There’s a lot to consider when planning a trip to Egypt — especially for a woman. Read all about my experience in the land of the Pharaohs!
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You can also check out my list of essential items for backpackers!
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a little bit obsessed with Egypt. I don’t know when or why it started, but Egypt has always called to me and this year I finally decided to answer.
My friends and family love to ask me about “my next trip” (there is *always* a next trip), and when I told them I was going to Egypt, I got a bunch of questions such as:
- “Are you crazy?”
- “Is it safe?”
- “Shouldn’t you maybe wait a few years until, you know, things are more… stable?”
- “Are you going to buy a burqa?”
- “Do you think you should dye your hair darker?”
- “What are you going to wear?”
- “Aren’t you afraid of those scarab beetles?”
Some of these are reasonably valid questions. Others… not so much.
First, basically nothing about The Mummy movies is in any way accurate. There was no High Priest Imhotep (well, not any famous ones anyway), Hamunaptra is not a real place, scarab beetles are harmless, and no couple has ever been as perfect together as Rick and Evy.
To the other questions:
- I am definitely a little bit crazy, but that has nothing to do with Egypt.
- While the terror alert level in Egypt is listed as “high,” France, Germany, the UK, and dozens of other countries currently hold the same rating (including 9 I’ve already been to). (**p.s., the terror alert level in Jerusalem is “extreme” and I’m going there next week soooooo…)
- It’s been six years since the January 25th revolution.
- I have no idea.
There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty that comes up when people talk about visiting Egypt, and I’d love to help shed some light on what it’s like over there right now (especially for a single woman).
Reasons to Visit Egypt
Oh, come on, you knew I was going to lead with that, right?
Eating in Egypt is awesome. The food is affordable, delicious, and even reasonably healthy. Meals can be drawn out over several hours, and there’s always plenty of tea being served.
My favorites included baba ghannoush, fresh flatbread (known as Baladi), ful mudamas (simmer and lightly mashed fava beans), Egyptian falafel (also made from fava beans),
This probably should have been listed as number one, but I kind of have this thing with food (duh). Right, so, Egyptian History. Where to begin? You’ve got the Pharaonic Period (with the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms), Ptolemaic, Roman, and Byzantine Periods, all the way up to the Modern Era.
Who loves fun facts?? ME. I hope you do, too, because I’m about to throw some down.
- Tutankhamun is only famous because of the intact state of his tomb; not because of anything he did during his reign.
- There is no mention of the Biblical story of Moses in Egyptian history.
- The Pyramids were not built by slaves, but by a combination of salaried and temporary workers.
- Cleopatra wasn’t actually Egyptian; her family was from the Macedonia region and she ruled as part of the Ptolemaic occupation.
- By Cleopatra’s time (69-30 BCE), the Great Pyramid was already nearly 2600 years old.
- Before the revolution in 1919, Egypt had been controlled by occupying forces for over 2500 years. In the ~5,000 years since the unification of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms, Egypt has been ruled by Egyptians only about half the time.
- Egypt held it’s first democratic presidential election in the year 2011. Just think about that one.
By and large I found Egyptians to be welcoming, polite, and very supportive of tourism. Cairo was perhaps the least “friendly,” but it’s a city of 30 million people and if I lived there I would be grumpy, too.
The Nubian family I met outside of Aswan were charming, full of laughter, and supremely beautiful. The Bedouins I met throughout the Sinai Peninsula were excellent cooks, proud of their heritage, and incredibly friendly. As a traveler, many of the people you encounter are workers in the service industry (drivers, waitstaff, hotel employees, etc.). Everyone I encountered was helpful and attentive, even if they were a bit shy to talk to me.
My Favorite Experiences in Egypt
The Nile by Felucca.
This was my very favorite part of the trip. Three days and two nights aboard a felucca, a traditional Egyptian sailing vessel, cruising up the Nile with absolutely nothing to do. Truth be told, when I planned this excursion I was a bit worried about what it would be like. I don’t always do well with **nothingness**, so I loaded up my devices with books and music to keep me occupied. As it turns out, I didn’t even turn them on.
Sailing on a felucca is quite the experience, for a few different reasons.
First, there is no bathroom on board. This was definitely the number one thing I was worried about. Was I supposed to just jump in the Nile? Aren’t there crocodiles?
As it turns out, there were 7 other ladies on the boat and we ended up stopping every two hours or so for a break. We probably could have stopped less frequently if we weren’t drinking so much beer. Stopping for a “break” entailed finding a spot to tie up the boat, hoisting a plank onto the shore, and finding cover in the bushes.
After many years of camping back home in Oregon, and a two-week stint in China, I can pee practically anywhere so this arrangement worked fine for me. If you’re a bit rusty on your squat technique, I’d recommend brushing up before you go.
Second, there are no private cabins or sleeping arrangements on the boat. There is one flat communal area, and that is where you lounge, eat, drink beer, and sleep (in that order).
I’d recommend doing some hip-opening yoga exercises in advance if you’re not used to sitting criss-cross applesauce for hours on end.
The crew will provide a (rock hard) pillow and (scratchy wool) blanket. If you go during the summer, that should be enough, though I went in early March and I was very cold. I brought a silk sleeping bag liner with me, but honestly a full sleeping bag would have been better. If you don’t want to pack a sleeping bag, bring a silk liner and put some long johns on under your clothes.
Speaking of clothes, there is no private place to change, so everyone just changes clothes under their blankets. I was relatively drunk the entire time, so this did not bother me.
Lastly, the issue of entertainment. Like I said, I thought I would be going out of my mind with boredom but I actually had a fantastic time.
Part of this could be attributed to being with a great group of people, but also the time just seemed to fly by. There’s so much to look at as you sail up the river, plus you seem to always be either on your way to or just leaving from a bathroom break.
Someone in the group had the foresight to bring a deck of Uno cards, which was completely brilliant because it’s a well-known game and very easy to teach.
There’s also lots of sunbathing opportunities, chances to swim in the Nile (I didn’t see any crocodiles), and lots of food being served.
The second night of our sailing trip we docked next to a small look-out point and built a fire. The crew sang and played music, everybody in the club got tipsy, and I danced a little bit like a maniac.
The Valley of the Kings by Air.
Hot air balloon, that is.
This was one of the more spendy activities (it was about $95 USD), but I really loved it. We woke up around 4:30am so we could take off right after sunrise. I thought it seemed obscenely early at the time, but once we got up there I realized that first thing in the morning is really the only time to go. Hot air balloons get really hot (there’s flames!), plus, you know, Egypt gets pretty hot.
We were meant to soar over the Valley of the Kings, but the wind was blowing the opposite direction that day so our balloon crossed over the Nile instead. This gave us a view of both Luxor and Karnak temples from the air, which was outstanding (and, as I was told, quite unusual).
I didn’t have any fear of going up in a balloon until we arrived at the launch site. In true Egyptian fashion, everything appeared to be a complete shit show yet somehow all came together at the right time and worked out beautifully.
From my experience, this is kind of a thing in this part of the world. I think it might have something to do with the fact that everything seems to be organized by men. I saw very few women working anywhere (including restaurants, hotels, etc.), which was a real detriment to efficiency.
Now, I had never ridden in a hot air balloon before, so I’m not sure how much of what happened was normal. It seemed to take ages for the balloons to fill with hot air (<– pretty ashamed of how long it took me to think of this phrase just now… “hmmmmm what ARE those balloons filled with?”), but once they did it was GO TIME to get into the baskets.
The men working at the launch just grabbed all of us and kind of threw us up into the baskets. Right before it was my turn to be unceremoniously tossed into what, at the time, appeared to be an elaborate death device, the basket tipped completely on its side.
I immediately started looking around, trying to find a way to quietly escape the situation. Alas, three guys lifted me up, mosh-pit style, and before I knew it my fate was sealed. Less than a minute after I was placed in the basket we were already up in the air.
It was awesome.
Luxor Temple by Night.
Oh, how I wish I had a tri-pod with me that night. Seeing the temple by night was outstanding, but not great for photos.
I highly recommend that you visit at night, as there is something spectacular about the atmosphere. I felt like I got a much better sense of what it would have been like in Pharoanic times, and the entire complex felt absolutely romantic (historically speaking).
They only recently uncovered the Avenue of Sphinxes, as it was buried under centuries of rubble (and a local police station).
The avenue originally connected Luxor Temple with Karnak Temple; now they are separated by modern streets and buildings. Our guide mentioned that he has hopes that they will eventually excavate the rest of the avenue so visitors can simply walk from Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple.
First, make sure you arrange to spend a few days at the Red Sea. It is absolutely stunning. We visited Dahab, a beach town on the Eastern side of the Sinai Peninsula, right on the Gulf of Aqaba (part of the Red Sea).
A lot of visitors go to Hurghada and Sharm el Sheik, but everyone I’ve talked to says they prefer Dahab. It is such a beautiful and relaxing place to hang out.
Make sure you snorkel (or dive) the Blue Hole, take every opportunity to eat the cheap and delicious food, smoke lots of sheesha, and spend a day lounging by the pool at one of the many lovely resorts (I stayed at Dahab Paradise).
The other amazing reason to visit the Peninsula is to see Mt. Sinai. Yes, the one from the Bible where Moses received the Ten Commandments. We left Dahab at 10pm, drove two hours to the base of the mountain (where St. Catherine’s Monastery is located), then hiked the mountain for three hours.
Now, it was insinuated to me that this would be a pretty easy hike. It was not easy for me. To be fair, everyone else seemed to be fine, but I was struggling to breathe. My legs didn’t ache until the last 750 steps to the top (oh, and by the way, when they say “steps” they don’t mean “stairs.” It’s more like 750 huge rocks to climb over at an incline), but I just couldn’t seem to get enough air.
It may have been the altitude, it may have been my complete ineptitude with physical activity, and also did I mention that I had a weird cough the entire time I was in Egypt?
Right. Well, the experience was totally worth it. Right before you hit the last 100 “steps” you can rent a blanket and sleeping mat to carry up to the top (yayyyy more weight for the hardest part). We arrived at the top at about 4:00am, so we had a little over an hour and a half to sleep before the sunrise.
I have never seen such a beautiful sunrise in my life, and not just because I was suffering from oxygen depletion.
After the sunrise, we hiked about two hours down to the monastery before driving back to Dahab and sleeping all day.
Know Before You Go
Organize a Tour.
Now, I don’t usually like traveling with a group, but if there’s ever a time to do it, Egypt is it. This isn’t necessarily because it’s dangerous to go otherwise, but simply because there are a huge number of things to see, and it gets complicated trying to plan it on your own.
There were times on the trip when our group had to drive nine or ten hours to get between places (like driving from Cairo to Luxor), and we had police escorts for certain stretches of the journey. There are a lot of checkpoints everywhere, and you really need someone who knows how to navigate the customs in the area. I’m not saying that there is *no way* to do this without being part of a group, but let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to even try. I’ve been traveling without a group through Jordan for the past few weeks and I’ve had no trouble, but Egypt just seems a bit more complicated.
The main reason I’d recommend going with a tour is for efficiency purposes. Egypt is no small place, and the main sights you’ll want to see are spread as far north as the Mediterranean and as far south as the Sudanese border. Unless you have weeks on end to spend navigating your way through Egypt, going with a tour may be the best option for you.
I went with a company called Travel Talk, and I had a great experience.
Well, that’s a loaded statement, isn’t it? There are a few things to consider here. First, the weather. It gets hot. Secondly, the culture. Rocking a spaghetti strap tank top and Daisy Dukes just isn’t going to cut it here.
Here’s what I would recommend bringing:
- Loose, flowy pants or skirts that cover your knees (I brought my standard Prana travel pants, and while they worked out great I would have loved something more breezy to help with the heat).
- Loose, flowy blouses that cover your shoulders.
- A few thick-strapped tank tops and cover-ups or wraps to go over them (there were many times on the bus where I was HOT and happy to be wearing layers I could remove).
- A versatile scarf (to cover your shoulders and/or head as needed, although I actually never had to cover my head anywhere on my trip, even in the mosque we visited).
- Good hiking sandals (it gets too hot for sneakers, but you do a lot of walking).
- A sun hat and sunglasses.
This was just what worked well for me. Some of the other gals in the group felt comfortable wearing tank tops which showed their shoulders, and while they received a few stares they never got harassed (more than usual).
In the beach towns like Dahab and Hurghada you can get away with much more typical “western” clothing. I spent lots of time laying out in my bathing suit, but you definitely want to put clothes on for visiting restaurants or shops. I felt fine wearing shorts and a tank top over my swimsuit while I was there. There are a ton of ex-pats, so things are a bit more loosey-goosey.
For the most part, men were very respectful towards me in Egypt. Our group received quite a few stares and even a few rude comments, but then again I get cat calls back home from time to time so it really wasn’t *that* different.
Most of the comments were along the lines of “how many camels?” and “hey, Shakira!” which are both kind of weird.
First of all, I don’t even know how much a camel is worth, so how am I supposed to answer that question? I’m definitely not accepting any on-the-street marriage proposals without proper research into camel-buying practices.
Secondly, Shakira is Colombian. I figured that this was more about my blonde hair than anything else, but that wasn’t the case. When my new travel buddy, Taliha, and I couch-surfed at an awesome Lebanese guy’s place our first night in Jordan (sorry, Mom!), he explained to us that the Shakira comments have more to do with junk in the trunk than with hair color. Right.
Besides the camel and Shakira comments, most of the time if men spoke to me it was to give me a compliment as they were passing by. I’m not sure if they thought I would appreciate it, but I really didn’t. While it doesn’t seem like there is anything bothersome about being told you are beautiful, when it happens fifty times a day it gets old really quick. There were many days where I really felt like I would have been more comfortable if I were completely veiled. It would have been nice to feel like I wasn’t on display.
All in all, the most annoying part for me was all of the staring. I experienced this quite a bit in China, and I didn’t like it while I was there either. I don’t like feeling like a space alien, but sometimes that just comes with the territory.
There are ATMs around, so you can access cash pretty easily, but know that very few places accept credit or debit cards.
Worth It vs. Not Worth It
Abu Simbel. Worth it! Definitely take the time to make the trip down to see this incredible monument.
Aswan Dam at Nasser Lake. Skip it… it’s just like every other dam in the world.
Hiking Mt. Sinai. Worth it if you are cool with a bit of exercise.
Inside the Great Pyramid. You need a special ticket (200 LE, or about $11 USD), but it is worth it for bragging rights. They sell a limited number each day, so go early.
Inside Tutankhamun’s Tomb. This was kind of neat, but nearly all of the relics from the tomb have been moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, so you can take a pass on going inside this tomb. There are many other (more impressive) tombs to check out in the Valley of the Kings.
Nile by Felucca. I definitely recommend this, however you can also sail the Nile by river cruise which is a great option if you prefer a few more creature comforts.
Hot Air Balloon in Luxor. I thought it was worth it, and it was actually pretty reasonably priced compared to ballooning back home.
If you’re planning a trip to Egypt, then I hope this post has been useful for you! I’m happy to answer any specific questions, so just leave them in the comments.
A lot of people are hesitant to travel there right now, but that is even better news for those of us that do. No lines! Awesome photos! Cheap prices!
I truly recommend traveling to Egypt. There’s really nowhere like it on the planet!