Egypt is back. Though the country never left, visitor numbers plummeted after the 2011 revolution and subsequent unrest that rocked Cairo. Fast-forward and the country is making a slow yet steady comeback: Visitor numbers are up, prices are down and travel value is unmatched.
Exodus Travels, the UK-based company that crafts local experiences within worldwide sojourns, recently launched Alexandria to Aswan, a 13-day Egyptian adventure that follows the Nile river south toward Sudan. Designed by archaeologist Andrew Appleyard, the company’s resident Indiana Jones, the comprehensive trip takes travelers to more than 30 pyramids, countless vibrantly painted tombs and hidden locales, making the trip an educational departure to walk in the footsteps of pharaohs.
Unlike some more popular global destinations, a palpable warmth and appreciation is given freely to travelers in Egypt. Veiled female university students smile and blow kisses, locals wave and mouth “welcome” and natives burst forth with, “Thank you for coming to Egypt.” Pro tip: Learn a few Arabic phrases, like “salam aleykum” (used for hello) and “shukran” (thank you) and you’re sure to invoke an ancient Egyptian prayer that reads, “May you enter favored and leave beloved.”
At 20 people maximum, these trips are short on lines and long on experiences. Guides including Sayed Mansour are archaeological leaders, proffer more details than could be found in most guidebooks, and whisk you past ticket booths into the heart of every site. While Exodus Travels rates this trip as “leisurely” compared to its trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro, expect to put in a minimum of 10,000 steps a day over uneven terrain. Clamber down steep ladders into subterranean tombs, hoist yourself onto camels, and step gingerly onto traditional felucca boats to cruise the Nile. Here are a few of many highlights:
PRAMIDS AND GREAT SPHINX OF GIZA
What you’ve seen on every travel brochure comes to life at the crowded, yet awe-inspiring pyramids. Pinch yourself—it’s real. Embark on optional tours to neighboring Saqqara and Dahshur to see some of the oldest, largest and best-preserved Egyptian pyramids and tombs dating to 2360 B.C., and Memphis, the world’s first imperial city.
The short drive from Giza to Cairo is a study in unfinished architecture, unrelenting traffic and unparalleled chaos. The payoff is seeing more than 160,000 artifacts in the storied Egyptian Museum, including solid gold sarcophagi, thrones and burial masks of Egypt’s most famous king, Tutankhamun, or King Tut. Next is a stroll through the famous Khan el-Khalil market, the best spot to buy spices, pashminas and local crafts. The first rock star experience—where locals stop and stare in fascination at foreign visitors—is the walking tour of Cairo’s local food spots. This sojourn includes four popular restaurants within a six-block radius that present abundant, mostly vegetarian cuisine and local bread with a 5,000-year tradition.
Cruise the Nile aboard traditional feluccas, local motor taxis and a 58-room cruise ship, the M/S Mirage and be transported in time. From donkey-drawn carts piled high with sugarcane to Nile grass hiding mudbrick houses, local guides say the landscape isn’t much different from what Cleopatra saw. Climb onto a camel for a desert trek to St. Simeon Monastery, an abandoned and little-visited site dating back to the 4th century. Sail to the lively Gharb Sohil village, where Exodus Travels supports a traditional Nubian home where you’ll experience daily life; dock at a nearby Nubian outpost where singers and drummers lead guests dancing to a bonfire flanked by Egyptian rugs and pillows to enjoy a flavorful, locally sourced dinner eaten by candlelight.
VALLEY OF THE KINGS, LUXOR
The most famous archaeological site in the world, the Valley of the Kings is where Egypt’s most prominent pharaohs and leaders were buried; it once contained the largest concentration of gold in the world. Though most tombs were looted centuries ago, you will descend into tombs replete with colorful murals, hieroglyphs and paintings depicting life and the afterlife. A ticket to King Tutankhamun’s tomb is $12 extra and contains one of three original gold sarcophagi unearthed by British archaeologist Howard Carter in the 1920s. Though you might be “templed out” at this point, persevere and take in the magnificent Luxor Temple at sunset, when statues come alive under well-placed lighting. Its nighttime Sound and Light show illustrates the temple’s fabled history during a stroll under soaring cartouche-filled columns.
• Easily acquire an Egyptian visa for $25 USD and exchange money with no commission fee upon arrival at the Cairo airport. Simply go to one of the well-marked banks before Immigration.
• Exodus Travels has an excellent packing list online that covers nearly everything, but If you’re going in winter, pack a light parka—it’s cold in the desert at night.
• Leave heels at home; city streets and archaeological sites are a maze of uneven stones.
• Pack a dual-voltage travel hairdryer; the hotels’ and cruise ship’s are weak.
• Negotiate the price of everything you purchase. It is part of the culture and is expected.
• Take a stack ($75+) of one-dollar bills for souvenirs and baksheesh, or tips for anyone who provides a service will expect (and request) “baksheesh.” Souvenirs including mother-of-pearl inlaid boxes, hand-crafted jewelry and embroidered shirts and dresses, all surprisingly inexpensive, and vendors accept dollar bills.
For the entire “Alexandria to Aswan” itinerary, visit Exodus Travels: https://www.exodustravels.com/egypt-holidays/culture/egypt-alexandria-aswan/aed?flights=excluded