Last week, I wrote about what is happening in Egypt tourism since the Revolution in January 2011, focusing on the Cairo area. After spending the past week cruising the Nile from Luxor to Aswan (and back), I have a few more observations that might be useful to people thinking about taking such a trip.
The best thing about coming to Egypt right now is the lack of crowds. I had read accounts of the Nile being ship-to-ship full, of people standing in line to visit tombs at the Valley of the Kings and the birds in Aswan being scared off by too many motorboats.
Not now. Of the more than 400 river ships that are licensed to travel the Nile, there’s only 150 operating right now, none with more than 50 percent occupancy. Take my ship, the River Tosca owned by Uniworld. It holds 82 passengers; we’ve been less than 20 the entire time – which means we’ve all been treated like pashas. I’ve enjoyed a few nights on the top deck, just me and stars and the ever-present Nile River. It’s a peaceful feeling – and one I couldn’t have if the ship was filled to capacity.
And the special moments kept coming. In Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, I paid an extra 50 LE (less than $10) to see the tomb of Ramses VI. I found myself alone with one of the world’s best preserved collection of hieroglyphics and tomb paintings, complete with huge ceiling wall paintings of the Egyptian Book of the Day and Book of the Night. An once-in-a-lifetime experience, for sure.
In Aswan, we drifted lazily through the First Cataract on a motorboat, a birding expert on board to point out the different species. In this region of the Nile, home to the displaced Nubian population, Egypt feels more like the rest of Africa. The pace is slower, the people friendlier, the scenery more diverse. This is where the colonial British used to come to get some sun, where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile, where the Sahara begins. It ended up being one of my favorite excursions of the cruise.
Of course, there are negatives that come from having less people. The street vendors, already aggressive, are even more desperate. Harden your heart if you do come, as you’ll feel like you’re running the gauntlet at almost every stop. Vendors surrounded our buses and vans and followed us around, no matter how many times I said “no thank you” in Arabic. I’m going to do a whole post soon on how to deal with this, as the situation made more than one passenger on our ship cry.
The lack of people meant that we couldn’t take our ship up to Dendera, as the Egyptian river police that have been on the Nile since 1997 massacre at the Temple of Hatshepsut have pulled out. Cruise ships can hire their own security, but the sight of armed guards on board isn’t cost-effective, I was told – and it makes people nervous. Instead of sailing to Dendera, we took a 90-minute van ride which didn’t bother me, but left at least one member of our group carsick.
On another day, an air traffic controllers strike in Cairo held up our excursion to Abu Simbel for several hours. The delay meant that we reached the temple at the hottest part of the day – which, when you’re only 25 miles from the Sudanese border, means over 100 degrees. I’m not used to such heat, and no amount of water seemed cool me off. While I didn’t get heat stroke, I’m pretty sure my body was thinking about it.
In Edfu, I braced for the worst, as I had read about starving horses that pull the carriages to the Templor of Horus. Abuse had become so bad that Uniworld (and many other tour companies) had stopped using the buggies because of customer complaints. Emboldened by the revolution, the Edfu drivers revolted against the tour groups, destroying the buses. Now that it’s compulsory for cruises to take the carriages, the horses look better fed than they were before, although the drivers still seem very shady and use their whips far too often for my taste.
All in all, I would recommend a trip to Egypt now, for travelers who can take changes to the program in stride (and are smart enough to stay away from Friday protests). Yes, several people on our ship suffered from Mummy Tummy at some point or another (and just as people on TripAdvisor predicted, a dose of Antinol cleared it up for me). Others felt discomforted by the visible signs of poverty. That’s not the Revolution, that’s just Egypt.
I’ve been to a lot of great places this year. But I’ve learned the most in Egypt, not only because of great guides, but because I observed first-hand people struggling to survive amidst a time of change. If the country is on your bucket list, and you don’t mind getting a little social commentary with your culture, now’s the time to go.