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Siq Canyon leading to Petra Jordan

The feeling of awe walking through this ancient passage is indescribable

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It is rare for our dreams and expectations to live up to reality. Often times we build a destination up in our minds only to be disappointed by cheesy touristic over development, or feeling cheated by travel writers and documentarists eager to oversell and hide the negative.

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As I drove along the barren coastal Dead Sea road my driver nonchalantly waved his hand, “This used to be Sodom and Gomorrah.” Twenty minutes earlier he had pointed to where Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.

Amazed by how everyday his comment was I pushed to know more. “What’s the site called?”

“Baptism Place.” He never took his eyes off the road. I thought he just didn’t know the name in English until I saw a large blue highway sign announcing the exit. It read simply, “Baptism Place.” Understatement was becoming common as I drove with friends for 3 hours to the ancient lost city of Petra, one of the New Wonders of the World, and Jordan’s shiniest gem in an open air treasury boasting thousands of glittering wonders.

The Approach

“Soak in the experience, cameras will only remind you of the looks not the sense of awe nature imparts here,” our guide recommended as we walked slowly through the Siq, the 1.2 km narrow canyon leading to Petra. Shear sandstone cliffs towered above, ancient cobbled stones, smooth by thousands of years of use greeted our feet, eroded idols lumped us together with the millions who have passed by over the 2,600 year history of the city.

Petra Jordan Treasury peaking through the Siq canyon

The experience lived up to all of my expectations and more.

Rounding a corner your senses are suddenly overwhelmed by the majesty of what lies ahead. The Treasury, Petra’s main monument, fills the gap in the canyon. You feel insignificant and humbled by the beauty of man’s ingenuity competing with the already inspiring landscape. You are not alone; hundreds of other tourists are competing to be alone with the Treasury, touts are hawking their wares and the camel and horse guides are shouting for your attention. Despite the noise and day to day business of the area time slows, and you are left with the monument. It was exactly how I imagined it would be, and more.

The City and Tombs

The Treasury in Petra JordanThe Treasury, which takes its name from recent times when locals believed a treasure was located in the top urn and shoot it to destruction, is but the tip of the iceberg. The vast city of Petra lies hidden in the surrounding mountains containing tombs ranging from simple caves to elaborate royal burial chambers. Multicolored minerals blend magically with the sandstone and change hues as the advancing sun heats the rocks.

A guide can be an expensive proposition at 50 dinars (about $75) but well worth the investment if you have others to share the cost. The size and complexity of Petra needs at least a simple introduction and orientation before you explore and discover its secrets on your own. Things like ancient piping, the economy of the city that led to its prosperity, and sculptures of camels hidden in the rocks are all things we would have missed without our guide.

Royal tombs in Petra Jordan

Hidden in the cliffs of Petra are thousands of tombs ranging in size and detail

The Monastery

Jordan Mountains of Petra

Hidden in these mountains is the Monastery, Petra's largest monument.

Hidden, even deeper and higher up in the mountains, is the Monastery. Larger than the Treasury, the steep 900 stair path winding its way into the mountains is one of the highlights of Petra not to miss. The walk takes about 1 hour up and 20 minutes down. If you’re running out of time, hire a donkey for 5 dinars. The trip is one way but is unforgettable. These surefooted beasts of burden will deliver you to the top safe and sound, but coursing with adrenaline and excitement. Bumpy, unsettling at times on hairpin turns with sheer cliffs, especially when the donkey slips, this was one of my favorite experiences.  High up on the mountain, the wind whipping the sand across your exposed face, you turn a corner and suddenly you are insignificant again. The Monastery overpowers you, cut deep into the mountain again by the power of man but the result is something more.

You’ll have to wait for the upcoming photo essay to see the Monastery, and the video of my donkey ride!

“We’ll stop here for a few minutes.” We are on our way back to the Dead Sea and our driver is not giving us a choice. We get out wondering what the small humble building in front of us holds. We stroll in; there is no fee to pay. In a small one room structure sits a rock and a basin of water below it. Water flows slowly between the stones. “Moses struck this rock and caused the water to spring forth as he led the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land.”

Like everything else we experienced that day, it was biblical. Understated, but biblical nonetheless.

If you Go

Getting there

The airport in Amman is the main gateway to Jordan. The visa lines can be a bit tricky so check if you need to get a visa on arrival. I wasted 20 minutes waiting in the “Other Nationalities” line before I found out I had to buy my visa (10 dinars) and go through a separate line.

Driving from Amman to Petra takes between 3 and 3 ½ hours. Bus tours, private taxis, and private drivers are all on offer.

You can see most of Petra in a full day, about 7-8 hours. But to really explore the area plan on 2-3 days to feel like you’ve seen it all.

Do you have a favorite place in Jordan, in Petra? Share your stories below. Or just express your awe. It really is that amazing.

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47 Responses to “Petra, Jordan: When dreams live up to expectations”

  1. petra jordanNo Gravatar says:

    Welcome to Jordan!
    Jordan is a land of unsurpassed natural beauty and archeological magnificence. The Jordanian hospitality is world-renowned and you won’t get far without a warm and friendly reception. We are the largest and most respected online travel company in Jordan, and also offer some of the best Jordan tours

  2. hi Todd, very nice write up… but I must make one comment and recommendation being a guide in Jordan: please DO NOT take the donkeys up to the Monastery! The hoofs of the donkeys have caused a lot of erosion on the sandstone steps (as you probably saw), along with their excretions which make the steps slippery, coupled with some of steep ledges, it is not a good formula. The erosion caused by a hundred or so donkeys going up and down the sandstone steps have all but erased these 2000 year old step. The Petra Authority are currently working out a way to stop the donkeys going up there anyway, but until then, please avoid the donkeys!
    thanks, and wish you all happy tour in Jordan…

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Yamaan, thanks for coming and posting your message. As a guide, and someone who has a very real interest in protecting Petra it is great to hear your opinion. I had no idea about how the donkey rides affected the paths. Perhaps you can help us to understand why the Petra authorities do not simply ban the use of donkeys on the steps. I know there are restrictions on the camel rides for instance as well as the horse carriages.

      • they have been talking about it for a while now, along with a whole host of other issues, like building a rear exit for everybody from the site, and this way actually reducing the visitor effects by half, i.e. guests would not have to walk back through the whole site, but can exit from the restaurant area… none of which have materialized, sadly.

  3. I was so close to Petra this summer … I wish i could have gone. Thank you for sharing!
    dtravelsround´s recent [type] ..Viva Lost Wages

  4. LeslieTravelNo Gravatar says:

    Fantastic post! I’m sure the photos don’t do this destination justice, but they are stunning. It reminds me of the movie poster for 127 Hours ;)

  5. Agree with you a 100% on this. Loved it. Absolutely loved it, even in the middle of the summer heat. Will be going back in a few months, when I wander the Middle East again.
    Michael Hodson´s recent [type] ..Word Lens – Instant Visual Translator App for iPhone – Travel Game Changer

  6. love this post todd! great combo of devastatingly beautiful photography, great writing and personal storytelling and important travel tips- including details. like that you point out what you would have missed without your guide. so many of us (guilty!) have the DIY attitude when it comes to that, but really in situations like these, where there there are so many layers to a place, it makes sense to hire a guide. kind of like going to a place and not talking to locals i guess. learned a lot here- thanks! and believe it or not i’d never heard the term “documentarist” (always used documentarian) used for someone who does what i do- like it!
    Lorna – the roamantics´s recent [type] ..Out of the Mouths of Babes- Travel Lessons

  7. Beautiful photography and travel post on the Lost City of Petra. I’ve heard wonderful things about Jordan, and am so glad that this archaeological site lives up to expectations!

    ~cheers, hiptraveler

  8. AmerNo Gravatar says:

    Petra is such an amazing place! I’ve actually never ever thought of visiting there until I did and was definitely blown away. The site is very large but walking around for me is a definite pleasure. I guess there’s that Indiana Jones feeling of it.Loved the Bab as-Siq aswell as the walk to the Monastery. I would totally recommend. As long as you know how not to get intimidated by touts. haha..

  9. AmyNo Gravatar says:

    Stunning! It’s hard to process hold old some of these sites are. I’m from Canada and a 100 year old building is old to us. This is just a whole different world.
    Amy´s recent [type] ..Travel Rant- On the Importance of Gratitude

  10. NorbertNo Gravatar says:

    Petra is definitely on my list! This place always reminds me of Indiana Jones… ha!

  11. inkaNo Gravatar says:

    I just visited three weeks ago. It is such a marvellous place and certainly not only lives up to expectations but surpasses them.
    inka´s recent [type] ..Driving across Africa – 40 years ago!

  12. loved reading your blog post & the photos – brought back memories of reading the book Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen while I was living in Doha, Qatar at the time…then of all the things she came to visit to the university there & gave a talk, along with a slide show & of course her book – I brought mine to have her sign, but really I just wanted to hear her talk about Petra, Jordan & to see all her personal photos…oh my how I wanted to go visit myself & was planning on going, after friends of ours had gone on a holiday & were going to pass on all the details to us too–but alas like ExPats do, we had to move?! back to US then back out to Norway?! so far from the desert again we never made the trip, now reading your experience I just want to go more–it is for sure still on my list?!

  13. When did you go here Todd – it looks very quiet, which I’d like when I went there!!
    John in France´s recent [type] ..Christmas in France

  14. Ever since I saw “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” I’ve wanted to see Petra. I think it is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, if I’m not mistaken… Someday I hope to make it there. (Gorgeous photos by the way!)
    Michael Figueiredo (StruxTravel)´s recent [type] ..Greetings From… Füssen- Germany

  15. Jozef MaxtedNo Gravatar says:

    Wow, I never considered even considered Petra before but this is awesome. Definitely on th elist of places to visit!
    Jozef Maxted´s recent [type] ..An Introduction To South Africa

  16. Petra has long been on my list of top 10 places in the world to visit and after reading this I MUST go! Wonderful storytelling, Todd.

  17. Sarah WuNo Gravatar says:

    Beautiful pictures and walk through, love your write up too. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to visit these amazing sites in Jordan.
    Sarah Wu´s recent [type] ..Disneyland- What a Dazzling and Magical Place

  18. AudreyNo Gravatar says:

    Beautiful photos and description. I’ve had Petra on my travel list for a while, but hoping to make visiting it a reality next year.
    Audrey´s recent [type] ..Our Low Tech Travel Gear of the Year

  19. AndreaNo Gravatar says:

    I love it when a place measures up to expectations. My husband mentioned seeing Jordan awhile back and lately I’m seeing so many intriguing posts and photos of the country that I really want to go there now too. Hopefully our dream of an expat stint in the Middle East will come true so we can check it out. Amazing looking place!
    Andrea´s recent [type] ..Caffeine and Cocoa On Tap- The Chocolate Bar at The Langham- Melbourne

  20. SaraNo Gravatar says:

    Great Article, i work for the Jordan Tourism Board. Please note that next March we will be launching a photo competition called CaptureJordan. I would recommend you enter with your amazing photos. Follow us on twitter for updates.

  21. Spectacular. A place i have always wanted to visit and now even more so. I love what the guide said about putting down the cameras- so true. I find the more I travel, the happier I am to hand Craig the camera so I can be uninterrupted and absorb everything about the place we are in.
    Caz Makepeace´s recent [type] ..The Travel Industry and Travel Bloggers- How does it all fit together

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Poor Craig :) But it is true, we are increasingly spending out time trying to get the perfect picture that we lose time just experiencing the place.

  22. LaurinaNo Gravatar says:

    Nice post! I had the chance to visit the Treasury by candlelight in the evening…it was even more incredible in the dark… not sure if they still have such night time tours :) I love how the weather in your pics is misty and so mysterious …

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      They still do the night time visits. As we were leaving the crowds coming in were getting larger and larger. The weather was a mix of sandstorms and rain! It was amazing to see the monuments full of dust and then have their color changed by a good cleaning.

  23. JulieNo Gravatar says:

    Great post, Todd! Petra really is an amazing place, and certainly lives up to expectations!
    Julie´s recent [type] ..Taxi from Amman to Damascus

  24. NicoleNo Gravatar says:

    Would love to get to Petra some day. Great post and can’t wait for the next!
    Nicole´s recent [type] ..An interview with Jamaican Environmentalist- Diana McCaulay

  25. every time i see this place i am reminded of Indiana Jones. nice photos and great tips

  26. CandiceNo Gravatar says:

    Wow, Todd. This is one hell of an experience. I’m dying with envy over here!
    Candice´s recent [type] ..I’ve Been Published in Print!

  27. CamNo Gravatar says:

    Glad that Petra lived up to the hype for you! We also really enjoyed it and feel that its one of the coolest places on earth. Looks like you had virtually no tourists getting in the way of your Treasury pic! ;-)
    Cam´s recent [type] ..Things to do in Dublin- Ireland

  28. AmandaNo Gravatar says:

    Wow! This is awesome!

    I was actually just talking about Petra the other day with my boyfriend, because we were watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which uses Petra as a backdrop. My boyfriend didn’t believe me that it was a real place!

    It sounds amazing, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming photo essay and video!
    Amanda´s recent [type] ..Best Blogs of the Week &amp What in the World

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Well, you can prove to him that it is real now :) I was humming Indiana Jones in my head the whole walk in. More photos and the fun donkey ride video to come.

  29. AndiNo Gravatar says:

    Just amazing, I have goosebumps!
    Andi´s recent [type] ..Chile- Argentina &amp Uruguay- Day 1

  30. LeighNo Gravatar says:

    I love the title of your blog post. How often does the expectation of a trip meet the reality? Not as often as I would like but it sure looks like it did here. I love the desert and would love to get to Jordan and Petra eventually. Queen Noor’s biography put Jordan on the map for me years ago. Now I just have to get there. Lovely pictures too.

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Leigh, well the desert taught me very quickly why people where head scarves :) My hair was thick with sand after just one day out and about. I will have to check out Queen Noors biography, thanks for the tip.

  31. HerbNo Gravatar says:

    Inspiring as usual, Thanks!
    Herb´s recent [type] ..Take Me to Your Leader

  32. AdamNo Gravatar says:

    Wow, that just looks incredible. The Middle East is the area we most want to visit at this point. It may still be a while, but I can’t wait. I love it when huge sites like this exceed already ridiculous expectations. I had the same experience at Machu Picchu. We had dreamed of it and built it up in our heads for so long that I thought there was no way it could match my expectations. But it did that and more, and it’s a day I will ALWAYS remember vividly. Great descriptions and pictures, and I can’t wait to see more!
    Adam´s recent [type] ..Hiking Guide-Laguna de los Tres

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