with tonnes to explore. We found that it was a nicer view if you walked past the amphitheatre, climbed up to the Royal Tombs and then worked your way around to the mosaics (Church complex) and down to the basin. It means that you don’t actually walk along the Colonnaded or past the Great Temple but you get a better view of them. Plus you can always walk back that way.
So, if you believe the guys selling donkey rides and even the official map, the climb to the Monastery take 2-3 hours and you need to be an Olympian athlete to do it.
The reality is that it takes 30-40 minutes for someone for reasonable health – like me. As long as you don’t mind climbing stairs, you’ll be fine. There are a few places to stop for water and the view is brilliant – but not as brilliant as the Monastery itself.
It’s hard to believe that only about 40% of people that visit Petra bother to make the effort but I can assure you it’s worth it. The Monastery is every bit as impressive as the Treasury and the views are way better. We stopped for some Bedouin Tea at the restaurant opposite before making a final climb to the view points behind (make sure you do this – it’s only a few more steps!).
We took out time heading back through the ‘main’ route along the Colonnaded. On the route back down from the Monastery, we stopped at the Lion Fountain and then just ambled back mostly the way we came.
It’s mostly uphill which we didn’t notice so much on the way in so be prepared to take more time going back than getting in.
Also, if you do get there early, you’ll notice a lot more people to work your way through.
All in all, it took us about 6 hours to make the most of Petra. I’d gladly go back and do it again!
One last tip – grab a drink in the Cave Bar. It does look like a hotel has enveloped it but it’s fun and you can say that you’ve drunk somewhere that has been a bar for over 2000 years.