The Sid Meiers fans among you will recognize the image above as one of the title screens from Civ V (Civ VI’s release is only a week away, but sadly, my Macbook is too old to run it — it’s upgrade time, I think). It’s one of those magical places that conjures up images of adventure and romance. And it’s now a UNESCO site and one of the 7 new wonders of the world. Before we dive in, here’s my recreation of that classic shot, sans camels.
Getting there was an adventure in itself. We first rode the bus from Ramallah to Jerusalem and crossed through the Qualandria checkpoint. The busses are nicely equipped, comfortable, and very cheap. Lynn and I’s tickets were 7.6 shekels (yes, they do give you back four 10 agora coins which no one aside from bus riders actually use as far as I can tell)…the kids were around 4.8 shekels, I think. When we arrived at the checkpoint, most of the locals had to exit the bus and go through the checkpoint processing. Foreigners and those with special passes can stay on the bus and Israeli police enter the bus to check your papers. I’ve almost gotten used to the machine gun toting security forces all over the place, but they actually brought their machine guns onto the bus, so we saw them up close. I don’t think the kids really noticed much of anything, as they were looking out the windows, but we had talked with them beforehand about how to behave at the checkpoints.
After exiting the checkpoint, you switch buses for the one that will take you into Jerusalem. As it turns out, you exit right near the Garden Tomb in the Old City. From there, we took a cab over to the car rental place and picked up our ride. It was much cheaper to rent a car for four days, leaving it at the border, than it would be to take a cab there. As this was my second time driving in Jerusalem, it didn’t take me long to get into Israeli driving mode, zipping around parked cars and weaving through traffic in quasi-legal maneuvers — I didn’t honk my horn, but next time inshallah.
Our plan was to drive south to Eilat, leave our Israeli rental car there, and cross the border into Aqaba, Jordan. We would then rent a car in Aqaba and drive up to Petra. It didn’t look that far on the map, but as it turns out, it’s a pretty long drive across the Negev desert! We stopped a couple of times, once for our first McDonald’s visit since leaving the States — Will wanted a cheeseburger — and another time to check out an amazing view and see some local ibexes hanging around the cliff face.
By the time we made it to Eilat, it was pretty late. Add an hour or so to cross the border, and we calculated that it would be about 11:30 before we made it to our home in Petra. Since we had reserved a place on Airbnb in the Bedouin village (email me if you want the name of the guy — it was wonderful!), we didn’t want to arrive that late (and the travel advisory from the Department of State suggests avoiding nighttime travel on the Desert Highway due to the narrow mountain roads and many animals crossing). We opted to spend the night in Aqaba and leave early in the morning for Petra.
Before I continue, let me just say that Jordan has a pretty neat system for tourist visits. They know that almost all visitors are only going to Petra. And many of them do it all in one day, returning to Israel in the evening. To encourage multi-day visits, they’ve created the Jordan Pass, which for one flat rate provides access to over 40 museums and historic sites, including Petra. Additionally, if you purchase the pass, you get a free visitor’s visa, which is otherwise 40 JD (about $56). The catch is that you have to stay in Jordan for 3 nights, or else you must pay a 60 JD charge per person. When you consider that a ticket to Petra costs 90 JD if you don’t spend the night in Jordan (50 JD if you do), the 99 JD cost of the pass is a pretty good deal. And the nicest part about the Jordan Pass is that you can get your visa in person at the Aqaba crossing (otherwise, you have to have a visa in advance).
We arrived in Aqaba around 8:10pm and were supposed to pick up our car from the Hotel Intercontinental at 7:30. The rental website said that after-hours pickups weren’t a problem, but the office was a complete ghost town. Luckily the hotel staff was able to call the main office downtown and they agreed to stay open a bit later for us to get there. We spent the night at the Bedouin Gardens Village, which was a quaint little hotel that had a backpacker vibe and a night clerk who slept on a mat outside the door for evening arrivals and early morning departures. I will note that the room was billed as “beach view” but I think that was a bit of a stretch. Climbing on the roof we might have been able to catch a glimpse of the beach. But as a place to lay our heads for the night, it was very nice.
We left Aqaba around 6 the next morning and made out way toward Petra. The Jordanians had several checkpoints on the main highway, but these were pretty low-key affairs: “Ah, you’re an American? Thank you for coming.” After a 2 hour drive through the desert where we saw actual live camels just hanging around, we arrived at Wadi Musa, the tourist town that has sprung up at the entrance to Petra. It was a little eerie, because the streets were completely deserted. We didn’t see anyone on the whole drive through town, which made Lynn and I wonder if we had missed something. There were a few more folks at Petra, but generally the crowds were very low. There were a couple of tour groups and a few individual families, but nothing like the throngs of visitors I had read about. I think Middle Eastern tourism in generally is pretty slow right now with some of the instability in the region. This article from The Telegraph about the tourism crisis there claims that a few years ago they would average 5,000 visitors a day. Now on a good day, that number is down to 500-600. I don’t think we had anywhere near that many when we were there. I think for most of the day, the local Bedouins pitching donkey rides, camel rides, cheap postcards, or other souvenirs outnumbered visitors by a pretty substantial margin.
We had decided before we went that we were going to do our part to support the local economy. We opted to stay in the Bedouin village, instead of the tourist hotels, and we made use of some of the services pitched to us, like a camel ride for the kids, and we engaged in some complex, multi-step negotiations for souvenirs. If you just roll with it, the haggling is actually kind of fun. For example, Maggie and I decided to walk up to an overlook with a great view of Israel and Jordan. There was a lady setup in a stand who saw us coming from a mile away and had tea ready for us. She then accompanied us to the lookout point, showed us the sights, took a photo of Maggie and I, and told us all about her family. By the time we made it back to her stand, we were fast friends and primed to buy something. Maggie had been the lookout for some gifts for her friends back in Mississippi, so she looked very carefully at everything and selected several items she liked, at which point the lady started to put together these odd combinations. She gave Maggie the small magnet as “her gift” and then was going to charge 30 JD for a Petra snow globe (which was 5 JD at the earlier stands). When we balked at the price, she then added in this little stone camel Maggie was looking at to give us both for 20 JD. I swapped out the snow globe for a smaller one and offered 10 JD, at which point the original snow globe came back in the package for 15. Ultimately, we probably paid about 7 JD too much, but Maggie and I chalked that up as the fee for the tour guide services. A few times the pitches were pretty persistent (like the guy who followed us for about 30 minutes offering a donkey ride), but it wasn’t a big deal to just say ‘la, shukran’ (no thanks) and move on. They’re definitely masters at what they do!
Saturday morning, we woke up early and walked down to Petra. In addition to being the only foreigners in town, one advantage of staying in the Bedouin village is that you have direct access to the back entrance of Petra that the locals use. That put us very close to the Monastery, which is accessible up a path containing about 800 steps. We put the kids on a donkey and followed behind (I think we learned our lesson about hiking with the kids up narrow paths from our trip to the Grand Canyon — much less stressful to know they’re on a donkey rather than have to worry about Will using his parkour skills up the trail).
It was a pretty hefty hike, but it was totally worth it. The Monastery is amazing. We just camped out on some rocks and reveled in its majesty for a while. We then picked up some snacks at the conveniently located gift shop and sat on the sofas admiring the view for a long time. We were up there for over an hour and saw 3 other people.
On the way back down, we passed a couple from the UK who were having a hard time with all the steps. They asked us breathlessly how much farther and Will told them they were close. He also gave them this helpful advice: When you get to the top, you’ll see a souvenir stand but don’t be disappointed. Turn around and you’ll see it!