My husband and I travel quite a bit and over time we’ve picked up the tools of the trade and have gotten rather comfortable with planning our own trips and doing enough research so that we know we’re going to really enjoy ourselves. However, there are just some parts of the world where having a local tour guide tote you around to the safest destinations in the most efficient way is most practical. Egypt is one of those places. We opted for a 9 day tour with Contiki as we knew there would be several other like-minded young adults our age also on the tour, but I have also heard that Abercrombie & Kent and Geckos Adventures offer a great tour of Egypt.
Originally, I hadn’t planned to write a blog post over Egypt since we didn’t plot out our every move but decided to do so as it became clear to me that Egypt has been one of the top destinations we have visited. My original interest in Egypt was that my grandfather grew up in Egypt and I wanted to see the culture he grew up in. I quickly learned that it’s more than just a family interest but it’s a pretty “cool” country (I don’t mean literally) and I want to show that Egypt isn’t a scary place to visit and there is actually more to it than the (albeit great) Pyramids!
A little background…
Mohamed Morsi was elected president in June 2012. The Muslim Brother hood, who made its way into the Cabinet, supported Morsi’s strict Islamic practices while the liberal and secular groups strongly opposed the strict views. So basically, there’s a presence of extreme Islamists within the Egyptian government. In November 2012, President Morsi made it illegal to question his actions and new laws. This led to massive protests and violent action throughout Egypt. In December 2012, tens of thousands of supporters and opponents of president Morsi clashed, in what was described as the largest violent battle between Islamists and their foes since the country’s revolution of President Mubarak which took place predominantly in Tahrir Square.
We decided to visit Egypt in March 2013 subsequent to the clashes and prior to Morsi’s ousting in a coup d’etat which occurred in June 2013 as a result of massive protests. Essentially, we were in Egypt in the eye of the storm.
So where does Egypt stand post revolution? In January 2014, the interim government institutionalized a new constitution in which 98.1% of voters were supportive. In March 2014, an Egyptian court sentenced 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death. By May 2014, approximately 16,000 people (and as high as more than 40,000), mostly Brotherhood members/supporters, have been imprisoned since the coup. This is very good for the Egyptians who hope for democracy, separation between government and religion and who wish to practice a more “liberal” or western lifestyle.
You can find grafitti artists decorating the walls of Cairo with tributes to those lost during the revolution…fighting for peace and freedom of religion.
You can read more about the Egyptian unrest since 2011, here.
My two cents…
What was happening in Egypt was bad and not to be down played. By the same token, the media tends to make it seem that it is far worse than it actually is. For example, the media was still showing heaps of people protesting in Tahrir Square at the time we were there when in fact, there were only a handful of people camping out in the center peacefully. I find that the American Embassy website offers the best recommendations on safety concerns for Americans traveling abroad to any destination.
Secondly, with all that was going on in Egypt’s internal struggle, the Egyptians were VERY happy to see tourists as tourism is a major source of income to the country. The pyramids of Giza (more on this later) were once bustling with tourists but we seemed to be only 1 of 2 tour groups visiting during our time at the pyramids. I say all this to make the point that customer service and friendliness was excellent in Egypt because they wanted us to have a good time and go back and share with our friends that Egypt is still a good place to visit. And it is!
We landed in Cairo and stayed the night prior to meeting our tour group the following day. Our very hospitable hotel concierge at the Victoria Hotel recommended a very trendy Egyptian restaurant, Abou el-Sid, with traditional Egyptian food. In a word…YUMMM! Egyptian food is DELICIOUS! It’s a cross between Mediterranean and Indian food and was super cheap; however, alcoholic beverages were not as alcohol is generally discouraged in the Muslim faith which has resulted in higher taxation on alcohol. I LOVED seeing the women interact with each other at the restaurant, some in traditional hijabs and some in more western clothes mixing together and enjoying one another’s company…proof that various religions and backgrounds CAN mix and get along even under the government’s thumb!
It also must be noted here that we paid the equivalent of less than $10 for a taxi to take us to dinner, wait outside for us to finish our meals and bring us back to our hotel safely…that’s right, TEN.DOLLARS. This may sound like highway robbery but the value of a US dollar is far better than an Egyptian Pound and in 2013, it was approximately 6 Egyptian Pounds that equaled 1 USD (and we tipped him generously)!
The following day we woke up early and headed to Alexandria, Egypt up on the Mediterranean coast which equated to roughly a 3 hour drive each way including traffic (and there was lots of traffic)! We saw many interesting things on the highways of Egypt including small trucks packed with local produce to sell, horse drawn carriages and even a truck driving in reverse in the direction he was intending to head. I suppose his gear was stuck in reverse and he didn’t want that to stop him from getting to his destination!
The difference in geographical landscape between Cairo and Alexandria is like night and day. Cairo is stuck smack-dab in the center of the desert while Alexandria is very green and lush and quite beautiful with its clear blue waters.
We checked out an ancient Roman amphitheatre and the Roman Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria and were reminded yet again the Ancient Roman’s desire to take over the world… we also discovered underground libraries, watched the fisherman come in from a night’s catch and visited the Qaitbay Citadel built in the 15th century.
Alexandria harbor is home to many artifacts of Cleopatra’s palace due to earthquakes and tsunamis over 1600 years ago! Most of these artifacts found are housed in the Alexandria National Museum (former US consulate building).
Not only is the geographical landscape vastly different as compared to Cairo but the architecture as well varies significantly. The Alexandria Library is very modern with ancient hieroglyphics inscribed upon it. In fact, most of the buildings are a mixture of Romanesque architecture and modern day architecture as a result of Roman and western influences.
That evening we celebrated the birthdays of our two friends, Jamie and Robert, who also joined us on the trip at a really neat restaurant called Sequoia located on the west bank of the river in a very posh neighborhood. It was a covered tent set up like a circus but with lots of white lights strung from the center out. Very Beautiful. Very modern.
Popular with most meals is the practice of smoking a shisha water pipe (aka hooka). Approximately 20% of Egyptians use tobacco products but the upside of the shisha pipe is that it’s a water bong and smoking the shisha pipe doesn’t smell like the burning of cigarettes. It makes for a much more pleasant dining experience and can be found at most restaurants.
The following day we took a tour of Cairo before continuing on our journey through Egypt. This included waking up rather early to ride camels up to the perfect view of the three Pyramids of Giza. I’m very torn on how I felt about the camel ride. On the one hand, I can’t trust that these animals are treated well and on the second hand, the owners of these camels are poor and offering camel rides to tourists is most likely their sole source of income.
After our camel meet and greet, we got up close and personal with the pyramids which included going into the pyramid. We quickly realized that it was not meant for those who are tall (or even average height) or have claustrophobia and frankly, they’re empty and make for boring pictures as all the pyramids exposed have been empty for years. The exterior is far more impressive. These gigantic boulders that make up the pyramid were quite large and climbing them (which has only been allowed in the last couple of years) is quite challenging and would be an excellent workout (if it weren’t 95 degrees)!
Speaking of weather, even March provides a sweltering sun with high temperatures. Due to the customs in the region, we ladies in the tour group opted to wear pants and cover our shoulders everywhere we went in public. It was recommended to us by our more westernized tour guide that we could dress less conservative in tourist hot spots like riding camels to the pyramids, but anywhere locals are typically present, we were to dress modestly. I can’t tell you how many tacky tourists (outside our group) were flaunting around in short shorts or tube tops. I saw this as very disrespectful to the local culture and it often attracted (unwanted?) attention…
Despite wanting to avoid Tahrir Square, we found ourselves right in the exact spot that violent protests were held only months before. Evidence of the revolution could still be found on the recently burned government building right next to the famous Egyptian Museum. The Egyptian Museum was a must see in Egypt. It is home to the most extensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities in the world and has 136,000 items on display, the most famous being the actual treasures found in the Tomb of King Tutankhamun (aka King Tut). After learning that the traveling King Tut artifacts were actually replicas, I knew this was a must see and my grandma would have been rolling in her grave if we had missed it. Next to the Tut exhibit, my favorite was definitely seeing countless preserved mummies, including King Tut himself.
We also took a trip to the market/bazaar in Cairo to check out some souvenirs. Think Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but smaller! Still, one could find everything from colorful spices to traditional Egyptian belly dancing dresses. One great thing about Egypt is that you can easily negotiate anywhere (“come to my store, I make you great deal!); however, you’ll find that nothing is really expensive. I think Ben and I bought three small stone sculptures that currently sit on our shelves for a total of $1. Nicer alabaster vases will run you a few dollars more. The problem isn’t how much you can buy but how you can transport all your treasures home!
That evening we prepared to take an overnight train down to the bottom of Egypt to Aswan, in order to jump on a cruise boat unlike anything I had ever seen before and cruise up the Nile.
Tour of Egypt
The overnight train was…interesting…it was the most efficient mode of transportation but not the most comfortable. Our couchette had two seats in the area that turned into bunk beds and also our own sink. The train carried a saloon style open car for people to congregate and share beverages that we brought onto the train ourselves. You can bet a bottle (or two) of wine was shared among our two friends and my husband and I!
The boat we slept on for several nights was moderate size with typical hotel rooms above water. We had an amazing view and large clean, modern room. This was not your typical cruise liner but rather a really large house boat meant for many people.
One of our excursions from our boat was to take a felucca and sail around on the Nile. We were quite surprised at just how clean the Nile River is. Our tour guide demonstrated by taking a clear class and dunking it underwater and pulling it out. The glass of water looked like it had been poured from a bottle of Evian; pristine clear without any dirt particles. Amazing! Still…much like Mexico, our stomachs weren’t prepared to drink the water… but for locals, ancient and modern, the Nile has served as a great source of drinking water.
We visited a perfumery which was sensory overload to the nose and eyes! We purchased a few oils to make our own perfumes and a few perfume bottles to display in our bathroom and give as gifts.
We also visited an art gallery on our trip in Egypt where we bought our own piece of art on papyrus paper that we found to be a great souvenir. It was easy to travel with as it was put in a durable cardboard cylinder that was light and easily packed in our suitcases.
The following evening was to be Egyptian night on our boat and we were all to dress up like ancient Egyptians; therefore, we stopped by a market to do a little shopping. This was no different than the others other than some kids trying to pick our pockets by distracting us with Arabic newspapers…. Fortunately, we had big burly men with us to scare them off. We weren’t going to let a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch as our experience with other Egyptians were quite to the contrary. We were just reminded of the desperation poverty brings in third world countries and unfortunately tourists are seen as “rich” targets and our guards must be up at all times.
The following day we took a short flight to Abu Simbel, a world heritage site, and personal favorite which is home to Ramses II and Nefertari’s temple. The temples were moved in 1968 in order to avoid being submerged in the creation of Lake Nasser. On our flight to Abu Simbel, we were handed generic boarding passes that didn’t include our names and were never asked for our ID much less go through any type of security.
One thing I found so fascinating was the call to prayer that could be heard off shore in the nearby villages we were passing by. The call to prayer consisted of a man singing the various passages of the Koran over a microphone with speakers throughout the villages for everyone to hear. This happened five times per day. Our boat crew members would put their rug out on the front deck facing Mecca and pray. I had to wonder who was steering the boat during this time….??!
We stopped in Edfu and took a horse drawn carriage into town to see the Temple at Edfu, one of the best preserved temples in Egypt. Our historian tour guide, Sherif, taught us about cartouches and Horus and what some of the hieroglyphics meant. Unfortunately, when Christianity came to Egypt, the Christians defaced all the gods in most of the temples found in Egypt (I guess they weren’t thinking the temple would become an important part of history?!) In the Temple at Edfu, one wall was preserved due to its positioning in the temple and remains in excellent condition.
Aside from getting to see all the farming and small villages along the Nile river, we got to experience the rowing markets. Small fishing boats with two people will attach themselves to the boat and throw up goods in net bags to the people on the cruise. Buyers can negotiate a price for the goods they wish to purchase and will then place their money in the bags to throw back down to them. Our friends, Jamie and Robert, had small carpets flying into their room that they had to throw back as they weren’t interested in purchasing. Pretty fun to watch!
The next day we visited Luxor Temple in where else? Luxor, Egypt…home of the famous Obelisk that Vegas tried to replicate. Seeing this temple and obelisk in person was absolutely breath taking. The avenue of the sphinx was beautiful even in ruins. The temples were massive and it was so fascinating to learn the history and imagine a bustling village centered around the opulence these temples once had to offer.
Another highlight of our trip was visiting the Valley of the Kings. Unfortunately there were no photos allowed but this was definitely a place I could have spent all day. The beauty inside these tombs that were discovered so long after being built was unreal. Really…it didn’t look real! The gold and color used to decorate in the hieroglyphics was absolutely stunning. We were able to go into King Tut’s tomb that was only recently discovered in the 1920’s by a British archeologist but there were far more decorated tombs than King Tut’s.
Did you know there is a Valley of the Queens? Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple (aka Queen Hot-Chicken-Soup as our tour guide called it) located in Djeser-Djeseru is the most famous and is home to the burial grounds of the Pharaohs’ wives and princes and princesses! The temple was most beautiful from far away…built so simply into the side of a canyon, it looks so small until you step onto its rolling steps and realize how massive it really is. There is still a tree stump that remains in front of the temple from Queen Hatshepsut’s expedition that you can see reflected on the walls inside the temple.
One could get lost in the Temple of Karnak among all the gigantic pillars carved with hieroglyphics. It is believed to be the second most visited historical site in Egypt; only the Giza Pyramids near Cairo receive more visits. Approximately thirty pharaohs contributed to the buildings, enabling it to reach a size, complexity, and diversity not seen elsewhere. Few of the individual features of Karnak are unique, but the size and number of features are overwhelming. This had to be my favorite temple that we visited.
Our last stop before returning home was Hurghada, Egypt on the Red Sea. One major surprise to me was that the Red sea is not red (only kidding!) It’s actually quite blue…a clean version of turquoise stone and it was BEAUTIFUL! I’m constantly amazed at the varying color tones of the Mediterranean sea. We took a yacht out in the middle of the sea to do some snorkeling and diving. I wasn’t certified for diving on this trip so I opted for the snorkeling excursion while Ben dove. Aside from the white caps hitting us in the head and the water being a bit chilly, the fish we saw were quite interesting and I was even able to see a blue eel that swam down near the divers, making this snorkel totally worth it! I must come back here to go diving now that I’m certified! Our last evening we had enjoyed an awesome dinner over the water with fun music and dancing. We stayed at the Safir Hotel in Hurghada which was considered a luxury resort. Our room was rather large with a nice view of the sea but there were consistent complaints that the bathrooms were a bit dirty. We thoroughly enjoyed the red sea and wished we had more time here. Hurghada is definitely a place I can see coming back to for an R&R holiday.
So would I recommend going to Egypt for couples? Young adults? Or even families? Absolutely! We still reflect upon our tour of Egypt with so many positive memories! Careful consideration of political unrest should be considered. You can check safety issues in Egypt (or any other country for that matter) on the American Embassy website and they will provide safety information and recommendations (i.e. it was recommended that we not go to Mt. Sinai by the American Embassy and for good reason). If the American Embassy says it’s safe to travel to Egypt, then it probably is as they typically err on the side of caution.