Amidst desert canyons and mountains, Petra was once the capital of the Nabataean empire and a thriving trading center on the route connecting ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Carved into red-hued sandstone, the prehistoric Rose City is a living museum, home to people for thousands of years (from Nabataeans to Romans to Crusaders and Muslims). Although largely deserted by the seventh century, the nearly 1000 caves of Petra have always attracted the local Bedouin tribes — and hordes of tourists— to the lost city.
Here are some tips you will want to know before you visit.
1. Consider at least two or three days for exploring Petra.
Petra stretches over nearly 100 square miles of valleys and desert mountains overhanging Wadi Araba. The archaeologists have uncovered only 15% of ancient Petra (the vast majority of 85% is still underground and untouched) but even still, seeing Petra in one day is a counter-clock race.
This is also reflected by the variable price of the entrance ticket, more convenient if you spend a couple of days there (1-day, 2-day, 3-day). Besides, if you visit Petra as a day trip from Israel, keep in mind that you’ll be paying a visa fee for entering Jordan and the final price will exceed $100.
Petra cannot be understood and experienced in a one-day marathon. Petra deserves more than that. After all, it’s considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
2. Check if your hotel offers a free shuttle to and from Petra’s main gate.
There are several hotels opposite the Visitor Center (the main entry gate to Petra). If you plan to stay in Wadi Musa town center (a more budget option), you’ll have to add 4 kilometers round-trip to the Visitor Center. However, most hotels in Wadi Musa offer a free shuttle service to and from the main gate in the morning and evening. Check with your hotel before making a reservation.
3. Alternatively, access Petra faster via the Uum Sayhoun village.
If you enter Petra at the main gate, you have to walk 4 kilometers to reach the center of the ancient city. This is the Main Trail, a must-see in order to go through the famous red canyon, the Siq. You’ll have to go back the same distance, though.
Alternatively, the Bedouin village of Uum Sayhoun is only 7 kilometers from Wadi Musa. You can get there by taxi (5JD) or with a rented car. The back door to Petra is at the end of the village, nearby a parking lot. You’ll elude the tourist crowds entering the main gate and walk only 2 kilometers to Petra’s city center. It’s the starting point for most of the hikes in Petra, so this gate is convenient if you plan to walk a lot anyway.
You cannot buy tickets at the gate from Uum Sayhoun, so make sure you buy your ticket at the Visitor Center beforehand.
4. Be ready to hike a lot — and avoid riding donkeys.
The Main Trail crosses the ancient city from the Visitor Center to the Basin Restaurant and passes the key sights (approximate 8 kilometers round-trip). Petra has more than just the tourist highlights, though. The Monastery (Al-Deir), the Treasury Vista (Al-Khubtha), and the High Place of Sacrifice (Al-Madbah) are popular hikes and feature arresting views over the Rose City.
These trails steeply climb up and down hundreds of steps, and a round-trip (or a loop in the case of the High Place of Sacrifice Trail) lasts between 2.5 to 4 hours. Any of these hikes, each atop a different peak, require good physical condition. For lazier travelers, it may be tempting to ride a donkey (especially for uphill treks). However, local authorities caution against these rides as they cater towards tourists, and aren’t regulated; you risk paying an exorbitant fee for less-than-safe transportation, and the welfare of the animals is certainly in question for these sorts of tours.
5. Read “Married to a Bedouin” to understand Petra’s recent history.
The author, Marguerite van Geldermalsen, married a Bedouin from the Bdoul tribe after visiting Petra in 1978. “Married to a Bedouin” shows Petra’s life behind the tourist scenes — the life of the local Bedouin tribes. The Bedouin once lived in the caves surrounding the lost city, before being resettled in the newly built village of Uum Sayhoun when Petra was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. This has changed their lives and Petra, too.
You’ll find the family’s personal kiosk inside the ruins of the ancient city (past the theater, on the right). There, you can purchase your personally signed copy of the book.
6. Buy from the Bedouin — but be prepared to bargain.
Many Bedouins (and their families) live only from their small businesses run in Petra, selling handmade objects (beads, headscarves, jewelry, sand-bottles, etc). Buying from their stalls, you’ll help them and their community.
As a rule of thumb, there aren’t fixed prices for what you buy in Petra (except for food and drinks in restaurants). Bargain for everything. Just like most markets throughout the world, the correct price is far below what you are told the first time.
7. Stay with the Bedouin in Uum Sayhoun village or in their caves in Petra.
Wherever you go in Petra, Bedouins will invite you to drink tea with them. After that, they’ll invite you to dine with them at their homes, in the village or in their caves. While you may be invited dozens of times a day — obviously more tea than you could possibly drink — do accept their invitations when possible. You’ll add a genuine dimension to your experience in Petra, one completely different from that of most tourists.
Talk with the Bedouins. They’ll open their heart and tell you their life stories. Some of them have begun to return to their past lifestyle, and nearly 45 families live in the caves of Petra now. If you want to plan such an experience in advance, Airbnb has plenty of listings of the Bedouins in the Uum Sayhoun village or even in their caves in Petra.
8. Look for a local Bedouin guide instead of a tour operator.
My guide’s name was Khalil, and I connected with him at his cousin’s Why Not? Shop in Petra (located on the Main Trail, at the entrance to the stone staircase for the High Place of Sacrifice Trail). Khalil worked in the army for two years, then quit and returned to his birth village, Uum Sayhoun. “I had to come back to my mountains in Petra,” he told me while we were drinking a cup of sweet Bedouin tea. Khalil knows Petra like the back of his hand and will take good care of you wherever you go — and most Bedouin guides will do the same. “Whenever you come back to Petra, you’ll find me here,” he added when I left. “I want to live in Petra for the rest of my life.”
9. Don’t forget about Little Petra.
As its name suggests, Little Petra is a miniature of Petra (10 kilometers from Wadi Musa), and if you have time, pop into the area for 1-2 hours. The atmosphere is different from Petra’s tourist crowds. There, you’ll find the only preserved frescoes nearby, inside the Painted House. Alternatively, there’s a trail connecting Petra’s Monastery (Al-Deir) to Little Petra. A guide is required, though, as the footpath is exposed and tricky in some parts.