Ultimate top 5 guide: Petra and Wadi Rum

It’s 200 years since the rediscovery of Petra – high time to rediscover Jordan's magnificent rock-hewn city, and the nearby deserts of Wadi Rum, for yourself

6 mins

"Start early. Use your feet. Take your time,” Mamoun, a local guide, encouraged us. It was good advice. Petra, antiquity’s ruined capital, rewards exploration – and we had come here to explore.

Our group of ten writers and photographers were in Jordan to investigate the country’s two biggest tourist draws: Petra, and the nearby desert of Wadi Rum. Both are celebrating anniversaries in 2012: it’s 200 years since the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt stumbled on Petra, and 50 since David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia brought Wadi Rum’s rust-red landscapes to the big screen.

These days, with visitors nipping over from Israel and Egypt’s Red Sea resorts, it’s perfectly possible to tick off Petra in a day, and Wadi Rum the next. But we had five days, and that gave us the opportunity to seek out places and experiences missed on a whirlwind tour.

For example, most day-trippers don’t even make it up to The Monastery (Al-Deir) the most imposing tomb at Petra. Sited in a mountaintop defile, the monument is an hour’s climb from the valley floor, and at the end of our walk, we rewarded ourslves with a glass of mint-flecked lemon juice at a café in a natural cave. Behind us, Wadi Araba stretched towards Israel. And 800 steps down the mountainside lay the centre of Petra, an imaginative jumble of sandstone carved into history by Nabatean masons 2,000 years ago.

Petra: walking back in time

The entrance to Petra awes visitors today, as it has for centuries. Our path curved through the Siq, a cleft in the rock lined with ancient water channels and dotted with prayer niches, Roman paving stones underfoot. The clop of horses’ hooves echoed until suddenly, the intricately carved facade of the Treasury sliced through the shadows, rearing more than 40m up.

In the sandy plaza, vendors hawked their wares in a cacophony of English, German, Spanish and Russian. A throbbing generator announced modern civilisation: lights, refrigerators, restaurants. Donkeys brayed, camels snorted and contemplation gave way to commerce.

From the Petra Church, with its floor of Byzantine mosaics, the city’s layers of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Nabatean influences were clearly visible. The marble columns of the recently unearthed Blue Church seemed incongruous in a cityscape of russet and ochre. Everywhere there were locals with something to sell: Petra of old was a business centre, and Bdoul Bedouins have kept the tradition alive.


Wadi Rum: sleeping under stars

If Petra is a journey back through history, Wadi Rum, the Valley of the Moon, is timeless. A two-hour, 80km drive south of Petra, its 74,000 hectares of primeval landscape  were designated a Unesco World Heritage site in July 2011. The largest wadi in Jordan, it is cut into sandstone and granite in the country’s southern desert.

TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom – an enigmatic rock formation – can be admired from the Visitor Centre at the park entrance, but to fully appreciate this fragile setting, you need to delve deeper and stay longer. We spent two nights in a Bedouin camp deep in the desert, the tent pitched up against rock, lined with carpets and cushions. Teapots warmed over a slow fire outside. Our host, Mzied, served us tiny glasses of black tea flavoured with sage.

Evenings centred on lusty, one-dish meals of lamb, chicken and vegetables prepared over charcoal, served with tea, and accompanied by plaintive Bedouin melodies. We slept outside under a canopy of stars.

By day we scrambled through canyons and observed the signs of desert creatures: the trail of a snake, the bleached bones of a small animal. At sunset, we followed jeep tracks until they ended in the centre of a vast, shallow crater. Only camel prints marked the sand beyond this place, and the plain dissolved into night as we watched.

At Wadi Rum, as at Petra, our greatest experiences had come from following Mamoun’s wise advice. Here, then, is  our guide to Jordan’s Big Two – take your time, and enjoy…

Petra’s top 5 experiences

1. Walk into Petra through the Siq, following nature’s twists and turns, and Nabatean water channels, along an ancient route through the stone chasm.

2. Visit the Treasury early, before the crowds arrive, to fully appreciate its grandeur and craftsmanship.

3. Follow the pilgrim’s way up the shallow stone steps to the Monastery, to be rewarded with views of the monument and the surrounding countryside.

4. Accept a vendor’s invitation to sample Bedouin hospitality and a cup of tea.

5. Hike along one of Petra’s trails, such as the way down to the city centre from the High Place of Sacrifice through Wadi Al-Farasa, to explore the Roman Soldier’s Tomb and other remote sites.


Wadi Rum’s top 5 experiences

1. Walk in the desert at dawn and dusk. See first light strike the mountains and dunes and, later, watch the colours change as the sun sets.

2. Ride a camel across the desert landscape. Enjoy the gentle pace, vistas and sounds as you picture the ancient caravans that once plied these routes.

3. Seek out solitude – find a spot and sit alone, taking time to contemplate the desert landscape.

4. Stay overnight in a desert camp, and sample Bedouin lifestyle and customs. After a traditional meal, recline on cushions to the sounds of the lute-like oud and traditional Bedouin songs.

5. Sleep out under the clear night sky, drifting off after gazing up at a canopy brilliant with the Milky Way and shooting stars.


Petra’s top 5 vantage points

1. Petra’s most famous site, the Treasury (al-Khazneh), is best observed fully lit by mid-morning sun. Admire the work of Nabatean craftsmen from the sandy plaza fronting the Siq or, for an adventurer’s perspective, from the vertiginous cliff opposite (a guide is recommended).

2. The Monastery is Petra’s largest façade. Climb more than 800 steps to enjoy a front-on view of the monument from the shade of the cave café, cool drink in hand. Refreshed, continue up any of several well-marked paths towards it, and relish the 360-degree view from one of the many vantage points.

3. On your descent from the Monastery, take in the views toward Petra city centre and the Royal Tombs below. As you navigate the shallow stone steps take care to avoid donkeys scrambling to get home after their tourist-laden climbs to the top.

4. Imagine the bustling Petra of old, viewing the city centre from Petra Church. According to archaeologists, this is the best place to see Petra as a fully integrated amalgam of Nabatean, Greek, Roman and Egyptian influences. Alternatively, take the rocky trail behind the Great Temple and Colonnaded Street to catch the colours of sunset on the Royal Tombs opposite.

5. At the end of a long day, head up to the Mövenpick Hotel’s rooftop terrace. Relax with a drink, chat about what you’ve seen, and perhaps catch some cloud formations glowing pink in the dusk.


Little Petra

Hidden among the cliffs rising from  the plateau, a 20-minute drive north of the main Petra valley, is Little Petra (al-Beidha). Not only might you have the place to yourself, but the carved-out rooms give you a fantastic sense of how, once, there would have been shops and eating places facing each other down a high street – this was a favoured stopping point for camel caravans.

The entrance to Little Petra is a smaller version of its big brother: a mini-Siq. This gap in the rock shows evidence of having been widened, thought to have been done to allow camels through.

One of the remaining stairways leads to an alcove with the only known examples of Nabatean frescoes, providing a 2,000-year-old glimpse into the soul of an ancient civilisation.

Top 5 culinary highlights

1. Take a break from your Petra explorations to dine at one of the buffets in the rest area fronting Qasr al-Bint. For 10JD (£9) you can load your plate from a well-stocked buffet at Al-Anbat Tent Restaurant. Crowne Plaza’s Basin Restaurant also serves an extensive buffet for 17JD (£15.50). Try um ali, bread pudding flavoured with pistachio.

2. In Wadi Rum, dine like a Bedouin in a desert camp. Sample mansaf, a hearty lamb preparation; maqluba, Jordan’s national ‘upside-down dish’; or saarb, a speciality of chicken or lamb cooked underground with onions, potatoes and peppers.

3. Before and after dinner, tickle your taste buds with mezze. Make a meal of savory hummus or labneh, lemony tabbouleh, meaty kibbeh and other delights.
For dessert, try barazek (sesame cookies) and date-filled ma’amoul. Zalatimo Brothers in the Queen Alia International Airport also offer tins of sweets packed
for travel (great gifts).

4. Enjoy refreshing local beverages: fresh lemon juice with mint and Bedouin tea (black tea steeped with fresh sage leaves). Seek out organic Zumot wines, such as chardonnay-sauvignon blanc and pinot noir varietals bottled under the Grand Vins de Jordanie label (from 12JD upwards).

5. Help prepare a four-course meal in the company of fellow travellers – then eat the delicious spoils. The good-natured chefs of Petra Kitchen guarantee a lively evening of learning and good food.


Top 5 historical connections

1. The prehistoric formations of Wadi Rum seem older than time itself. Scan the walls of beautiful Khaz’ali Canyon for Thamudic petroglyphs depicting humans, antelopes and caravan trains.

2. Many Bedouins have now left their tents and caves for a settled life in villages and towns, but they haven’t lost sight of a nomadic lifestyle. Bedouin communities still herd livestock and wrangle camels across the dunes, even as they share their traditions with visitors.

3. Nabateans artists brought diverse influences together: Roman columns, Greek inscriptions and Egyptian influences. Delicate frescoes, perfectly preserved, can be found at Little Petra, which housed caravans of delegations visiting Petra.

4. Evidence of Christian worship peppers the landscape in the Middle East. The Byzantine mosaics at Petra Church echo the themes in the famous mosaics at Madaba.

5. The 19th century saw an influx of artists and poets to the Middle East, including the Scottish painter David Robert, whose romantic drawings of Petra fired European imaginations. Copies are widely for sale – and make a good souvenir.

Petra’s Bedouin

Although the Bedouin moved out in 1984, Petra remains central to their lives. Each morning many make the 45-minute walk down from the purpose-built village of Umm Sayhun to their businesses. Pressure to buy is relatively low; instead you’ll find smiles and good humour. Trade has been tough since the ‘Arab Spring’, so if you see something you like, do consider buying.

Do visit the handcrafted jewellery stall run by Marguerite van Geldermalsen (opposite the amphitheatre). Marguerite is a local icon. She and her late Bedouin husband Mohammad, made their home in a Petra cave in the 1970s and raised three children there. Her book, Married to a Bedouin, chronicles their story.  “I never meant to stay forever,” she says. “Still don’t. As long as it continues to be up for re-assessment, that’s fine.”


Petra and Wadi Rum top 5 sounds

1. As you marvel at Petra’s wonders, be it the Treasury, the 6,000-seat Nabatean and Roman theatre, or the tombs large and small, embrace the spirit of the local Bedouins calling out, friendly and keen to offer you a service or something to buy.

2. There are many working animals in Petra. Camels snorting, donkeys braying or the clop of horses’ hooves are all sounds that keep this ancient place alive. Horse rides between the ticket office and the Siq’s entrance (they are not allowed any further) are included in your entrance fee but allow a tip of 5JD. A carriage ride back up the Siq costs around 20JD; allow 15JD for camel rides.

3. In Wadi Rum at dawn you might hear the echoing groans of camels being woken by their handlers. Later, listen for crows cawing or the delicate trill of rosefinches, which appear on the rocks while you picnic. At night, enjoy the whisper of an occasional cool breeze.

4. In the evening your Bedouin hosts might settle and play traditional instruments such as the oud (the lute’s ancestor) and the rababah (a stringed instrument played with a bow). These will be accompanied by ululating songs and hearty clapping.

5. Most people in Jordan are Muslim, so listen out for the call to prayer – either from the mosques or, in the countryside, perhaps from a simple outdoor area set aside for worship. The call is made five times a day, from the pre-dawn Fajr to the evening Isha; it’s always atmospheric.

Arab Spring update

While the revolution in Egypt was relatively peaceful, the same can’t be said of Syria. The Syrian government’s violent opposition to protests has affected neighbouring Jordan in a big way: traders in Petra report reductions in tourist trade of at least 60%.

With a reputation for tolerance, Jordan has remained stable. Demonstrations do take place in the capital after Friday noon prayers but these are largely peaceful and should pose little concern for travellers . King Abdullah seems to be listening: non-partisan Awn al-Khasawneh, a judge at the International Court of Justice, was appointed Prime Minister last October to oversee a ten-year programme of political, social and economic reform.


Most of the accommodation for Petra is found in Wadi Musa, although there are hotels and ecocamps. The conveniently located Petra Moon Hotel is probably the best of the mid-range options. If you can't afford to stay at the Moevenpick, at least go for a drink, either on the rooftop terrace or in the beautiful lobby.

In Wadi Rum, the Wanderlust group stayed deep in the desert at the camp of of the Mzied Atieg. This is a small camp with Bedouin or modern tents – or under the stars. There are showers and toilet. Mzied can arrange transfers from Wadi Musa.

Large tour groups tend to stay at Disseh outside the Protected Area. Some camps can be large and/or noisy, so choose carefully. The Resthouse at Rum Village also offers
basic accommodation and camping.

The Petra and Wadi Rum team: In October 2011, ten readers joined Wanderlust's co-founder Lyn Hughes and travel photographer Paul Harris On Assignment to research and photograph this article. The team are:

Writers: Anita Breland, Justin Douglas

Photographers: Tom Fakler, Malcolm Cartledge, Yani Davis, Alison Clowes, Claire Waring, Ruth Edwards, Joy Noble-Rollin, Pawel Lipski

With thanks to tutor and photo editor Paul Harris, and David Symes (of On the Go Tours), Petra Kitchen and Marguerite van Geldermalsen

Want to improve your travel writing or photography skills? Join Wanderlust on assignment in Istanbul, Essaouria or Berlin. Find out more here

More like this

Improve your travel writing and photography skills | Wanderlust Journeys... More

Take a look at photographs from the trip here | Photography... More

Take a look at our Jordan travel guide to plan your own trip to the country | Plan a trip... More

6 Petra highlights from Middle East expert Matthew Teller | Inspire me... More

Go now! Amman, Jordan | Destinations... More

Related Articles