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The most important consideration when planning a visit to Petra is time.
With 2,640 acres in the Petra Archaeologic Park itself, there is much to see and with few exceptions you are free to explore everything at your leisure and will. The local people all agree--to properly and fully explore you need five days minimum. While there is certainly enough to occupy yourself for five or more days, two to three days is sufficient to visit all of the highlights in and around the park. One day--or worse yet a morning or afternoon--is likely to bring some disappointment to those who have traveled a great distance. If at all possible, plan for two full days as an absolute minimum.
A day trip to Petra from Amman, Aqaba or Eilat (Israel) is possible either by taxi or bus, but again you are likely to be disappointed and frustrated by having so much to see and do with so little time. The new admission pricing is effectively designed to discourage such day trips--especially for those living in or touring Israel. Those shopping for commercial, package tours are advised to carefully study the itinerary to ensure sufficient time--with your group and especially "free" time!
The modern town just outside the ancient city (population about 30,000) is the home for most Jordanian tour agencies. They can arrange for tours of any size and for any reasonable budget. Much of the local population is involved, directly or indirectly, with tourism. While only official, certified guides can be hired inside of ancient Petra (and all other official sights in Jordan), agencies (or you) can hire guides for other purposes such as camping, hiking, backpacking, horse/camel excursions, etc. As always, a reputable agency is the safest and most certain route to plan such adventures far from your home (or country). The people are genuinely friendly and violent crime is nearly non-existent in this HIGHLY family-oriented area where police are a very new addition.
Plan carefully, plan and pay early, and do not dismiss the idea of a custom, private tour using a Jordanian tour agency. The nature of Jordanian society allows such tours to be reasonably priced and highly fulfilling!
Horse carts, donkeys and camels offer transportation inside the park, but two good legs are the best mode of transport. People with physical disability can certainly visit, but will mainly be confined to the valley floor as most of the higher places are not accessible to those with limited physical abilities. Deep sand in some areas will render mobility devices useless. Please report mistreatment of donkeys to the Petra Archaelogical Park and Heritage Society. They want to hear from tourists visiting Petra about any signs of crutely toward the donkeys working there (neglect, excessive whipping, hitting, punching, leaving in the sun for long periods). Email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org or at http://www.pdtra.gov.jo
The truly adventurous with plenty of time should consider a two- or three-day, mainly valley hike from the Dana nature preserve north of Petra.
Entrance fees to Petra are expensive and as of November 1, 2010 "day trippers" pay a premium price of 90 Jordanian dinar (about $130). Overnight guests pay 50, 57 and 60 Jordanian dinar for one-, two- and three-day passes respectively. On the other hand, think of it as comparable to the cost of a day at a Theme Park, with the second day almost free... it's infinitely more educational. If you really want an E-Ticket ride, try a camel, a burro, or an Arabian steed. Note they are spending the receipts on park improvements - there are unobtrusive waste containers throughout the park, well maintained by dozens of staff, and surprisingly clean rest room facilities with running water.
There is no charge for children under 15 year of age. One short horse ride (from the visit center to the entrance of the siq or in reverse) is included in this price. The siq (crack between cliffs) is about 2 kilometers long. Plan at least 15 minutes to walk from the visitor's center to the entrance of the Siq. It's all downhill! After entering the siq, plan another 30 minutes (with time for photos - you WILL take them!) and then downhill to the valley floor where you are first greeted in the city by the Treasury building. Your first view through the slot canyon will be memorable. It is important to note that the name "Treasury" is not a literal depiction of the building as its actual purpose and use are unknown.
By the time you explore the entry area around the treasury, remember you have just scratched the surface of the City of Petra. You have countless hours to go, and should plan to walk at least 10-15 miles for a basic tour. Around every turn is a new set of marvels you will want to explore.
Mid-autumn through mid-spring is the most comfortable time to visit with pleasant temperatures day and night. Winter visitors will generally find reasonably comfortable daytime temperatures but evenings and mornings will be cold. Rain and snow occur during the winter months (especially January) and a rare, heavy rain can cause dangerous flooding that requires the park to be closed or evacuated.
Only certified guides can be legally hired. They are knowledgeable, helpful and reasonably priced. An ideal tour will include at least a few hours with a private guide and a small group.
Hotel space is insufficient during peak season (roughly Oct-Nov and Feb-Mar). Jordanian tour agencies have access to the best prices, but rooms available to them are limited. RESERVE EARLY!!!!! Hotels receive a premium price for internet and on-the-spot bookings, especially during the high season.
The opportunities for photography are spectacular if sometimes challenging. Morning and afternoon light bring out the amazing variety of colors in the stone but also bring deep shadows that will confuse most automatic cameras. Be familiar with the manual use of your equipment!
A burning question in the minds of many of visit Petra is, "Where did the water come from in sufficient quantity for such a large city?" While there are two conduits for water through the siq (one on each side), they do not appear adequate for the population--especially during the Roman period. Petra is largely unexcavated and the answers likely lie below the sand...