The Other Side of Petra
Don't cross the Middle East off your travel map. Insider Karen Loftus offers her tips on Jordan.
Getting around Jordan is easy, either by signing up for a bus tour or by hiring a private car and driver. As we took in the seemingly endless, mind-blowing beauty hugging both sides of our bus, our Jordanian guide, Kamel, broke the serene silence: “Jordan is a quiet place surrounded by a lot of noise.”
Jordan borders Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Israel. Needless to say, those noisy neighbors have greatly affected tourism in Jordan of late. And this is nothing new. The wars in the region have affected tourism here, off and on, for years.
Although not great for local Jordanians, who rely heavily on the tourist industry, this is a huge travel boon for you, as you may have Petra all to yourself, as my friend and I did by the end of our first day there.
The last time I was in Jordan it was February of 2009. The key destinations were heaving with tourists—especially Petra, the country’s crown jewel. And no wonder. This UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, has been dubbed one of the “28 Places to See Before You Die,” by Smithsonian magazine.
I liked what I saw so much that I went back for another glimpse. This time, I caught sight of the ancient Treasury from a different perspective, by climbing up and into Petra rather than taking the long evocative walk through the red-rock al-Siq, a very narrow gorge, at times no more than nine feet wide. Petra’s Treasury is dramatically revealed at the end of it.
After our arduous, 90-minute free-form scramble and climb into Petra, we finally got our first glimpse of the Treasury while we clung to the cliff face above it. It proved to be equally dramatic. What was different this time was that I felt I had earned a bit of the beauty before me.
No matter what the angle of the reveal, it is still unimaginable how this rock-cut architecture was created, let alone how the city sustained itself as early as 312 B.C. Once it was the capital city of the Nabataeans, who were able to control the water supply, thus enabling this city to thrive in the desert.
There have been many rulers and influences since, which is apparent in the iconic Nabataean and Greco-Roman tombs. One of the many benefits of the rough climb into Petra is that it took us past these tombs, as well as ancient dwellings, amphitheaters, and artifacts.
We often shared our path with local Bedouins, mainly children, loosely cruising by us on the back of donkeys and climbing up the steep, smooth rocks with ease.
You can visit Petra on your own or with a guide you hire in advance. Once you are there, if the landscape feels too grand, you can also shoot from the hip and hire a local to take you around on a camel or a donkey (more of this to follow).
Regardless of your choice, I recommend that you end your day with another committed climb, up 800 steep steps to the Monastery. While it is not as ornate as the Treasury, it is still epic in size and appeal.
After a traditional Jordanian lunch, at the restaurant just below the Monastery, I convinced my friend to join me on the trek up. I knew well enough that, as weary as she was, she would not want to miss it. It didn’t take too much convincing.
What was immediately different to me, years after I’d been there the first time, was the silence on the steps. Almost no one was going up or down. Due to the lack of tourist traffic, there were almost no vendors or locals to chat us up, as there had been before.
That was one of my fondest memories of Petra—all the local lures, the color and the characters, on what seemed like every step. Not until we were close to the top did we finally stop to catch our breath, and buy bangles from the one lone vendor.
Once we had climbed the 800 steps, my friend and I took enough photos to fill a gallery. After yet more climbing, above the Monastery, we had views of neighboring Israel.
We chatted with a vendor, a beautiful blond Finnish girl who had recently married a local Bedouin. They lived in one of the caves in Petra, as only a few still do. She invited us to a cave party, which would take place later that night. While we pondered this unusual invitation, we settled into the scene, ordered mint-infused lemonades, and savored the historic scenery and the golden sunset.
As the last of the light was leaving, it cast dramatic shadows on the grand old stone. We realized that we had had been sitting in utter silence for what felt like an hour.
Once the sun had set and a light wind kicked in, we also realized that we had Petra’s iconic Monastery all to ourselves. With the exception of the vendors, it was just us. We felt sinfully spoiled because we had this unbelievable beauty and all this architecture to ourselves. As decadent as it was, we were riddled with guilt. Where was everyone?
We actually didn’t have a minute to think it through. The day was quickly turning into night and we had quite the trek ahead of us. Before we could even digest our soul-satisfying experience, we were racing down the well-worn stairs.
Once we were at the bottom of the steps, dusk was nearly gone. I knew from before that we had more than an hour’s walk ahead of us, to and through al-Siq, before we got back to our hotel.
We stood in a sandy swirl of silence. I had just said that what we really needed were some four-legged friends when, as if we were in a sequel to Romancing the Stone (which took place in Petra), we suddenly heard the clopping of hooves and two young Bedouin boys appeared on their donkeys, offering us a ride.
After a bit of negotiating—haggling is not only accepted but expected—we were bouncing bareback on our respective donkeys. Who knew they could gallop like a horse? I held on tight to the tiny waist of the boy in front of me.
We passed the Treasury, seen in yet another light and on display for our enjoyment only. We reluctantly galloped on through the soft sand of al-Siq. It was no longer blazing red, but a soft rose, complemented by a breeze that bounced coolly off the rock walls all around us. The night was as peaceful and uninterrupted as I imagine it was 2,000 years ago, and still is for the few who experience it in the present.
Every once in a while, my little guide would punctuate the silence. In our conversation, he showed some interest in, but no envy for, the modern world. He proudly said, “This is the life. We have the life that everyone else wants.” I smiled in silence. What could I say?
IF YOU GO
To Stay: Movenpick Hotel
To Play: Jordan Tourism
To Know: Columbia Sportswear
Every intrepid traveler knows that in extreme climates what you wear and how you prepare is half the battle. I suited up in Columbia Sportswear’s Omni-Freeze Zero, with its sweat-activated cooling system. It was a lifesaver in Jordan’s desert heat.