Visiting Petra

We recently visited Petra. It was amazing! Here's a few tips about visiting. 


Jordan

While Jordan is very much an Islamic, Arab country, it's much more open than many of its neighbors. Homosexuality is legal, they're ranked as the 3rd "freest" Arab country, and they create 75% of the internet's Arabic-language content. Due to their long history with England, lots of people speak English. The crime rate is comparable or lower than most of the US and Europe, but avoid the Syria and Iraq borders.

Jordan is officially an "upper middle income country" – and in my own folksy and biased opinion, it felt a lot like being in Mexico for me. There are shiny cities with skyscrapers and western hotels and great hospitals, but once you're out in the countryside it gets a lot more rustic. You'll see lots of agriculture (hooray for roadside fruit stands!) and occasional animal herding, so yes, you might have to stop you car so a man in a shemagh talking on his cell phone can herd his goats across the road.

Friday is the holy day, so many people have the day off from work and school, and many businesses are closed. We were there during the holy month of Ramadan, and lots of things were closed. Many of the folks who don't have Ramadan off from work can be crabby and exhausted after a long day without any food or drink (even water!), so be extra kind and thick-skinned.

Before you plan your trip, look into driving the King's Highway, visiting the Dead Sea, or glamping in Wadi Rum – you might want to spend more time in Jordan than you originally thought. Another planning note: one-way car rentals are possible, but you have to return the car in the same country you rented it in.

 

Money and Phones

The currency is called the Dinar (or JOD) and is around the same value as the British Pound (around US$1.40). Like the US, they use paper $1 notes.

Jordan has a good cellular network, but unfortunately they don't partner with T-Mobile or AT&T so it's like the early days of the iPhone – you pay by the megabyte. $15 US Dollars per megabyte to be precise.
UPDATE: T-Mobile is adding Jordan and 55 other countries to their free international roaming plan!
Be careful with your cell phone if you drive down from Tel Aviv – the Israeli highway 90 is so close to the border that my phone jumped onto Jordanian towers and I ended up with a VERY expensive phone bill. I've got a tip sheet here for minimizing cellular usage. 

 

From Amman

Petra is a 4 hour drive south of Amman. The simplest way to visit is to fly into Amman and book a private, guided tour with a driver. It's a long day so it's probably better to leave all that driving in someone else's hands so you can sleep all the way back to Amman. We used Via Jordan and they were great. We stayed at the brand-new W Amman and it was gorgeous and perfect.

Petra is the red dot (click to enlarge)

Stay at Petra

There are hotels near Petra, so staying overnight there is another option. It'll give you a chance to get into the park early before the hordes of other tourists so you can get some great shots with morning light. You can hire a state-licensed guide once you arrive at the park if you want.

 

From Aqaba

Aqaba is a small resort town on the Gulf of Aqaba, right across the border from Eilat, Israel. It's a two hour drive to Petra from here, and there's a small airport (AQJ) right nearby. Currently you can only fly to Amman, Istanbul, and Dubai from it, but Ryanair is planning a major expansion in late 2018, adding flights to Rome, Cologne, Athens, and Sofia.

 

From Israel

If you're thinking of linking this with a trip to Israel, know that there's some... let's call it "polite tension" between the two countries.  There are few flights between them and only 3 border crossings. There are many Israeli companies that will do fully guided bus trips to Petra from Tel Aviv, just know that you'll be getting up at the crack of dawn to make the 4 hour drive (or the half-hour flight) to Eilat, crossing the border, then driving 2 hours from Aqaba up to Petra. We used the LGBT-friendly Outstanding Travel for our Jerusalem tour, and they also offer Petra tours as well.

We drove from Tel Aviv to Eilat, Israel and returned our rental car there. We had an absolutely optimal border crossing situation (zero lines anywhere at the border, quickly found taxis on both sides of the border) and it took us about 30 minutes to complete the crossing. Israel requires you to pay an exit tax, and there's a currency exchange window inside the border crossing. More information about the border crossing herenote the hours and holiday closures!


Another important Israel note: they don't stamp your passport when you enter the country, they give you a litte blue ticket instead. Do not lose this ticket – you'll need it when you leave the country!


 

Some driving tips

Renting a car from the airport is easy, but there's currently a bunch of much-needed construction happening on Jordan's highway 15, so I'd recommend getting an SUV just to make sure you survive the highway without blowing out a tire or an axle. Highway 15 is full of big trucks, construction detours, and lots of hills, so there's lots of lane changing and jockeying for position – in other words, it's NOT a chilled-out 4 hour road trip, it's 4 hours of very stressful driving.

lots of road construction between Amman and Petra

TIP: If you do rent a car at the Amman airport, the rental return is very confusing: you actually drive into the middle lane with the big red ⛔️ no entry sign! (at the bottom of the sign in small print it says "rental car return")

The roads and highways are full of random police checkpoints. I asked our guide why (i.e., "what is it that they're looking for?") and his response was, "Jordan has taken in over a million Syrian refugees – more than 10% of Jordan's entire population". I took that to mean they were checking to make sure were weren't transporting refugees.

When you reach a checkpoint, come to a complete stop, roll down your window, make sure that the police have an unobstructed view through all of the windows of your car, and have your passport and International Drivers License available if they ask for it. Nearly every time the guard just to told me to keep on going before I'd even managed to come to a complete stop.

Keep an eye out for "matabb" – large, flat speed bumps that are often unmarked and very dark. Because of these (and their "topes" cousins in Mexico) I prefer to drive during the day, and behind another car so I can avoid accidentally hitting one at full speed. Make sure your rental's spare tire and jack are in good working order and that you know where the security lock nut is (and how to use it) if the car has one. Also, make sure you know how to drive properly at a big urban roundabout.

Google maps is pretty crappy in Jordan – lots of outdated map data and lots of difficulty with keeping an accurate GPS lock, so don't rely on its turn-by-turn directions. Note your route and follow signs like in the old days. Also, use Google's download map feature while you're on Wi-Fi to keep an offline cache on your phone – at $15 a megabyte, getting lost can get expensive real quick!

Gas costs about the same as in the US – around $4 a gallon. Many gas stations take credit cards. There's usually someone to fill the tank for you, which is a good thing because the pumps don't have multi-lingual displays. Note: diesel pumps are green in the US, whereas in the middle east green is for normal unleaded.

 

On site at Petra

Petra Map (click to enlarge)
  • Petra is 2600 ft above sea level, so the temps can be milder than you might imagine. We were there in early June and the high was 26C/78F with low humidity.
  • It's dusty and sandy and there's very little shade anywhere, so bring a wide-brimmed hat and plenty of sunscreen. There are lots of flies in the park and wearing a kufiya or light scarf can help keep them off your face and neck.
  • There are vendors throughout the park selling cold water and Gatorade. Drink a liter an hour.
  • There are cafes at various points if you need some food or ice cream.
  • When buying souvenirs, bring your haggling A-game: don't buy anything without discussing the price, and be prepared for lots of stories and gimmicks to part you from your money ("my souvenir stand benefits an orphanage! This is for charity!")
  • We did the standard tour route entirely on foot – including the 1000-steps climb up to the Monastery – and my phone counted 23,000 steps totaling 9.4 miles with 60 stories of climbing.
  • There are horse-drawn carriages between the entrance and the Treasury as well as donkeys to help you ascend the climb to the Monastery, so don't be discouraged if this looks too strenuous.


Horse-drawn carriages and donkeys can help if your mobility isn't up to all the hiking

Links

American Embassy in Jordan
Petra on Wikitravel





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