After you’ve finished coping with the practicalities of bed and board in Wadi Musa, PETRA comes as an assault on the senses. As you leave the entrance gate behind, the sense of exposure to the elements is thrilling; the natural drama of the location, the sensuous colouring of the sandstone, the stillness, heat and clarity of light – along with a lingering, under-the-skin quality of supernatural power that seems to seep out of the rock – make it an unforgettable adventure.
Whether you’re in a group or alone, you’d do well to branch off the main routes every now and again. These days Petra sees somewhere around three thousand visitors a day in peak season. The place is physically large enough to absorb that many (although archeologists and environmentalists are both lobbying for controls on numbers), but the central path that runs past the major sights can get busy between about 10am and 4pm. Taking a ten- or fifteen-minute detour to explore either side of the path or wander along a side-valley is a good idea, since not only does it get you out of the hubbub, but it’s also liable to yield previously unseen views and fascinating little carved niches or facades. All over Petra, the Nabateans carved for themselves paths and signposts, shrines and houses in what seem to us remote and desolate crags.
If you have the option, you should also plan to start out as early as possible. The first tour groups set off by 8.30 or 9am, which brings them noisily through the echoing Siq to the Treasury as the sun strikes the facade (which you shouldn’t miss). However, the experience of walking through the Siq in silence and alone is definitely worth at least one 6am start.