Luxor: When life gives you lemons...Offer one to a visitor

Luxor, in Egypt’s Nile Valley, is like an open-air museum - not just for its temples and tombs built more than 3,000 years ago by the ancient pharaohs - but for its people-watching. In between visiting the sites, we’ve enjoyed getting a taste of local life by riding the public ferry several times a day from the West Bank of the Nile where we’re staying, to the East Bank, the location of Luxor Temple and most of the bigger hotels, shops and restaurants. 

Morning rush hour

Luxor Temple

It’s fascinating seeing the families gather for picnics and conversation around  Luxor Temple lighted at night, and watching vendors in the souks hawk scarves and spices to tourists and lemons to locals. I can’t get enough of the men in their turbans and the school children in their uniforms riding the ferry back and forth like a school bus. There are many women out and about, riding the ferry, shopping etc., but virtually all the shopkeepers, tour guides, waiters, hotel clerks, hotel “maids,” etc. are men. We had three female tour guides in Cairo, and saw some female taxi drivers, but none here in Luxor. This is conservative, rural Upper Egypt, and women traditionally do not work outside the home, at least in these types of jobs. 

Ferry commuter

Our Egyptian/German-owned Hotel Nakhil is on the quieter residential West Bank, tucked away on a dirt street in a neighborhood filled with small children who love high-fiving us, and saying “Hello” in English and “What’s your name,?” then giggling when we ask theirs. We’re settled in nicely, but  arriving here at night from the train station was a challenge. 

Hotel Nakhil on the West Bank of Luxor

The hotel owners told us it was an easy walk to the ferry dock, then a short walk from the dock to the hotel - all true- except for the time it took to dodge all the pushy touts and taxi drivers wanting to give us a ride or find us another hotel. We made it to the ferry, along with two German travelers on our same train, after dragging our suitcases past the temple and down some steps in time to catch the boat just before it was leaving. It’s not unusual to see locals jump one or two feet onto the boat from the dock to catch it before it leaves. One guy jumped on holding a bicycle in one arm. I couldn’t imagine doing this with my suitcase. The alternative is to wait until the next ferry fills with passengers, usually only 10-15 minutes, or take a private boat across, sometimes for the same fare (25 cents) or just a little more.

The public ferry crossing the Nile in Luxor

Wandering through the markets both here and in Cairo, I saw slabs of fresh meat hanging from open-air stalls, a reminder for us to stick to a mostly vegetarian diet to avoid health problems. We’ve eaten chicken just twice, once in a family home and once in the Moroccan restaurant at the Sofitel in Cairo. For being such a tourist city, Luxor doesn’t have many restaurants. Most tourists eat on cruise ships or at their hotels, and Egyptians don’t really eat out.  Other than McDonald’s, and a couple of cafes serving delicious coffee milkshakes (50 cents), there’s Sofra, a charming restaurant tucked away on a street filled with storefront laundries where men do the ironing, and neighborhood mosques broadcast the call to prayer from loud speakers atop minarets ringed in colored lights.

Nile landscape

Land around the Nile is irrigated and fertile, but outside the city, Luxor is surrounded by dry, mountainous, rocky desert. Nothing grows, and only snakes and scorpions can survive. It never rains, so restaurants like Sofra sometimes use curtains instead of windows. Our favorite dishes were baked eggs with tomatoes, chili peppers and garlic; grilled vegetables; a soft, white cheese flecked with black olives, fennel and dill; and rice pudding with rose water, nuts and raisins. We ate this meal twice at Safra, along with non-alcoholic beers and mint tea. Each time the bill was around $9.

Dinner at Sofra

The Egyptians say tourism is recovering, but we’ve seen few signs that it is. Our hotel has 25 rooms, but  we were the only guests our first night, and have seen only two others since. Cruise ships are parked five deep on the river, don’t appear to have many passengers. One taxi driver told us he waited four hours in a parking lot for a fare that netted him around $2.50.

Modern Luxor grew out of the ruins of Thebes, the capital of Egypt between 1550-1069 B.C. when the pharaohs built temple to honor the mythical gods, and dug elaborate tombs for themselves deep into desert hillsides. The lack of tourists combined with unusually cool weather (70s instead of 90s) makes it an ideal time to visit. 

Luxor Temple

Under reconstruction is the Avenue of the Sphinxes, which once stretched from Luxor temple to Karnak temple, 1.2 miles away. Many of the 1,3500 sphinxes have been damaged or destroyed, but like much of the ancient statuary, many are amazingly well-preserved. Intact at the Karnak Temple is the Avenue of the Ram-Headed Sphinxes where the heads are of rams instead of humans.

Karnak Temple

Construction on tombs for the pharaohs began as soon as they were crowned king. Unlike their ancestors who built pyramids in Cairo, they tunneled directly into a desert mountain that resembled a natural pyramid in an area called Valley of the Kings.

Valley of the Kings

The last major discovery here was the tomb of Tutankhamen, discovered in 1922. It’s a small tomb, built in a hurry for a young king who died suddenly. All of the treasures buried with him have been moved to museums. We were able to go inside by paying an extra fee while visiting three other tombs in the area. On display was his mummified body, not something I really cared to see or photograph. More interesting were the amazingly preserved paintings and carvings in three other tombs, decorated using paints made from egg yoke and other natural substances.

Tomb interior

We’re now on our way up the Nile to Aswan, a Nubian city close to the border with Sudan, and our last stop in Egypt. Instead of taking a river cruise, we opted to arrange a car and driver through our hotel, and cruise the backroads instead. To do so, we had to register ourselves and the trip with the police, then follow a route that passes through small villages with police checkpoints.

Coffee with our driver, Kaleb

We’ve been chatting along the way with our driver, Kaleb, while he dodges donkey carts and trucks piled with bananas and surger  cane. Scenes of palm trees and lush farmland along the Nile alternate with rows of mud brick houses built into dusty desert mountain towns. At Edfu, we stopped to see the Temple of Horus, considered Egypt’s best-preserved temple, discovered just 200 years ago buried under sand and rubble and parts of the village.

Temple of Horus, Edfu

It’s easy to feel “templed-out” in Egypt, one reason we’re happy to be alternating visits to the historical sites with the chance to meet Egyptian people such as Kaleb, a father of three who grew up on the West Bank of Luxor. He speaks excellent English, which he says he learned “on the streets,” from driving tourists. I can’t imagine a more pleasant driver with whom to be spending four-plus hours in a car. Long after memories of the pharaohs fade, I’ll remember sharing tea and conversation with Kaleb.

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  1. What great adventures, Carol and Tom. You're clever to have caught a moment in time when it's not flooded with other tourists. And Barbara and I are always inspired by the way you find off-the-beaten-track places and hook up with memorable locals. Looking forward to more.

  2. Hi, Do you have Kaleb, your driver’s contact information?

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