When Good Ideas Go Bad – Petra by Night Experience

We meandered on the way to Petra, stopping at Karak castle and the Dana Biosphere Reserve before finally reaching Petra in the late afternoon. I knew that the following day would be spent exploring the great wonder of the world, but I was excited for my first introduction to the ancient site through the Petra by Night experience. I really shouldn’t have gotten too excited though.

My guide and driver dropped me off at the Petra gates to line up with the other visitors for the nighttime experience. Access to Petra is limited by daylight, but the Petra by Night tour is a specially guided event. A Bedouin walked through the crowd, asked everyone to follow him and we were off.

Petra by Night

The problem is I had no idea where we were off to. There were tea lights marking the path down to the Siq, but beyond the tiny lights I couldn’t see anything. I had no idea that surrounding us on all sides were amazing carved tombs and stone shrines preparing us for the journey to Petra. No, I could only see the lights and the way too talkative British couple in front of me.

The walk through the Siq seemed never ending, once again there were small lights marking the path but I couldn’t see anything beyond the twinkling bags in the sand. Instead, I stared down at the path making sure I didn’t trip on loose rocks or the uneven ground. Then finally we were at the point where the Siq opens to reveal the Treasury. This is one of the great travel moments in the world and one of the highlights of the Petra experience. But at night that splendor is lost, the magic just isn’t there. It was the first time I saw the Treasury, but I really couldn’t see it. In front of the Treasury were more tea lights, the only source of light in the canyon.

Petra by Night
The Treasury – sort of

We were told by our Bedouin hosts to sit on rugs assembled into rows. And there I sat as scores of tourists filed in, babbling and trying to take photos they knew would never come out.

Eventually the show started, some Bedouin music seemed to come out of nowhere and our host described the area and the Bedouin traditions involving Petra. Then he asked the huge group of tourists to be quiet for a few minutes of introspection. Not everyone understood English though, so half the crowd was chatting happily away while the other half gave them menacing glares.

At the end everyone was asked to take a flash photo of the Treasury simultaneously so that we could actually see the iconic structure. This experiment of course failed and we all made the long walk back through the Siq without any great photos or an understanding of why we were there.

A few things annoyed me about this experience. The first is that it was my first introduction to Petra and a worse first impression could not have been staged. As I learned the following day, walking along the canyon path through the Siq and emerging into Petra is a critical part of the overall experience and is something to be savored and enjoyed. I don’t think I would have been as annoyed by Petra at night if it hadn’t been my first visit.

Second, I really don’t buy into a lot of New Age-style experiences and I generally think that they are a colossal waste of my time. A great example was the lentil torture I endured in Mexico in order to reach some imaginary level of heightened awareness. While not as overtly annoying, Petra by Night definitely had undertones of New Age, hippy dippy, “get in touch with your inner self” themes. There’s nothing metaphysical about Petra by Night and it was annoying that they tried to convince us otherwise.

Finally, my last complaint has to do with the lighting. The Treasury is one of the most recognized buildings in the world and even though there’s a lot more to Petra, it’s the one structure every visitor wants to see. Petra by Night has a great opportunity to showcase this monument, but they have come up well short. The tea lights don’t do enough to illuminate the Treasury and it’s impossible to really see and understand the scale of the building. Proper lighting would go a long way to creating an impressive sight and give visitors an opportunity to actually see the stone building.

Petra by Night

I wouldn’t say that Petra by Night is a complete waste of time, but I regret participating. If I were to do it over again, I would chose to do the nighttime experience after having first toured the ancient city in the day. Even then it really isn’t worth the walk down again, not to mention the money. What I did really enjoy was walking through the Siq, lit only by small lights and looking up to see the vast array of stars twinkling down through the narrow canyon. While that was remarkable, it really didn’t make up for the rest of the effort.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

28 thoughts on “When Good Ideas Go Bad – Petra by Night Experience”

  1. Bummer to hear about Petra at night, it definitely sounds like it would have been an atmospheric way to see the Treasury for the first time… had there been proper mood lighting!

    We actually skipped Petra at night, mostly due to cost. In the end, we stayed at the site through sunset so we walked through the Siq as they were lighting the candles, which made for a beautiful experience. I hope this didn’t spoil your whole experience!

  2. Total bummer! I’ve wanted to do Petra and Petra at night – I figured what could be cooler than Petra lit by candles? But it sounds otherwise. If only they could add a little more mood lighting i’m sure it would be cool. I can’t imagine how everyone’s photos ended up with 5 million little flashes going off trying to capture a huge monument in the pitch blackness. ouch….

  3. I agree that you should probably view Petra during the day before you choose to go at night, but I think you are totally selling the Petra at Night experience short. You must have gone during a new moon, because moonlight typically illuminates the Siq in addition to the tea lights. I came away with spectacular pictures- some of the best I’ve ever taken. Though that’s probably due to having a DSLR instead of the point and shoot it looks like you had.

    I thought the music was a great addition to the trip, also. It’s very eerie and mysterious listening to tribal drums while in front of this magnificent building.

  4. Wow, what a bummer. Petra remains one of my all time highlights of travel. I was there about 25 years ago, only expecting to see the Siq and the Treasury and had no idea that it went on and on and just kept unfolding. I could have spent a week there exploring. I guess I was also very lucky to go there at a time when there were very few tourists – just on the eve of the Gulf War, and pretty well in summer (batty I know, but that’s backpacking for you) and there were no more than half a dozen of us wandering aroudn the entire place. It was incredible.

  5. Wow, Matt – I was really surprised to read this. I did Petra by Night just two weeks ago and I found it astounding! Luckily, we were there just out of season so not as much chit-chat, but from reading your post, the experience essentially hasn’t changed.

    It’s amazing how two people can have such polarizing views of the same experience! Sorry to hear you were disappointed!

  6. We’re sorry you didn’t have a better experience! We weren’t so sure about doing Petra by Night and LOVED it! BUT – we’d already spent two days wandering around during the day. So maybe that made all the difference?

  7. Such a shame you didn’t have a good experience. My cousin and I spent 2 days in Jordan after our Birth Right trip to Israel in 2010. We spent an entire day in Petra and were leaving after dark when the candles had already been lit so we got to see both Petra by day and by night. Definitely think it is more impressive during the day when all the colors and the size of the structures are in full view.

  8. Sorry to hear you had a less than stellar experience, Matt =/ Your tour guide/agency should have advised against the Petra at night idea – no one who lives in Jordan would’ve gone for something like that, the area goes pitch black, not something you’d want from your first trip there! Next time you’re in town you should talk to Zeek, he sets up great tours and I’ve yet to meet or hear from anyone who hasn’t had a fantastic time when he’s involved. Better luck next time!

  9. I fully agree with Reem, Petra by Night shouldn’t be your first encounter. My first visit was 2002, and ten years later I still remember the thrill at getting my first glimpse of Khazneh at the end of the Siq! It’s an irreplaceable experience! I still haven’t done Petra by Night because of all the negative reviews I’ve heard and read. I don’t expect I’ll ever do it.

    I second Reem’s recommendation that you talk to Zeek the Tour Guide if you’re ever back in town. You’ll have an astonishing experience with him… I promise!

  10. Wow…glad I skipped that on a recent visit. I had only a short time in Jordan – so the drive alone helped make the decision easier. I was sad I missed Petra but I like you would have only seen it at night. But I definitely want to go back and won’t miss Petra in the light of day from all I’ve seen and read it looks awesome.

  11. So sorry about that, Mark.

    First time visitors should schedule enough time so that they can stay into the late afternoon, ideally to walk out just after the sun has set.

    The colors at that time of day are simply awesome. Wish could post some photos here–to show you what you missed. :-)

  12. We checked out Petra during the day prior to the night your. It was more or less a waste but a bit more worthwhile this way. One good thing about the night visit is that it’s something to do one night!

    How many days did you visit for?

  13. well to be honest what i really didn’t like was the Bedouin part. all the introduction and the stupid music was reticulated.

    other than that the lighting was ok, i think photographers loved it cause they can take amazing pictures

    but the performance was a bit gimmicky for me..

  14. Frances Froehlich

    Hi: I am traveling to Petra in July (I know not the best time but my college age children are not in school….who is Zeek and is it possible to get in touch with him to make arrangements to tour Petra… thank you!!

  15. I literally just got back from Petra by Night and found this article. You made all the points I had thought of as I trekked back, disappointed. The walking in the dark over uneven terrain is extremely hazardous, the music was blah, you never get to see the Treasury except under the dim tea lights. We were expecting a great crescendo when the flood lights would illuminate the structure. It never came. Your tour actually sounded better than ours, in one respect. Our Bedouin spoke only about “connecting your soul to the stars” or some such nonsense. There was nothing about the story or history of Petra. The only plus was it was short. Overall, extremely disappointing and a waste of time and money. We are still planning to tour Petra tomorrow but I am much less excited about it than I was before Petra at night. I wish I had read this article earlier tonight and not gone. My recommendation to visitors: don’t it. Save your energy and excitement for day viewing. The night tour is a good idea but the execution leaves much to be desired.

  16. I read your blog 3 months after I visited Petra (March 2015). My first entry was also at night, and I had no idea just how difficult the walk through the Sig is (if you cant see at night – while there are candles, you really cant see that at times you are in sand, pebbles, rocks, and sort of cobblestone/rocks/sand). However, here is where my experience deviates. I had a fantastic time, and if I ever manage to get anywhere near Jordan again, will do a second night entry. I was exhausted when I got back to my hotel at midnight, knowing that I was going to be the first visitor at 6am to re-enter. The night experience is a once in a lifetime for an American. I am an amateur photographer, and had three camera and a very heavy tripod that my guide loaned me (he did not come… so I carried the gear). My night photos are great – and a few are ruined by the idiots using flash or whose camera screens serve as white dots on my images. I sat in the back on a bench so that I could use the tripod and not block anyone’s experience. I do agree that so many Americans are annoying with their incessant chatter. I have been to Angor Wat to experience the monks chanting at sundown, the Great Wall to experience a solidary quiet walk, and Machu Picchu (tho’ with unavoidable crowds)…. and because of how voice travels through the Sig, the only way to experience the solitude of the area is the 6am entry, and by 6:30am, you will hear people talking in the Sig. I wish I had known to bring a flash light to help prevent me from stumbling up and back in the Sig at night…. but I would not trade the experience. It was worth every dollar. I spent the entire next day, wandering around Petra…. and was totally exhausted from the two entries. Ironically, I did not know that I dropped an expensive gold bracelet that night in the sand near the bench. The next morning, as I contemplated live of the original inhabitants at that early morning entry, I looked down and spotted something sparkly… it was the bracelet that I did not know I had lost. That was my magic moment in Petra.

    During the day entry… I was aghast at the number of people that pay to be carted around on animals that are clearly being abused. Anyone reading these messages…. please send a message to the Bedouin that it is not ok to abuse the mule, camel and horses. This is the unpleasant side of entry to Petra.

  17. Aww, that’s a shame! We had just the perfect experience of Petra by night. Calm, serene and the climatic viewing of the treasury was unlike any other experience I ever had before. I’m sorry you couldn’t enjoy your Petra by night enough ?

  18. As I host tourists, and many of them visited Petra by Night, each and everyone of them enjoyed this event. Not one time anyone was a bit disappointed. Reading the above comments: one doesn’t like the darkness, other one doesn’t like the walk, another one doesn’t like the music, and again another one doesn’t like some of the spoken words. Well, just can’t please all. But we all (original bedouins from Petra village Umm Sayhoun) do our very best for all our guests in Petra.
    If you want to enjoy Petra to the fullest, just ask for a LOCAL real bedouin guide from Umm Sayhoun, who originally lived in the caves of Petra until 1985. They are the only ones who know Petra and the entire area inside out and can take you to less known amazing places.

  19. I have visited Petra 7 times and have been to Petra by night twice – both times have been magical. I think not knowing where you were going might have been disorientating but they do advise to take a torch/flashlight for this very reason. Maybe it was especially dark that night because once my eyes adjusted I could see lots around the Siq and around the Treasury. I would advise others reading this not to be put off by the negative reviews. I’m not sure what people are expecting, but if it’s atmosphere and a unique experience of an ancient site you’re after, this has it in buckets.

  20. Next time, use an SLR and a tripod. Low light photography requires long exposures. The night tour is magical!

  21. Some people like the moon over petra, I think I’d like to go at night and take long exposure shots, see if I can get a milky way shot over the place. I guess it depends on the purpose of your visit.

  22. Well, I guess they changed it a lot for May 2017. They play some local music, said some words, and then Green Lights were projected on the Treasury. I was told in advance to get my pics right away before everyone stands up, so I did. I believe that green is used since it means so much for Muslims [associated with paradise]. Green on rose rocks is not very photogenic, so I was quite underwhelmed. Some people with tripods got nice good exposures before the lights came on.

  23. We are planning a trip to Petra next Spring and were planning on doing the PBN first, then going back the next morning. I guess I was under the impression that in addition to the tea lights, the Treasury is flooded with light at some point that showcases the entire structure. Hmmmm, going to have to rethink things a bit. We took your advice on the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, went upon landing first thing in the morning and paid for the luxury suite – it was perfect!

  24. Marcos Ténéré

    Just got back from Petra By Night.
    If you are in a budget, do not waste your time.
    If you are going, go with a low expectation.
    Thank you,

  25. ‘proper’ lights – wouldn’t that ruin it; cabling, intrusion & energy consumption required? Actually worries me how many candles they must get thru < probably just me tho'. Great to hear a negative / less idealistic view; thanks ????As a happily vicarious traveler it's nice to know I'm not actually missing much by not physically being there! "half the crowd was chatting happily away while the other half gave them menacing glares" ???????????? love that; I'd've been glaring; I can't cope with noisy, inconsiderates (Aspergers; heightened senses) *'way too talkative British couple' – it's usually U.S. families that are loudest on my day trips. ???? – Bet those 2 Brits were posh Southerners; us w'class Northerners are raised more respectful. ????

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