January 4th. 5 am. Cairo, Egypt.
I’m listening to the call to the prayer (the first of five for the day) from the nearby mosques. Through the walls of the hotel room, the beautiful, haunting sound reverberates loudly, assuring everyone is awake.
Well, not to worry – with the jetlag, I was already wide awake anyway.
I’m sitting in what’s arguably the softest, most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. The funny thing is that the 3-star hotel we’re staying at, across the river from downtown Cairo, has definitely seen better days. The shower is so small I barely fit inside it. The bathroom door doesn’t actually latch shut, and, like everywhere else in Egypt, there’s no heat in our room. (Granted, most of the year it’s scorching hot here, but the first week in January? Not so much).
Anyway, I digress. My favorite feature of this old-but-charming hotel? The elevator doesn’t actually have any doors. You step inside, press a button, and watch the floors go by as you ascend or descend. (Don’t get your fingers caught!)
And yet, despite its humble appearance, this rundown hotel has the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. This hotel seems to be a tiny representation of Egypt as a whole – ancient, rundown, yet strangely and surprisingly comfortable.
Let’s face it – Egypt has always been a wild card on the world scene. From Biblical times all the way up to the 2011 Revolution, Egypt has been a major player on the world scene. For over 4,000 years it’s flexed its mighty muscles, exerting a powerful influence on the politics and social structure of the Middle East.
To be fair, most of what we hear of this ancient country – one of the oldest civilizations on earth – is negative. We hear that it’s dangerous, dirty, crowded, and unpredictable.
Is it true? That’s what we came to find out. And yet – like this deliciously comfortable bed in an old hotel – we’re already discovering there’s a lot more to Egypt than meets the eye.
Arrival in Egypt
If you know us at all, you know we’re typically very independent travelers. Given the uncertainty of the times and the enormous scope of the country, we opted to use a tour company this time around. I gotta say – it was awesome to step off the plane in Cairo and find a smiling Egyptian man holding a sign with my name on it!
We breezed through immigration and hopped into a private car (no taxi queues here!) to be whisked away to our aforementioned hotel. The driver was lovely, pointing all sights along the Nile and downtown Egypt along the way – in perfect English, I might add.
When we reach the hotel, we’re greeted by a pretty blond Hungarian woman named Emily who now calls Egypt home. She sits us down to review our 14-day itinerary – every tour, every flight, every train ride. She explains we’ll have a private driver and guide each day (with the exception of Petra, where we’ll join up with a larger group). Then she shows us to the local supermarket, ATM, and Vodafone store, where we got Sim cards for our phones. She wished us well and made us promise to call if we encountered any issues.
After that, we were officially on our own. Since the tour didn’t start until the following day, we had the afternoon to ourselves.
Cairo: Day 1
Item number one on our list (shockingly) was getting some lunch. Since you know we’re major foodies, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.
We took the locals’ advice and sat down with two big bowls of koshary, the unofficial comfort food of Egypt. Prepare for a carb coma, because you’re getting a bowl layered with pasta, rice, more pasta, lentils, and tomato sauce. Garnish with a few fried onion, zesty vinegarette, and a dash or two of hot sauce, and you’ve got a delicious meal for about $1.
RIP, my low-carb diet. See ya in two weeks!
Our jetlagged bodies were begging for rest (especially after consuming 19 pounds of rice and pasta), but we knew better than to give in. To combat our drowsiness, we grabbed and Uber and sat in traffic for over an hour (welcome to Cairo) to go get a late afternoon glimpse of the Pyramids.
A few fast facts about Egypt:
100 million people, 90% of which live along the fertile Nile River.
25 million in Cairo, making it the largest city in all of Africa.
NO TRAFFIC LIGHTS.
Yes, you read that right. 25 million people, no traffic lights. I’ll let you imagine what the roads look like.
But you know what? With the horns honking and the horses and donkeys clip-clopping and the Arabic music blasting over the taxi’s speakers, it’s kind of awesome. All the dust you inhale because the windows are down? Not so awesome – but hey, that’s what showers are for).
Along the main road through Giza leading out to the Pyramids, you’ll pass A LOT of police checkpoints. In fact, even our humble hotel greets guests with a massive metal detector. Roadblocks are set up everywhere to slow traffic down (not that you’re moving fast) so heavily-armed police can keep an eye on things. At one point, close to the Pyramids, they even had dogs sniffing all the vehicles and trunks.
A little unnerving? In a way. But in a place like this, I’d rather see them take extra precautions than not enough.
Our Uber delivers us at the historic Mena House Hotel, a 5-star gem that’s sat in the shadow of the Pyramids since 1869. If Disney World had an Egyptian themed resort, this is what it would look like. 40 acres of lush green lawn, fountains, gilded ceilings with glass lanterns, colorful archways, and a too-good-to-be-true backdrop of the Pyramids in their backyard.
Once we’d retrieved our jaws from the floor, we took a seat at Terrace 139, their beautiful outdoor restaurant. Over pots of Egyptian mint tea, meze platters, and a tandoori platter, we drank in the sight of the only-remaining Ancient Wonder of the World.
Then the sun started to go down and the temperature plummeted, reminding us that our Thai blood and flimsy coats weren’t doing us much good. We sat in our first Cairene traffic jam on the way back to “our side” of town and succumbed to jetlag at the ripe ol’ hour of 7:30 pm.
Mint tea and in bed before 8 pm. We’re a couple of real party animals!
It’s okay, though, because we needed some energy for the day that lay ahead.
Cairo: Day 2
We awoke stupid early (thanks to jetlag and the aforementioned call to prayer). Eventually, the breakfast buffet opened and we headed downstairs to find nothing less than an Egyptian feast spread out before us.
We’re talking falafel, freshly baked bread, soft Egyptian white cheese (similar to feta), crisp veggies, boiled eggs, fried potatoes, and our personal favorite: ful (pronounced “fool”), a savory dish of cooked fava beans, cumin, garlic, lemon, and other spices.
Good thing we were hungry!
At 8 am, our guide for the day, Abdul, and our driver, Makmud, arrive to claim us. Both men speak impeccable English and are warm and friendly. We’re feeling very good about our upcoming day!
First Stop: Saqqara
We head south out of Giza about 45 minutes to the ancient complex at Saqqara – both the oldest and the largest archaeological site in Egypt.
It’s kind of surreal driving along the relatively green Nile Valley, where palm trees and tall grasses abound. Then, all of a sudden, you come up over a rise and there before you is the great Sahara Desert. It’s nothing but you and sand for almost 3,000 miles – a distance greater than the width of the entire United States!
But don’t worry, Mom – we’re not venturing out into the desert (not this trip, anyway). For now, we passed through three more security checkpoints (lots of big guns and bigger dogs – these guys are no joke) before we parked at the nearly deserted entrance to Saqqara.
Perhaps the biggest surprise so far is how EMPTY everything is! From what we hear, prior to the 2011 Revolution, you’d be jostling through these sites with thousands of other tourists.
But these days? It’s like a ghost town – a little eerie considering the sites are full of crypts, tombs, and mummies!
I’m not complaining, though, because empty historical sites make for fantastic pictures. (Do we really want to see a Chinese tour group in every photo?) Abdul leads us through the columned entryway and over to the Step Pyramid of Djoser, believed to be the oldest pyramid in Egypt.
Next, we got to climb down an ancient shaft beneath another burial mound to see an (empty) sarcophagus and hieroglyphs from floor to ceiling. The passageway was maybe four feet high, so you’re crouched pretty low – recall my morbid fear of caves? – so I dove right in before I had the chance to change my mind.
Next Stop: Memphis
After touring a few more tombs, we climbed back in the car and headed next to the Memphis Museum. This open-air museum contains artifacts that remain from the ancient capital city of Lower Egypt (remember that the Nile flows from south to north, so the southern half is “Upper Egypt” while the northern part is “Lower Egypt”).
Highlights here are the fallen statue of Ramses II, the second-largest sphinx in Egypt (believed to be Queen Hatshepsut), and an alabaster mummification table.
On the way to lunch, we stop briefly at a papyrus shop to see first-hand how the world’s first “paper” is made. Then we pull up the stables near the Pyramids, down a quick bowl of koshary, and prepare for our ride.
Horse Riding Around the Pyramids of Giza
We’re introduced to Horus and Aziz, our fearless mounts of the day. Our ride takes us through the crazy streets of Giza, up a tall sand dune, and across the open desert south of the Pyramids.
Since a picture’s worth a thousand words, I’ll let my photos do the talking here:
Words cannot describe how monumentally SMALL you feel gazing at these magnificent structures. It was also incredible to be almost the only ones there, save for a few other tourists riding camels and horses nearby.
If you’ve ever wondered if the Pyramids are overrated – they’re NOT.
In fact, I can’t think of a more perfect introduction for our trip to Egypt!