The Nabataeans were ancient traders who roamed the Arabian desert from the Euphrates to the Red Sea. They established their Capital in the 2nd century BC. The then-called city of Raqmu, today’s Petra, was built on a caravan trade route in a valley that connected the Dead Sea with the Red Sea. Precious goods such as Arabian frankincense, myrrh, silk, ebony, Indian spices, pearls, and gold passed through Petra on their way to wealthy buyers at the Mediterranean coast and in Egypt. Petra rapidly became a prosperous trading hub. Yet, its decline was as quick at its growth. In the 2nd century AD, the Roman Empire annexed Nabataea. They preferred sea trade routes, and Petra’s glory began to decay. An earthquake in the late 4th century damaged Petra for good. By the 7th century, only a handful of nomads remained in the ruined Capital. In the 12th century, crusaders built a fortress in Petra, which they soon abandoned. After that, Petra fell into oblivion for the western world until a Swiss adventurer rediscovered it in 1812. 173 years later, UNESCO inscribed Petra to the World Heritage List for its outstanding universal value. Today, Petra is Jordan’s number one attraction.
Visiting the Lost City in winter
The famous archaeological site had been high on our bucket list for a while. When a spontaneous invite to spend the New Year’s Eve 2019 at the shores of the Red Sea in Eilat came, we quickly looked for opportunities to visit the legendary Lost City.
We spent two nights in Wadi Musa, the gateway to Petra. It gave us two whole days to explore the sight in late December, a rather unusual time of the year for visiting. Let us share our experience with you.
Land crossing to Jordan from Eilat
The distance between Petra and Eilat is only about 135 kilometers (ca. 84 miles). One might think that renting a car in Eilat and driving would be the best option to reach Petra. It’s not. It’s near impossible to enter Jordan with Israeli vehicles and vice versa. Thus, you can only drive to Yitzhak Rabin/Wadi Araba Border crossing, leave the car at a parking lot, and cross on foot.
Good to know: The outdoor parking area at Yitzhak Rabin/Wadi Araba Border crossing has plenty of space, is safe, and free of charge (as of December 2019).
Since 2016, it has not been possible to obtain a visa on arrival on this land border crossing. Our workaround was to book a tour with an agency. They handled all formalities for us, including transport from the border to Wadi Musa, tickets, and transfers to Petra entry point. We used an Eilat based agency Desert Eco Tours, which cooperated with Why Jordan Tours on the Jordanian side. We were happy with their services.
Good to know: There are restrictions on telephoto lenses that can be brought to Jordan. There have been reports about confiscations of camera gear at the border. Check with your tour operator about the allowed focal length. As of 2019, a 200 mm telephoto lens was allowed. Yet, we went through some hustle at the checkpoint.
Two winter days in Petra
After clearing formalities and about a two-hours long drive from the border, we arrived at Wadi Musa. The gateway to Petra was bitterly cold on a December evening. The temperature dropped from 20°C (68°F) at the sea level in Eilat to 4°C (40°F) in the desert mountain valley.
The next day, our tour of Petra, an ancient necropolis hiding the last resting places of important Nabataeans behind the famous, crafted facades, began.
With tickets in our hands, we walked towards the ancient entryway to Petra, the Siq. It’s a 1.2 km (0.75 miles) long canyon with high serpent-like pinkish walls. Visitors often hurry through the Siq. Yet, it’s worth to have a closer look around. Along its sides, a sophisticated system of water channels and clay pipes demonstrates remarkable engineering capability of the Nabataeans.
Tip: Book a guide, at least for half a day, to learn about the important details.
At the end of the Siq, Petra’s most famous sight – the Treasury appeared in front of us behind the last bend of the canyon. The exquisitely crafted façade on pink sandstone is the main reason why visitors fall in love with Petra.
We continued to the Outer Siq and Street of Façades, passed by the Nabatean Theatre, walked through the Colonnaded Street, Petra’s former city center to Qasr al-Bint Temple. These sights are located along the main street and can be reached without a significant ascent. Close to Qasr al-Bint, there are two restaurants serving buffet lunch.
In the afternoon, we climbed more than 800 rock-cut stairs to the Monastery. It is another tomb with a Hellenistic façade, much bigger than the Treasury. Close to the Monastery, several short treks lead to stunning viewpoints with Bedouin stalls serving refreshing tea.
Photo tip: In December, the Monastery is nicely illuminated in the afternoon around 3 pm.
As we walked from sight to sight and climbed stairs to viewpoints and religious places, Petra reminded us of a “hiking valley.” There are several trails to follow. Altogether we walked for more than 16 kilometers (10 miles). Visit the Jordan Tourism Board and choose which hike suits you best.
On the second day, we decided to get up earlier (around 6:30 am). While the sun was still low, we wanted to observe the morning light turning the Treasury’s façade pink (around 9 am).
Good to know: Although Petra is a UNESCO sight, some boulder plateaus and viewpoints are historically claimed by Bedouins. This means visitors have to pay a small fee to enjoy the view from these particular points. During the time of our visit, it wasn’t more than 1 Dinar pp, including a cup of tea.
After the façade had lost its pinkest glare later in the morning, we continued on foot to the High Palace of Sacrifice. Atop, the bird’s eye view of the Petra valley was stunning.
Strengthened by sweet tea, we ascended back down to the ancient town. We visited the west-facing cliffs with other impressive man-crafted portals, the Royal Tombs. On the way, we checked out the mosaic floor of a 5th century Byzantine church ruin.
Altogether, we walked around 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) on the second day. However, for the last piece of the return walk from the Royal Tombs to the Treasury, we couldn’t resist and got a camel ride.
Visiting Petra in winter
Petra can get cold and windy in winter. In the desert, a breeze can quickly turn into an uncomfortable sandstorm. For what is more, rain and snow are nothing unusual.
We were lucky because we encountered cold but sunny weather on our Petra visit. Nonetheless, we dressed like “onions” with several layers.
The shadowy places inside the canyons were cold, whereas, we soon took off our jackets as we enjoyed a refreshing tea on a sunny boulder. Because of its high altitude, UV exposure shouldn’t be underestimated. Sunscreen and a headcover are a must.
Although we visited during the Christian Christmas Season, besides the area in front of the Treasury, the rest of the ancient city was quite empty, providing many great photo opportunities.
Capturing the atmosphere of Petra with its hustle and bustle in words is rather challenging. With Bedouin stalls, camels galloping back and forth, braying donkeys, and caves carved in sandstone cliffs, we finally understood which place inspired many movie scenes. Form Star Wars to Indiana Jones, the famous filmmakers couldn’t have chosen a more fascinating location as a background for their blockbusters.