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Experience in Egypt

For over a year, I have been meaning to get around to sharing some of my experience in Egypt in March 2020. Sadly, the trip was cut short because of Covid, but there is still plenty from the trip that might be of interest to other folks contemplating a trip to Egypt. (Note: I am posting to this forum instead of Trip Reports because most of the recent discussion about Egypt seems to be going on here. Many apologies if that’s a breach of protocol. )

This is a long report, and so I will break it down into several sections:

  • Our Tour Company: Djed Egypt Travel
  • Sites and Activities
  • Accommodations
  • Food
  • Final Thoughts

My friend and I originally looked at a couple of American tour companies, Road Scholar and Odyssey’s unlimited, with whom we had both had positive experiences in the past. While comparing the various itineraries and trying to figure out if we would rather visit Alexandria or take a cruise on Lake Nasser, I stumbled across a dahabiya cruise. I knew immediately that the dahabiya was what we wanted. As someone whose enjoyment of cruises has always been inversely proportional to the size of the ship, I knew that I would prefer a ten passenger sailing vessel over a 200+ passenger ship.

Djed Egypt Travel

We contacted Djed Egypt Travel, a small, Egyptian-owned company that owns four dahabiyas, a restaurant in Luxor, and a custom/private tour service. They offer a “Classic Egypt Tour” with a fairly standard itinerary that covers the major sites in Cairo, Giza, Saqqara, Luxor, a dahabiya cruise, Abu Simbel, and Aswan. The Classic tour, however, is just a starting point. You can customize the itinerary or accommodations as you wish. We opted to add a couple of extra days in Luxor, including an excursion to Abydos and Dendera and a free day to take a break from tombs and temples , and a few days in Alexandria. Also, as soon as I casually mentioned that I was interested in seeing the tomb of Nefertari, it immediately appeared in our itinerary.
Our final itinerary with Djed was very clear about what was included and what was optional. For example, when we made our arrangements, we weren’t sure whether we wanted to go inside the Great Pyramid. Djed was clear in the itinerary that the pyramid interior was not included in the quote, and he told us what the ticket price would be if we wanted to add it. They were also very clear about what meals were included, refund policies, and so forth. Their pricing was very reasonable. We wound up spending about what we would have spent with one of the American companies, but we got a lot more — the dahabiya, Alexandria, Abydos/Dendera, and such — with Djed.

Our experience once we arrived in Egypt was flawless. In each major city, Djed has a city representative who is responsible for meeting you at the airport and making sure that everything runs smoothly. The city representative is on call 24x7 to handle any emergencies. Each day we had a driver and and an Egyptologist/guide. We had one guide for Cairo, Giza, and Saqqara, and another guide for Luxor. It was a private tour, just the two of us with our guide and driver each day. Our guides were all friendly and extremely knowledgeable, and our drivers were also first rate.

Most importantly, Djed stuck by us when Covid brought everything crashing down. They went above and beyond to help us get out of the country before the airports shut down.

My only cautionary note is that Djed is very slow to respond to email. The owner likes to handle all the correspondence himself, and it’s an overwhelming task. Expect to give him several nudges before you get a response.

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Sites and Activities: Cairo, Giza, Saqqara

Cairo

Cairo is big and dense, unlike any other city I have visited. Here is a city with 20M people, and we saw only two(!) traffic lights. Cars, buses, tuk-tuks, camels, donkeys, and pedestrians all mingle in the same space.

Egyptian Museum: Cairo

What a wealth of cultural history! With open windows, very few climate controlled areas, stacks of display cases made of wood and glass, labels typed on manual typewriters, and records kept in huge leather-bound volumes, it’s a little like stepping back into the late 19th century. Still, the astounding collection shines through. Although I look forward to seeing the new Grand Egyptian Museum, I am so glad that I got to see the original. We only spent half a day there. I could have stayed much longer.

The Giza Pyramids

It goes without saying that the Pyramids of Giza are spectacular and you should see them. The more likely question is whether to do some of the ancillary activities — going inside the pyramids or taking a camel ride. I am so glad that I opted to go inside the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Although there is no ornamentation inside the pyramid, just being able to stand in front of the sarcophagus of Khufu is a once in a lifetime experience. As long as you are reasonably able-bodied and are not claustrophobic, I would highly recommend it. We also decided to take a camel ride to the back side of the pyramids. Our guide was able to make arrangements with a reputable source. You will either love camels or hate them. Keep in mind that you will be very high up when the camel stands. I enjoyed every minute of it, but my friend found it a little frightening. Also, urban Giza backs right up to the pyramids. Riding a camel is the best way to see the classic, unobstructed view of the pyramids in the desert.

Saqqara and Dashur

Pyramid fans especiallly will want to spend some time at Saqqara and Dashur. Tours often spend half a day at Giza and half a day at Saqqara and Dashur. If you are inclined toward exploring pyramid interiors, I would recommend a whole day at Saqqara and Dashur. (Half a day is plenty for Giza.) I went inside the Red Pyramid, the immediate predecessor of the Great Pyramid, at Dashur. Although not as quite tall as the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Red Pyramid is a steeper climb. It was a real workout. Although I didn’t make it into the Bent Pyramid, I understand that it’s also a pretty steep climb.

Saqqara is huge. The Step Pyramid of Djoser, the first fully developed pyramid, opened to the public less than a week before we arrived. There’s no climbing involved, and I highly recommend visiting. The pyramid of Teti is also worth seeing. There’s a lot more at Saqqara, but, unfortunately, we ran out of time before we got to see everything. Next trip we plan to spend a whole day at Saqqara and Dashur.

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Sites and Activities: Luxor and the Dahabiya

It’s a no-brainer that one must see Karnak, Luxor Temple, and the Valley of the Kings, and so I won’t rehash what appears in every travel guide.

Valley of the Kings
Three tombs are included with admission. Exactly which tombs are open vary from year to year, and it’s best to let your guide suggest which of the open tombs are best to visit. In addition, three tombs — Tutankhamun, Seti I, and Ramses V/VI — are available for an additional fee. We visited Ramses V/VI, which was spectacular and affordable. We probably should have done Tutankhamun, but didn’t. Seti I is supposed to be gorgeous, but it’s expensive, and we decided to blow our budget on Nefertari’s tomb.

Valley of the Queens: Tomb of Nefertari
Wow! Just wow! There is a reason they call it the Sistine Chapel of Egypt. The colors look as if they could have been painted yesterday. The admission fee is 1400 EGP, about $89, and they only allow a limited number of people to enter each day. Also, because of the fragility of the artwork, you are not supposed to spend more than 10 minutes inside. I don’t know how long it will remain open to the public. I am absolutely glad that I saw it.

Abydos and Dendera
Abydos and Dendera are a day trip north of Luxor. Abydos, the home of the Kings List and the reputed burial site of Osiris, is one of the most ancient and historically important sites in Egypt. What you see today is mostly the temple of Seti I, but the site itself most likely dates to pre-pharaonic times. Dendera, on the other hand, is one of the best preserved temples from the Ptolemaic period and is stunningly beautiful. They are definitely worth visiting is you can spare an extra day.

Felucca Cruise
We took an evening felucca cruise catered by Sofra, a restaurant owned by Djed, up to Banana Island and back. Banana Island isn’t much as a destination, but the food and the Nile sunset were terrific. I would do it again in heartbeat.

Balloon Ride
The early morning aerial view of the Nile, the farmland and the west bank temples was breathtaking. I enjoyed it more than I expected.

Dahabiya
The dahabiya cruise was one of the highlights of the trip, and for me the only way to cruise the Nile. There were four of us on the dahabiya: me, my friend, and a young couple from London. The winds were good, and we were able to sail most of the time. A small tugboat accompanies the dahabiya in case the winds are not cooperating. The dahbiya was calm, peaceful, and relaxing. Djed’s description in our itinerary was dead-on accurate: “This is classic – a scenic and leisurely way to sail the Nile – and a world away from the fancy-dress parties of the large cruisers. … Dahabiyas are slow; they take their time and stop at sites others don’t see, and can moor almost anywhere – they are cultural and adventurous and honor the spirit of the Nile. This part of the journey rewards you with a genuine experience of untouched, rural Egypt at its best. … You’ll find no flashing disco here! “

Unfortunately, at the end of our first day on the dahabiya, we got word that Egypt was shutting down all airports and hotels because of Covid. We managed to keep sailing through part of the second day, as far as the Temple of Horus at Edfu, before we had to bid a sad and untimely goodbye to the dahabiya. My heart broke for the friendly and outstanding crew that I knew would be facing tough times to come.

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Accommodations

One of the nice things about traveling with Djed was that we could choose a range of accommodations that suited us.

Mena House, Giza

Mena House is 1500 feet from the Great Pyramid of Giza. How can one not like looking at the pyramids at breakfast each morning? ’Nuff said. The breakfast buffet was huge and excellent. Dinner, the one night that we ate there, was a little uninspiring but fine. Security was tight, and the location was convenient. I usually prefer something with a more local feel, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

El Nakhil, Luxor
In Luxor the two sides of the Nile have distinctly different vibes. The east bank, the side of the living, is busy and bustling with plenty of restaurants and night life. The west bank, traditionally the side of the dead, has a rural, village vibe. We opted for a small hotel on the west bank, and we were not disappointed. Our room had everything we needed — a clean and comfortable bed, hot water, wi-fi, and a decent breakfast. The rooftop restaurant had authentic Egyptian food and a gorgeous view of green sugarcane fields. We weren’t hounded by touts and had no worries about traffic. Most of the time, Djed would pick us up for our daily activities, but the public ferry was convenient when we wanted to go over to the east bank on our own. Overall, I enjoyed the relaxed vibe on the west bank. And did I mention that it was only $30 a night, $15 a night when we divided the cost between the two of us? The extraordinarily reasonable cost of the hotel freed up funds for other activities, like the tomb of Nefertari and the the day at Abydos and Dendera. I thought it was a great trade-off, and I would do it again.

Food

Food in Egypt is pretty much standard Mediterranean fare — lots of hummus, eggplant, fruit, pita bread, tabouli, and stews. Bread is the main starch, which might be a challenge for the gluten-free crowd.

Fortunately, I didn’t have any issues at all with “mummy tummy.” Admittedly, I was reasonably, but not entirely, careful to avoid uncooked foods. My friend learned that hibiscus didn’t quite agree with her, but that was easily avoided.

What surprised me most was the abundance of fresh food everywhere. We encountered all sorts of local markets full of fresh bananas and oranges and vegetables, small bakeries with fresh breads , and donkey-driven carts overflowing with fresh strawberries. The availability of fresh food for a relatively poor population put the US to shame in many ways.

Final Thoughts

I am eager to return to Egypt to complete the trip as soon as is reasonably safe, hopefully in October. The people were kind and generous, and I look forward to a second visit.

Many of you have seen the pictures already, but for those who haven’t, pictures are here: https://mariematthews.smugmug.com/Egypt

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5078 posts

What a great trip you had, and just before travel was sidelined for so long! Now you’ll get 2 Egypt trips ... or maybe that’s really still one trip, cut into two parts.

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3789 posts

What a wonderful trip and the photos have me ready to pack my bags and go again. What a shame it was cut short.
It is often said that for 2 or more people, a local private tour is close in price and better value than a set date group tour. Same with safaris.
Thanks for taking the time to share this.

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Thanks so much for sharing your trip. This is very timely for me as I am planning a trip to Egypt for March 2022 and we would like to support the local Egyptian economy as much as possible. Goodness knows they've been through a lot. Hope you're able to go back soon as well!

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Marie, I was very happy to read this and hear about your trip to Egypt. We are looking forward to our trip to Egypt in October.

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Beautiful photos! I look forward to visiting Egypt in the future (hopefully!). Thanks for sharing them and your report.

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Marie,

Thank you for the wonderful and informative trip report! Your photos are lovely. Egypt's always been on my "to-go" list, but for obvious reasons it's moved up the list recently. I'm bound to the academic calendar, but am keeping a cautiously optimistic eye on December 2021. Fingers crossed!

Caroline

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I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks so much for sharing it! I grew up in Cairo and continue to have an emotional attachment to the city and Egypt so it actually gave me warm and fuzzy feelings to read about how much you enjoyed it and appreciated all it had to offer. I hope you’ll make it back as soon as possible to complete your trip!

I’ve heard great things about Djed in other places as well, so and will have to look in to them when I make it back to Egypt (despite having lived there, or perhaps because of it, I know having guides at many sites is really the best way to visit them).

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Marie, thanks for sharing your detailed report. Loved your photos as well. I am going to bookmark this for future reference! ;)