Back in the time of Moses the city of Petra was a major center of trade and capital of a region in what is now Jordan. When you come to Jordan a trek to Petra is a classic “bucket list” thing to do. So, I signed up for the Petra excursion for when we docked at Aqaba. I had done some research about such an excursion and determined it would be a trek. Little did I know what kind of trek it would end up being.
We had some 300 people on our ship (about half the passengers) sign up for going to Petra with others going out to Wadi Rum and other locations closer to the port. Also at the port was a Costa Cruises ship much larger than ours and, of course, they had a large number of folks also signed up to go to Petra. That meant that the site would be packed with visitors; and it was.
The bus ride to the Petra visitors center was a two hour trip. I was in bus #7 from our ship and when we got there the bus parking lot was filling up fast. Our people had red stickers with the bus number and Costa folks had white stickers. Groups of red and white stickered people were gathered at various spots near the visitor center and each group entered in turn.
The trip to the Treasury, the first major feature in Petra and the one most people come to see, is a 2.5 mile round trip. Most sites tell you this. What most sites don’t tell you is that this hike is all down hill to the Treasury. That, of course, means that to get back to the visitor center it’s uphill — and it’s a somewhat steep uphill in many spots. Add that to the fact that you arrive in the morning when the air is cooler and leave in the afternoon when it’s gotten hot and you have a combination of heat and uphill that really takes its toll on you. Add to that the rather steep couple of block uphill hike from the visitor center to the bus parking lot and you have a day that stresses even the most fit. Going deeper into the site than the Treasury adds miles to the hike and if you go to the furthest spot your round trip mileage climbs to around six miles.
We had a guide for the hike to the Treasury and he pointed out the various carvings and sights along the route in. Once we got to the Treasury he took a group further but allowed anyone who wanted to go back from the Treasury to do that on their own. I admit that I’m not fit and felt that a longer walk had the potential to create problems so I (and others) decided to go back from the Treasury.
I should add here that the Treasury and the site itself is quite interesting and worth going to at least once in one’s lifetime. Even though the Treasury is nothing more than an elaborate tomb that was carved but never really used (inside is just a blank room; but you can’t go in any longer), it’s just the idea that this massive structure was carved out of the solid sandstone that’s amazing. Like the Taj Mahal, you almost never see a photo of the Treasury with people in it so you have no idea what the real scale is. I can tell you that this carving is massive and you have to wonder how it was made.
Aside from walking, there is a second method of getting from the visitor center and the Treasury and return: carts pulled by mules. There is a charge of $JD20 for one way or $JD40 ($JD = Jordan Dinars) for a two way trip but expect to pay more as the driver expects a tip and often that amount is part of the price negotiation. If you are at the Treasury and want a one-way ride back you often have to wait a long time to get a cart as many are already committed to two way trips or you wait because you did not “bribe” the person who controls the carts in the area. It’s quite a system and with so many people in the area, the Treasury site was a zoo with getting a cart an expensive proposition.
Enter Lou, my neighbor on the ship. While I was deciding what to do, Lou came up to me and, in talking, I found out that he, with his breathing problems, had hired a cart for just himself for both directions. His driver was expected back to pick him up “shortly.” We talked and he did not mind having me ride along so I decided to try to ride out rather than take the steep uphill hike in the higher temperatures.
When his driver came I started to get into the cart with Lou and, of course, the guy in the vest and the driver started to object. I never talked with the guy in the vest who was taking bribes and just asked the driver what it would cost to add me to the return trip. He said “20 dollars” and I said OK and climbed in. The guy in the vest was rather ticked off but could do nothing as we immediately started the ride back. Our driver was intent on making as many trips as possible and so pressed the mule who seemed capable of working hard. We even passed a couple of other slower carts. The trip back to the visitor center was an amazing experience that I actually enjoyed so I gave the driver his amount and a rather generous tip.
Now, having said that, a word or two about the trip to and from the Treasury are in order. About a third of the trip is an open trail that is the steepest part of the hike. The other two-thirds of the trip is through the Siq. The Siq is a narrow, winding trail that travels between two sandstone cliffs that have been carved out by weather over the years. The Siq was also part of the water system for the city of Petra as rains could be collected there and diverted to holding areas in the city. It’s the loss of portions of this water system that contributed to the eventual abandonment of Petra. Both people hiking and mules pulling carts share this narrow passage. The carts have the right of way and if you are walking and don’t move over when a cart comes by it’s quite possible that you might get hit by the mule or cart itself. The drivers holler but you need to listen for that and move. The other thing to mention is that the floor of the Siq is, in places, flat but mostly it’s large cobblestones that were laid down some time in the past. The carts have no springs. Draw your own conclusion about how bumpy this ride is at full speed. I put my foot against the front bar in the cart and pushed my back against the back of the seat and tried keeping my bottom off the seat. So, my legs were serving as springs. I was probably as tired after the ride as I would have been hiking out but it was more “fun” and very interesting.
On leaving the visitor center we had a planned buffet lunch at a hotel across the street and once the time passed for the buses to start their engines for the air conditioning a line of people moved up the hill from the hotel to the bus parking lot. A much quieter two hour ride brought us back to the ship.
I’ve included three photos for this post: the Siq, a cart, and the Treasury with the sea of people in front of it.