Local operator Experience Jordan offers bike tours that include Petra. // © 2017 Will McGough
Feature image (above): The ancient city of Petra is hidden by Jordan’s rocky terrain. // © 2017 Getty Images
The day was full of surprises. It began at Shobak Castle — a fortress built in the 12th century during the Crusades — before we set off on a 30-mile bike ride across Jordan’s rolling hills and desert terrain, past ancient orchards of olive trees, through gigantic herds of camels and into remote countryside villages. Yet nothing could compare to the moment we arrived at an unassuming ridge that, I was told, overlooked the Lost City of Petra.
I looked out over the valley, excited for my first glimpse of this heralded Wonder of the World — of its towering columns, hand-carved caves and ancient temples. But when I looked down into the valley, I saw none of that. Instead, all I saw was a field of boulders, with some bigger peaks hovering above a bunch of smaller hills.
“Where’s Petra?” I asked.
“It’s right there,” the guide said, pointing. “You’re looking at it.”
I looked again. No columns. No temples. No people. Just rocks that looked like rocks.
“I don’t see anything,” I said.
It was a classic teaching moment for a first-time visitor to Petra. My guide explained that brochure photos make Petra seem like it dominates the landscape — as though its temples occupy entire mountainsides. What gets lost in those images, however, and what our vantage point from that lookout showed, is that Petra is a huge complex of more than 100 square miles. When you’re standing directly in front of one of the temples, it looks massive. But step back, and you can see that Petra’s caves and temples, which are tucked into the expansive canyons, are just a tiny part of the terrain.
The guide went on to explain that this was no accident. In fact, the Nabataeans, who began building Petra as early as the 5th century B.C., did such a good job camouflaging the city — and locals did such a good job staying quiet about it throughout the centuries — that it wasn’t rediscovered in the modern era by Westerners until a Swiss geographer found it in 1812.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad. The guide helped me hone in on where to look, and before long, I could make out a few caves way off in the distance — tiny black spots in the red rocks. From the overlook, we rode downhill, past the main entrance to Petra and through the village of Uum Sayhoun, where most of the vendors who work in Petra live. We would explore it on foot the next day, but there was an old protocol for us to follow that night.
Sometime around 100 B.C., Petra served as a major stop on the caravan route between Africa and Arabia, with traders traveling thousands of miles through the hot, dusty desert. In those times, travelers could do business in Petra during the day, but they could not spend the night in the city. Instead, they had to make camp at a place called “Little Petra” just a few miles down the road. For the caravans, Little Petra was an oasis that offered weary travelers food, drink and entertainment, as well as respite from the heat inside cool caves. The caves, while not as numerous or grand as the ones at Petra, carry perhaps even more intrigue today because they were occupied by living people, whereas the caves at Petra were purely used as tombs. (Residents of Petra lived in houses made of wood, all of which have been destroyed over time.)
We biked along the road to Little Petra and explored it that afternoon, and we spent the night at a wilderness camp nearby. The next day, we toured Petra by foot (no bikes allowed), finally seeing the temples and caves up close. It was a heavenly experience, and the grandness of the place was evident — just making the rounds required about 10 miles of walking. All throughout, I thought about the realization I had the previous day — how everything I was seeing that seemed so grand was just a small part of this vast desert.
I chatted with other visitors here and there and all of them said they arrived via air-conditioned bus, and were staying in a modern hotel in adjacent Wadi Musa. It made me even more grateful to have arrived by bike, and to have slept in a camp. To do so allowed me to experience something a little closer to what it was like back in Petra’s glory days. Similar to the camel trains of old, I arrived from afar feeling hot, tired and hungry after facing the steep, tough climbs of Jordan’s surprisingly hilly terrain on my bike. And as I traveled through the desert, I knew that somewhere amongst those rocky canyons, a spectacular secret city waited for me.
Tour operator Experience Jordan helped create the Jordan Bike Trail, a series of road and off-road bike routes that traverse the country.
During our ride, owner Matt Loveland shared stories about creating the trail. Slowly but surely, he said more Jordanians have begun to appreciate the outdoors themselves, and also to understand the opportunities of tourism. But it hasn’t always been easy. He recalled his first ride on one particular trail in the highlands, when kids in a nearby village threw rocks at him as he rode. The second time he went, the kids threw fewer rocks. The third time, the kids threw no rocks at all. Instead, they had set up a stand to sell water. Little by little, Loveland has been able to work with villages across the country.
The Jordan Bike Trail can be experienced in segments and includes castle tours and overnights at wilderness camps as part of various itineraries.
Experience Jordan trips that go through Petra include a guided walking tour.