As the main tourist gateway to Petra, Wadi Musa is an anomaly, a modern southern Jordanian town given an unfamiliar twist with lots of signs in English, a huge number of hotels and a noticeable diminution in the usual hospitality towards foreigners. In sharp contrast to the rest of Jordan, where decency and respect are the unswerving norm, Wadi Musa shows a distressing tendency towards rip-offs, wheedling and outright hassle – the last of these directed particularly at women. Businesses and individuals all too often overcharge and under-deliver. It’s a seedy little place, run with just one aim in mind: to milk its world-famous cash cow dry.
There’s precious little to do. But then again, after a day of hard walking most visitors aren’t looking for rip-roaring entertainment anyway: shopping, eating – especially the hands-on Petra Kitchen experience – or sitting around in a Turkish bath is about most people’s limit. At the time of writing, plans were afoot to create an artisans’ quarter in Wadi Musa’s historic quarter Elgee (or Elji), a cluster of restored stone cottages behind the main mosque in the town centre. It’s unclear what this might comprise, but the area may be worth a stroll when you visit.
All main roads to Petra meet just above Ain Musa, a spring in the hills at the top (eastern) end of Wadi Musa which is marked by a small triple-domed building sheltering a rock – traditionally, the rock struck in anger by Moses – from beneath which water emerges. From here, the whole of the town is strung out for 4km along a main road which heads downhill all the way, offering spectacular views out over the craggy mountains and eventually terminating at the ticket gate into Petra.
Partway down is an intersection known as the Police Roundabout (Wadi Musa’s police station is alongside it), from where a turn-off heads left through residential districts and eventually out of town, passing big hotels such as the Marriott on the way towards the neighbouring villages of Taybeh and Rajif, eventually joining the Desert Highway 42km away at Ras an-Naqab on the route towards Rum and Aqaba.
The centre of Wadi Musa, just below the police intersection, is marked by the small Shaheed Roundabout, although there are no signs naming it (it’s often dubbed the Central or Midtown Roundabout instead). Clustered near the junction – which, thanks to the one-way system, is no longer a roundabout – are most of Wadi Musa’s shops, banks, mosques, cafés and hotels, as well as the bus station.
Past the town centre, the road coils down to a strip known as the Tourist Street, with hotels, cafés and restaurants on one side and the valley bed on the other. It ends at the landmark Mövenpick hotel, with the Petra Visitor Centre and ticket gate just beyond.
Located on the Tourist Street near the gate into Petra, the Petra Kitchen is a fine local initiative. This is not a true restaurant; rather, it is a way for a small number of visitors to get hands-on experience of Jordanian culture by working with a team of locals (both men and women) to prepare ingredients, cook an evening meal and then eat together.
After a menu briefing, you’re let loose to chop, mix and assemble under guidance a range of salads, soup, hot and cold mezze (starters), a main course such as mansaf or maqlouba, and bedouin coffee and tea – the idea being that you learn new culinary techniques, handle possibly unfamiliar products and break the social ice at the same time. The ingredients are all locally sourced; the tableware comes from the women’s ceramics workshop at Iraq al-Amir near Amman; and the aprons, tablecloths and napkins are all hand-embroidered by women working with the Jordan River Foundation.
The evening starts at 7.30pm (winter 6.30pm), running for three hours, and takes place when demand is sufficient – generally every night in high season. It costs JD35 per person, excluding wine (which is available). To take part you must book in advance. They can also extend the concept to run as a five-day culinary course.