Why did I not know about this place? I'm standing at the edge of a cliff in southern Jordan with a 270-degree view of wrinkled sandstone buttes. In the foreground, a wide, gravely valley holds a veritable museum of antiquities: to my right, a roofless, multistory building looks like it could house a theater. On my left, a forest of stone columns fences a plaza the size of a city block. A warren of stone rooms on a plateau just above suggests a once-busy downtown. In the distance, I can make out the geometric precision of doorways and pediments carved into the cliffs. This has got to be one of the world's premier archeological sites. But until this week, I had no idea it was here.
I like to think I have a pretty good grasp on the planet’s marvels. I’ve seen the Acropolis in Athens, the Coliseum in Rome, and the 17,000-year-old cave paintings in Lascaux, France. I’ve studied the histories of Egypt, China, Peru, Tanzania. But today, I want to shake my world history teachers by the shoulders. Why didn’t they tell me about Petra?! I mark a waypoint on my GPS and call it “world’s best overlook.”
True, I wasn't totally ignorant of this place. I knew this region had some seriously ancient ruins—as the crow flies, we're only 100 miles from Jerusalem. And as many movie buffs know, Petra's Treasury building made a cameo in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s a memorable scene: Harrison Ford, in pursuit of the Holy Grail, races into a chamber at the base of a fabulously carved rock face. But that was only the tiniest portion of the relics here, like showing Bright Angel Creek and calling it the Grand Canyon.
So how did this 2,300-year-old wonder finally make it onto my personal bucket list? A trail. I love hiking. I love history. And here's a trek that promised both.
About 600,000 tourists a year visit Petra, and almost every single one of them follows the same itinerary: Take a bus to Wadi Musa on the edge of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, buy a $70 ticket at the entrance, and walk 15 minutes down a slot canyon known as the Siq. But in recent years, locals—called Bedouins, or "desert dwellers"—have developed a little-known alternative that lets visitors hike 40 miles over five days, tracing an ancient caravan route that predates Petra itself and entering the archeological site through a backdoor canyon rarely seen by anyone but goatherds. Between Dana Biosphere Reserve and Petra, the trail (I'd been promised) follows the arc of human history, from some of the world’s earliest settlements to one of the most advanced urban centers of ancient Mesopotamia. I loved the idea of seeing Petra (which I still thought was just the Indiana Jones facade, even as I started planning my journey) as visitors did in its heyday: after a long, dusty hike.
Be careful what you ask for. On the trek’s first day, sand and grit worked their way into my boots and under my fingernails before lunch. After traveling from the U.S. via plane, bus, and beat-up Toyota, our crew of eight BACKPACKER staffers had set out from an unmarked trailhead at the base of a crumbling, rocky ridge three hours south of Jordan’s capital, Amman. (We’d had one night of jet lag recovery at nearby Feynan Ecolodge.) I confess the initial few hours of hiking did not impress my sleep-deprived brain. Ahead loomed a scene reminiscent of southern Arizona, with dry, scree-covered hills sliding into the distance. A dusty, windblown haze obscured the view. I’d travelled halfway around the world for this? Honestly, I'd take my backyard Colorado peaks over this dull rock, harsh sun, and murky horizon any day, thank you.
But a few words from our guide, Shuayb Twaissi, a 30-something Bedouin in cargo pants and a fleece vest, helped add a level of richness beyond what I could see, reminding me that hiking isn't always just about the view. He pointed west, where the hills dropped away to a flat plain: that was the Rift Valley—the tectonic break between Africa and Asia that goes all the way down to Mozambique. In a 100-yard-wide wadi (wash), just a few miles to the north, archeologists had excavated the remnants of a 10,000-year-old settlement. Shuayb, who has a college degree in English and is a certified guide in the area, explained that we were traveling a route once used by camel caravans on their way south to trade at Petra, a major crossroads.
I started adjusting my expectations, trying to appreciate the context as much as the view. And meanwhile, the scenery steadily improved. When we crested a pass and gazed down on an oasis—a tree-lined canyon where a 100-foot waterfall poured over a sheer drop—I didn't have to imagine how welcome the sight would be to a traveler moving spring to spring in the desert, because now I was one. That night, we camped on a white-rock plateau off a four-wheel-drive road, cooked over a fire, and guyed our tents against a howling wind that blew sand inside. I envied the Bedouin tents we’d seen earlier, with heavy goat-hair walls and high ceilings—shelters built for comfortably riding out a sandstorm or the heat of the day.
“This could be 100,000 years old,” Shuayb said. “Part of a spear tip, or arrowhead.” In his palm, he held a smooth piece of white flint he’d picked up off the ground. “As a kid, I slammed down rock to break off a shard like this if I needed something sharp for cutting rope. Same idea.” It felt spooky to know that humans had been walking this same spot since before the last Ice Age.
By lunchtime on the second day, we’d climbed cross-country to a high ridge where cliffs fell away toward the Rift Valley. Breezes tempered the heat, perfectly illustrating the reason the Bedouin continue to move their tents up here in summer. Soon we reached a large pile of stones, which coalesced into an orderly grid as we drew closer. Room upon room spread out in a floorplan, rock walls neatly chinked into place. During the Iron Age (3,000 years ago), Shuayb said, 250 people lived here, on a cliff-top perch well-defended on three sides. A spring once flowed through; we could see a channel, a rock cistern, and a scuzzy remnant of the water source that once sustained a village. We ate peanut butter on pita, then wandered through the rooms, where shards of red-and-black pottery littered the ground like juniper berries. It reminded me of what it must have been like to come across an Ancestral Puebloan kiva in 19th-century Utah, undisturbed, as if no one had seen it since the original inhabitants vanished. Though I already knew—on an intellectual level, at least—that this place was home to some of the oldest human cultures, it was quite another thing to be able to see and touch these ruins that were at once so pristine and so ... ignored.
Past the village, the route crossed a wild stretch of slickrock country that reminded me of Canyonlands National Park—except for the ancient wine press carved directly into a shelf of rock. You can see the sluice where the grape juice was funneled away. No signs indicate its historic importance. No trail leads to it. Indeed, the area is so remote and untraveled, so maze-like, that even Shuayb, our guide, took a wrong turn traversing it. After a couple of hours scrambling a steep hillside littered in loose rocks, we were hot, tired, and grimy. Finally, we pitched camp, hard up against castle-like rocks bathed in gold light. As I fell asleep under silent skies, I thought about all I’d seen that day. Hiking always gives me perspective on my miniscule place in the natural world. But this trip was giving me a new perspective on the human world. I felt a part of something deep. Old. Complicated.
The next day, we reached the first well-known site of our journey, Little Petra, an ancient suburb of the main trading crossroads of Petra proper. It was here that the full extent of what waited at the end of our hike started to dawn on me. We squeezed through a 2-foot-wide corridor of sandstone and found ourselves in a large amphitheater with monumental structures carved into the rock. Some reminded me of bank facades, others of a scaled-down Lincoln Memorial. Most of the holes along the base of the canyon walls, Shuayb explained, were cisterns. “In the desert, he who can collect and preserve water is king.” He pointed out a rock dam at the top of a side drainage, with carved steps leading 40 feet down from it. The steps helped slow water as it cascaded into chutes, around the corner, and into the cistern rooms. The other rooms once held tombs, statues, banquet halls. In one, we found the remains of a fresco, an elaborately detailed painting of vines, flowers and the Roman god Cupid, still blue and brown and red on a white background. What a sight this place must have once been, with these bare walls all beautifully painted, with mosaics on the floors, with water running lush on the ground level. It came to life in my imagination, the sound of drips echoing through the chambers, the splash of someone dipping a hand. I know from experience that it’s hard enough to survive a week in this kind of terrain with modern gear, much less build a cosmopolitan society amid the unforgiving rocks.
Who were the desert kings responsible for this miracle in the desert? A people called the Nabateans thrived here starting around 300 B.C. They were rich, from collecting taxes on trade, and powerful, thanks to their control of the water. They believed in an eternal afterlife and carved elaborate, room-size tombs to help their souls ascend to heaven. They prospered until around 200 A.D., when global forces shifted the trade routes away, their power faded, and they surrendered to the Romans. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of them before.
Another couple of hours of walking, and we arrived at our final slickrock campsite, next to a Bedouin camp on the edge of Petra. By now, I was thoroughly in awe of the people who’d lived here, both modern and ancient. The Bedouin seemed to straddle tradition and modernity as it suited them: cell phones in their goat-hair tents; head scarves over tunics or jeans; camels alongside pickups. It was hard to force myself to sleep that night. The prospect of seeing Petra proper, bound to be even more impressive than today's ruins, had me tossing like my 10-year-old self on Christmas Eve.
The next day, we set off down a wide sandstone canyon, the red-gold walls of rock steadily rising overhead as we descended pour-offs and scrambled around boulders. This was our backdoor entrance into Petra, and when the canyon opened after less than a mile, we could see doors and towers and columns carved into the rock on either side—but not a single person. This is exactly what it would have looked like when the first Westerner to see Petra arrived in 1812.
We entered a 30-foot-square room carved into stone swirled and striped with red, black, and white, like it was made of three colors of Play-Doh mashed together. Shuayb pointed out three stalls that once held graves, raided centuries ago. As we stood ogling, a herd of goats and its Bedouin minder descended the steep canyon wall across from us, beelining for the shelter. Soon 20-odd goats were baah-ing inside the tomb—way more fun than a crowd of camera-toting tourists.
Another 30 minutes or so below the tomb-turned-goat-shelter, the canyon opened wide and Shuayb led us out onto a pinnacle of rock. Two hundred feet below, an ancient city sprawled in every direction, on a scale beyond anything I’d imagined. We turned in circles, trying to take it all in. I marked my “world’s best overlook” waypoint and set off to explore.
On the canyon floor, we join the throngs of daily visitors. It’s a little disconcerting to see hundreds of people after days of solitude in the desert, but we knew it was coming, and the scale and beauty of the site compels us onward. First stop: the Monastery, Petra’s largest intact facade, at the top of a 900-step ascent. The carved stone stairway winds up a side canyon; countless little stalls and shops, selling souvenirs and tea and ice cream, line the trail. At the top, we turn a corner and walk onto an open plateau, where a 150-foot-high temple with massive Greek-style columns looms in the cliff face. There may once have been steps, but to get in we have to scramble up a 5-foot wall. The building—really just a huge, single room carved into the rock—started as monument to a popular king in 100 B.C.; hundreds of years later, the Byzantines made it a monastery, and that name stuck.
It’s impossible to visit all of Petra in a single day, but we do our best, hoofing it back down the 900 steps to make our way across the valley to another complex of tombs. Amazingly, no slaves built this place—the Nabateans didn’t trust them with their secrets. Instead, the work was done by master craftsmen who carved the fantastical structures from the top down (yes, they had to be accomplished rock climbers, too). We rush to take it all in. An amphitheater, conduits for water carved high into the stone, tombs everywhere. Camels. Donkeys.
And then finally, we round a corner, and there’s the Treasury, the tomb of Indiana Jones fame. It’s tucked into a Y-shaped canyon intersection protected by sheer 200-foot-tall walls. The facade is carved into rock so tall, so intricate, so beautiful, so perfect that I gasp. It’s at once familiar from movies and photos and entirely new. It’s taller than I expected. The Treasury, so called for a legend that it holds great riches, began as a queen’s tomb, and took 15 years to construct. Shuayb offers a detailed archeological lesson, but I absorb little. I am hot and tired (we’ve logged 10 miles today), but mostly I’m just full: Full of admiration for the people, ancient and modern, who’ve mastered life in this harsh terrain. Full of wonder at how little I knew about this corner of the world. And full of joy at having discovered this place one rock, one tomb, one shepherd, and one day’s walk at a time.
Senior Editor Rachel Zurer has forgiven her world history teacher.
Safety: Sandwiched between Israel, Syria, and Iraq, Jordan is definitely in a rough neighborhood. But the country itself is a strong U.S. ally that has managed to isolate itself from the regional turmoil. Bottom line: Be smart, use common sense, and check for updates when you start planning a trip. BACKPACKER staff felt perfectly safe during our time there, and we wouldn’t hesitate to return.
Get a guide. You’ll need the routefinding help (good luck locating topo maps here), plus you’ll have an interpreter, history teacher, and ambassador to the Bedouins who live along the route. Info below.
Logistics: Camps on the trek are located near dirt roads, so a support vehicle can deliver drinking water and overnight supplies. No need to carry a heavy pack.
Local hospitality: Bedouin families live in tents and establish semi-permanent camps in the same locations year after year. If you start this trek at Feynan Ecolodge (adding 10 miles to the route), you’ll pass Bedouin camps and almost certainly be invited in for tea—and maybe olives and hummus, too.
Get there: Fly to Amman, then travel to the Feynan Ecolodge via rental car, taxi (75 JD), or bus to Qurayqura (4 JD). Spend at least a night at this delightful, nonprofit oasis (from 87 JD including gourmet meals), whose staff arranges guided hikes (supported, five-day treks: $1,550/person, prices go down as group size increases or support decreases).
Season Spring and fall for dry, mild weather
Contact ecohotels.me/feynan; visitjordan.com