Petra: a how-to guide

The Treasury all to ourselves

My previous post was dedicated to gushing about Petra, a tourist attraction that simply blew me away. But as you can imagine, I’m not alone — over 400,000 tourists visit Petra annually, and if you’ve ever met “tourists”, you’ll know that they are at their worst in big groups. Crowding, shouting, and a general lack of consideration for others is often the rule rather than the exception in these situations. It was the one thing about visiting Petra that I most dreaded, because nothing can ruin your day quite as quickly as being surrounded by a hoard of loud, ignorant, disrespectful people, all vying for the same photographs, the cheapest Coca-Cola, or the cutest sand bottle. But the most amazing thing happened on our visit to Petra: this dreadful hoard simply didn’t appear. We enjoyed a very long, very relaxing day, in relative peace and quiet. Obviously this had a large impact on how wonderful our day at Petra was. How did this happen? Are we just the luckiest travelers around? Or did we do something right? Let me tell you how we “did” Petra, in the hopes that other travelers might have equally wonderful experiences.

Here’s one of the first pieces of advice we can offer, and it seems an obvious one: visit Petra in low season. Ramadan is often a difficult time to travel in the Middle East, because finding food during the day can be a challenge, and shop hours seem to fluctuate as their keepers see fit. However, with a little bit of planning, and an open mind, it can be a wonderful time to experience places like Petra with somewhat less hassle and crowding. Sometimes things will open late or not run on time, but just go with it. Everyone else is relaxed about it, so it’s best to adopt the same attitude.

Our visit to Wadi Mousa was limited to two nights, so we had to make the most of our time. We decided to visit Petra twice: first, we bought tickets to “Petra by Night”, which only happens three nights a week, and then we planned to wake up early and spend the whole next day at the site. One quite compelling reason for packing so much sightseeing into such a compressed schedule is the price. Petra is an expensive place to visit, and there’s no way around that. Tickets for the night experience cost 12 Jordanian Dinars each, and one-day passes cost 33 JD each (one JD equals nearly 1.5 Canadian dollars — ouch). We also learned that later this year tickets will be going up to 50 JD each, so I guess we were lucky to be there when we were. However, it would be a tragedy to visit Jordan and miss Petra, so we paid the asking prices, and so did everyone else.

The "tourists" at Petra by Night

“Petra by Night” takes place after sundown, and it consists of a hike through the first siq to the Treasury, with only candles to light the way. Over 2000 candles are placed along the trail, and the light is so quiet and dim that your eyes can only barely make out the incredible natural features of the siq as you pass through it. Because “Petra by Night” is a scheduled event, there is no way to get around the fact that you will be joined by a few hundred of “them” — even in low season. The requests that our guide made of the group before we set off were very simple: please do not use flash photography, and please keep absolutely silent as we walk to the Treasury. Since this experience is meant to replicate the ancient rituals of the city’s original inhabitants, the idea was to approach with a certain degree of reverence and reflection. As our guide turned to lead the group in, it began. Loud conversations broke out all around us, and people started snapping away madly with their cameras — and 98% of them were using their flashes. I desperately wished to stop the entire group and point out to them two things. First of all, with all these flashes going off all around us, our eyes were having a hell of a time adjusting to the extremely dim candlelight by which we were making our way. Imagine that your pupils are at their most dilated, trying to absorb every little flicker of light that the candles and stars provide, and then *FLASH* — right in your face, an explosion of white light attacks your eyes at their most vulnerable. Secondly, these pictures simply won’t turn out anyways. Have you ever tried to take photographs of a landscape at night, using a flash? Doesn’t work. The flash is meant for short distances, not for illuminating a 200 meter high stone siq. It also removes any and all of the atmosphere from the photos, and then what’s the point? It was one of the first times that I wished digital photography wasn’t so accessible. If everyone there was using film cameras, at least they only would have been able to take 24 crappy pictures with flash, instead of 300.

Toon enjoys Petra by Night

So what can you do to get the most out of Petra by Night? Be patient. As hard as it is (and was), the best method is simply to wait for your moments to present themselves. If a large group of people behind you can’t stop talking about Lady Gaga, just stop on the side of the trail for 5 minutes and let them get out of earshot. Even 300 people have room to spread out over a 2 km distance, so do it. It is still a very worthwhile experience. The silhouettes of incredible forms present themselves quietly to your peripheral vision, and as the stars start to come into view framed by the cleft of the siq you will be glad you came. When we finally did arrive at the Treasury, we found it lit by hundreds of candles spread out before us. A musician played a stringed instrument and sang, and he was followed by a second performance by a traditional flautist. Tea was served to the large crowd, and to my surprise and delight, the crowd was considerately being quiet throughout the musical performances. Flashes were still firing off every few seconds, but I shut that out of my mind and instead focussed on where I was. The music reverberated wonderfully off of the stone around us. It was very beautiful.

The Treasury by candlelight

After the performance, we walked back slowly to the visitor’s center, then back to our hotel (where we were camping out back). Even though it was late, we agreed that we’d get up early and be at the gates to Petra first thing. We climbed sleepily into bed just after midnight.

5:00 am came very quickly, but we dragged ourselves up, had some breakfast, and headed for Petra at 6:00 am. This was possibly the best thing we could have done. You may think to yourself “oh, I’ll just sleep a little more, then a nice cup of coffee to ease me in to the day” — but don’t do this. Suck it up, or as we liked to say on the Oasis truck, “take a cement pill and harden the hell up already”. You’ll have lots of time to sleep when you’re dead. It’s time to visit Petra. We arrived at the ticket window just after 6:00 am, and guess what? We were the first people there. And we were alone. We bought our expensive tickets and headed in.

Arriving at the siq early

Walking through the siq in the growing daylight was absolutely magical, and we had the whole thing to ourselves. We discovered that the bus-loads of tourists tend to arrive around 8:30 am or so, in order to arrive at the treasury as the sun climbs high enough to light it up. While we missed that event, I wouldn’t do it any differently if I went again. It was more than worth it to have that walk in peace and solitude. When we reached the Treasury, we were able to contemplate it quietly, and take pictures unobstructed. Slowly, people started to trickle in behind us in twos and threes, but no hoards yet. We moved on.

The Street of Facades

Next up we walked the Street of Facades, again in solitude. As we reached the end, we could see the Royal Tombs and the Theater ahead in the distance. At this point we made our second excellent decision. Rather than head straight for them, where we would surely be caught by the following crowds soon enough, we turned left just after the Street of Facades and started climbing up a long, winding stair towards the High Place of Sacrifice. The climb was a little strenuous at times, but it was still early and the sun hadn’t reached it’s full intensity yet, so it was a good time to tackle it. The Royal Tombs were in view below us as we climbed. When we’d almost reached the top, we settled down beside the two Obelisks for a well-deserved rest, and a snack. There is a coffee shop near the top, but it was closed all morning, likely due to Ramadan. No problem — we’d packed our bags with frozen water bottles, pita bread, vegetables, dips, and cookies. We enjoyed our second breakfast looking out over the valley below.

Near the High Place of Sacrifice

As we finished, other tourists began to arrive at the top, but again only in small groups. The climb to the High Place of Sacrifice is hard enough to dissuade a large percentage of visitors from trying it. There’s nothing wrong with sharing the experience with some people, because in small groups people can be wonderful and friendly. We climbed on to the platform of the High Place, and then started back down.

View from the Garden Temple. Imagine lush gardens covered the valley — beautiful.

Our third great decision of the day: instead of descending back the way we came, we took the route off of the back of the mountain, towards the Lion Fountain and the Garden Tombs. The trail would take us to the centre of Petra, but first it wound slowly down through carved stairs, less-visited tombs and fountains, and past the Garden Temple, which was a wonderful spot — one of our favourites. We ambled slowly down, taking a few hours and stopping to enjoy every carved and natural wonder as we came across them. We arrived at the far end of the Colonnaded Street just after lunch time. We found a small patch of grass near one of the overpriced restaurants there and enjoyed a picnic lunch, followed by a siesta. It was the hottest part of the day, so we were in no hurry to rush back out into the sun. We stayed in the shade for a couple of hours before moving on.

Picnic lunch

When we did, we again resisted the draw of the City Centre, and instead headed up towards the Monastery. This was a warm climb, but tackling it in the late afternoon meant that several sections were in the shadow of the mountains now, which made it more bearable. We passed many people on this trail, but most of them were trickling down and heading home, and all of the big groups were conspicuously absent. The Monastery was amazing. What it lacked in polish and preservation it made up for in sheer size, as it towered over us. We sat for a while and took it in, then climbed to one of the nearby viewpoints to take in the panoramic landscape before heading down again.

The Monastery

When we arrived back at the City Center, it was getting quite late in the day. All of the big tourist groups were gone, and only pockets of tired-looking people walked lazily about. We made our way down the Colonnaded Street, visiting the ruins of incredible buildings as we went. The Great Temple was one of my favourites — it was so grand in its layout, and so beautifully positioned in the site. We emerged at the end of the street with the Royal Tombs before us. With only an hour or so to go before sunset, we parked ourselves at a friendly Bedouin drink stand and refreshed ourselves with cold sodas. Finally, we walked along the soaring facades of the Royal Tombs, and then parked ourselves on top of a piece of high ground in front of them to watch the sun set. As the sun sank towards the horizon, the stone lit up with a reddish glow. It was a very peaceful moment.

The Royal Tombs at sunset

After the sun disappeared from view, we started hiking back out towards the exit. We passed the Theater on our way, still with plenty of evening light to appreciate it. We passed the Treasury one last time, and then walked out of the siq, alone again. I believe that we were the last people out of the site, and being able to end our day as we began it, in quiet appreciation of the beauty of the site, was priceless. In total we spent 13.5 hours at Petra, and we arrived back at our camp tired, satisfied, and extremely happy. So there you have it. If ever you get a chance to visit this incredible place, that’s how I recommend doing it. Just don’t tell the tour companies — it will be our little secret.

It's between you, me, and the cat


  1. John Candy

  2. One cannot have a proper picnic without tomatoes!

    33JD to visit something as amazing as this?? You pay more just to go to Wonderland and ride rollercoasters. Even at 50JD it would be a bargain to visit Petra.

    Thanks for the tour, it was wonderful…

    Safe travels

    Wonderful exploration …and everywhere the ‘homeless’ kitties. Simon and Kathleen brought their little ‘found’ kitty back from Egypt. Kathleen’s sister brought 3 of them, BTW Simon and Kathleen are getting married next August 13th. <3 AL

    So jealous… I’ve been wanting to visit Petra since seeing Annie Leibovitz’s photos.

    Well played friends – sounds like you did it up right.


  3. Debbie Rosen

  4. Awesome to read about this! And how smart you both are! Love you!

    It was a pretty incredible place, to be sure. It’s going to be hard to top Petra in my books.

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