Arriving in Amman was one of those moments when you have to be amazed by modern air travel. In the course of 24 hours we flew from the roof of the world in Nepal to the desert of Jordan (changing planes in Muscat, Oman where there was a Dairy Queen manned by appropriately surly staff).
We disembarked in Jordan and went through one of the oddest customs procedures of the trip. First, it's really expensive to get a visa into Jordan. Almost as expensive as India. Second, they didn't ask anything about how long we were going to be in the country, where we were going, etc. We handed over cash, some words were mumbled, and they provided us stamps. Yes, actual stamps, not the modern ink-based equivalent used in the rest of world. Our passports now have small, rectangular stamps in them from Jordan. How vintage.
We had debated whether or not to try and go straight from the Amman airport to Petra. It's only a 2ish hour drive, but the bus schedule leaves something to be desired. We considered taking a taxi, but it was pretty expensive and we'd just spent a small fortune on visas. Finally, we considered renting a car but were scared off signs saying that rogue camels roamed the roads. In retrospect, driving our own car would've been really easy as the signs were all in English and the road conditions better than much of NYC. Alas, we opted to spend the night in Amman for one night and then take the early bus.
It was a low key night in Amman, which was a surprisingly accessible and pretty city. We ate hummus at a street restaurant that apparently is a favorite of the king (we didn't see him). It was delicious and a welcome change from a diet of almost entirely dal bhat in Nepal. We called it an early night, returned to our hotel and took the early bus to Petra.
Petra had been on my travel bucket list since I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I imagined myself on horseback, priceless historical artifact in hand, Nazis defeated, galloping off into the sunset through the Siq. What I didn't imagine, but should've accounted for, is that multiple thousands of other people have the same fantasy and all descend on Petra at the same time. So, a few quick words of advice for future Petra visitors.
- Petra is a big park with a good amount of freedom to wander around. In that regard, it's more like Bagan than Angkor where there is a fixed circuit that everyone does. There are definitely a few key sights to enjoy (Treasury, Monastery) but it's fairly DIY. That means you'll be walking. A lot unless you want to pay for over-priced animal transport.
- The park is MUCH more crowded from 9a-5p when the day-trippers from Israel are around. The park itself opens at sunrise and closes around sunset. So, for the best experiences, get there for a few hours before 9a and stick around until sunset. This either makes for an extremely long day, or, as we did, a much more manageable two days.
- BRING YOUR OWN FOOD. This is critical as the food in Petra is terrible and over-priced. We ordered two sandwiches for breakfast as we thought it was over-priced at our hotel. How wrong we were. What was billed as a "panini" was a sad piece of pita bread, microwaved, and then sprinkled with gross cheese and spam. We took three bites and then fed the rest to a pregnant cat on the trail to the Place of High Sacrifice. I hope her kittens enjoyed it more than we did.
Bearing those things in mind, Petra is awesome. The spring was a great time to visit as it was warm during the day but not too hot and cooled off at night. We started with a walk down the Siq, the narrow canyon that has aqueducts carved into the sides of the walls. There are horse-drawn carriages that can transport you down the canyon and are apparently included in the price of your ticket. If you can figure out a way to actually get in one of those carriages for free, more power to you. These people take haggling seriously.
We walked down the Siq as the sun was just peaking over the edge of the canyon rim. It's such a narrow canyon that it only gets direct sunlight for an hour or two a day.
Once you get to the bottom of the Siq, you're treated with a glimpse of the famous Treasury.
Much to my surprise, the Treasury is not the final destination of your trip to Petra. In fact, it is really just the starting point where you walk through the ruins of the old city. It is also a bit of a transportation hub with camels on offer for those not keen to make the walk themselves. Like most things in Petra, the camels are extremely expensive if you don't haggle furiously.
Despite the crowds that assemble here, the Treasury is amazing. You can't go in it anymore. Probably too many grail-seekers. But it's an awe-inspiring facade.
From there we walked down through equivalent of Main Street in the old city. We stopped at a temple that was being excavated and pulled out our bag lunch. We proceeded to eat half a roast chicken and hummus under ancient carvings. A bit surreal.
After lunch we ventured to the Monastery, which is the furthest point into the park and also includes about 800 stairs. We fancied ourselves serious stair experts after approximately 20,000 stairs in Nepal. However, we didn't factor in the added challenge of avoiding small donkeys that essentially run up and down the stairs to ferry less-mobile tourists to the top (surprise, $20/donkey). These little guys seem to have a tough life, though it has been vastly improved by animal welfare activists who were outraged by the treatment of animal within Petra. Even the Queen has become involved and tourists are encouraged to report mistreatment to the park authorities. What happens to these complaints is unclear, but it's a nice thought.
Once we reached the top of the stairs we were rewarded with one of the most magnificent sights of the trip. The Monastery really is unbelievable. The Treasury gets all the glory because of Indiana Jones, but this place is spectacular. We found a shady spot and just savored the view for a few hours.
While we were waiting, we observed a hilarious interaction. A Bedouin guy sauntered up to some woman and started making small talk. He had a bit of the Jack Sparrow look about him (including the eye make-up). He was a smooth talker and eventually was seated by this unsuspecting Western tourist. Then, out of the blue, some Spanish woman ran up to him and started shouting about how he had begun a relationship with her daughter and couldn't be trusted. It was a bit Jerry Springer meets Jordan. Whitney did some quick research and it turns out that this is apparently a thing. Western women are lured into relationships with local guys who play on their exotic fantasies. Where it goes from there is unclear, but this Spanish woman was doing her best to make a Public Service Announcement.
Continuing the thread of swaggering Bedouin bros, a group of three guys rode their sad little donkeys to the edge of the monastery and then proceeded to climb down the facade. No ropes, nothing. It was a bit like watching a slow motion train crash. You didn't want to look but it was hard to avert your eyes.
We then climbed up to the viewpoint to soak in the surrounding area. Another Bedouin merchant was there and invited us for tea, but immediately ignored us after he determined we weren't likely to buy anything. The view from his shop was worth it though.
We debated whether to stick around for sunset at the Monastery but the prospect of 800 stairs down in the dark (even with our headlamps) was not enticing. So we started to walk back towards the main gate. In a moment of role reversal, Whitney suggested that we walk back via the Place of High Sacrifice, a rugged side trail of ambiguous length on the map. It was about 6p and the sun would be setting in an hour or so. I was skeptical but we wandered that way. It soon became apparent that we were virtually alone out there on this side trail. After about 20 min of walking we ran into two fit looking German guys. We asked them how long since they'd left the main trail. They said probably 2-2.5 hours. We told them our plan to walk where they had just come from before it became dark and they scoffed at us. So, we decided to turn around, but Whitney won points for being seriously adventurous.
In the end, turning around was great because a) we did the hike the next day and it was treacherous even in the light and b) we had one of the coolest experiences of the whole trip. We went back to the main trail and saw a few more buildings. We sat on the edge of one such building and watched the sun dip behind the mountain range as a Bedouin family closed up their shop.
After that, we started the walk back to the Treasury and the main gate. We walked slowly to let other groups go past us. We weren't in any hurry and it was that time of night where the shadows start to expand into general darkness.
We ended up sitting on a bench overlooking the Treasury as the park emptied out. Eventually, it was almost pitch black and we were sitting there watching the silhouette of the building fade. From the darkness a voice called "Hello." We were a bit taken aback and wondered if we were in trouble for staying too late. We hadn't seen anyone in about 20 minutes. Slowly a figure materialized and said, "Come have some tea." It turns out it was the Bedouin man whose job it was to guard the Treasury at night. He sleeps in a small building next to it all year. He poured us some local tea and then recounted stories of the things he'd seen in the area. It felt magical; as if we'd been transported back in time. That is until he pulled out his Samsung smartphone to show us a video he took of the recent flooding. It was a moment of striking contrast, sitting there drinking local tea in the pitch black with a man whose family had guarded the Treasury for decades while he showed us videos on his phone. After we finished our tea we tried to pay him but, for the first time in Jordan, he insisted that it was a gift of hospitality. We bade him farewell and began the long walk back up the Siq. Fortunately we had our headlamps so we had two small circles of light in the otherwise dark canyon. At one point we turned off our lights and stood still. It was silent and we could see the starry sky above the edge of the canyon walls. All in all, it was a truly remarkable experience.
When we finally made it to the guard house the guard asked if we were the last ones in the park. We said we thought so but couldn't be sure. Apparently all the hotels have to check in with the police if there guests are not back by 11p. Our hotel receptionist was glad we made it back by 1030p and had not fallen down a crevasse.
The next day we woke up early to try and get a bit more time without the crowds. We had a terrible breakfast (see above) but enjoyed a great hike to the Place of High Sacrifice. It's a great trail that gets much less traffic and takes you to a spectacular vista of the area. Highly recommended.
On the descent, both of our knees started to flare up. It was easy to forget that only a few days before we'd been descending 7000 feet in the Himalayas. Eventually we made it down to the main gate, but our enthusiasm for hiking was shot. We had contemplated visiting Wadi Rum but decided that we were exhausted. Instead, we opted for a taxi all the way to Aqaba on the Red Sea. From there, we could cross the border into Israel and the city of Eilat.
So Jordan was a fast stop, only spending two nights. But it was memorable. If we return I would visit Wadi Rum and maybe have a bit more time in Amman.