The early morning sun shone clearly on the rocky terrain of the Negev desert as a mini bus wound its way through the cliffs and craggy slopes one spring morning. Most on the bus were sleeping, the window shades drawn, having left Tel Aviv before sunrise. But we weren’t there for the mountains, as barren and hauntingly beautiful as they were. We were headed to the ancient city of Petra.
The sprawling city, dating from before the 1st century B.C., was largely forgotten for hundreds of years, abandoned by everyone except a small group of local Bedouins. And while the elaborate carvings and labyrinth of tombs and rock-covered paths weren't rediscovered by the Western world until 1812, they have since become a haven for tourists trying to capture the romantic allure of a bygone and somewhat timeworn era.
Yet as magnificent as it is, Petra is fairly remote and getting there is no easy feat. For those short on time, it is possible to trek through the expansive carved city in a day and make the arduous round-trip journey from Tel Aviv — provided, of course, you don't mind a very long day.
"A one-day trip is really getting a flavor of it and ticking it off a bucket list," Ben Julius, founder and CEO of Tourist Israel, which offers one- to four-day tours of Petra and Jordan, told Travel + Leisure. "Most people in the end come back tired, but appreciate it and had a great experience."
Despite all its mysterious allure, Petra has seen the same dips in tourism experts say Jordan as a whole has suffered, a country that shares a border with both Syria and Iraq as well as Israel and Saudi Arabia, affected by surrounding conflicts. Total visitors to Petra hit a peak in 2010 when more than 918,000 people came through, according to the Jordan Tourism Board. But visitor numbers dropped about 35 percent the next year to less than 600,000 — the same year the 2011 Arab Spring swept through the greater region.
"Jordan has always been... misread and it's about time to come on the world map as a country that is humble, warm, and everybody should come to it," said Nizar Ali, a tour guide for the better part of a decade who takes visitors all around the country. "That's my message to the world: that this is a country that is worth seeing."
Last year, Petra saw a small rebound with more than 620,000 people going, or a 33.7-percent increase from 2016, according to the tourism board.
And for their part, Julius said Tourist Israel sends about several thousand people to Petra each year, about a quarter of whom are day trippers to the site. While flights are available from Tel Aviv to Eilat (where travelers cross the border into Jordan), Julius said taking the bus is becoming more and more popular.
And early it was. We had been traveling for more than eight hours before even reaching the UNESCO World Heritage site, proceeding to walk across the border — an equally imposing and surreal experience complete with barbed wire fencing, a security screening, and at least five different passport checks — and boarding a second bus. Finally in Jordan, it would be another few hours before the tickets were handed out.
With the subtle hum of the Indiana Jones theme song playing in my head (it's featured in the last scenes of the third movie), the wait was worth it when the long walk through the canyon finally gave way to the city's most famous building, the Khasneh, or Treasury. Emerging from the towering sandstone walls that would make even LeBron James feel small, the red rock seemed to glow, the hot sun beating down from above.
"Coming to Petra for one day is like attending your wedding for five minutes," Ali later joked. A minimum of two days would be necessary to see it all, he said.
But nonetheless, we set out to run among the rose-tinged dirt and climb up weathered stone steps to see 2,000-year-old carvings close up, both intricate and sadly fading away.
Short on time, as is bound to happen on a one-day trip, we were forced to turn around and make the long, grueling journey back to the entrance. Uphill this time.
“You made it,” several merchants remarked as I huffed and puffed my way up the dusty, uneven ground, weary and surely sweating from the 10-mile walk (at least that's what my iPhone health app said). Yet I couldn't help but smile, mostly in resignation to a landscape that had both bested and inspired me.
Finally heading back to the border, the sun lowering in the sky and the mountains back-lit by the last few rays, Jordan didn't seem quite as unfamiliar as when we crossed over just a few hours before.