An Egyptian man sweeps donkey poo into a dustpan, while humming a surprisingly lively tune for the task at hand. The clip-clop of hooves echoes through the narrow Siq of Petra, as horses pull carriages of tourists to the main sites. A Jordanian teenager hangs off the back of the cart with silver bangles stacked up his arm, ready to sell to visitors.
Young men wear headscarves and heavy kohl eyeliner, appearing to channel some version of Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. Dusty tourists glowing with sweat marvel at their surroundings, mostly through a camera or smartphone, smiling and gasping in their rehearsed surprise faces for their latest social media video.
But I have no doubt the emotion behind these surprise faces is genuine. The desire to capture the scene comes from a place of wanting to etch into their memories the moment of passing through the ruins of a once thriving Nabataean kingdom from more than 2000 years ago.
The Red Rose City of Petra is Jordan's national treasure and one of the world's most famous archaeological sites - yet it's thought only 30 per cent of the city has been excavated. Used as the backdrop for the filming of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, locals set up stalls to tempt tourists with their wares, including the chance to buy your very own Indiana Jones whip and hat.
"This is a jewellery box for archaeologists," Amer tells us, as he explains the significance of the ancient tombs and Byzantine church ruins in Petra.
Amer is our local guide and just so happens to be an archaeologist himself, who previously worked for the Jordanian government's Department of Antiquities. He loved the job, but excavating ancient ruins doesn't feed his family. So he decided to use his knowledge to become a tour guide and educate foreigners.
In the Petra Museum, Amer points to some coins on display. "I actually helped excavate these." His chocolate eyes are full of pride and childlike awe. I'm blown away by the concept of being in a museum in a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the archaeologist who excavated the very exhibition I'm staring at.
Amer has dimples and a boyish grin, which comes alive every time he talks about anything ancient. He chuckles at other guides in Petra who tell tourists stories that are historically inaccurate. "Us archaeologists know that's not really what it's used for," he explains, after overhearing a discussion about a carving for a supposed bridal ceremony. "That's just a fun story for tourists."
My journey into Petra begins with a hike through the Siq, a narrow and dramatic chasm about one kilometre long, with dazzling golden hues in the sandstone walls. Every few minutes, tourists fling themselves up against the walls to make way for the horse and carriages trotting through the sand to carry older sightseers to the key monuments.
Amer's knowledge is overflowing and every few steps he stops, pointing out carvings in the walls, and seemingly insignificant cracks. But to the expert, every crevasse tells stories of life during the Nabataean empire.
Towards the end of the Siq, Amer makes our small group of four hold hands in a chain and close our eyes. He leads us for a few metres before telling us to look up. As I let the light back in, my own "surprise face" beams at the towering 40-metre sculpted facade of the Treasury, one of the most iconic tombs of Petra. Once the final resting place for a Nabataean king, the Treasury's pink-tinged columns and etchings of deities stand with such magnificence it dwarfs the hundreds of people, donkeys and camels below.
But the Treasury is just one tomb in a city of thousands. Some are humble caves carved into the sandstone, while others, such as the Royal Tombs, feature intricate sculptures and columns. Amer points out more details and cracks, the significance of the frieze and details in the capital of the columns.
We stop for a cup of mint tea from a man who has set up shop in one of the most ergonomic tombs I've ever seen, with soft curves and striking patterns in the sandstone. There are nearly 10 moulded areas for bodies, suggesting this was a tomb for a family. Tea in the tomb feels like a slightly morbid concept, but the patterns in the sandstone are so vibrant I forget about its grave (no pun intended) history.
We spend two full days in Petra, including a hike up 900 steps to see the Monastery, a facade sculpted into the hills with an extra five metres in height than the Treasury. The eroded and steep steps are gruelling in the Middle Eastern sun, but the Monastery is an architectural feat that makes me question the meaning of modern-day hard work. Multiple signs point to different locations, each promising "the best view in the world!" as Bedouins try to showcase vantage points - naturally, for a fee.
By the end of the two days of hiking through Petra, my feet hurt and my back is sore. I pass the Treasury on my way out, grabbing my phone to take my own "surprise face" selfie. I look up at the structure again and delete the photo straight away, preferring to let the contents of the jewellery box do the talking for me.
Travel Tips for Petra
• Plan to spend at least two days
• Wear hiking or strong walking shoes
• Give carriages a wide berth through the Siq
• Carry plenty of water
• Dress conservatively, which will also help protect your skin from the heat
Emirates flies from Auckland to Amman, via Dubai. emirates.com/nz
Hike to Petra with World Expeditions' 10-day Highlights of the Jordan Trail, priced from $5350. worldexpeditions.com