I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Petra before going. In my mind, there wouldn’t be much more than the temple carved in the rock, made famous by the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade movie (this is actually the Treasury, and it is the most iconic building of the whole site). I also assumed that, since it was in the desert, it would be hot year round.
I discovered all my assumptions were wrong when I finally reached Wadi Mousa, the city from which Petra can be accessed. Despite the fact that it was spring, it was really cold the evening I arrived, and a chilly wind blew incessantly. When I asked some locals if that was normal for the season, they told me Petra sits 900 meters above sea level, and they showed me pictures of Petra under snow in winter.
That night, I went to see “Petra by Night.” This beautiful show features traditional music and takes place three times per week right in front of the Treasury. The walk from the visitors center to the site took me about 30 minutes, on a path that was sometimes steep and where the uneven pavement was only illuminated by candle lights.
The next morning, before actually going to the site, a woman in my hotel mentioned how she was still exhausted and dusty from the day before, when she spent the entire day walking around Petra. That was my cue: there would be a lot of walking that day. I would have to dress for the job and brace myself for an amazing, yet long day.
So, here are seven tips to fully enjoy Petra, plus a bonus tip for female travelers.
1. Plan to stay one full day or even two
I spent 3 nights in Wadi Musa, and two full days in Petra (a one day pass is 50 Jordanian Dinars, a two day pass is 55). At first I was a bit worried that I would get bored, but I am glad I planned it this way. I saw lots of people on my second day there, most of them coming from cruises and with only half a day to visit the site. I have no idea how they managed; the site is huge!
I calculated that I walked more than 20 km on the first day I was there: 8 km and back for the main trail, and then I walked to the Monastery and the High Altar of Sacrifice. On my second day, I hiked all the way to the view point of the Treasury, and it took me about 2 hours round trip.
Keep in mind that I’m a fast walker. So someone who is not as fast as I am may need a full day to cover just the main trail and the Monastery and another day for the High Altar of Sacrifice and the view point to the Treasury.
2. Get a guide (especially if planning to walk some lesser known trails)
It’s possible (and easy) to walk the main trail and even hike to the Monastery alone, as the paths are clearly marked. But some of the paths are not so easy to find. I hired a guide to walk to the view point of the Treasury. The staff at the visitors center recommended I hire a guide as the path was not well marked, and I am glad I followed their advice (despite how expensive it was) or I would have gotten lost, as there was no real path for a long time.
When I arrived at the view point, I was the only one there (aside from the guide). Only around 10 visitors per day decide to walk all the way to the view point, as the two local vendors who I found at the view point told me (after offering me a highly sugared tea to praise me for my efforts).
3. Dress appropriately
As touristy as Petra is, it is still in Jordan. People are incredibly open minded and friendly, but they mostly dress conservatively. It is nice to follow the local customs. You don’t have to cover your head, but I recommend avoiding tight shorts and tops that show excessive cleavage.
Petra is such a vast site so it’s also important to dress comfortably for all of the walking and hiking around the monuments. Wearing my KÜHL women’s hiking pants and a colorful KÜHL cotton shirt made me feel comfortable, fresh and pretty all the time. I also carried a light, women’s windproof jacket: when the sun goes down, the temperatures drop too.
4. Wear good hiking boots
I saw people walking around Petra in flip flops, and I’m sure they regretted not wearing proper shoes. Some of the best sights of Petra can only be reached via a proper hike, and wearing good shoes means being more comfortable and able to walk the distances. I was glad I put my hiking boots on, especially on gravel roads and uneven paths. I couldn’t imagine doing any of that in flip flops or leather pumps!
5. If you are able to walk, just walk
There are many animals in Petra. Aside from the odd dogs, cats and even goats that live on the site, there are many “working animals.” There are horse carriages, horses to ride, donkeys and mules, and even camels. The Tourism Board of Jordan has placed several signs at the visitors center imploring people to only ride the animals if unable to walk, and to report any episode of animal abuse. Yet, I saw lots of people riding the carriages, donkeys and mules, with the owners pushing the animals to go faster.
I was often stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. Each time my answer was the same: “No thanks, I would rather walk.” When I was asked why, I would say: “Because I can, I am able to!”
I hate the idea that animals are being exploited for my enjoyment. So please, if you are able to walk, walk.
6. Carry (and drink) lots of water
The air is really dry in Petra, and the sun can be fierce. I carried bottles of water and sipped regularly. There are local vendors around the site that sell cold water, so it’s easy to always stay hydrated.
7. Use sunblock (and a hat)
I saw several people sunburnt after a day in Petra. Wear sunblock and a hat to avoid painful sun burn.
Bonus (for solo female travelers)
Solo female travelers are a target for scams in Petra. Before leaving for the day, the manager of my hotel recommended that I not trust anyone in Petra. I asked him what he meant, and he mentioned something about the Beduls, the “nomad” community that lives on and around the site. I was curious, and asked him to be more specific (wondering if he could give me some tips to avoid local scams). He clarified that he didn’t mean the scams, but he was referring to the fact that the Beduls “look for women.”
I didn’t think much of it, actually, and my visit was fairly smooth, aside from the push to ride the animals.
As I was making my way out after a long day of walking, a Jack Sparrow looking guy – kohl making his eyes and stare even more intense – approached me, with his donkey, asking me if I wanted a ride. I said no, saying that I was tired and going home, but he kept walking with me insisting that he’d offer me tea, coffee or that he’d even cook dinner for me. I kept walking, thanking him for the invitation but politely refusing.That’s when he said, “I’ll show you my cave.”
I almost passed out laughing, thinking of a cave man with his club waiting for me outside his cave. Again I refused and went back to my hotel. It’s only when I wrote something about this on my Facebook profile and people started commenting that I realized how close to danger I actually was.
I researched and found out that some locals specifically target solo female travelers, inviting them to walk around Petra and enjoy the full local experience, to the point of taking them to their home (or cave) and inviting them to drink Arak, the local liquor, which they spike with drugs. It’s easy to gather what happens then.
Please, if you are a solo female traveler and plan to visit Petra, take care and politely but firmly refuse any invitation to follow a local to his cave or home.
Claudia is a former human rights lawyer who changed careers to follow her true calling. She’s now traveling around the world in search of adventures and unique hiking experiences. Follow her adventures on Instagram.