I was in Egypt earlier this year for a week of work coupled with a week of vacation and had an incredible time. I’ve spent entire weekends curled up on the sofa watching Egypt marathons on the History/Discovery channel… but even for someone who is only mildly interested in ancient Egypt, there is so much to take in. Just be prepared to feel minuscule.
When: May 2008
Where: Nile River Valley (Philae, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Luxor), Cairo, Giza
What: 4-day northbound Nile River cruise, conference & work in Cairo, about two days of site-seeing in Cairo/Giza.
- Day 1: Flew into Cairo late night, greeted by our tour guide at the airport, taken to hotel for 3 hours of sleep, early flight to Philae. All day in Philae visiting Philae temple, High Dam, Perfumery, unfinished Obelisk, then board cruise
- Day 2: Early visit to Kom Ombo temple, sail to Edfu temple
- Day 3: Luxor (West Bank)… Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut, Colossi of Memnon
- Day 4: Luxor (East Bank)… Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple, ditched our guide for free time in Luxor before flight to Cairo
- Day 5: Cairo… Egypt Museum, papyrus shop, Pyramids at Giza, Sphinx at Giza
- Day 6-8: COFTA conference, Cairo Nile dinner cruise
- Day 9: Egypt Crafts visit, Producer group visit, Coptic Cairo, Islamic Cairo, Khan el-Khalili
- Day 10: Fly out
Must-see/do in rough rank order:
- Pyramids at Giza… you can’t go to Egypt without visiting the Pyramids. There are many pyramids in Egypt but the “Great Pyramid” is in Giza, which conveniently is a suburb of Cairo. You have to go inside the Pyramid unless you’re severely claustrophobic or unable to climb for about 100 meters. We managed to get in at the very last minute b/c our guide knew the “bouncer” and were the only ones inside the Pyramid at the time… it’s about a 5-10 minute narrow, upward climb (ladder-like steps) into a room with the sarcophagus. As you climb, think about that fact that you’re inside a 4500 year-old structure that’s constructed without mortar. Scary, inspiring, & so humbling.
- Valley of the Kings… You may not know what this is b/c interior photos are not allowed. After centuries (don’t quote me) of tomb-robbing, pharaohs decided to carve their tombs into remote rock valleys to keep them hidden. The Valley of the Kings refers to the West Bank of Luxor which is littered with these tombs. You’ll have to deal with suffocating heat and lack of ventilation, but the paintings inside are so colorfully preserved, narrative… and right there! (Side note: We attempted to see the Valley of the Queens on our own, but missed the cutoff. Sounded interesting.)
- Temple of Karnak and Luxor Temple… You can knock these out in one day and if you haven’t already seen temples throughout Egypt when you arrive, you’ll be blown away. Pay close attention to your Lonely Planet book or guide at Luxor Temple – there’s an area where some Christian relics were painted over the Pharaonic carvings – interesting evidence of Egypt’s history.
- Egypt Museum in Cairo… It’s chaotic and somewhat unorganized, but packed with incredible loot. You can’t leave Egypt without seeing the Tut Collection. Serious bling.
- Wander around Cairo… Spend at least a day just wandering around Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo. Definitely visit Khan el-Khalili – you’ll find the shop owners irritating or entertaining, depending on your attitude. Take a load off at El Fishawy’s for some mint tea and shisha… If you’re willing to wander further, check out the locals market that’s slightly outside of Khan el-Khalili… it’s a more realistic view of Cairo.
I was able to stay in fairly nice hotels, eat well, and keep my personal expenses under $1000 US because it was primarily a work-related trip. Some ways to cut cost:
- Bargain!! As an Indian, I’m not offended by the idea of people trying to rip me off – it’s how some cultures do business. Just know that as a tourist almost every price quoted to you is well above market value… get input from locals to gauge what you should pay for cab fares, food, art, etc. and don’t be affraid to bargain, no matter how many offended looks you get in response.
- Skip the Nile Cruise unless you have lots of time to travel.
- Skip the guide. I liked our guide in Cairo but could have done without the guide during our Nile cruise. The Lonely Planet book in most cases gave equitable or better explanations of things.
- Baksheesh is not a scam – it’s the culture. Just be ready for it.
- Be sensitive to the local dress code. If you’re in a heavily touristed area (like most areas on my itinerary), you can dress in casual non-hoochy western wear. If you’re in a less touristed area, you might feel less self conscious if you kept the limbs covered. Linen works well.
- Tourism makes up 11%+ of Egypt’s GDP and the government takes many steps to make tourism safe. In most tourist areas you’ll be able to find “tourist police” in white uniforms who are stationed to serve tourists. If you want to travel outside of the main tourist areas, you’ll most likely need to arrange for a police motorcade to escort you. The only time I felt on edge was after we missed the Valley of the Queens and our cabby said he knew “a guy who guards a tomb” and insisted that we check it out. I think the cabby was legit, but we had second thoughts about climbing into an uncharted tomb. :-/
- I’ve seen crazy traffic, driving, maneuvering in Mumbai, but it’s generally at low speeds (because it’s too congested). Cairo driving is all kinds of crazy… cross streets with caution and try to enjoy the ride when cabbing. :)
- Other recommended sites/cities I have yet to see: Abu Simbel, Red Sea, Alexandria, Sinai, the White Desert.
Go to Egypt!