How to spend a long weekend in…wait for it…Petra!

Weekend is the (almost) everyone’s favourite part of the week.
I think I speak for most of the people, that are studying or working, when I say that the weekend became an oasis for our beloved hobbies, enjoying a cup of coffee at the favourite café, party with friends or simply getting some well-needed sleep. It is also a perfect time to travel, especially if you have a long weekend (Friday – Monday or their three-day combinations (permutations maybe not) or variations) at your disposal. With travelling being my favourite activity (who would ever guessed), it came across my mind to write couple of blog posts about some compact trips you can do during long weekends, this one being the first of the group.

Camels resting in front of Treasury

What if I told you that long weekend trips can also become long distance trips?
Buckle up, we are flying to one exquisite country: Jordan.

Country name: Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
City name: Petra
Region: Ma’an
Area: 264 square kilometers
Official language: Arabic
Currency: Jordanian Dinar (JOD)

Fun Facts:

  • Some of our favourite movies were filmed in Jordan: most famous being Indiana Jones and the last Crusade followed by Lawrence of Arabia, Red Planet, The Martian and many others.
  • Tombs and monuments in Petra such as Treasury, Monastery, Royal Tombs etc. were carved in rocks starting from the top and carving downwards.
  • Petra has been founded as early as 4th century BC. It’s current name comes from ancient Greek Πέτρα. In Arabic it is Al-Batrāʾ. It’s often called the Rose City because of the colour of the rock in which this ancient city has been carved.
  • Petra has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. It’s Treasury, Al-Khazneh, has been selected and listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
  • The ancient city of Petra was believed to be a necropolis due to the numerous tombs carved in the surrounding hills. The fact is that Nabataeans were nomadic people and were living in tents, which is why there are no remains of the private houses just public places and monuments in the city centre.

When to go?

High season: March – May
Shoulder: September – February
Low season: Jun – August

Although it’s in the middle of a conflict zone, Jordan is one beautiful and safe country to visit. I will concentrate here only on Petra because the topic is a compact trip but you can expect some expanded version in future for sure. We visited Petra in mid March and we got perfect weather of 25-30°C during the day and cool evenings. High season offers you the best conditions for hiking without excessive heat in the desert. It will also be more appealing with oleanders and aloe plants blooming around the site. Shoulder can be tricky. If you are lucky, you will find great weather conditions for hiking. On the other hand, there is a risk of rain and most of the paths becoming slippery, flooded and simply not safe. It is still doable, but it can become limiting. Low season is only for the bravest and toughest ones who can survive the peak of the desert temperatures. I don’t belong to that group.

Aloe plants

How to reach Petra?

There are many airports you can fly to, Aqaba being the closest. Located on the Red Sea cost, this cute little town is one and a half hour ride from Petra. Another option is Amman, which is a bit further away but not too much, approximately three-hour car ride.

However, we found a third option (thanks Ryanair) and flew on an early Friday morning to Eilat (Ovda), an airport in the very south of Israel. The airport is in the middle of the desert and it has only one track for landing. It was the first time that I experienced the airplane landing and then driving backwards to its parking place. After the passport control comes a 45-minute-bus-ride from Ovda to the Aqaba’s border crossing with Jordan. Don’t be surprised, there are exit fees to be paid when you are exiting both Israel and Jordan, but I will come to that later. After you pay the fee on Israeli side, you are free to walk to Jordan. Yes, to walk. This was the first time I crossed the border between two countries in that way. The contrast between the two was already huge in those couple of hundreds of meters. On one side modern Israeli offices and on the other, small rusty building with improvised indications but with the most welcoming people I’ve ever seen. Our taxi driver was waiting for us and we headed immediately towards Petra.

If you don’t book a taxi in advance, don’t worry. There are plenty of them waiting at the border crossing, keen to offer you their services. Make sure you agree on price before you sit in the taxi. One more hint, give them the address of your exact accommodation as they will take you to the Petra’s Visitor centre entrance gate if you just say “to Petra”.

Where to stay?

Petra ancient city is located next to the small town of Wadi Musa. The town is divided in two parts, connected by the main street: Upper and Lower Wadi Musa; Lower Wadi Musa being closer to the archeological site. There are many hotels and restaurants around. You can easily find them on booking.com or a similar website.

We stayed in a small hotel, 10 minutes walking distance from the Visitor centre. We deliberately chose this place to be able to walk to Petra early in the morning and its friendly staff made our stay even nicer. If you need a recommendation, feel free to write me.

From here on, it gets more interesting.

1 Early bird catches the worm

Start as early as possible in the morning. I know it’s painful to get up early during the weekend but it’s not for work, it’s for even better reason – to get the most out of the day. By that I mean having the whole place almost only for yourself. The gates of the Visitor centre open as early as 6am and close at 6pm (May-September) or 4pm (October – April). Here you can buy an entrance ticket for several days, which usually contains a 800m return horse ride from the Visitor centre to the beginning of the Siq canyon. Although the ride is included, it is polite to leave a tip to a man offering you a horse. We, however, walked. Fresh breeze in the morning is good to fully wake you up and slowly prepare you for what is coming. As early as that you will barely see other tourists and will have time to explore everything in peace before buses show up with lots of people.

Considering the size of the site, starting early allows you to explore more of it.

Site worker in Siq on an early Sunday morning

2 Walk through the Siq canyon

Unless you have some physical difficulties, do not take horse or carriage, walk through the canyon of Siq. It is 1.2km long and snakes towards the Treasury (Al-Khazneh), taking your breath away at the very end. Siq is not a real canyon although it looks like one. It hasn’t been made by a river but by a simple separation of the Earth’s crust plates. It’s 200m high walls widen up at some points revealing the old camel/horse stations, spiritual places built by Nabateans as well as lone fig trees bending gently over the path. In the next moment, canyon walls narrow down to a 2m passage where you look up for the light because it just got darker and you finally notice how high these canyon walls are. Its pink rocks and morning silence will astonish you. Take your time and enjoy this walk. Note the water channels carved along the way, a very advanced water system from the ancient times. Nabataeans were good engineers too.

Lonely fig tree

Nevertheless, after a while, the excitement will start growing and you will start wondering “Are we there yet?” or “Is it behind this curve?” until the first glimpse of it instantly steals your heart. Till today, it was the most breathtaking moment of my life. Stepping out of Siq in front of the Treasury. Not so many things in life can incline this effect on you but the Treasury surely can, and it will. Leave your camera aside for a moment and be mesmerised. Talbot Mundy described it well in “The Lion of Petra”:

“The sun rose over the city just as we reached the narrowest part of the gut, Grim leading, and its first rays showed that we were using the bed of a watercourse for a road. Exactly in front of us, glimpsed through a twelve-foot gap between cliffs six hundred feet high, was a sight worth going twice that distance, running twice that risk, to see—a rose-red temple front, carved out of the solid valley wall and glistening in the opalescent hues of morning.
Not even Burkhardt, who was the first civilised man to see the place in a thousand years, described that temple properly; because you can’t. It is huge—majestic—silent—empty—aglow with all the prism colours in the morning sun. And it seems to think.”

First glimpse of the Treasury

3 Explore the site

Your travel guide may contain a map, but I doubt it is a detailed one. Also your phone may not have the reception everywhere and you’ll end up draining your battery for nothing. Good way to overcome these problems and plan your trekking route is old-fashioned but effective one. Buy a site map at the Visitor centre and check the routes. There is quite a lot to see and I will just list chronologically how we did it in two days. After admiring the Treasury we continued along the main street towards the Roman theatre but, before reaching it, deviated to the left after Street of Facades and climbed the stairs to start the hike to the High place of sacrifice.

Trail start to the High Place of Sacrifice

With less visitors and pleasant temperature, morning is a perfect time for this climb. It will take you around 45 minutes to reach the altar area on the top. Enjoy a beautiful view from this platform and, for a moment, take in the fact that it was a holy place where you probably wouldn’t have access to during the holy rituals back in the days. It contains a large triclinium for the celebration supper after the scarification ceremony and well preserved altar and drain canals for the blood of the sacrificed animals. Panoramic view from the top is a reward for the climb and you can observe the Street of Facades from above, and even see the very top of the Monastery behind the hill. After having a short brake and boosting your energy with some tea, you can continue from here to the city centre by another trail, leading through the valley of Wadi Farasa where you’ll pass by interesting tombs and monuments such as Lion Monument, Garden Tomb, Roman Soldier’s tomb, Renaissance Tomb and many others. The trail will eventually bring you to the city centre.

Colorful rocks in Wadi Farasa

Petra will not reveal its secrets to you that easily. You have to earn to see them by long walk, steep trail climbs or even endless stairways, all carved in the surrounding hills. One of these places is a Monastery (Al-Deir). Pass the city centre and its beautiful monuments and head directly to this hidden gem. It will take you around 45 minutes to reach it by going over more than 800 stairs. But it is absolutely worth it. Built similar to the Treasury but far bigger (50m wide and 45m high), this impressive monument will enchant you to stay a while in a teahouse just in front of it and admire the view of it while drinking some freshly squeezed orange juice.

Monastery (Al-Deir). Notice how small the people are 🙂

From the teahouse start many trails that lead to observation platforms with splendid panoramic views of the surrounding black mountains, Wadi Araba desert and even Israel on a clear day. Take a walk around and enjoy this unusual landscape.

After that, you will once again descend to the city centre. This time to enjoy the magnificent Great Temple of the 1st century BC and to walk along the Colonnaded street towards the Royal Tombs which are the most photogenic in the afternoon sun. Highlights: Urn Tomb, Silk and Corinthian Tomb, Palace Tomb etc. Pass by the Theatre, which was originally built by Nabataeans but expanded Romans to hold 8500 people. Like many of the other monuments, it was damaged in an earthquake in 363 AD.

Colonnaded Street with Royal Tombs in the background

It may all seem short so briefly described but it was in total 25km that we walked that day. Happily tired and very hungry we headed to one of the local restaurants for a well-deserved dinner. Try mansaf, traditional Jordanian dish made of lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt and served with rice or bulgur. It is delicious.

The following day we started by going as early as possible to the viewpoint called Treasury Vista II. Its path starts behind the Royal Tombs and, although quite steep, it’s not too exposed and you don’t need a guide for it like for Treasury Vista I, the more popular and steeper one. Start with the golden rule number one and reach the viewpoint by the time the first sun rays illuminate the Treasury. There are some cozy cushions and tent to enjoy your view in a more comfortable way as you gaze down upon the start of the day. Camel owners’ daily dramas, people emerging from the Siq, astonished by the building in front of them, children selling postcards etc.

Treasury Vista II observation platform
A view from Treasury Vista II

We decided not to wander too far and to explore with more attention the Tombs, the Theatre and Churches that are still under excavation. Lucky are the archeologists still working on the site.

Blue church
The Great Temple

That very Sunday evening we returned to Eilat, with our hearts full and our pockets empty enough that we had to walk from Aqaba border crossing to Eilat because we didn’t change any money. So we added 5km walk to the all-day hiking but the sunset was at least nice. We also got a free glass of wine in our hostel in Eilat.

5 Activities left for the next time

You cannot do everything in such a short time but you can achieve quite a lot with some good planing. Do not over-plan or it will become just stressful instead of joyful. You should leave something out as a reason to return if you really liked the place. Here are couple my from my list:

Sleeping in a tent in the desert surrounding Wadi Musa – we discovered that, apart from sleeping in Wadi Rum, some hotel owners organise private tours with grilling and sleeping in a tent under the desert stars. That turns out to be our hotel’s owner as well and we promised to come back for that experience.

Petra by night tour – magical tour under the clear sky and hundreds of candles illuminating the Siq and the Treasury. It is already magical during the day, I can just imagine how it is by night. The tour lasts two hours and it is organised from 8:30 – 10:30pm on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.

6 Enjoy the hospitality of the locals

Engage in conversation with local people: souvenir vendors, taxi driver, waiter at the restaurant. Especially enjoy a cup of tea with a bedouin at the High place of sacrifice. You will learn a lot about the local culture and everyday activities of these people. They all speak English amazingly well and their hospitality and friendliness will momentarily win your heart. They are also very witty and will put a smile on your face, whether you want it or not 🙂

Drinking tea with a bedouin at High Place of Sacrifice

7 Good to know

If you like hiking/trekking as much as I do, bring your trekking shoes. Everything is doable in sneakers too but you will avoid blisters and foot pain by bringing the trekking shoes. Remember, you will walk 20-25km every day.

Small backpack (hand luggage size – 45l) is also a great advantage compared to trolley, especially if you add some unplaned walking with the luggage to your day (see end of Chapter 3).

A moment from a walk between Aqaba border crossing and Eilat

If you visit Petra during the late spring or summer, the best option is to bring some bright-coloured cotton clothes (long sleeves are preferred) because you will walk the whole day under the desert sun. A hat or keffiyeh will protect your head from the sun. You can even buy a cowboy hat like Indiana Jones at the Visitor centre. However, don’t forget the sun cream. The most important, bring enough water and snacks for the long hikes. In Petra city centre there are couple of restaurants where you can have lunch, as well as the clean public toilets.

Bring some cash with you in case you want to buy a souvenir, ride a camel or drink tea with bedouins. Credit cards work well in Wadi Musa restaurants and one bigger restaurant at the site. If you go in winter time, dress in layers because it can easily become chilly.

Petra is a protected area and, I know I am boring with repeating it but, bring your litter with you, use the real toilets (not the tombs), and don’t scrabble your names on the tombs or facades. Yes, there are people doing these kind of things, which doesn’t mean the rest of us should stop caring. We can be better than that.

One more important thing. If you fly directly to Jordan or you manage to stay three nights, you can apply for Jordan pass type of visa, which already contains an entrance fee to Petra. With Jordan pass, you don’t have to pay an exit fee for Jordan. If you stay less than three nights (like we did because of the time of the return flight) it can get a bit more expensive because visa fee is around 60€ and approx. 25€ exit fee from Israel when you cross the border on foot. On top of that there is an exit fee from Jordan (less than three nights, remember because we forgot it) so luckily the flight was very cheap, otherwise it would have gotten very expensive.

I will be more than glad to hear some impressions from you and give you a hand by planing your trip.

Add Petra to your bucket list and, even when you cross it, add it again 🙂

Author: Milica Ljumovic

Electrical engineer. Undercover bookworm. Animal lover. Passionate traveller. Hobby photographer.

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