Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Where's my Donkey? Hiking in the "Lost" City of Petra, Jordan


Destination: Wadi Musa (Petra), Jordan

Number of Days Spent: 3 days

Where we stayed: Valentine Hotel - 15 JD ($24) The rooms were among the cheapest in Wadi Musa but the real appeal is the great group of travelers this place attracts. Every night they offer a dinner buffet and almost everyone attends. Stories are swapped and recommendations are traded for future travel. They also offer free transport to and from Petra, a blessing at the end of a hard day. As if that were not enough perks, they also show Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade every single night (the last scenes were filmed here in Petra).

Best restaurant: The hotel offered a 4JD ($6) dinner buffet each night with more than 20 different mezzes. It was excellent and we took advantage of it each night.

Best of: Emerging from the Siq to reveal the stunning Treasury, multi-colored layers of Sandstone, excellent hikes around Petra

Worst of: Most of the Bedouin treat animals with respect but we did notice that some animals were tied up in the hot sun and left for hours (without any water to make matters worse). We also saw way too many young boys whipping donkeys with plastic rods & coat hangers. If you do decide to take a camel, donkey or horse during your stay there make sure it's with someone that treats the animals with the respect they deserve. Trash - some of the less often visited tombs are littered with plastic bottles & many smell like urinals. Traditionally the Bedouin live in them but now that that the government charges 20 JD - $30 per day for a 1 day ticket I think they can certainly hire someone to pick up the trash that has been collecting there for years.

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Most Memorable: Nearly exhausted after walking and climbing all over the ancient city we succumbed and took a donkey to the top of the monastery (4 JD & we tipped 1 JD extra). As we rested at the top and had a picnic lunch we both agreed it was money well spent!

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All it takes is one look to see why so many people have fallen in love with the "lost" city of Petra. The Nabataeans were expert traders and took over the city in the 6th century BCE. For the next 600 years they would turn this stunningly beautiful natural collection of canyons and valleys into a sprawling metropolis of over 30,000 people. Carving directly into the multi-hued cliff faces, they would build their homes, carve out places of worship and even bury their dead. After some additions thanks to those ever present Romans the city began its slow decline. Shifting trade routes and a couple of earthquakes over the next 500 years signaled the end and the city was abandoned. The famous Swiss explorer, Burckhardt (who also found Luxor in Egypt), pretending to be Muslim and on his way to worship at Aaron's tomb (also located here), talked the local Bedouin into taking him here and the secret was out. Recently named as one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World", Petra is once again on a bustling trade route...the tourist route. Petra has become one of the must sees in the Middle East and today's trade is in the form of hoards of former Bedouin hawking souvenirs to the ever increasing number of visitors.

We had a little time left with our rental car so we took a quick detour out to see Little Petra. The site was somewhat of a refueling station as caravans would stop one last time as they departed Petra before embarking across the desert. While the ruins are more impressive at Petra, the site is never crowded and there are some rare Nabataean frescoes on the ceilings making it worth a quick stop for those with their own transport.

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After checking into our hotel and dropping off our rental car, we bought tickets to the Petra by Night Tour (12JD about $18 each), and here, I emphasize the word tour. We had read it was crowded, don't expect too much, it's kitsch. Figuring we had done far more kitsch things (the gladiators in Jerash come to mind) along with the prospect of seeing the ancient Treasury lit up at night was enough for us to plunk down the cash. After gathering as a group at the entrance we set off down the rock road to the Siq with 300 of our closest friends. Upon arriving at the beginning of the Siq, we are once again gathered and bunched so that we can all be herded down the canyon single file eliminating any shred of hope at a quiet stroll. Hundreds of paper bag covered tea candles light the way until you reach the Treasury. Our dreams were dashed when we realized there were no lights shining on the monument. Only the random flash from a futile attempt at getting a good shot would light the wall up enough to see it. After a small cup of tea and two songs, you are marched right back out and the experience is over. Hardly worth the hour walk and $18 in our opinion.

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In the daylight however, the site is truly amazing. Winding through the Siq is an experience of its own, turning each corner in anticipation until the "Holy Grail" is revealed. Getting here before 8am (arrive at the park at 7 or earlier) will assure you of a relatively quiet experience. The Treasury stands over 120 feet high and dominates the small space it sits in. Actually a tomb for a Nabataean King, the Treasury derives it's name from a legend that the Urn sitting on top contains Egyptian treasures. Despite the fact that the Urn is a solid piece of carved sandstone, the sides are riddled with bullet marks; vain attempts to "break" open the treasure.

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A hour or so hike up the valley wall leads to the High Place of Sacrifice. While it does not look like much, the site is actually one of the best preserved sacrificial site of ancient times. To build the site, the Nabataeans chopped off the top of the mountain leveling it out. Two 18ft high obelisks, carved directly from the mountain, stand as a testament to the amount of mountain that was removed. Wash basins, altars, and channels to catch the blood are still highly visible and one can easily imagine the activities that went on here over 2000 years ago. If that's not enough to get your blood going, the panoramic views from here are stunning. After making a few pretend sacrifices, we sat down and enjoyed our breakfast with a view.

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Returning to the valley floor, we went down a different path passing though Butterfly Valley (Wadi Farasa). Listed as one of the best hikes in a park with lots of great hikes, the path passes though well veined rock formations and overhangs. Along the way you pass several lesser known tombs, one of which was being excavated still when we passed by.

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After hiking all day long, as well as the night before, we made our way to the start of the climb to the Monastery. Already feeling a bit tired and staring down over 800 steps to the top along with about a 1 1/2 hike out of the park from the top of the Monastery we took the lazy man's approach and hired a donkey. While it does feel a bit like cheating, we get to tick another form of transportation off our list and were in much better shape at the end of the day than others who tackled the whole park in one day. No matter how you choose to get here, do make the effort as we found the Monastery to be just as impressive as the Treasury...if not slightly more. Towering to over 150 feet, the Monastery derives its name from the crosses carved inside, but it too was also built to be a tomb.

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The next day we took a slightly different entrance to Petra. Instead of walking straight to the Treasury through the Siq, we took a right just at the entrance to the Siq and followed Wadi Muthlim which dumps you in the park at the end of the Royal Tombs. The path is rather straightforward and not too difficult, aside from a couple of huge boulders you have to lower yourself down from. Towards the end is where the trail is most exciting. The path narrows to about three feet wide and you can really get the feeling of water gushing though here carving a winding path in its wake. The added bonus of being the only ones around added a sense of adventure to the detour.

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Emerging from the canyon, we made our way to the top of the hill, this time on the other side of the valley to get a good look at the Theater & Treasury from above.

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Surrounded by all the natural beauty and the ancient ruins, one other aspect of Petra worth mentioning are its people. The Bedouin have lived here for hundreds of years eking out existences mainly as substance farmers until recent times. With tensions easing up between Israel and Jordan, tourism has changed the landscape. While most of the people who used to live in the caves and tombs of Petra have been relocated, there are still a dozen or so families still living in the park. Their entire lives are based on selling trinkets and animal rides to the ever increasing hoards of tourists. While they can get a little overbearing, just keep in mind they are just trying to make a living, keep a smile on your face and they will return the favor.

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While all tourists have to hike in, the locals get around by other means.

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The Royal Tombs were our last major stop. Opening to the main valley in Petra the Royal Tombs are an impressive collection of facades that are striking in the evening sun.

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After wearing ourselves out hiking all over Petra for two days it was time for a little R&R down by the sea. Next stop: Diving in the Red Sea at Aqaba, Jordan.

To see more photos of Petra click here!

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