Touring the Dead Sea and the impressive archaeological sites of Jordan’s Petra

By Jackie Hoell
This article appears on page 6 of the October 2015 issue.
The massive façade of the Monastery, or Ad-Deir — Petra.

In mid-May 2014, my husband, Bob, and I began a ’round-the-world trip using the frequent-flyer miles we had accumulated during 10-plus years of commuting. Our second of six booked stops was Amman, Jordan.

Getting settled

With two pieces of carry-on luggage each and our previously acquired Jordanian visas (JOD40, or $56, each), purchased through Allied Passport & Visa (Washington, DC; 877/393-3745, allied, we breezed through Passport Control and Customs. 

As we exited, the driver of the car we had booked through our hotel, the Holiday Inn Resort Dead Sea, met us. It took only 45 minutes to get to the hotel, since there was little traffic at that late hour. It was a clear night, and the lights of Israel and the West Bank were clearly visible on the other side of the Dead Sea. 

After a quick check-in at hotel reception (JOD105 per night; 888/465-4329, and a golf cart ride to our room (it is a large resort), we headed to the hotel restaurant for dinner. After dinner we tried to walk down to the Dead Sea but were turned back, since it was after dark. 

The bed was so comfortable after our very long journey. We woke just in time to eat at the included breakfast buffet — wow and yum! The buffet included omelets, pancakes, French toast, tons of fruit, sausage, beef bacon and hibiscus juice. After breakfast, we made the climb down past the resort’s numerous pools to the sea. 

If you are visiting from the Jordanian side, access to the sea is difficult, that is, unless you are staying at a hotel on the Dead Sea. 

At the water’s edge, I proceeded to the urn containing the medicinal Dead Sea mud, said to contain numerous minerals that rejuvenate the skin. While others placed mud over their entire bodies, I made do with slathering the mud on my legs and arms, as time was limited. (After a rinse in the sea, I wasn’t able to tell if my skin was any different.) 

Down to the river

We had investigated driving ourselves around Jordan, but nothing we read recommended independent driving. We hired Yahya Al-Hasanat (phone +962 77775 2833 or email, who picked us up at noon to drive us to Petra (JOD150). 

Our first stop was the nearby Baptism Site, believed to be the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. We decided not to pay for a private tour there, choosing to visit the site via the standard tour (JOD12, including the audio guide and the shuttle to and from the site).

After a bus ride to the trailhead, we followed the 2-kilometer flat trail. There were no audio wands available, but we lucked out, as one of the people had a personal guide who explained the different points along the trail. To be honest, you don’t need an audio wand or a guide to enjoy the site, but the guide was helpful. 

The first stop on the trail offered a view of the River Jordan. The guide explained that the river used to be much wider and deeper than it currently is. After the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria, Israel dammed the river and now controls the flow of water. At this spot, the river was only about 15 feet across. 

The flat trail led us to the spring where, it is said, John baptized Jesus. The area around the spring was under renovation during our visit. 

There is a Christian church near another bend in the meandering river. From there, visitors can walk down wooden stairs to a deck built next to the water. 

Across the river, on the Israeli side, there are several stone buildings with stone stairs leading down to the River Jordan. There you can change into a white smock and have a full-immersion baptism in the river. 

Poolside at the Holiday Inn Resort Dead Sea.

Those of us on the Jordanian side of the river simply enjoyed placing our hands or arms in the water. Some dipped their hats in and poured the water over their heads, though I’m not sure if that was done as a symbolic act or as a way to cool their heads. It was a hot, dry day. 

On toward Petra

Our next stop was Mt. Nebo. It is said that Moses saw the Promised Land from the top of Mt. Nebo. 

You don’t need a guide at this small site, owned by the Franciscans, but we were pressured into hiring one. Fortunately, it was for a reasonable fee (JOD10). 

The Franciscans have been building a church on top of Mt. Nebo for a number of years. While part of the church was finished, we were unable to go inside, as the monks were preparing for a visit from Pope Francis, expected to arrive in a week. 

From the patio in front of the church, the Dead Sea, Jericho and Bethlehem normally are visible (though not through the hot and hazy air). 

A 3-hour drive took us to Petra and the Petra Moon Hotel (phone +962 3 215 6220,, which we loved! We had a large room (JOD65 per night), a very nice bathroom and Internet service. 

The hotel was a 5-minute walk from the Petra Archaeological Park ticket office. We tried to buy our tickets when we arrived, but the ticket office closed at 6:30 p.m. 

We had dinner at the Red Cave Restaurant (, not far from the hotel or the entrance to the park. Bob had Kufta Bil Tahini (JOD10), a dish of lamb and potatoes in a yogurt-based tahini sauce, and I had the Bamia bil Lahem (JOD10), beef, okra and other veggies in a tomato sauce. Both were served with rice and were yummy.

The Siq

Petra Archaeological Park opened at 6 a.m., but our included hotel buffet breakfast did not start until 6:30. However, since our visit was after the busiest time of year, arriving an hour or so after the park opened didn’t make any difference. 

A one-day ticket for entry to Petra Archaeological Park cost JOD50 ($71), a 2-day ticket, 55, and a 3-day ticket, 60. Once our tickets were punched at the actual entrance to the park, we didn’t need to show them again. 

The sandy pathway in is called the Siq. We were glad we had worn our hiking boots, but we saw people wearing all kinds of footwear, including flip-flops and high heels. Some visitors chose not to walk to the Treasury but to pay for a ride on a horse or in a horse-drawn carriage. The horses move quickly over the bumpy trail, and the carriages don’t have padded seats or shock absorbers. 

The 30-minute walk down the Siq wound back and forth as it slowly descended through the canyon. Though a naturally occurring fissure, it also served as a deterrent to unwanted visitors. 

Camels await travelers in front of the Treasury.

The Siq ended in a T-intersection in front of the Treasury, a building carved out of the sandstone in the first century BC as a tomb for a Nabataean king.

The Treasury was famously featured at the end of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Despite what is depicted in the movie, there is only one large room on the other side of the facade; park visitors are not allowed into the room. 

I was awed by the craftsmanship that went into carving this huge facade. 

More to see

Most visitors go to Petra only to see the Treasury. Turning left at the Treasury leads you quickly to a trail that heads up through a narrow gorge. We instead turned right, heading down the Outer Siq and leaving 60% of the visitors behind. 

The sandy Outer Siq widens out to what was once the city of Petra. Bedouins continue to live in this area, making a living off the tourist trade. As we walked down the Outer Siq, the Street of Facades and the Colonnaded Street, we were repeatedly encouraged/begged by vendors to buy water, drinks, food, jewelry and other items. 

We stopped to marvel at the Theater, carved into the sandstone. We could see where additional seating had been carved above the original 10 rows of seats and where the actors would enter the stage from tunnels. 

We made our way down the Colonnaded Street, which led to the former city center. Only a few of the colonnade pillars remain, but most of the marble pavement is still there. Shops, temples and community buildings used to line the street but have been lost to flash floods, earthquakes and time. 

We walked through the Great Temple, one of the few building ruins you are allowed to enter. Brown University has put in a huge effort to reconstruct the temple. There is no roof, but the walls and stairs have been uncovered or reconstructed. 

Steps leading to the Monastery.

Petra’s main temple, Qasr al-Bint, is next to the Great Temple. Constructed of sandstone, Qasr al-Bint is the only covered freestanding building in Petra. It has survived centuries of floods and earthquakes. 

A tough climb

At this point in the park, you can go left and wind your way past completed and partially completed carved tombs stretching thirty to hundreds of feet above the city center. 

Picking up more bottles of water, we decided to instead go right and press on to Ad-Deir (the Monastery). After all, it was only 10 a.m. 

It took nearly two hours, lots of rest breaks and repeated encouragement to climb the 800 stairs up to Ad-Deir. More than once I asked myself why I hadn’t paid for a donkey ride up, but if I had, I would have missed the amazing views of the valley below and the gorge we were climbing up. 

The stairs are cut into the rock that makes up the left side of the gorge. This path led us up to the back of Ad-Deir, then around to the front and to the plateau. 

Because of its size (155 feet wide and 160 feet tall), you’ll need to cross a huge, sandy part of the plateau in order to fully appreciate the front of Ad-Deir. I found this site more impressive than the Treasury, and I’m glad we persevered till we reached the top. 

On the far side of the sandy plateau was a food-and-beverage stand. We found a place to take a break in a covered wooden building that had a breeze, and after an hour we headed back down, reaching Qasr al-Bint in half the time. 

We were hungry and decided to splurge by eating at the Basin Restaurant buffet, run by Crowne Plaza. Even so, the cost of both of our meals and drinks (JOD15) was less than the cost of one donkey ride up to Ad-Deir. 

On our way out we discovered a sign that listed the distance between certain sites. By the time we returned to our hotel, we figured we had covered nearly 13 miles, based on this sign. 

One last day

Over the next morning’s buffet breakfast, Bob and I decided to hike a loop trail up to the High Place of Sacrifice, which starts along the Street of Facades and ends at Qasr al-Bint. We had blue skies and brilliant sunshine but little or no breeze, making for a hotter day. 

The hike began with a 1,500-foot climb straight up. Unlike the carved stairs up to Ad-Deir, the path up to the High Place of Sacrifice included some natural stairs, but often we simply climbed over and around boulders and along fairly wide ledges. 

After an arduous climb, Jackie and Bob Hoell arrived at the Monastery.

You know you are nearing the High Place of Sacrifice when you reach the two 20-foot-high obelisks. 

The High Place of Sacrifice is located at the end of a point overlooking most of Petra Archaeological Park. We sat gazing at the openness of the main part of the park and at the narrow valleys that made up the majority of the area. According to the park’s brochure, “The High Place was the venue for important religious ceremonies honoring Nabataean gods. It was perhaps used for funeral rites.” 

While it had taken us only an hour to reach the High Place of Sacrifice, it took us 2½ hours to climb down and hike over to Qasr al-Bint. With a fairly defined path but very few stairs, we carefully picked our way down. We stopped at the Garden Temple complex to admire the smaller building facades built into walls. 

Once at ground level, we still had a 45-minute hike over to Qasr al-Bint. We opted only for drinks at the Basin Restaurant snack bar before heading back to the park’s entrance. 

On the 3-hour drive back to the airport in Amman, Bob and I were allowed time to savor our visit to Jordan.