I’ll be the first to admit, travel can be a big disappointment. You go to some monumental place like the Eiffel Tour and you’re like, this is it? “The site” is lousy with tourists, it’s pricy and it sure doesn’t live up to your expectations. What’s worse, it cost you an arm and a leg to get there.
This, fortunately, was not my experience in Petra, Jordan. The ancient city of Petra is so worth a visit, but you need to have a guide. If you just wander around aimlessly looking at the buildings carved into stone (stunning as they are), you won’t get it. Here’s my experience finding the best Petra and Jordan tours.
I explored Petra with Rahhalah. As a travel writer, I’ve been on dozens upon dozens of guided tours, but this one stood out. It wasn’t because of the spectacular sites, but because of our tour guides. Sure, I was enamoured our driver is the go-to chauffeur for loads of celebrities filming in Jordan. (Apparently Matt Damon is a total stand up guy.) And I was majorly impressed Rahhalah is the tour company of choice when international schools visit Jordan.
It’s that they really knew their shit, were totally fun and never had us eat the same food twice. Conversation ranged from celebrities visiting Jordan (guess who initiated that one?) religion, history, conflict and parenting. Rarely do I (soberly) get to the essence of our shared humanity with relative strangers so quickly. I was in good hands.
Is Petra worth it?
So you know who to travel to Petra with, but should you even go? Petra is Jordan’s leading tourist attraction and one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. If you saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you know what I’m talking about. Petra is famous for its rose-hued buildings carved out of the rock. The site is a marvel even if you’re not an architecture or history buff. And no, it’s not one of the original Severn Wonders of the World, but it did make the 2007 New Seven Wonders of the World’ list.
Folks go to Petra to see what an ancient lost city looks like. When you visit, expect a lot of walking. There’s loads to see and photograph, including Bedouin men who look a lot like Johnny Depp à la Captain Jack Sparrow. Ringing their eyes with black eyeliner protects them from the sun, with the added bonus of looking oh-so sexy.
Read only if you care about Petra’s history
Sorry, for the brash subhead, but not everyone’s into this sort of thing, you know? Nobody really knows exactly when Petra was built, but it was the capital of the Nabataean Arabs and the city began flourishing in the 1st Century BC. Eventually those pesky Romans annexed it, but it was still was a happening place until an earthquake in the 4th Century AD. After that, it became more and more deserted and nobody knew it existed (save for the local Bedouin) until a Swiss explorer rediscovered Petra in 1812. Now you can win at Trivial Pursuit!
Worthy stops on the way to Petra
For Holy Land pilgrims
On the way to Petra, your Jordan tour company may recommend a quick visit to Madaba City. It’s known as the “City of Mosaics” and is less than an hour’s drive from Jordan’s capital city of Amman. Listen, if you’re into all things biblical, it’s worth the stop, It won’t take long and it’s on the way to Petra. If you’re not into Holy Land sites, skip it.
Madaba is in the Old Testament and its big deal are the tiles at the Greek Orthodox Church of St George’s. The famous mosaics, in particular a 6th Century Byzantine mosaic map shows all the notable sites of the Holy Land. If that’s your bailiwick, you’ll be glad you came. If you think this sounds like a snoozer (as I did) head to Wadi Al Mujib for some canyoneering instead.
Stops for foodies and sustainable tourism buffs
More up my alley was a stop at Numeira, a roadside cafe along the Jordan Valley Highway. It’s actually part of an NGO, is sustainable and hyper local. One local woman supples them with 85 herbs. From her farm!
Here, chicken is cooked overtop charcoal in metal barrels set into the ground. Dining under the massive canopy of a wild fig tree, a Jordanian feast is spread out in front of you. You’ll nosh on homemade shrak, an unleavened bread, savoury beans, kabsa, a traditional rice and chicken dish and some fantastic pickles.
Where to stay in Petra
After a three to four hour drive (depending on the size of your bus) you’ll arrive in Wadi Musa, the closest town to Petra. It’s here you’ll likely spend the night. The only fail with our tour was staying at the Petra Panorama Hotel. It’s not the worst (though their breakfast just might’ve been), but it’s certainly not worth me writing about. Far better for you to book into the Petra Moon Hotel or Petra Guest house. Both are four-star, family run hotels and where Rahhalah typically stays.
Petra at Night
Arriving at dinner time, we had to hustle to make it to Petra by Night. Yes, it’s touristy, but I still think you should suck it up and do it. Likely, it’ll be included in your tour. Petra at Night can be enchanting if you have the right attitude. From the main entry to the Treasury (where Petra at Night takes place) it’s a good half hour to 45 minute walk along the Siq – a canyon sawnched between towering red sandstone walls. It’s a good jaunt for sure. Wear decent shoes – nothing too flimsy or with a heel, as you’ll be walking over sand and stones and could easily twist something.
As if being in the Holy Land isn’t atmospheric enough, the mood is further enhanced with candles lining the path – almost 2000 of them! You’ll want to arrive early – well before the 8:30 p.m. start time to snag a spot to sit down (there are no actual chairs). During the event, colourful spotlights are thrown onto the ancient Treasury, which was carved into the rock 2,200 years ago. It’s set to traditional music and the Bedouin will tell stories, but it can be hard to hear with all the noisy tourists. Still, you’re here for the atmosphere. To me, it was magical, though I know others found it too contrived.
Petra by Night takes place every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. You need a ticket to enter, but your tour guide should have that arranged for you. If not, you can purchase them at the Visitor Centre, loads of touristy shops and likely your hotel reception.
There’s a myriad of ways to experience Petra and loads of different Petra tours. Take one, even if it’s not with Rahhalah. Just don’t hop on the back of a donkey or horse. Those animals do not look well cared for.
During our day tour of Petra, we didn’t begin by walking through the Siq – that natural gorge that leads to the Treasury. Our guide had us off the beaten path within minutes to gain a different perspective of this ancient city. There’s more to this UNESCO World Heritage Site than its most famous landmark – the classical Petra Treasury. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see the Treasury from a more unique perspective, as I did.
Peering down at the Treasury and tourists was probably the highlight for me. Despite all the tourists milling about, Petra felt remote, even wild.
There was a flash flood days before our May visit, so we (and other tourists) were treated with brilliant flashes of perfumey oleander. It’s poisonous though, so don’t make a fire with these branches.
A Bedouin man handed me coins and a piece of 2000-year-old pottery. You just find these, laying around. He tells me the pottery could even be Stone Age.
People actually live in Petra! They’re Bedouin nomadic tribes and this has been their home for thousands of years.
Have your camera at the ready at all times. The money shots happen way too fast.
Have you ever been to Petra? Would you take a tour or go on your own?
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