Get off the tourist track and follow the locals’ lead at this top UNESCO Heritage Site. HoneyTrek’s Mike & Anne Howard test out a new community-based trip and return with tips for the ultimate Petra experience.
Following the snaking slot canyon, swirled with red, purple, and gold sandstone, we entered the 2000-year old city of Petra. Once a trade hub linking China, India, and southern Arabia with Egypt, Greece, and Rome, this Nabataean kingdom was sophisticated, exotic, and in a league of its own. Temples, amphitheaters, and mausoleums were carved into the rock, so while other ancient sites have fallen to the elements, the facades of Petra have patinaed to perfection.
One of the New Seven Wonders of the World and on just about everyone’s bucket list, Petra receives around 500,000 visitors a year. This would be 7 out of 7 wonders for us, but we didn’t just want to snap a photo of the iconic Treasury and call it a day. So we turned to A Piece of Jordan, a community-based tourism operator, showing travelers that Petra is more than an ancient relic but a destination alive with local culture and friendly Jordanians beyond the souvenir stalls. We signed up for their three-day Cultural Heritage Eco Experience and it stole a piece of our heart.
Dinner at a Local Home
If anyone knows about the romance of Petra, it’s Steph, the founder of A Piece of Jordan. Ten years ago, she came from England to Petra on holiday, fell in love with her local guide, and married into his big Jordanian family. To start our first night of the tour, her sister-in-law invited us over for a cooking lesson and feast of Mendi (chicken and rice with cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, and coriander). Plus, we learned that Zaatar is a favorite in Jordanian cooking and black tea can never be made too sweet.
The Iconic Treasury
Aymen, Steph’s nephew who grew up between Petra and Chicago, would be our guide for our first day at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. We hiked through the narrow Siq canyon in the shade of its 250-foot high sandstone cliffs, as he pointed out obscure details like the clay pipes for water transport and the bullet holes in the Treasury’s urn, where Bedouins were convinced the tomb’s loot was hidden. We stood there marveling at the 140-foot high carved facade and its swarms of tourists holding selfie sticks atop camels and horse carriages. Aymen sensed our dismay and said, “Don’t worry. Follow me.”
High Place of Sacrifice
Following the Street of Facades, buildings so smooth and dripping with color you’d believe they melted into the cliff side, Aymen hangs a left at a non-descript stone staircase. After a dozen steps, the droves of people vanished and the allure of Petra thickened. We reached the High Place of Sacrifice and its sweeping views over the ancient city.
Petra’s Geological Beauty
Instead of returning the way we came, we descended the backside toward the Lion Monument, Garden Temple, and Roman Solider Tomb. The blend of geological colors intensified. They call Petra the Rose City, but Rainbow seems like a better fit.
The Roman Colonnade
Walking the Colonnaded Street and peering into the 3,000-seat theater, you see the Roman architectural influence. The 106-AD arrival of the Romans was the start of Petra’s demise, as sea trade routes became more popular and earthquakes took their toll. The city was abandoned for centuries and Bedouins kept it their secret until a European, disguised in local dress, snuck in during the early 1800s and revealed the ancient city to the world.
Hidden Bedouin Café
The sun was setting, bringing out the best of the sandstone hues. Everyone was heading home, but Aymen had better plans for us. We took the Al Madras trail up a couple hundred stairs, past grazing goats, and detoured down a dirt path to a tented Bedouin café. We pulled open the curtain doorway and gasped. The Treasury was perfectly framed between the textile walls and cushions, and a seat was waiting for us at the edge of the cliff.
Petra by Night
Our hike down was in total darkness—until the candles came out for Petra by Night. Three times a week, the ¾-mile long Sik is lined with candles, leading guests to the Treasury for an evening of music, storytelling, and tea. It’s a ticketed event so we had to exit before reentering, though it felt we doubled our money watching them light the thousands of candles along our path.
Shopping in Wadi Musa
The next morning we met our field guide and farmer extraordinaire, Musab, for a countryside and cave camping adventure. First stop: the city of Wadi Musa for provisions. He took us into local markets, bakeries, and sheesah shops, introducing us to the vendors and sharing delicious samples of shrak bread and Jordanian baklava for us to take in the regional flavors.
Second stop, Musab’s farm, complete with an olive grove, horse pasture, chicken coops, and veggie garden. His mother was making goat’s cheese and milk and invited us in for a taste in her parlor. Looking out their window was a snapshot into a typical southern Jordanian day… an old woman in her hijab was breaking sticks for firewood, a little boy was chasing ducks, and teenage girls were gossiping and giggling, like they do around the world. Musab’s co-guide Lief, with striking green eyes and a headscarf like Jack Sparrow, arrived with the cooking supplies and we were off!
Al Hay Ghost Town
Driving into the hills of Al Hay, the modern houses faded away and an abandoned stone village emerged. “As kids, we lived here in the summers,” said Musab. The higher elevation’s cooler temps and breezes kept locals here for generations, but with the boom of tourism in Petra’s city of Wadi Musa, everyone followed the opportunities. We peeked into a stone room with dirt floors and wooden beams dripping with vines, “This was my family’s house,” said Leif. Amazing what can change in two decades.
Jordanian Outdoor Cookout
At lunchtime, we gathered firewood and built a mini outdoor kitchen. Galayet, a simple tomato, onion, and pepper stew, was on the menu. We simmered it on the flames and chatted about politics over sweet tea. Jordanians are often lumped into various stereotypes about Arab countries, though they’ve been solid allies of the West and peacekeepers in the region. The stew bubbled, giving us the sign to dig in. No bowls or spoons required, we dipped shrak bread until the cauldron was clean.
Sheep Herding Experience
We heard bells echoing over the hills. A shepherd was bringing his hundred sheep to graze. We were soon surrounded by fluffy ewes and chatting with him about his flock. With the help of his son, donkey, and dog they move across the hills each day.
Historic Cave Camping
When Steph was planning our itinerary and asked us if we wanted to sleep in a cave, we said “yes” with zero hesitation–and no idea what we were getting into. We drove to Beidha, an area inhabited for thousands of years, and saw a fire blazing and stone windows flickering with candle light. Lief had gone ahead and set up a plush Bohemian camp in an ancient cave dwelling, carved with perfect windows and doors. The pillow-clad room was aglow with taper candles and a fire cooking a broad bean, tahini, garlic, and lemon sauce. Forget cavemen; this was fit for Nabataean royalty. We stayed up watching the stars, smoking apple sheesah, drinking Jordanian tea, and talking for hours. A truly magical night.
Hiking Little Petra
We packed up camp and took a short drive to a little-known trailhead, leading from Little Petra to the Monastery. While most visitors climb shoulder to shoulder up the 800 stairs on the far end of the UNESCO heritage site to Petra’s largest structure, The Monastery, we took a scenic hike along A’Dir mountain and colorful canyons with traces of even older civilizations, and arrived without the slog of a staircase.
We soaked up the beauty of the 2nd-century Monastery (a Nabataean tomb, later given a cross and this nickname) and then descended the stairs, watching everyone else huff and puff their way up. It always pays to know the local way.
Petra’s architecture would make an impression on anyone, though having the chance to connect with the people and landscape beyond the UNESCO lines, it has earned a special spot on our list of World Wonders.
Mike & Anne Howard of HoneyTrek are official Travelocity Gnomads. Gnational Gnomads is an exclusive group of high-profile travel and lifestyle experts who offer tips and inspiration on behalf of Travelocity. For more information, visit TravelocityGnomads.com.
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