March 1-3, 2009

Getting to Petra

The day we entered Jordan we hoped to make it all the way south to Petra.  But as we wrote before, we had some delays at the border, so things didn’t go according to plan.

When we finally crossed the border we hired a taxi to take us the 2 hour ride to the capital, Amman.  The taxi cost 30 Jordanian Dinhars, or $45.  In case you missed it, the JD is worth 50% more than the US dollar!

From the valley we climbed steeply up a mountain chain, eastward over winding roads.  It was cold and foggy.  In some places we saw patches of snow on the ground.

We reached Amman around 5 PM.  At the bus station we received the unfortunate news that the last bus to Petra left a couple hours ago (a bus we would have caught if things went a little more smoothly at the border).  We had a choice – either to spend the night in Amman and catch the bus the next morning, or to splurge on another taxi to take us all the way to Petra.  Since we were short on time (only 7 days before our flight to Dubai), we decided to splurge.  Another 30 JD gone.

When we were close to Petra, the driver handed us his mobile phone.  On the other end was his cousin who acted as his interpreter (she spoke far better English).  She explained that we can’t go all the way to Petra – the road over the last mountain pass is closed due to heavy snows.  Looking out the window it was hard to believe this story.  It was chilly but there was no cloud in site, and we were only about 30 km from Petra.  It felt like the driver was somehow trying to scam us, e.g. dropping us off short of the destination to save gas, or something like that.  But what could we do?  The situation was out of our hands.

The driver said that he would leave us in the town closest to Petra, and the next morning we could take a bus the rest of the way.  OK, which nearby town?  “Ma’an”.  “Wait, did you say Amman??”  “No, Ma’an”.  “Oh, Ma’an is its own town?  OK.”

So we slept one night at Ma’an.  It was late and we knew nothing about this town (we had no travel book for Jordan), so the driver dropped us off at the first hotel he found on the main road.  The hotel manager wanted 24 JD for the night and the place was pretty nasty – no heating, no hot water, and smelling of cigarettes.  We bargained down to 12 JD and crashed for the night.

The next morning we found the bus to Petra.  It cost 1 JD, just like the driver said, and there was indeed a lot of snow on the way:

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We later learned that the police really did send out a warning the prior night for drivers to avoid the pass.  So our driver was telling the truth – we feel bad for doubting him.

Riding With Balls

We finally arrived in Wadi Musa, the small town next to Petra, and we set about looking for a better hotel than the one we had in Ma’an.  Since Wadi Musa is located on a steep hill, Pnina stayed put with the bags while I rushed uphill to check out the first hotel we spotted – Saba’a.  At the Saba’a lobby I saw a couple of tourists so I took the opportunity to ask them: are you staying here? do you like it?  They replied “yes” and “no”.  We struck up a conversation and it was pretty interesting.  This couple, Valentijn and Yvonne, are on a several month trip on bikes:

Valentijn and Yvonne, Dutch bicycle riders, along with a random local guy:

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They started their trip at home (Holland) with 400 red soccer balls.  As they rode south through Europe they sold these balls.  Then they continued through northern Africa (including some long rides in the Egyptian desert) before arriving in Jordan.  Later they planned to reach Lebanon and pause for about a month to do service work with Palestinian refugees (for which they will use the soccer-ball money).  If you know Dutch, you can read about their adventures on, which means “riding with balls”.  It’s worth clicking the link just to see animation of the route they biked so far.  Impressive! (note: the site appears to be down at the moment)

Anyhow, by their recommendation we checked into the Petra Gate Hotel.  For 16 JD / night we had a room with wi-fi reception and a friendly staff.

Petra for free?

After dropping off our bags and getting a quick bite (excellent shwarma) we headed downhill to the Petra entrance.  The Dutch bikers said that there’s a way to get into Petra for free by making a right-turn at the bottom of the hill and “following the signs with the red circles”:

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We tried to follow their directions but we couldn’t find those red circles.  Also, we decided that 26 JD is an OK price to pay for the 2-day pass.  Maybe we’ve become numb to high prices after the crazy prices we encountered in Africa.  Long story short, we headed to the main entrance and paid for our tickets.

About Petra

Prior to coming here, when I thought about Petra I thought about this:


And also about this:


The structure above really does exist in Petra and it really is carved into the rock, but it’s not the only one.  There are dozens (hundreds?) of edifices like this in Petra, all of them scattered over various mountain-sides and canyon walls.  The one used by Indiana Jones is called “The Treasury” and it’s probably the best one because it’s very ornate, quite large (though not the largest), and pretty well preserved.  But inside the beautiful facade there’s not much to find – no booby traps, no holy grails, nothing exciting.  There’s just a plain room with barely any decorations – all the beauty is outside.  And the same is true for all the other edifices in the area.  Most of them are burial places for nobles, so inside you find empty stone graves carved into the ground.

All these structures were made by the Nabateans around 100 BCE – Petra was their capital city.  The Nabataeans were eventually conquered by the Romans around 100 AD, though from the design of the structures at Petra it looks like there was Roman influence even before conquest.

Visiting Petra – Day 1

This is the path we took on the first day:


Pretty soon after entering the gate we started to see some monuments.  Some of them were small or worn down, but some were really nice.

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After maybe 500 meters we reached the entrance of an impressive canyon called the Siq.  The canyon is about 1.2  km long.  It’s very tall and quite narrow.  It formed naturally, though the Nabateans and Romans augmented it – expanding it in some places and paving the ground.

Part of what made the Nabatean civilization flourish is that they were very good at controlling water.  They created dams and channels, both to store water for the try season and to prevent flash floods.  Still, the Siq would occasionally flood, so in modern times a few small dams were created along the Siq to control water flow.  When we entered the Siq, a faucet on one of these dams was open to release the pressure, so there was a shallow stream flowing down the canyon floor.  It was pretty funny to watch all the tourists hop along, trying to avoid the water.

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The Siq ends at a T, and that’s where you find the famous monument from the Indiana Jones movie:

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This structure is actually called “Al Khazneh”, but people generally refer to it as “The Treasury”.  The name “Treasury” came about because of a legend about hidden treasure in the structure.  Nobody knows exactly what it was used for, but as with most of the other edifices it contained some tombs.

Prior to reaching the Treasury I was starting to worry that I would be let down; after all the other moments we saw and after the impressive canyon, how good could the Treasury be?  But no, it’s really awesome.  It’s quite a bit larger than anything we’d seen so far, and it’s far more intricate.

We continued past the Treasury to the right, down another canyon.  This area is called the Street of Facades.  It has a bunch of rock-carved tombs, some of them unfinished.  It also has an amphitheater with a view of many of these facades.

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We found a set of stairs leading up the mountain close to the amphitheatre, so we followed it.  This trail lead us up to the top of the mountain, to a place called The High Palace of Sacrifice.  The palace itself was pretty broken down – not much to see.  But the views from the top were great.

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We kept following the trail down the other side of the mountain.  We found a bunch more monuments here and hardly any tourists.

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Visiting Petra – Day 2

This is the path we followed on the 2nd day:


Instead of entering the Siq, we took a right turn and headed down an 88 meter tunnel dug by the Nabataeans:

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At first this canyon looked like a relative dud.  It wasn’t as tall or narrow as the Siq, and the ground was difficult to tread (lots of rocks in all shapes and sizes).  After a while the canyon started to narrow.  The more it narrowed the more beautiful it became.  But, the narrow portions brought a new challenge – pools of water to cross (pools created by all that precipitation that kept us from crossing the pass).  Normally we don’t worry too much about getting wet, but it was chilly outside (despite the sun), and we had all kinds of things on us that we didn’t want getting wet (cameras, shoes, laptop, etc.).  For the first 90% of the canyon we made a real effort to get across the pools without getting wet.  When the pools were short, we jumped across.  When they grew larger, we spent time throwing rocks in to form a primitive bridge to walk across.  When the pools became too long to jump or too deep to fill with rocks, we tried to wedge ourselves between the canyon walls – it was real Ninja Warrior action :-). But towards the end of the canyon it was just too difficult — the pools were too long to jump, too deep to fill, and the canyon walls were too far apart for us to wedge ourselves.  And the trouble was that we really couldn’t turn around because so many of the pools we crossed were “unidirectional”: hard enough to cross one way, far harder to cross in reverse.  At one point Pnina decided to play it safe and go barefoot.  And at some point later I gave up trying to stay dry completely – I took off my shoes and my pants and waded through the water in my boxers.  The deepest pool was just high enough to reach my balls, and yes the water was cold.  Pnina was able to skip that discomfort by scrambling up the canyon wall (good thing because it would have reached much higher on her 🙂

The start of the canyon – so far so good:

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Canyon starts to get narrow:

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One of our first big challenges – we had to jump over this pool while avoiding the boulder above.  If you look closely you’ll see the “bridge” of stones we created at the far end of the pool:

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The pools become too long to jump; time to use the “wedge” technique:

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This time the walls lean inward, so wedging is difficult.  Pnina goes barefoot and creates a rock bridge along the edge:

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This beauty wasn’t too difficult – it required a double jump:

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When we finally made it out of the canyon it was a huge thrill.  High fives all round.  It was easily the biggest challenge Pnina and I faced since the beginning of the trip.

Thrilled to be out of the canyon! (look closely and you’ll see the water line in my boxers):

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Another edifice we saw as we exited the canyon:

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The canyon was supposed to take no more than 1-2 hours, but with all those pools slowing us down it took nearly 5.  It was getting late and we still wanted to make it up another mountain to see a monument we heard about from lots of people: “The Monastery”.  So with no delay we rushed past the Street of Facades, up through the Colonnaded Street and up the mountain.  We made it there just before sunset.  The Monastery was definitely worth the hike.  It’s the biggest monument at Petra, quite a bit larger than The Treasury and just as well-preserved.

The Monastery, after a couple hours of climbing:

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Past the monastery, there are a bunch of trails leading to a few viewpoints.  We picked one of them at random and sat at this peak to wait for the sunset.

So many viewpoints to choose from:

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Us watching the sun go down:

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One response to “Petra

  1. kate swelstad

    wow!!! this is amazing! so gorgeous. mike and i are so jealous you got to see the treasury.

    and priceless to see photos of you in your underpants. you should take one in every country. 🙂

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