Don’t miss the amazing photo gallery at the end of this post, packed with photos from my trip to Egypt.
Egypt is an amazing place. Once a cradle of dynasties along the Nile, it’s home to some of the most ancient history in the world.
Cairo doesn’t look as modern as you’d expect for a city with a population of over 5 million. With this being said, open your mind and prepare to walk back in time. Think of the pharaohs; think of Cleopatra and Alexander the Great—this is the Egypt that awakens the senses: Giza and the pyramids tower over the city, inspiring awe. If you have a chance to stay near the pyramids for at least one night, do it so you can witness the night show of lights that tell the story of Pharaoh.
You can either have a tour guide tell you about the pyramids or you can simply walk and see them for yourself. I’d recommend the latter because it costs less. Just remember to bring some water. You may want to use your hotel or a taxi driver as a resource to acquire information about the best tour guides. They tend to know everything and everyone.
The streets are like a large bazaar with people at every corner willing to sell you a piece of the world’s history as a souvenir you can take home. With statues, oils, and papyrus everywhere, the goal is to find the best deal and purchase an item for a really good price. This is an excellent place to learn the art of negotiation because bargaining is what they expect. Try to haggle your way down to the lowest price point. There are tons of people yelling in their attempts to get you to stop and buy their services or pay them to be your tour guide. Just say no and keep walking. Whatever you do, don’t stop! By day two, this got on my nerves so I decided to start speaking a made-up language that no one could understand, including myself (LOL). At times, the hotel staff would accompany me on evening walks through the city because I wanted to see what the locals did for fun. They oftentimes laughed at me and my made-up language, but I didn’t care. I was just enjoying the moment. This was a fun tactic seeing that Americans are often viewed as rich and easy targets of frivolous spending.
For the first two days, I negotiated the inclusion of my meals with my taxi driver as I rode around with him, visiting amazing places in Cairo and Alexandria. I told my taxi driver that I was only using him to feel the flow of traffic and better understand how people drove in Egypt before taking off on my own. He laughed and said, “You Americans can’t drive over here. It’s too different and difficult for you.” I said, “OK, we’ll see!” The next day I went to the airport and rented a car. I called my taxi driver on my way to southern Egypt to see Ramses’ tomb, which was 1,200 miles away.
There are plenty of sites to see along the Nile River. Contrary to popular belief, the pyramids don’t even begin to scratch the surface. I tried my best to visit as many sites as I possibly could; however, it would take weeks to see them all, so I found myself rarely sleeping and often driving through the night to make it to my next destination. I learned a ton about my driving capabilities, because it was a weird system. As strange as it seemed, it apparently works for them.
I continued traveling along the Nile to reach the interstate, which was 20 miles south. This highway was literally in the middle of the desert, so you can imagine my level of shock when I discovered that there weren’t any gas stations along the road. Gas stations were only located in towns along the river, and they rarely even carried gasoline. These stations mainly carried diesel fuel, which was a scary lesson to learn out in the middle of the desert. My GPS also stopped working in one of these towns, so I ended up spending two hours trying to navigate my way back to the interstate. Asking for directions didn’t help much because no one spoke any English, and I didn’t speak any Arabic. Luckily, I was able to use Google Translator, which helped a little. I finally found my way out of town and back to the interstate, but by then I was low on fuel. I promise that I made it to the gas station solely on a hope and a prayer!
At the gas station, I asked for directions again but received even less help, so I kept driving south along the Nile because I knew that was the direction of my next destination. When I finally reached a checkpoint, I discovered that one of the officers lived in the city to which I was headed so I offered him a ride. Off we went, driving for roughly 50 miles at night with no headlights! Yes, you read that right. Apparently, they don’t drive with their headlights on at night in the city. This was the most information I could gather from him, because he spoke little to no English just like the others. I focused on my driving. There were goats, people, and wagons all over the road. I never sweated so hard in my life. Oh, let me not forget to mention the speed bumps that I kept hitting. Nevertheless, we made it to our destination unscathed, and I began my next adventure.
What I will say about the gas situation is that you should get a diesel-engine vehicle if you decide to drive a stick shift. That night on the interstate, I passed tons of cars that had run out of fuel, which left me wondering what exactly happens when this occurs? As it turns out, a “bus” will come to rescue stranded people on the highway. What’s crazy is that these weren’t actual buses. They were twelve-passenger vans being used as buses unless you had purchased a trip with a package deal. While these buses are cheaper than taxis, you’ll end up crammed on the bus with a bunch of other tourists. One thing I learned from my experience using Google Maps to locate a gas station was that if I tried to click on the picture and the gas station didn’t show up, that location was probably a service station instead of a gas station. Service stations only carried stuff like oil and filters but no actual gasoline! Take it from me, don’t go chasing these ghosts. Find your brand of gasoline and plan accordingly. The good news is that I saw construction of a few new stations off the highway.
Alexandria is a massive harbor city with apartments and restaurants along the sea front. When I arrived, my heart was set on seeing exactly what made this city of Alexander the Great so great. My first stop was the catacombs, which is an underground chamber that is used as a burial place. This particular catacomb was a dig site under the city that was still being worked on. Since my taxi driver had a few friends working there, I was granted free admission. This catacomb wasn’t crowded, so I had no trouble wandering around. I may have wandered a bit too freely, seeing that I accidently stumbled upon new dig areas. There are several levels to catacombs, which can seem a bit creepy, especially considering that human bones remain in some of the crypts. The cool chill in the air certainly didn’t make it any better. I could feel the air changing as I wandered further away from everyone else. The lighting was subpar, but I guess that’s what phones and nerves of steel are for. I was able to explore the catacombs to the extent of my heart’s desire, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
After leaving the catacombs, I headed into Alexandria to grab a bite to eat since the cab driver promised that this is where I could find the best fish in all of Egypt. I challenged him to find a restaurant that he could vouch for. When we arrived, I was skeptical, but that soon changed with my first bite of fish. It was so good that it overtook my senses. This was truly a good meal that led me on a journey of Egyptian cuisine. Once we left the restaurant, we headed to one of the many castles on the island, which offered amazing views of the harbor. The ability to walk throughout every inch of the castle-turned-fort was a unique experience, especially after realizing that this had been a place of protection for Alexandria for centuries. Let me not forget to mention that driving in Alexandria was exactly like Cairo…a weird system. My word of advice is to watch out and pay attention to the officers directing traffic, especially since there aren’t many traffic lights.
The city of Luxor is a popular tourist destination outside of Cairo and Alexandria. This is the land with Tombs of the Nobles, Valley of the Kings and the tomb of King Tut just to name a few. It’s truly a sensational place to visit. I’m sure most people would love it here. In my opinion, there’s so much more to see and do in the city of Luxor than there is in Giza or anywhere else in Egypt as far as open-air museums and historical sites are concerned.
As soon as I arrived, I headed to the Valley of the Kings. Tickets generally cost more for Americans and foreigners than they do for Africans and Egyptians. Luckily, I was already aware of this beforehand so me being me, I started telling people that I was from Africa so that I could buy the cheaper tickets, and surprisingly, it worked! No one ever questioned my nationality. Hey, before you judge me too harshly, I just thought it was unfair to be charged a higher price simply because of where I was from. Nevertheless, once I entered the Valley of the Kings, I had the option to select which tombs I wanted to visit based on the price I was willing to pay at the gate. I paid a little extra to see the tomb of King Tut. There were at least one hundred tombs in total, and as an active tomb site, archaeologists are still uncovering more.
The Tombs of the Nobles is essentially like the Valley of the Kings—just a bit downgraded. The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut is massive, and upon my arrival, I noticed Egyptians acting as tour guides at each individual site. When asked, just tell them that you don’t need a tour guide, because honestly, you don’t. I was free to roam about anywhere. They’re just hoping to confuse you, but don’t worry—just keep it moving and continue to stand your ground, letting them know that you’re good on your own. Once I paid my entry fee, I was free to explore however I pleased within the restricted guidelines. I had no problems taking pictures at the temple; however, I needed to make a donation to the guards in order to take pictures at the other sites. Don’t feel pressured to give a crazy amount. A $5 or $10 USD contribution will suffice. Just tell them, “Hey, this is all I have.” Be forewarned that they are pushy; however, it’s your money and your vacation, so stick to your guns and you’ll be OK. The further you walk away from an Egyptian wanting to sell you something, the lower the price suddenly becomes! Learn to slowly walk away from things you want and swiftly walk away from things you don’t want.
At the temple, you’ll find yourself taken aback by the magnitude and size of its beautiful statues. Luxor will not disappoint. The cost of papyrus, statues, and oils are 40% less than the prices in Cairo and Alexandria, so just wait to purchase these items here or in any other city further south. I had one of my greatest experiences here, meeting some wonderful people who were actually friends with the police officer that hitched a ride with me into the city. You have to hear the story to understand the favor I received in Egypt from the Egyptian people. Every day was extremely different with different people showing me their lives and friends.
Abu Simbel and Saying Goodbye to Egypt
Abu Simbel is the most southern city in Egypt, and you can’t go any further south than here. Trust me. I’m positive that the border guards will quickly turn you around at the desert checkpoint, which leads to Sudan in one direction and Abu Simbel in the other. Surprisingly, this site is not super crowded as very few people can make the trip to get here. Those who do typically fly in from the airport; however, I drove because I actually enjoy road trips.
I ended my journey over a thousand miles away from Cairo at the most southern city in Egypt, watching the sunset over Lake Nasser. What a wonderful event, seeing the sun kiss the temple as it descended. Inside the temple you can find some well-preserved colors on the walls along with a great historical record of Ramses. Holistically, it’s worth the journey. I also had the best catfish ever while I was there, which seems a bit weird seeing that I’m from Mississippi, a our catfish is amazing by any standards. However, this catfish was not only succulent but also extremely fresh. I met a young man there who I still keep in touch with to this very day. If you visit this place and need a tour guide, he’s the one to go with. I was able to hang out with him for a couple of days before heading back to Cairo to catch my flight to Rhodes, Greece. I would be meeting up with a few friends for yet another exciting adventure. Amazingly, they had all flown in from Prague which is why it pays to just be yourself and make new friends at every turn!
Jonathan Dryer: The Unofficial Traveler.