Deep in the deserts of southern Jordan, lie two incredible sights: the mysterious ancient city of Petra, and the boundless Wadi Rum. You could spend one day and one night in each place and see the highlights, or, you could spend days exploring each and every crevice.
Petra, known as the “Red Rock” or “Rose City” was the capital of the ancient Nabatean people. The Nabateans were a cave-dwelling tribe that controlled part of the Silk Road trade routes a long long time ago and much of their history is still debated.
To get into Petra, walk through Al-Siq, a long canyon corridor carved by the river long ago. Notice the stratification of the rock, the canyon’s layers are beautifully marbled.
Through the clearing, the Treasury, Petra’s most iconic structure, begins to appear. (If you haven’t seen the third Indiana Jones movie “The Last Crusade”, you should watch it before going! Just don’t get any ideas; it is not possible to enter the Sanctuary.)
Petra is a massive park, with dozens of sites and trails scattered off of the main old city boulevard. All of the trails are walkable, and most things are within a 45-minute radius. However, some of the really far sites within the park (Tomb of Aaron, etc.) can take up to 6 hours to get to on foot.
If you only have 1 day in Petra (there are 1, 2, or 3-day passes), I highly suggest taking a donkey/mule or camel to expedite the journey, and looking at the map beforehand to make sure you’ll have time to see what you want.
Not sure which path to take? The best thing to see (after the Treasury, which you can’t miss) is the Monastery, which even larger. To get there, walk or take a donkey up the narrow winding path. The many ancient tombs and amphitheater are generally along the way to the Monastery, so if you arrive early in the day with a plan, it’s possible to see all the major sites at a relaxed pace.
For a breathtaking view, head up to the top of the mountain which overlooks the Treasury. Most people don’t come up here, but it’s a perfect photo-op.
Bargain hard, the guides may tell you it’s 20JD to ride the donkey up the hill to see the Sanctuary– it’s not, you can do it for 5, it’s only a ten or twenty-minute ride. Longer treks are about 10-20JD, for real, and may take an hour or longer.
To ride the horses back to the entrance after a long day hiking, it’s 2JD — the horse ride is actually included in the ticket, but it’s customary to tip the horsemen. You don’t need to tip a lot, so discuss the tip before riding, and don’t let them con you into tipping outrageous amounts.
At the end of each trail, there are incredible viewpoints and bedouin-tent-style cafes. Further up from the Monastery, there is a view over Petra’s mountain into Israel. I sat up here with some friends and hung out with the Bedouins for a while.
“Petra at Night” is an additional activity offered at the park; around 8 or 9, three days a week, there is a traditional Bedouin music show and the Treasury is lit up. I went to Petra by night last year, and it was incredible. Al-Siq is full of luminaria leading up to the magnificent Treasury, where we were served tea and listened to oud and flute music.
This year, it was terrible– they recently added colored lights, making the Treasury neon green, then purple, then blue, it’s really unfortunate. I wouldn’t recommend it anymore. Still a nice experience but pretty cheesy.
If you have lots of time, check out ‘Little Petra’, more ruins that are a little farther away from the rest of the park. Little Petra is free to enter and close to the Bedouin village. The Bedouin here are nothing like the slightly-obnoxious businessmen of Petra, and will you show you nothing but hospitality.
(Political correctness isn’t really a thing for the shopkeepers here, so don’t be offended if people loudly call to you by your nationality, or at least, what they think your nationality is.)
Further into Jordan is the famous Wadi Rum, a really great camping spot. Not your typical camping though– Bedouin-style camping. Scattered throughout the desert are Bedouin tents of varying luxury. Last year, I stayed in a traditional cloth tent and slept on the ground.
This year, we stayed in a much nicer place, the “tents” even had showers in them; so don’t feel thrown off by the idea of ‘camping’, it’s not really camping unless you want it to be! The most expensive places are essentially 4-star hotels; private king-sized beds inside futuristic dome-shaped buildings, some even have large skylights on the ceiling so you can stargaze from your bed!
Wadi Rum is known for its rock bridges and red-orange sand. Jeep or camel tours take tourists on excursions every day, to explore the expansive desert. Other than the beautiful landscape, there are also Nabatean ruins and carvings, General T.E. Lawrence’s old lean-to, and other small sites.
The archeological sites are interesting but nothing compared to Petra. My advice is just to enjoy the jeep ride, hike up the biggest rock you can find, and soak it all in. It doesn’t get much better than this; the wind in your hair and the hot desert sun beating down while you cruise around the sandy trails. (If you haven’t seen the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, add that one to your list too.)
After a day trekking around, your Bedouin hosts will prepare some kind of feast; there are a few interesting Bedouin cooking techniques, some of which involve cooking food underground. It’s always a big production! Bedouin hospitality is unparalleled.
After dinner, drink some more sweet Bedouin tea and relax under the stars. I highly recommend planning your trip around the moon cycle– the best day obviously is the New Moon– my first trip to Wadi Rum, I saw more stars than I’d ever seen in my life. Absolutely insane. Last weekend, unfortunately, the moon was about 80% full so we could hardly see any stars.
It’s fun to hang out with your friends in Petra and Wadi Rum, but also totally doable as a solo traveler. Either way, make sure to take some time to talk to the Bedouin and ask them about their lives; the Bedouin way of life is fascinating and the culture is rich.
Also, I highly recommend going late February-April or October-November when it’s not too hot but not too cold either! It’s freezing in January and boiling in the Summer.
Don’t worry– Jordan is completely safe, if not safer than America, France, etc.
Southern Jordan is full of wild landscapes and beautiful ancient carvings. Spending a weekend or even a week exploring Petra and Wadi Rum in Southern Jordan is a mesmerizing adventure. I’ve visited Jordan twice now, and there’s always more to see!
Blog Post on Northern Jordan: Exploring Northern Jordan: Amman, Madaba, and Jerash!