One of the (many) highlights of visiting Jordan is exploring the magnificent Nabataean red rose city of Petra, which is believed to have been established in the 4th century BC as the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom. I thought it might be useful if I provide some helpful tips, which will hopefully make your visit to this UNESCO world heritage centre truly memorable. I visited in August, when it is searingly hot, but totally doable at the same time.
When is the best time to visit Petra?
The cooler periods to visit Petra are autumn and spring when I hear the crowds are less heaving. We visited in August and didn’t come across any other British tourists in Petra, although it seemed to be very popular with the Italians and Spanish. Whatever time of year you visit the quietest time to explore Petra is as soon as the park opens at 6am and in the late evening 6-7pm. In the summer months it closes at 7pm and the winter at 4pm, but I don’t think they are too strict about this- we stumbled out just before 7pm and there were still a number of people we had passed going up to the High Place of Sacrifice as we were coming down. Although do bear in mind that once the sun sets it gets dark FAST and navigating getting out of Petra in the dark, without a torch could be rather tricky, although I guess it would make a good tale to tell the grandkids!
Even though there were lots of people mulling around by the Treasury when we first entered via the Siq, once you go further in, the crowds disperse and you are free to explore the caves and sites without huge swathes of people.
Having walked down the Siq you arrive at The Treasury
To Guide or Not to Guide?
Hiring a local Bedouin guide has it’s advantages if you want to hike some lesser known trails around Petra. Also it might be good to hire one for a few hours before breaking away on your own to explore. If you have a good guidebook, however, you can read up about the various key sights while you are there. Everything is well signposted and you are provided with maps from the visitors centre at the entrance. The key places to visit are: the Siq (which you will walk along to actually enter Petra), The Treasury, Street of Facades and The Great Temple excavations undertaken by Brown University, Theatre, Royal Tombs, Colonnaded Street, The Monastery and the Place of High Sacrifice.
Tickets to enter Petra for one day are JD50 (£50/$70) for two days only 5JD more and three days 10JD more. Children under 15yrs old get in free. In hindsight I wish we had spent an extra day in Petra so we could explore more of the trails instead of walking 15 miles in one day.
Colannaded Street with local Bedouins on their donkeys
Donkeys, Camels, Mules and Horses
Local Bedouins are eager to offer tourists rides to and around Petra on their various beasts of burden. Whilst I realise this is an income for them and that most of the animals looked in fairly good condition, I passed up on their offer, preferring my own two feet to carry me everywhere. Climbing up to the Monastery were dozens of donkeys carrying weary walkers to the top. It’s steep and as a walker you need to be careful for fear of being knocked over the edge by the animals as they clamber with their heavy human loads. I almost saw one mule, carrying a tourist, go over the edge of a precipice. Coming down on the donkeys looked really precarious so I will leave it to you on what you decide. I think it’s an easy decision mind you!
Don’t let the bazaar vibes get you down
Most of the Bedouins living in Petra are from the B’doul tribe and many now live in the purpose-built settlement of Umm Sayhoun, which you can see in my first photo in the distance on the far right. Most work in the tourism industry working in hotels or camps or as horse riders, tour guides or souvenir sellers. One thing I noticed was the huge amount of souvenir sellers all around Petra, all the way along the trails to the main sites. Whilst it does seem rather overrun with stalls, there are some good souvenirs to buy, many made by the local women, so its worth looking at what they have to offer. Remember it is not like shopping here in the UK. When they offer a price you need to haggle a little bit – it’s what they expect, so don’t agree with the first price.
Meeting Marguerite van Geldermalsen
One New Zealand tourist visiting Petra in 1978 fell for the charms of one of the souvenir-sellers – Mohammed Abdallah Othman and never left. She learned Arabic, converted to Islam and gave birth to three children, who are now all grown up. Mohammed has since past away sadly, but Marguerite still lives there. For seven years she made a home with him in a two thousand-year-old cave carved into the rock hillside, living like a Bedouin. Whilst she now lives in Umm Sayhoun, she can be found most days in Petra selling her memoir, sometimes with her grown-up daughter, as well as some beautiful jewellery that she has designed and made with the help of a local women’s co-operative. Her shop is very close to where her troglodyte dwelling used to be in fact.
Are Food, Water and Facilities Available in Petra?
Absolutely yes to all three. Deliciously cold bottled water is available all over Petra, although prices range on where you buy them. At the bottom of the hike to ‘The Monastery’ they were half the price to what they were at the top. The main restaurant in Petra is ‘The Basin’ and whilst it’s ok, I think opting for a packed lunch and sandwich is a better option. I didn’t really feel like eating that much in the heat, and besides I was there to explore and hike and not eat copious amounts of salads and hummus. You can pick up some snacks Wadi Musa – the town that has built up outside Petra, or get your hotel to make up a packed lunch for you. Another option is to pick up a fresh sandwich at ‘The Monastery’ with a cold orange juice when you get to the top.
You will also find Bedouin ladies making tea at a number of opportune places. In the late afternoon we climbed to ‘The Place of High Sacrifice’ where we had the place to ourselves. Then behind a rock we found the lady in the photo on the right beckoning us to have some tea and sit with her. At which point she got out her tin flute and played us a tune as we sipped our sweet tea and watched the sun reflect brilliantly over Petra. Hauntingly memorable.
Made it to The High Place of Sacrifice - incredible view from the top
Where to stay in Petra?
All the hotels and camps have been built in and around Wadi Musa, which has grown as the tourist industry has thrived. We stayed at the Movenpick Hotel, which is perfectly positioned at the entrance to Petra. The hotel would not win awards for architectural beauty from the outside, but inside is far more appealing than you would be led to believe, especially the atrium where you can linger over a cold drink and a good book. There is an outside pool, which was much needed after 10 hours on our feet and a great roof terrace where you can watch the sunset/rise. The rooms and bathrooms are a little dated, but the beds perfectly comfortable so overall the hotel was an excellent choice for our adventures in Petra.
Where to eat when you stay in Petra?
There are a number of restaurants in Wadi Musa all offering similar type dishes. We ate at a couple of restaurants – the best being ‘My Mom’s Recipe Restaurant’ which serves Jordanian fare in an atmospheric restaurant. It is reached by climbing a couple of flights of stairs with rugs adorning the walls and ceilings. It was cosy and welcoming with good views of the nights sky and a local musician playing live music. I was also very impressed by the waitress who was Yemeni and spoke Arabic; English; Hindi and Filipino.
We also had an excellent buffet lunch at Al Qantarah where there was a wide selection of cold and hot dishes as well as some tasty falafels, which were freshly made.
I craved a hot soup (I know this may sound strange when it was mid 30’s outside), so ordered a local Jordanian favourite, Shorba, made of red split lentils, spices and lemon. It is similar to Indian dal, but with an Arabic twist. I ate it quite a few times in Jordan so thought you would like the recipe too as it will be perfect for the months ahead.
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 white onion, chopped
1 bay leaf
1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cups of red split lentils, washed under cold water and strained a couple of times
2.5 litres of water
1 chicken/vegetable stock cube
1 1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
juice of one lemon, or to taste
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
1 tsp salt
handful of fresh parsley, to serve
- In a deep pan heat the oil and add the onion, bay leaf and carrot and cook on a low heat for 5 minutes before adding the garlic and cooking for a further 2 minutes.
- Add the red split lentils and cover with the water and stock cube.
- Cook on a medium to low flame for 15 minutes, skimming any scum that may come to the surface.
- When it has softened, add the cumin and turmeric powders, lemon juice, freshly ground pepper and salt.
- Remove the bay leaf and then using a hand blender blitz the lentils so that they are smooth. You may need to add some more water if the soup is too thick.
- Taste test and add more salt/pepper/lemon juice as you see fit.
- Pour into bowls and add a little fresh parsley on top.
Exploring Little Petra - we pretty much had the place to ourselves
What is Little Petra?
Little Petra is about a 15 minute car ride from Wadi Musa. It is another archeological site located north of Petra. It is also Nabataean with buildings carved into the the sandstone walled canyon. It is thought to have been built to house visiting traders on the Silk Road – much like a caravanserai. It is free to visit and takes between 30 mins -1 hour to explore and there were only a handful of tourists when we visited. At the end of the canyon is a precarious climb to a view point with a souvenir seller at the top and a place to have some tea and cold drinks.
There are some other hikes, which start from Little Petra which take you further into the arid, mountainous desert region which look interesting if you have more time in the area. I would advise to get a guide if you want to venture further on this hike and make sure to carry lots of water and supplies as there will be no sellers offering food and beverages on the trail.
Local Bedouin man playing his Oud
Petra Night Tour – worth doing or not?
We did NOT do this ourselves, owing to the fact we were too shattered after our 15 mile hike around Petra and quite honestly could not face walking another 2.5km down the Siq and another 2.5km back in the dark. Our legs had given up on us and we fancied a leisured evening and rest, before visiting Little Petra the next day. It also sounded a bit of a tourist trap if I’m honest and on Trip Advisor has mixed feedback. If you fancy giving it a whirl however, it happens on Monday, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8.30pm when the tour walks from the visitors centre down the Siq to the Treasury. Apparently it is all lit up with candles and is very atmospheric, albeit you are witnessing this wondering with hundreds of other people. There are some locals playing instruments, some Arabic singing and story telling and tea drinking but apparently as there are so many people receiving tea is not guaranteed with that number of people. The whole experience lasts two hours and once the sun has gone down it gets cold, so bring sufficient clothes to keep yourself warm.
Tickets cost JD17 (£17/$24), children under 10 are free, and it last for a couple of hours.
Sitting with my back to the Royal Tombs overlooking the Street of Facades and Colonnaded Street