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Trip Report June 2010 Egypt Adventure

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When I first returned home from this trip I was too exhausted to write about it. Now that everyone has stopped asking about my experiences the memories are starting to fade, so I figured writing up a detailed trip report would be fun for me and hopefully helpful to others.

Some background: My roommate J and I took a 16 day trip to Egypt and Turkey this past June (2010). We are both single females in our late 20s/early 30s. Egypt was J's dream destination and Turkey was mine. We're do-it-yourself, budget style travelers. In Egypt we spent time in Cairo, Luxor, and Dahab.

Before we get into the details, here are some top pieces of advice:
1) Egypt cost a lot more than I thought it would. I knew about the culture of baksheesh (tipping), but I figured that with such a good exchange rate, the trip would still be rather inexpensive. What I didn't count on was that because prices generally aren't fixed, you'll pay tourist price for everything, and be expected to tip on top of that. We were generous at first but tightened our fists as we went along.

2) Normally vacationing with a tour operator is not the least expensive way to go. However, in Egypt you need a car to get anywhere, and trust me, you don't want to drive. So if you're not traveling with a tour company, you end up paying for a driver. And if you want someone to tell you about what you're seeing, you have to pay for a guide too. I wished that we had gone with a tour company; it may have saved us money, and I think the experience would have been richer. There are some excellent private and group tour companies listed on this forum.

Best experiences:
1) Cairo - seeing the pyramids at Giza by camel, ascending a minaret at Bab Zuweila, hearing the call to prayer echo from hundreds of minarets, chicken shawarma
2) Luxor - falucca ride, being alone with my thoughts in a temple in the cool of the morning
3) Dahab - snorkeling, cheap falafel sandwiches, drinking milkshakes and relaxing in restaurants, watching World Cup games with Europeans who actually care about football (I was quickly corrected when I called it soccer).

Day by day report on its way . . .

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    Day 1: Cairo

    We arrived in the evening and were picked up by our driver from the Paris hotel. I'd heard horror stories about traffic in Egypt. Yes, it's crazy, but when you think of it along the lines of an amusement park ride, it's actually kind of fun. I was thrilled by the sight of hundreds of minarets. I took a class on Islamic art in college and fell in love with Islamic art and architecture.

    We stayed at the Paris Hotel, right in downtown Cairo. The location is good and safe. It doesn't look like much at all on the outside, but it was decorated nicely inside. Waleed, the owner/manager was very helpful and accommodating. The best thing about this hotel (which we didn't appreciate until later) is the air conditioning. . .best air conditioning in Egypt!

    The next morning Said arrived to pick us up. He drove us to Giza, stopping at a couple of great viewpoints to take pictures of the Nile and of the pyramids from a distance. Once in Giza I requested that he take us to FB stables, of which I had read favorable reviews, but Said claimed he had never heard of them and took us to some stables that he must have had an agreement with. We bargained a bit but ended up paying what I'm sure was much, much more than needed for a camel/horse tour of the pyramids (if I recall correctly, we payed 350 pounds each, a little less than $70).

    Our camel and horse looked relatively healthy, not as malnourished as some. When you tour the pyramids by camel/horse you enter at a back gate, one different from those coming by bus or car. We entered the gate just as the site opened and got pristine desert vistas. Our guide was personable but claimed that we couldn't get close to the two largest pyramids due to government restrictions. It's true that the guards no longer allow tourists to climb the pyramids, but I'm sure that we could have gotten much closer than we did. I think our guide was just trying to end the tour more quickly so that he could start his next tour and make more money. Overall though, it was a fabulous experience - one that you have to have when you visit Cairo.

    Next Said drove us to Sakkara. By this time is was pretty hot, so the short film and museum exhibit were a welcome break. After that we wandered around the pyramid site.

    We continued on to Dashour, were we descended into the Red Pyramid. The experience of going inside a pyramid was neat, but there really wasn't much to see inside. We sure felt the climb up and down in our legs the next day! Dashour is definitely not a must see, so don't feel bad about skipping it if you can't get there.

    After resting at the hotel we went back to Giza for dinner. I had found a reference online to a restaurant called Barrys, which was supposed to have a great view of the pyramids. The reference mentioned that the restaurant is hard to find, and boy was it! Our driver had to stop numerous times, but he finally got us there. It was well worth it too. The restaurant is located right outside the pyramid site gates and has a large rooftop/veranda seating area. The food was great too. While eating we saw the sound and light show (from a distance of course) twice. I kind of wish we had arrived earlier to see the sunset, but the night experience was great too.

    Day 2
    Said was our driver again for this day. We started at Coptic Cairo, which was much more compact that I had anticipated. Everything is very close together. The Hanging Church was unfortunately undergoing a lot of restoration, so there was scaffolding covering a portion of the exterior and the interior looked something like a move in process. There was still a lot to see and admire, however. We also visited the Church of St. George, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue. All were relatively quick visits.

    Next we headed to the Citadel. The Ottoman-style mosque of Muhammed Ali was beautiful. I wish we had taken more time to just sit inside and relax. The older Mosque of al-Nasir Muhammed was also beautiful and provides a great illustration of different styles of mosques. At the Citadel we learned that when you ask an Egyptian for directions, they don't necessarily tell you where you want to go, they tell you where they want you to go (okay, maybe not all Egyptians. Making blanket statements is dangerous, but most all of the ones we asked for directions took this approach). While looking for a certain corner of the Citadel, we asked a guard for directions. Instead he took us to his "museum"--having us look through small cut outs in the doors of various cells. In broken English but with relish, he narrated the stories of the dusty mannequins, which were posed to exhibit the myriad ways in which Egypt’s rulers have tortured and disposed of conquered regimes throughout history. We quickly took our leave and found our own way. The mosques at the Citadel are beautiful and it offers some great views, but I found the price a bit steep, especially since we weren't interested in visiting more of the (legitimate) museums at the site.

    Next we headed to the Sultan Hassan mosque. The scale of this mosque is just incredible! We visited in the heat of the afternoon and the mosque was practically empty. It was very peaceful and relaxing.

    The next stop was Bab Zuweila, the old city gate with two minarets perched atop. Climbing to the top of this minaret was one of my favorite experiences in Cairo. What views! My advice is to grab some falafel or shawarma sandwiches and have a picnic on the balcony of the minaret (as long as that's not disrespectful, of course).

    After passing through Bab Zuweila we continued on to Khan el Khalili. It find it ironic and amusing that the more "authentic" bazaars where the locals shop are filled with western-style goods that aren't interesting or exciting to us tourists. The big bazaars where we buy "Egyptian goods" aren't frequented by actual Egyptians. Frustrated with my terrible bargaining skills, I didn't buy much here. I wish I had bought more stone jewelry though.

    Overall I really liked Cairo. I had heard that it can be scary, especially for American women traveling without a male, but I never felt threatened or in danger. It's a big city with a big city vibe. Yes it's dirtier than many American cities, but anyone who has traveled to developing countries shouldn't be shocked by Cairo.

    That night we packed up and caught a sleeper train to Luxor for the next part of our adventure.

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    Day 3
    The sleeper train to Luxor was nice and convenient. The train was late, but since we were originally scheduled to arrive about 5am, it didn't throw off our schedule. As others have mentioned, the food was terrible. My advice would be to not even attempt to eat it.

    In Luxor we stayed at the Boomerang Hotel. This was a great place. The owner, Mia, is absolutely fabulous. The only downside to the Boomerang is that the rooms aren't air conditioned. When you're in Luxor in June - which is not a smart situation to be in in the first place - air conditioning is kind of a must. So stay at the Boomerang, just don't go to Luxor during the middle of summer.

    On our first day in Luxor we didn't get out the door to start out site seeing until 10am, which is about the time you want to be finishing up if you want to avoid being scorched. We first visited the Valley of the Kings. We didn't pay extra to see Tut's tomb, but we saw three others that were included with general admission. The tombs were lovely, but suffocatingly hot.

    Next we visited Hatshesput's temple, which was incredible. I wish we had spent more time here, but unfortunately the heat caused us to see and move on more quickly than I am used to.

    The Temple of Seti was next - not a must see. There are plenty of temples in Luxor and there's no particular reason to see this one unless you are seriously in to ancient Egypt and must see everything.

    After returning from our sightseeing on the West Bank, Mia set us up with a falucca "captain" who turned out to be a boy, maybe 14 years old. At first I was surprised, but Mohammed was an excellent sailor and his "associate" Captain Cook (I can't remember his real name, and this is how he first introduced himself - another boy who was even younger) was highly entertaining. This ride turned out to be the highlight of Luxor. Being out on the water was cool and relaxing. We stopped at Banana Island were we got a great tour by Captain Cook and ate fresh bananas. The ride back was slow and leisurely and I caught some great sunset over the Nile photos.

    Day 4
    The next day we were up and out the door by 6am, which is the way to see Luxor in the summer. Our first stop was the Ramesseum, which was gorgeous in the morning sunlight. There was a little dog there who liked me (most likely because I had cookies in my purse); he was a bit mangy but sweet. The site was empty and that, combined with the relatively cool temperature, put me in a great mood.

    We moved on to Deir el Medina, the worker's village. I expected to find this site really interesting - to find out what life was like for the average person - but really there wasn't much there to see. I will take a minute now to warn of the "guides" - local men who will show you around a tomb or temple and then ask for money. Unless you plan on paying these men, do not let them give you a tour. You will have to walk away and repeatedly say "no guide." There were some that were kind, that offered great information, that graciously accepted what I gave them as a tip, but there were also some that were aggressive, annoying, insulting, and asked for more money whatever I gave them. I arrived in Egypt with the mentality that although I am in no way wealthy, I do have a lot of opportunities and resources to be grateful for, and I was completely willing to share when I could and play by the rules of a different culture. But after being hounded constantly by touts, my patience was really worn thin.

    Medinat Habu is the one temple that is must see, in my opinion. It was amazing. There are carvings and hieroglyphics everywhere, and the temple is huge! Quite a bit of color has been preserved.

    Next we toured the Temple of Luxor, which was also nice. If you're strapped for time and/or cash, I would suggest visiting Medinat Habu and just walking around the Luxor temple site (without paying to go in). The inside of the temple looks pretty similar to that of other temples (at least to the non-expert's eye) and the site is pretty open, so you can walk around and get a great view of the temple without actually going in.

    That night we planned, and attempted, to go to the sound and light show at Karnak. However, despite the fact that the temple of huge, we couldn't find it in the dark. By this time I was so sick of constant taxi, carriage, etc. offers that we gave it up and went back to the hotel. As I said, I never felt endangered while in Egypt, but by this time I was more than ready to leave Luxor. Being offered a taxi doesn't sound all that annoying, but when it's over 100 degrees out, when you're stomach is in knots from the food and you're probably suffering from partial heat exhaustion, and when the offers are constant and you never have a moment's peace, well it all adds up. This sounds negative, and it is, but it's a fair portrait of my experience in Egypt (Luxor to be specific). I had great experiences in this country, but there were definitely moments when I couldn't wait to leave.

    One of the reasons we gave up on seeing Karnak so quickly is that my roommate, J, had already arranged to tour the temple with an Egyptologist the next morning. About five minutes into the tour I started feeling dizzy and lightheaded, so I went back to the air conditioned visitor's center and waited out the tour there. I hadn't had much trouble sleeping in an un-airconditioned room, but my body did feel the effects of not being able to cool down completely. I generally like heat; I didn't know I was such a wuss!

    After J's temple tour, we were dropped off at the airport for our flight to Dahab. I was certainly ready for some beach time!

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    I have a question about the camel ride and entrance through the back gate -

    First, you may laugh at this, but if you remember where the back gate was that you entered through, imagine facing the gate - now look to your left. FB Stables is on that road about 100 meters away (mabye less)

    Now my question is - do you remember paying 60LE each for a ticket into Giza at any point? If not then your "guide" paid off the policemen at that gate to allow you to sneak in (which is really really illegal these days - I haven't been able to get in that way in a couple years) - we used to do it there all the time for some small backsheesh. My guess is also that this is why your guide would not take you closer to the pyramids, as he knew darn well the police up near the actual pyramids would know him as one that does this and ask to see your tickets, which you wouldn't have, which would get him in trouble.
    If you do have ticket stubs that he purchased for you somewhere/somehow, then you would probably be rigbht about him just wanting to cut the time down to get back and get another tour.

    A couple other comments - 1) you mentioned hoping to see paintings of what real life was like on the walls at Deir el Medina, but not finding them. For people that want to see this - have your guide take you into one or more of the many tombs open in Sakkara. They are carved on the walls there, but that is EXACTLY what you will see. It's fabulous.
    2) Regarding Dashure - I think it is a good site to see. To get the explanation of the trial and errors made and learn about Snefru, really completes the missing link between what you see in Sakkara and then in Giza. I love Dashure.

    Your report is fun to read and I sure sympathise with your feeling about Luxor. I just want to take a 2x4 and teach those knotheads about Marketing. AAARRRRUUUUGGGGG! :O

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    Casual Cairo,

    That must be exactly what the guide did. We paid the guide directly, and I don't recall any ticket stubs. I guess on the one hand it was worth it to have the wonderful, non-crowded views that we did, but on the other hand I feel bad that none of that money went to the official site.

    Regarding all of the squatter "guides" at the sites in Luxor, I kept thinking that if the government cared at all about tourism, they would kick those guys off the sits. But it doesn't look like Egypt has much of a problem attracting tourists.

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    Wow, it's been almost a year and I haven't finished this trip report. Picking up where I left off . . .

    When I started planning our trip to Egypt I didn't really consider the beach, but a friend who had lived in Cairo suggested that we spend time time on the Sinai Peninsula. He advised us to avoid the pricey resort town of Sharm el Sheik and instead head to Dahab, which has more of a backpacker's town feel. What good advice! Our time is Dahab were some of the best days of the trip.

    We flew from Luxor to Sharm el Sheik, a short and easy flight, and quickly found the driver from the Red Sea Relax resort. The drive to Dahab took about 40 minutes and took us through what felt like the interior of the peninsula. I kept wondering when I'd see that beautiful turquoise water I had seen from the airplane.

    I was impressed with the Red Sea Relax resort. It's certainly not a Marriott or a Hilton or what you'd typically envision when you picture a resort, but for a budget hotel/hostel, it's pretty nice. We had a private room, which was located across the street from the main facilities. Our room was located in a building with one or two other rooms, and we shared a bathroom with the occupants of those rooms. Although I could see evidence of others' comings and goings, I never actually encountered another person while in the building. The main facilities include a bright white building and a desk of friendly attendants, a pool, a dive shop, and an area of padded lounge chairs, tables, and umbrellas on the beach.

    The beaches in Dahab are not of the white sand variety, but each hotel has its area of lounge chairs and tables. Also, there are numerous restaurants right on the beach. Our favorite was one called Same Same but Different. Instead of normal tables and chairs there were rugs, cushions, and low tables. We made a routine of eating cheap (<$1) falafel sandwiches from one of the shops off the beach and then coming to this restaurant for milkshakes.

    I wasn't prepared for how exquisitely beautiful the Red Sea is. The water is crystal clear. One morning we rented a kayak, and in the shallow areas we could easily see all of the fish and coral beneath us. Snorkeling was an even more exciting experience. A huge variety of fish swim right along the shallow reef; I saw new varieties each time I went out, including a lionfish, which I thought was really neat. I thought seriously about going on a guided tour to the Blue Hole, but deep water kind of freaks me out, so I decided against it. Maybe I missed out, but the snorkeling around "our" beach completely satisfied me.

    Most people come to Dahab to dive - the Red Sea is one of the best diving sites in the world - but since I'm not SCUBA certified and wasn't there long enough to become so, I was content with my snorkeling mask and fins.

    We were there during the first days of the World Cup (including the US vs England game), and it was really fun to watch the games with Europeans and Egyptians who were really into soccer. Our resort had a rooftop bar where they showed the games, and large screens projecting the games were set up all along the beach.

    An interesting note about Dahab - it felt like little Australia. A good portion of the people I met were Australians stopping off for 1, 3, 6, months. Many of the native Egyptians even spoke English with Australian accents. I don't know what it is about Australian culture that allows so many people to vacation for such a long time, but I want in on it!

    While you could certainly keep yourself busy with activities in Dahab, the main attraction of the town is its laid back vibe. I really enjoyed hours of reading, snorkeling, napping in the sun, and eating. My only complaint was that it was pretty impossible to get away from cigarette smoke. There aren't really any non-smoking areas in Egypt. After a couple of days lounging next to people who were smoking, I developed a sore throat and runny nose, which was annoying. Other than that though, Dahab was paradise!

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