A while back I wrote a post about exploring a city while on a layover.
The city I wrote about was Paris and I spoke at length about the efficient public transportation system and the ease of navigating through the city. In short, Paris- like most developed cities in first world countries- make for ideal destinations to explore while on a long layover.
But what happens when the city you want to explore is in a less developed country that seems a lot more intimidating? Do you stay in the airport and look longingly out the window? Or do you find a way to make it work?
You know my answer to this question… if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here!
Many moons ago- when I was a young panda cub in school- in our Social Studies classes, one part of the textbook was devoted to those ancient Egyptians whose technology was far and above anything the rest of the world could conceive, let alone execute. Of course I wanted to learn how to read hieroglyphics, climb down into the tombs of the kings, and imagine what life would have been like hanging out with Cleopatra. I’m pretty sure the Kardashians had nothing on her! I was fascinated; actually I was mildly obsessed and read every book I could about Egypt that I could find- I think I was a nerd. And this was back when being nerdy was still considered uncool long before Big Bang Theory and before the damn hipsters got hold of the culture! So when the opportunity presented itself, I booked a flight to the land of the Pharaohs, artefacts, and the majestic Nile River.
On our way to Kenya, Expat Lion and I found a flight which gave us a chance to visit Cairo for 14 hours. Most people advised against navigating this crazy city in just a day but with the help of a few friends, we managed to make it work. Here’s how we did it:
Step 1: Pick your spot/s
In any city, there are are certain must sees; and when you’re exploring on a layover you need to pick which one you well… MUST SEE. Its not always possible to cram in 4-5 attractions in one day especially not in a developing country.
Obviously, being our first time in Egypt, we wanted (desperately) to see the pyramids so we focused our layover time on achieving this goal. Luckily for me, through my friend The Wanderlusting Hijabi, I connected with Sherif from Puzzle Egypt (it was a friend of a friend situation) and so I had an awesome local tour guide to show us around Cairo. (But seriously though, are you following these two on their social media platforms? You should be).
We started our day at 8am and I have to say that Cairo seemed to have a certain hue to it at this time of the morning as the glow of the newly risen sun cast a dusty haze over the city, and I warmed to the affable chattering of our hosts as I waited to catch my first glimpse of the structures I had waited my whole life to see. The Pyramids of Giza. The symbol of Egypt and the subject of awe and study for thousands of years. No amount of desensitisation caused by years of exposure to the image could prepare me for that first glimpse of the pyramids themselves, or diminish the sense of wonder I felt as I saw flashes of those magnificent structures through the topography of Cairo.
Sherif and his friend Jimmy explained to us that since we landed on a Friday morning, we would be lucky enough to have no traffic on our route so what would normally take 2 hours, would only take us 45 minutes. Factor these things in when you’re planning your route… getting to your destination might not be the easiest thing in a city full of people, cows and chaotic traffic. Oh yes Cairo is CRAZY… I mean I knew Cairo was a big, bustling city. But what I didn’t really realize before I got there was that the city of 9.5 million is essentially chaos incarnate.
Traffic is INSANE. No one uses the painted lanes on the roads. Horns are constantly honking. People jump in and out of old VW buses in the middle of the road. And that road is being shared by everything from cars to buses to donkey carts. Enjoy the experience; after all, you didn’t travel to experience the same things you do where you live!
Step 2: Soak it up, take it in and enjoy!
After a few wrong turns, and the craziest driving I have ever seen, we finally reached our destination. When we reached the pyramids, I was EXCITED. I had watched Prince of Egypt a million times while I was growing up and I planned to be the Princess of Egypt now that I was finally there. And why not? I made it to a place I had only believed I would see through a screen.
It was an exhilarating & surreal feeling.
As I stood face to face with the Pyramids. I gazed up at the giant stone blocks, feeling very small. I heard camels and horses all around me; scarves and pyramid statues were waved in my face by market vendors; the sun beat down on my face and arms as I vainly tried to retreat and seek some shade. There was not a single hint of breeze in the desert landscape. But I could forget the heat and the touts as I took in the scale of the Pyramids and the Sphinx standing tall in the golden sand and wonder how the Egyptians built them so many thousands of years ago.
The Pyramids are located in the Libyan Desert in the town of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo. The first pyramid you come to is the Great Pyramid or the Pyramid of Khufu. Behind it is the Pyramid of Khafre which still has its original limestone covering at its peak. The third pyramid is Menkaure.
It’s not just the size and mind-blowing engineering feat of the pyramids, but every tomb and column is carved and decorated with hieroglyphs. First you marvel at sheer size of the columns and rooms carved in rock, and then your eyes start to focus on the detail; beautifully carved figures and symbols, all the birds instantly recognisable as ibis, owls or falcons. It’s a fascinating exercise, looking at hieroglyphics… A zig-zag for water, a triangle for giving, the lotus flower for rebirth and regeneration, and of course the raised disc for the great sun god Ra.
You can get a good photo of all three of the pyramids from the panorama point next to the Camel Station. And I didn’t know that you can also go inside the pyramids to take a look. The Pyramid of Khufu is where Lion and I entered… It’s a steep descent and is SERIOUSLY not for anyone with claustrophobia.
The Great Sphinx is located to the east of the Pyramids and is a leisurely walk from the pyramids.
These days, Egypt is still struggling to attract tourists after the 2011 revolution. The Pyramids & Sphinx were strangely one tourist site I visited where I could get a photo without being photobombed.
Keep your eyes peeled for unlikely photo spots with great views away from the crowds.
Step 3: Sample some local cuisine
We had it made it all the way to Cairo, warded off pushy touts, trekked from pyramid to pyramid and now we needed sustenance. What better place to dine at then a beautiful restaurant along the Nile? We left Sherif and Jimmy in charge of ordering us food while we enjoyed watching the locals interact (goodness Egyptian women are beautiful!) and boats sailing down the mighty Nile. Wait was I looking at the RIVER NILE as I sipped my lemon & mint juice? How did that happen again?
As we ate and chatted, I realised something- Egypt is definitely a place to visit with a local guide. I know many people prefer to travel independently (myself included), but this is a country where you get a lot more out of the experience when you have someone with you who is knowledgeable about the history, the religion, and the present-day culture of the country. It was great to be able to talk to guys who lived their whole lives in Egypt and have such a passion for showing their country to other people.
Step 4: Make it back to the airport on time
After a long hot day in the desert we started our journey back to the airport hotel where we could freshen up before heading for our next flight. Even though Jimmy was an AMAZING driver and safely got us out of a political rally, our drive back wasn’t smooth. Truthfully, the roads are in a very poor condition in Egypt. They’re narrow, bumpy, there’s lots of speed bumps and you see some interesting things as you drive by (boys on bicycles weaving their way through six lanes of cars with a board on their heads the size of a door covered in loaves of bread- I am serious). It takes a long time to get anywhere due to the road conditions and checkpoints. Checkpoints are located at the strangest of places and there can often be delays at the checkpoint. These are important points to consider when planning your time in Cairo.
Cairo has an ever-changing landscape; excited children run along roads shouting ‘Hello!’; cows eating on the side of the road while flicking their ears; motorbikes, mini-trucks and donkeys pulling carts, all laden with people or produce – or both! – travel along the roads and tracks parallel to the river. A lady with a child on her hip and a basket full of bread balanced on her head shyly smiles at me as we go by.
As we passed by a mosque, I spotted a gentleman wearing the traditional jellabiya- practical and comfortable, but as with many things in Cairo, giving you the feeling of stepping back in time… especially while hearing the muezzins’ call to prayer echoing softly around me.
Now you’re going to tell me… This sounds great but is Egypt actually safe to travel to?
I know Egypt isn’t regarded as one of the safest places to travel right now (and if you read the news reports about Egypt, you’ll probably be convinced that ISIS will come for you if you step foot in the country. And it’s true that terrorist groups are active in certain parts of the country- they probably are in most countries- BUT the main touristy sites in Egypt are no more dangerous than popular places you might visit in the U.A.E. or Europe. There’s a strong military presence at most major sites in Egypt – armed guards, metal detectors, and bag checks become second nature as you visit places – but I didn’t find myself feeling “in danger” at any point. I have definitely felt more unsafe in my own home country. Of course you could be potentially pickpocketed in a crowd or scammed by a taxi driver but I don’t think that there’s a real threat to physical safety if you’re on the “tourist track.” I wouldn’t necessarily get drunk and wander around alleyways in Cairo, but I wouldn’t do that in the UAE either. Or South Africa. Or anywhere else since I don’t drink alcohol… but you know what I mean!
-Check your luggage all the way through to your final destination so you don’t need to worry about finding a place to store your bag or worse- having to lug it around. Alternatively, check the airport website before your trip to see if they have storage facilities and what the prices are. If you check your luggage to your final destination then hold on to the luggage tags and confirm at the check in desk that your bags will be on your flight.
-Privileged passport holders can get visa on arrival for 25USD. Purchase this from any bank branch next to the immigration counters at Cairo International Airport before proceeding through passport control. Other nationalities (like me) require a pre-approved visa to be stuck in your passport. If you are applying from Abu Dhabi the process will be smooth; click here for more information.
-Egypt Air offers a free visa and free hotel room (with meal vouchers) if your layover is 6 hours or more. When you land in Cairo Airport, you can’t miss the sign leading you to the desk handling the hotel and visa. All you need is your tickets showing your layover time. If they give you a free visa, they will keep your passport in the airport and have you collect it when you return (this may take up to an hour for them to arrange). Alternatively, you can buy your own visa in 5 mins if you don’t want to leave your passport there/ wait ages and you will still get the hotel voucher with the meals you can have (as well as keep your passport). There is a free shuttle bus every half an hour between the hotel and the airport.
– Cairo Airport is busy, inefficient and has a TON of unnecessary security checks. Allocate enough time for yourself to bypass all of this and save your sanity.
– Egypt is NOT the first world. You WILL be confronted with poverty, garbage on the streets, and sometimes animal neglect (definitely think twice before riding a camel or using a horse carriage). You can also expect to be hassled by vendors. You often have to say no and just keep walking – but know that they’ll follow you for a while anyway trying to sell you that scarf or hat or magnet.
–Contact Sherif if you need any help planning your trip to Egypt… he really was a patient and knowledgeable guide!