Petra, Jordan: When dreams live up to expectations

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Todd's wanderings

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.

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.

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, 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.

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The Monastery
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.

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