I had the incredible opportunity recently of having to go to Jordan a few weeks for work. It was my first time visiting a Middle East country. I stayed mainly in Amman, the capital, and as I was rather busy with work, I did not have the opportunity to visit the country as much as I would have liked. But I had sworn to myself I would not leave Jordan without having seen Petra, so at the first opportunity I had, I headed for this millennial city.
Petra is a must in Jordan and the Middle East. In fact, it’s one of the new Seven Wonders of the planet, the kind of place you really have to visit once before you die.
There are already a multitude of websites to advise travelers who want to go to this historic site, so here are just my few impressions, as well as some tips, from my (too) short visit to Petra.
Petra is big
In fact, the word “big” is a bit weak. Petra is immense. It’s impossible to explore it all in one day. A Jordanian colleague who accompanied us told us that she had visited Petra four times and there were still a multitude of sites she had never seen.
If time permits, take at least two days to visit Petra. It is possible to stay in the nearby town of Wadi Musa. When there is little time (as was my case), plan your visit well in advance to determine what you want to see. A visit through Petra necessarily passes through the Siq (a long narrow canyon of more than one kilometre) which eventually leads to the magnificent facade of the Khazneh, the most famous building of Petra (yes, it’s the one you can see in the Indiana Jones movie). But after seeing the Khazneh, it is possible to continue your way to the Roman amphitheater, the royal tombs and a multitude of other remains and ruins.
A dazzling history
Petra is over two thousand years old. It was the capital of the Nabathean empire and was enriched by becoming a center of trade of spices and incense and being strategically well placed between Egypt, Syria, Arabia and the Mediterranean Sea. It was eventually integrated into the Roman Empire. At its peak, it had more than 20,000 inhabitants. A large earthquake in the fourth century partially destroyed it and the change of trade routes eventually led to the decline of Petra.
For more than a thousand years, Petra has been the well-kept secret of Bedouins in the region. In 1812 however, the Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt rediscovered the ancient city and made it known to Europeans. Petra has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
And this is only the general story. The architectural influences of Petra are diverse, and each building would deserve some attention to understand its importance, its history, its function. My advice: visit Petra with a guide. This is the best way to learn as much as possible, it makes the visit more entertaining and it may allow you to notice details that would otherwise go unnoticed.
The entrance fee is a bit exorbitant
This is what surprises many people who visit Petra for the first time. The price for a day visit is quite high (50 JD, the equivalent of almost $95 CAN). If you do not spend the night in Jordan (for example, if you travel to Israel and decide to take a day trip to Petra), the entrance fee is almost double.
The price may be a bit surprising, but, thinking about it, we would have no problem spending that amount of money to spend a day at Disneyland. As I said before, Petra is one of the seven new wonders of the world (with the Great Wall of China, Chichen Itza in Mexico, Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Taj Mahal in India and the Colosseum of Rome) and some of the money raised is used to preserve the site.
In addition, it costs only 5 JD more to get a ticket for two days (so the more you spend days in Petra, the cheaper it gets!). And the price of entry includes a horse ride to or from the entrance of the Siq (be careful though, this optional ride may be “free”, you will still be asked for a tip).
Yes, there are camels
Camels are linked to the history of this ancient city. The Nabatheans called them “desert ships” and by transporting valuable goods over long distances, they allowed Petra to prosper.
Today, camels are still there, but they no longer carry goods. They rather carry tourists, especially those in search of this photo shot à la Indiana Jones in front of the Khazneh facade (of this, I am guilty). It is for this reason that we find camels in front of the most famous building of Petra (a short camel ride on site costs 5 JD … and lasts less than two minutes).
It is possible to ride a camel for a longer distance. You would then have to negotiate on the spot the price with the owner of the camel.
You will feel safe
When I told my parents that I was going to spend a few weeks in Jordan, they first applauded, then, after looking on a map where exactly this country was, they started worrying a bit. It must be said that Jordan has neighbors that you wouldn’t considered as “safe” destinations: Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq…
But that’s what makes Jordan a unique destination. It is a small enclave of peace in a region torn by conflict. It is an opportunity to discover without fear a rich culture and a fascinating history, to dive into the flavors, the smells and the sounds of the Middle East.
In Jordan, safety is taken seriously. There are many roadblocks on the highways. You must go through a metal detector before entering just about every major hotel in the country. Bags are searched or X-rayed. Petra is no exception.
Of course, not everything is always perfect. Individuals traveling alone must be careful (especially women). There will always be people trying to sell you trinkets of little value. There are risks of theft. In fact, just take the same precautions in Petra as if you were visiting a tourist spot in Europe and everything should be fine!
From Amman, it is possible to take the bus to Petra (a journey of about three and a half hours). Once there, the site is easy to find (there are many indications in English). If you are a group, it may be more advantageous to do business with a tourist operator (who can offer a guide).
Add Petra to your list of places to visit. You will not regret it!