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Petra unpackaged

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Of all Jordan’s tourist destinations Petra is the most celebrated – and the most packaged. A modern gateway marks entry to the site; you follow a path neatly laid with gravel and defined with kerbstones; you pass standardized souvenir kiosks; you explore on pre-defined trails. Yet less than twenty years ago you could roam at will – there were no trails and no kiosks – and twenty years before that you could spend the night in the ancient city. Tourism has forced the pace of change, but there are still many unusual perspectives to explore.

Petra by night

One of the most powerful – and, oddly, easiest – ways of capturing some of the old magic of exploring Petra is to book for the locally run Petra By Night walking excursion.

City life

Although Petra is visually stunning even if you know nothing of the site’s history, a little knowledge of who built these monuments (and why) can add hugely to your experience of the site – and allows your imagination to recreate some of what Petra must have felt like in its heyday. What today appear to us to be heaps of dusty ruins at one time formed a graceful, elegant city. Grand temples and busy shops lined the main streets. Fountains played alongside lush gardens. A cosmopolitan mix of merchants and townspeople relaxed in cool, shady spots out of the sun. Learning about Petra’s past enriches any stroll through its present.

Through the back door

Almost everybody who visits Petra stays in a hotel in the adjacent town of Wadi Musa, walks in and out through the main gateway, follows the main path for most of the day and sees Petra’s major monuments – the Treasury, the Theatre, the Monastery, and so on – in the same order. This works fine if you have limited time, but if you have more than one day there is much to be said for tackling some new approaches.

There’s no need to stay in Wadi Musa: you may find small, locally run guesthouses opening soon in the neighbouring Bdul village of Umm Sayhoun, or you could opt to stay with the Ammarin tribe, who operate an excellent camp near Little Petra. Staying with the Ammarin takes you completely out of Petra’s usual run of packaged experiences, and also gains you access to Ammarin guides, who are able to lead you on their own paths through the hills and into the ancient city the back way –so that you walk through the site against the tide. The epic Dana–Petra trek often includes this route, too.

In future years look out for a new nature reserve, due to be established by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature around Shobak, north of Petra. As well as new walking trails and lodge-style accommodation, this may offer more unusual approaches – riding into Petra on horseback or camel, perhaps.

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