Landing in Cairo International Airport, I felt a sense of calm wash over me. I’d been restless for a true adventure for ages, and so while the usual new country nerves were buzzing, the sense of relief I felt at having made a dream into a reality was stronger.
Whatever the next three weeks had in store for me — much of which was literally still up in the air as the wheels touched the ground — it was going to be just what I needed.
One thing I did know? Where I was staying for the next three nights.
Egypt’s hostel scene is pretty weak, and while luxury hotel brands can be had for a fraction of what they run elsewhere in the world, their aesthetics just weren’t my style. So I turned to Airbnb, and found the most incredible room in a flat straight out of a home design magazine for a mere $28 per night! (New to Airbnb? Get $40 off your first booking using my discount code.)
It was my first time renting a room on Airbnb and not a full apartment or house, which I was tad apprehensive over, but I shouldn’t have been. While I only met two of the other three women who shared the space, it was a warm, welcoming haven and I often had it to myself. There was a balcony overlooking a bustling little square and I loved starting my mornings there, cup of tea in hand, watching the world wake up while I worked. I can’t imagine a more perfect place to sleep off jetlag and ease into the chaos of a new country. Bonus? Free dog to cuddle!
The flat was in a neighborhood called Maadi, a lush, affluent neighborhood south of Central Cairo. While I started out stressed about the distance between it and Zamalek, where it seemed most tourists stayed, I actually enjoyed the seclusion from the full hustle and bustle.
My first morning venturing out into the world, I braced myself for the full stop pandemonium I’d heard was Cairo… and found myself in a leafy suburb instead. It was a similar “ha ha Alex, you’re an idiot” moment to the one I’d had when I arrived in a super posh neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil and walked out of my hostel with nothing but a credit card in my bra, preparing to be mugged at the next intersection and found exactly what I found in Maadi… People jogging, tidying their lawns, walking with expensive strollers and iPhones and quietly going about their business. Facepalm! Maadi was no hassle, no stress, and I felt this crazy surge of energy walking through its streets, that familiar rush of being on the road alone again.
As for getting around the rest of Cairo, it was an easy metro ride up to Downtown — more about that in my next post — and Ubers were so cheap it felt criminal. Getting to Giza and the airport were both comparable to if I’d been staying in Zamalek, actually, so the only one really crazy long Uber ride I took was after having dinner with friends there. It was over 45 minutes… and cost less than $4USD. So yeah, it turned out staying down in Maadi was not an issue.
The only thing that gave me pause was the truly staggering amount of trash that would become a sadly familiar sight across Egypt. In Maadi, which otherwise seemed like this posh little pocket of bliss, it seemed so out of place to be kicking garbage out of the way when you walked down the street.
I admit, I loved the expat-oriented food options available in Maadi. I had weeks of authentic, hole-in-the-wall Egyptian food ahead of me (which guys, I was SURPRISINGLY INTO!), so I was more than happy to ease in with treats like avocado toast at Ovio Maadi, juices and salads from Lychee, and modern shakshuka pitas at the hip Zööba.
However, there’s really no contest when it came to the most scenic meal I had in Cairo. Brace yourself for it…
What! When my friends Shannon and Sam from Koh Tao and I realized we’d all be in Cairo at the same time, we of course coordinated a big Thailand reunion at the Pyramids of Giza. And in true expat form, we geeked out when we saw that there was a Pizza Hut with an air-conditioned, A+ view of the pyramids from which to enjoy our loaded breadsticks.
After alarming the Hut staff with our enthusiastic reunion, we over-ordered like whoa, though our new friends very sweetly offered to store our leftovers so we could swing back and pick them up when we were done sightseeing. That kind of lovely hospitality was to become one of my fondest memories of Egypt (that, and the breadsticks… KIDDING!)
If you too are a traveler who doesn’t shudder deep on a soul lever at the mere thought of eating international chain food abroad, Sam researched a pretty neat little hack for those sticking around Giza at night: Pizza Hut has a third floor rooftop that has crazy views over the Sound and Light Show at the Pyramids. Rather than pay to go in and sit in a row of plastic folding chairs to watch, post up on the roof and pound a pizza instead!
While walking into the pyramids (admission 120EGP, or $6.70USD), we decided to just kinda do our own thing. We briefly debated hiring a guide, but Shannon and I had both heavily researched my copy of Lonely Planet Middle East and we knew that we had so much
gossiping catching up to do, there’s no way any guide we’d hire would come out of the experience un-traumatized.
So instead we decided to simply wander around the complex and let the whims of the day lead us. Shannon’s big priority was going inside the Great Pyramid, my big priority was holding hands with Shannon, and Sam’s big priority was surviving the day with us two fools.
Going inside the Grand Pyramid was kind of a crazy experience. It was hilariously chaotic figuring out how the heck to get in there — we actually had to go back out via a different entrance, buy tickets there (300EGP or $17US), and then re-enter the pyramid complex, and then climb up the pyramid a few steps to enter. When we did, the guards saw me putting my water bottle in my bag and said “camera?!” and frantically pawed at my bag, which did, in fact, contain a huge camera. I basically showed them the water bottle, yelled “no camera!” and ran inside. But what the heck was I supposed to do, leave my Canon 6D with them? Um, no. They were literally chilling on plastic chairs on the edge of a pyramid, so there was hardly a formal electronics check system in place. So if you don’t have someone to leave your camera with on the outside of the pyramids, hide it well in your bag to avoid hassles at the entrance.
Once inside, as we started the ascent up the steep, narrow, dark and sweaty interior of the pyramid, I had a momentary flash of, what the HECK am I doing up in this claustrophobia-fest. I had a moment of near-vertigo where I literally had to pretend that I was on a challenging scuba dive so I could reach the same level of practiced zen to carry on. I thought I was the only one on the edge of a freak out, but when we were all back on solid ground Shannon confessed she’d also been staving off a meltdown. So basically, it was an incredibly humbling and memorable experience to walk deep within the belly of a pyramid — but proceed with caution if you think it might send you into a tailspin. This isn’t Disney and there are no emergency exits.
Oh yeah. And I snuck one photo. Everyone was doing it! To which I can practically hear my mom saying, “if everyone was jumping off a cliff, would you do it too?” And my sassy self would probably ask what was at the bottom.
And then, Grand Pyramid tackled, we continued our aimless wandering, fending off enthusiastic offers for camel and carriage rides, tour guiding, and photography assistance at every turn. Shannon’s tactic for the most common offer, the camel ride, was an effective one — she’d shriek, say “I’m afraid of camels!” and everyone would laugh just long enough for us to make an escape. Feel free to adopt for your own travels.
After what felt like a brag-worthy length of wandering through the desert, we reached the famous pyramid viewpoint. Here, we paused to admire the awe-inspiring complex we’d spent the day in — and the step counts on our iPhones.
As much as I love solo travel and was thrilled to be doing so much of it this trip, I seriously couldn’t believe my luck at getting to experience this world wonder with one of my best friends. I cried my eyes out the night this little lady said goodbye to Thailand back in January and missed her something fierce ever since — it was so nice to be back in hugging distance once again.
And we had one more hilarious adventure before we parted ways and I headed back to Maadi to succumb to jetlag for the evening. We needed to get back to our starting point to catch Ubers and pick up our Pizza Hut leftovers (most importantly, of course), but none of us were up for another trek through the sand, and we didn’t feel great about the camel or carriage options, either. I’m not ethically opposed to camel or horse riding the way I am elephant riding — this explains why quite well — but we just weren’t sure if these camels or horses were the healthiest and happiest looking, so we decided to skip it to be safe.
However, when we saw a sweet old green hooptie chock full of locals, Sam asked if we could hitch a ride. After negotiating an extremely reasonable rate — I believe we paid 40EGP — they escorted us straight through the pyramids to the original gate. We have no idea how they had permission to drive inside the complex but hey, this is Egypt.
normally I don’t allow this many chins to see the light of day but hey, look how happy we are
Next up, a day at the Egyptian Museum and Islamic Cairo!