An Egyptian Adventure: Visiting Cairo, Aswan, Marsa Alam and Diving the Red Sea

DSC01939People often think we are crazy for a lot of the travel choices we make…..and I can see how you might really question this one. The middle east is obviously the most unstable place in the world right now. I had long ago given up my dreams of seeing all the splendors of the middle east, assuming that as a white American female there was no way I could be safe anywhere there. I have also heard so many stories of how dirty and disappointing places like Egypt are….so I figured maybe it was best to just hold onto the beauty and perfection of the images of Egypt in my head and not risk the danger and disappointment of visiting. What tipped us over the edge to decide on this trip? The Red Sea! One thing I cannot bare to miss out on is one of the top diving spots in the world. So we decided on that first…..then broke down and said what the hell – we can’t go to Egypt without visiting the ancient temples and ruins.

First step was choosing our dive boat. Everyone always asks how we picks out trips or tour companies. I basically decide what I am most interested in seeing/doing, research where is the best place to see that then I see how I can get to that area or look for companies that go there. I knew we wanted to go to the southern Red Sea which has deeper dives, more current and better chances for seeing big stuff. There were few options of boats going to this area during the time we needed to travel which made choosing easier. We saw that the Red Seas Aggressor fit our dates and since we have travelled with the Aggressor fleet twice before, we knew they were a good company and decided on that trip.

Because our boat departed from Marsa Alam on the southeast coast of Egypt, we decided to try to sightsee around the southern part of the country first. Most people want to see the pyramids when they go to Egypt – but for me the biggest priority was getting to Abu Simbel. This is one of the greatest archeological sites of the ancient world….which I have dreamed about seeing since a very young age.

I was completely obsessed with Egypt as a child. I knew all the pharaohs, the ancient gods and their stories, and I even taught myself to read/write hieroglyphics. The images of Ramses II towering over the Nile seemed like an impossible reality. How in the world did the ancient Egyptians carve out such colossal figures? Even more unbelievable than the original building of the temple is that in the 1960s the entire thing was disassembled piece by piece and reassembled in a new location. Why? Because building of the Aswan High Dam was going to create a huge new lake (Lake Nassar) which was going to put Abu Simbel along with countless other temples and archeological sites under water! Luckily there was enough media to gain international interest and many countries formed a partnership with UNESCO to save all of these sites in lower Egypt – called Nubia. It took over 10 years of painstaking work to carefully dismantle temples like Abu Simbel piece by piece, label and catalog each piece, transport it to a new location and then reassemble everything. The work they did is miraculous. I don’t know if there has ever been a more impressive collaboration of so many different countries toward a single peaceful philanthropic goal. The Nubian Museum in Aswan details all of these projects through photography and models. Garrett’s grandparents were actually archeologists involved in this excavation and salvaging of Nubia. Garrett’s dad lived on the border of Egypt and Sudan during his teen years assisting with this work. It was amazing to learn about Nubia which is a very distinct part of Egyptian culture and history.

We stayed 2 nights in Aswan at the “Happi Hotel” which was basic but clean, comfortable and centrally located next to the Old Bazaar. I didn’t have much expectation for the town but was very pleasantly surprised. It was clean, small enough to be easily walkable and beautifully situated along the Nile. I really had no ideas how beautiful the Nile was…I assumed it would be polluted or murky or overrun with tourist traffic. But it is an incredible sapphire blue, clean, filled with picturesque sail boats (called felluccas) and flanked by rocky cliffs and palm trees.

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We spent an afternoon at the Old Cataract Hotel – which was breathtaking. I love old colonial hotels and this one has to be at the top of my list. It is decorated like a palace with high archways, stained glass windows, ornate chandeliers and tapestries. They have multiple levels of terraces with views to the Nile and various bars/restaurants. A high tea is offered on the main terrace which can also be complemented by hookah! Garretts’s favorite part was that one of the cocktail waiters was a dwarf wearing a pretty amazing traditional Arabic outfit….I forbid him from taking a picture for obvious reasons….

Things to do in Aswan include a day trip to Abu Simbel, visit to the Nubian Museum, visit to the unfinished obelisk (gives you an idea of how the huge stone structures were made), fellucca ride along the Nile, avisit to Pelea temple, visit to tomb of the Nobles and Elephantine Island. Pelea temple is definitely a do not miss item. On our way to Mara Alam we stopped at Kumumbu temple and Efdu temple. Again….I had zero expectation for these and was totally blown away, particularly by Edfu. The scale of this temple was even more grand than Abu Simbel.

It is also one of the best preserved temples in Egypt because it was totally covered in sand until the late 1800s. The temple is a shrine to the sun god Horus and the inner chamber is still intact. The most amazing part is that some of the original paint colors are still visible so you can get an idea of what the temple looked like in its original glory. One of the saddest things about visiting all of these temples is seeing the amount of damage and sabotage that was inflicted over the years. Early Christians scratched out the entire carving of most of the figures on the temples leaving just an outline. I can’t imagine destroying something so beautiful!

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The second part of our trip started when we boarded the Red Sea Aggressor in Port Ghalib. The boat was a pretty standard– not that big or fancy but comfortable. There was a group of divers from Singapore and a group from UAE, one Russian couple and one older American couple. The boat was completely full which isn’t that common in the Red Sea since tourism has been down the past 5 years. Our first dives were near the shore (Marsa Shoun, Marsa Mubarak) and gave us a great introduction to the beautiful variety of soft corals that the Red Sea is so famous for. Then we moved out to Brothers Island. These are two rock islands that are engulfed with coral. We did one day at the smaller island – Little Brother and one day at the larger – Big Brother. Here we saw a hammerhead for the first time! The first sighting was exhilarating! I was the first to see him and he came right at me – swimming just 5 ft away. I retreated back to the coral wall but then he came even closer – about 3 ft this time! He looked at me for a moment then kept swimming past. It was the most scared I’ve ever been in the water. I actually started coming up with a game plan in case he attacked me…thinking about how I could punch him in the nose. Luckily….he could care less about me. We also saw our first Thrasher and Oceanic White Tip sharks. The Oceanics are apparently one of the most dangerous shark species which like to hang around boats at the surface and will attack you ….

The wall at Brothers was magnificent. Huge red gorgonian sea fans and a wide variety of corals reaching as far up and as far down as you could see. Lots of schools of yellowfin tuna, baraccuda and napoleon wrasse.

DSC03308The coolest thing about Big Brother Island is that there are two wrecks. The Numidia is a huge cargo ship that sank on its first voyage from Glasgow in 1900. It sits vertically along the coral wall starting at 50ft and extending down to 150ft and is entirely crusted in coral. This is the first wreck we have been able to swim inside. Swimming inside was one of the highlights of the trip. It was totally dark with streams of light that variably shone in through openings in the hull. Fish were happily swimming in and out. It was a bit claustrophobic inside because about 8 of us were in there at once. You couldn’t really backtrack and had to just keep swimming up and around the compartments until you reached the higher up vents that were big enough to let you out. The second wreck is called Aida which sunk sometime in the 1950s. It is a smaller ship which sits deeper from 110- 150ft. We could only hover over the surface of this one because it was too deep to go inside. Adding wrecks into the rotation of dives gives great variety and makes you look at the reef in a different way. You see how the ocean can live symbiotically with outside forces. When objects are thrown into the ocean, sea life tries to incorporate and take advantage of it. Coral slowly creeps onto it, fish use it as a hideaway and soon you can’t hardly tell it was ever a foreign object.

The next day we moved to Elephinstone which is another small coral island closer to the shore. It has a similarly beautiful wall. We saw more oceanic sharks and lots of schooling fish. One of the coolest things was seeing two huge moray eels fighting and one took a chunk out of the other! We also saw a lavender and pink stone fish which was really pretty.

IMG_20170715_112410_562Deadalus was our next stop. This is a famous spot for schools of hammerhead sharks. It’s a place where they say you are always guaranteed to see the hammerheads. It did not disappoint. We dropped down deep to find them and once we spotted two around 100ft they began to swim in spirals in and out around our group. We were so excited to see them that most of us ended up unknowingly swimming down to 120 ft following them. All at once, like a chorus, our dive watches began to beep warning us we were descending too far and too fast! Luckily the hammerheads followed us up to about 90 ft before we had to leave them behind. Incredibly beautiful creatures. My initial fear wore off and turned into a fascination. I could have stayed down there for hours just watching them glide through the water.

IMG_20170715_111528_095On the next dive we found an oceanic white tip waiting for us right when we jumped off the boat. I actually almost jumped right on top of the shark as I stepped off the boat! Instead of descending to the coral wall – we stayed near the surface for an hour basically playing with this Oceanic. He would swim into our group and go right up face to face with one of the divers then quickly back off and swim away – it was almost like a game of chicken. He would make a few wide circles then come in again to inspect another diver. He swam incredibly closely above and below me, but I never got the chance to look at him eye to eye (sadly….but probably for the best). It is hard to describe the feeling of being so close to a creature like a shark. It is mesmerizing, exhilarating and terrifying. I can tell you that I am hooked! Deadalus also has a small man-made island in the center with a lighthouse. We climbed up at sunset and got a beautiful view out over the reef. It is always amazing to see from above what you have also viewed from so deep below.

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lighthouse at Deadalus

Our last few dives were shore dives as we neared the port for our disembarkation. We did a nice night dive where we saw numerous Spanish dancer nudibranches and a few cuddlefish. Overall we did 25 dives – which is exhausting but so much fun. We also completed our advanced PADI certification which we had been delaying because of how expensive it is….but you definitely need it for companies to allow you to go to better dive sites. I would highly recommend a Red Sea liveaboard to any serious diver! North Red Sea for beginners and South Red Sea for more advanced divers.

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pyramid pose for a pyramid view room

The last part of our trip took us to the infamous Cairo. We took an overnight bus from Hurgada which was quite an interesting experience. We luckily had some help from a local at the bus station to get our tickets. We were the only non-locals on the bus. It was surprisingly comfortable and well run. I was shocked when we pulled into a large neon-lit food stop at midnight. I got an excellent chicken kabab with all the sides and fixings. It was delicious. We arrived to the bus station in the middle of Cairo at 4am…..which probably wasn’t the best idea. Nor was hopping into a random car that may or may not have been the Uber we ordered….but it all worked out and we made it to our hotel – the Le Meridian Pyramids. We checked in early to sleep a few hours, then woke up to find the great pyramids of Giza looking like a mirage out of our window. Who knew you could get a pyramid view room! I highly recommend this hotel – perfect location, great pool and you just can’t beat the views!

We spent our first day visiting the Egyptian Museum and the Khan el-Khalili market. The museum was overwhelming – wall to wall, floor to ceiling artifacts jammed into every corner. The government is building a new Egyptian Museum which will be done in 2020– a HUGE complex that looks like a sports arena. It should be better able to organize and house all the amazing artifacts they have. We had some drinks and apps at the Nile Ritz Carlton which was beautiful (but still not as nice as the Cataract Hotel in my opinion).

Visiting the Khan el-Khalili market was also very overwhelming. We were honestly the only tourists there so you can imagine how much we got hassled! Bargaining was really easy though – because vendors were so desperate to sell anything. I could have spent days exploring there but the heat makes it really exhausting, so there is only so much you can tolerate! We got everything I was hoping to find – some new genie pants, some Egyptian fabric, some (fake) pearl inlaid boxes, a lantern, and Bedouin scarfs.IMG_20170715_181502.jpg

Day number two was the big event – going to visit the pyramids! We first rode camels through the sand dunes behind the pyramids and up to a look out point. I would not suggest doing this. You can easily take an uber from your hotel to the pyramid overlook and get a camel there. You really only need a short ride to get the experience and take some pictures. We got pressured into deviating from our original plan and doing it this way from a taxi driver – were not happy about the outcome! I would strongly advise against an hour long camel ride – even in the early morning it is HOT and uncomfortable. But you can’t visit Egypt without getting tricked or ripped off in some way so this was all part of the adventure! We were so hot after the camels that we decided to go back to the hotel to cool off and get lunch. We headed back in the afternoon to explore the pyramids up close.

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climbing up the pyramid chamber

We were able to go inside the chambers of the great pyramid of Khufu and the smaller pyramid of Menkaure. It was amazing to see inside. We were surprised that the entrance was elevated in the center of the pyramid. We were told that the entrance holes were actually made by Islamic rulers who blasted open the center of the pyramids because they wanted to see what was inside! We were surprised at how few people were visiting the pyramids. There were some tourists but by the afternoon everyone had gone. So we made sure to make complete assholes out of ourselves with plenty of obnoxious tourist photos 🙂 I couldn’t imagine how many people used to descend on this site daily – must have been a madhouse! Some people say that the pyramids are much smaller in person but I didn’t feel that way. I was just as impressed as I thought I would be! The sphinx was definitely small but nonetheless impressive!

Surprisingly one of my favorite things we did was the evening sound and light show at the sphinx. I thought it was going to be some cheesy disco light show – but it was actually really informative! They went through a lot of history of Giza and details about the pyramids that I didn’t know. I also really like how they projected the original face of the sphinx onto the current stone face – really helped me imagine how things would have looked in ancient times.

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sunset before the sound & light show

DSC02090 copyWe spent our last day touring the pyramid complex of Dahshur and Saqquara. I would highly recommend this as a side trip. We did it in half a day but most tours try to convince you do to a whole day trip. If you are in a rush you can definitely do it in 4-5 hours. I think the Red Pyramid is the most beautiful of all the pyramids – it is so perfectly shaped and I love the way it glows red in the sun. But I think my favorite pyramid is the Bent Pyramid. Most people think it looks sad because of the irregular angle change that causes it to look bent, but I just really love how unique it is and how it has most of the exterior limestone coating still intact. The Step Pyramid was also very interesting.

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We opted not to visit Memphis because we heard there was not much unique to see there. Things we didn’t do that we would have liked to include visiting Alexandria, visiting the Coptic areas of Cairo and obviously visiting Luxor. I chose Aswan over Luxor because I wanted to visit Abu Simbel and I think I definitely made the right choice! Luxor has lots of temples and although fascinating and beautiful – nothing can compare to the awe of Abu Simbel!

For anyone considering a visit to Egypt, I would highly recommend it with a few caveats…Although we felt safe the entire time – there is no denying that Egypt is in a politically unstable region with potential for terrorist activity. The month before we visited there was a bombing of a bus full of Coptic Christians. The day before we travelled to Hurghada there were two European tourists killed. We are used to living among these types of risks because there is just a much higher potential for violent crime in Africa – particularly south Africa which we visit frequently. We have gotten used to being highly vigilant and knowing how to travel smart, and also accepting the inherent risks. I would not recommend Egypt for travelers who are particularly afraid of being put into any dangerous situation or anyone traveling as a family with small children. There is no way to predict where violence or terrorist activity will occur in our world today so I don’t let it dictate our travel choices, but everyone should make this choice carefully for themselves. I would not recommend traveling alone as a female. You don’t need to have a tour guide. Having a driver is nice, especially in southern Egypt where distances are longer. We used Egyptian SideKick which is an awesome company. It is run by Egyptian university students who are studying in Canada. They pair you up with an Egyptian local to be your tour guide. We used them to arrange our transport to Abu Simbel, a tour of Pelea temple, transport to Kumumbu temple and Efdu temple and transport to Marsa Alam. I found everyone we worked with to be professional, honest, helpful and well informed. Prices are not the cheapest you can find but fair. You don’t need a tour guide in Cairo – but if you want to avoid being constantly hassled it wouldn’t be a bad idea!

Overall, I was incredibly impressed with how friendly, caring and honest the people of Egypt were. Because there are so few tourist, everyone took care to make sure we were happy and safe. Although they are always trying to make money (you can’t blame them) – they were very open and honest about their intentions. Things were also so much cleaner than I expected. And did we mention the amazing and cheap food!

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this feast for ~$8

I feel so bad for the country and how damaged they have become because of the actions of a few. Tourism is critical for the economy and the only source of income for most Egyptians. I hope things continue to stabilize and they can regain their former position as one of the top tourist destinations – but until then it is a great place to visit because you can have all the sights to yourself! Seriously, if you are at all considering a trip now is the time because prices are down and you don’t have to deal with any crowds!

 

 

 

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