It seems no work of Man’s creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Amidst the mountains stands this city, quite nothing like I’ve ever seen before. Carved by hands of a time long gone. Shaped by empires of great civilizations. Standing still,lost in time. Petra is everything you’ve read about and then heaps more. This ancient capital of the Nabatean Kingdom lie hidden in the mountains. A city red as rose. A fortress enclosed by rocks and shrouded in mystery-only visible to those who seek it. And seek we did.
Tourism in Petra is an industry in a boom. And why the hell not when they charge a hefty 80USD just to be able to enter the Petra complex. But what is 80 USD when you get to see Petra- one of the world’s historical gems? Since you will be paying quite a sum to enter, be sure to make the most out of it and see as much of it as you can.
Very few hotels operate here so expect to pay a steep price for a room in one of the proper hotels. However, several backpacking hostels provide a room for much cheaper price (note:5 times cheaper). Most of these hostels are located a few kilometers away from downtown Petra and transportation could be a pain in the ass. These hostels provide free shuttle to and from downtown but shuttles operate once a day, limiting your schedule.
We rented a room at Rocky mountain hotel- a backpackers’ hostel perched atop one of the mountains surrounding Petra. By car, it is a good 15min drive to the visitor centre where one can enter the Petra complex. A triple room costs about 20 USD. The place is relatively clean and is a good deal for its price.
The Petra complex
The complex is often approached from the eastern entrance where the visitor centre is located. At the time of our visit, the centre is under renovation so they put up stalls just outside the entrance where tickets were sold. the entrance is a ubiquitous gate with a small room at the right side where tickets were shown. it didn’t really fit the bill of an entrance to a place as grand as Petra. upon entry, you will see a group of locals tending to horses/horse-drawn carriages. it is said in your ticket that you are entitled to a free one-way horse ride. but of course, there’s a catch. there always is (that’s one of the first lessons i’ve learned since i started traveling). not a few steps after the entrance and you’ll immediately be approached and offered a ride. they’ll tell you that it’s free (included in your ticket). but the catch, you’ll have to give xxUSD for tip. if you don’t mind the money then a horseback/carriage ride would save you the trouble of walking to and through the Siq. but we are a cheap bunch so we put our game faces on and proceeded to the Siq on foot.
The walk from the entrance to the Siq is a good 10~15 mins of strolling. It’s pretty straightforward and wouldn’t even cause a sweat. the road is unpaved and covered in small stones so leave the high-heeled shoes at home. a good pair of walking shoes is your best friend when traveling in Jordan. there isn’t much to see here. Just open space with a few boulders of rocks here and there. after mins of walking, you will be confronted by a mountain with a small opening. the entrance to the Siq could’ve been hard to miss before tourism had its claws on Petra. The flux of people heading there and the clear signs of money-making (store beside the entrance, guides, locals selling stuff, etc.) is a big X marking the spot.
the Siq is a split naturally formed in the rock mountain that encloses Petra. it is a dark and narrow passage walled by boulders of sandstone that goes up to a few floors. In a few areas, the passage is so narrow that a carriage could barely pass. some parts of the Siq are paved while others are cobbled so it was an easy saunter. there are also benches along the way to rest your feet and take some time to appraise this beautiful passage and the different lines and patterns formed by the rocks on its walls. Walking along the Siq, in itself, is a magical experience. you just have to watch out for those horse-drawn carriages that run like they’re on fire. and yeah, be wary of horse dung that litter the passage.
Always look ahead for you don’t want to miss it- that moment when the treasury comes to view. The Siq winds and curves and swirls around so you won’t get to see the end of the passage until the last turn. And that is when you catch a sight of the treasury. This moment struck me the most. It was an overwhelming feeling seeing it for the first time- an awe-filled second of first encounter. It was there that it finally sunk in. Yes, I am in Petra. I am finally seeing one of the grandest historical sites ever found. Imagining the past that this place holds fills me with an undefinable feeling. I felt so human- restricted, ephemeral- yet so infinite all at the same time.
The treasury is arguably the most elaborate and majestic of all the structures in Petra. Hewn into a rose-colored cliff facing the passage, this is the structure that will greet you from the Siq. And for that, is also the most photographed building in Petra. Most blogs would tell you to visit Petra before sunrise so you can get a good photo without the crowd. The rays of the sun also cast a magical glow on the sandstones. However, waking up early is an impossible task for me. So that’s a no go. It was by our erratic schedule that we found out that most tourists leave before sunset. So you may just luck out and find yourself in front of an empty treasury before sundown. But be sure to leave the premises before it gets completely dark because navigating the Siq in the dark isn’t any fun at all.
The owner of the hostel where we stayed suggested that we allot at least a day and a half to see the most important parts of Petra. We spent half a day on the climb to the high place of sacrifice. we were told that from here, there’s a path that leads to the garden temple and the roman soldiers. The climb to the High place is a relatively easy one. It was just flights of defined, well-carved stone steps. Just don’t be stupid and you’ll be perfectly fine. Upon reaching the high place, things got a bit sketchy. the signage, if any, was a mess. we tried to follow the instructions given to us to reach the garden temples. but this lead us to an unknown path that’s clearly far from being safe. the view was fantastic. groups of people may have tried to wander this way as most of them left clues in the form of balanced rocks. so we stood there, surrounded by a herd of mountain goats. do we head on or go back? the signs clearly mentioned this part being dangerous. it was about 5 in the afternoon, the sun was getting ready to take its rest. this could’ve been a YOLO moment. only, we weren’t even half drunk. and certainly not suicidal. we still had Petra by night to experience. and my hungry stomach was keeping me from insanity.
after going down, we decided to grab something to eat before Petra by night starts. that meant going outside the complex. a long 40 mins of walking past the Siq all the way to the visitor’s centre. several stores line the walkway outside the gate. however, most only sell drinks and light snacks. definitely not enough to appease my rumbling tummy. so we headed to the main road where most stores are. there aren’t a lot of fancy restaurants in Petra. most are very simple eateries that serve Jordanian fares. there’s also a surprising number of places serving Italian dishes (which is probably due to the large number of Italian tourists). If you want a proper sit-down dinner, restaurants inside the Movenpick hotel (just by the Petra gate) would be your best bet. Growing tired of eating tomato stew, we decided to have Italian instead.
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
Petra by night
Seeing Petra in the day is amazing. But seeing it at night, lit up by hundreds of candles is altogether a different story. Petra by night is done every MWF and costs ~20USD (excluded from your entrance fee; you still need to pay this even if you have entrance ticket for that day). The blogs and write-ups I’ve researched prior to this trip are divided in their opinion of Petra by night. So should you or should you not go? Is it worth it?
The way from the gate to the treasury is lined with candles. The walk, lead by a local, terminates at the treasury where hundreds of candles are lit. People are then seated, indian style, surrounded by candles, as they are treated with local music and stories.
Most of those who didn’t appreciate this had a hard time walking because it was very dark and the small stones could hurt you with one missed step. Also, a huge crowd usually turns up for this so finding a place to plop yourself could be difficult. Conducted in any open space with a huge crowd, the stories from the guides were barely audible.
However, Petra lit by candles and starlight is a breathtaking view that you really can’t put a price tag on. I would suggest that you do this on your first time seeing Petra to give it a more magical flair. As it means an hour and a half of walking, be sure to rest your feet before doing this. the last thing you need is getting stuck in the Siq in the dark. (There are no horses nor carriages to give you a lift during Petra by night).
Is it worth it? I’d say a thousand times over. Seeing the treasury lit by candles made my breath hitch. It reminded me of that moment when I first saw the northern lights. I was filled with childlike awe- like seeing the world in a brand new light. What I’d give to make this my first time seeing Petra. This would’ve moved me to tears.
Stairway to the Monastery
800 steps. baking under the sun. sleep-deprived. swollen toe.
those words defined my climb up the monastery. reading it, you’d think this would be a rant-fest. but surprisingly, in spite of all those things, if given the chance, I’d do it all over again without a shred of doubt.
the first few steps up the monastery was a mixture of exasperation and stubborn determination. I was dead-tired. I haven’t had rest since our Wadi Rum adventure (day after day of climbing and walking). We just finished looking around the tombs. it was 10 in the morning and the sun was ablaze. But I’ve gotten my ass over here, a thousand miles away. It was now or maybe never. So i took deliberate steps, gleefully doing the countdown. 30 steps, 770 more to go. We tried to pace ourselves, careful not to rest too much and allow the body to shutdown like what happened when we climbed Mt. Fuji. Just enough rest to replenish the fluids and catch our breath. Halfway there and my legs have slowed. Yep, I was spent from the last few days of activities. I took refuge from the sun in a hut by a small store. The can of ice-cold cola seduce in the background.
There’s always the option of giving up. I thought. But that’s not an option for me. If need be, I would crawl my way up there (seriously, I would). But maybe I can try and push just a few more steps. Small victories I reminded myself. But a few more steps turned into a hundred and then some more. And finally, I saw the end of the staircase- with people greeting those that emerge from it. We’ve made it. I gave a wry grin. small victories.
Laying eyes on the monastery, I felt rejuvenated. Like all the climbing was just a bad dream. I took snap after snap after snap of photos. this is my price- my trophy. and damn if i don’t get at least one good shot. finally the adrenalin wore off and I was reminded of my injured foot. i headed towards a shop just in front of the monastery- parched and positively starving. i surveyed the store. ice-cold drink, my head screamed. i swallowed my pride and paid the obviously rip-off price for a can of soda. i hurriedly opened the can and gulped. best coke I’ve ever had.
B decided to climb up some more to get a view of the monastery from above. M and I decided this view would do. Pick your own battles. We still had about 6 days of travel to go. When B finally came back, we took our seats in the hut beside the store and shared the packed lunch we bought from the hostel. All three of us sporting a tired grin.
We’ve made it and it didn’t disappoint. After a bit of a rest, we went on our way down. It might be decades before I set foot in this place again (maybe even never). But I’ll never be the same after this. It might not be a drastic change, but every place you visit changes you one way or another.
On our way down, we passed by tourists on their way up. I gave them a small smile. Just a few more steps, I encouraged. Small victories.
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.