My first awareness of the existence of Petra was seeing it in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. When I learned that it was a real place and not just a movie set, I added a trip to Petra to my next Israel trip.
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Visiting Petra: the real thing
Set in the desert in southern Jordan, this UNESCO World Heritage site was an important stop in the camel caravan routes dominated by the Nabateans about 2200 years ago. What remains of this series of valleys that once housed 30,000 people is an impressive numbers of tombs cut into the sides of the cliffs on either side, as well as some temples. Clearly this was a prosperous society if they could spend so much time and effort on carving huge tombs out of solid rock and decorating them.
According to our Lonely Planet guidebook, there are 800 registered sites in Petra, 500 of which are tombs. They range from a simple cave cut into the rock, unadorned inside or outside, to the grandeur of the most famous tomb, called the Treasury.
Few of the tombs have anything to see inside (and the few we went into smelled like they’d been used as stables for the many donkeys and mules that work there), but some are grandly-carved on the outside. They look especially lovely in the morning light, which turns the rock reddish. Some of the tombs have eroded into dramatic swirls in shades of red and brown.
The pillars and other carvings on the exteriors of some of the tombs show the effects of the trade that moved through here: Corinthian capitals, for example, and Assyrian influences are visible.
You’d need weeks for your trip to Petra if you want to visit every one of the tombs. You’d also need an enormous amount of energy for all of the climbing up and down you’d have to do, but you can see the most impressive spots in a couple of days, as we did.
If you’re going to travel in other parts of Jordan, you might also like to read:
- Places to Visit in Jordan: Ancient Cities, Crusader Castles and Canyoneering, from Amateur Traveler
- Top places to visit in Jordan – One week Jordan itinerary, from Les Berlinettes.
My 10 Petra travel tips
Get there early. Even in the middle of the summer, it’s relatively cool in the morning. From the visitor’s entrance, the walk is mostly downhill to get to the Siq, which is the deep cleft, more than a kilometer long, through which you have to walk to get to the valley with all the tombs. There are horse-drawn wagons that go through the Siq, but, at least officially, these are only for the elderly and the disabled.
Your entrance fee includes a horse ride from the visitor’s entrance to the beginning of the Siq. Take it. Save your energy for all the walking you’re going to do later.
Take a lot of small bills with you. Everyone wants a “tip.” The horse ride, for example, is officially included in your entry fee, with the suggestion that you give a tip as well. However, the people leading the horses seem to have a different opinion on the matter. We tried to tip them one Jordanian dinar (about one euro) per horse, and they became quite aggressive and argumentative about demanding more. They settled for two JD one time, and wouldn’t take less than three JD another time.
Speaking of riding, there are many donkeys, mules and camels on offer if you get tired. I’d recommend saving the riding for the trip back up the valley to the Treasury. After that you’ll still have to walk uphill through the Siq, but you can take your “included” horseride from there to the entrance. I have no idea what a fair price is; you’ll need to haggle over the price for the camel or donkey and the amount of the tip. I hate haggling, but it’s better than that long walk uphill after a day on your feet!
Bring water. A 1½ liter bottle per person should be enough, plus whatever sodas or juices you buy along the way.
Put on sunscreen and wear a hat.
Wear thick-soled shoes. I went the first day in my Converse sneakers, thinking that would be easier for walking on uneven, sandy surfaces than my walking sandals. I was wrong. The soles were too thin and by the end of the day the bottoms of my feet felt bruised.
If you can manage the stairs, go to the High Place of Sacrifice. The view is magnificent, and from there you can spot even more tombs that you didn’t even realize were there.
The Monastery, another long, hard climb, is worth it too. My husband went there, but I couldn’t manage more climbing at that point. He says it’s the best preserved building (not a tomb!) in Petra and offers amazing views. Note that he didn’t climb them both on the same day, which I wouldn’t advise unless you’re a serious and physically fit hiker/walker.
“Petra by Night” is a low-tech sound and light show in front of the Treasury. It comprises two pieces of Middle Eastern music, lots of candles, and a cup of sweet spiced tea. I don’t think it was worth the price of admission, especially considering that you have to walk all the way down the hill from the Visitor’s entrance to the Siq and through the Siq to the Treasury, as well as all the way back uphill: no horses available this time. There are also no toilets near the Treasury. When I asked for one, I was pointed to a dark cleft in the rocks and told to go au naturel.
A bonus tip
If you’re going to hire a tour guide, book an official licensed guide at the Petra Visitor Center. Set prices start at 50JD for the four kilometer main trail and go up to 100JD if you want to see the High Place of Sacrifice or the Monastery. We didn’t hire a guide, but I suspect a tip is expected on top of the official price.
Another bonus tip
This one isn’t really as specific as the others, but seems worth mentioning as a general warning: Be extremely wary of anyone who offers you anything for free. It’s likely a con of some sort.
I hope my Petra travel tips help you plan your visit and help make it more enjoyable. Despite the difficulties that go along with visiting Petra – all that walking – it is definitely worth it. It’s a beautiful, raw, impressive, ancient place. You’ll sleep an exhausted, satisfied sleep when you’re done.
Here are some other articles from Jordan and Israel that you might enjoy:
- Your Trip to Israel: 5 Christian sites near the Galilee
- Susita National Park in the Golan Heights: A special off-the-beaten-track site
- Akko Old City: Jerusalem without the politics
How to visit Petra
Petra is open from 6:00-18:00 in the summer and 6:00-16:00 in the winter. The light is prettiest and the heat is least oppressive early in the morning.
Admission for one day is 50JD ($70 or €58) if you spend at least one night in Jordan. If not, it’s 90JD ($127 or €104) (though if you go back the second day you’ll get a 40JD refund). Two days is 55JD ($78 or €64), three days 60JD ($85 or €70). You can pay for admission at the Visitor Center at the entrance. (Prices updated as of February 2021.)
To get there from Amman, take a JETT bus from Abdali station at 6:30 for 11JD ($16 or €13). From Aqaba, take a bus from the central market.
Otherwise, your only other choice is a group tour or a taxi. You can book a half-day, full-day or multiple-day tour from various locations in Israel or Jordan at this GetYourGuide link.
There are plenty of hotels in a range of prices within walking distance of the entrance to Petra.
Have you ever visited Petra? What were your impressions? Do you have any Petra travel tips to add?