Egypt Travel Guide – 12 DAYS FOLLOWING THE NILE FROM CAIRO TO LUXOR
As my plane approached it was easy to see the importance of the Nile to Egypt and how it made their civilization so powerful for thousands of years. For trade and farming, and to transport the granite and sandstone for its famous tombs and temples; the Nile was crucial.
The river winds through the center of Egypt with tributaries branching off like veins, spreading greenery and life along its banks before slowly fading into the desert again. The cities, clusters of bland buildings too follow the Nile and this is how the cycle continues until the Great Pyramids dwarf everything else around them. What an introduction to Egypt.
However, it has made me sad to visit a country with so much rich and interesting history in the state that Egypt is in. I’ve found Egypt to be a wondrous place full of monuments that shouldn’t even be standing let alone be in the condition they are in. But it is also a place of poverty and desperation that I’m sure the Pharaoh’s of old would be ashamed to see.
Thoughts Before Traveling
The Egyptian tourism trade has been decimated since the revolution: Although tourists are starting to return, I found that independent travelers were rare.
The lack of tourist has added desperation to the famous hassle of the Egyptians. I even experienced a few cases of hostility from salesmen I didn’t buy from.
Egypt is very cheap – I averaged £28 a day. I had plenty of luxury that could be avoided if you want to visit even cheaper.
If going when I did, in March, sandstorms can grind the country to a halt. Bare all this in mind and prepare yourself for the challenges ahead. Do this and I promise that you will find Egypt to a wonderful; after all, with great challenge comes great reward.
Whistle Stop Tour of Cairo
I arrived in Egypt via an overnight stop in Istanbul, so went straight to my accommodation; The Dahab hostel near Tahir Square in the Downtown area. It is a nice hostel with a great rooftop to meet other travelers. As far as meeting independent travelers and backpackers, this place was fairly busy.
On my first day, I’d planned to visit the nearby Cairo museum and leave the Pyramids for my second day. I’d always heard great things about the museum so I was excited to finally see the treasures it holds. It is located at Tahir square so I walked from my hostel to see where the revolution had begun in 2007, grabbing a 10EGP Egyptian Pizza on my way. The revolution was, in fact, the starting point of the collapse in the tourist industry and the Egyptian economy; As one Egyptian told me over a coffee later in the trip, “the revolution failed”.
Most others I met were more optimistic than he was, but with the stationing of the army and police throughout the square I couldn’t help but think that nothing much will improve in the near future. To enter the museum you must pass through a police checkpoint – once inside you can buy a ticket (120EGP- half that with a valid International Student Card – This applies at all sights) and pass through yet more security.
This security is required at every place that has an entrance fee. The Cairo museum contains some of the most fascinating relics and heirlooms from every era of ancient Egypt that you could wish to see. So it is a shame that it is the worst signposted, least informed collection in any museum I’ve visited. I walked around on my own, gawking at the hieroglyphics, trying to understand the story they were telling. And I was in awe of the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamen.
Unfortunately, almost everything but King Tut’s treasure seems to have been randomly placed as if it just an ordinary object and not a thousand-year-old relic. I still found it incredibly interesting just looking at the collection, which includes everything from Ancient Egyptian Mummies and Sarcophagus to jewelry and pottery. But if you want any deeper understanding of what you are looking at then you’ll need a guide.
Fortunately, there many of them vying for your custom outside the building. I’m told that there is a new museum due to open in Cairo to replace the current one, so hopefully, soon they will be able to do justice to the thousands of objects on show there.
How To Get To The Pyramids – Scam free!
The next morning, armed with directions to reach the Great Pyramids, I left the hostel early and headed to the metro to go to Giza, the home of the Pyramids. Except it is n’t. You might expect that having something so grand, so unique and so historically important that it’d be easy for tourists to get to. Not in Egypt! Some people I met took Uber to save bartering with a taxi, others took tours; both options cost more than going it alone but are more convenient and it skips most of the local scams.
If you know where to go from Giza metro to catch the bus then it isn’t hard to reach the Pyramids, but there are no signposts to the buses from the metro and asking a local just leads to a scam. But don’t worry, I’ll tell you how – if you do not have a local sim card I recommend downloading Maps.me app first; From the metro head to the opposite side of the tracks from where you arrived and you’ll see minibusses stopped all along the road, which is called El Haram. The buses will be facing the opposite direction to the Pyramids, but they turn around here.
The Arabic word or Pyramid is Haram – say that and they will quickly let you know if they are going there. The drive is about 10 minutes, depending on traffic. It isn’t obvious where to get off of the bus because they can’t drive right to the entrance. You need to take a short walk from the road to the ticket office, so ask the driver to let you know where to get off. The bus costs 1.5EGP. Don’t do what I did and ask a local; you see there are two entrances to the Pyramids, the main entrance and also the Sphinx entrance. Unless you want to ride a horse 12km along the dunes to see the Pyramids from afar, it is best to go to the main entrance.
This is because at the main entrance you can buy all tickets – entry to the site and additional tickets for entering two of the Pyramids and for the boat museum; the Sphinx entrance only sells site entrance tickets. Do not let anyone tell that it is cheaper from one entrance or that it has changed since the lonely planet was printed, it is complete rubbish. I asked a local for directions to the bus and spent half an hour of him trying to convince me to go to the Sphinx entrance and me saying no.
Finally, he gave in and passed me off to a man from Alexandria who was with his teenage son. He assured me he was going to the main entrance and I assumed as he had a child with him I could trust him, but one bus and one tuk-tuk later I was at the Sphinx entrance and sat on a horse.
I explained why I was unhappy and why I was so, so annoyed with him and went through on foot to the Sphinx entrance before having to walk all the way to the main entrance for the extra tickets. Overall, it took me more than 3 hours to make the 30-minute journey and collect my tickets. Please, learn from my mistakes.
The scamming doesn’t stop once inside; don’t let anyone who asks take a picture of you with your camera and don’t show your ticket to random people who ask as you walk by, they are guides and they’ll all want tips. You’ll be hassled a lot at the Pyramids which can make the whole experience less enjoyable, but there is no avoiding it.
The collection of the nine pyramids at Giza are a fantastic sight, but overall I was a little underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, they are some of the most impressive structures you’re likely to ever see, being that they are thousands of years old an still standing strong. What I did find underwhelming was the inside of the Pyramids. It costs more than twice the entrance fee for the site just to enter the Great Pyramid.
You climb a steep staircase in a stuffy tunnel leading to an empty tomb. Sure it is amazing to see the structure on the inside but other than that there is absolutely nothing to see. I had heard this was the case from other backpackers, but thought to myself ‘I’ve not come all the way to Egypt to not enter the Great Pyramid‘ and I expect you to think that too – but if you do spend 160EGP on it, remember I warned you 😉 What is a better idea is to visit the tomb of Queen Hetepheres which is of the smaller Pyramids.
It comes as part of entrance fee and is a better example of the layout of the tomb – the guards are pretty clear that you can take a picture if you warm their hands with a 10E£ bribe. You can also enter Menkaure’s Pyramid which is the third largest Pyramid. It is distinguishable from the huge chunk of stone missing from its front; this costs 60EGP, a fraction of the Great Pyramid.
Don’t miss the tomb of Hermon before leaving which is north of the second pyramid, it has some fantastic hieroglyphics which I found to be one of the most interesting parts of the site. To get back wait where the last minibus dropped you off, say Giza and they’ll say yes or no.
I’d only planned to stay one night and two days in Cairo as I’d heard lots of negativity about the city from people who had visited before, and all the things I’d been told were true; it is loud, chaotic and dirty. Tourists don’t stay long before setting off to Upper Egypt and I was no exception. Did I hate it like everyone who I knew who had been before? No, I’ve certainly been to worse places. But I also had no desire to stay and see anywhere else in Cairo.
I was already fed up with the scammers, its polluted air and besides, I’d come to see Temples and ancient carvings telling stories of Gods and Pharaohs and there wasn’t much more of that to see in a big city like Cairo. I wanted to follow the Nile south to Aswan and it was here where I really found out the effect the bad tourist trade was having.
The journey to Upper Egypt
I had pre-booked the overnight sleeping train to Aswan from back home. The train was delayed and arrived late, which isn’t unusual. In total it took 14 hours.
For those interested in the sleeping train book tickets here. For any other train, information go here this website is the most informative place for train travel anywhere in the world – backpackers bookmark it! This is one of the costs you can cut down on by taking the seater train or the Gobus from Tahir square for a fraction of the price.
In the station I met and drank tea with an Egyptian doctor; his goodwill and kindness for the hour we chatted had cheered me up and by the time my train arrived I felt more positive about the rest of my trip. We spoke about his life, Egypt, the revolution and of course, footballer Mohammed Salah.
He listened out at the Arabic station updates and made sure I got my train. The sleeper train in Egypt is very comfortable, each compartment has just two beds, a sink with a mirror and a lockable door. It was one of the more enjoyable sleeper trains I have taken.
In the morning rows of vibrant green palm trees, a color so scarce in Cairo shaded my window. The only time their line broke it showed the Nile reflecting the morning sun; The train follows the Nile for the entire route making for beautiful scenery. I couldn’t help but smile, this was the Egypt I had imagined; The Egypt I came to see.
I found it difficult to find anywhere cheap to stay in Aswan, so against my better judgment, I stayed at Yassen Hotel. It has pretty bad reviews online which are accurate, but it is very close to the train station and the cheapest in town.
The hotel was run down and empty of guests just like the entire city. Occasionally Id spot a tourist, but rarely. I booked a trip for Abu Simbel for the next morning for 150EGP – you can get it for as low as 120EGP if you shop around – and went to find a Felucca to take me on a three day and night trip to Edfu via Kom Ombo.
This was something I struggled to get up to date information about both online and via Lonely Planet and although you’ll be offered everything from Felucca to drugs on the riverside, no one ever offered extended trips to me. So here’s what I discovered, there are not enough tourists in Aswan to make it worth the cost. Most captains declined to even price the trip, others asked for hundreds of US dollars. The lowest price I had quoted was 3000EGP for a Felucca; including food but sleeping on the deck of the boat and not at homestays.
The captains won’t even bother trying to find anyone else to join because they know they won’t find anyone, they leave that up to you. I sat with one Captain at the Aswan Moon who showed me his book of reviews. There were hundreds, all in different languages. But only one since 2011. Looking over the Nile I would perhaps see one or two felucca taking tourists to Elephantine Island or catching the sunset, but hundreds moored up.
I didn’t want to pay that amount of money. I’d met a fellow backpackers so we decided would have to try and recruit others ourselves which wouldn’t be easy. Luckily, at Abu Simbel, we were given a very intriguing offer.
Abu Simbel (entry 200EGP) is a 3-hour drive south towards Sudan and for that reason, you have to up and ready to leave by 4 am. The journey there was OK, a smooth road splits the desert and the sun slowly rises for most of the trip, turning the sand different tones of orange as it does. Abu Simbel itself has been moved from one location in 1979 to its current one to save it from being swallowed by the Nile. That in itself sounds impressive, but once you see it the thought of it being moved and still being so epic seems an impossibility. It was chopped up into over 2000 pieces are reassembled!