Dahab

Sinai, that triangular peninsula that rests between the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea, is nothing like the rest of Egypt. Dahab in particular is absolutely nothing like one could imagine in the Arab world. In fact, during our incredible week in Dahab, we often forgot that we were still in Egypt. Yes, camels and bedouins can be found roaming about, but the landscape sparkles with beauty, the laid-back atmosphere relaxes the soul, and the chaos of traffic does not exist. Hookahs and even beer were also not uncommon.img_20170101_112734

Catering to independent backpackers, hippies, wanderers, scuba divers, and beach junkies, Dahab’s tiny waterfront boasts numerous international cafes, restaurants, and inexpensive hotels. Decent music softly plays from all the eateries as opposed to repetitive religious music throughout the rest of Egypt. To top it off, touts in Dahab also prefer to do business at a leisurely pace, and the Red Sea is a beautiful sea that has earned world-class recognition for its underwater treasures. It would be dangerous to come to Dahab without an itinerary; time would fly by and the days could easily become weeks. img_7929

Of our 3.5 weeks spent in Egypt, we spent an entire week in Dahab. We could have stayed longer. Beautiful and stress-free, yet with so much to do. Considering how filthy, exhausting, and exhilarating the rest of Egypt is, Dahab is truly the *best* place to spend one’s final days in Egypt.

What exactly did we do in Dahab? Other than relaxing and hanging out at beach cafes, we didn’t do a whole lot. But I lay out the details below. img_20161229_163248

$1 cappuccinos along the Red Sea? Yes, please. Make that everyday.img_7946

Souvenir shops cannot be avoided when strolling along the promenade for the first time.img_7932

Okay, fine, maybe they can be avoided. But the fresh seafood restaurants CANNOT be passed. Not only is the seafood fresh and incredible, it is freakin’ CHEAP.  The most popular restaurant is Shark, and for good reason. Check out the ambience at this place. And better yet, we got all this fresh food for 180 LE (less than $10). We even picked our fish of choice in the storefront.img_7927img_20161227_183822

We “splurged” on a 280 LE ($15) seafood platter at another popular restaurant, Nemo. img_7959img_7957

Aside from the unbelievably cheap and delicious seafood, we scuba dived, biked, snorkeled, and hiked. Not far north of the town center is a trail leading up into the rocky hills that overlook the Red Sea. Round trip is only a few miles and the hike makes a quick, independent trip. Hikers can even wave hello to Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea.img_20161229_151552img_7938

On another day, we rented two crappy bikes from some random bike stand in town for 100 LE ($5.30), rented snorkeling gear for 25 LE ($1.33) each, and pedaled 5 miles out to the famous Blue Hole. Tour agencies all over Dahab sell snorkeling trips to the Blue Hole for only 60 LE ($3), but we preferred our own schedule and adventure. I assumed the Blue Hole was overhyped and that we’d be underwhelmed due to our scuba experiences, but after swimming out into the hole I immediately saw how wrong I was; the Blue Hole certainly deserves its reputation. Unfortunately we forgot to bring the GoPro for underwater footage; just take my word that the walls of coral and sea life resemble scenes from Disney’s Finding Nemo. You can enjoy photos from our quick cycling trip along the coast.

Because I have no footage to share from our dives, you just have to believe how epic diving is in the Red Sea. There are literally dozens of dive sites along the coast of Dahab, but perhaps the most famous dive site of all is the Thistlegorm wreck dive near Sharm el Sheikh. Thistlegorm is a British armed naval ship that was bombed and sunk by a German plane in 1941.  Diving down and into the sunken ship not only entails fantastic sea life but also cargo trucks, motorcycles, machine guns, military equipment, and more. Hovering above these sunken artifacts in the deep dark blue with flashlights is nothing short of surreal. It is an absolute must for divers, despite the effort required to get there.

Although located significantly closer to Sharm el Sheikh, I read that it is cheaper to dive with a dive shop from Dahab than from Sharm.  (My guess is that Sharm caters to the higher-end resort crowds, while Dahab caters to budget travelers.) Due to the time and travel involved, the logistics require plenty of energy and an entire day. I explain below about how to dive at Thistlegorm.

First, due to the low number of tourists, you must tell a dive shop that you are interested in diving at Thistlegorm. Dive shops coordinate with other dive shops to gather enough interest, and once the minimum headcount is met, the trip is a go. The journey begins between 3-4am with a shuttle picking up all divers from their hotels in Dahab, followed by an hour-long drive to the boat harbor at Sharm el Sheikh. At around 6am the boat departs the marina and heads for Thistlegorm, about 2.5 hours out to the Gulf of Suez. From 9am to noon, divers make two dives with a long decompression time between; the first dive goes around the wreck, and the second goes into the wreck. After the two wreck dives, the boat heads to Ras Mohammed National Park for the final, third dive. And finally, the boat heads back to Sharm el Sheikh, where everyone rests for one hour of decompression time before heading back up to Dahab. The shuttle returns to Dahab between 7:30-8pm. A long, exhausting, yet epic day at the cost of only 120€ per person! That price covers three dives, dive equipment and gear, land and boat transportation, and a delicious, hot breakfast and lunch. Incredible deal!

Between all the eating, diving, and relaxing, I also quickly learned that the animals in Dahab are probably the best-treated animals in Egypt. While the strays in other Egyptian cities are filthy, defensive, and terrified, all the strays in Dahab are well loved and friendly. I befriended every cat and dog I came across. Sometimes, the dog picked me too.img_20170103_085448

***

I write this exactly a month after leaving Dahab. I continue to miss Dahab, and think about it from time to time. Out of Cairo, Giza, Aswan, Luxor, and the White Desert, we long for Dahab most. Compared with other dive towns in Malaysia, Thailand, and the Galapagos, Dahab simply offered the most attractive environment and dive culture. When I speak of Dahab to friends who have visited, we all exhale a wistful sigh and the words, “Oh, Dahab…” barely escape from our lips. The people, food, music, vibe, weather, underwater life, and animals are all factors that bring people together in Dahab and makes it difficult for anyone to leave.

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A White Desert Christmas

It seems as if most people traveling to Egypt only have enough time to check out the “must-do’s” which include the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian museum in Cairo, the magnificent archeological sites in Luxor and further to the south, and the handful of souqs and bazaars tucked in the cities. Once we exhausted the list of “must-do’s” in a brief two weeks, we spent our final 1.5 weeks in Egypt doing what we wanted to do. This not only entailed travel to Egypt’s lesser known natural landscapes, but also the wonderful void of giant tour buses and aggressive touts. Doing what we wanted to do ended up being a relaxing “vacation” to conclude our 3.5-week trip in Egypt.

As it was December, we longed to plow through some sand via jeep safari in the breathtaking White Desert for Christmas. I almost opted to skip the White Desert, but upon telling a native Egyptian friend my plan, he exclaimed, “But the White Desert is incredible!” We were obliged to visit the desert after that remark. Due to its remote location, the need for an off-roading vehicle, and security level concerns, there isn’t an option to tour the White Desert independently. Even if there is that option, I couldn’t recommend it; it would take forever to find the landmarks and you’d probably get lost.

Upon online research I discovered the highly-rated Hamada, a local Bedouin who offered tours within the vast White Desert. Travelers can pick their own itinerary from 1 day to a month, but it seems as if the most popular tours range from 2-4 days. We opted for 3-days/2-nights, at the rate of 4,400 LE (~$230) for 2 people. While we thoroughly enjoyed our trip and loved the hospitality of Hamada, we did discover later on that White Desert tours could also be booked at budget hostels in Cairo (i.e. Dahab Hostel or One Season Hotel) for roughly half that price. If you want a guaranteed excellent time, Hamada will make that happen; however, I can’t imagine how any tour company could mess up this jeep safari tour…but hey, it’s Egypt! 😉

On Day 1 a driver picked us up at 8am at our Cairo hotel and drove us 4 hours to the Bahariya Oasis where we would begin our White Desert tour. There, we joined a family of three also touring the desert. Before setting out for nowhere, we chowed down on a homemade lunch prepared by our Bedouin drivers.

After lunch we set off from Bahariya Oasis to the White Desert and made several stops at natural landmarks along the way.  A quick visit to the Black Desert:img_7799

Crystal Mountain:img_20161224_152554

The highlight of Day 1 was the valley of El Agabat.img_20161224_160127img_20161224_161011

Immediately after plunging through the valley, we parked and set up for camp.img_2391img_7816

Our drivers set up the common area where meals were served. The bright colors of the fabric are quite festive, don’t you think?img_20161224_173159img_2402

We even had the option to sleep in the common area after the tables were cleared, literally under the thousands of stars, buuuut it was so damn cold that night we chickened out and opted for a pop-up tent instead. Between the thick mattress pads, sleeping bag, and three layers of camel wool blankets, it was surprisingly toasty. The darkness, silence, and glistening stars were surreal compared to the chaos of Cairo the night before.img_20161224_182248

In the morning after breakfast and breaking down camp, we set out for a full day of desert exploration.pano_20161225_104312img_2425

We finally had the opportunity to view the magical white of the White Desert.img_783900017xtr_00017_burst20161225114918

Perhaps the most amusing site is Magic Springs, literally a small oasis smack in the middle of nowhere. We’ve all seen cartoons and comics of a nomad with his camel stumbling upon an oasis in the desert; well, it turns out that these random oases actually do exist.img_20161225_122854

Bedouins have known about all the oases in the White Desert for hundreds or thousands of years.  Some have even built a structure around them to create isolated pools of water. We assume the camels drink from the lowest pool.img_20161225_122140

We lunched beside Magic Springs and then continued our safari into the heart of the White Desert.  To our disbelief, we learned that the entire White Desert was once an ocean bed, as evidenced by the thousands of shell and clam fossils strewn about. Now instead of an ocean bed, the desert is filled with incredible white rock formations made of chalk.

It was a different kind of white Christmas.img_20161225_153239img_7908

Our last meal in the White Desert:img_7916

That night we decided to sleep out in the open under the stars. While Chris had slept under the stars as a boy scout, I never had.  Four thick camel wool blankets kept us incredibly warm despite the near-freezing temperatures. Every now and then in the middle of the night I peeked out from under the blankets to catch a glimpse of the stars. I even witnessed a pink and purple sunrise from my blanket, just for a few minutes before the cold could numb my face. If you ever have the opportunity to sleep out in the open on a clear night, I highly recommend it!img_20161225_202835

The next morning after breakfast we made one final excursion to a cluster of giant mushrooms and a small chick. This chick resembled a marshmallow peep Easter candy.img_20161226_104429img_7918

The mushrooms concluded our tour of the White Desert. From there it was a long drive back to Bahariya Oasis, and then another incredibly long, exhausting drive back to Cairo.

After having visited 25 of 60 national parks in the US, I assumed the White Desert wouldn’t have been able to leave a lasting impression. Clearly, I was wrong.  Climbing up and diving down through steep sand dunes, witnessing ancient desert oases, climbing upon mysterious chalk and rock formations, and sleeping under the stars all amounted to an unforgettable outdoor adventure. Now I tell everyone that no trip to Egypt is complete without a Bedouin safari to some of the most remote parts of the country.

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Luxor

It seems now that many travelers opt to skip Cairo entirely (I don’t blame them; it is rather hectic and disgusting) and head straight to Luxor for all its archeological treasures. While the sites are wonderful and the city is large enough to host an endless array of restaurants and hotels, Luxor has one major problem: its plague of touts.  I read that touts in Luxor are possibly more aggressive than the touts in Cairo and Giza, and with the decimated tour industry, touts are more hungry than ever.

But rather than falling into the easy cycle of frustration and anger, we took advantage of the fact and turned it into a language game. Spanish mostly worked; however, touts who claimed they spoke Spanish, albeit far from conversational, clung on to us anyway out of desperation. We pretended to be deaf at Karnak Temple, which was amusing at first, but quickly got old. I did enjoy the bewildered looks on all the touts’ faces when Chris responded with American sign language. And finally, Vietnamese. That worked like a charm. Egypt receives hoards of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean tourists. But Vietnamese? Nope. Touts had no idea what to do with the Vietnamese language, and they quickly left us alone after I spat out a few Vietnamese sentences. In sum, it’s easy to become exhausted and angry in Luxor, but turning it into a game makes it bearable, even amusing at times.

That said, we were prepared for the herds of touts waiting for us at the exits of all the temples. They attempted to sell horse carriage rides, taxis, water, jewelry, statues, clothes, snacks, you name it. From the famous sites of Luxor Temple and Karnak on the east bank to the Valley of the Kings and Temple of Hatshepsut on the west bank, the touts stood out front salivating for the attempt to rip us off. It was quite the site.

Anyway, now I dive into the notable sites of Luxor.

First, Luxor Temple, which should be seen in the evening for the brilliant display of lights. With its convenient location in the heart of the city, walking there is easy.

The avenue of the sphinxes, which runs 3 km in length, begins at Luxor Temple. It is still under excavation.

Even more mind blowing is the complex of Karnak to the north of the city. It is about a 20-30 minute walk from the city center; we paid 1 LE (5¢) each to take the white microbus to the site and returned by a pleasant stroll along the Nile.  Karnak is more than a temple; it is a massive complex of obelisks, sanctuaries, and temple complexes. Every stone and structure is grand in scale; multiply that to fill 2 square kilometers and you’ve got plenty to explore amidst the tour groups and touts!

While the heart of the city lies on the east bank, the incredible necropolis lies on the west bank. Because our Nile cruise included a tour to the west bank, we did not have to succumb to giving touts our business.  However, the independent traveler could easily cross the Nile by ferry for 1 LE (5¢), follow the locals to the shared microbuses, and take the microbus to the desired location/ticket office for only a few more pounds. Taxi drivers offered the same journey from 20-50 LE ($1-$2.50).

On our way to the Valley of the Kings, we passed by the Colossi of Memnon.img_20161220_153746

We then made our way into a small valley of hills to the Valley of the Kings, which consists of 63 royal tombs. Ticket entry permits entry into 3 tombs. Unfortunately photos are not allowed, but the “guards” will accept bribes for the photo opportunity. One guard went as far as forcing us to open our photo app in our phones to prove we hadn’t taken any photos. After we showed him we hadn’t taken any, he proceeded to tell us we could take a photo (obviously for a tip). Seriously? In any case, I managed to sneak a photo of a beautifully preserved tomb without paying a stupid tip.img_7751

After the Valley of the Kings we then proceeded to the Memorial Temple of Hatshepsut, perhaps the most jaw-dropping site in Luxor. No where else does a temple blend in so naturally with its surrounding environment. Pictures are thankfully allowed here!img_7753

At the end of our temple touring in Aswan, along the Nile, and in Luxor, we exhausted our desire to venture into any more temples. Needless to say, we were “templed out” despite there being even more temples to see within Luxor. With an extra day to spare we decided to independently tour the temple of Dendera in Qena, about 80 km north of Luxor. This time it wasn’t about the destination; it was about the journey. Instead of paying 500-600 LE ($25-$30) for a private taxi, we hopped into a microbus the next morning not quite sure how to get to Dendera and with the plan to rely on the help of locals. Adventure!img_7770

I won’t dive into the details but after 4 different microbuses, a scam, and a shouting match, we eventually made it to Dendera! The first microbus took us from our hotel to the main microbus “station,” where we transferred to another microbus for Qena. This microbus station was about a mile north from the train station along the main road, on the west side of the tracks. The one hour microbus ride from Luxor to Qena cost us 7 LE (30¢) each. A quick shot of Qena:img_20161221_094340

Asking random locals, “Dendera?” led to pointing fingers, and following the pointing fingers led us to a couple more microbuses. Eventually we got dropped off on the main road about a kilometer from the temple. We strolled by sugarcane fields, farmers, and donkey carts before we finally arrived to Dendera Temple.img_7774

Considering that the famous archeological sites of Luxor weren’t overcrowded, it was no surprise that Dendera was quite vacant as well. In addition to the two of us, we shared the temple with only three other foreigners. Compared to other temples we had already visited, Dendera was amazingly intact and well-preserved, with most of its dark chambers and twisting stairways open to the public. img_20161221_115233

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Due to security concerns, the police loitering the entrance took down our nationality information, but on our way out they took extra precaution by escorting us to the bus station. We had planned to walk to the main road and hitch a few microbuses back to Luxor, but these guys were serious. Not only did they give us a ride in their police vehicle, they walked us over to the bus, made sure we were comfortably seated, and kept eye on us until the bus departed the station.
img_7779

Surprised and slightly amused by the security concerns in such a remote location, we quickly looked up the possible reasons for the special treatment on our return to Luxor. Speculation has it that there is only special treatment for Americans. When tourists in other countries are affected by terrorism in Egypt, their media reports it once or twice and then forgets about it. American media on the other hand won’t shut up about it for weeks if its citizens are harmed by terrorism. Egypt is determined to protect its tourists (especially Americans, thanks to media); its tour industry has already been affected and they can’t afford to lose any more tourists!

What a wonderful time to explore Egypt, right?

Everyone should visit Luxor at least once. However, if you’re not an archeological buff like me, Luxor can get old quick. Within the magnificent temples are hoards of tourists (even in 2016 with a spiraling tourism industry) and “guards” preying on tourists for tips, and outside the temples are the most annoying and aggressive touts in all of Egypt. When we weren’t dodging crowds and tip beggars in the temples, we were dodging and practically running from touts on the streets. We often had to wonder if the temples’ grandiosity made up for the headache required to see them, and sadly, we think it just balances out.

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Cruising Along the Nile

In addition to the pyramids, I couldn’t help but sign up for another touristy Egyptian excursion: a multi-day cruise along the Nile. Cruise ships sail from Aswan to Luxor for 4 days/3 nights (which is what we picked) or against the current from Luxor to Aswan for 5 days/4 nights. I read that one of the cheapest options is through viator.com, and we paid $280 each for what typically would have been the high season in mid-December. We even opted for a group tour for the lowest price, but somehow ended up with a private guide anyway. Yay!

After independently exploring Aswan for several days, we boarded our ship for 4 days of mostly all-inclusive treatment. This post will highlight the cruise experience and cruise stops; excursions at Aswan and Luxor are described in separate posts.img_20161216_123958

Tip: Most cruise ships are exclusive of beverages, so we brought all our own water/soda from all the docking points.  Also, the first night on board is actually spent in Aswan, which leaves plenty of time to explore the city after the guided tour.

This section of the Nile once saw over 300 active ships busily cruising up and down, but sadly only about 20 are still in service.  Between the 20, the ships seem to only run at half capacity.  Like tourism in Egypt, Nile river cruise ships were barely surviving.img_20161217_151035

Perhaps it was due to inadequate funding from a lack of tourists, or perhaps it was because we were simply in Egypt, but we felt that the cruise companies had a very loose definition of the word “luxury.”  Still, we enjoyed our relaxing cruise despite the food being mediocre to decent, the December chill keeping us from using the pool, and being shuttled around like cattle during temple tours. We especially loved our comfy bed after having spent the previous week in basic hotels.img_7678

As the ship sailed north toward Luxor, we made two stops along the Nile for the Temple of Kom Ombo and Temple of Horus at Edfu. The Temple of Kom Ombo is dedicated to the crocodile god, and the structure itself compared to other wonders in Egypt isn’t too inspiring; however, the museum at the temple that showcased all the crocodile mummies is the highlight. I mean come on…crocodile mummies! How cool is that?img_20161217_171846

And to our amusement, we returned to our hotel room to discover that housekeeping was a clever bedmaker. A crocodile of towels and bedding:img_20161217_215233

Our second Nile river stop was for the Temple of Horus at Edfu, an incredibly preserved ancient monument in Egypt.  It was only excavated in the mid-19th century; before that, it had been buried by sand. To get to the monument, all tourists were obliged to ride a skinny horse carriage through town. Because all groups literally arrived at the same time when the temple opened, we found it difficult to admire the beautiful temple.  We ended up mainly dodging selfie sticks and giant crowds.img_774100000xtr_00000_burst20161218080227

Between these two temple visits, we indulged in breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets, read books, and watched the small Nile river towns slowly drift by.  Sitting on the ship’s top deck and waving to delighted children was also an enjoyable experience. And to my surprise, the Sufi performance on our final night was mesmerizing. Ever see a man twirl in circles nonstop for a quarter-hour simultaneously spinning a brightly-lit skirt? I had never heard of such an idea. It was incredible.img_20161218_211248

To top off the cruise, we finished in Luxor, a premier travel destination in not just Egypt but the world.  Temples, palaces, magnificent ancient ruins, a relatively large city, and amazing restaurants/food options make Luxor a must-visit city in Egypt. While the cruise included a tour to a handful of Luxor’s most iconic sites, one must tack on an additional day or two to explore more of what the city has to offer. We were glad to experience this “luxury” cruise, but we were relieved to break away from the crowds and be on our own schedule again. Our account of Luxor is detailed in the next post!

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Aswan & Abu Simbel

Along a beautiful section of the Nile lies the idyllic city of Aswan, the largest city in southern Egypt, with sleepy Nubian villages spilling to the river. Aswan is about as far south as most travelers will reach in Egypt, with most likely an extra excursion even further south to the famous temples of Abu Simbel, only ~40 km from the Sudanese border. Without the noise, pollution, traffic, and aggression seen in Egypt’s other cities, Aswan is a relaxing escape from it all with plenty of wonderful sites to take in. And last but not least, Aswan serves as the departure or arrival point for one of Egypt’s most popular excursions: a Nile river cruise from Luxor to Aswan or vise versa.

We flew to Aswan from Cairo (only a 1 hour flight), amusingly bargained for a taxi ride into town for 100 LE, and enjoyed a couple days in Aswan before departing for our 4-day/3-night “luxury” Nile river cruise to Luxor. In addition to relaxing at cafés and watching sailboats or feluccas sail beneath golden sunsets along the Corniche waterfront, we strolled through Aswan’s colorful Sharia as-Souq and toured the High Dam and Lake Nasser, Unfinished Obelisk and quarries, the Tomb of the Nobles in the West Bank, the Temple of Isis on Philae Island, and of course, the temples of Abu Simbel further south.

Feluccas on the Nile along Corniche:img_20161215_162250

Sharia as-Souq:

Egyptian street food in central Aswan:

Before we embarked on our cruise, we made the long, painfully early journey to Abu Simbel. The temples of Abu Simbel are famous not just for their grandiosity and massive size, but for its remarkable story: had it not been for the collaboration of multiple international archeological teams, these temples would have been drowned and lost forever after the damming of the Nile in the 1960s. After 4 years and $40 million, these teams cut the temples into blocks, transferred them 210 meters away from the water and 65 meters up, and reconstructed them inside an artificial mountain. Once you set eyes on the temple’s facade and think about this history, you can’t help but ponder even more about the capabilities of mankind.

The cheapest way to get there is to book a last minute excursion from a budget hotel in Aswan. At the time in December 2016 we paid 160 LE each (~$9) for a packed breakfast and transportation to and from Aswan in a shared minivan–sure beats the $30 per person that cruises charge when booking the same exact journey!  Unfortunately all itineraries are identical: a cringeworthy pick-up between 3-3:30am, a 3-hour ride to Abu Simbel, 2 hours to spectate the temples, and a 3-hour ride back. It is cheap, long, and tiring, but absolutely worth the effort.

Perhaps our favorite archeological site in Aswan was the Tomb of the Nobles on the West Bank. Not only were the accessible tombs the most well-preserved tombs I had seen in all of Egypt, but the view from the hilltop provided the best Nile river views.  To top it off, we enjoyed the entire site to ourselves.img_20161217_100420

To get there, we took the local ferry to cross the Nile for 5 LE (~25¢) each.img_7706

From the West Bank ferry stop, it was just a few minutes walk to the Tomb of the Nobles. Touts offered camel rides, but it was literally less than a 3-minute walk.img_7708

Once we climbed up the steps to the Tomb of the Nobles, the bored guard led us to the 4 tombs available to the public. As more tombs are continually being excavated at this site, I was satisfied with the ability to only peek into 4. Better yet, the incredible conditions of these tombs exceeded our expectations.  Considering the paintings are thousands of years old, we were shocked by tomb’s vivid colors and details.  Take a look yourself.img_20161217_100201

When we thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. After observing the 4 tombs, we climbed up the short hill to a viewpoint. Needless to say, we spent extra time at the top to soak in the magnificent views of the Nile from an abandoned structure.img_20161217_104013img_20161217_103932

Because our Nile river cruise included guided tours through some of Aswan’s notable sites, we saved the High Dam, the Temple of Isis on Philae Island, and unfinished obelisk for last after independently touring Aswan city, Abu Simbel, and the Tomb of the Nobles. Our guide picked us up from our hotel on day 1 of our cruise and chaperoned us through these sites.

The Aswan High Dam created Lake Nasser, the largest artificial lake in the world.img_7657

The monument of Arab-Soviet Friendship at the high dam:

The Temple of Isis at Philae Island also saw the same feat as the temples of Abu Simbel; had it not been for the intervention of UNESCO the temple would have drowned and disappeared due to the High Dam. This temple was broken down piece by piece and reassembled 20 meters higher on a nearby island. All visits require a short boat ride.

Our final site was the unfinished obelisk. Though historically significant, the site is as bland as it sounds…an unfinished obelisk lying in a quarry. Had it not been for a flaw found in the rock in its early stages of building, the obelisk would have been the largest obelisk in Egypt.img_20161216_121735

I was amazed to discover that many (if not most) travelers only spend a day in Aswan and more in Luxor. With clearly an abundance of archeological sites to see, tasty Egyptian food, arguably the best views of the Nile river, and one of the most relaxed atmospheres in touristy Egypt, we had no problem spending 3.5 days in the lovely city. We arrived to Aswan by air and departed by cruise ship, an experience I describe in my next post.

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A Couple Days in Cairo

Cairo is one of those cities that you can love…if you have the luxury to avoid living in it. My native Egyptian friend left Cairo and Egypt altogether and can rant about his pure loathing for the city.  At first I thought it was only his pessimistic nature, but I quickly learned from other locals that Egyptians generally hold great disdain for Cairo; they only live there to work. The city is exhilarating and fascinating as much as it is dilapidated, filthy, and inefficient, and if you have a tolerance for such chaos plus a few days to spare then a visit to Cairo is worthwhile, eye-opening, and even enjoyable.

Naturally, as first-timers to Cairo, we followed the tourist route with visits to the notorious Egyptian Museum off of Tahrir Square, Islamic Cairo with the famous Khan el-Khalili souq and the old gate of Bab Zuweila, and the churches and monuments of Coptic Cairo. (We planned to visit the Salah El Din Citadel, only to discover of its closure every Friday. Whoops!)  Although all these sites deserve a visit, our most memorable and enjoyable activities in Cairo were simply exploring. Had we not wandered without a plan or itinerary, we never would have experienced pure Egyptian friendliness and hospitality nor tasted the most amazing falafel we’ve ever consumed.  As the largest city in Africa and the Middle East with a population of roughly 12 million people, there is no limit to the number of twisting alleyways that beg for exploration. In addition to visiting the main attractions, wandering the streets is a must and possibly our highlight in Cairo.

Staying downtown is a no brainer for first timers to Cairo–the plethora of $13/night hotels, cheap and tasty eats, and vicinity to all tourist sites and shopping cannot be surpassed. Upon checking into our budget hotel, we immediately made our way to the pink-colored Egyptian Museum.img_7405

While this poorly curated museum would better serve as a warehouse of ancient treasures, a good half-day should be reserved for the museum. Thousands of artifacts (sarcophagi, mummies, scrolls, jewelry, weapons, facades, sculptures, paintings, chariots, and more!) are on display, and even more remain drearily unsorted, hidden in dark corners, and await to make a public appearance.

Tahrir Square at night:img_20161211_191658

Downtown Cairo to Islamic Cairo is not a far walk, but with the obscene traffic, “creative” parking jobs, and crumbled sidewalks, it probably took us about 40 minutes to walk to Islamic Cairo. Taxis most likely wouldn’t have saved us any time due to the traffic, but more importantly, a taxi would have prevented us from experiencing an authentic Cairo.

First, a walk down the street to Bab Zuweila, one of three remaining gates of Old Cairo. img_20161212_094849

Climbing up the minarets for panoramic views of Cairo is a must.img_7435pano_20161212_101337

The souq of Khan el-Khalili was no more fascinating than the souqs of Fes or Marrakech. As travelers who never purchase junk souvenirs, we didn’t spend too much time wandering the souq’s aggressive tout-filled alleyways.

Fortunately the neighborhood offered more than just souqs.  The Islamic architecture and mosques were photographic as well.

As we wandered back to our hotel in downtown, we kept an eye out for lunch. What did the locals eat? Where did the crowds gather for food? Soon enough we noticed the most popular dish: round serving trays topped with small plates of vegetables, mashed beans, and local pita bread. One after the other, we observed tray deliveries to local shops and random people sitting on the sidewalks. Who were these tray delivery guys, and where did they come from?

Finally, we caught the attention of one food deliverer on a busy road, and we pointed at the tray. He immediately understood our request and motioned us to follow him. We darted through a narrow maze of residential alleys and found that the food deliverer was serving food from a neighborhood food cart! We received plenty of stares, smiles, and welcomes, and the cook happily served us the local bean dish of ful medames for 5 LE (25¢) each. This ended up being one of our fonder memories from Cairo.img_7485img_7486

Coptic Cairo, which consists of a handful of ancient and modern Christian churches within a walled fortress, ended up being more interesting than I anticipated. Although the Coptic Museum receives much praise, we skipped the museum and chose to simply spectate the notable structures of the area: the oldest church, mosque, and synagogue in Cairo. We even took the metro there from downtown to avoid the horrendous traffic.

Upon exiting the Coptic Cairo fortification, we ended up wandering the labyrinth of streets filled with the awakening of a typical, busy weekend market. Colorful displays of fruit and vegetables, outstretched hands, shouts of haggling, irritated donkeys and goats, and endless energy filled the scene. Oh, and plenty of cats and dogs too.img_20161223_123024

As the market crowds thinned out, the stench of donkey and horse feces slowly developed into the wonderful aromas of Egyptian street food: shwarma and my favorite, falafel.img_7796

One particular sidewalk crowd caught our eye.  We didn’t know what people were lining up for, but we figured it would be worth joining the crowd.img_7792

Turned out it was the most popular falafel shop in the neighborhood.

A giant paper cone of freshly fried falafel cost us 5 LE (25¢)! Wow. img_7795

To top off the wonderful balls of fried yumminess, we also devoured a cup of cocktel, my favorite dessert/snack/breakfast in Egypt, which is essentially a fruit cocktail. These could be found all over the streets of Egypt for 5-10 LE. img_7789

Cairo requires patience and energy not for the faint of heart, but once you learn to appreciate the noise along with the culture clash, you can appreciate the insanity of the world’s largest Arab city. It is easy to be overwhelmed with Cairo at first, but during my stays in other Egyptian cities and towns, I found myself surprisingly longing for the “clusterfuck” of Cairo. I’ve always believed that greater rewards are given to those who can endure more headache, and that is especially true when exploring Cairo.

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An Independent Pyramid Tour

Considering how far the Great Pyramids of Giza are from Cairo, I thought, “Why not spend a couple nights in Giza and check out the sites from there?” After all, the pyramids are one of the main reasons why people come to Egypt. Plus, staying in Giza not only allowed us to leisurely explore the Great Pyramids but also other less notable pyramids in the area.

Then I discovered a couple of budget hotel options in Giza that sealed the deal. Can’t beat this terrace view for $30 per night, right?img_20161212_163812

Sound and light show in the evening from the terrace:img_20161212_200859

We checked out of our hostel in Cairo in the late afternoon and took an Uber to Giza. It’s no wonder everyone recommends Uber. For the 50-minute drive through traffic, the ride came out to less than 40 LE (about $2!). Wow. Way better deal than dealing with annoying taxi drivers. Giza’s Great Pyramids looming into view from the backseat:img_7488

And we soon enjoyed sunset over the Giza pyramids from our hotel terrace.img_7511

That night we wandered the local streets for dinner and quickly discovered that tourists rarely venture the streets of Giza. With most tourists shuttled around by bus and large groups with set meals at specific restaurants, locals rarely see independent travelers, especially at their food joints. Children waved shyly at us, and even adults welcomed us as we passed by. Those with decent enough English did not hesitate to strike up a friendly conversation with us.img_7597

For dinner we chowed down on kushari, the national dish of Egypt, for 5 LE (about 25¢).img_7516

Early the next morning we stepped out of our hotel and were immediately greeted by camel touts.img_7519

We ended up on a tuk tuk for 5 LE that dropped us off about a 15-minute walk from the main entrance/ticket booth. In a once-filled parking lot by 8:30am was a vast, sparse lot with only a couple of tour buses. Unlike other worldly sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru or the Acropolis in Athens, purchasing a ticket and getting through security was quick and stress-free. Once again the lack of tourists was remarkably evident.

With the crisp December air and the panoramic viewpoint only about a 30-minute walk from the entrance, we decided to stroll along the paved road that took us to the panorama. Two giant tour buses scurried ahead, and persistent touts tried to convince us to ride a camel since the viewpoint was “a far walk.” Why is it that in so many countries people consider 1-2km to be a far walk? It wasn’t far at all, and we enjoyed walking at our own pace, stopping to take photos, and having the road all to ourselves. img_20161213_084200-panoimg_7521

We arrived to the panoramic viewpoint just after 9am. It wasn’t too crowded—yet.img_7533

By 9:15, we saw more buses approaching from the main road, and we left before the viewpoint was swarmed. Although plenty of touts offered us camel rides to the Great Sphinx (3-4 km), we again preferred to walk. Thankfully we did, because we managed to snap a few more iconic photos that the bus tourists couldn’t stop to enjoy.img_20161213_091913

The Pyramid of Khafre all to ourselves:

We finally gave in to a camel ride from the Khafre Pyramid to the Great Sphinx because it was a short ride and only 20 LE for both of us. The camel tout earned extra in tips for taking cheesy tourist photos.

Finally, the Great Sphinx. As everyone says, its size compared to the Great Pyramids is slightly underwhelming. Still, I was shocked that the majority of the bus tourists crowded at the front, snapped dozens of photos, and left. They never even walked to the far end of the Sphinx to observe a different perspective! Oh well. Their loss.

After 3 hours of exploring the Great Pyramids of Giza by foot, we set out to our next destinations: the Bent, Red, and Step Pyramids near the village Saqqara. These lesser-visited pyramids are about an hour’s drive south of Giza, and I read that most people venture there by hired taxi/private car. We figured we’d hire an Uber car and wing it. Our Uber driver didn’t speak any English but enjoyed taking us to these pyramids; he had never seen them before and took pictures of them while he waited for us at his car. The ride down, back to Giza, and the wait time all totaled to 3.5 hours…and about 150 LE (~$7). We tipped him 100 LE in cash and that clearly made his day.

The Bent Pyramid looks…bent…due to the late discovery of the steep-leaning stones’ instability during its construction. Halfway during the construction the builders were forced to reduce the steep angle, which gave the pyramid its appearance and name.img_20161213_121104

Just a kilometer or two north from the Bent Pyramid stands the Red Pyramid, the only pyramid we entered during our time in Egypt. I read that it cost 200 LE (~$10) to enter the empty Great Pyramid of Giza in addition to the entrance fee of 80 LE, but the cost to enter the Red Pyramid is included in its entrance fee of 40 LE. Due to its remote location and scarcity of visitors, we literally drove up to the pyramid and parked next to it.img_7583

Then we climbed up the pyramid. Luckily it was only a short climb.

The descent down into the Red Pyramid surprisingly challenged us; having to squat, hover and make our way down 60 meters through a narrow tunnel is not easy. Oof. Like all pyramids, the Red Pyramid’s treasures have been removed. The only real novelty is bragging rights for entering an ancient Egyptian pyramid.img_7579

Finally, we concluded our tour of the pyramids with the Step Pyramid of Doser, the world’s earliest stone monument.

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After a full day of multiple pyramids, our quench for pyramids was exhaustively satisfied. I can’t imagine how much more overwhelming the self-guided tour would have been if there were thousands more tourists and exponentially higher temperatures. Thanks to spending a couple nights on the grounds of the Giza Pyramids, we were able to tour the Giza Pyramids completely on foot and spontaneously hire a Uber driver to Saqqara. First visitors to Egypt should definitely spend at least a couple nights in Giza rather than spend all nights in Cairo.

Gazing at a full moon over the pyramids from our hotel terrace was also icing on the cake.img_20161214_044016

In a nutshell, here is my advice for independently touring the pyramids:
1. Spend at least a couple nights in Giza, making it your base.
2. Arrive to the Great Pyramids when they open at 8am.
3. Go NOW (2017) while tourism is still down.
4. Visit in the winter when the weather is cool.
5. Bring plenty of water, snacks, a guidebook, and a smartphone with Uber installed.
Now you’re golden. Have fun!

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