Best Of The Ancient Cities: Machu Picchu vs. Angkor Wat vs. Petra

Near the top of most people’s bucket lists are the famous lost cities of the ancient world. There are many amazing ruins that still stand today. Petra in Jordan, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia are some of the best known and most popular “lost cities”. I am lucky enough to have visioned all three of them within two years of each other. Spanning literally all parts of the globe, these three ruins offer different, yet soul defining experiences that will cure the worst cases of wanderlust. This post will serve to compare the three via multiple categories and ultimately, which lost city is the best.

 

The contenders


Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Area: 8 sq km
Built: 12th century AD
Elevation: Sea level
Annual Tourists: 2.5-3m

Angkor Wat at sunset!

First up is the ancient capital of the Khmer empire, the city of Angkor. Construction of the many temples in this city spanned many centuries, and its most famous are Angkor Wat and Bayon. At its peak, It was home to over a million people and the cultural capital of Southeast Asia and Paris was just a city of 30,000 people coming out of the dark ages. Nestled in the jungles of Siem Reap, it’s without a doubt Cambodia’s most popular attraction. I spend two days hiking through the ruins and embracing my inner Tomb Raider.

Read about my Angkor Wat trip

 

Machu Picchu, Peru

Area: 13 sq km
Built: 15th century AD
Elevation: 2,430m
Annual Tourists: 1.2m

Machu Picchu Ruins

Visiting Machu Picchu

No trip to Peru is complete without visiting this most iconic of Incan ruins. Machu Picchu was built in the 15th century as a summer home for the king, and subsequently abandoned after the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. Nowadays, this UNESCO world heritage site is of immense cultural significance to the Quechua people that live around Cusco and attracts a million visitors per year. It’s not difficult to see why as the reconstructed stone buildings contrast beautifully with Huayna Picchu towering in the background. In fact, Machu Picchu has gotten so popular, the Government has instituted a daily quota of tourists (2,500 per day) so make sure to book these entrance tickets well in advance.

Read about my Machu Picchu Experience
How to plan for a trip to Machu Picchu

 

Petra, Jordan

Area: 11 sq km
Built: Possibly as early as 500 BC
Elevation: 810m
Annual Tourists: 500,000

Treasury petra jordan sunrise

The treasury at Petra over sunrise. Beautiful colors.

The mystical sandstone city of Petra has entranced and mystified travelers for ages. Famously described as “a rose red city half as old as time,” this stunning UNESCO World Heritage site served as the capital of the powerful Nabataean kingdom between 400 B.C. and A.D. 106. Petra is most famous for the Treasury and the Monastery, two giant temples carved into the mountain rock. Petra in Jordan is one of those must see places, but actually lives up to the hype and worthy of everyone’s top “must-see lists”.

Read about my trip to Petra

 

The Criteria


Making a comparison like this is so arbitrary that there will always be disagreements. Different people see the world through different lenses and while I have my heart set on one place, this may not the case for many others. Nevertheless, I have to compare these three magical places on some sort of scale so I will compare based on the following criteria:

  • The views
  • Architectural Design and Scale
  • Cost to visit
  • Surrounding Area
  • Local food
  • Crowd sizes
  • Wanderlust satisfaction factor

I will rank each place on a scale from 1-3 (3 being the best) and whichever one has the highest tally at the end wins.

 

The views


First up on the list is the views. I’m a big sucker for stunning, otherwordly, and breathtaking panoramic landscapes. There’s nothing like being at the top of a mountain and overlooking the horizon with some killer views.

Petra, Jordan
Petra monastery
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat
Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
The lost city of Petra is sandwiched between many mountains offering breathtaking views of the desert and wadis, as well as the numerous monuments of the ancient Nabatean people. Honestly, there is not a single dull moment walking through Petra. The view of the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom temple during sunrise and sunset is near the top of everyone’s list. The lily pond in front of Angkor Wat perfectly reflects the giant temple’s ancient facade. Machu Picchu is located at 8,000m above sea level and is surrounded by the dramatic mountains of the Andes. From the top of Montana Picchu exists fantastic views of the ruins as well as the iconic Huayna Picchu.
Rank  2 3  1

 

The winner is…Machu Picchu

The hike to the highest mountain in Petra was equally as amazing. The monastery is the price at the end of the hike but you can continue hiking for another half hour and be offered views of the vast desert landscape of Jordan that’s dotted with Wadis and mountains.

Hiking to the top and sitting at the edge of Montana Picchu was amazing. You’re surrounded by the beautiful Andes mountains as well as the ruins of Machu Picchu right in front. This is a tossup between Machu Picchu and Petra. Honestly, had the weather been a little different in either place may have changed my views.  The weather was perfect when I visited both places and I give the slight nod to Machu Picchu.

 

Architectural Design


Second is the architectural piece of the ancient cities. Not all buildings are created equally but the fact that these places still stand today is a testament to the ingenuity of those engineers. Sure most of these ruins have had reconstructive work done at some point in the last century but that certainly does not downplay the impressive feats they accomplished. There was no machinery, electricity, or steel. Just human and animal labor.

Petra, Jordan
Petra monastery
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat
Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
It’s hard to appreciate the architectural feats of the ancient Nabateans until you see these monuments in person. Each “building” is in fact etched into the mountain itself.  These are not small buildings either. The monastery is over 50 meters tall and the entrance alone was multiple stories. Depending on the time of day, the sunlight will hit at different angles imbuing a different color in the morning vs the afternoon. How this 2,000 year old civilization managed to construct these buildings is beyond my comprehension.  The city of Angkor is 1,000 square km and includes hundreds of temples. The largest and most popular are Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and both are renowned for its high classical style of Khmer architecture. The amount of carvings and relief sculptures is astounding. When walking through Angkor Wat, it seemed like every bit of the temple was covered in sculptures depicting some variation of Buddha and the Buddhist religion. With about 200 buildings  constructed mainly from granite boulders, Macchu Picchu is the ultimate display of Incan architectural prowess. Stonemasons shaped large granite blocks by pounding rocks on them, they were able to flatten and create smooth edges and corners so that each piece interlocked with the next one to create a wall.
Rank 1 2 3

The winner is…Petra

This one is tough. And what do I even know about architecture?? All three cities display some of history’s most impressive architectural feats, especially for their time. Machu Picchu is high up on a mountain and bringing stones of that mass so high up a mountain must have taken thousands of men. Petra, however, really blew me away. I’ve never seen, and have yet to see such impressive structures etched into the side of a mountain.

It’s also huge! Home to 10,000 people during it’s time, it’s also made entirely from sandstone in a desert. While rain is sparse in these parts, the rain is violent when it does come. What happens with sand and water? It washes away! Yet these carvings have lasted over two thousand years. Aside from chiseling through rock with primitive tools, how did they so perfectly plan the designs of such a beautiful structure? What happens if they accidentally chiseled in the wrong direction? It’s not like they could start a new with a new mountain. They had to get it right the first time.

 

Cost to visit


This one is a bit of an unfair comparison metric. Everyone has different budgets and thresholds to how much they’re willing to spend. For the average westerner, the differing costs of these three locations will neither deter you nor bankrupt you with a visit. The only thing it will do is perhaps help you decide which one to visit first.

Petra, Jordan
Petra monastery
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat
Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
Jordan is not the cheapest country to visit in the Middle East. It’s more expensive than Egypt, but certainly cheaper than Israel. The most delicious falafel sandwiches can be had in Amman for 2-3 JD and buses regularly connect between Jordan’s most popular attractions for under 10 JD. There are plenty of cheaper hostel and guesthouse options in Petra, including the one I booked for 20 JD/night for a single room with breakfast included. Cambodia might be one of the cheapest countries to visit in the world. Siem Reap is one of the “pricier” areas of Cambodia thanks to the mass influx of tourism but how expensive can a place really be when beers can be had for $0.50 and a good bowl of Amok for $2.00. Throw in massages for under $10, hotel stays for under $15/night and a full service driver for the day for $20 and it’s hard to beat this place as a budget destination. Unfortunately, the entrance cost to Angkor Wat has gone up significantly since 2017 but is still the cheapest of the three. Machu Picchu is located at 8000m above sea level and is surrounded by the dramatic mountains of the Andes. From the top of Montana Picchu exists fantastic views of the ruins as well as the iconic Huayna Picchu.
Entry Cost One day – 50 JD ($70 USD)
Two day – 55 JD ($78 USD)
Three day – 60 JD (85 USD)
One Day pass – $37
Three day – $62
Seven day – $72
Machu Picchu only: 152 sol
Machu Picchu + Montana Picchu hike: 200 sol
Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu hike: 200 sol
Rank 3 1 2

 

The winner is…Angkor Wat

Southeast Asia is the cheapest part of the world for travelers. Angkor Wat’s entrance fees used to be half the price but even at its new level, it is still much cheaper than Machu Picchu and Petra.

 

Surrounding area


The next criteria is not directly related to the sites themselves, but rather what’s available to do around them. At the end of the day, ALL of these places are amazing must visit places. The truth is, unless you’re a serious history or architectural buff, 1-2 days is likely all you’ll need to “see it”.  Angkor Wat allows you to purchase a 7 day pass and I’d find it difficult to keep myself entertained past the 3rd day. If I’m coming from so far to visit these places, I want to know what else I can do in the area.

Petra, Jordan
Petra monastery
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat
Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
The town of Petra is nestled high up in the mountains of Jordan. While there isn’t that much to do in this town, there are so many things to do around Petra. First and foremost is the otherwordly landscapes of Wadi Rum, a national Park filled with dramatic “wadis”. These dramatic mountains juxtaposed with the red desert landscape is something truly special. It’s no surprise Wadi Rum has been used in numerous movies to depict alien worlds (The Martian, Prometheus, Transformers). Petra to Wadi Rum is a short hour drive making it a very popular day trip or overnight trip. The Dead Sea, Jerusalem, and even the Egyptian Sinai peninsula are not too far, making a trip to Petra well worth it just to see so much else.  The ancient town of Angkor is like a small town in and of itself. There’s enough here for a week’s worth of discovery. Siem Reap, the closest town is nothing to write home about. There are plenty of restaurants, massage parlors, and bars that cater to the huge amounts of tourists that flood the city. Nearby, there are the floating villages that make for an interesting half day tour. While there are some amazing things to see around Cambodia, and it’s close to many nearby Southeast Asian countries (and cheap to get to), there isn’t much to see nearby. Machu Picchu is located high up in the Andes mountains nearby the colonial town of Cusco. Like the capital of Lima, Cusco is a must visit in my opinion. Beautiful views of the mountains, loads of history, and amazing restaurants make Cusco one of the most popular destinations in South America. The sacred valley, home to many amazingly well preserved Incan ruins is also a must. People that have more time can also visit the Rainbow Mountain of Vinicuncaone of the most geologically pleasing hikes I’ve ever been on. There is no shortage of amazing sights aound Machu Picchu. It’s almost a travesty to visit Machu Picchu without visiting its surroundings. 
Rank 1 3 2

 

The winner is…Petra

This was an extremely tough decision between Petra and Machu Picchu. I absolutely loved the sights within the Sacred valley, but at the end I was more enthralled by visiting Wadi Rum. The Rainbow Mountain hike alone is worth a visit to this part of the world but I still think Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea were more impressive. Overall, I think the views from the Andes mountains are slightly more impressive than the mountain desert landscape of Jordan but both places are stunning.

Eilat, Israel and Aqaba, Jordan are two hours from Petra and home to excellent diving within the Red Sea, although neither  options compare to the diving a few hours away in Dahab, Egypt! I will say that the town of Cusco easily beats the town of Petra.

 

Local Food


This is without a doubt the most difficult question to answer for me. These three amazing places span completely different sides of the globe. Literally, you couldn’t pick three places that are so perfectly apart from each other. The food in these regions just happens to be some of the my favorite food in the world. Food is one of the main reasons I like to travel and I can safely say that Cambodian, Jordanian, and Peruvian food will more than satisfy most people’s taste buds. If you dislike all three of these types of cuisines, this comparison will not be important and there is something wrong with you.

Petra, Jordan
Petra monastery
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat
Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
I didn’t stay in Jordan nearly enough to sample of its delicious food but Jordanian cuisine is similar to much of the cuisine in the area, and I absolutely LOVE middle eastern foods. I had some of the best falafel and hummus of my life in Amman that I still dream about. Schwarma was a daily thing as it is in Egypt and Israel. Make sure to also try Mansaf, the national dish of Jordan.  It’s hard to say anything bad about Southeast Asian foods. Cambodian food is not the most popular, often living in the shadows of the cuisine from neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. Nevertheless, the food is delicious, and it is incredibly cheap. My absolute favorite was eating Bai sach Chrouk in the mornings, garlic and cocunut rubbed grilled pork served with rice, ginger, green onions, and chiles. It’s not that easy to find within the touristy part of town and I only discovered it when I told my tuk tuk driver to bring me somewhere authentic. Fish Amok, a Khmer style curry, Cambodian style iced team, and deep fried bananas (might as well be crack) made sure I never went hungry in Cambodia.  Peruvian cuisine and Lima’s restaurant scene has become very popular in recent years. And with good reason. Peruvian food blends in so many different flavors. Whether it’s the ultra fresh seafood from the Atlantic, the flavors of the Andes mountains, or the spices from the Amazon, the resulting food is a beautiful thing. Also, immigrants from Japan and China brought their culinary prowess to the country resulting in dishes like ceviche (the national dish), and Lomo Saltado. Chicharron, Pollo a la brasa, aji de gallina, Causa and many more dishes will make sure everyone enjoys the food. 
Rank 3 1 2

The winner is…Angkor Wat

Another extremely tough decision for me. I am not a picky eater, and like all types of food making this an even tougher decision. However, I have a soft spot for Southeast Asian foods and Cambodia had everything I needed. My daily routine included eating Bai Sach Chrouk in the morning with locals. Lunch would be Amok curry with some Cambodian iced tea. Somewhere along the way, I’d wolf down a few deep fried sweet bananas before dinner which would include a Lap Khmer, a spicy lime marinated beef salad and grilled fish. Everything is touched with chiles, basil, lemongrass, kaffir limes, and all that other good stuff.

 

Crowd sizes


With the advent of the Internet and all the wonderful things that come along with it, including research tools at your fingertips, the world is becoming more connected by the day. While this is an amazing asset for developing nations hoping to capitalize on a economic boost from tourism, this is not good for the rugged adventurer in us. I like to go places with few people but those days are coming to an end. I managed to find a few places devoid of people like traveling to Mozambique and Madagascar, but it’s only a matter of time before that comes to end as well. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit the three lost cities. Just because it’s become a tourist hub doesn’t mean the experience won’t still amaze and appeal to your inner wanderlust!

Petra, Jordan
Petra monastery
Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat
Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
With everything that’s happened in the Middle East in recent years, tourism has been decimated in most countries. Even though Jordan is in no way a dangerous place, stigmas, stereotypes, and proximity will reign supreme. I visited Petra on Christmas day 2014 and I felt like I had the place to myself at times. When I hiked up to the Monastery in the morning, I enjoyed the views of this incredible architectural for an hour to myself.  The secret is out on Angkor Wat. Newly wealthy tourists from China come here in huge packs and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever have a view of Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom to yourself. In fact, watching Angkor Wat for sunrise felt like a music festival as the crowds numbered in the thousands. Thankfully, the city of Angkor is huge and there are many smaller temples and buildings to explore away from the masses. Machu Picchu has become so popular in the past decade that they enforce a strict 2,500 person per day limit on tickets. Visitors MUST purchase tickets well in advance or risk being turned away completely. I think 2,500 is a good number as it never felt too congested, especially as I hiked to the top of Montana Picchu. Machu Picchu is a much smaller area however. Petra and Angkor Wat are ancient cities that used to house whole societies and towns. Machu Picchu was the summer vacation home of the Incan royalty so it was only ever meant to host a smaller crowd.
Rank 1 3 2

The winner is…Petra

Machu Picchu will have the exact same crowds every day because their daily quote of 2,500 people will always be reached. Angkor Wat is a zoo for most of the year, especially around the main temples. The best bet is to visit in the hot, rainy season where there are fewer tourists.

The world is scared to visit the Middle East nowadays. Terrible news for the countries that depend on tourism but I suppose is good news for the educated traveler that refuses to succumb to Western media and cultural biases. I arrived at Petra at 6am when it first opened and didn’t see a soul during my entire hike through the Siq and to the Treasury. After gazing at the Treasury for a few minutes, I made my way up the mountains and to the Monastery where I had unobstructed views for hours. It was heaven on Earth.

 

The winner is…


This was not an easy decision, but a decision had to be made nonetheless. Here are the final totals for Petra vs Angkor Wat vs Machu Picchu

Petra monastery

Petra, Jordan

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

 The Views 2 3 1
Architecture 1 2 3
Costs to visit 3 2 1
Surrounding Areas 1 3 2
Local Food 3 1 2
Crowd Sizes 1 3 2
Wanderlust Factor 1 2 3
Totals 12 16 14

In the end, Petra reigns supreme! Again, this is all based on personal preference. While some may feel like they had an especially wonderful experience, others may not have. Depending on the time of year, these places might see different crowd sizes, or weather, all affecting the overall experience.

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