Last Christmas I treated my self with a special gift. No panettone for me, I flyed away from home & Christmas traditions and planned a trip to flag one of my secret dreams: visiting the ancient Petra, one of the seven wonders of the world!
A visit to Petra is an unforgettable experience, so I take my time to explore, walk around, imagine the ancient times and breathe the air of the desert. No hurry.
Just a premise: many travellers have already written about their visit to Petra. I do not want to tell you which is the best experience to do, I will simply tell you about my experience. I will skip also historical insights, other sources and the local guides are great for the purpose.
Rain in the desert
It’s 7 am on the 26th December when I wake up in our tent at Wadi Rum. The alarm rings to remember us that we must pack up and drive to Wadi Musa. Once there we will realize our dream of seeing Petra. The sun is shining on Wadi Rum and our car trip takes less than two hours. We climb the mountains and enter a sort of whirlwind of clouds and rain. The temperature goes down to 3°C and we arrive in Wadi Musa in the middle of a storm.
How strange, we are in a desert climate country and… it’s raining! Okay, it will stop soon, I tell myself as we enter in the pleasant warmth of the hotel lobby where we unload our luggage. I take this opportunity to put on warmer clothes and to put in my backpack a very welcome lunch box provided by the hotel, and a providential cap that I found in my suitcase.
I’d preferred to meet Petra under a blue sky and a shining sun. By the way in these circumstances I am happy when it finally stops raining. At noon we enter the visitor center, which is quite crowded.
While going through the entrance I realize that I clearly understand the language of many people around me. So, how many Italian tourists are there? A lot… as usual during Christmas holidays!
Walking along the Siq
A downhill path leads to the beginning of the Siq, which is one of the most beautiful roads in the world, I think. A cold wind blows along the way, I put on my cap. The Siq is a sort of long corridor between high rock walls. At times it widens and at times it narrows and the walls almost touch each other. Some traces of the ancient human presence appear: carvings in the rock and dark burial chambers.
The Siq is about 1.2 km long and I expect to walk some 20 minutes to reach the end, but as I walk the time seems to lengthen and the final point does not appear. Around us, the voices of other people walking resonate between the walls and horse-drawn carts carry other visitors along the Siq, while the patter of hooves seems to amplify between the walls.
Secrets revealed: the Treasury
I wonder if someone hasn’t lied about the length of the Siq … but it finally appears: The Treasury, such a beautiful tomb carved in the pink rock, an image that we all remember since the days of Indiana Jones and the last crusade. It’s hidden right here, at the bottom of the Siq, since a couple of millennia. It’s been rediscovered in modern times and for centuries it has been completely forgotten, falling into oblivion.
The area in front of The Treasury is crowded of a variety of subjects: tourists from all over the world, tourist-guides proclaiming the history of Petra, carts unloading new visitors and horses puffing, Bedouins – who still live in these valleys – doing their business, and stray dogs rolling in the dust.
A couple of kiosks sell drinks and the cold desert wind at times raises bursts of sand that enter your eyes and mouth, if you don’t keep it closed.
My first thought in front of this view is not “what magic!” but … “what a mess!”. A funny mess, I mean. Like the one you live in the fish market of Catania, when the fish vendors scream and people get worked up.
We remain in front of The Treasury for a while, after all this place is one of the most iconic on the planet. We look at the Treasury, we search for another perspective and take a picture, then another one.
After a while we climb the rocks in search of a better viewpoint and find a spot where a Bedouin ask for 1JD for the view, because that’s HIS view and he wants people to pay for that. We give him that JD because we want to take a picture from there. And he offers us a cup of tea. I accept it and, in that moment, I realize that the cup hasn’t been washed since… when? Maybe years? What shall I do now? I think: oh well, the tea was boiling on the fire. Maybe the temperature is high enough to sterilize the cup and eliminate any kind of bacterium inside it…
Ale looks at me and seems both amused (he refused the tea without hesitation) and disgusted (he doesn’t believe that I have the courage to drink from that cup). Well, I drink the tea. And it’s good! After that, I put the cup in the bowl where it will probably not be washed and re-used again and again. Anyway, two weeks later I am still alive, and I have not reported any unpleasant consequences from my reckless act.
We leave the terrace with a view while other tourists complain about the 1JD tax imposed by the Bedouin. The man gets angry for the protests and starts screaming and calling for backup. Tempers are nervous, it’s time to sneak out. Let’s go. I have no idea how the discussion ended but from now on I can say … welcome to Petra!
The way to the Altar of Sacrifice
We walk to The Theater, then we take the uphill path that leads to the Altar of Sacrifice. We climb a long staircase and in a short time the crowd disappears, and silence comes. In front of us a great view of the ancient Petra and the valley between the mountains. In this moment I realize how big the ancient city of the Nabataeans was. Actually, at the time of its maximum splendor it had about 30,000 inhabitants.
The higher we climb the more the wind blows. The view sweeps over the rugged mountains and after half an hour’s walk we reach the Altar of Sacrifice. Some sun rays pass through a break in the clouds and seem to indicate the remains of Petra. I resist the force of the wind and I’m totally kidnapped by the incredible landscape in front of me. I’m sure that I will remember it for a long, long time.
Wadi Farasa: a lonely path
We don’t walk back to the Theater, but we proceed along the Wadi Farasa trail. We will meet very few people along the way, all of them are really excited to have undertaken it. Along the narrow valley we discover the Lion Monument and the Garden Triclinium, places that most visitors totally ignore.
The trail ends after a 40 minutes walk at the Center of Petra, near the Qasr-al-Bint temple. This is the place where usually also the guided tours through Central Petra end. From here, we must walk back for 6 km and return to The Treasury, leaving the site through the Siq. In the meanwhile, the sun sets and a momentary ray of light illuminates the Royal Tombs in the distance.
After 4 pm in winter time most visitors are gone and when we reach The Treasury there is hardly anyone: this is a moment of true magic! The guardians will invite us to leave at closing time when the darkness is about to fall on Petra and cover everything.
Day 2 in Petra. In the morning I have a deja vu: it’s raining again on Wadi Musa. At 10 o’clock the weather is acceptably cloudy and we reach the visitor center and the entrance. Once again we walk along the Siq, pass the Treasury and the Theater and head towards The Royal Tombs, a sequence of impressive sepulchers carved into the rock on the western side of the Jebel Umm Al’Amr mountain.
The size of the tombs is huge: the Tomb of the Urn and the Tomb of the Palace stand out for their big facades carved in stone and make you feel a tiny creature swallowed by the mountain when you cross the threshold and enter the dark inner chamber.
Inside the space is empty and without decorations, only the rock with its pink streaks creates curved lines that may seem deliberately painted. Looking outwards, a cross-section of the ancient city appears as framed in a painting.
The center of Petra
Today once again a slow line of visitors cross Petra. After seeing the Royal Tombs, we walk through the Colonnaded Road, that is the center of the ancient Roman city. We take our time to have a look at the ruins, the remains of the Nymphaeum and the Great Temple and at last we reach the Qasr al-Bint temple.
What we do now is to take the path that leads to The Monastery. The starting point is near the Basin Restaurant and it’s easy to find it: simply follow the flow of people. The path goes through a narrow gorge in the mountains: more than 800 steps carved into the rock bring the visitors to the top. Along the path people come and go on foot or by mules. Bedouin stalls are everywhere and offer souvenirs and hot mint tea.
It takes about 45 minutes to reach The Monastery, following the rhythm of a modern procession. This walk turns soon into a sensorial experience too. My eyes are focused on my foot (soon you will understand why) and my mind is free to wander and listen.
I perceive the comments of people walking near me, the screams of the Bedouins spurting the mules along the climb, the music – surprisingly pop – of the small radios hidden by the Bedouins in their saddles, the patter of the hooves of the poor animals (tired by the weight of the passengers), and the call of the sellers trying to gain the attention of tourists.
And it’s not just about sounds, it’s also an olfactory experience. I get the smell of the Bedouins fires, where a teapot always puffs and mumbles its vapors, the aroma of mint tea that spreads in the air, the penetrating smell of animals and that of dung (oddly green!) that without warning fall to the ground (is it clear now why I pay attention on where to put my feet? no worries anyway, the street is promptly cleaned up with a secret arsenal of brooms and palettes).
Once we reach the top, the narrow gorge opens onto a wide space. Here, the majestic facade of The Monastery is waiting for us. A well-deserved prize for the effort made!
In front of The Monastery there’s a kiosk (something like a mountain refuge) that sells drinks and sandwiches, and we can sit on a bench to rest and contemplate this extremely beautiful place.
Once here we have a short break to eat a sandwich and the strays of the mountains immediately come to beg for a bite. Behind us there are rocky hills that seem easy to reach and invite us to make one last effort. “Best view in the world” say the signs placed on the peaks, and I obviously want to go up there.
A steep staircase climbs the rock: at the top we find – as usual – a Bedouin tent with souvenirs and a 360 degree panorama on the mountains, while in the distance we can see the legendary Promised Land. Well, I confirm that this view is truly sensational!
If I had wings
If I had wings, I would soar now and fly over these pink rocky mountains, and cross their cold gorges until I’d disappear into the horizon. But I have no wings, and the cold desert wind continues to slap my face. The clock reminds me that it will be dark soon and we have a long walk backwards.
Walking back the ancient processional staircase has a sort of massacre-knee effect. We go slowly and try to fix in our mind the image of these places. As we leave the ancient Nabataean city, I turn around and take a last look at the Treasury. Then the Siq closes behind me and Petra becomes an unforgettable experience impressed in my memory. The most beautiful Christmas gift I could have desired.
Peanuts for travellers:
- It is possible to visit Petra from 6am to 5pm in the winter and to 7pm in the summer. For more information visit the official Petra webpage.
- Jordan Pass is recommended. The entrance fee for Petra is included in the Jordan Pass. You need to go to the ticket office to obtain the official ticket, then you can enter the site.
- At the visitor center you can find useful maps for orientation and trails and also to know where the toilets are.
- A guided tour costs 50JD per group and lasts 2 hours and a half. English speaking guides are always available; for other languages it’s better to contact the visitor center in advance.
- Inside Petra you will find kiosks and a couple of restaurants. As an alternative, Wadi Musa hotels usually offer lunch boxes to their guests, so you can enjoy a picnic during the day wherever you want.
- Petra by Night is a night show that take place on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. The entry fee is 17JD, tickets are available on site (not included in the Jordan Pass).
- Altitude is about 1,000 meters and the climate is desert; winter is quite cold and windy. Bring warm clothes.
- During Christmas time there’s plenty of tourists, hotel rates rise accordingly. If you can, travel in different periods.
- Visiting Petra in 2 days is the best. You’ll have the possibility to make short excursions far from the crowd and enjoy the best views of this magnificent site from the high hills.
- You will walk a lot, so wear the most comfortable shoes you have. Sneakers are OK, trekking shoes are even better. If tired, buggies are available from the entrance to the Siq and back. Bedouins will offer mules and camels inside the site. (Of course ,you have to pay extra for that).
- Do not forget to visit Little Petra, which is only 10 km far from Wadi Musa.
- Do you know what the Seven Wonders of the world are? We have already explored two of them and if you want to learn more, check this interesting story written by Giovanna Manera to discover another one!