After two "false starts" in the past nine years, we are off to explore Egypt for the first time. As usual, this will be a do-it-yourself trip, planned as an independent adventure rather than part of an organized tour.
We first made plans to visit in 2008, but put the trip on hold when the U.S. economy began to tank. Then we briefly reconsidered going last fall, but backed off due to lack of time to prepare. Now, with our plans finally in place, I'll share some ins and outs of putting the trip together.
The decision to go now started with the idea that Egypt has not yet recovered from a downturn in tourism that began with Arab Spring, the anti-government protests that spread across the Middle East in late 2010. Low prices and improved security are drawing visitors back, but not at high numbers, which means it's still a good time to go. If I worried about "safety" I'd never travel outside the U.S. But for those who might be concerned, the State Department, which once warned against travel to Egypt, has softened its advice to exercise caution in a couple of areas where few tourists go.
Figuring out how to reach Cairo from the West Coast was the first challenge. All flights require a connection and a long layover in cities as Paris, Dubai and Frankfurt, with a minimum of 18 hours of flight time and inconvenient arrival times.
The solution: Break up the trip buy buying a ticket from Seattle into Rome and out of London on Delta, then book a separate ticket on Egypt Air from Rome to Cairo and Cairo to London - all for about the same price we would have paid for a Seattle/Cairo round-trip. We'll spend three days in each of those cities - an extra bonus - and instead of arriving in Cairo after 11 p.m. as we would have on the through flights, we'll be there around 8:30 p.m.
The next decision was how much time to spend in Cairo. The capital of Egypt is a sprawling city of nearly 20 million, filled with historical treasures, but also teaming run down tenements and traffic-clogged streets bathed in bad air. Some stay only long enough to see the pyramids at Giza and the Egyptian Museum before traveling to visit the ancient tombs and temples of Luxor, or boarding a Nile cruise.
|The Old Cairo Cafe in Coptic Cairo|
Given that we love cities, and hate rushing, we settled on six nights and five days, taking care to guarantee there were rooms available in the little family-owned boutique hotel I found nine years ago. With its updated rooms and excellent reviews, I thought it might be difficult to get into the Hotel Longchamps in the residential neighborhood of Zamalek, an island in the Nile across from downtown Cairo. But with tourism depressed, the owner offered me a discount.- any of her rooms for $99 a night. She's been an excellent help so far with questions, and I look forward to meeting her.
Next came the visas. Egypt issues visas to foreign travelers at the airport, but to speed up our arrival, I applied online for electronic visas ($25). They arrived in my in-box just a few days after filling out a form and submitting copies of our passports.
Now it was time to arrange a few tours. I settled on three offered by Urban Adventures, and another by Cairowalkingtours.com, all booked and paid for online, with generous cancellation policies.
Urban Adventures is a division of Intrepid Group, which designs longer budget group tours to destinations around the world. Urban Adventures puts together day trips and half-day excursions led by young people using small vans or public transportation.
|Traditional Egyptian dress|
Our five-hour tour of the Giza Pyramids ($40 each) will include transportation and lunch at a local spot for Koshary, a national dish made with rice, macaroni, and lentils mixed together, topped with tomato sauce and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. Another day, we'll explore Coptic (Christian) and Islamic Cairo on a six-hour walking tour with Cairowalkingtours.com, and then go to the home of a Cairo family for a traditional meal and conversation about local culture and what it's like for women in the Middle East. Perhaps we'll gain enough "street smarts" to make our way by subway back to Giza one night to the roof top of the local Pizza Hut to see the pyramids lighted at night.
From Cairo, we'll travel to Luxor by day train, a 10-hour trip that skirts farming villages along the Nile provides a glimpse into Egyptian village life, and take a van or private car from there to Aswan, near the border with Sudan. Why no sleeper trains or cruise along the Nile? The sleeper train would be comfortable and the cruise scenic, but we have plenty of comfort and scenery here at home in Seattle. We're just as interested in meeting people and observing village life as we are in seeing the sights. We're told the train trip is beautiful, although long, so we plan to go prepared with plenty of water and snacks.
I've relied on the excellent Man in Seat 61 website for information about the trains and how to buy tickets. This could be the riskiest part of our trip, since technically, foreigners are allowed only to buy tickets for the more expensive sleeper trains which are patrolled by tourist police. It's not illegal, however, to travel by day train. We have a plan which I'll talk about in a later post.
|El Nakhil in Luxor|
Most lodging in Luxor is on the east bank of the Nile, a touristed hub close to the temple sites of Luxor and Karnak. Quieter and more remote is the west bank, the location of the ancient tombs - the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens - that replaced the pyramids as burial sites for pharaohs and nobles. We chose the west bank and the little German-Egyptian-owned El Nakhil Hotel ($40 a night with breakfast), reachable by a foot ferry across the Nile and a short walk to Geziret el Bairat village. Part of the adventure will be following the owner's scavenger hunt-like directions on how to get here from the train station.
"Walk or take a taxi ($1.50) from the station. Cross the Nile by ferry or motor boat (30 cents per person), then go straight on the main street (look for the minaret of the mosque). Cross the street and turn into the village, pass the mosque and follow the street until it turns right, then go straight on. Pass El Fayrouz Hotel (pink building) and you come direct to the entrance of El Nakhil!"
|The Nubian Lotus|
Our last stop will be Aswan in Nubia, a dry, desert region along the Nile between Upper Egypt and Khartoum in central Sudan. Here we found an Airbnb ($45 with breakfast), the Nubian Lotus, on Elephantine Island, an island in the Nile. The owners are Marta, from Italy, and Osama, from the island. Together they have created an Italian/Nubian village retreat, calling on her background in art and architecture and his experience as a professional travel organizer, to offer Italian or Egyptian meals to their guests, and arrange early-morning excursions to the rock temples at Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser.
We'll fly back to Cairo from Aswan, spend one night near the airport, and fly to London the next morning for three days of exploring before heading back to Seattle. As usual, you can follow updates to this blog by entering your e-mail address to the left of this post.