December 2 – 8, 2020
After three fantastic months in Turkey our next destination was Egypt. It was kind of a last minute decision because of all the COVID restrictions happening in Europe and we certainly didn’t want to go back to the US with all the madness surrounding the upcoming election. Research and recommendations from other travelers all pointed towards Egypt for ease of travel and good weather during the winter months. Besides, who can resist this once in a lifetime opportunity to see the great pyramids with hardly any tourists?
After getting our e-Visa and a negative COVID test in Istanbul, we were on our way to Cairo on Egyptair, a short 2 hour flight.
Since going to Egypt was kind of a last minute decision, I didn’t do much research. Most people visit Egypt with a tour group but that’s definitely not our style. For people who only have a limited amount of time, it totally makes sense but since time is something we have plenty of, we will discover Egypt at our own pace, hiring local guides and drivers to visit the major sites but also to avoid the constant nagging of hustlers trying to sell you something. For the more experienced travelers I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend traveling independently but you must do your research, it’s not a country where you can just wing it if you want to have a good time. We received excellent recommendations from the hotels and hostels where we stayed, what works best for us is establishing contact with other travelers, through facebook groups, who recommend local drivers, guides, hotels, restaurants etc… then reach out through the WhatsApp application, everybody we met this way, has been honest and genuine.
Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets
Arriving in Cairo was quite a shock! Cairo is chaotic, dirty, dusty, hazy from air pollution but also home to some of the world’s most magnificent treasures, somehow once you get to know her, she kind of grows on you and you start to appreciate her a little bit more… during the six days we were in Cairo we tried to see as much as possible including an overnight trip to the desert.
With more than 21 million people living in the metropolitan area of Cairo it is not only the largest city in Egypt but also in Africa, the Arab world and the 6th largest in the world. Founded in 969 AD, set on the Nile River, it is considered the center of the region’s political and cultural life.
Holy Sheet Hostel
We opted to stay at a Hostel located in the center near Tahrir Square and the Egyptian Museum. We find that hostels are the best option when you arrive in a new country or new city, to meet other travelers but also to get a feel for the destination, hostels often have the best recommendations for guides and tours. We got a twin room with private bathroom for $20/night including breakfast for both of us; it even had a balcony! Holy Sheet Hostel besides it’s name creating a bit of an awkward moment at he airport when the immigration officer asked us where we were staying, lol, turned out to be an excellent choice, it was clean with an old world charm and the young Egyptian owners were extremely welcoming and gave us tons of tips and information.
The Egyptian Museum
Built in 1901, the Egyptian Museum is home to an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities, with over 120,000 items both on display and in storage, it was the perfect start to our Egyptian journey. To really capture the essence and enjoy our visit we hired a guide. Amira was passionate, friendly and even spoke French besides Arabic and English. We spent almost three hours in total admiration in front of marvels such as:
- The gold mask of Tutankhamun – made of 11kg of solid gold
- Schist statue of Ramesses IV
- Colossal statue of Amenhotep
- Schist triad sculpture of Menkaura
- Sandstone chapel – shrine dedicated to the Goddess Hathor
- Alabaster Canopic Jars – to keep human organs during mummification process
Many of the items have been moved to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Giza near the pyramids, it is scheduled to open sometime in 2021.
Overnight trip to the White Desert
When we checked in at the Holy Sheet Hostel, Mina, one of the owners, asked if we wanted to join him and a small group of travelers staying at the hostels, to an overnight trip to the desert, without hesitation we signed up.
During the 4×4 expedition, with a fun young group of travelers, we saw unbelievable sand dunes, the chalk rock formations of the White Desert, a Crystal Mountain and even a Black Desert. Our two Bedouin guides and drivers from the Bahariya Oasis took care of everything from driving us there, to setting up camp with tents, preparing the delicious meals and even singing and playing the drums as we all danced around the camp fire!
We came back from the desert completely exhausted, but we were so excited about seeing the pyramids that we were up bright and early the next day to meet our guide Ahmed Phinx and head to Giza to see the Great Pyramids, the defining symbol of Egypt and the last remaining wonders of the ancient world!
After driving just a few minutes outside of the city center it was nice to see more green and farm land along the Nile. Life sure ain’t easy in this part of the world but still we saw lots of smiling faces.
With our guide Ahmed Phynx, the cool dude with the shades, we stoped on the side of the road on our way to the pyramids to taste delicious sweet potatoes baked in a wood fired oven on a cart pulled by a donkey.
You may be familiar with the name Saqqara from the Netflix documentary: Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb. Saqqara is known for the step pyramid but there is 10 other pyramids. It was an active burial ground for more than 3500 years, it’s Egypt’s largest archaeological site and we had it to ourselves.
The Giza Pyramid Complex, is without a doubt the most visited site in Egypt, located only 13 km (8miles) from the center of Cairo it holds the largest pyramids built in Ancient Egypt, the Great Pyramid aka Cheops, the Pyramid of Khafre, the Pyramid of Menkaure along with smaller ones and of course the Great Sphinx of Giza.
Visiting this legendary site with hardly any visitors, just a few small groups of Egyptian tourists and school kids, in December when the weather is ideal, was absolutely amazing, we could not believe that we were actually there looking at one of the seven wonders of the world!
Turned out that we became the attraction for a group of young Egyptian women, they asked if they could take a picture with us when they found out we were from the US.
After the Pyramids and the Museum of antiquities, I spent another day of sightseeing in Old Cairo, Joe stayed at the hostel but I was in good company with my guide Mohamed. It includes the site of Roman-era fortress and of Islamic-era.
- Coptic Cairo, Christian section
- Islamic Cairo including the Saladin Citadel, Al-Azhar Street and the 14th century Kan Al-Khalili Bazaar
Coptic Cairo is a unique area in Old Cairo that has a concentration of Christian churches and other sites from when Egypt had a Christian majority. They say it was here that the holy Family, Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and young Jesus lived for four months after fleeing to Egypt escaping persecution from King Herod of Judea.
The Citadel of Cairo was built by Salah ad-Din (Saladin) and further developed by subsequent rulers. It was the seat of the government and the rulers residence for nearly 700 years from the 13th to the 19th century. It is now a historic site, including mosques and museums. Built on a hill near the center of Cairo, it offers nice views of the City when it’s not to foggy.
In 1976 it was proclaimed by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage Site, Historic Cairo (Islamic Cairo), it’s been open to the public since 1983. One of the must see attractions when visiting Cairo.
I know all of you are familiar with the name , have you ever wondered why the boxer Cassius Clay chose this name when he converted to Islam? Even though he said it was the significance “beloved of God”, it came from Muhammad Ali known as the Father of modern Egypt, he was the founder of the Muhammad Ali dynasty that ruled over Egypt and Sudan from the 19th to the mid 20th century.
There is four mosques in the Citadel today, the most popular and the most visible is the Muhammad Ali mosque which was built in memory of his oldest son by a Turkish architect.
Khan El-Khalili Bazaar
My favorite part of Old Cairo was the visit to the Bazaar where you can observe people going about their daily lives.
Established in the 14th century, it’s one of the world’s first market and a maze of narrow alleys. Home to many artisans and workshops involved in the production of traditional crafts like metalwork. Also a great place to just walk around trying to grasp what life was like 600 years ago when merchants came from all over the world to sell their merchandise.
Al-Fishawy Café, first opened its doors in 1769, one of the oldest coffee shops in the middle east.
It was a favorite hangout for intellectuals and writers, the place has kept an old world atmosphere with copper tables, wooden mirrors and lanterns, the inside walls are covered with old photos of famous writers and celebrities. The delicious tea is served with fresh mint in a beautiful and colorful tea pot. I could have stayed here all day, sipping tea and watching people walk by.
Ta’ameya or Egyptian Falafel is made with crushed fava beans instead of chickpeas, accompanied by tahini sauce, Ful mashed fava beans resembling refried beans, a tomato, cucumber, onion salad and baladi bread similar to pita but made with whole wheat flour. Without a doubt my favorite meal in Egypt.
Joe was more into the Koshary a mix of rice, spaghetti, macaroni, lentils and chickpeas topped with a spiced tomato sauce and garlic vinegar, garnished with crispy fried onions. Sounds weird but it’s actually pretty good and quite filling as you can imagine, carb overload!
A visit to one of the many papyrus shops was nice to see the process from the plant to the final product.
Since the 2011 revolution aka the Arab Spring and more recent bombings, Egypt has been on many nation’s travel advisory list. All we can say is that we never felt in any danger during our three month stay. We traveled through the country by car, taxi, Uber, bus, train, boat and plane, we never witness any incidents but we did go through a crazy amount of police and military check points with x-rays, mirrors to inspect car’s undercarriage, specially in the Sinai Peninsula. As far as COVID is concern, we decided to go with the flow which meant wearing masks only in crowded and indoor buildings. Just like we did in Turkey we avoided crowds and spent most of our time outside.
Night Train to Luxor
There’s a few option to travel from Cairo to Luxor but we opted for the overnight train. We had a terrible Uber experience from our hostel to the train station which was only a few miles away but in the Cairo traffic it turned out to be a nightmare and we almost missed our train. We made it to the station with just a few minutes to spare, we had an excellent night sleep but the food was atrocious!
Stay tuned … for our Nile River cruise
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In 2014 we decided to sell everything we owned to embark on a Journey to discover the world. After a five year overland expedition through the Americas driving from Alaska to Argentina we traded our truck camper for two carryon suitcases …
Let’s see where the wind takes us this time!