Petra – The Pink City by Day (and by Night)

Seeing Petra has been on my bucket list for some time, but it wasn’t until last year, a friend of ours reinforced a trip to Jordan through pictures of mud masks in the Dead Sea, the out of this world landscape of Wadi Rum and the rocked-carved building facades of the ancient city. When we were leaving for our trip, friends, family and coworkers kept repeatedly asking, “why Jordan?” when we spoke of our holiday plans. If seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World isn’t enough of a reason, there are plenty more things to do in Jordan, but Petra was certainly the highlight of our trip.

Petra by Night

We arrived in Wadi Musa, the town that sits at the entrance to Petra, around 330 in the afternoon after a long day of exploring the desert in Wadi Rum. Knowing we only had a short time to see Jordan, we planned our trip intentionally with a Monday arrival to Petra so that we could take part in Petra by Night which only takes place three days a week. For a short stay and not much time to spare, our hotel location could not have been more perfect as we chose the Movenpick Hotel, situated directly across from the Visitor’s Center and entrance to Petra. This choice was completely by coincidence, but the Movenpick is a beautiful hotel.  Although the rooms are dated by a few years, the hotel is stunning and the included breakfast was exceptional.

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For Petra by Night you must have a Petra day ticket as well as a separate Petra by Night ticket. The day ticket you purchase from the Visitor’s Center, but our hotel sold us the Petra by Night tickets, which seems to be common practice around the city. Knowing that we would see Petra on Tuesday, I quickly ran to purchase our two day pass before the ticket booth closed temporarily at 4pm as I did not want to have to wait in any lines to enter Petra later in the evening. Although a slight inconvenience, from a cost perspective, the two-day pass is only 5 JD more than a one day pass, so it’s really a nominal charge. Petra by Night is an additional 17 JD.

To my surprise, there are actually two showings of Petra by Night, one around 7pm and the later one around 830pm (most of what I read referred to the 830pm show). This is not advertised on their website, so I’m not sure if this is year round or seasonal. We chose to go to the earlier one and despite my fears of it being over crowded, the walk in was relatively comfortable and uncrowded. We were easily let in after showing both of our entry tickets and were also surprised to see the gates already open having arrived close to 645pm.

It’s pretty magical to experience Petra for the first time during the evening. The walk in is about 30 minutes and it’s bordered by thousands of candles that light the way through the weaving Siq to get to the Treasury. It’s pretty surreal to walk the entire place in almost complete darkness under the stars. The whole experience is emersive. Along the way there is calming music echoing through the Siq walls and it feels as though you’re about to enter into a luxury spa treatment. DSC01511

Once we arrived at the end of the Siq, the walls open to a beautiful candlelit Treasury glowing in the darkness. I was surprised to see about 150 or so people already sitting in front of the display of candles on mats. We found seats a row back directly across from the Treasury door, but I wanted to get some good photos with my camera and mini-tripod. I saw some men laying mats along the right sides of the candle display to form a U shape and I quickly jumped to snag a spot in the front row. To my surprise not many people did the same so this area wasn’t overly crowded either.

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Overall, the experience was quite beautiful and included a couple of musical performances echoing against Petra’s walls. There was an emcee for the evening that spoke of tranquility and the hope for peace across the globe. Hot tea was also served to everyone in attendance.

As the emcee began to close the performance, Josh and I got up to leave before the crowd as I had read that this was an excellent way to have the Siq mostly to yourself (and photos without hundreds of tourists in them). As we were about to leave, they quickly lit up the Treasury with a very brief and colorful light show. This allowed everyone with phones to get actual pictures because if you’re trying to capture any of this on your phone, I can tell you, it’s extremely difficult to get a good shot. It’s THAT dark.

We probably could have left a minute or two earlier and been better off as we didn’t quite have the extra time we were hoping for to capture good photos.  There were people leaving the Treasury right after us and also people coming down for the next showing almost immediately after us. I will say it seemed like three times as many more people were coming for the second show, but that could have just been how it appeared because we were walking against them and not with them.

The walk back also caught us a bit off guard. It’s a 40-45 minute walk, uphill, from the Treasury. We didn’t know it on the way down as it’s only a slight incline, but you definitely notice it on the way back. Wear comfortable shoes! A must for Petra.

Although short, the show is well worth it. It was such a unique experience and a great way to see the Treasury for the first time this way. It also completely changed the way we decided to visit Petra the following day, which is something that I would also highly recommend to anyone trying to avoid the massive amounts of tourists.

Petra (by day), through the “Back Door”

The following morning I was up by 6am and was hopeful that we could enjoy breakfast and get to Petra before 8am to avoid the time that the tourist buses arrive. I wanted to capture some of Petra’s most photographed sights under good lighting. All of my best laid plans went out the window when Josh woke up and was feeling ill. I was concerned that he would not even want to go to the city at all so we took it easy, had a light breakfast and waited for him to feel up to sight seeing.

I had read in Lonely Planet that there was a back door entrance to Petra that “saved 45 minutes walk to the Monastery” which is one of Petra’s most beautiful sights. Ironically, it’s also the hardest to get to. Not understanding the full scale of the city or the layout, the paragraphs I read described very different ways to get to the Monastery (Ad Deir) and not having read very thoroughly or doing much research, I had combined them into one secret short cut in my head – estimating about 40-45 minutes. There was a method to my madness though…Since we had already seen the Treasury by way of the Siq the night before  –  A MUST –  why not start at the Monastery (where most people would finish) and make our way to the Treasury (where everyone starts) in the mid to late afternoon, where there would be fewer tourists and better lighting overall.

We asked someone at the Movenpick about the Back Door entrance and he gave us a quick response, told us to take a taxi and that it would be 5-7 JD. We exited the hotel, haggled with a taxi driver for a minute and finally agreed to settle on 10 JD. He took us to a gravel lot with a small trailer and said “good luck”. We felt lost from the moment we arrived. We went to the trailer and met a man that barely spoke English. He asked for our tickets, made a call (he said something about 2-day) and then motioned for us to make our way down a gravel road (which also had a sign that said “entry closed due to maintenance”). “Are there signs?” I asked. No response. He definitely did not understand me, however, our journey had begun.

Fifteen minutes in, we still felt completely unsure. There were definitely ZERO signs. I pulled out my phone, and Googled the Monastery on Google maps and we basically used the compass feature to try to continuously walk in the direction that made the most sense. There were strange cars (that looked abandoned) sprinkled around and a few workers here and there. Every so often, we would see people, that looked like tourists, so we just kept walking towards that hill.

Eventually, on that very hill, we ran into a family and asked them if the Monastery was in our direction. “Yes, in about 2 to 2 and a half hours,” they replied. I thought they were joking. They were, indeed, not joking. We were already about 30 minutes in or more, so by this point, we were sort of committed. We also didn’t truly believe them 100 percent.

We continued on our way, came to what is the actual ticket entrance, or appeared to be and then started to see a few signs that pointed the way to the Monastery. The trail became more “evident” to a degree, so we felt a little more sure. About 30 minutes in, a bedoin man passed us asking “Do you need a guide?”. “No, thanks” we replied. After asking him about the Monastery, we were told we had about an hour and our hope was reinstated. We started to weave around the side of a mountain, taking steps here and there, approaching unique lookouts high above several canyons. The trail felt more purposeful, but the signs were absolutely long gone. At this point, we were just going off of gut and Google maps (or more like Google GPS because it doesn’t actually give you an type of route to follow).

A little further down the trail, we see more tourists, high up on a ledge. When it doubt, we just kept making our way to signs of life. As we approached the ledge, we begin to see Jordanian flags and a donkey. We hadn’t prepared for this long of hike and only brought a half bottle of water. With Josh not feeling well, we definitely needed to get some water. Luckily, there was a nice little shop with souvenirs, water, sodas and tea and we were able to take a break. The shopkeeper told Josh we were only halfway – by this point we had been hiking for at least an hour. Another couple was there and we began to chat with them about the hike. They mentioned they had started at Little Petra and were required to hire a guide when they arrived. They asked us if we too had a guide and we shrugged and told them no. They definitely seemed puzzled by this.

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After waters and rest, we continued on the path, this time much more obvious than before with a short stone wall bordering the main path. We weaved around and around various rock facings. It’s at this point in the story, that I will say, I really started to enjoy this part of the journey. We knew about how long we had to go, so we were no longer wondering (or wandering). We had water. The trail was much clearer. And there we were, at one of the Seven Wonders of the World with not a tourist in sight. The views were amazing and the hike, although long, wasn’t overly strenuous or terrible.

About 45 minutes to an hour after leaving the rest area, we stumbled on some sheep and again, saw signs of tourists. It was here where we could begin to see the top of the Monastery and knew that we had made it. We explored the beautiful sight, crawled into caves to take photos and, after a while, made our way back down to the Visitors Center. Again, there were tourists here, but not at all what you would expect since it’s just a pretty significant distance, and climb, from the Treasury. All in, with rests, the total trip was approximately two hours.

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As we made our way down the 900 or so steps from the Monastery, I knew, despite the lengthy hike, that we had made the better choice. Lonely Planet ranks the hike from the Basin Restaurant up to the Monastery as ‘moderate’ and at 45 minutes. People looked miserable coming up those steps. If not miserable, then exhausted at the very least. I can’t imagine doing that at the end of a day in Petra after you’ve already walked and explored the ancient city – only to turn right around and walk back. The walk down is actually very charming. There are shop keepers throughout, beautiful views and plenty of places to rest and take it all in if you choose. We ended up stopping at the Basin Restaurant and the base for drinks and celebrated the fruits of our labor.

It’s here that I’ll note that after our Petra visit, I went back and re-read the Lonely Planet entry on “Petra through the Back Door”. Having thought there was just one entrance, there are actually two. One in which you can ‘shortcut’ the hike to the Monastery by getting dropped off at a location in town that leads to a 15 minute walk to Basin Restaurant (still no clue where this dropoff point is) or, the latter, which starts at Little Petra, takes an hour and a half and “requires a guide” because the trail can be hard to navigate. Our tourist friends at the half-way restaurant had said they started at Little Petra and that guides were there waiting to take people. My guess is that we started somewhere just beyond Little Petra, but this would make sense as Lonely Planet’s description of the trail is exactly what we encountered. 

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The rest of the journey was pretty smooth and uneventful. We made our way back down to the Treasury at a relaxed pace, taking in our surroundings. I will say that we did not go to several of the ‘star-rated’ attractions in the guidebooks, i.e. the tombs and High Place of Sacrifice. Josh and I enjoy sight-seeing, but neither of us are big history buffs. We prefer the ‘highlight reel’ of most major tourist attractions. A full day at Petra was already a little more than we had signed up for.

At the end of the day, we arrived at the Treasury and my intuition had been right. It was about 330pm and the Treasury and surrounding area was all under shade (no weird shadows or overhead bright lighting to distort photos). And there were only a handful of tourists making their way around. It was easy to climb the paths across from the Treasury to take photos. We made friends with a fun and friendly camel in front of the Treasury and had plenty of time for videos and selfies with him. We took photos in prime locations and didn’t have to patiently wait for other tourists to exit out of our frames. It was exactly how you want to experience the sights that everyone loves, without the heavy crowds!

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We made our way back through the Siq, again, almost undisturbed and eventually decided to ride the free horses back up the 20 minute incline from the Siq to the Visitor Center. All in, we were around 5 hours and were pretty tired by this point.

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After a long day, we still had a three hour drive back to Amman, as we had a morning flight out, but looking back, I definitely wouldn’t change how we saw Petra. First ‘By Night’ and then walking one-way through the city in the opposite direction of the majority of tourists. If you’re looking to try ‘our’ version of the back door, be prepared and know what you’re getting into, as we were not. Also, if you’re not great with directions or have any concerns, definitely hire a guide. The hike to the Monastery is beautiful and worth it, but we really only found the trails by good instinct and a lot of luck. It could have easily turned out for worse.

Amman – Where to Stay

Although we didn’t really experience any of Amman, I would HIGHLY recommend the W Hotel if you’re looking to stay in the city. The hotel is beautiful and the room they upgraded us to was absolutely phenomenal. Complete with a huge soaking tub to tend to aching legs/feet after a long day of hiking. Their breakfast is also one of the better included buffets I’ve experienced in all my hotel stays. Amman city center is actually 30 minutes past the airport though if you’re coming from Petra, so be prepared to double-back upon departure.

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