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Exploring Petra

Trip ReportJames HipkissComment

 

"Thrust into the lime light by Indiana Jones (of Last Crusade fame), Petra will undoubtedly always make it on to any must see, visit, or bucket list out there.

The accessibility, preservation, and grandeur of this rose-red city provide any visitor with an up-close and personal experience with the ancient Nabataeans as they walk through history. Jordans biggest tourist attraction, surrounded by the town of Wadi Musa, isnt hard to find. The town has expanded significantly thanks to tourism and attracts over half a million visitors annually, so connections to Amman and Aqaba via Minibus are frequent. In fact, wherever you find yourself in Jordan, you wont be far from a tour offering visits Petra. Or simply rent a car and make your way at your own pace you'll soon discover there's a lot more to Jordan then just this site.

Petra's touristic gravity even attracts visitors from neighbouring Egypt and Israel, where tourists can be coached out and even flown out on day trips for a price. The reality is that you can even hop on a low-cost airline now, with no guide book or map, and you'll still make it there with little pre-organisation or stress. Its even becoming more and more feasible to have a long weekend in Jordan, providing you can tolerate the five-hour flight time. Its best to arrive in Wadi before you plan on visiting the archaeological park, leaving you time to plan a visit and pick up any supplies. There's plenty of accommodation in Wadi Musa catering from the shoestring backpacker to those in search of five-star luxuries. A popular place to lay your head down before a day of exploration and a location recommended by many travel guides is Valentine Inn. Offering a backpacker feel, the inn is situated on a hill, offering lovely views of the surrounding town a great place to relax as the sun sets. Staff can provide a pack lunch for the long day ahead, sell you water, and organise night-tours of Petra. In the morning they operate a free shuttle bus-service to the entrance to the site.

As you pass through the main site entrance at Petra, and leave behind all the tacky souvenir huts offering Indiana Jones hats, whips, and postcards, you'll find yourself in a less crowded, open space where you'll be greeted by camel and donkey handlers offering you a lift. Officially included in the ticket, they will expect an additional tip. If you want to avoid this, take comfort in the knowledge that Petra is best explored on your own two feet. A dry and dusty (but well-defined!) route carries you along. With the faint smell of animal manure in the light breeze ruffling your hair, you'll enjoy a pleasant stroll to the Siq. The Siq is a large, narrow sandstone canyon through which visitors must pass. You'll be dwarfed by its steep sides and bathed in wonderful shades of red, orange, and rusty browns running along the smooth walls. Lines of tourist groups sheltered from the blazing sun with their cameras flow through its winding canyon, much like ants march through pavement cracks in our world. The Siq twists and turns, slicing through the earth for roughly two kilometres, and provides a very enjoyable and tranquil walk indeed.

Some carvings can be seen here: for most, its the canyons itself which remain the primary draw to Petra. Winding through the Siq, the famous picture of the Petra Treasury is the image that's constantly on your mind. With every turn you cant help but be excited: will you finally see this famous picture with your own eyes? Anticipation is followed by deflation and then, as if a mirage has appeared unexpectedly, you begin to see part of the structure before you. Every step brings you closer and the mirage becomes larger. The dark canyon walls disappear as you exit the Siq, suddenly face to face with the monumental Treasury. Wow! The Treasury's position has sheltered it from the elements and the ravages of time. It is by far the best preserved archaeological ruin on site. Arrive here before ten in the morning, as the Treasury looks at its best with the sun illuminating it fully, which brings every incredible detail to light.

This is a classic photo opportunity and you'll struggle to get the perfect shot without anyone else in the background. If you do want the Treasury all to yourself, increase your chances by arriving at the park entrance for a 6 AM opening time. The Treasury at sunrise is certainly a grand start to your visit, but Petra is huge, and this is only the beginning. Follow the canyon to the right where the next bend reveals large tombs and facades incorporated into the rocks in hues of the desert. Walk the stunning Martian landscape a few minutes more, and you'll come to a 7000-seat amphitheatre. Its incredible to imagine the huge lengths past inhabitants went to for their city. Wherever your eyes are drawn, they fall upon the sandy shades of ruins nestled into the surrounding cliffs. Its not long before you enter the central part of the park. Here, free-standing ruins independent of the canyon walls occupy much of the area. Ancient columns, walls, and arches are all that remain of the Grand Temple.

Here you'll find a restaurant and some modern toilets which can provide a good resting area before the next stage of your journey. Here starts the hike to the Monastery, as featured in the Transformers film. Essentially all this time you've been at a lower elevation, so its time to make that up literally by walking up a natural stairwell through a long canyon believed to be a precession-route to the monastery. Unlike the smoothness of the Siq, the canyon-sides here are rough, rocky, and jagged, almost as if the Earths crust has violently ripped itself apart. Still the shades of red orange and brown persist with only a few shrubs that seem to have broken through the rocks high above, and cling to the canyon walls, towering high above where it would seem only the mountain goats can reach.

With the blazing heat of the afternoon sun on your back, this section may take you up to two hours with regular water breaks and occasionally stops to haggle with a jewellery merchant, their goods laid out on the soft sand, with no discernable method of transport (besides magic, perhaps). Finally the climb comes to an end as you exit the canyon into an open space. There's no obvious route to follow: your senses tell you that surely you must be here, but where? Wheres the monastery? Walking away from the canyon you've just exited seems natural, so head on out. You'll see a refreshments hut and with the hike you've just done you deserve a cold drink. You can be forgiven if you fail to notice the massive Monastery carved into the cliff behind you on the right, close to the slot canyon from which you just emerged. When you do finally turn your head, you'll be rewarded by the sight of the Monastery and realise that you've finally accomplished what is for so many a touristic pilgrimage. Unlike the Treasury, if you can get up the huge entrance of the Monastery, you're free to enter.

But as often is the case with historical ruins, it may strike you as impressive from the outside. The small refreshment hut incorporates a small cave with tables set out, where you can take a well-earned rest and pay the overpriced refreshment cost in the shade with a great view. A visit to Petra is certainly worth the time, combining history, archaeology, and architecture with a days hiking. Photographers rejoice as setting your lens on the subject in hand is both fun and challenging. Capturing the feel, and playing around with the lights and shades can keep you entertained for days. Walking through Petra is an amazing experience, but oddly the gravity of the place doesn't quite have the impact most expect. Perhaps its a victim of its own reputation.

Almost engraved in the touristic psyche as pictures of Petra are waved in front of us by every travel publication and rightly so Petra deserves to be promoted and shared with the world, but that can lead to an anticlimax of sorts for some visitors. I would recommend and even urge anyone to visit Petra at least once in their life, but if you ask me if I would visit again, I would struggle to say Id hurry back, and that really does make me feel a bit guilty. Cost Petra is not a cheap place to visit. One day entry is 50 JD (approx 45) Two day entry is 55 JD (approx 49) Three day entry is 60 JD (approx 53) Many people do buy a two or three day pass, and for enthusiasts this provides a great opportunity to explore every nook and cranny. But for most people, one day is enough. We even bumped into an archaeologist who told us he'd had is fill after one day!

The practice of selling on or gifting two or three day tickets does occur. Technically, this is stealing, so you'll have to decide for yourself whether the practice suits you. Though the entrance is steep, tourism is a major contributor to the economy and helps preserve this site for eager generations to come.

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