A Day at Petra

Updated: May 5, 2019

When I booked my tickets to Israel, I assumed that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was a bit strapped for cash at the time (#GradStudentLife) but assuming that I wouldn't be back, I needed to get to Petra, This literally doubled the cost of my two-week MENA trip but it was worth every penny of the additional $216 (Jordanian day-trip visa included).

My friend Dan and I's home base in Israel was Tel Aviv, a day's travel from the Jordanian border. Well, ok, not a whole day, we did stop for a few hours at the Dead Sea, but with that included it was a day.

We woke up and headed off to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. After going through the usual security check that can be found at all bus stations across the country (metal detector and bag check), we grabbed breakfast from one of the bakeries inside and hopped the bus to Jerusalem. Here we ate more food at the garage's food court, which offered everything from Chinese to New York style pizza. I never expected to eat lo mein in Israel, but hey, go go globalization!

The bus from Jerusalem to Eliat was about four hours. Or, would have been, had we not done the detour at the Dead Sea. It was an interesting drive, through the depths of a mountain-covered desert, along the coast of the Dead Sea.

As this was an area without much human presence, especially given the ghost resorts, there was little light as the sun descended over the mountains. Finally, just as the last whispers of sun were disappearing, light appeared on the horizon. As best as I can describe Eliat, our destination for the night, it is a very miniature Las Vegas. Not so much for any gambling, but because it was a sudden burst of light in the middle of the desert. It is situated on the Red Sea, and there were advertisements everywhere for dolphin swims. I tell you what, inner-childhood Laura was almost squirming with desire to cancel our Petra plans in order to swim with dolphins. But alas, sane, adult Laura's head prevailed (with the help of my mystified friend, who was a man and thus never had the experience of being a little girl obsessed with dolphins).

We had not pre-booked our hostel (rare for me, as I do not love travel uncertainty), but it was a weekday in early May and thus not prime tourist season. There is only one hostel in Eilat, the Corinne Hostel, and happily it was basically empty. A middle-aged man manned the front desk and gave us a red key to our room. We quickly dropped our bags off and then popped back outside to explore the city and find dinner. However, presumably due to the lack of tourists, most everything was closed. We found one pizzeria that gave us a small pie, which we brought back to the hostel. After devouring this, we fell asleep almost immediately, which was lucky as we had an early alarm.

It is easiest to visit Petra via a tour, and tours are apparently too classy to pick patrons up at hostels. Or, at least, ours was. So at 7am we marched over to a hotel about a kilometer away, told to be there at 7:15. We were. They were not. They were still not there by 7:45, at which point I had gone into full panic mode: I did NOT spend this much money to not even get to go to Petra!! But my friend, who speaks some Hebrew, calmly called the company to ask, in the politest terms, where the f*ck they were. After getting a nonchalant assurance that they had not forgotten about us, we sat there for another 15 minutes, while receiving more and more annoyed glances from the front desk workers who knew full well we were not hotel guests.

Finally, a small van pulled up with the tour company's name emblazoned on the side. There were several other guests in the van, so we surmised that everyone had been told 7:15 and they had simply, very slowly, gone around the small city to pick people up. We were the last ones in the van, so we set off...for about five minutes. We then arrived at the Jordanian border (see photo). Out we hopped and we were led to the land crossing. There were nine of us on the tour and we each had to present our passport to the Jordanian border agent. There was only one agent on duty, so it took a few minutes to get us through. While we waited, I watched a long line of Jordanian men come through the border - migrant day-workers who worked in Eilat.

Awaiting our arrival on the other side of the border was the Jordanian tour guide, a skinny, middle-aged, absolute delight of a man. He led us to the tour bus (that was complete with wi-fi!) and we struck off on the over two-hour long journey. True to any tourist-focused location the world over, the one rest stop we went to was a small bathroom attached to a very large, gift shop. Dan and I used the facilities and then pried ourselves away from the chatty shop owner in order to take in the views from the parking lot. I have been to many deserts, including having lived in one for two years, but there was something that felt very "Middle Eastern" about Jordan. Incredible how diverse a seemingly barren biome can be.

Finally, we arrived in Wadi Musa, the town that has been built around Petra. Had I had more money, I would have liked to spend a night here and explore a modern Jordanian town rather than simply seeing the ancient site it hosts. There were a few tourists wandering the side of the main road, but most of who we saw were locals in their shops, women doing their grocery shopping, and one young boy on a donkey. And that is all I can say about the people of Wadi Musa, unfortunately. Hopefully you will be able to spend longer than I was and can report back!

We arrived at the visitor center, our tour guide acquired our tickets while we used the restrooms, and then off we went to start the most exciting hike of our lives. Or my life anyways, I won't speak for the others. But oh boy, was I excited.

What I did not know before I arrived was that Petra is not merely the famous Treasury (I know, I know, seems obvious considering the city was the capital of a thriving culture for 500 years). There are many archeological remnants along the short 0.7 mile (1.2 kilometer) walk from the visitor center to the Treasury. There were also many donkeys that you could take to the entrance of the red rock canyon leading to the Treasury. Dan ended up taking one of these animals, as he had a bad blister and didn't want to aggravate it further. This decision ended up haunting him for another reason though; as he swung his leg onto the donkey, his shorts promptly ripped from end to end. I had to wait to laugh at this, however, because I had already run off to took advantage of the freedom of the wide open desert to climb all over the hills in order to admire the scenery and see the giant ruins from higher up.

Our tour regrouped at the end of the donkey's journey, at the entrance to the red rock canyon that would lead us to our destination. It began as a wide alley, but narrowed quickly and we soon found ourselves surrounded by towering red rock formations. Despite the number of tourists, the rocks dulled their conversations and it was remarkably quiet and peaceful.

This natural alleyway was one of my favorite parts of the day. Not only do I absolutely adore red rock (yeah, yeah, sandstone), but it really put in perspective how hidden the Treasury and surrounding tombs had been. As a history geek, one of my favorite things to do when I travel is to imagine what the same location offered generations past. To imagine what travelers nearly 2,000 years ago must have sensed as they approached this area gave me goosebumps.

As we walked on, our tour guide told us about the history of this ancient city. He pointed out several places that had once held grand sculptures, though all that remain today are remnants of the feet or perhaps a camel's hump. Cue more goosebumps as I gave into more historic daydreams.

About half an hour after we had left the visitor center (given the gawk-worthy surroundings, it's a slow 0.7 miles), suddenly our tour guide stopped us and had us gather around him in order to look at something in the canyon's wall. "Do you see it?" he asked earnestly. We squinted and turned our necks every which way, but none of us saw what he was trying to show us. "Well, what about that." And he pointed to our right. And I about burst into tears. Hollywood, hire that man, for he knows how to do a good reveal.

For there it was, peaking around the corner. One of the places in the entire world that I have most dreamed of seeing. I played it cool, but I was almost shaking from excitement. We rounded that final bend in the canyon and were then released by the tour guide to explore on our own for the next 90 minutes.

We had arrived around 1 in the afternoon, aka at the sun's brightest. We could just shade our eyes well enough to see the building properly, but our cameras had no hope against the rays. As a travel photographer (well, aspiring anyways, post-student loan days when I can afford to use more than my iPhone), this was slightly devastating to me but I did not let the disappointment cut into even a moment of this precious hour and a half.

We approached the Treasury (Al-Khazneh, in Arabic), amazed at its height and detail. Carved into the stone TOP-DOWN (!!) 1,800 years ago, it was never actually used to store money (or the Holy Grail). When the Europeans discovered this place in the 1800s, the locals told them they thought it stored treasures, and now we have a misleading name. Instead, archeologists think that it was a mausoleum for Aretas IV Philopatris, a 2nd century king who...well, it's slightly complicated but stick with me here. His daughter Phasaelis married a man, Herod (perhaps you've heard of him as the judge who may or may not have sent Jesus to the cross). They then divorced, and Herod married his ex-sister-in-law. Opposition to this marriage is what led John the Baptist to lose his head. Meanwhile, our pal Aretas was angry that his daughter had been divorced, and invaded/defeated Herod's army. Phew, ok, so anyways, this is his very fancy grave!

You can tell in the above photo just the scale of this place. I wish you could go inside and explore its depths, but I'm also well aware of the selfishness of this desire. Can you imagine how worn this work of wonder would get if 500,000 annually wandered around inside? No, as much as I wish I could explore, I was of course happy to walk as close as I could get and admire the detail in the stone (again, that was made from the top!)

The rock formations surrounding the Treasury were full of old tombs, some of which had been turned into Bedouin homes. One of the closest tombs to the Treasury was still set up as the Bedouins would have had it, with Oriental rugs covering the floors, bare cave walls, and beds. After I had returned home, I googled more about these people and what I learned was thought-provoking. UNESCO declared Petra a World Heritage Site in 1985, and as a result the Jordanian government evicted the families that lived here. Apparently some people refused this order, and there are still about 150 people still living in nearby tomb-caves. With the onset of the Syrian War in 2011, tourism has fallen drastically in Jordan and more and more Bedouins have taken advantage of the lack of visitors to try and regain their old homes and lifestyles.

There were many young men peddling camel rides, various handmade products, snack food, and postcards. According to the post-visit research I did on the Bedouins, many of these young men would have been among the population who still lived in the nearby tomb-caves.

Much too soon, our 90 minutes in this, one of the Seven New ("new") Wonders of the World came to an end. We found our tour guide at the entrance of the canyon, and once everyone had arrived we made our way back to Wadi Musa. As part of the tour, we had a lunch buffet waiting for us in one of the town's restaurants (built into a mountain). The buffet offered mostly Jordanian dishes, though did also have macaroni and cheese for the less adventurous traveler. As with most buffets, the food was only meh, but at least the conversations with our fellow group members were interesting enough. I always enjoy speaking with fellow travelers, to learn their stories and to understand why they chose to visit wherever we have found ourselves.

And then it was time to head back to Israel. Two more hours on the bus (which I spent editing and uploading various pictures to the various social media outlets in order to, let's be honest, shout to the entire world about how amazing my day had been), through the desolate desert of southern Jordan.

We got back to the Israeli border around 6:00, expecting to go through as easily as we had that morning. But ha, ha, this is where life decided to play a bit of a joke on us. Dan and I were the last in our group to go through the border. Everyone else (three other Americans, two Brits, and two Slovakians) were basically waved in. And then Dan and I rolled up. We each handed our passports (his Israeli, mine American) to the two agents on duty.

Now, a story that, again, you will read about in the Dead Sea blog: Dan had accidentally left his brand-new (as in, days old) Israeli passport when he had gone swimming. It wasn't...completely destroyed...but, well, it didn't look good. His border agent was not impressed. Meanwhile, my agent was looking through my passport with increasing curiosity. She would glance up at me, and then furrow her brow, and flip further. At one point, the two agents realized we were traveling together and that was it. We were ordered into a small side room while they discussed us in fast Hebrew. I sat there bemused but more concerned that our ride would leave without us, but Dan was highly incensed. "Why are they holding me, I'm an Israeli citizen!" Finally, they came back, handed us our passports, and bade us a good evening. No explanation, no acknowledgement, nothing. I continued my amusement, Dan continued his annoyance. And, luckily, our ride was waiting for us.

We re-emerged in Eilat to a beautiful sunset. We had the driver drop us off at a local swim wear story, as Dan had to replace his pants (he did not have another pair with him) and, it being Friday in a Jewish country, the store was the only place open.

The next morning, we departed the hostel early in order to get to the garage and two tickets for the only bus going to Tel Aviv that morning. There was to be another one that evening. At this point, Dan had lived in Israel for over five years but I still had the audacity to complain about our early departure. "There is no way we needed to get there two hours early in order to get tickets," I whined. And then I promptly got proven very wrong, as we got the two last tickets available. Cue ashamed apologizing.

While we had gone through Jerusalem on the way to Eilat, we took a straight bus home. The one stop was at a very Western rest area, with bathrooms and multiple fast food options. And we were comfortably back in his Tel Aviv apartment by 7pm, able to enjoy my last evening in the country there rather than on the bus we would have been on had I had my way earlier. It's always good to have your arrogance countered!