Jordan: Petra’s best bits (and how to see them)

The ancient Nabataean city of Petra was what inspired me to go to Jordan in the first place, so it had a lot to live up to. The ruined city is famous for its elaborate buildings carved into rock faces, of which the best-known is the Treasury – which Indiana Jones visits in The Last Crusade. However, there is much more to Petra than first meets the eye – over 100 square miles’ worth, in fact, of breathtaking canyons, spectacular views, challenging hikes and incredible architecture. We made sure to see all the best bits, and I’ll explain how to do it in this post.

We arrived in Petra at around 12.30, having taken a minibus from Wadi Rum (this wasn’t a particularly straightforward journey – after our tour company dropped us at the Wadi Rum Rest House, we had to wait an hour for the bus to arrive with very little idea of when and where it would arrive, and once onboard the bus took ages picking up other passengers before finally leaving the village). The minibus dropped us off in Wadi Musa town centre, so we had to get another taxi to our hotel La Maison, which was near the entrance to Petra.

We dropped our bags then headed straight to Petra, where we each bought a 2-day ticket for 55JD. You need your passport to buy tickets, and can only pay in cash.  The sign outside said there were free guided tours on the hour, so, thinking we’d just missed one, we spent some time browsing the shops (I bought a hat and sunglasses) and had lunch at the main restaurant opposite the visitor centre.

Mansaf and maqluba

At 15JD for a main course, lunch at the entrance to Petra was very expensive but also undeniably good. We both had traditional Jordanian dishes: Steve had mansaf (lamb in an aged yoghurt sauce, which tasted kind of cheesy), while I had chicken maqluba (translating literally as ‘upside down’). Maqluba was like an Arabic paella, comprising a pile of yellow rice mixed with chicken and vegetables (cauliflower, potatoes and aubergine), cooked until meltingly soft and bursting with flavour. I also had a hibiscus juice, which tasted like a fresher and more floral Ribena.Jordan-1040145
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The long path to petra – Harassment to avoid

At 2pm, when we expected the tour to leave, we found out the free tours no longer run (despite what the sign outside says…) so we set off into Petra by ourselves. We decided to do the main trail today, and to look out for extra trails to do tomorrow.

We were harassed the entire way by men offering horse rides, horse-pulled cart rides, camel rides, and donkey rides, on very unhappy-looking animals. None of the rides look pleasant, nor safe. Every single tourist I saw on an animal’s back, or sat in a horse-drawn cart, looked as if they were hanging on for their lives with gritted teeth.

Those electing to stay on foot suffer too. During peak times, you’ll spend much of your time time either leaping out of the way of speeding horse-pulled carts (in The Siq), or dodging overloaded donkeys struggling down steps (path to The Monastery). Unless you literally can’t walk, my advice is to avoid animal-transport as much as you can.

The other source of harassment is by boys and men offering to take you “up to the top” or “to the view”, often while pointing at a laminated Instagram photo of a girl looking down at The Treasury from above. DO NOT GO WITH THEM!! The viewpoint they are offering to take you to is perfectly easy to find by yourself; in fact, it’s an official trail that is clearly marked on the free visitor map, so there’s no reason to pay them to show you the way there. For directions, see “The Treasury from above / Al Kubtha Trail” below.

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The Siq

The harassment is undoubtedly annoying. But Petra itself is so incredible that it’s easy to look past these annoyances and still feel extremely privileged to be here. The natural geology of soft golden cliffs and canyons is spectacular of its own accord, but the ways it’s been carved into all manner of shapes and structures by the Nabataeans, and then by the Romans, is astounding.

One of the first landforms you come across is The Siq, a slot canyon taking the form of a long, narrow, twisting corridor between high rock walls. The views around every corner are awe-inspiring, and need to be seen either early or late in the day (without the constant stream of horse-pulled carts) to be appreciated fully.

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The Treasury

Around two-thirds of the way through The Siq, the beautiful sunlit face of The Treasury appears through a gap. It’s a thrill to see something you’ve seen so much in images, finally right there in front of you. The problem is that every other tourist in Petra feels the same, and the area is packed as a result. My advice is not to linger here too long, as there are many bigger and better sights to see that won’t be blocked by dozens of other tourists. If you want to get some photos here, come back early in the morning or late in the afternoon when it’ll be far less crowded.

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Main trail sights

Continuing through the wider part of The Siq (now thankfully free of horse-pulled carts, which only go as far as The Treasury) you eventually come into the open again where there are souvenir shops, cafes, and a landscape filled with amazing rock formations. Continuing along the path, you pass the towering Royal Tombs on your right, (these look especially stunning when aglow in late-afternoon sunlight), and the circular, Roman-style Theater on your left.

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Past those, there’s the Grand Temple on the left which is fun to climb and explore. This has pillars in various stages of collapse, a small circular theater, and fantastic views across to the mountains at the end of the main trail. But the best sight along the main trail isn’t any one part – rather, it’s the large swathes of ancient city forming a spectacular whole.

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Back through the hills

We reached the end of the main trail (marked by the Basin restaurant) then returned to Petra’s entrance via the hills running adjacent to the main trail. These hills contain the Palace of the Three Lions and three ruined churches, as well as a slightly haphazard metal bridge! These structures aren’t really worth making the diversion to see, although the tile mosaics in the Byzantine Church are quite interesting.

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Evening tranquility

By the time we were leaving it had gone 5pm, and most people had left the park. It was much quieter, and much more pleasant, mostly because the horse-pulled cart rides had ceased and we were able to walk through The Siq undisturbed. Finally, we were able to experience how still, cool and quiet this canyon can be, insulating us from the wider desert. If you want a photo in The Siq without other people in it (like my typical ‘jumping photo’, below), this is the best time to do it!

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It was dark by the time we left and all the walking had exhausted us, so we went straight to our hotel where we also ate dinner. The La Maison buffet left a lot to be desired – it had one non-descript hot dish each for fish, chicken and beef, plus spaghetti bolognese and a lacklustre salad bar. We didn’t recognise anything on the dessert table, but the one warm dessert (similar to bread and butter pudding) was pleasant. We weren’t offered drinks at any point, so I had to fetch them myself from the bar’s fridge. Afterwards we were keen to have a drink and went to both the rooftop bar and downstairs lounge in search of alcohol, but to no avail. Despite the mention of “cocktails” in the hotel brochure, it appears to be completely teetotal. We gave up and went to bed.

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Morning quiet

The next morning, we went downstairs for breakfast at 6.30am (it was much better than dinner, with fresh omelettes and pancakes) and reached Petra at around 7.45am. Already the tour groups were starting to arrive, so we raced ahead of them and were able to experience the park relatively quiet again.

As we had already seen and photographed the hell out of the main trail yesterday, we were able to dedicate today to a couple of side-trails: the Al Kubtha Trail, which takes you to the above-the-Treasury viewpoint, and the Monastery Trail.

The treasury from above / Al KubtHa Trail

The Al Kubtha Trail is quite challenging due to its hundreds of steps, some of which are worn away and slippery with sand. But otherwise it’s not too long or difficult, and you definitely don’t need a guide to do it. You can find your way by following signs.

There’s a signpost pointing to both the Al Kubtha Trail and the Royal Tombs on the right of the Main Trail, as you walk from the end of The Siq to the Theater. Follow this sign uphill, through a few market stalls, and you’ll see another sign to the Al Kubtha Trail pointing to the left of the Royal Tombs. Walk this way and you’ll come to a staircase of rock, leading up the side of the mountain into which the Royal Tombs are cut. You can’t miss it.

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The stairs take you to a large rock plateau, which provides an amazing panoramic view over the desert below. Take a breather here, then continue up the further rock staircase. Near the top of this staircase we passed a Bedouin tent, where an old woman invited us to sit down and enjoy the aerial view of the Theater from inside (she also offered to take a photo for us, for nothing in return).

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At the highest point, you reach a stone hut. This is the only point at which it’s not completely clear which way to go. Make sure you go down the ledge to the LEFT of the hut. It’s downhill, which is the opposite to what you’d expect, but trust me it’s the right way! (you may also see arrows on the rocks pointing this way, if they haven’t yet been removed).

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After some more scrambling you eventually reach the cliff-edge Bedouin tent which houses the famous view. A sign asks that you buy a drink in order to enjoy the view, which we didn’t mind doing – after all those steps we were ready for some refreshment.

And the view? Well, to be honest, I found it underwhelming after how much it had been hyped up. Nevertheless, it was a lovely experience sitting in the shade and comfort of the tent, enjoying a cup of hot, sweet, sage-flavoured black tea and admiring the view alongside the tent’s resident cats.

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Once you’ve taken in the view, you need to retrace your steps to return to the main trail. Don’t hurry down too fast, or else you’ll miss the amazing birds-eye views you get from here of the Theater, and the many miles of rocks and desert beyond!

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The Monastery / Ad-Deir Trail

We retraced our steps and began the next trail, beyond the end of the Main Trail and onto the Ad-Deir Monastery. This trail is longer and harder than Al Kubtha, but also more rewarding. The Monastery itself is magnificent, and you can expect to see some interesting sights on the way there too (including ruined buildings, caves, and animals!)

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The Monastery itself is the largest structure in the park, and a fantastic thing to see. On this steep, stepped trail you’re dodging donkeys rather than horses, and there is still a maddening amount of stalls and people trying to sell you stuff on the way up. But it’s a beautiful climb regardless, and you feel so rewarded when you finally reach the top.

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At the top we rewarded ourselves with lunch, buying warm ham and cheese wraps from the cafe and enjoying them in prime view of the Ad-Deir Monastery. Steve enjoyed an Arabic coffee, served in a traditional golden coffee pot. Afterwards we climbed a little further to see the monastery from higher up, before walking back down again.

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The journey back was easier, and the views of the mountains and valleys below were incredible. As there wasn’t much more walking left to do, I bought a rug and Steve some magnets at a market stall on the way down.

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Sand souvenir

Along the Main Trail, just as you exit The Siq, there’s a market stall called ‘Petra sand bottles handcrafts shop’ that sells bottles filled with coloured sand. The sand is shaped to make pictures and words, and you’re able to choose from a selection of sizes and designs to have personalised with your name. The shop owner offered to show us how he made the pictures, which was fascinating. We decided to buy one as we first went past, which we collected a few hours later on our way out. We were delighted with the result!

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From Petra to Amman by bus

We timed our departure perfectly, returning to our hotel at around 3pm, giving us time to rearrange our bags before boarding the bus to Amman at 3.30. We had pre-booked our seats (with the hotel’s help) the previous day, but that didn’t make the journey any smoother.

First, we were turned away from the main bus and indicated to board a smaller bus without any signage (we weren’t certain we were going to Amman until the journey began). The ride that followed was long and arduous. Around a third of the way there, something on the bus broke and smelt really bad. We had to wait a long time for another bus to come and pick us up.

Having transferred to the next bus, bags and all, next we stopped at a rest stop for what seemed an unfathomably long time. Nothing was explained, but eventually we realised that everyone was moving again to another bus: the same one we had started the journey in.

But, we got there in the end. And to have seen Petra, all this trouble was worth it. Little did we know that our last destination, Amman, would bring the most challenges of the entire trip…

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All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2019. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Jordan: Petra’s best bits (and how to see them)

  1. Phew, I’m exhausted after just reading all that!! Amazing place, but you needed a lot of energy and perseverance… Your tips would be great for anyone else who was visiting. Also, I love your sand bottle! 😉 xx

    Liked by 1 person

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