Romancing the Sandstone: Hiking Petra in Jordan

rocky landscape viewed on a day hiking Petra, Jordan

My day hiking Petra, Jordan’s ancient red rose city: 1500 steps, 25 kms of walking over 9 hours, 600 m of elevation change, 28 degrees Celsius, 2.3 L of water and two lemon mints gulped down, one twisted ankle, 92 photos, one magnificent ancient carved sandstone city, and a whole bunch of stunning views.

The Treasury by night

My first glimpse of it was by candlelight, after a moonlit half hour walk through the deep, narrow canyon in the cool evening. A trail of candle lanterns lit the way through the blackness. There was no other lighting, so it was a bit unsettling to shuffle along the completely unknown path.

It wasn’t exactly a peaceful experience either, since there were a few hundred visitors making the trek. Suddenly, the towering cliffs gave way to a clearing backed by the magnificent facade of the Treasury building carved into a sheer vertical cliff.  Hundreds more  candle lanterns were placed on the ground in front of the Treasury, their flames flickering in the darkness. I expected to see a blanket of stars in the sky when I looked up, but instead, thin clouds slipped across an almost-full moon. We were each served a hot cup of tea as we took our seats among the lanterns on the ground.

Then came the cheesy part, as a Bedouin man addressed the crowd with a meandering story about the history of Petra. It was difficult to follow over the chattering of those visitors who either didn’t understand his polite request for silence, or didn’t care to understand. The three solo musicians who took turns playing different traditional instruments fared a little better as the crowd hushed to hear the notes resonating off the canyon walls.

Petra treasury at night and the siq or canyon leading to the ancient site, the starting point for hiking Petra in Jordan

Sacred canyon

Repeating the walk the next morning was a much more rewarding experience. The daylight revealed the full beauty of the 200 metre-high pink canyon walls hosting carved tombs and time-worn relief sculptures. To the Nabatean people who built it in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, this canyon was the “Sacred Way”; the final leg for pilgrims and priests headed for the temples, tombs and sanctuaries within the city.

Along the way, our guide Ayman pointed out ingeniously carved engineering features that allowed Petra’s inhabitants to control the water supply – the key to their survival in this dry desert valley. They created an elaborate system of secret channels and cisterns that allowed them to funnel the flow where they needed it, store water from flash floods to save for periods of drought, and conceal their water sources from enemies who might otherwise try to poison it.

Red rock city

The big reveal of the Treasury was even more breathtaking than the previous night, with the morning sun bathing the site in gorgeous warm light. We gawked and posed for pictures for a good few minutes before setting off to hike the rest of the sprawling ancient city. We started with a steep climb and slippery scramble up and around to the top of the canyon wall opposite the Treasury. Our reward was awesome alternate view from above. But that was only the beginning.

Petra tombs and treasury from above

We climbed rock stairways, trekked, walked and hiked up and down the hills all day to see panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and valleys and many more carved structures. The ancient monuments have exotic names like Street of Facades, High Place of Sacrifice, Sacred Hall, Silk Tomb and Temple of The Winged Lions. How could anyone not be romanced by the place?

All day, Ayman bounded ahead of us with great ease and frequent cheers of “Yalla!” (Let’s go!) and “Take your time, keep walking” (a confusing contradiction). It would have been more comfortable to see Petra over two days instead of one very long one. The blazing heat and throbbing ankle twisted early in the day made it tougher going than expected. But, it truly was exhilarating, and I’m grateful that we saw so many of Petra’s awesome treasures in the short time we had.

petra monastery facade

Getting to Petra

Adjacent to the ancient city is the town of Wadi Musa, where you’ll find the necessary lodgings, restaurants, shops and services. Jordan is a compact country, so it takes less than 4 hours to drive to Wadi Musa from the capital of Amman by car or public minibus.  See my Jordan trip planning post for more information.

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