As an archeological and geological site, Petra is 5 stars hands down, but its poor management allows for plenty of scams. Petra is huge and has several distinct sites, but doesn’t have any signs or staff to point you in the right direction. Instead, it’s rife with hawkers. There’s little regulation despite the high admission price. For example, it’s littered with trash. Other UNESCO world heritage sites and world wonders like Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China are all better run and cleaner.
That said, we don’t regret going to Petra, just want to caution you and help you navigate it best. It truly is an archeological marvel and a big reason why we took a cruise to the Middle East. This ancient city is where the Israelites passed through when they were exiled from Egypt, and Moses’ brother Aaron is buried here.
A trip to Petra can be quite expensive. For us, it was a 220 dollar day including rental car, gas, and admission.
Driving to Petra
We rented a car in Aqaba, where our cruise ship docked, and drove two hours to Petra, arriving around 11:30am. We drove pretty fast, right at the speed limit. Watch out for the speed bumps, they are faded and not always marked with a sign.
Tip #1: When you fill up on gas, calculate ahead of time how many liters you need and tell them exactly how many Jordanian Dinar worth of gas you want. For us it was about 25 liters for our 2 hour drive. Watch the pump, otherwise a common scam is to fill up the entire tank no matter what you’ve agreed to. This happened to Aaron’s dad, whose car was behind us, and the car rental office later said it’s a common occurrence. Gas in Jordan is about twice as expensive as it is in the US and half as expensive as it is in Europe.
Surprisingly Petra wasn’t too crowded at 11:30 am when we arrived, however Aaron’s parents arrived shortly after us and said there was a long line just to enter. We went on a Monday in December, the low season, but keep in mind that on the days cruise ships are docked here, a flood of people will come in on tour buses. Petra is large and sprawling, with several individual sites and uneven hilly terrain, including the uphill path to the Monastery. We spent 5 hours racing around with no breaks and still didn’t get to see everything.
Tip #2: Stay for two days if you can, especially since a 2 day pass is actually cheaper than a 1 day pass, and you can also visit Petra at night for their candlelit tour.
One day tickets are 70 Jordanian Dinar for day trip visitors or 50 Dinar for cruise ship passengers or overnight guests. A 2 day ticket is 55 Dinar. A separate ticket to Petra at night is 17 Jordanian Dinar or 24 USD. Since we came in on a cruise ship, we paid 50 Dinar each, which is 70 US dollars, but we were charged an extra 15 dollars for paying in USD, which we did not want to do. We always pay in the local currency when we use our credit cards since our cards don’t have foreign transaction fees, but we were not given this choice.
Tip #3: Make sure you insist on being charged in Jordanian Dinar before handing over your credit card. Otherwise you’ll incur a 6% markup. Dissapointing for an official ticket office.
Petra is full of hawkers, even children who should be in school. They’ll show you a picture of the famous view overlooking the Treasury on their phones and tell you tourists can’t get to the overlook without a tour guide. That’s absolutely not true. We started to walk up the path leading to the treasury overlook and a fake “tour guide” followed us yelling that he would report us to the tourist police, but we saw several tourists coming down the path on their own.
Tip #4: Pay no attention to the hawkers proclaiming themselves to be tour guides. We saw a real guide accompanying a Chinese couple at the Royal Tombs. He was informative and dressed professionally.
How to Get to the Treasury Overlook by Yourself
If you’re facing the treasury, there is a staircase to your left. Simply go up that staircase.
There is also a second path further into the site. If you’re facing the Royal Tombs, the path begins on the left of the tombs. It’s a little hidden but you’ll see a staircase and a sign that says “View of the Treasury.” This is the path we took and it was an incredibly interesting hike through some backcountry. We recommend it as much for the hike as for the view. After you get to the top, you’ll find that a man has erected his tented café right over the best viewpoint and put up a sign that you have to buy a drink to see the view.
Tip #5: You can enter the cafe for the view of the Treasury and you don’t have to buy a drink if you don’t want to. At another viewpoint, a man literally ran ahead of us, got there first, rolled out his blanket, laid down on it, and yelled “10 dollars” at us. Here he is blocking our view.
The Royal Tombs are a Must See
Even though the Treasury is the most famous part of Petra, our favorite site at Petra was the Royal Tombs. Whereas the Treasury and the Monastery are mainly facades, the Royal Tombs are an elaborate network of rooms carved into the rock on multiple levels. From the top you can also see an overview of Petra.
The working animals inside Petra are in a sad state. The donkeys all hang their heads, the horses are made to pull carts at a full gallop, and we saw a camel groaning after being hit with a switch and made to kneel for a photo. You also have to watch out for all the poop along the path and many areas smell like manure. After you pass the colonnaded street and start the hike to the Monastery, more hawkers will tell you that it takes an hour to get to the Monastery on foot and only 20 minutes on their donkey. This is a lie.
Tip #6: It takes about 35 minutes to walk up to the Monastery, and it’s not much faster on a donkey because their minders walk alongside them, so if you can, just walk. There was a man on crutches exploring Petra on foot on the day we went. If he can do it, you can too. There shouldn’t be any working animals inside Petra. It’s not good for the animals or the site.
Sunrise and Sunset at Petra
Tip #7: Supposedly the best view of the Treasury is at sunrise and the best view of the Monastery is at sunset, which is early in the winter, around 4pm. We left the site around 4:30 and passed the Treasury again on our way out. The crowds were gone and I got a great shot of Aaron at this time, so if you can’t make it early in the morning, you can wait till closing time, which is 5pm.
Tip #8: If you’re driving, just be aware that the road out of Petra is extremely dark after sunset and not fully lit by street lights.