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Day Trip to Petra: Jordan’s Epic “Lost City”

Day Trip to Petra: Jordan’s Epic “Lost City”

January 12th. 1 pm. Petra, Jordan.

It flourished as an ancient civilization for over 500 years. Then, forgotten by the outside world, it faded into obscurity and disappeared off the map for centuries. It’s best known for Indiana Jones’ famous ride through its canyon walls on his quest for the long-lost Holy Grail.

Where is this ancient city?

It’s Petra, the lost (and rediscovered) “Rose City” in Jordan.

petra jordan

Our journey to Petra began at the very early hour of 3 am. We were so excited the night before we barely slept anyway, so it was a relief when our alarm went off and we went downstairs to find our driver waiting for us.

In true Amanda Hotel fashion, Ali had prepared a takeaway breakfast for us of bread, boiled eggs, white cheese, and fresh fruit. Seriously, I love that man.

We drove through the darkened streets to the outskirts of Dahab, where we boarded a bus full of Ukranian tourists. Yep. Somehow we ended up being the only English-speakers on a day tour with about 50 Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Luckily, our guide spoke English too so we weren’t completely lost!

We and the 50 Ukrainians traveled 2 hours north up the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula, all the way to the port town of Taba. This tiny town sits right on the border of Israel, and from its port, you can see four countries at once–Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

Pretty nifty!

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

As the sun came up, illuminating the barren desert mountains, we cleared Egyptian immigration and boarded our ferry boat, the M/V Petra Wonder. We sped off across the Red Sea, passing the narrow strip of beach that made up Israel’s Red Sea border before docking about an hour later in Aqaba, Jordan.

Needless to say, Aqaba looks slightly different than it did 100 years ago, when Lawrence of Arabia famously captured the port city during WWI through an unexpected land attack. The Port of Aqaba now features dazzling townhomes, luxury yachts, and a whole slew of jetskis.

petra jordan

After clearing Jordanian customs, we boarded another bus and began the two-hour journey north to Petra. Along the way, we passed the city of Aqaba and the barren deserts and canyons of Wadi Rum. The highway hugged the border of Israel almost the entire way up, offering us views into the neighboring country.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

Temperatures hovered around 50F (10C), providing a chilly but pleasant backdrop for the day. After winding through a series of switchbacks and the modern-day town of Petra, we arrived at last at the entrance to the historical city. 50 Jordanian dollars (or about $US70) later, we held in our hands two tickets to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Was it worth the whopping admission fee? HECK. YEAH.

petra jordan

petra jordan

What no one tells you about Petra is how HUGE it is. I imagined turning a corner and seeing the canyon Indy rode through, with the Treasury just a few steps away.

In reality, you have to walk half a mile just to reach the entrance to the canyon (Siq). Then it’s another three-quarters-of-a-mile through the Siq’s winding valley before you catch your first glimpse of the famed Treasury. There’s nothing quick about the journey through Petra, especially when you’re sandwiched in with thousands of other starry-eyed tourists.

But, hey. It is what it is. And it’s oh-so-worth-it.

Our tickets included a “free” horse ride from the visitor’s center to the canyon entrance, which I, of course, took advantage of. While everyone else walked, a guide led me and his horse, Rosie, along the soft dirt path towards the canyon entrance.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

Along the way, we pass horse-drawn buggies and remnants of the ancient civilization carved into the sandstone walls. When we reach the entrance of the Siq, I say goodbye to Rosie, tip her owner, and rejoin the tour group to begin our official exploration.

Here’s a quick history of Petra:

  • Located in the heart of the ancient Silk Road, it was once a thriving trading center and the capital of the Nabataean empire from 400 B.C. to 106 A.D.
  • At the height of the Nabateans’ rule, Petra had a population of more than 20,000 inhabitants.
  • Once Rome took control of Petra in 106 A.D., its importance in international trade began to wane.
  • By 700 A.D., Petra was abandoned and forgotten by all but the local Bedouins.
  • In the early 1800s, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig disguised himself in Bedouin costume and infiltrated the “lost city.”
  • To date, only 15% of Petra has been uncovered and cataloged. Experts believe another 85% still remains buried and untouched.

petra jordan

With our mouths agape, we follow the crowds through the Siq’s stunning red, orange, and yellow canyons. At some points, it opens wide above your head. At others, it’s so narrow it almost feels like a cave.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

You aren’t allowed to ride horses through the Siq (bummer), but those who can’t cover the long distance on foot are able to take horse-drawn carts to the Treasury and back. The sound of clip-clopping hooves echoed off the canyon walls, no different than it was 2,000 years ago.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

Remarkably, much of the ancient Roman roads are still intact. You can even see the remains of the aqueducts that once supplied water to the thriving population that lived within these canyon walls.

petra jordan

At last, after giving yourself a neckache from staring up at the massive stone walls, you enter the final part of the Siq that leads to the famous Treasury.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

And then–finally–you’re there. Staring at the Treasury of Petra, in all its rose-colored glory.

This is one historical site that is definitely NOT overrated.

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

So, now for the million-dollar question: What lies inside Petra’s mysterious Treasury?

A maze of underground halls? Buried treasures? A medieval knight guarding the Holy Grail?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but the answer is none of the above. All that lies within the poorly-named Treasury (which never actually held any treasure) is a small hall that once contained a royal tomb.

Still, the facade is stunning. And the great part is that it’s only the beginning of Petra’s wonders. As you venture further, you find more and more evidence of a once-thriving civilization: broad streets, a Roman amphitheater, royal tombs, colonnades, a monastery, and much more.

In the free time that remained, we wandered through some of the ruins to see what else Petra had to offer, besides its famous Treasury. Journey with us!

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

petra jordan

We could have spent days–weeks, even–exploring the nooks and crannies of Petra. The ruins are half-built, half-carved into the most colorful rocks you’ve ever seen, reminisce of the US southwest, but on a much grander scale.

Indeed, the “Rose City” captivated us, as it’s been doing to visitors for thousands of years. It’s easy to imagine the city during its heyday, when traders along the Silk Road would have passed through in their caravans of camels and Arabian horses. I can easily envision bustling marketplaces, lively performances at the amphitheater, and the scents of tea and spices in the air.

Unfortunately, time was running out, and we still had to return to Egypt. We enjoyed our second journey through the Siq–just as spectacular from the opposite direction–before we reluctantly boarded our bus and prepared for the long trip back to Dahab.

In case you’ve ever wondered, Petra is not overrated. It does not disappoint. It is every bit as awesome as you imagine it to be–and then some.

My only regret? That we didn’t have more time to spend here.

But that’s okay–something tells me we’ll be back again someday!

petra jordan

Dahab: Fun in the Sun on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula

Dahab: Fun in the Sun on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula

January 13th. 12 pm. Dahab, Egypt.

My gray Arabian horse, Oscar, starts prancing beneath me. I feel his powerful muscles coil in anticipation as we turn off the paved road and approach a mile-long stretch of hard-packed sand.

dahab egypt

“Are you ready?” my guide asks.

“Ready,” I reply, and release my hold on the reins.

Seconds later we’re thundering down the straightaway, galloping through the sand as Arabian horses have for millennia. These animals are bred for the desert; every drop of their purebred blood is designed for speed, endurance, and the relentless Egyptian sun. Oscar’s breaths come steady and fast and his long silver mane whips into my face as we fly along the shore at speeds nearing 40MPH.

To my right, the barren red peaks of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula stretch towards the sky. To my right, there’s nothing but the open expanse of the Red Sea and–off in the distance–the purple peaks along the coast of Saudi Arabia.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Welcome to beautiful Dahab.

I’ll come right out and say that current travel advisories tell visitors not to go to this part of Sinai. It’s considered “dangerous” for travelers and “should be avoided” on travel itineraries.

Of course, like the rest of Egypt–and the rest of the world–there are potential dangers that exist. But during our five days in this absolutely breath-taking resort town, the only things I felt were happy, safe, and exuberant. The locals are the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve met anywhere in the world.

And since there are so few visitors these days, they truly do treat you like royalty. We experienced that our very first night, when we rode in the back of an old Jeep out into the desert for an authentic Bedouin dinner, cooked and served by the campfire.

dahab egypt

But anyway, back to the sunshine.

We’re staying at the cozy Amanda Hotel, located right on the shore of the Red Sea. The owners, Mohammed and Rita, have treated us like long-lost family from the moment we arrived.

dahab

dahab

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Dahab is a stunning little town, full of funky street art, coffee shops, and family-run businesses. Along the seaside path that meanders through town you’ll find joggers with dogs, locals on horseback, mothers pushing strollers, and street artists at work.

If there was a dry, desert version of the Caribbean, this would be it.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

For me, it was love at first sight. The sky and the sea are so blue it almost hurts your eyes. The mountains shift from red to chestnut to gray to lavender, depending on the time of day. The air is crisp and dry and the temperature hovers between 60-70 degrees.

I’ve found my happy place. It is Dahab.

From here, we’ve explored Saint Katherine’s Monastery and climbed to the top of Mount Sinai. We also took a ferry across the Red Sea to Jordan to explore Petra–but that’s for another post.

Let’s return to Oscar and our gallop across the sand.

When we (finally) reach the end of the straightaway, it’s time to untack the horses and go for a swim. I haven’t done this in ages, since I had my own horse in Florida–and I’m psyched.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Back and forth we swim through the most amazing crystal-clear water I’ve seen in a long, long time. The water’s a few degrees cooler than my Floridian blood prefers, but hey…I’m not about to complain.

After we dry off and saddle up again, we head back towards town past a literal cemetery of beachfront resorts. The 2011 and 2013 revolutions hit all of Egypt’s tourism industry hard, but especially so in Sinai. Beautiful high-rise resorts now sit eerily empty, their windows sandblasted, their pools dry, their lounge chairs rotting in the sun.

It’s easy to imagine the town in its heyday, and it’s sad to see what it’s become now that so few people are traveling here.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

By the way, I didn’t have to try hard to get these photos with no people in them. In fact, I didn’t have to try at all.

There’s virtually no one else here.

But anyway–enough dwelling on the negatives. The upside is that we had the whole place to ourselves and our pick of leisure activities to enjoy!

My ride on Oscar was awesome, but it wasn’t my only outdoor adventure in Dahab. We also signed up for an excursion to the Blue Hole, via a slightly untraditional mode of transportation.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

As if riding camels isn’t awesome enough (how cute are those ears?!), riding camels along the beach is seriously cool. The peaks of the Sinai Peninsula spread out before us, while the mountains of Saudi Arabia rose from a gray haze across the sea.

It was pretty trippy. In a good way.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

As always, Jeremy was such a good sport. I drag the poor man on all sorts of four-legged adventures all over the globe–even though he’d prefer to be on the ground.

He’s a keeper for sure.

dahab egypt

When our seaside camel trek was over, we continued our journey via Jeep to the famous Blue Hole. One of the best-known dive sites in the world, it’s also the most dangerous.

How dangerous? A staggering 130 divers have died here in the last 15 years alone! The beach surrounding the Blue Hole has been nicknamed the “Diver’s Cemetery” because of all the commemorative plaques and tombstones lining the rocks.

dahab egypt

Danger aside, the Hole itself is a sight to see, both in and out of the water. The little spread of dive shops that have popped up around the site is reminisce of an old west town. I half expected to see a stagecoach come rolling through!

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Since neither of us is PADI certified, we rented some snorkeling equipment and prepared to brave the chilly water. While the Europeans and Russians bragged about how warm the water was, I tried to control my chattering teeth as I slid on my fins and forced myself to get wet.

Let me tell you–the chattering teeth were worth it. We hugged the shallow rim around the bottomless blue abyss, marveling at the brightly colored coral and fish. Hundreds of them–thousands of them–all just inches below the surface. The water was the clearest I’ve ever seen, far clearer than the Florida Keys, Belize, Hawaii, or southern Thailand.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

I had no idea water could look like this. Makes me wonder how incredible the oceans must have been hundreds of years ago–before modern industry polluted them!

On our final free day in Dahab, we ticked another activity off our bucket list: sandboarding! We saw it once in a travel show and always wanted to try it, so we were thrilled when we saw a place in town advertising it for a very reasonable $15.

Done.

We’re picked up by a kindly man and his 14-year-old son (who doubled as our sandboarding instructor) in a beat-up car with equally beat-up snowboards sticking out the back. Off to a great start already!

We drive out into the desert to a surprisingly tall dune located just off the (one) road leading inland. No boots, no fancy equipment required. Just you, your board, your bare feet, and hundreds of feet of sand to climb.

Where’s a chairlift when you need one?

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Let me be the first to say: This is NOT as easy as it looks! Unlike snowboarding, where the snow does most of the work for you, you have almost no maneuverability in sand this deep. You can’t turn an edge or carve down the hill.

You pretty much have to straight-line it down and hope for the best.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

After climbing the dune and making four or five runs, we were sufficiently exhausted (and had sand in places we didn’t know it was possible to get sand). It was officially time for a shower and a seaside meal in town.dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

Yes, it really is that beautiful. No, we never wanted to leave.

Especially after we tasted these incredible dishes: calamari tagine, beef shish tawook, and two scoops of date and hibiscus ice cream.

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

dahab egypt

It was a delicious end to our five fun-filled days in Dahab. We were sad to drive to the airport at Sharm el Sheik and leave Dahab behind, but I have a strong feeling we’ll be back someday!

dahab egypt

 

Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

Into the Wilderness of Egypt: Climbing Mount Sinai

January 10. 3 pm. The summit of Mount Sinai, Egypt.

I’m sitting at the top of a mountain I’ve only ever read about…and certainly never thought I’d climb. From this vantage point, I can see a huge portion of the Sinai Peninsula. I can also see the wide open plain where Moses, Aaron, and the ancient Israelites camped at the base of the mountain over 3,000 years ago.

In every direction, nothing but desert spreads out before me. The landscape is stark but strikingly beautiful, changing colors every few seconds as clouds drift by overhead. It was almost a 3-hour hike to get here, but the rewards far outweigh the effort.

This, dear readers, is my journey to Mount Sinai.

mt sinai

Our day began at the not-terribly early hour of 7 am. We awoke in our seaside bungalow at Amanda Hotel, an absolutely delightful place to stay. The owners, Mohammed and Rita, warmly welcomed us in and treated us like family.

dahab

dahab

dahab

The hotel sits right on the coast of the Red Sea, which is a stunning shade of deep blue. Tall desert peaks surround the coastal town of Dahab, our home for the next five days. And across the water, we had perfect views of the craggy coast of Saudi Arabia.

dahab

dahab

dahab

dahab

The best part of our morning (and every morning we were there)? Ali’s incredible Egyptian breakfasts. Each day there were different, but each day they were literally a work of art — ful, omelets, cheese, veggies, the works.

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Fueled up for the day, we climbed inside our waiting car with our driver for the day, Ahmed. It took about two hours to get through at least 10 security roadside checkpoints and into the interior of the Sinai Peninsula. At every checkpoint, we had to show our passports while heavily armed guards with German shepherds sniffed our car (the dogs sniffed, not the guards).

With such heavy security here — and everywhere in Egypt — you’d think it would make you feel leery. If anything, it’s just the opposite. They’re protecting these sites and the people who live there, and they’re doing a darn good job of it. We wondered if there would be any sort of negative reaction to our American passports because — let’s face it — America’s not exactly the most loved country at the moment.

Especially in this part of the world.

To our surprise, though, we were met with nothing but smiles, hellos, and warm welcomes (from the guards, not the dogs). In fact, that’s pretty much been the reaction everywhere in Egypt. The locals make a few jabs at Trump, we agree, and everyone gets a good laugh out of it.

Seriously, Egyptians are some of the most open-minded people I’ve met anywhere. Nothing at all like they’re portrayed in the media.

But anyway, that’s another tale for another blog.

Onward and onward we drove, past miles and miles of barren mountains and sand, before we arrived at last at St. Katherine’s Monastery.

sinai

Located at the base of Mount Sinai, this is the oldest working Orthodox monastery in the world. It also contains the world’s oldest continually-operating library. It’s home to the 4th-century Syriac Sinaiticus and the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, considered to be one of the best-preserved Greek texts of the New Testament.

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

st katherines monastery sinai

After a brief tour of the monastery, we fueled up for our climb with two hearty bowls of vegetable soup and a few cups of delicious Bedouin tea. This delicious concoction is made with black tea, sage, thyme, mint, cardamom, and plenty of sugar. No joke — I drank about 5 cups a day while we were in Sinai, and I brought a big bag home with me!

Anyway, I digress. We pass security checkpoint #247 (they are thorough, I give them that!) before we meet our Bedouin guide for the day, Abdul. As we began our hike past St. Katherine’s and into the wilderness, we quickly got a sense of just how isolated and alone we were.

sinai egypt

There was no one — literally NO ONE — on the entire trail. Abdul explained that most visitors make the trek overnight so they can see the sunrise. That’s actually how our tour company had it set up for us, but I nixed that one real fast.

Climb a deserted mountain in the middle of the night? In near-freezing temperatures? And forfeit an entire night of sleep when we’re already exhausted?

No thanks. I don’t value the sunrise that much — not even on Mount Sinai.

Because we chose to make our climb in the middle of the day (trust me, it was still PLENTY cold enough), we had the entire mountain to ourselves. It was just us, Abdul, and a camel named Paris (more on him later) for six hours up and down the mountain. We did not pass another soul!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s return to the base of the mountain near St. Katherine’s, where I found myself wishing I really, REALLY didn’t have to climb this mountain today. Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to — badly. But after a long travel day the day before and eight straight days of a crazy tour schedule, I was exhausted.

sinai egypt

Yes, I was gonna do it. But I was exhausted.

Well, miracles have happened in this region before. In a way, one kinda happened for me too. Right at that moment, out of nowhere, a Bedouin man and a camel appear and begin walking alongside us.

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At first, I don’t pay them much attention. I figure Mr. Bedouin and Mr. Camel live somewhere nearby and they’re headed home for lunch or something. Nope. As fate would have it, the kindly Bedouin man asked if I would like to ride his camel (Paris) to the top of Mount Sinai.

Why, yes, good sir. You must have been reading my mind. I would like that very, very much!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

I gotta say — my mood improved considerably once I was seated on Paris’ tall back (hump?). Jeremy and Abdul continued on foot while the still-unnamed Bedouin led me and Paris up, up, and up the winding trail of Mount Sinai.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt
Camel selfie!

Gradually we overtook Abdul and Jeremy as we made a steady, lumbering trek up the mountainside. Not much for me to do except sit back, take pictures, and enjoy the scenery, including Paris’ long neck and adorably cute camel ears.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

When the Bible describes the barrenness of this wilderness, it’s hard to imagine just how barren it really is. Even now, thousands of years later, there’s still virtually nothing here. No water, no trees, not a single blade of grass. It truly was only by God’s power that the Israelites survived for 40 years here!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

At last we reached the shade of the mountain’s summit. All that remained was a dizzying 750 steps to reach the top! At this point, I bid farewell to Paris and my helpful Bedouin and enjoyed the view while waiting for Jeremy and Abdul to catch up.

sinai egypt
I’ll always have Paris!

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

We’re nearing the end of our climb. The temperature’s dropping as the elevation increases, so we throw on an extra layer and prepare to continue. On foot, Jeremy, Abdul, and I begin the final steps that will take us to the glorious summit of Mount Sinai.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

And then…we’re there. Standing an impressive 7,496 feet (2,285 m) above sea level, on top of one of the most famous mountains in mankind’s history. The view was breath-taking…and not just because we were out of breath.

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

What’s at the top of Mount Sinai, you may wonder? A monument to Moses?

Nope. When you reach the summit, all you’ll find is a small covered area for hikers to sleep, a few rundown Bedouin shacks, and the unfinished remains of both a church and a mosque (both started in 1865 and never completed).

sinai egypt

sinai egypt

sinai egypt
Bedouin tea atop Mount Sinai

sinai egypt

It was an epic day, an epic climb, and an epic sight. Abdul asked if we wanted to stay ’til sunset, but we didn’t feel equipped to hike back down the mountain after dark.

So instead we sat and enjoyed the views in the late afternoon sun, marveling at the fact that the view probably wasn’t much different all those millennia ago.

sinai egypt