Jordan: Petra (A lifelong dream!)
In mid 2001, I took my first ever international flight to visit my aunt & uncle in Chicago, Illinois; I was young- maybe I had just turned 12 or 13. I remember boarding my connecting flight at Heathrow Airport and on the American Airlines flight, I opened up the inflight magazine to find an article about Petra: Jordan’s most famous attraction. The words of the article faded in my memory but the gorgeous images from the article never really did and throughout my teenage years I wondered if I would ever travel to somewhere that exotic. As a result, Jordan has always been top of my travel ‘bucket list’ but the opportunity to travel there, never presented itself to me. However, I knew when I moved to the Middle East that I was going to FINALLY realise a lifelong dream and see Petra no matter what.
Unlike the majority of Middle Eastern countries, Jordan offers visa on arrival for South African citizens, which cinched the deal for me and since it’s only a two hour flight from Kuwait, there was no excuse not to go. While Fox and I were planning his holiday, we planned it so that his visit would coincide with the 4-day weekend we were receiving in Kuwait due to public holidays. After months of hoping that he could come visit, not only was he coming to Kuwait, we were going to Jordan too… I was just so thrilled!
When we touched down in Jordan, we went to the counter where we could pay for and purchase our visas (40JD each). But once the immigration officer opened up and flipped through our passports, he returned them to us and told us that we did not need to pay any fee and that he could go through the Jordanian citizens queue… we were really stunned. But why, I wondered? They stamped us into the country with minimal fuss and I felt that this was a great start to my much-anticipated trip.
We spent a night in Amman before starting our early morning journey to Petra the next day… we had planned to take a bus but unfortunately it was full and we couldn’t get tickets. So when another couple offered us two seats in the private car they had hired, we happily split the cost with them. The drive from downtown Amman to Wadi Musa (the town next to Petra) took around 3 hours. There was snow on the ground in Wadi Musa… yes it was COLD- but not unbearable.
Petra is 50 square kilometers. Even if you spent eight hours a day for three days straight, you still wouldn’t see it all. So we bought a two day pass (55JD each) as well as a separate ticket to Petra at night (17JD each) to maximise our time there- as I said before, this was my lifelong dream.
When we walked past the ticket checkpoint, we were offered a horse ride. The cost of the ride is factored into the ticket price, regardless of whether you climb on and shout “Yalla!” (For the sake of accuracy, I should point out that the actual pronunciation of “Yalla!” has no bearing on the ticket cost, the ride, or, well, anything at all. I just threw it in for effect.)
As you may have gathered from earlier posts, I don’t like riding animals. But Fox persuaded me and off we went. The horses at Petra were incredibly impressive. They’re ridden with a ferocity and abandon I haven’t seen before. Flowing robes and jet black hair streaming into the wind. Clouds of purple-pink Petra dust thrown into spirals and hanging in the heat-soaked air. It is an interesting experience (of course I rode mine with no ferocity and the horse seemed highly irritated at my ambling).
In retrospect, I regretted this decision as who knows how the horses were treated… The horses dropped us at the Siq where our actual journey began. The Siq is the main entrance to the ruins of Petra- it is a long gorge that was formed when tectonic forces broke the mountain into two pieces. It is quite narrow at some places which makes it very dramatic.
The rose-coloured walls of the Siq reflected shades of pomegranate, amber, pistachio, charcoal and soft apricot as we walked through the narrow walkway. Dust rose from the ground as carriages thundered past us while we walked.
When I first saw The Treasury, strawberry stone columns peering between a tear of jagged darkness, I felt thrilled. As though I was uncovering an ancient legend myself. No amount of words or volume of photos could ever do justice to Petra, particularly the Treasury. Nothing could ever prepare you for it. One must experience it to believe and understand its magnificence, brilliance and beauty. But I wanted to try to share this experience with you so on my second day in Petra, I prepared my GoPro and here you go… you’re welcome!
In 1989, Hollywood chose Petra as a film location for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Most recently people have seen Petra featured in Transformers II. Not me… other people…
Completely carved out of the sandstone mountains, the Treasury was built as a tomb for the Nabataean King Aretas III. The Treasury is the highlight of Petra, but this is only really the start of a visit here.
Petra, as you probably don’t need me to tell you, is incredible. You may need me to tell you that it is vast. This city, built by the Nabateans, “inherited” by the Romans, lived in by the Bedouins and “discovered” by the Swiss – is immense.
It’s what dreams and legends are made of. Just see for yourself.
The structures are enormous and I felt utterly tiny. It reminds me of one my favourite travel quotes, “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
We went around 2pm and the place was more or less empty as you can see from my pictures! Its really worth planning your timing carefully so you can have some precious moments by yourself just drinking in the sights without noisy tourists. We did the main tourist trail in 2-3 hours in the afternoon and made our way back to the exit when Petra closed for the day around 17:30.
After a quick shower, we returned to Petra to experience the famed Petra by Night. I did not know what to expect but I had heard this was something that couldn’t missed. And that’s true. But… it’s also not true. I will come back to this point later on.
When we arrived at Petra we had supper at The Cave Bar, which is (I only found this out a week later), the world’s oldest bar! The irony is that for a non-drinker, this superlative doesn’t impress me and I think the experience might have been wasted on me. We only stopped there because it was close to Petra and we were super hungry! Although it was a little on the expensive side (compared to other restaurants in Wadi Musa) when was the last time you had dinner in a 2,000 year old Nabatean Tomb? Ok so that does seem kind of impressive.
Anyway, lets talk about Petra by night. So we were well prepared for the 2km walk through the Siq due to our earlier visit. What we were not prepared for was the way the lanterns lit up the path making the scenery incredibly breathtaking and romantic. (Side note: if you are looking for an unforgettable place for your proposal, Petra by night is IT- trust me!).
Yes you need a tripod and a camera with some manual settings for photos like these. It was our first time trying out night photography and I am pleased with how these came out. Fox took these night shots… yes he is incredibly talented… sometimes its tough having a husband who is good at EVERYTHING.
It was a delight to walk through the Siq at night, a dimly lit path with rock walls towering high above your head even though you couldn’t see them. It is almost suspenseful…around every bend you expect to get that famous view of the Treasury lit up by lanterns. And looking up is even better… the stars were gorgeous.
This is it, the view that draws so many visitors to see Petra at night. Yes it is mind-blowing. There was a moment when I looked over at Fox, who was setting a 30 second exposure on my camera and positioning our tripod and I realized that we were actually at Petra, a city built over 2.000 years ago. We were actually in the middle of a desert in the Middle East. We were actually, basically, living out my dreams.
After a while people started sitting in front of The Treasury and spoiling the view for everyone even though we had been instructed to sit in the appointed seating area. It was really annoying because no one told them to move! I was glad we got there early so we could get at least a few empty shots. Also, the ‘show’ consisted of a Bedouin telling us some fable of how a fairy (?) came to him in a dream and convinced him to do something ambiguous… it was a load of utter nonsense. Some tea was served and some music was played and that was it. The ‘show’ lasted about 10 minutes. It was wholly disappointing.
What I did really enjoy was walking through the Siq, lit only by small lights and looking up to see the vast array of stars twinkling down through the narrow canyon. While that was remarkable, it really didn’t make up for the rest of the spectacle. So if you have time and money, do Petra by night. If you don’t, then don’t stress- Petra during the day is remarkable enough.
After a good night’s rest and a large breakfast, we set out to explore Petra again on the second day. We entered the Siq, treading the same path we had explored the day before, and went past the same sites without so much as a second glance. We had a destination in sight. Today we wanted to make the journey up 900 stairs (so I had read) to reach Ad Deir, otherwise known as The Monastery.
We ended up taking a donkey ride to the top (5 dinars each- BARGAIN HARD) and held on for dear life as we went flying to the top of a mountain while my bum was bruised by combination of wild donkey and steep stairs.
If I had known that there would be kohl-rimmed Bedouin BOY (probably around 10 years old) leading us up the mountain and terrorizing the poor donkey, I probably would’ve foregone this experience (why wasn’t he in school, was all I could think). Here is a taste of what it was like (sorry for the shaky video):
To us, The Monastery was the most impressive building of the entire complex. Reaching 50 metres into the air, it is also the largest in all of Petra. Dating back to the 1st century B.C. it is worth the 45 minute hike (20 minute ride) to the top. Just look at the pictures:
I know this was a long post but this was honestly one of the most anticipated experiences of my travels thus far and I just had to share it with all of you. After having been to Angkor Wat (Cambodia), Taj Mahal (India) and The Great Wall (China), I wasn’t sure I could still be impressed but when I saw The Monastery… my doubts were assuaged.
Tips for traveling to Petra:
- The sun is STRONG (even in winter). Take sunscreen, sunglasses, water, a hat/ cap/visor/ghutra/keffiyeh or whatever other headgear takes your fancy.
- People will harass you ALL the time in Petra to buy things or ride their animals. If you do engage these touts, bargain as much as possible as their starting prices are highly inflated.
- Try and go early morning or late afternoon if you can, when the place is empty/quiet.
- You need a basic level of fitness to enjoy Petra. It is not the place for lazy travelers or those with mobility issues.
- Read up on the history before you go and try to plan your visit there strategically. It’s a bit overwhelming to go there and decide what you want to see or do. For more information on this, click here.
- Petra (well, Jordan) is expensive. You will be expected to tip everyone for services that are supposed to be included in the entrance fee (like the horse ride) and they will not accept 1-2 dinars but will demand 5-10 dinars in an aggressive manner. It is highly upsetting if you aren’t prepared for it. To read more about the cost of visiting Petra click here for this post. I was glad I had visited Jordan while earning in the formidable Kuwaiti dinar. I might have cried a lot if I was still earning in South African rands.
Petra, Jordan. One of the Seven Wonders of the World. A UNESCO World Heritage Site. In this age when everything is measured in gigabytes and virtual likes, I cherish experiencing places such as Petra that left me in awe and gifted me with vivid moments to remember for as long as I live.
Thank you reading until the end of this very long, picture-packed post. My next post will document the rest of my time in Jordan with Fox!