I wanted to go to Egypt since I was a child. For years my favourite movies and documentaries featured the pyramids, pharaohs and ladies, wearing pretty fringed wigs, black eyeliner and extravagant heavy jewellery. Finally, 15 years later, my dreams came true.
A couple of years ago, I was choosing my next holiday destination. I was planning a trip for the beginning of March, somewhere very hot and, preferably, exotic. Away from grey and wet London. Money was scarce, as I had spent much of my budget during my trip to Thailand a couple of months back, so I needed something cheap. A few hours later, I found an all-inclusive deal for a mere 500£ in a 5* hotel.
A four hours flight later, we landed in Sharm EL Sheikh. We had a transfer arranged, but you can get a taxi very inexpensively depending on where you are going. You do need to haggle, though. Otherwise, you risk paying twice or thrice more. So ALWAYS agree on the price before you get in the car.
I never realised what a desert of a country Egypt was. I knew about the Sahara desert but never thought that almost 96% of the country looked just like that. Landscapes that we noticed from our car were anything but picturesque. Our hotel, on the other hand, was very green and charming. It must be hard to maintain all these flowers and palms in unfriendly thermal conditions.
We chose Melia Sinai as our hotel as the reviews were mostly good. Generally, this hotel chain has a good reputation. Even though advertised as a 5* hotel, 5* it was not. More like a 3* European version. The hotel consisted of a few small 2 storey buildings. The room was a bit shabby but clean. Toilet smelled a little, but it is a common problem in Egypt, as using bleach is prohibited since it can kill corals. We also had our own little balcony. Awesome! The hotel also had an amazing coral reef, where other tourists even came by boat to snorkel.
Not the typical tourist destination
My recommendation for everyone going to Egypt is to take an all-inclusive deal. Unless you have a black Amex, of course. Usually, I am against such an arrangement, as I like eating out, sampling local cuisine, trying weird things at the markets etc. Egypt is not your typical tourist destination. There are no pretty promenades, there is hardly any infrastructure within walking distance outside the hotel. All you see is the hotels, villas, blocks of flats, and some more hotels being built for miles.
There are no restaurants or bars where you can walk to, in the majority of cases. You need some sort of transportation, like hotel shuttle buses (free or not), taxi or a local minibus for the more adventurous types. In my experience, the cab was the best option, as it gave freedom of travel on our terms and was relatively cheap. Cheap, if you don’t use it a few times a day, that is. Eating out would turn into a nightmare if we needed to pay 10$ one way to have breakfast, lunch or dinner. Because of that, many people go to Egypt to have a vegetable-type beach experience and master the art of doing nothing for a week or two, hardly ever leaving the territory of their resort.
First of all, the Red Sea – is the second-largest attraction after the Pyramids. Second, I met a diver in our hotel who had been coming to Egypt for 14 years. In his opinion, the Egyptian underwater world was unparalleled. I didn’t dive, but I had a few snorkelling attempts, and I must say that the amount of colourful fish and corral blew my mind.
There is also a blue hole in Dahab, one of the most famous diving sites in the world. We bought a half-day excursion, including the transfer, camel ride and lunch.
On the way, we stopped at the dive store, where everyone could rent the equipment. We chose not to dive, though, as the weather was very windy, and the locals were even wearing thick windproof jackets. Everyone who did come out a few minutes later with blue lips and trembling, like homeless puppies.
The attraction that my boyfriend liked the most, though, was the quad bike safari, with its fantastic feeling of freedom that came with riding at high speed in the desert.
Going to the Old town of Sharm was also a great experience, especially after nightfall. Loads of options for having dinner, buying souvenirs, or having a glass of fresh mint tea on the illuminated mountain.
The thing I hated about Egypt most was hassling everywhere we went. People are offering taxis, inviting them to have a look at the restaurant menu. I am not even mentioning shops and markets. As much as I wanted to have a look at papyrus, statuettes, hand-made jewellery and so on, this unwanted attention drove me to despair. I felt like a celebrity haunted by paparazzi. So instead of pushing me in, they scared me away.
This was the time of crisis in the country, and tourists were scarce. Someone told me that tourism dropped by 50% since the riots started. Poor people had no jobs and desperately tried to get you inside, even dragging you in by the hand. “Hello! Where are you from? Come inside, have a look! No buying, only look! Very cheap! Where are you going?”. As soon as we said no to one person, 10 more would appear. That was frustrating!!!!!!!
Cheeky behaviour is common
As it often happens in Egypt, en route to your destination, you are taken to someone’s souvenir shop, to the perfume oil store, etc., where they drop you off and offer to have a look at the goods, whether you want or not. Just like that, we were dropped off by our driver by the Pyramid tour company. We were offered a camel or a horseback riding tour of the desert to experience pyramids better. However, we were told that it was impossible to walk there, too far and so on. We didn’t do any prior research, so we believed them and took two horses with the guide. We passed some local areas first, and I noticed that horses and donkeys were a pretty popular mode of transportation there; I even saw a few kids riding on their own on the streets.
Our horse tour was very uncomfortable and bumpy, our guide not exceptionally knowledgeable. He did take a few pictures of us, though. From what I had seen, there was absolutely no problem reaching pyramids by yourself. Just buy a ticket and – Voila! That’s another thing I didn’t like: everyone considered us as money bags and tried to make a profit.
Another example was visiting the national museum. The entrance was something around 20$ if I’m correct. After walking around for ages in search of the famous golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamon, I decided to ask where it was. And I was told it was in a separate room and other most interesting artefacts, but to get inside, I needed to pay 10$ extra!!!!! Cheeky Egyptians! They know that most people come to have a look at this particular exhibit, so they charge on top!
Cairo from the car
Another must-see place in Cairo is the biggest market in Africa – Khan el-Khalili. I was dreaming about walking its fragrant rows, sampling treats and trying on silk shawls. But, once again, it wasn’t to be. While getting out of the car, we were attacked by women with kids asking for money. If you give something to one person, others would see it and would run in your direction as well. Same with the sellers. I asked about the Egyptian cotton bed linen price, so the seller followed me for 3 blocks, offering to sell cheaper.
The market is enormous and absolutely lovely, you can buy the most beautiful, hand-made things there. I only wished they left me alone and allowed me to have a good look at the goods on offer. Not in Turkey, not in Thailand was I hassled in such an aggressive way. I jumped back in the car, almost in tears. Once again, I repeat, the problematic financial situation may be to blame, and people were desperate. Maybe it would change once the situation is better.
The next day, we arranged a whole day boat trip. They took us to three snorkelling destinations, including the famous Ras Mohamed national park. Dead, Mars-like soil, and the Sea full of life. Contrasts! Every dip was terrific, but it was so windy that I needed to wrap myself up for one hour in any cloth and towel I could find to normalise my body temperature. I found the wind very cold and consistent anywhere we went. The temperature was high, we got a great tan, but the cold wind made it very uncomfortable to get out of the water, be it a swimming pool or the Sea.
The last day we spent chilling by the pool and swimming in the Sea. Egypt has a typical desert climate with high thermal amplitude. It is really hot during the day, but temperatures drop as soon as the sun goes down. So every time we were smoking a water pipe outside, we needed to wear something warm.
When the day came, we were really sad to leave, and a long time after that we fondly thought of our trip to Egypt as one of our favourite trips.