Egypt is back. Though the country never left, visitor numbers dwindled after the 2011 revolution and subsequent protests that rocked Cairo through 2013. Unlike some more well-traveled destinations, there is a palpable warmth and appreciation freely given to travelers here. Veiled university women smile and blow kisses, locals wave and mouth “welcome” and Egyptians burst forth with “Thank you for coming to Egypt.” Learn a few Arabic phrases like Salam aleykum (hello) and shukran (thank you) and you’re sure to invoke an ancient Egyptian prayer that reads, “May you enter favored and leave beloved.”
Exodus Travels, the UK-based company that leads guests on worldwide sojourns with local experiences, recently introduced “Alexandria to Aswan,” a 13-day Egyptian adventure that follows the Nile river. We joined the premiere trip with 19 fit, globetrotting Brits, ages 31-76. Here are the highlights of what we experienced:
DAY ONE — ARRIVAL: Land at Cairo airport and head to a bank to change currency fee-free and purchase a 30-day tourist visa for $25. While these visas are available online in advance, there are hefty surcharges associated with them. It is easy and expedient to purchase a visa on-site. Exodus can arrange airport transportation to Giza’s Pyramids Park Hotel for $60, or you can negotiate a taxi outside for about $35 for the 45-minute drive. Note: Negotiate the price of everything in Egypt; it is part of the culture and is expected.
DAY TWO — PYRAMIDS AND GREAT SPHINX OF GIZA: The first morning begins with a full trip debriefing with Exodus tour guide, Sayed Mansour, an Egyptologist with 25+ years’ experience. With him, we journeyed to places the great Pharaohs ruled and learned factoids not found in guidebooks. The Sphinx seems almost diminutive compared to photos of it, yet no less impressive. Opt for a less-crowded guided tour to neighboring Saqqara and Dahshur to see some of the oldest, largest and best-preserved Egyptian pyramids and tombs dating to 2360 BC, and Memphis, the world’s first imperial city.
DAY THREE — CAIRO TOUR: First stop is the famed Egyptian museum, home to the world’s largest collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts — 160,000 of them — including the golden riches of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Opened in 1901, it’s a treasure trove from temples and tombs and houses everything from gold beds to towering pharaonic statues, well-preserved mummies, and 5,000-year-old ivory game boards. Then it’s on to ancient (and often hidden) sites, including an Egyptian hammam from 1450 AD, a 15th-century palace tucked into a side street, a typically unadorned 14th-century mosque and the gleaming Al Azhar mosque built in 970 AD, at which shoes come off, and flowing white skirts and headscarves are loaned to female visitors.
DAY FOUR — TRAVEL TO ALEXANDRIA FOR THE DAY: A four-hour bus-ride north leads through changing topography of desert and fertile fields of fig trees, dates, grapes and wheat. Alexandria isn’t the whitewashed paradise Cleopatra described. The bustling city, founded by Alexander the Great, is noisy, gridlocked, and probably gives you the best view of daily life while crisscrossing the city by bus. Memorable stops include Kom El Shoqafa catacombs built in the first century, containing Greek and Egyptian art.
Lunch at Alexandria’s most popular restaurant, the Fish Market costs about $10 for local fish and sweeping views of Alexandria’s harbor and the Citadel, on the site of the legendary Alexandria Lighthouse. The last stop is the Alexandria Library, the second-largest library in the world and revered for its architecture, design, art exhibits and interior museums.
DAY FIVE — VISIT EL ALAMEIN AND ST. BISHOY MONASTERY: At El Alamein, World War II buffs will
appreciate the Allied cemetery and military museum, with WWII planes from two decisive battles Winston Churchill fought against General Rommel. Next stop is the St. Bishoy monastery in the middle of the desert and home to 80 monks. The guide, a Frenchman named Father Joachim, gives an unorthodox tour that includes a taste of daily monastic life and a dose of biblical history while walking through gardens, chambers of Coptic art and frescoes from 11th and 12th centuries. Then return to Cairo.
The Philae Temple was purportedly visited by Julius Caesar and Cleopatra as the site of their Egyptian wedding.
DAY SIX — CAIRO FOOD TOUR; SLEEPER TRAIN TO ASWAN: This walking tour of Cairo’s local food spots is both filling and fascinating. Food throughout the trip is simple and flavorful. You’ll find such items as fresh-squeezed sugar cane, hibiscus, and pomegranate juices, as well as falafel, babaganoush, mulukhiyah, ful medames and koshari, all vegetarian dishes.
Next, walk off the calories by continuing to the famous Khan el-Khalili market in the historic center of Islamic Cairo. Wear flat shoes, watch where you’re going and bask in welcomes from friendly locals. Shop for mother-of-pearl inlaid boxes, pashminas, galabeya dresses and handcrafted goods and be prepared to bargain. Later, arrive at the historic Cairo train station and walk through soaring columns and temple-like architecture to board an overnight train to Aswan. These German-made trains from the 1980s have clean, yet tiny cabins with bunk-type beds, one bathroom per car, and a dedicated porter who makes the bed, serves dinner and breakfast and is happy to practice his English.
DAY SEVEN — ARRIVE at ASWAN; NUBIAN TOUR AND FELUCCA RIDE: Aswan is famous for its perfume and ubiquitous red granite. A sail along the Nile on a traditional felucca, like those Cleopatra used, goes past Elephantine Island, Botanical Garden and Aga Khan Mausoleum. Dock on a sandy shore and climb aboard camels for a half-hour desert trek to St. Simeon Monastery, an abandoned, and little-visited structure dating back to the 4th Century.
Hop aboard your camel for the return trek and sail to the lively Gharb Sohail village, where Exodus Travels supports a traditional Nubian home where guests hear about daily life. The colorful village with its stalls of fragrant spices is a quick stop before sailing to a second Nubian outpost, at which singers and drummers greet the felucca and lead guests in traditional dance to a bonfire flanked by Egyptian rugs, pillows and etched tin tables for a flavorful dinner of locally sourced foods, eaten by candlelight.
DAY EIGHT — OPTIONAL VISIT TO ABU SIMBEL TEMPLE; BOARD CRUISE SHIP: Though it’s an optional tour with a 3.30 a.m. departure, don’t miss the journey across the Nubian desert to Abu Simbel temple, a collection of massive rock temples built by Ramses II and considered one of the country’s most impressive historic sites. Located near the Sudanese border on the western bank of Lake Nasser, the temples’ beauty and grandeur, meant to intimidate enemies, is awe-inspiring. Board the 120-passenger M/S Mirage for a three-day 180-mile cruise down the Nile with stops at significant temples and an unforgettable journey through the Esna Lock. Buffet meals are laden with fresh local produce, flavorful figs and Egyptian and continental dishes.
DAY NINE — VISIT PHILAE TEMPLE AND ASWAN HIGH DAM; SAIL TO EDFU: Hop on a local motorboat for the sail to Philae Temple, founded in 380 BC and moved in 1972 from its original location along the Nile’s First Cataract. Built to honor the goddess Isis, it is considered one of the most romantic sites in Egyptian deity history and was purportedly visited by Julius Caesar and Cleopatra as the site of their Egyptian wedding. Purchase cotton galabeya dresses and pajamas at the bazaar, local crafts on the dock and Nubian jewelry onboard the motorboat.
Sunset brings you to Kom Ombo, a double temple built over 200 years during the Ptolemaic period and dedicated to Sobek, the Crocodile god and Horus, the falcon-headed god. Here, you’ll see carvings of medical and mummification tools; meander through gateways and chapels exclusively reserved for high priests and visit the Crocodile museum.
DAY 10 — TOUR EDFU; SAIL TO LUXOR: A phalanx of horses and antique carriages squire passengers on a morning journey to Temple of Edfu, Egypt’s most intact temple, originally built by Ptolemy III and finished 180 years later by Ptolemy XIII during Greek rule. It contains a labyrinth of rooms accessible only to priests and filled with hieroglyphs, cartouches and carvings that describe language, myth and religion of the time.
Back on board the Mirage, you can book an appointment with Ahmed Ismael, the massage therapist who mixes his own organic oils, using sandalwood, orange, vanilla and raw African coco-nut oil, each with its own purpose. And don’t miss the Esna lock crossing. Local vendors in small rowboats ply their soft goods — tablecloths, towels, T-shirts and pashminas — by lobbing them over the ship’s railing. A local guide on board facilitates any monetary transactions.
DAY 11— DISEMBARK IN LUXOR; EXPLORE THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS: The most famous archaeological site in the world, the Valley of the Kings represents just 300 years of Egyptian history, and once contained the largest concentration of gold in the world. Home to 64 discovered tombs of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs and noblemen, archaeological digs continue to this day. Though most tombs were looted centuries ago, a ton of gold and 5,000 artifacts extracted are now housed in Cairo’s Egyptian museum and The British Museum in London. You will descend into tombs filled with murals, carvings and paintings depicting life and the afterlife and marvel at the detailed artwork and storylines.
One ticket includes a visit to just three tombs, so pick wisely. Guide Mansour will offer recommendations, but honestly, you can’t go wrong. A ticket to King Tutankhamun’s tomb is $12 extra and contains one of three original gold sarcophaguses found there by British archaeologist Howard Carter, whose home is close by and well-worth a visit if spending an extra day in Luxor.
DAY 12 — LUXOR TOUR INCLUDING KARNAK AND LUXOR TEMPLES: See the magnificent Luxor Temple at sunset, when statues come alive under well-placed lighting and a portion of the impressive Avenue of the Sphinxes glows. Its nighttime Sound and Light Show speaks to the temple’s rich history, with stops under its soaring, cartouche-filled columns. Journey by motorboat to Luxor’s West Bank and take the optional excursions to Hatshepsut temple, Valley of the Workers and Habu temple — Egypt’s most well-preserved temple in regards to color. Only 10 people are allowed in at a time; local docents will explain the murals and cartouches. (Fly home the next day.)
Note: U.S. travelers who are used to staying in five-star only hotels should be advised that Exodus uses a mix of three- and four-star properties. However, our time spent in them was at a minimum and frankly, we’d have liked to have a longer stay at:
Mediterranean Azur Hotel, Alexandria for its luxurious guestrooms, private beach and location on the Alexandrian harbor adjacent to the seawall and promenade.
Basma Hotel, Aswan for its comfortable, oversized rooms, pleasure gardens, pool and relaxing café perched high above the Nile to enjoy coffee while gazing at the Agha Khan Mausoleum.
Iberotel Luxor for its Nile-front pool, lush gardens, private dock from which to traverse the Nile on a river taxi, and central location across from Luxor Temple along the riverfront promenade.
A Food Tour in Egypt is flavorful and fascinating.
Tip: What to Pack
Exodus has an excellent packing list online that covers nearly everything. A few additions:
- If you’re going in winter, pack a light parka. It’s cold in the desert at night.
- Leave heels at home; the city streets are mostly uneven stones; you will be descending steep stairs into tombs and catacombs, slogging through sand and climbing in and out of traditional feluccas. It’s no place for heels.
- Pack a dual-voltage travel hairdryer; the ones hotels and cruise ships provide are weak.
- Bring along a stack of dollar bills for baksheesh or tips for anyone from the porter to the bathroom attendant; essentially, anyone who provides a service will expect (and request) baksheesh.
Note: Exodus Travels’ “Egypt: Alexandria to Aswan” tour starts at $2,055 per person double.