Petra, the rock-cut capital city of the Nabataeans, seduces half a million visitors each year, including families.
Among those globetrotting families is my own; I was fortunate to visit Petra with my 5 and 3-year-old boys on a warm, sunny October day, during a 7-day tour of Jordan. Sure, the Middle East is a far cry from Disneyland, but that doesn't mean it isn't a family-friendly destination.
For many young children, the enormity of Petra offers a giant playground, for which they can use their imagination to recreate its ancient past. When visiting Jordan’s most popular tourist site with kids, there is much to keep them occupied while you take in the richness and the allure of the rose and sand coloured tombs, carved from the tops of the jagged cliffs down to the dusty ground.
At first glance, Petra looks more like an artist’s elaborate creation than an ancient city carved into sandstone, whose grand entrance was formed by tectonic forces splitting rock into two, creating a long and narrow gorge: the Siq. The Siq provides the east entrance to the city and is impressive in itself, but the reveal of the Treasury (Al-Khazneh) is where the magic begins for most visitors to Petra.
A downhill walk of about 600 metres will get you to the entrance of the towering walls of the Siq, which snakes its way 1.2 kilometres to the entrance of the city.
While my boys' little legs were eager to walk at the beginning, the binoculars we packed helped keep them occupied. Along the way they looked for carvings of the Nabataean’s God Dushara. Keen eyes will spot a large faded carving of two camels and two men along the left hand side of the wall when nearing the end of the winding path.
The Siq narrows near the end, offering a glimpse at the Treasury waiting outside of the towering walls. While the kids will be happy to leave the overhanging cliffs behind, resist the temptation to hurry; let them run ahead while you drink in the fascinating view in front of you.
Standing before the Treasury, I spent at least half an hour just gazing left and right, overwhelmed by this UNESCO site’s sheer beauty, its magnificent architecture and its unique entrance. Several times I pictured myself on a film studio lot, unable to let the brilliance of the site sink in.
Masters of Distraction: A Little Imagination
A Jordanian headscarf (the red and white checkered scarf worn by many men in the country) makes a great souvenir for about 3-8 JD ($4-11 USD). Shopkeepers will willingly tie it on your children’s heads and let them imagine they are Bedouin, living in Petra.
If the sun, the dust, or the walking is getting to them, bring up notions of Star Wars. “Is this Tatooine? I think Anakin lived up there?” Or imagine Optimus Prime and the Transformers battling the Decepticons for control over Earth, on the high mountains above the dusty streets of Petra.
Petra's Animals Friends
Children generally have a keen attraction to animals, familiar and exotic. Petra boasts both kinds, with an array of cats and kittens outside of the Treasury shops and camels, waiting to offer a short ride for a small fee. These camels are mostly designed for a photo op outside the immense tomb built for the Nabataean King Aretas III (c.100 BC - AD 200). If your kids are keen to ride a camel, I do not suggest you do it here. Why? Once the 5 minute ride and photo op is over, they will surely beg for more.
Wandering past the Treasury to what is commonly known as the Outer Siq, donkeys await those who want a ride deeper into the city. We resisted the urge - okay - the requests of our three-year-old, telling him his donkey was waiting for him down below. There is so much to explore along the way so we held off on the donkey and encouraged him instead to keep walking as his current mode of transportation. He did not buy into my idea, so I ended up piggy backing him on and off during our trek. If you have a child carrier and have a small child, I recommend you pack it.
This will not be your only opportunity for a donkey ride. Throughout Petra, you will find Bedouins offering visitors a chance to rest their weary legs and still climb the sides of the cliffs to marvel at the ancient remnants of a people who had long since departed.
While lizards, snakes and scorpions can be found in Petra, we did not have the pleasure of meeting any of them, but we did finally choose the perfect donkey...
Sampling All Modes of Local Transportation
To keep the interests of our boys while we explored the many sites of Petra, we spoke about different ways that the Nabataeans - who inhabited the site from the 6th century BC, and the Romans who arrived in 106 AD - would travel around. Where it was opportune, we tried it out for ourselves.
We started with feet of course, and then we saw camels, bearing excited tourists posing for their iconic Treasury shot.
After a lot of walking, as well as countless piggy backs from mom and our guide Awad, it was time for mode of transportation number three: the donkey. Facing a slight uphill walk back to the Treasury, we found a Bedouin who offered the boys a ride for JD10 ($13 USD).
Following that we decided to take a horse cart through the Siq, back to the visitors centre. For JD20 (USD 28), the cart will take riders from the Treasury, through the Siq and all the way to the visitor’s centre. Well worth the price, with tired little legs which can quickly become whiney children. The clip-clopping of hooves on the stones of the Siq, the calls from the driver to pedestrians to yield to the oncoming cart and the squeals of delight from the kids as they cried “Yalla, yalla!” ("Lets go, lets go!") to the cart-laden horse, capped off a fantastic visit to this wonder of the world.
Petra’s survival depends on the responsible tourist. It faces threats from collapsing ancient structures, erosion, and improper restoration. But the biggest threat to Petra is the tourist. While some places do warrant exploring, keep your children on the trails and do not let them climb the sides of the crumbling walls. Named as one of the new '7 Wonders of the World' in 2007, Petra’s magnificence will remain, so long as we respect it.
A Word on Safety
Despite the unsettled nature surrounding Jordan (it borders Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank), we felt completely safe the entire time. We encountered nothing but friendly, hospitable people everywhere we went, most of whom had an excellent command of the English language. We appreciated the basic security in place at hotels - such as metal detectors - and the tourist police who were stationed in cities and at tourist attractions. Signs, maps and help were readily available (in English), should the need arise. Life was going on as normal in Jordan, despite the regional conflicts outside of Jordan’s borders.
Lindsay is a wife, a mom to two little boys, a soccer player, a freelance writer, a photography enthusiast, a lifetime traveler and a lover of learning. She resides in the suburbs of Vancouver when not jetsetting abroad, and is constantly exploring new ways to enjoy every minute she can with her family, and the pressures of living in our fast-paced society. Lindsay is the Editor and Founder of Carpe Diem OUR Way where you can find more stories of her family’s travels.
Have you visited Petra with the kids?
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