For many people, it’s at the top of their bucket list.
A UNESCO World Heritage site. One of the Seven New Wonders of the World. Regularly included in “places to see before you die.” Exotic. Remote. Photogenic. Iconic.
A single word inspiring adventure, where we can all feel like bedouin merchants arriving in an oasis of culture and splendor after a long and arduous journey.
Here are 11 tips to help guarantee a wonderful visit.
1. Take the public Jett bus to Petra from Amman or Aqaba. This is by far the most affordable and straightforward way to get to Petra. We chose to establish our home base in Amman because of flight affordability from Beirut and due to its proximity to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. But you might choose to enter Jordan from Aqaba on the gulf coast. Either way, skip the expensive ($170+ USD per person) official tours and opt for the public bus instead. It’s comfortable, air-conditioned, and drops you off less than 100 yards from the Petra Visitor’s Center.
From Amman a one-way Jett bus ticket is only $7 USD, while the cost from Aqaba is still very affordable at only $12 USD. During the busier months (April, May, and October), you will want to book your bus tickets at least a few days in advance. We were there for my birthday in early November and had no trouble arriving at the Jett office in Amman early (6 a.m.) to buy tickets for the 7 a.m. departure. But the tickets did sell out, and nearly a dozen people arrived too late to reserve a seat.
2. Add to your sense of adventure by staying at a campsite instead of a hotel. There are several options for camping accommodations, ranging from rugged tents to RV options to truly luxurious glamping. We chose to stay at the locally-owned Little Petra Bedouin Camp because of its rustic, permanent-tent setup and its affordability. At just $50 USD per night for a private tent with real beds and both breakfast and dinner included, this was a steal!
3. Buy a book and do a self-guided tour of the site. There is signage throughout Petra in multiple languages providing an overview for the major landmarks, and the route is clearly marked. Consult the guidebook for more details, but feel free to wander where you will along the designated paths.
If you absolutely insist on having a guide explain the various points of interest, there is no shortage of locals offering this service at the visitor’s center. Typically, they charge $70-$100 USD for a full-day tour, but prices can always be negotiated.
4. It is, in fact, possible to walk the entire length of the canyon in one day. It’s not easy, and you won’t have enough time to explore the numerous spur routes, but you can do it if you’re in relatively good shape. The hike is roughly three miles in and three miles out, with a steep climb of 850 steps to get to the Monastery (Al-Deir) at the end of the canyon.
Don’t be surprised if tour guides and locals offering carriage/horse/donkey/camel rides try to discourage you from this. You will hear them exaggerating how far it is to the next stop, trying to get you to utilize their services. This is especially true at the base of the steps to the Monastery where you will be your most susceptible.
5. Walk. Don’t ride. Building off the previous tip, you will be accosted throughout the hike by locals offering various modes of easier travel. Resist the temptation for three reasons.
First, the animals are living in some exhausting conditions. I’m not fundamentally opposed to beasts of burden, but what we witnessed was extreme and abusive. And, while I understand that locals are just trying to earn a living, this instance went beyond the pale.
Second, the number of animals vying for space with pedestrians in the narrow canyons and on the steps leading to the Monastery is invasive, annoying, and, quite frankly, dangerous. On numerous occasions, Angela and I had to dodge carriages traveling at a gallop through the Siq, with horses often skidding on the concrete to avoid running over tourists who didn’t move quick enough. On the steps to the Monastery, donkeys will occasionally press you against the walls as they follow their lead. Insert expletive here.
Third, it’s lazy. And, unless you are physically unable to make the trek, the pedestrians will quietly loathe you.
6. Plan to visit for a minimum of two days. While it’s certainly possible to gain an appreciation for Petra with a single visit, the site is too big to be relegated to one day. Walk the length of the canyon on the first day and explore the spur routes on the second.
The price for a single-day visit is 50 JD (about $70 USD), with two- and three-day tickets costing 55 JD and 60 JD, respectively. It’s also worth noting that these prices are for those who have already spent at least one night in Jordan. For those who visit Petra on a day trip from another country or who have not yet spent a night, the price goes up to 90 JD (about $125 USD)!
Moreover, adding a second day will give you a greater opportunity to see Petra in both the evening and the morning light, with the added possibility of doing a candlelit night tour (17 JD extra) on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday of each week.
7. Prepare as if you are hiking in the desert. Because, well, you are. Take a lightweight backpack and stock it with sunscreen, insect repellant, high-protein snacks, and plenty of water. You might also want to include a thin scarf or towel to aid in heat protection or to use on your way out as the sun goes down and temperatures plummet.
You will also want to carry some Jordanian currency in case you run out of water or need additional food during the journey. There are plenty of vendors within the boundaries of Petra selling beverages, food, and souvenirs at inflated prices. In a pinch, you will need cash to buy anything.
8. Wear the proper footwear. During various segments, you will be walking on concrete, through loose sand, over rocks, and up uneven stone steps. Optimally, lightweight hiking boots would be the shoes we’d recommend.
Unfortunately, packing for our trip around the world meant that we had limited choices, and boots were not one of them. I wore trail runners which were great on the rocks and steps, but they filled up with sand. Angela wore Allbirds which repelled the sand, but they had zero traction for the rock stairs.
We struggled so that you don’t have to.
9. Avoid purchasing a meal at the Petra Visitor’s Center. The dining options are limited, expensive, and quite horrible. For the same amount of money, you can pick any number of quality restaurants along a five-minute walk down Tourism Street to preload the calories you will need to hike the length of the canyon and back without feeling overly peckish.
It is also notable that the restaurants within the confines of the visitor’s center will ask if you want a beer as you are sitting down. Our snap reaction is almost invariably, “Why, yes! Of course!” What we received were two non-alcoholic beers at $7 USD each. Lesson learned.
10. Celebrate the end of the day at the Cave Bar. Perhaps we were delirious or dehydrated or exhausted. Or a combination of all three. But upon exiting Petra at the end of the day, having ventured all the way to the Monastery and back, smelling of sweat and dust, we found the Cave Bar to be a wonderful conclusion.
The food was delicious. The liquor pours were generous. And the ambiance was magical. Yes, it was a bit expensive, but we really didn’t care at that point. How often does one get to enjoy a cocktail in a Muslim country, served from a bar within a 2000-year-old Nabataean tomb?
We lingered long and danced slowly under the gathering starlight.
11. It’s possible to hike Petra backwards. We only found this out when we were leaving to go back to Amman, so we didn’t get a chance to take advantage of this fact. For a nominal fee, the family at the Little Petra Bedouin Camp could take us through the desert to the end of the canyon, allowing us to start at the Monastery in the early morning and work our way toward the main entrance against the flow of the crowd.
It would be a way to virtually guarantee photos without hoards of other tourists in the shot. We could have walked down the 850 steps instead of up then down. We could have avoided the throngs of the donkeys and camels. We could have exited the site just as the majority of people were arriving.
Ah, well. Next time.