Fancy a challenge? Here are three fairly taxing hikes to take you to the finest and quietest Petra attractions. Take water, a picnic, put on those walking books and join me.
While Petra is associated with the Indiana Jones movies, a visit to the ruins could have you thinking they are filming a new Pirate of the Caribbean. It is Bedouin fashion for the horse and camel trip male vendors to wear their hair long grow wispy beards and put kohl around their eyes. While it works for the younger and skinnier men, unfortunately a few of the older and fatter guys look more Boy George than Johnny Depp.
As we had a full three days in Petra to explore, we took a number of routes away from the “main drag” to get a quieter experience. The three day entrance ticket to Petra is the best value at 60JD (£55) a person. Two day tickets cost 55JD and a day pass is either 60 or 90JD depending on whether you are staying in the country overnight. Even with 3 days, we only saw a portion of the whole site, although after 2 days you get the measure of the place.
My review describes three of the longer hikes to be had in Petra, but for an overview of the main Petra “village” on the valley bottom you may like to visit this guide.
The Place of High Sacrifice
I found this circular walk to offer the best “bang for your buck” as there are great views from the top and a series of fascinating tombs to explore.
The route starts from near the ruins of the Roman amphitheatre in the main basin of Petra. While I can’t advise visitors to ignore the signs imploring you to only take the route with the aid of an official guide, it is clear to follow, there are a good number of fellow walkers, and although steep safe underfoot. The cynic in me suggests the sign is an attempt to get gullible tourists to part with their money. Obviously, it helps to wear proper walking shoes, and take plenty of water (although there are a few tea sellers en-route).
The route is (literally) not one for the feint hearted, but I spotted a number of fit 70+ year olds admiring the view across Petra from the top. Some people are disappointed with the sacrifical alter itself, but to me it is one of the most spectacular examples you will ever see. You can clearly see carved out pools and channels where blood might have dripped down the mountainside after a sacrifice, to the followers standing below.
Slightly more disappointingly the Place of High Sacrifice is not on top of the highest mountain in Petra, although the view is spectacular nevertheless.
To make the route circular aim for the Obelisks on the other side (interestingly these are not free-standing as the Nabatean builders lowered the mountainside to create them). Just before the Obelisks go straight ahead past the teashop and slowly down through a good number of monuments before reaching back to the valley bottom. Again, this route is well trod, but it is quieter than the main attractions on the valley bottom. There are a couple of steep sections with nasty (but quite short) drops; if you don’t like heights or steps then this might not be for you.
The best tomb is the garden tomb; originally watered via the extremely intricate irrigation system. Along this walk you really see the rich colours within the natural rock of reds and greens.
To the Monastery
A walk of similar length is the 800+ steps up to the most impressive monument in Petra; the hugely imposing Monastery. This seems to be the route “everyone” attempts, so the path is quite busy. However hot and red in the face you might get climbing up the hill, I will vouch there will be someone redder and hotter!
Beyond the Monastery, is a walk to three look out points across the desert. They are well worth the extra effort although all offer cunning ways for locals to attract you to their jewellery store. At the “best view point in Petra” a couple of locals were playing three blind mice on traditional instruments.
Umm al Biyara
For our final day, we decided to climb one of the higher peaks and take a walk away from the crowds.
First up we wandered through the Bedouin camp to the romantically named snake monument (which on sight could just as easily be called the monument to dog poo, as it is badly eroded). The journey is most memorable; through Bedouin homes and herds of goats on a deserted path. From here, we could have gone to the alleged burial site of Aaron (Moses’ brother) on Jabel Harun on top of the highest mountain in the area at about 4,400 feet high (just beat a trail to the white mosque on top of the hill) or retrace your steps most of the way, and hunt down the path to the scary 920 or so steps to the top of the flat topped Umm al Biyara. It’s a hard if straightforward climb, although there are some rocks and shale on the man-made steps which can just trip you up and the drop over the edge can be very scary in places. I’m a bit of a wuss for heights, so if I can do it...
At the top is a ruined ancient village and archaeologists have determined building ended on the site around 2000 years ago. There is some tale that the villagers were pushed off the steep mountain top by an invading force some time in the distant past. Given the steep and scary climb, it is a sobering thought.
The quiet at the top was interrupted by the shouts of locals and the bells of animals in the valley far below. In contrast to the bustle of Petra, we were the only visitors to the top of Umm al Biyara, and it made a great contrast to our Petra exploring.
Sleeping at Petra
Most visitors to Petra sleep in the adjoining village of Wadi Musa. We stayed at the basic but friendly Sun Set at the Petra side of town where rooms were 45 JD for a double. It is worth asking for a packed lunch for your Petra exploring, as it is plentiful and cheap. Rooms are clean and tidy and a basic meze breakfast is also on offer.
Those wanting to splash out on a little luxury can choose the hotels attached to the best bars in town, the Crowne Plaza Resort in probably the best location, on the edge of town and near the start of the route down the siq to Petra, where rooms are approximately 120JD a night in low season, or at the Movenpick in another handy location and at a similar price.
More information about dining in Wadi Musa can be found in this other guide.