Visiting Egypt /  Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan, return

Let me start by saying, visiting Egypt is an experience.  There is no place like it on earth. The attractions are the Nile River and all that lines it, the temples and tombs, and the genuine warmth and welcome from the man and children in the street.  I did not visit Cairo or the pyramids, but I hear it is like I am about to describe, on steroids.

The things you won’t like are the dust and dirt, the crumbling infrastructure, heightened security and what is known as ‘the hassle’.

You will learn that time has stopped in some places; that your government is actually really good; and you will have to reach deep inside yourself to not throttle the 753rd person who stands in front of you and demands to know why you don’t want a felucca/camel/taxi/horse and cart ride.

I don’t want to turn you off the country. It needs you. Egypt needs tourists to come back so they can resume their lives.  It has so much to offer and the time is right if you don’t want to fight crowds.  Not to say there are no crowds, but nothing compared to Rome or Paris or the London tube.

Why is Egypt so full of wonders?

The Nile River is the longest river in the world and it runs through Egypt which is essentially a desert.  Every year the Nile floods, producing a fertile strip of land, combined with sunshine and irrigation systems, it has always produced masses of food for the inhabitants.  All they had to do was throw seeds about and they would grow without maintenance. With all their spare time, they were able to build fabulous temples.

The afterlife was the main concern for the upper classes and they were buried with a lot of wealth and gold to pay their way.  To avoid grave robbers, these tombs were hidden in valleys or in massive structures like the pyramids of Giza.  The heat and sand protected the decorated underground bunkers, although the priests and grave robbers did manage to plunder the precious goods over time.  We are left with a wealth of wall paintings, general goods, and preserved bodies (mummies).

This is what you come to Egypt to see.

Communication

Get a SIM card at the airport or at a phone shop.  It cost us $9 US for 4 GB.  This will be data and phone/ text in the country. We used less than 1 GB.  There is wifi in cafes and public areas if you don’t want to change your SIM.

The more progressive guides and taxi drivers are on Whatsapp or online. You can always ask reception to ring someone for you, as calls are cheap.

If you are visiting Hurghada I can highly recommend using the App, Get my guide.  They sell last minute places on excursions at knock down prices.

Clothing

20190210_155008The women wear dark robes, head covers and scarves for modesty reasons, but also because it is so dusty and dirty!  I often covered my face with a scarf so as not to breathe in so much dust.

I made the mistake of wearing open sandals around the temples and the sand eroded the skin on my feet.  The thing I did right was to bring thin yoga pants and cotton long sleeve t-shirts.  I felt less conspicuous, which I think added to vendors leaving us alone more.  I looked more like someone who lived there.  It also protected me from the heat and sun.  I did try to carry an umbrella against the sun, but it was no match for the Egyptian winds. The men wear western clothes, or traditional wear. You will see twenty men to every one woman in the street.

Family life

The families live together in big units, where all money earned is put into the kitty and that is how they survived the last few years.  All males have military training.  I imagine that is why there are so many checkpoints as it gives the military something to do. If you go to University, your time served may be decreased.  Traditionally women give up work to take care of older family members and raise children. Homes that appear to be poor to us, are normal, and unchanged for hundreds of years. Cruising the Nile, you see traditional villages and farming.  People still rely on horses, donkeys, and fishing boats.

20190212_095125

Fear factor

20190212_091019You will see AK47s everywhere.  We must have stopped at 20 or more road checks between Luxor and Hurghada.  Even in the cities there are numerous military check points.  This is nothing new, although guides may try to scare you to say you are not safe. The only places you are not safe are where your government will not allow you to go and flights are off.  They have closed some forms of transport to tourists.  Like the public train system in some parts, and perhaps some of the local mini buses.  If anything were to happen to a tourist, they could lose their economy again.  The taxis are all numbered and vehicles are monitored on the road to Abu Simbel. There are transport options only for tourists.

The scams

-The daily wage for a nurse is $10 US.  You do the maths.

-Also keep this in mind when taxi drivers want £10-20 for a short journey.

-No tip will ever be enough, so expect everyone to always be disappointed, but don’t let it bother you.

-Their currency devalued by 75% as well as losing their jobs and infrastructure.

-As soon as you can, get to a money exchange bureau and get lots of small notes like 5, 10, 20 and 50 EGP (Egyptian pounds). No one ever admits to having change, because they want you to have a 200 note for a 160 entry fee and they will blatantly say ‘it is my tip’ and keep it.

-You will be walking around the town and a man will say ‘don’t you remember me?  I’m the chef. I cooked your eggs this morning.’ Or something similar.  Then he will tell you it’s his day off, or he is getting picked up and wants to show you his family shop.  This is a scam to make you feel obligated to buy at a super inflated price from his ‘Uncle’. Do not feel impolite to say I don’t remember you, and to go your own way. They can be hard to get rid of, but it’s the most used scam in the tourist areas.  They watch the ships to see which one you get off, or you may forget you are wearing the resort wrist band.

-The other main scams are saying something is a small price, and when you are done it has increased.  A book offered at 1 EGP will increase to 25 once you handle it.

If you want to perhaps use a taxi/boat/ horse, the things to confirm are:

-the price

-how long for, and for a boat is it shore to shore/ no price increase mid water

– is it per person or per car/boat

-which currency are we talking about. They use Euros, GB pounds, American dollars and Egyptian pounds (which can sometimes decrease the price by about 30%)

-no extra charges for a tip/ the horse/ the carriage/ the time of day/ his grandmother

-no extra charge if extra stops or services are offered (nothing is free)

-A 1.5 litre bottle of water costs a local 5 EGP. When you go to buy one, hand the man 5.  If he starts protesting, signal for the money back and walk away.  He will call you back and take 5 or find another shop.

-There are no prices on anything, unless you are in a big, modern shopping mall or duty free at the airport. I went for a coffee in a chain coffee shop.  The menu has the prices, but cleverly says ‘does not include tax or service charge’ in teeny tiny letters.  Upon paying, the servers muttered to each other in Arabic, and then tried to charge me 3 times the price on the menu.  Just barter and pay something more reasonable.  The coffee was 30 EGP and I left 35. The words tourist police can also work.

-Even at the airport restaurant, the waiter ripped me off an additional Euro.

-Public toilets are free or maybe 1-2 EGP per person. Unaware tourists have driven up the prices by leaving $1 or €1, so they all try it on now. There are even warning announcements in the airport telling you toilets and trollies are free.

-We were on the way to the Nubian museum in Aswan and at 3:40 pm thought we would stop at the Coptic Christian church next door to it.  A lady appeared to ‘show us around’.  We told her we only had enough money for our museum entrance, so we would just leave.  She told us that the museum shut in the afternoon until 4 pm so we might as well stay.  After an interesting explanation of Christianity in a sea of Mosques, she asked if she could show us a special cross. On the way, she demanded we give the door keeper 20 EGP before she took us into the gift shop and started the hard sell.  Once we escaped, we went to the museum to see that she had blatantly lied to us and there was no afternoon closing, ever.  So if the church lady lies to you, what hope do you have?

-Put your right hand on your heart, look them in the eye and say firmly but softly ‘La Shoe-Cran’ (no thank you),  Most will accept this after the third or fourth time and leave you alone.

Once you get past that, start a conversation. ‘What’s your name? with a handshake. How’s business?  How many children do you have? Is this where you were born?  We had lots of nice chats with the locals and learned a lot about their lives.

Our impulse is to be aggro and offended, but if you are calm and smile, ask their name and chat, it changes everything in many cases. They are only trying to make a living and that is how it is done in Egyptian society. 

There are a few ways to travel through Egypt. 

  1. Book on a tour and go everywhere with an Egyptologist and organised transport. This is the stress free, although sanitised way to see the main stuff with little bother. You can start in Cairo and take a Nile cruise ship all the way to Aswan and back.  There is a large dam there, so they turn around and finish in Luxor or Cairo, or you can get aboard a coach and travel the guarded road to Hurghada.  This is a rather lack lustre city, with a great port, created for tourists and on the Red Sea.
  1. Book on a Nile Cruise, watch lots of documentaries before you come, and go everywhere yourself. This is what my husband and I just did. Our 2 weeks included flights and transfers, cruise, hotel and all meals and drinks. We flew to Hurghada and were transferred the 4-5 hours to Luxor by mini bus. There we boarded a cruise boat and stayed on for 7 days, to Aswan and back.  The group paid 3 times as much as we did, and did the normal site seeing package.  After the cruise, we were transported back to Hurghada and stayed a week in a resort.
  1.  Fly into Cairo or Hurghada, and do it all yourself, using public transportation. You can book 3 to 7 nights on a river cruiser, doing the normal Cairo/Luxor/Aswan route. For this you will need nerves of steel and a big dose of patience as you are a sitting duck for ‘the hassle’. Although you will have the most memorable and authentic experience of this remarkable country and its people.

For this method, you need to educate yourself on prices, what transport you are allowed on as a tourist, and be really good at haggling.

SITESEEING ON THE NILE

Nile cruise ships

During the troubles when the flights to Egypt stopped, so did tourism.  The river cruisers sat and waited.  Now they have brought out a small percentage of them and put them back into commission. The crew all lost their jobs and many have gone into taxi driving or something else to do with tourism.  They speak good English and know everything about the shipping schedules and prices.

Luxor was in the middle of getting a facelift with UNESCO help, with a large pedestrian area and a river side promenade.  The owners of the boat companies bought chunks of river side just outside of Luxor and they dock their ships there.  Some of them are in alliance with no hassle taxi groups who will shuttle their clients in and out of Luxor.

A week Nile cruise – general program with Egyptologist and no hassle.

This will include: Luxor: Temples of Karnak and Luxor, and a stop at a Papyrus gallery/ Karnak sound and light show/ Hatshepsut temple, Valley of the kings (3 tombs), Alabaster workshop/ Colossi of Memnon/ Kom-Ombo temple and crocodile museum/ Aswan – Philae temple with boat transfer, along with some version of visiting a Nubian village/ Morning trip to Abu Simbel/Esna temple

Everything was organised for them and they got full explanations of the temples and Hieroglyphics where the guides were actually allowed to go in.  They paid 3 times as much as we did, but we worked on it for hours and spent a lot of time making arrangements and haggling.

How to organise a week Nile cruise, where you visit the sites by yourself

THIS IS HOW I DID IT

My day to day itinerary on a 7 night Nile cruise:  Luxor, Edfu, Aswan, Edfu, Luxor

Preparation

I downloaded the official price guide to the sites, got lots of Egyptian money, and printed out general info about the highlights of the temples, as well as watching a 4 hour BBC documentary by Dr Joann Fletcher.  It was out Feb 2019 and is very good.  I also watched a show about the Nile and the making of the Pyramids of Giza.  I would suggest a lonely planet or rough guide too.

We found out general prices for taxis, buses and tips, from expat forums and reading current reviews.

Temple guides

As you wander around, men will appear out of nowhere and start to show you things. They do know the best spots for photos, and will point out things you would walk right past.  They have keys to secret rooms and staircases.  They do however, expect to be tipped.  Unaware tourists have driven up the expectations by giving them $1 or €1, instead of the normal 5-20 EGP (depending on how good what they show you is). Just be firm and confident and say, that’s all I have.  I never give money to kids, as it encourages them to not go to school.

20190206_134758

Day 1 – Luxor

Arrive Luxor boat for 2 pm check in. Met with the boat’s Egyptologist who tries to scare us into going with his package.  We were undecided, but as soon as he started with blatant lies about safety in Egypt, we decided to go on our own.

After the meeting, we went to the taxi guy beside the boat and made a deal for the next day.

We had a great experience with Abdu.  You can find him on whatsapp  0020100 694 7359.  His car is new and he is reliable, helpful, great English and will stick to the agreed price. We used him on three separate days. 

DSCF0468

Day 2 – Luxor morning with afternoon sail away

We grabbed a quick breakfast at 7:00am and got picked up at 7:20am for Luxor temple.  We were the second people there, and had the place to ourselves.  Here we found the guides to have really good inside info.  The security guys (with the AK47s over their shoulders) help out the old guys by leading you to them and have keys to some great spots.  Don’t be afraid to follow them around blind corners and into tombs.  There is a great staircase at the furthest temple, from which you get a great view of the complex.  We tipped 5-10 EGP three times. Two hours was perfect.

20190206_090439

20190206_085422

Due to it being very dusty, afterwards we chose to visit Luxor Museum, which is second to the museum in Cairo (which we did not visit).  After we asked to be taken to a money change, where we got 200 EGP in 5’s and 10’s.

Wanting some bottled water, Abdu got us 6 bottles for 30 EGP in a local shop. The cruise ship charged 25 EGP for one bottle.

Prices:

TAXI  we paid Abdu  £25 GB, for his information, and help with practicalities.  Our boat was docked about 16 kms from Luxor.

Luxor temple – 140 EGP with 4 times 5 EGP tips for access to locked rooms and through the maze.

Luxor Museum- 140 EGP   (use the toilets in the building where you buy your tickets)

Day 3 – sail with stop at Kom-Ombo at about 4:00 pm

Kom Ombo is right beside the docks and the Croc museum is part of it.

Be ready to jump off as soon as you dock. The guide’s groups will be forming in the lobby and be about 15 mins behind you.

Walk off the boat, up the stairs and enter the pen of salesmen to your right.  Walk around until you see the small ticket office and the price is 100 EGP.

With your ticket, go up the stairs to the entrance.  I normally head straight through the site to the back and work my way forward, bypassing the groups.  Then we visited the Croc museum which is really cool, and returned back to the front of the temple to use the rest of our time there. They stay about 90 minutes and off you go.

Most cruisers will hold a party where they want you to wear Egyptian clothes, so you can barter in the stalls which line the river bank before returning to the ship.  They sell everything and it is a nice selection without too much hassle compared to what comes.

20190207_162526

Day 4 – Aswan  main attractions

Philea Temple

We made arrangements with Abdu, for a colleague of his in Aswan to pick us up and take us to Philea temple docks  and to organise and pay for our boat transfer.  It is on an island and the boat guys are known as the boat mafia for intimidating and overpricing transfers to tourists.

The temple is just outside of town. Not terribly far, and you can easily get there cheaper if you use a local tuk tuk or horse and carriage.  The drivers in Aswan can be very hard to deal with, so we chose to make this arrangement.  We paid more than we had to, but it was for an easy life.

The Philae intimidation scam

When you arrive at the site, there are stalls and a small ticket office.  You need to go through security gates to get to the pier. The pier is lined with vendors and at the end are the boat guys.  You have to take a boat to get to the temple and they watch to see if you buy a ticket before agreeing a boat price.

So, either go organise your boat first, and then go back to buy the ticket, or have an Egyptian to do it for you.

There have been reports of boats stopping mid water and demanding more money to bring you to the pier. Also a promise of a private boat, does not guarantee you will be alone on it. Because our Egyptian driver not only haggled, but paid the boat people, we had security.

We got picked up at 7:30 am; we bought our tickets for 140 EGP and walked to the pier with the taxi driver.  He then haggled for about 10 minutes to get us a boat and an hour at the temple.  He paid them out of the £25 we gave him. We were the first ones there and had a lovely, stress free time. Once again, we started at the back and worked our way around other visitors.

The normal package trip included a trip to the Aswan dam, a perfume factory and the unfinished Obelisk.  You can negotiate if you want to see these things. £35-40 seems to be the going price for the taxi.

20190208_081539

Old town and Bazaar

That afternoon, we wandered the old town and encountered our first scam with a man claiming to be the chef on the boat.  He was hard to get rid of, so we went with him to visit some shops (where we did not buy as the prices were ridiculous), tried some street food, which we also refused to buy as we just had lunch, and he walked us to the mosque on the hill.  We kept saying we weren’t going to buy anything so he should just continue on with his day, but as he was insistent on walking with us, we let him do his thing.  After an hour tour, we gave him a 20 and he finally went away.

Even the beggars were hard core.  Two ladies were asking for money by the mosque and I had two 1 EGP coins.  I gave them to the older lady thinking she would share.  Then the younger one started following me, yelling and bashing me on the arm for more.  So strange.  These were very well dressed and pressed ladies.

The mosque is well worth a visit. It sits high on the hill and you can walk right up to the door and look inside.  The old town bazar is brilliant by day and even better in the evening.  It runs parallel with the river.

Movenpick Island

Across the river, you can see the two Movenpick hotels, one with a tower restaurant with a view.  If you stand directly opposite it on the river bank, you will see a park, with a barricaded drive way to the ferries.  Ask for the free Movenpick ferry. There are two: one to the tower hotel and one to the lower level newer one on the right.  We took the ferry to the one on the right, and wandered the gardens at the back after a visit to the magnificent lobby.  You need to come around to the front of the island to access the tower hotel. We asked if we could go up and see the restaurant, to ‘possibly make a dinner reservation’.  The view was gorgeous.

You will notice small settlements of Nubian houses on the far side of the hotel.  These can be accessed along the path through the gardens at the front. No one minds and there is a small café for a tea stop.  This is where the real people live. When you are ready to go back, find the dock in front of the tower and return to the same place.

DSC00197

The Nubian Museum

It is at the far end of the promenade, or you can take a taxi if you want to avoid the hassle of walking along the river bank. It was 140 EGP and had village mock ups and an explanation of the Aswan dam.

On the way, you pass the Christian Church, which is more like a low ceiling car park inside.  The history is interesting if you want to get captured by the church lady.  You will also see signs for the Unfinished Obelisk which was an abandoned stone work left by the ancients.

** Abu Simbel day trip. 

This excursion can be done many ways.  It is a 3 hour drive along a secured section of highway that opens at 6am for tourist transfer or local buses.  They tend to start picking groups up between 4-6am depending who you do it with.  You get 2 hours there and then the transfer back.

It is spectacular as far as temples go, but we wanted to see different things.

You can research day trip companies, or there is a normal and very cheap bus service which runs on a schedule from central Aswan. I know you can do it very cheap this way.

You can also fly there and back.  

Day 5 – Aswan morning, and sail away stopping in Esna 

Aswan Nobles Tombs.

On arrival in Aswan, you cannot miss the massive sandy hill behind the Movenpick Island.  A ten minute uphill walk takes you to the Nobles tombs.  You can go there with a felucca, or just walk down the river bank to the West Aswan ferry dock.  Go down the stairs and pay the guy at the wooden desk 5 EGD fare.  When the boat comes, women sit at the back and men at the front.  It takes 5-10 minutes to cross over to the base of the hill. Come out and follow along to the left, past the camels (no you don’t need a camel ride.  It’s not that far to the top).  Someone will pop out and direct you to the ticket office.  It was 60 EGP for admission, and make your way up the steps.  Once you get to the caves, you want to find one of the ‘guides’.  There are 3 incredible tombs to see.  They are hidden around the corner and locked. The walls, with original colours and well worth the tip. We gave the guy about 20 EGD each.  He wanted more, but that is about right.

20190209_094036

20190209_103816

20190209_103511

20190209_100238

Do climb right to the apex, where the stairs end and take in the views.

Allow 1 ½ – 2 hours.  We did it around 9am. Our boat sailed at 1:00 pm.

Esna

Most boats will have stopped and over-nighted at Esna dock on the way up to Aswan.  This town has a reputation for aggressive salesmen and horse and cart drivers. Due to this, once you come off the boat, and go up the stairs, you will meet the Tourist police, who will kind of monitor tourists going from the boat to the temple.  It is a 5 minute walk, straight up from the boat.

We were off the ship as soon as they opened the doors, and beat the tour group by 20 minutes, where we had the temple to ourselves.  It cost 60 EGP and you get your ticket at the top of the stairs.  The temple is below ground level. It was buried in sand and built overtop, so when they uncovered it, they found a wonderfully preserved, small temple.  There are ongoing excavations around the perimeter.  I heard the government have been buying houses round about, as there are supposed to be more temples to be uncovered.  That’s why it looks so desolate around some of the streets.

We braved a walk around the area, and found some staged photo opportunists.  An old man with a sewing machine, pretending to sew with no thread.  A man surrounded by bags of raw cotton.  The overpriced coffee and water vendor.  They all want to be paid, as the poverty is bad in Esna.

20190210_090410

20190210_082908

Day 6- afternoon arrival in Luxor

We arranged for Adbu to pick us up and take us to Karnak temple at 3:00 pm

It was the first time we had to put up with crowds, but it was so worth it.  Admission 150 EGP

We paid the taxi driver £50 GB for day 6 and 7.

20190210_163523

Day 7 Luxor –Valley of the kings and the West Bank

This day took a lot of planning, but we avoided the crowds most of the time and saw much, much more than the guided tours did. It was February, so still relatively cool in the afternoon.  (based on Feb 2019 price list)

As the tour groups leave really early and all head to the same place, we devised this plan.

*the scam is in the tombs.  The keeper will tell you it’s okay to take pictures. Don’t do it unless you have already purchased an official photo pass. They will demand a massive fee as you go to leave.  Some have been known to let the guy at the door know, and they both intimidate you.  Do not ever hand over your camera.  They have been known to delete your pics or make you buy your camera back. As you are in an isolated tomb, it can be unpleasant.  Just don’t take pictures. Tell them it is illegal and you are not going to do it.

Our Itinerary

10:00am pick up from boat

10:40am arrive at the main ticket booth where you have to pre-buy some of your tickets. It’s near The Colosus, and the taxi driver will know.

  1. Medinet Habu temple  80 EGP

      2. Deir el medina             100 EGP

      3. Al Khaukha tombs      40 EGP   (three of many tombs avail at the Valley of the Nobles)

10:50-11:50

Medinet Habu – Off the normal tour route, temple to Ramses. A spectacular temple which is a good alternative to Abu Simbel.

20190211_105106

12:00-1:00pm 

Deir El Medina – Valley of the artisans- the workers tombs and foundations of their homes. Spread over a large area, the tombs are up the hill and comprise of small rooms joined by low tunnels and ladders.  Instead of gods, they also focus on daily life and professions. The rest of the site is a vast collection of crumbled walls and walkways.

20190211_121601

If someone wants to show you the crater, go with them.  It’s behind the rise on the side and You can examine finger-marks in pottery thrown away by ancient Egyptians. Really good tombs. Lots of ladders and narrow passages, with amazing colours. Tip for special attention.

1:10-2:30pm   

Al deir Al Bahari temple- Hatchepsut, the only female pharaoh.  It’s a long walk from the parking lot to Temple, but avoid the shuttle trains.  Use the toilets in the centre where you bought the Tickets.  To remember Hatchepsut, think ‘Hot chicken soup’. See if you can find the only image of her, as her brother scratched her off of everything.  No one to tip as no secret areas.

Al Deir Al Bahari temple (Hatshepsut) 100 EGP/ buy at entrance

20190211_125850

2:40-4:50pm

Valley of the Kings. This is the main attraction.  Buy tickets at the entrance, and decide if you want to go into some of the special tombs.  King Tut and some others are an additional ticket. Photo passes are expensive and well monitored.  If you don’t have one and they see a camera, you will have to check it for free.

Not all tombs are open, and the ones available that day will be on a sign board.  Take note of the numbers.  You are allowed 3 tombs on a normal ticket.

Once you get that, you will find yourself in an area where the shuttle trains come in.  They will try to get you to buy a ticket for that, but it is a 5 minute walk.  Ignore all the alleged free govt information.  It’s not.  Under the canopy, look for the board that has the tomb plans. The furthest one has proper plans of the tomb lengths. The longest ones are normally the better ones.

When a Pharaoh came to power, they began to dig his tomb.  If he died early, they stopped digging and/or decorating it.

Normally the tour guides tell the groups which are the best ones, so follow the masses and wait until they come out to go in.  If you get special attention, you can tip the guys in the tombs.

Valley of the Kings  200 EGP

5:00-6:00pm

Al Khaukha (the valley of the Nobles)

Here we have a series of tombs which are not too deep and not too steep to get to.

We chose the Al Khaukha ticket.  We had the taxi driver find the parking lot for this one.  On arrival, a guy appears and says he must show you where the tombs are.  We just walked along until we found someone to ask. They are all numbered and we were directed to the spot.  More guys appear and they need to retrieve the keys to the tombs.  Each tomb has a keeper who will give you information of sorts.

With this ticket, two tombs are beside each other, and the third is a couple of minutes walk away.  Tip the three man, who will moan it is not enough.  They don’t get many visitors to these remarkable tombs.

Al Khaukha 40 EGP and 20EGP three times tip

20190211_162403

20190211_161314

6:10-6:20pm  stop at the colossus of Memnon for photos.  Although it is listed as a visit on any day itinerary, it is a free, open air stop.

20190211_165025

There are still multitudes of temples and sites to visit in Luxor and Aswan.  The selection I chose gave us a varied look at different styles of basically the same things.  Having a base understanding of the gods, goddesses and history of the pharaohs helped immensely without having to listen to hours of commentary.  

Choose the style of visit that suits you.