Bucket-List Trip: Egypt in 12 Days
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been dreaming of going to Egypt. So many antiquities dating back thousands upon thousands of years ago have been kept in nearly pristine condition. Walking amongst these giant statues I marveled at their creation before the ease of cranes, planes and automobiles. The ancient beliefs and sheer ingenuity is still mind boggling even now, after returning and trying to process it all.
Why didn’t I come here sooner? Well, to be honest, it was a destination where I wanted: some help in the planning, a travel buddy and to be mindful of safety. And if I waited for all the stars to align, then I may have missed my chance. With my current home base in Beirut, only an hour and a half flight away, it was time to just say: f it, I’m going. YOLO as the kids say.
Just 10 days out from the departure date, I pulled the trigger. I booked a 12-day trip with Intrepid Travel that had all the highlights I wanted to see. I did not have to worry about much more than booking my flight, packing, arranging for a visa, and praying to the Egyptian gods for a good group of travel mates.
The Intrepid consultant said that the trip had five Aussies traveling on that departure date, all in their 50s and 60s, but not all together. Since I consider myself an old soul, I was optimistic about that scenario. I mean, who doesn’t love an Aussie?
The airport experience was pretty seamless. I purchased my Visa upon arrival with a credit card, then breezed over to grab my luggage. And I tracked down my Uber driver to take me to the hotel (about 160 Egyptian Pounds / 10 USD). Shortly after getting settled at the hotel, I met my roommate Janet and the rest of our Aussie crew (Bill, Helen, Sonja and Mark). We all seemed to jive and jokes immediately started to fly. It only got better as the days went on, and we traveled as a solid unit of friends.
Our trip had a nice pace of sites and leisure time. We traveled in August, so it was incredibly hot. But this heat had an upside. We had the sites practically to ourselves. With the help of our guide, who mapped out when to visit sites, we avoided peak times and the heat as best as possible.
We went by train, plane, van and boat during the trip. This variety in modes of transport added some adventure, and it complemented the itinerary.
My first of many gobsmacked encounters was the Pyramids of Giza, naturally. Finally standing right in front of the massive tombs, I was speechless. As reluctant as I was to climb deep into one, with its close quarters and steep climb, my new mates convinced me to venture into the great Pyramid of Khafre. And I don’t regret a minute of it. From the first Sphinx to the Museum of Cairo, the layers of history were being peeled back and revealed in front of my very eyes.
After the first day, I had to wonder if the trip had peaked too early. But that was a silly misconception, as we continued on to visit some of the most magnificent splendors of ancient history that I will ever have laid my eyes on.
We took a quick jaunt north to the coastal town of Alexandria, where we first stopped at the catacombs, then had a fresh catch seafood lunch at a local spot. To end the day, we basked in some relaxation by the sea at the Azur Hotel. The following day we went to the Alexandria Library. While not the original, which had been destroyed long ago in a fire, the new building was incredibly impressive. It housed some wonderful exhibits. This was a highlight of the trip that was totally unexpected.
Onward we went, catching a train from Cairo to Aswan. Our guide had us arrive early for a glimpse of the local train experience, and so we could really appreciate our overnight sleeper train. Smart bloke. It was still a decent ride, with a cozy cabin to lay our head for the night. Pulling into Aswan, the first thing that stood out was how the Nile seemed to sparkle, dotted with felucca sails catching in the breeze.
We ferried over to the Philae Island, where we saw the Temple of Isis. It was a sight to behold, as we pulled ashore. Shortly after, we stopped at an Intrepid approved oil shop, called Alfayed, for a complimentary five minute massage with eucalyptus oils and sandalwood. I was easily swayed by the intoxicating scents and decided to buy a gift pack of oils—similar to my perfume, Lolita Lempicka, a clean scent called Isis, a gift for my boyfriend, Ramses II, sandalwood and eucalyptus.
That evening we took a boat over to the local Nubian village for a home cooked meal and local immersion. It was the best meal of the whole trip! After ferrying back to the mainland, we bobbed and weaved through the local bazaar, haggling for goods like alabaster soap dishes, incense and scarabs. It’s always best to haggle with local merchants. They love to start their prices very high, and you don’t want to miss out on the bargaining banter that’s all part of the experience.
Bright and early the next day, we took a short flight to Abul Simbel in the very south of Egypt, bordering Sudan. I never thought that a flight for a two-hour trip in the blazing sun to see temples was something that I’d plan. So I was shocked that it became one of the main highlights of the trip. As I walked around the mounds of dirt and sandstone, I couldn’t believe what stood before me. The two massive rock hewn temples stood at attention, side-by-side. Not only were the outside facades impressive, but the inside had equally incredible designs and statues. The temples were placed just so, in order to align with the sun and illuminate Ramses II twice a year, another incredible and ingenious design by ancient Egyptians. This site was actually saved from submersion during construction of the Aswan Dam. These artifacts were meticulously relocated to higher ground. However, the sun is now off by 12 minutes. I still find that to be pretty ‘dam’ impressive.
As we wrapped up our tour in Aswan, we boarded a cruise for three nights on the ship M/S Opera. It was outfitted with a roof deck lounge space, a pool, and spacious cabins. That evening we sailed into the sunset on a felucca boat cruise. It was so relaxing, and a perfect way to unwind from a busy travel day. The following morning, our floating hotel moved upriver to the Kom Ombo Temple. It was just steps from the boat dock at dusk, so we got to see our first temple at night, giving us a new perspective and a break from the sun.
On our last cruise day, we put in some cruising time to reach Luxor. While the captain diligently moved us along, my travel partner in wine crime, Janet, and I kept ourselves amused above deck, taking turns between sips of wine and dips in the pool. Not too shabby for an end to the cruise before we got back on the mainland.
When we pulled into Luxor, our guide Helmy pointed out the Winter Palace, a Sofitel Hotel, famed for visitors such as: Agatha Christie, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, and many presidents and dignitaries. I knew it had to have a storied hotel bar. I had to check out. In the meantime, our group had a few spectacular sites to visit like the Karnak Temple, an expansive complex with 134 columns, flanked with rows of sphinxes at the grand entrance and a sacred lake. It’s a lot of ground to cover, so we made sure to go early in the morning to dodge the crowds and before the sun turned us into puddles.
Intrepid Travel had been very mindful of our travel footprint, throughout the trip and its activities, and even in reducing our use of plastics. It was especially thoughtful when it came to local animal welfare, and the major burden and undue harm to these animals suffered from tourism. To ‘put their money where their mouth is’, the organization matches any donations to the Intrepid Foundation’s local project ACE (Animal Care in Egypt). We got a chance to see firsthand the good work they’re doing in Luxor at the ACE center that looked after horses, cats, dogs, donkeys and any animals in need. I love animals. So it was particularly important to see this kind of work and dedication, along with programs to teach local kids the importance of looking after the welfare of animals. We did not visit the Temple of Edfu, for instance, due to the poor treatment of animals. The only way to get there is by horse and carriage.
Luxor kept living up to its reputation for incredible sites. We finally got to see the Valley of the Kings, where 63 tombs had been discovered, including the famed Tutankhamun’s tomb. The tomb still has his actual remains. We visited three additionally impressive tombs with intricate details and vibrant colors that lived up to the Gods that they were on earth.
But it was back to reality for us mere earthlings. We had our last night in Luxor, indulging in some local cuisine at our new favorite spot Al-Sahaby Lane. It was four stories up and overlooking the Avenue of the Sphinxes and the grand Luxor Temple all lit up. I couldn’t pass up having a nightcap at the Winter Palace in its Royal Bar with my travel mate Janet. We threw on our shawls and dresses, then had ourselves some proper cocktails.
On our final day, we flew back to Cairo to say farewell to our Egyptian adventure and fellow intrepid travelers. Since we landed late (thanks to Egypt Air), we made our way straight over to the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. We took the longer stroll by way of a street full of mosques, many more than 800 years old, passing some shopkeepers and locals on a surprisingly less foot trafficked street, which is closed to vehicles. We ended up passing a labyrinth of streets full of shiny objects, where I had to restrain myself from shopping. I had already bought some of my prized Egyptian possessions back in Luxor at the local (and Intrepid approved) papyrus shop, Egyptos, soon to be framed and hung on my travel wall.
We closed our 12-day journey with a farewell dinner at a local spot, El Malky. It was smack in the middle of all the activity and people watching, with a wonderful view of the Al Hussein Mosque. It was bittersweet to say goodbye to my travel mates. And I truly hope that I see them again, including our resident Egyptologist and fearless leader (who we liked to call boss) Helmy, no matter how far apart we live on the planet. Till then, ‘be intrepid’, as the company says.
Egypt still carries some leftover fears from the Arab Spring and revolution. While I can understand that, it is now time for visitors to return to Egypt. Everyone has a travel comfort zone, so it’s all relative and personal at the end of the day. However, the people are here to welcome you with open arms and truly need your tourism dollars. I’d hate to see people suffer more economic downturn, or these precious world wonders fall by the wayside. During our trip, we felt safe. We could tell that safety was a priority to the local tourism police, hotels, sites and operators. The system of keeping tabs on tourists from one destination to the next had been established well before the revolution, as a means to make travelers feel they can focus on enjoying the adventure. We sure did!
Places to Dine: (there were many, but these really stood out)
Cairo: El Malky by the Al Hussein Mosque is great for people watching and getting lost in the bazaar’s labyrinth of colors, scents, vendors and souvenirs.
Luxor: Al-Sahaby Lane has a spectacular view of Luxor and the Avenue of Sphinxes (a dry restaurant, FYI). Try the meat pie, stuffed pigeon, or camel du jour (with delicious juices like lemon mint). And go for a night cap, all dressed up, at the Winter Palace in the Royal Bar.
Alexandria: Try the local seafood places, like Elaa Fish Restaurant, where we picked out our delicacies like prawns, sea bass and other catch of the day to be cooked up, then served. I chose mine to be grilled with lemon. The flavor was to die for.
Try the local koshari dish made of rice, macaroni and lentils mixed together. It is topped with tomato sauce and garlic vinegar (optional), and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions.
Bathroom 5 + Tipping:
At many tourist sites or public bathrooms, there will usually be an attendant there and you should have a 5 Egyptian Pound to give to use the facilities. Sometimes when it was not compulsory, I still tipped a 5, since the ladies knew how to run a clean ship and I appreciate that. I was stockpiling 5’s the whole trip and that comes in handy for bathroom breaks and porters helping with your things for example.
Also keep in mind for us, the 5 Egyptian Pound is the equivalent of like 30 cents US so don’t be stingy and tip well wherever you are, nothing less than 5 or that is an insult! 10% or rounding up on checks can be a good guide to follow. Tipping is a way of life, and certainly, we can spare some more along the way.
If you’re planning to bring a camera, you may incur some small camera pass fees at some sites, and/or restrictions to photos from mobile phones only. Be mindful at these sites. Our guide was there to tell us at each site what to expect and when or not to get a pass.
Things/Scams to Avoid:
Again, since we had a guide, he was able to keep us from falling into some of the usual ‘newby’ tricks. Lots of people might try to ask you for your tickets when they aren’t official tourism staff, or to hand you a 50 cent pound note instead of a 50 Egyptian pound that looks similar. When buying papyrus make sure to hold the paper to the light: Check if it’s banana leaf or actual papyrus which will have many lines criss-crossed, to make sure you’re paying the right price for the artwork.
What to Pack as a Woman:
While there are many tourists and locals are pretty aware that we have different dress codes, it’s always best to be considerate of the local culture and to avoid unwanted attention. I didn’t encounter any harassment or uncomfortable situations when following those key tips from Intrepid, the guide and fellow travelers on forums. I wore mostly linen pants, three quarter length or longer, maxi dresses, short sleeve shirts, and tank tops only exposing my shoulders with a scarf to wrap over my shoulders (or cover my hair in certain religious temples and churches). Comfortable footwear is a must, since sand and/or uneven ground is present in many sites. I packed my TOMs, a sandal with a clasp, Birkenstocks, and flip flops (mostly used on the river boat). You can wear bikinis and regular swimsuits at resorts, hotel pools and the Nile river cruise.
Visa for Americans:
You can book in advance online, or get one upon arrival. I read all over the forums that the visa required exact $25 USD change. I was in a bit of a panic when I realized I didn’t. That didn’t actually seem to matter now that they take cards at the bank tellers (to the right before going through passport control). It turned out to be pretty simple.
The trip I took can be found HERE. Ask for Ahmed Helmy as your guide when you’re choosing your dates (I’ve heard others are good too, but I’m biased now).