Petra Day 1: the Treasury, the Monastery, and Slightly Pushy Bedouins

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That’s right, obviously I couldn’t come to Jordan without visiting this famous ancient Nabatean city. A lot of people do Petra as a day trip from Israel, but it didn’t make sense financially or time-wise for me to do that. First of all, the entrance tickets to Petra are exorbitantly priced: 50JD for a one day ticket (but then only 5JD for each additional day, so 55JD for a two-day ticket and 60JD for a three-day), and a whopping 90JD for day-trippers who are not spending the night in Jordan. I ended up purchasing a two-day ticket, but in retrospect I probably could have gone for the three-day pass.

Sidenote: bring your passport when you purchase your ticket. I didn’t realize I needed mine, and I had not one, but two different employees chastise me for leaving it at my hotel. I guess they need it to check your entry stamp and see which price to charge you?

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After passing through the entry gate, I tried to brush off the men offering horse rides to the beginning of the Siq. I had already heard from Deb, who I met back in Tel Aviv, about the “horse mafia” — they practically force the horses on you, insisting it is included in the ticket price, lead you and the horse along a path that is maybe one kilometer (the exact same path you would otherwise walk), and then demand a tip at the end. Being wise to their scheme, I wasn’t adamantly against the horse ride, so when the ringleader asked me what I would tip and I said 2 or 3 JD, he nodded and I let him lead me to a horse. Of course, once I got to the other end that wasn’t enough for the guide, but I just handed him the bills and walked off. The ride wasn’t even nice, anyway — there are a lot of interesting minor ruins and caves to see on the path, and they’re better appreciated when you can go at your own pace and stop to admire them. I blew off the horse mafia and walked on the second day, and much preferred it that way.

Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning of the hassles at Petra. Like most huge tourist attractions, it’s absolutely overrun with touts and people trying to sell their services. As I walked through the Siq (the narrow 2km long canyon that serves as the formal entrance to the city) I was completely awed by its grandness: the bas reliefs carved in certain areas, the technological wonders of the channels down the side to carry water into the city, the gorgeous colors and patterns of the sandstone. But I was constantly jolted out of my reverie by women trying to sell me bracelets, men trying to sell me donkey rides, children trying to sell me postcards (“12 for just 1JD!”)

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The view of the Treasury at the end of the Siq really did blow me away, though. Having seen photos and read other blogs beforehand, I didn’t know if it would make such an impression, but it is so much more amazing in real life. Like most of the other famous sites in the city, it’s actually a tomb, but the nickname derived from local legend that there was treasure hidden in the stone urn at the top. There are actually bullet holes all over the facade from people trying to shoot it down and claim the loot over the years. (Spoiler alert: There’s no treasure. Sorry guys.)

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The Treasury (Al Khazneh) is without a doubt the most famous monument, and certainly one of the best preserved (minus the bullet holes) in Petra, and it still surprises me that it’s right at the front. It makes me wonder how many people trudge dutifully through the Siq, take their obligatory photo of the Treasury, and then turn right around and go home without seeing anything else.

They’d be missing out, though. I never realized how extensive and sprawling Petra was, and while some of the sites are a bit of a hike to get to, they’re well worth the effort.

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After pausing in front of the Treasury for a few minutes (knowing I’d get to see it several more times over the next couple of days), I moved on down the winding path through the area known as “The Street of Facades” until I arrived at the Theater. The entrances all appeared to be gated at first, until I walked down to the end and the last gate was just slightly open! So of course I snuck inside for a better look.

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It was around this time that I acquired a follower. I’d been solicited by the local Bedouin men for donkey rides up to the Monastery practically since I’d walked through the entrance, but managed to brush most of them off with a “No thanks, maybe later, I want to see the other sights first.” This one, who introduced himself as Salman, seemed to have nothing better to do than reappear every now and then on his mule, chatting with me about the different ruins I passed. It was only slightly annoying, as he was actually providing some interesting information and seemed totally content to just chat, not giving me the hard sell. When we reached the end of the main path, I asked him how much it would be to ride a mule up to the Monastery, since it was by now the hottest part of the day and I was not looking forward to that climb. Initially I planned to ride up and then walk down, so he told me 15JD. When I started to haggle, he said he would instead do a round-trip for that price as well as take me to a lookout point and a small spring that runs in back of Petra. I agreed, and he basically ended up being my tour guide for the rest of the day. It was kind of a mixed experience, but more on that later.

He helped me climb onto the mule (named Monica) and we started up the hundreds of steps to the top. Sidenote: Apparently all of the donkeys and mules in Petra are named either Monica (after Monica Lewinsky, I was told) or Shakira. All the dogs are Rex. I hope you’re all as amused by this as I was.

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Riding was definitely easier than walking up would have been, but it was far more terrifying. The steps are steep and some of them are quite eroded, and even the sure-footed Monica stumbled a little once or twice. Even as I passed all the people resting in tiny shaded areas by the side of the trail, I wasn’t so sure I made the right choice about riding — I felt like I was expending nearly as much energy trying not to fall off and plummet to my death over the side of a cliff (we were very close at some points) as I would be hiking. I also started to have some concerns about Salman’s intentions — over certain portions of the trail he stated it would be better if we rode together, and though I held onto him as chastely as possible, it still made me vaguely uncomfortable. I wished the saddle had a sissy bar.

Finally, we reached the top.

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The Monastery may be the best preserved building in Petra, though it’s not as intricately detailed as the Treasury. Also unlike the Treasury, you can go inside of it, though it’s basically just an empty room with a carved arch and platform or altar inside, not much to see. There are no longer any steps up to the doorway, though, so I needed a boost to get in there.

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Afterwards I bought some fresh pomegranate juice from the nearby cafe, situated next to a cozy cave decked out with cushions that I sat and relaxed in for a while. Apparently there used to be a bar in that cave, but no more. Salman told me that they occasionally have parties there though. There were also some adorable cats hanging out there, though most of them seemed fairly distrustful and hesitant to approach me… I think some mean tourists must have kicked them or something.

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Salman and I chatted for a while about various subjects, which somehow led us to the subject of the distrust tourists have of Bedouins. He had invited me to stay in his cave (not the first, and certainly not the last offer I would have in Petra), where he’s hosted and guided many Western tourists.

Understandably, I politely declined this offer from a strange man I had met only an hour or two before, saying I already had a hotel in Wadi Musa. Well, it was understandable to me at least, and hopefully to most of the people reading this blog. But Salman kept assuring me that he has hosted many women alone who have been skeptical at first and then greatly enjoyed the experience, and explaining that local hospitality is such that you only have to know someone a short time to invite them to your house. Though he said he understood the concerns that women traveling alone have, he didn’t seem to find them legitimate. I was slightly offended at his invalidation of my feelings, he was slightly offended by my natural (and normal) distrust. I assured him that it was nothing personal, I trusted him as much as I trusted the next person (which is to say, not very much), and certainly had nothing against Bedouins in particular, but had to watch out for myself. The whole debate was very civil, but I still am unsure whether his inability to understand my hesitance is a legitimate cultural difference… or whether the men around Petra are feigning ignorance of the dangers women face deliberately to get their defenses down.

In any case, we agreed to disagree, and soon dropped the subject and continued on our tour.

We took a brief detour up an even higher mountain, following a sign for “The Best View In The World” (though I later saw many identical signs scattered all around various parts of Jordan… they can’t all be the best!) It was indeed very scenic, with a shaded and cushioned area to sit, though up that high it was almost unpleasantly windy.

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Going down the mountain on a mule was even more terrifying than going up. At one point I even had to get off and walk for a particularly tricky portion.

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When we reached the restaurant at the bottom, we veered off the path and took a back route to a nearby fig orchard that Salman claimed was owned by a friend of his. Though slightly suspicious once I realized it involved sneaking under a loose portion of fence, I went along with it and was rewarded with the freshest, juiciest figs I’d ever had, picked straight off the trees. I was curious where this supposedly nearby spring was, and slightly anxious to leave before being prosecuted for trespassing, but Salman said that his cousin and his cousin’s girlfriend were coming to meet us. When they arrived a few minutes later and laid down a keffiyeh for us all to sit on, I had the distinctly uncomfortable sensation of being on an impromptu double date.

Awkward.

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Eventually we all headed off towards the spring. Eventually we had to dismount from our mules as the climb down to the water was even more steep and slippery than any of the other rock faces we’d traversed that day. There seemed to be a nice pool where some people were wading, but we went past them to a more secluded area. Salman took the blankets off the mules and laid them out for us to sit on, and we were soon joined by some other young Bedouin guides and the tourists they were escorting, who all happened to be females around my age. It was hard to get a read on the situation: was this just a friendly group of locals who wanted to hang out? Or did they have ulterior motives?

It turned out to be fine — they built a fire and brewed some tea, and we all just sat around chatting for a while. But while it never felt threatening, I was slightly on edge the whole time. I had no escape plan if things did go south. It was a good reminder that as a solo female traveler, there is a thin line between being adventurous and taking advantage of the opportunity to do something non-touristy and get to know the locals, or ending up in a situation where I’m so isolated that could be taken advantage of. Sometimes it’s hard to know where that line is.

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