Is Egypt worth a visit?
As a country with a rich cultural legacy, that houses some of the greatest ancient wonders of the world, we are really saddened that Egypt remains in political turmoil and it’s capital city, Cairo, has been deemed off limits for ‘all but essential travel’.
Visiting Egypt was a great highlight for us in 2009. Not only did we get to visit some of the world’s most prominent archaeological sites, but we got to do it by taking a cruise along the infamous Nile, the longest river in the world. We also met some of the most genuine, kind-hearted people on our journey, for whom nothing was too much trouble.
Bably (a student) and Maged (a driver), both friends of a friend, who met up with us on various occasions to show us some of the sights, really went out of their way to give us a sense of the ‘real’ Egypt. This true Egyptian hospitality has without a doubt left a lasting impression on us, as did the sheer size and scale of the ancient wonders we visited. Despite the instability in the region at present, Egypt should not be overlooked, but remain firmly on your ‘bucket list’ for the future.
Land of Many Contrasts
On approach into Luxor Airport the diversity is immediately apparent. Stark desert to the left of the Nile, in contrast to the lush green fertile lands that lay to the right of it. The amazing sight of air-conditioned tourist buses sharing a road with farmers riding their donkeys laden with goods. Streets of shanty houses, retaining their Nubian village status, each with satellite dish, interspersed with ancient ruins, and billboards advertising Vodafone. East meets west, old meets new, Egypt – a place rapidly evolving whilst retaining its historic charm. Already, this North African country was proving to be a real wonder for us and what better way to soak in the atmosphere and encounter the real Egypt than by a Nile River Cruise.
Cruising The Nile
We organised the trip through a tour operator, Discover Egypt, chosen purely by chance through a general Google web search. We have found that sometimes it’s good to have a Rep and leave the organisation to someone else, especially if you have a tight time schedule or want a structured itinerary. We experienced a hassle free check-in with immigration followed by direct transfer to our boat, where ‘welcome drinks’ were ready and waiting and very much welcomed in searing temperatures of 80 degrees plus. The splash pool on the upper deck was an added bonus, providing a much needed cool down after daily excursions!
Being unable to find many reviews of our boat, I was a little dubious as to what we would find, especially after passing through 3 other docked vessels showcasing lavish reception areas to reach the entrance to our own smaller boat, The Viking III. However we were not disappointed. Yes, Viking III was more on the cheap and cheerful side in comparison to some of the other great many vessels nestled alongside the Nile, but our air-conditioned cabin on the lower deck had twin beds, an en-suite shower and toilet, plus a television, fridge and safe. Being cleaned twice daily, it was everything we needed for our stay, and certainly comfortable.
The effort that the cleaner put into creating a variety of what can only be described as ‘towel sculptures’ each day was like the ‘icing on the cake’. We would enter our room to find another amazing towel sculpture positioned precisely on our beds, which then became the topic of conversation over dinner with other guests. Two teenagers on board even began making their own towel creations as competition!
What our boat lacked in opulence, it most definitely made up for in service, cleanliness and humour, starting with the ‘Ass Captain’ which had guests in fits of laughter, (and whose name badge was aptly changed to Asst. Captain having had the error pointed out). The Egyptian running the on-board shop couldn’t have been more helpful. When I asked “Have you got..?” He interrupted with “I have everything”, and indeed his shop did have everything from 2 pin plug adapters for 1 English pound to the traditional Egyptian galabeyas selling for around 80LE, much less than the prices given at the markets. For example, outside the Valley of the Kings we were quoted 500LE for 2 galabeyas and head scarves, and even after haggling, only managed a deal at 250LE.
We enjoyed all of on-board entertainment – an Egyptian fancy dress party with games to help guests break the ice and get to know each other, as well as a belly dancing show complete with whirling dervish. What we particularly liked was that the Viking III was the only All-Inclusive vessel within the Viking fleet, and this is one of the reasons why we chose it! The All-Inclusive aspect ran from 10am until 11pm each day. The selection of spirits was limited but plentiful, and by the second night on special request the bar tenders had acquired limes for the vodka and lemonade and were making cocktails for us! This meant that we spent very little money at all, other than on tipping, souvenirs, and optional excursions that we made to Abu Simbel and a perfumery back in Luxor.
In terms of food, which was served buffet style each day, it was of an excellent standard, despite being a little too western for our liking. But they did present a traditional Egyptian mezze banquet on our final evening which we greatly enjoyed, food of course being one of our travelling highlights!
When sailing between prominent locations on the Nile, from Luxor to Edfu, passing through Esna Lock down to Aswan, we marvelled at sights of people washing and playing in the river along the way, finding the Egyptian way of life just as fascinating as the great temples themselves.
We discovered that most Egyptians have a good sense of humour and are keen to practice their English language skills (many quoting “Lovely jubbly” – Delboy, Only Fools & Horses), as well as wanting to find out about life in England.
Hagglers would ask if my husband would sell me for 100 chickens and he would reply with “only if they would throw in 2 camels as well!”
We also discovered that many Egyptians follow the English Premiership Football League, so if you can talk about key players and transfers it’s a good conversation starter.
Our Top Tips…
Having a tour guide for the week, care of our tour operator, was invaluable and is very much recommended rather than the go-it-alone approach to visiting the vast array of archaeological sites. Our very knowledgeable tour guide Mohsen made our excursions all the more memorable with his many stories, pictures and anecdotes, as opposed to reading the names and dates from a guide book on your own.
Despite what you read about problems with haggling a firm ‘no thank you’ is usually enough. Looking the person in the eye and responding rather than trying to ignore them will mean they know you understand. Speaking a few Arabic words such as ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ also goes a long way.
We felt very safe throughout our stay. But it is still wise for women to take a scarf to cover their shoulders and chest to show respect at the ancient sites, as well as to avoid unnecessary attention from men.
Be wary of the prices of some optional excursions – for example we were quoted £10 each sterling through our tour guide to take the Luxor City Tour by horse and carriage. However, after deciding to go it alone one ‘free’ afternoon and explore Luxor ourselves, we were invited by a very friendly Egyptian to take an hour’s ride on his carriage for 20 Egyptian pounds, the equivalent of around £2 sterling.
Before travelling we were advised to change our money into Egyptian pounds here in the UK, however we found there was a much more favourable exchange rate on-board if we had only waited, as well as plenty of ATM machines nearby. (Even a HSBC in Luxor and El Gouna).
We also found that carrying some English change (a few pound coins) proved to be a winner as many sellers were giving 2 or 3 items for 1 English pound, which was approximately 10LE.
In terms of fellow passengers, during our stay on board the Viking III there were 39 guests in total, a large proportion of which were teachers like me, travelling in August during the school holidays. Many travel guides recommend not travelling in Egypt during this time as it is one of the hottest months. But because of this we found it to be less busy. This gave us more favourable prices when haggling as Egyptians sought much needed business, and as most of the excursions took place before midday we were able to cope with the heat.
Cairo & The Pyramids at Giza
Our trip also included flights from Luxur to Cairo, staying 3 nights in a hotel close to the Pyramids at Giza.
Cairo was where we met up with our new Egyptian friends Bably and Maged. Bably showed us around the Cairo Museum – home to an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities. He also took us the see the great pyramids themselves and negotiated the price for our first camel ride!
Maged introduced us to great restaurant where we sampled a proper Egyptian mixed grill. I have never seen so much meat on a plate! He also took us to Cairo Zoo where we were able to get close to a pair of lion cubs.
From Cairo we flew to Hurghada, where we stayed for the last 4 nights at the nearby area of El Gouna, a tourist resort located on the Red Sea. Here we really relaxed and soaked up some Egyptian sunshine whilst enjoying more cocktails!
So is Egypt still on your ‘Bucket List’?
If you want guaranteed sun, plenty of cultural atmosphere and value for money, then we think cruising the Nile is the perfect way to see much of what Egypt has to offer.
There is no doubt that the ancient wonders of this diverse country, coupled with the sunshine and beaches by the Red Sea, is what draws over 12 million tourists to visit each year. But for us, the warmth, friendliness and good sense of humour of the Egyptian people is what truly made this a fantastic destination that far exceeded our expectations.
Our hope for the future then is that political tensions will stabilise and very soon, so that everyone can once again enjoy what this fascinating country has to offer as we would certainly love to go back!