Text and photos by Laurie Carter
Afraid of making that bucket-list trip to Egypt for fear of political unrest or personal security? You might be surprised to learn that Mexico currently shares the same Travel Warning – exercise a high degree of caution – as many tourist areas in the land of the pharaohs.
You can still visit many major Egyptian sites like Luxor and Aswan as well as the Red Sea resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada, which carry no such advisories. Just save the golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamen at the Cairo Museum and the Great Pyramid and Sphinx for another time. Travel to and through Cairo is not recommended.
Instead you have the opportunity for two very different vacation experiences with the ideal blend of culture and kick-back.
Starting with culture: fly directly to Luxor on a charter flight from numerous European cities (scheduled flights stop in Cairo). Luxor, often called the world’s greatest open-air museum, sits on the Nile’s east side, 650 kilometres south of Cairo. Fully geared to the tourist trade, the city offers every level of accommodation and well-developed guide services.
The temples of Karnak and Luxor are the main reason for visiting. Once connected by a processional street, the stone sphinxes that lined the entire route are well preserved at the entrance to the Temple of Luxor.
The Temple of Karnak contains the largest hypostyle hall in the world with 134 columns representing the papyrus flower. Despite large crowds, you can find yourself completely alone making your own discoveries in nooks behind the columns, or in side precincts. Remember to look up at the arches where original decorative colours are still astoundingly vivid. Evenings are enchanting with the Temple of Luxor illuminated and a sound and light show at the Temple of Karnak.
On the west bank of the Nile visit the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the Colossus of Ramses II and the mountain-backed Temple of Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s few female pharaohs. A brilliant way of taking in the whole scene is a sunrise balloon ride.
Touring the tombs is hot, dusty work. Prepare for some physical effort and serious crowds. But the walls, vividly painted with historical records of pharaohs once entombed within, are unforgettable. Shuttles ease the way to the Temple of Hatshepsut in the nearby Valley of the Queens, although you still face a significant climb up the grand stairs to the colonnaded interior.
For a taste of rural Egypt and a safe, relaxing way to make the 200-kilometre trip south to Aswan, take a Nile cruise. Hundreds of vessels ply this route providing options from modest to five-star for the three-night voyage. Sip a cool hibiscus drink as you glide by sun baked villages, fishermen rhythmically setting their nets, and green fields worked as they have been for countless generations.
While street vendors cluster at every stop and dog your every step throughout Egypt, the onboard shop may offer better quality, certainly more relaxed surroundings, and surprisingly good prices.
Aswan is another well-developed tourist destination. But after disembarking, take to the river again for a felucca ride. The traditional wooden Nile sailboats offer evening cruises and visits to the Temple of Isis on Philae and to Elephantine Island with its ruins and Nubian villages.
From Aswan it’s a short air hop to Abu Simbel, an engineering feat that boggles the imagination. This massive temple complex, carved into a cliff face, had to be moved piece by piece when the creation of Lake Nasser flooded its original location. Set your alarm for a wee-hours flight to catch the sunrise as it warms the colossal figures of Ramses II and his beloved wife Nefertari.
By now you may be “templed-out” and in serious need of a change of pace. Hop another flight to one of Egypt’s Red Sea resorts.
Once a small fishing village, Hurghada is now the domain of holiday makers in every kind of accommodation from cheap-but-cheerful digs for young people keen on enjoying the nightlife to family resorts and luxury holiday villages. There are many ways to see the impressive underwater gardens, coral reefs and extravagantly coloured fish, including glass bottom boats, snorkel and scuba excursions and a submarine.
At the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm El Sheikh is a smaller resort beloved of Europeans who jet in for the sun, casinos, discos and some would say, alarming, selection of chain eateries. Snorkelling and diving are the big attractions here.
From both Hurghada and Sharm el Sheikh day trips are available into the desert and to visit Bedouin villages, where camel rides are popular.
If you plan to ignore warnings to avoid Cairo, at least consider a package plan such as Viking’s Nile cruises that take in the highlights of Upper Egypt, provide transfers to and from the airport and guides for the sights around the capital.
But there is so much to see in the parts of Egypt considered reasonable for travel, that there’s no need to take unnecessary chances. Exercise caution and you can still enjoy Egypt.