A Guide to Petra: What You Need to Know

A Guide to Petra: What You Need to Know

Ever since watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Petra has been on my bucket list. Petra is city of rose-colored stone carved out of Mount Hor’s rock-face by the Nabataeans in the 3rd century BC. UNESCO has described it as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage.” Petra was named amongst the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007 and the Smithsonian Magazine chose it as one of the "28 Places to See Before You Die." Petra was largely unknown to the western world until 1812, when it was introduced by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. CNN noted that tourism in Petra has been down given the fears about traveling to the Middle East since the Arab Spring. Even though we were also hesitant to travel around the Middle East, Petra was one spot I made sure we would visit.

Map of Petra sites

You can fly into two main airports in Jordan to get to Petra, Amman and Aqaba. Amman is the capital city and has a lot more flights and we found that it was cheaper to fly into. Aqaba is south of Petra and only about 1.5 hours away from Petra but it is a smaller airport with less options. Some people also take day trips to Petra from Tel Aviv but it is a bit of a process and has higher entrance fee. We found a decently priced flight to Amman from Cairo so we decided to go that route. We got into Amman around 6 PM and hired a car service to take us to our hotel. In retrospect, we could have found a cheaper option but at least it was convenient. Adding in the transport to Petra, we really didn’t save money and it probably would have been more convenient to fly into Aqaba.

Petra 2-day tickets
Petra 2-day tickets

Walking through the Siq
Walking through the Siq

On our first full day in Petra we wanted to get into the park when it opened to avoid the crowds. We woke up early and got to the Visitor Center just before 7 AM. The entry fee to Petra is pretty hefty for a backpacker’s budget: 50 JD ($85 USD) for one day, 55 JD for 2 days, and 60 JD for 3 days. If you do a day trip from Tel Aviv or another location the cost is 90 JD ($127) for those not spending the night in Jordan. We wanted to get the 2-day pass and the Petra website said that they accept credit cards but the machine was down and I didn’t have enough cash so I had to find an ATM machine at a nearby hotel. When I got there the ATM machine was down so then I had to go to my back up cash supply and exchange it at the visitor center. With all these setbacks, we didn’t actually enter the Petra area until 7:45 AM. The Petra city complex is actually a pretty huge area. We took the main road, which passes a couple of carved buildings before you get to the entrance of the Siq.  The ticket includes a tour guide and one horseback ride from the entrance to the entrance of the Siq. Along the way you’ll get numerous propositions to take the “free rides” to the Siq. We read a number of tips online that these free services require a tip to the horse owners and the ride to the Siq isn’t very far so we just said no and walked on. The Siq is the main entrance which leads to the main city of Petra. The Siq is a natural deep gorge formed from a deep split in the sandstone rocks and serving as a waterway flowing into Wadi Musa. The walk reminds me of hiking trails in Arizona and Utah with the beautiful high walls on each side. Because it is so deep and narrow, the path is shaded throughout most of the day so it was nice and cool during our walk and the colors of the walls were really beautiful. At the end of The Siq, the gorge opens up to the most famous portion of Petra, the Treasury (Al Khanzna), in all its glory. My favorite part of our trip was that spectacular moment walking through the gorge and a sliver of the Treasury first becomes visible along the path. Diem took a nice time-lapse video of our walk through the Siq, ending at the Treasury.

Various pictures of the Treasury
Celebrating for making to the Treasury!

The Treasury was built as a tomb for a Nabataean king and its misnomer ‘the Treasury’ came from the belief that the urn carved into the center of the second tier contained hidden gold. The vessel is pockmarked with bullet holes, evidence of past attempts to uncover the mythical bounty. There are beautifully well preserved carvings of eagles, lions, Castor, Pollux, Isis, and other figures along the exterior of the Treasury. Inside the Treasury doorway – unlike the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy finds stone lions and Crusader seals set into the floor – there’s only a blank square chamber. There are also smaller rooms opening off the chamber, the entrance portico flanked by rooms featuring unusual round windows above their doors. Access to the interior is barred, but you can poke your nose in. We stayed there for a while and took some pictures and then continued along the main trail. We stopped by the Street of Fascades, the Theater, and the Great Temple. Each of these attractions is very beautiful but you don’t need to spend that much time exploring them.

Petra Theater
Petra Theater

The Monastery
Long walk to the Monastery, no crowds like the Treasury

We decided that the first day we would go all the way to the end of the complex to see the Monastery. Even though it was only about 10 AM it was getting pretty hot with the sun beating down on us while we climbed the over 800 steps to get to the Monastery. We finally made it to the Monastery which is pretty similar to the Treasury except not as ornate with the different carvings in the stone. I feel like you have to see all the sites to make the ticket price worthwhile but it you’re not feeling well, have any knee injuries, or if you’re low on time, you’re not missing that much by skipping the Monastery. We bought a sack lunch from our hotel and had it in the shade. The lunch was not that good and we decided that tomorrow we would get our own. After we ate, we were pretty tired and hot so we made the long walk back to our hotel. Our place was a 30 minute walk from the Visitor Center up a long curvy hill so we got a taxi back. The rest of the day we grab some groceries for dinner and lunch tomorrow and tried to rest up.

Royal Tombs of Petra
Royal Tombs of Petra

Street of Fascades
Street of Fascades

The next day we wanted to get a little earlier start and we got into Petra around 7 AM and arrived at the Treasury around 7:30 AM. It was great because there were only a couple of people there so we had a lot of clear shots. Today, we just wanted to go up a hike that gave you a nice view of the Treasury and we wanted to get closer to the Royal Tombs. At first, we missed the trail starting point and wasted some time wandering around but eventually we found it. The trail is called the Al Madras trail and is just past the Royal Tombs. I read somewhere that it took people 2 hours to get up but really it’s about 40-45 minute climb. We got lost again at the top of the stairs for a bit and almost gave up but eventually found the trail and the viewpoint. There is a small snack stand that overlooks the Treasury but we walked around it and found a nice little spot. We had the whole area to ourselves, rested for a bit, and took some pictures. While we were making our way down we saw a number of people hiking up so it was a good thing we went early.

Left: On the hike to the best viewpoint; Right: View of the Treasury from above

We went back to take a nap and pack because we were leaving to go back to Amman at 4 PM but our flight wasn’t leaving until 3:30 AM the next day. We were originally going to take the bus which is 10 JD per person and drops you off at the Amman bus station. We were then going to take another bus or cab to the airport. The hotel manager had a friend that said he would take us for 20 JD so we went with that option. The guy was nice but his car was pretty janky. He took us to spot that had a nice view of the sunset and gave us some Jordanian coffee and tea which was pretty strong. It was a weird ride but it was worth it since he took us right to the airport and we didn’t have to bother with the transfer at the bus station. We got to the Amman airport around 7 PM but our flight didn’t leave Amman until 3:30 AM so we had quite a lot of time there. Luckily there was free internet so we could do some work but we didn’t really get to sleep at all that night.

View on the Al Madras hike

Another stop along the Al Madras hike
Another stop along the Al Madras hike

Petra is absolutely worth the high price tag. We were really tight on budget but we probably should have done the Petra by Night ticket which was another 17 JD. Petra by Night is every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday and lets you see the city by candlelight lit by over 1,500 candles. While you could theoretically see the entire complex in one day, I would suggest at least 2 full days. I would also suggest buying groceries in town, bringing lunch, and take plenty of water for the day. Don’t bother with a tour guide at the Visitor Center or the horseback, carriage, camel rides unless you can’t make the hikes to the Monastery or other parts of the city. Get an early start to avoid crowds and the heat. We visited Petra in November but it was still really hot and sunny during the day. There isn’t a lot of shade so take a hat and sunscreen. Finally, I would say to take a couple of hours to read about the history of Petra before visiting and planning what you want to see each day. The spectacular carvings and structures will be even more impressive with a little context.

See the full gallery of our time in Petra here: Petra, Jordan.

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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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