We visited Egypt over Christmas 2004. Our vacation started in Cairo, took us to St Catherine’s and Mount Sinai, over to Sharm-el-Sheikh for some snorkeling, then on to Luxor where we had arranged a 4 night Nile River cruise down to Aswan. From there, we took a daytrip out to Abu Simbel. We then returned to Luxor for another night, then back to Cairo for a couple more days.The overall impression of our trip is that Egypt has fantastic sights and lots to see – but at the same time, we were very glad to leave, and don’t see ever going back. The ‘hassle factor’ is the highest of any country we’ve been to (this includes Morocco, which is renowned for hassle). The amount of dishonesty in the tourism business is unbelievable.
From the minute we stepped off our British Airways flight, people were trying to rip us off. It began with a visa scam. Although it is possible to arrange a visa in advance, it was not necessary for Canadians. The cost was US $30, and the visa “coupons” (looked more like stamps) could be bought at the money exchange bureau right before immigration. The catch is that the 30 price tag was the same in *any* currency, including Egyptian pounds(LE) – and 6LE = $1 US. The price is actually written on the visa stamp, but after stepping off such a long flight, most people don’t notice they are being ripped off. In addition, the ATM machines are strategically placed *after* immigration, so unless you know about this particular scam and somehow manage to get Egyptian currency in your home country before you leave, there’s no easy way around it.
The hotel we had tried to book in advance, the Berlin Hotel, refused to give us a reservation unless they personally picked us up at the airport to guarantee we would keep our reservation, and also to avoid taxi drivers demanding a ‘finders fee’ for bringing us to their hotel. We didn’t want to use Berlin’s taxi service, as we had arranged complementary airport pickup from the travel agency which would take us to some outlying pyramids the following day. So, we ended up booking into the Victoria Hotel.
Meanwhile, we waited for our supposed complementary airport pickup. 20 minutes after the arranged pick up time, we called (using our quad band AT&T GSM phone, thankfully it worked, we really didn’t want to deal with buying a phone card!) and finally met up with our free transportation. After he fixed his mini-van, we were on the way to the hotel.
The Victoria Hotel, at $37 US a night, was pretty expensive, but very nice. Clean, reasonably central (5 minutes from the metro), internet cafe on the premises (as well as a coiffeur and a bank!!) and a great included breakfast.
The following day we headed out on our daytrip to see the Dashur pyramids and Memphis.
Please see Terrible Nile Cruise experience with Hamis Travel (Dan Cairo) Tours for more information on this.
After we finally escaped with some vouchers in hand and others promised to arrive at our Hotel the next day, we headed to the bus station to get our bus tickets to go to St Catherine’s (Mt. Sinai). It was a bit of a hike from Ramses Station (especially since our maps were sketchy), but we eventually got there.
The following day, we headed to Giza to see the pyramids. We took the metro to the Giza stop, where we should have just gotten a cab the rest of the way. Our guidebook however promised us a mini-bus from the metro to the Pyramids, which we couldn’t find. We finally found our way on to the local bus. (At this point, several people had approached us offering help to get the right bus, and then trying to redirect us to their camel ride or whatever to the pyramid).
The pyramids are beautiful, but the site is crowded and pretty filthy. Camel owners roam the site trying to extract money from the tourists however they can – fortunately the tourist police keep them mostly in line. The Sphinx is smaller than we thought it would be, and also predictably very crowded. It is possible to enter the Great Pyramid, but they restrict the numbers – 150 entry tickets are sold in the morning, and 150 in the afternoon. We missed the morning rush, and lined up at 12:40 for the 1:00 ticket sale, and we were pretty close to the front of the line. The tickets are expensive – US $16. No cameras are allowed inside, and they actually seemed to be enforcing this. (Although we did see some Japanese tourists obviously carrying cameras, maybe their guide Baksheesh’ed their cameras inside).We took the bus/metro back to town, and headed out to explore the Khan al Kalili, the big market. We didn’t quite get there, as we spent most of our time exploring the local markets leading up to the tourist market. Al-Muski is where locals go to buy underwear, jackets, shoes, etc. We ate at the Egyptian Pancakes restaurant, which was heavy and although cheap, not that great.
The next morning we had our first experience with Cairo taxis, and it actually went pretty smoothly. The guidebook had warned us that the system for taxis in Cairo is as follows: When you get in, never ever discuss a price. If the driver wants to discuss a price, get out and find another cab. Tell the driver where you want to go. When you get there, get out of the car and hand the driver folded up bills corresponding to the exact fare. No change is ever given. Cabdrivers will often yell at you, trying to extract more money, but just walk away. How do you know the exact fare? Well, we asked at our hotel. It cost just under $1, and in this case the taxi didn’t try to hassle us into paying more. The guidebooks often post suggestions for what fares you should be willing to pay, but these fares can be out of date as guidebooks are typically 2-3 years old.