We are back from our Egypt vacation with sand in our eyes and tombs appearing in dreams most nights. Egypt is so stuffed with history that the only way to go through them in the 2 weeks one can usually spare is to visit all the highlights. Here is how we did it
Cairo – Spent the first two days here. One day pyramid hopping and the next Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo. I was prepared to be dazzled by the pyramids but the latter I had known nothing about and was suitably impressed. We saw the sound and lights show at the pyramids which was not all that impressive.
Cairo is more crowded than Mumbai and has more traffic as well. So it is not a place to linger around and walk about. See the sights and get out. One good thing though is that shops are open until 11 p.m., so if you want to walk around in the night after the day’s sightseeing is done, it is a great place.
We also went to the Egyptian Museum but did it on the last day of our Egypt trip after seeing all the other tombs and temples. This was a good idea because by then we had a sense of who’s who and what’s what. We also did all our souvenir shopping at the famous Khan-el-kalili bazaar on the lost day to save on lugging around stuff during the trip.
We stayed at the Talisman De Charme in the downtown area. Charming and cozy hotel but the area was crowded. I would have preferred to stay in Zamelek area. We did have dinner in Zemalek and managed to see what the yuppies of Cairo looked like.
Aswan/Abu Simbel – We flew out to Aswan from Cairo to visit Abu Simbel and then board the Nile Cruise. Abu Simbel is a one day trip from Aswan and has to be done along with a convoy of other vehicles that leave either at 4 a.m. or 11 a.m. (Obviously we chose 11 a.m.). It is worth going just to see the giant statues of Ramses II seated majestically in front of the temple.
Aswan’s itinerary included a visit to the dam on Lake Nassar (world’s third largest dam and largest manmade lake respectively), unfinished obelisk and the Temple of Philae. The last one was located in a lovely island and the temple itself look quite pretty. Possibly because it was our first temple in Egypt.
Nile Cruise – The cruise takes 4 days when you go from Aswan to Luxor and 5 days if you go from Luxor to Aswan. We decided to take the shorter option and it was not a bad idea since we got a LOT of time to just hang out at the ship anyway. The stops on the cruise were at Kom Ombo and Edfu. Both nice places but not something I would have seen if it had not been part of the cruise. The cruise also arranged for the guide in these places as well as for Aswan and Luxor. We went on Movenpick’s Radimis I, which was pretty good.
Luxor – We spent a day here. Which was a big mistake since as the mother lode of all temples, it requires atleast two days to do justice to the place. The Nile splits the city into two – the West Bank which was the ancient necropolis and is now being rapidly vacated so that the tombs can be an open air museum and the east bank which is the living city.
The west bank contained the Valley of the Kings, the valley of the queens, Hatshepsut’s temples and so on. The east bank contained the Karnak Temple, Temple of Luxor and the hotels, town and so on. We also saw the wonderful sound and lights show and attempted a balloon ride which did not happen due to poor weather conditions. We stayed at the Steigerberger which was smart and well-located
Abydos and Dendera – These two temples are not usually included in tour itineraries but they turned out to the best temples I saw in the whole trip. They were fairly well preserved and one could see the colours on the carvings. Worth a detour from Luxor.
Dahab – There are three famous beaches in the Red Sea – Hurghada, Dahab and Sharm-el-Sheik. Since we wanted to see Mt Sinai as well, the choice was between the last two. Dahab is more laid back and that seemed to suit our style fine. Not to mention we stayed at the Le Meridian which was an awesome property with a private beach and cost much lesser than one would have expected. Dahab is an awesome place to lie in the sun after all the history and walking around. Plus has good snorkeling and diving.
Mt Sinai – This place is loaded with religious history. We visited the Monastery of St Catherine, which had a lovely collection of old Christian iconography. From here, D did the 3 hour easy climb to Mt Sinai. The place is a day trip from Dahab and Sharm.
Desert Safari – Egypt has 5 oasises, the best being Siwa and the next being Bahariya. Siwa was too far to finish in the 3 days we had, so Bahariya it was. From Bahariya we went on a two night camping trip covering the black desert and the white desert. It was absolutely stunning to see the changes in the desert landscape and eating under the stars listening to our cook sing was a good experience.
All this took us 17 days. We could have combined Petra/Jordan with this as a lot of people do, but eventually dropped the idea due to lack of time.
If had just a week and wanted to cover all the historical highlights, I would have done atleast the following –
Cairo – Pyramids, Egyptian Museum, Islamic and Coptic Cairo, shopping at Khan-el-kalili (3 days)
Aswan – Abu Simbel, Temple of Philae (1 day)
Luxor – Valley of Kings, Valley of Queens, Hatshepsut’s temple, Karnak Temple and Temple of Luxor, balloon ride, sound and lights show (2 days) and day trip to Abydos & Dendera (1 day)
Egypt is a highly tourist oriented town and hence a few special things go into the planning
Trip planning -
December is a good time to go but is obviously crowded since it is the peak tourist season. If you start planning and booking in advance, you can still stay in the good places and get the better guides.
If you are planning the trip yourself, it is necessary to be mindful of logistical constraints. Egypt Air flies internally and there are days and times when it won’t ply from city to the next. This needs to be taken into consideration while planning the itinerary. Also the cruises start on specific dates, so you need to be mindful of that. St Katherine Monastery is not open on Fridays and Sundays.
Tour guides are needed everywhere you go or else you will just end up wandering around blindly, clicking snaps. It is easy to find references and book online. Our guide in Cairo, Rasha was pretty good. Our Abydos & Dendera guide John was also good. We wish we had used him instead of the one provided by the cruise at Luxor.
Most cities are like any other cities around the world and have internet, atms, stores for buying prepaid SIM cards and so on. You can easily stock up in Egypt if you have forgotten to carry anything along.
It is good to read a couple of books on Egypt before or during the trip to get a sense of (1) the general timelines of who ruled when and (2) the gods. We got into the groove reading Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt by Robert A Armour. LP provided the rough timelines of dynasties which came in handy. For Abu Simbel, since guides were not allowed beyond a point, we bought a book that told us about the carvings on the walls inside and carried it along during the visit.
Carry along -
Egypt is dry, dry, dry. Take plenty of strong cold cream along (Nivea Crème works very well) and also sunscreen to reapply regularly. I ignored this advice on the first couple of days and paid with rough, red and itchy skin for the rest of the trip. Also, important to keep drinking water regularly (no tap water ever. Only bottled water)
Carry toilet paper with you everywhere and be prepared for dirty toilets.
Carry lots of small change everywhere. We found our 5 and 10 Egyptian pound notes flowing out like water to taxi drivers, bellboys, waiters etc. Our 1 pound coins came in handy at the toilets.
Always check where you are going to have your meals on any trip. If you think there is going to be no decent hotel around then better to pack a food box along. On a couple of occasions we had to subsist on biscuits because the shops at the location had only chips and biscuits.
It is a good idea for women to wear clothes that don’t show much skin. Egyptian women go around fully covered and hence tiny shorts or spaghetti straps tend to stick out like sore thumbs and attract attention from the local men. At the minimum, stick to jeans/trousers and half sleeved tops.
Egypt can also be cold in the winter with nights reaching 10 degrees in some places. We carried along a sweatshirt, sweater and jacket each.
The days can be bright and sunny. Sunglasses and a cap come in handy.
Wear comfortable shoes. There is a LOT of walking around to be done in Egypt. And like me if have been totally slothful in the recent past it may be a good idea to get some exercise before the trip. A lot of days we walked for around 3 hours totally but sustaining that day after day and not being too tired to skip some parts would require some energy
Desert special – apart from the above, the desert requires a bit of additional packing –
Temperature variations in a single day are huge. So layering clothes is a good idea. Apart from the winter clothes mentioned above, I also had gloves and a woolen cap. For the day, I had a scarf to tie around my hair. It is too windy for a cap and the sand gets into your hair real fast.
It is good to check what kind of tent is going to be used and ask for covered ones if needed. Ours was just two walls erected at right angles. So absolutely no privacy to change. However the experience of sleeping under the moon and stars was worth it.
Good to wear floaters and socks instead of shoes since sand tends to get in and stay in shoes. Also good to have toilet paper handy since toilets are usually just a quick dash to the back of some handy rock outcrop.
Egypt is definitely one of those must-see places and thanks to all the planning (mostly by D), we had a pretty good time.