In my last post, I gave the whole scoop on my Travel Talk Tour of Egypt — what I liked, what I loved, and what I loathed about the logistics of the tour I painstakingly chose. In this post, we’re getting down to the fun stuff… the magical sights of Egypt that many of us have been dreaming of seeing since we first watched a Mummy movie and/or were drawing scarabs in the margins of our grade school textbooks with colored gel pens.
No? Just me? Well, y’all missed out ’cause Lisa Frank had a super dope Cleocatra Cat line.
I’d already spent a few days exploring Cairo independently when the tour kicked off, but I was more than happy to see it from a new perspective. I moved over to the tour hotel in Giza (after my Uber literally broke down and the engine essentially caught on fire halfway there and I had to catch another one from the side of the road — ah, the glamour of travel) and our first night we piled into a conference room for a rundown of the tour and an eye-ing up of potential new best friends.
Post-meeting, most of the group headed out for an optional extra excursion — a dinner cruise on the Nile with bellydancing and a traditional Egyptian buffet. While I did suffer some serious FOMO, I decided to hang back, order room service, and finish up some work before we set off the next morning, and in the end I was glad I did. As I shared previously, this was a super duper intense tour and while that would be perfect for someone who wanted to cram as much as possible into limited vacation days, I was on a much longer trip and so had to take care not to burn out in the midst — which, let’s face it, I basically did anyway despite my best intentions. (And frankly, I heard the dinner cruise wasn’t exactly unmissable — everyone I talked to said the music was so loud they couldn’t really chat anyway.)
We were all up bright and early the next morning — on this tour, an 8am meet time was a sleep in — and off to explore the pyramids of Saqqara. If you just said, “pyramids of what?” then welcome to the club. As I’ve already confessed, I really did no research for this part of my Middle East trip, so I literally hadn’t even heard of Saqqara when I saw it on the itinerary.
But I quickly understood why we were beginning our journey there. Our fabulous guide Sam explained that while we all know the three in Giza, there are actually one hundred and twenty pyramids around Egypt. Saqqara, a forty-five minute drive south of Giza, is where pyramid building in Egypt first began. However, they looked a little different than the ones that grace a thousand postcards and profile pictures — the so-called “step pyramids” mark the transition between a bench-like mastaba style of burial and the true pyramid shape we know today.
After, we were back on the bus and en route to Giza! Though I’d already spent a day at the pyramids wandering around with friends, taking a million photos and exploring the inside of the Great Pyramid, I was excited to hear the insights of a guide and have some free time to take in the Cheops Boat Museum (40 EGP for a student ticket), which I’d only realized after the fact that I’d missed.
The boat museum was small but fascinating, and well worth the small extra admission fee. There really is so much to explore at the pyramids — I didn’t even go inside the Pyramid of Khafre or the Pyramid of Menkaur! (I felt the Great Pyramid of Khufu gave me the full pyramid penetration experience.)
Again, I skipped the optional extra for the day, which in this case was a camel ride. I knew I’d be riding a camel in Dahab, where I felt super comfortable with how the animals were being cared for. Here, I just couldn’t be sure… I wasn’t vehemently against it, but I also wasn’t confident enough to enjoy the whole thing.
The photos from everyone who went were incredible, which gave me a slight pang of regret, but I think when it comes to animal interactions on your travels, it’s best to err on the side of caution and go with your gut.
Post-pyramids, we stopped briefly at a perfume store, which I wasn’t too jazzed about, before headed back to the hotel to load up the bus with our luggage for our first very long overnight bus ride to Luxor. If you read my previous post you already know that the bus and I had some serious relationship issues, so I won’t dive back into that again other than to say that I pretty much kissed the ground in Luxor when we arrived.
Though we hadn’t arrived in our hotel rooms until around 2am, we were up again at 7am. No one said touring Egypt would be easy! After a quick photo stop at the Colossi of Memnon, mostly memorable for the hilariously tacky, brightly printed Egyptian dress shirts we all bought — which, fear not, will make an appearance in my felucca post — we were off on a day of Luxor exploration.
Again I circle back to this very rare experience I had on this trip where I was basically going in blind. When Sam said, “we’re going to the Valley of Kings,” I had a vague mental picture in my mind of what I thought that was. Ha! Turns out I was totally misplacing a different ancient Egyptian site. The total lack of research I’d done — which for a control freak like me would normally be stressful — turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I’d say that after the felucca ride, visiting the Valley of Kings was my second most magical moment in Egypt. And I had no idea it was coming!
Turns out the Valley of the Kings is where the hidden tombs of so many great Egyptian Kings have been uncovered… including our famous friend King Tut. A general ticket (160 EGP) allows you to go in three of the tombs of your choice, and then you can buy extra tickets to some of the special ones, like Tutankhamun’s (200 EGP) . I was fascinated when our guide confessed that really, King Tut is no big deal in Egyptian history — he’s just famous because his was the last tomb to be found, and the only one found intact, untouched by tomb looters.
Part of the reason I likely didn’t have any reference for the Valley of Kings is that until very recently, photos were completely banned inside. Today, they are allowed with a very expensive photo ticket that I of course couldn’t resist splurging on — minus King Tut’s tomb, which is still strictly off limits for photos.
We visited the tombs of King Ramses III, King Ramses IV, King Tutankhamun… and one other I forgot, but I’d say it’s a safe bet he was a Ramses. Whoops!
I was blown away. I could not stop marveling at how beautiful and intact and colorful and special these tombs were, and that we were walking freely in them! Or that they had remained hidden for so long, buried away been the harsh and relentless desert landscape. If you too are ever lucky enough to make it here, don’t miss the lucite 3D model in the visitor’s center that shows how deeply the various tombs all recess into the hills.
My favorite part of the day? Learning that there is still one King of Egypt who’s tomb has yet to be discovered. I got chills just thinking about how exciting it would be if they found it in our lifetime.
I’d be on the first flight back to Cairo, that’s for sure.
I was wowed enough to fill a whole day and then some, but we still had a few more stops to make. After a fairly brief visit to a sculpture workshop, where I surprised myself by buying a tiny onyx pyramid, we were on to the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut (80 EGP). This is what I had somehow mentally labeled as the Valley of Kings. Whoops.
I guess, in my defense, they are both in Luxor.
Though it wasn’t addressed on the tour, I read in my guidebook about the 1997 massacre at this temple, and it was hard to take my mind off of it while we were there. I felt very safe throughout my time in Egypt, and if I didn’t the armed guard that accompanied our tour everywhere would have made me feel so, however it’s impossible to deny the impact various terrorist attacks have had on Egypt’s modern history, economy, and tourism industry.
There’s good news, though, for those that rely on tourism for their livelihood — and for tourists who are looking for a relief of pressure from desperate vendors. Tourists are finally returning to Egypt — the number of foreign arrivals has increased every year since the economy-crushing Arab Spring in 2011.
After leaving Luxor, we piled back onto the bus for the four hour ride to Aswan. Upon arrival, we checked into the hotel, and those who had signed up for the evening’s optional excursion, a felucca ride and dinner at a local Nubian family home, turned right back around to leave again. I opted out, and reveled in having an evening to catch up on some emails, absorb some alone time over room service, and repack my bag for our next adventure.
I was thrilled with my decision to take it easy when our alarms went off the next morning at 4am for the one option excursion I did enroll in — the trip to Abu Simbel temple. Abu Simbel (160EGP) is four hours south of Aswan, along the border with Sudan, and I’d heard from many, many sources that it was the one absolute can’t miss temple in mainland Egypt. I wasn’t the only one who’d heard that rumor — there were only two in our entire group who didn’t go, and only out of strict budgetary concerns. Frankly, I wish Travel Talk Tours would just up the price slightly and include it — it’s not like the extra fee includes admission, and we took our own tour bus, so it’s hard to understand why it’s an “extra.”
There are actually two twin temples at Abu Simbel — the larger, dedicated to the King, and a smaller yet still enormous neighboring one dedicated to Queen Nefertari’s. Now, King Ramses II had more than forty wives, but only one of ’em got a massive temple built in her honor. That’s what I call being a main squeeze. Teach us your secrets, Nefertari!
Abu Simbel was impressive and amazing but it was absolutely mobbed when we were there. I actually kind of regret the patience and ninja-like angle skills I deployed to get these photos (photo ticket 300 EGP), as they don’t really accurately reflect how many fellow tourists we were bobbing and weaving around.
Like pretty much every temple we’d visited, I took one thing I heard or read and was totally fixated on it. In this case, it was the fact that this now set-back temple once sat directly on the waterfront. Yet in 1963, when the completion of a new nearby dam threatened to flood them forever, UNESCO and the Egyptian government worked together to relocate the enormous, precious ancient sites back up the banks, an archeological undertaking unlike anything that had been attempted before.
“Workers even recalculated the exact measurements needed to recreate the same solar alignment, assuring that twice a year, on the date of Ramses II’s ascension to the throne and his birthday, the rising sun would continue to shine through a narrow opening to illuminate the sculpted face of King Ramses II,” wrote one BBC author who chronicled the incredible feat. The entire production was the catalyst for UNESCO forming its list of World Heritage sites, which many travelers now use a a blueprint to travel the world.
Of course, once I heard this story, my mind went one place — scuba diving! Yo, you’re telling me I could have been diving through these ancient halls? As I walked through Abu Simbel, I could think of nothing but how magical it would feel to swim up eye to eye with the many faces of Ramses, watching fish dart furtively through the temple’s chambers.
Then I heard the river in front of us was infested with crocodiles. Womp womp.
my new BFF and temple model Erica
On the way back from Abu Simbel, the group animosity towards the bus we’d spent eight hours in before noon was growing. As we approached Aswan, we were meant to continue on to tour Philae Temple, which I’d actually been extremely excited to see, the Aswan Dam, and the Obelisk. However, by the time we approached the city, my new tour bestie Erica confessed she literally would die if she spent another minute on the bus, and while my Philae Temple FOMO was killing me, I agreed, so we bolted back to the hotel with about half the group.
I was glad we did, as it gave us time to prepare for what was next — two nights onboard a felucca! Our opt-out gave us time to head to a market for some snacks and supplies, repack our bags, and actually chill and have a drink by the pool before we boarded. If you can believe it, it was only day four of the tour at the point! We were ready for a little laid-back vacation from our hectic travels.
I loved the felucca experience so much I’m going to be writing an entire post about it. Stay tuned!
We reluctantly returned to land on day six of the tour, and re-boarded our bus for a few hours to reach the Temple of Edfu, two and a half hours south of Luxor. “Couldn’t we have taken the felucca all the way to Edfu?!” I asked Sam, who laughed in response, even though I literally could not have been less kidding.
Let’s just say the Egyptian wine was flowing on the felucca, so we had all felt fresher before than we did that day at Edfu (100 EGP) . In fact, after steadfastly covering my legs the entire trip, I was so delirious when I got dressed that morning I actually pulled on baggy short shorts.
While Sam had surprised me the first day by saying that outside Cairo, girls were welcome to wear shorts in Egypt — but may elicit some stares from those not used to seeing so much leg — I hadn’t felt comfortable doing so. To be honest, I didn’t feel great wearing them and would definitely personally recommend sticking to more modest attire like I did the rest of the trip.
Upon returning to Luxor, we checked into the Steigenberger Hotel, where we had the entire blissful afternoon to lounge poolside overlooking the Nile. My friends Shannon and Sam, who I’d spent my solo time in Cairo exploring with, also happened to be in Luxor, and so they hopped over to our hotel to meet my new tour crew and swap stories of our Egyptian travels so far.
After sunset, our group reconvened for what I’d later deem my third favorite magical moment of the tour, after the felucca ride and the Valley of Kings: walking through the Temple of the Luxor at night. There wasn’t anything about this particular temple’s history or origins that captivated me, rather, it was just the surreal experience of walking through it, the walls, carvings and sculptures illuminated against a piercing black sky. Somehow, it brought the temple to life for me in a way that visiting others during the day just hadn’t. I was captivated.
Which I suppose gave me the energy for one last night out! Though I was still hurting from our felucca fiesta, Sam, Shannon, Erica and I treated ourselves to dinner at The Lantern Room, which I was fairly suspicious of when we first walked in. But if there’s one thing I learned in Egypt, it’s don’t judge
a book by its cover a restaurant by its menu font or choice of chair upholstery. It was a gorgeous meal and after, Erica and I couldn’t help but join a few of the boys for a night out at, where else, one of Luxor’s two Irish pubs.
Egypt is quite simply not a nightlife destination outside perhaps a few small pockets, and so we essentially had the place to ourselves, and much to our amusement the bar owner happily ceded control of the music, the air conditioner, and eventually, the bartending itself to his enthusiastic patrons. We tipped him handsomely when he agreed to stay open an extra hour for us, shrugging, smiling, and sipping from his drink as we entertained ourselves in his establishment turned private party. It was one of those bizarre, perfect, hilarious nights that you think back on years later and go, ah, yes, those were the days.
The next morning marked, sadly, my last full day on the tour. We had just one last temple to tackle before the ten hour bus ride back to Cairo — the Temple of Karnak (120 EGP). While it’s an expansive, beautiful structure, I admit that at this point, I was flat templed-out. You hear that phrase a lot when it comes to backpacking Southeast Asia but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used when it comes to Egypt — perhaps other travelers are savvier about staving off sleep deprivation and reaching for water instead of just one more glass of Egyptian white wine.
Regardless, Erica and I were pretty over it, and spent most of the time at Karnak searching for last-minute flights back to Cairo, and purchasing literally every flavor of Schweppes we could find and holding a tasting on one of the benches near the parking lot. Ah, the glamor of travel strikes again.
Pomegranate is the best Egyptian Schweppes flavor, by the way.
We got back to Cairo long after the sun went down, but a small group of us gathered around the pool for one last late-night meal together. Because I’d pre-booked a liveaboard in the Red Sea that conflicted, I had to depart one day and night early from the tour. Luckily, what was on the itinerary — visiting the Egyptian Museum, and checking out the mosques and markets of Islamic Cairo — I’d already done on my own pre-tour, so I didn’t miss any sights.
I did, however, miss out out on extra day with my new crew, which was a tough pill to swallow! After just a week I’d made some seriously fast friends, a few I feel beyond certain I will see again.
How could we not? We’d experienced the trip of a lifetime together. Egypt tops so many bucket lists, and after spending ten action-packed, magic-filled days traversing its mainland highlights, I firmly believe it belongs there. I wanted to go to Egypt because, well, everyone wants to go to Egypt — it just felt like something I had to do and see before I died.
But when I arrived, I found that it fit me, and there was something about it that spoke to my unique soul in a way I hadn’t expected. Turns out, Egypt isn’t a box I’ll tick off on my never-ending list of destinations to visit. It’s a place that I feel connected to now, and I think I’ll be drawn back to sooner than I ever expected.
Is Egypt on your bucket list?