This is our first-ever trip to Egypt. When we originally started booking this trip we anticipated seeing more of Egypt, but the final plan put us in Cairo for only about 36 hours before continuing on to Jordan. We decided to sleep two nights at a hotel in Cairo, but it still felt a little bit like a really long layover.
Going through customs and immigration in Cairo was super easy. We already had Egyptian e-Visas linked to our passports. The e-Visa program is pretty slick. And yet, getting out of the airport still felt like it took forever. That was all caused by the rate at which bags were delivered to baggage claim. It took nearly 30 minutes between the time our first bag came out until our final bag came out, and there were still lots of people from our flight waiting for their bags when we left the airport. It felt like no more than two bags ever came out at the same time. Sometimes it felt like several minutes between each small batch of bags – almost like a single person was carrying a bag in each hand from across the parking lot in order to get them on the conveyer belt. Maybe we were just really tired and that caused some time dilation, but it felt crazy slow.
Choosing the Right Hotel
There was some discussion about whether it made more sense to stay right by the pyramids (and hopefully have a view from our rooms), or to stay in a little nicer hotel a little closer to Cairo. Eventually we decided to stay at the wonderful Cairo Marriott. It turned out to be a great choice. We took an Uber from the airport to the hotel (about 20 km away) for less than five dollars! Gasoline may be subsidized heavily, but I still can’t figure out how an Uber driver could possibly make any money driving. There wasn’t much traffic in the middle of the night and we made good time zipping through the city. We found that Uber artificially limits how much you can tip your driver, so we could only tip about $1.60 for great service.
Lines on roads; traffic signs and signals; these are mere suggestions in Cairo. Nobody stays in their lane. Nobody uses a turn signal. What gets used nearly constantly are horns. Honking lets other drivers know where you are, what you are trying to do, etc. It was really interesting and sort of impressive to see it all at work. But it isn’t a perfect system. It looked like every car was filled with lots of dings and scrapes. It was very rare to see a car in good condition.
The Cairo Marriott is right on the Nile River. We stayed on the 18th floor and had great views of the river and surrounding areas. The Executive Lounge is also on the 18th floor, so we were able to roll out of bed and into the lounge for breakfast in the “morning” (slightly before 11 am) to fill up before heading to the Giza Pyramid Complex for the day’s activities. Our Uber driver dropped us off just outside the gates in Giza and we wound up walking past many of the hotels we considered previously. The contrast between our hotel in Cairo and the hotels just outside the necropolis was stark. We definitely made the right choice.
Giza Pyramid Complex
The weather was perfect in Giza today. It was about 70 degrees and partly cloudy almost the entire day. We bought all the tickets we could, not knowing if we would wind up using them all. The tickets were not very expensive compared to the cost of not being able to see something after traveling half way across the world. In the end we saw everything we wanted to see, but we did leave with one set of tickets unused, but nobody worried about that.
We kicked things off with a trip into the king’s burial chamber inside the Pyramid of Khufu. Little did we know, that chamber had been closed to tourists for about an hour before reopening right as we walked up and went inside. Our timing couldn’t have been any better. The narrow shaft we crawled along went up at an angle that seemed about half as steep as the angle on the outside of the pyramid itself. They had installed metal braces on the floor to act like rungs of a ladder so we could climb up (and back down) the shaft without slipping or falling. The shaft was both narrow and short, and heads were bonked a few times each direction. The deeper into the pyramid we went (and the higher we climbed up the narrow shaft), the hotter it got. By the time we reached the burial chamber it was really hot. Everyone was drenched in sweat. We didn’t stay long. There’s really nothing left inside the chamber other than the stone box that may or may not have held the coffin of the king. Nobody knows because the whole thing was looted long ago.
Once outside again, it didn’t take long to dry out and cool down. We walked around each of the three big pyramids – there are 9 total in Giza. We took some pictures and told hundreds of camel owners that we really didn’t want to ride their camels for any price, etc. They rarely gave up trying to find something to convince us to take a ride that we didn’t want. Eventually I started telling them I had 2 camels of my own back at home. They didn’t know how to respond to that, but they seemed to get the message.
Several times we found ourselves on the wrong side of the chains, or climbing where it wasn’t allowed, etc. We also found the security guards were very nice about it and helped us get back to where we were supposed to be. The guards always followed up immediately with offers to let us do whatever it was for a small “tip”. In fact, when we were inside the Pyramid of Khafre, a place where taking photos is strictly prohibited, the security guard asked Charmaine and I to step around the guard rails and sit next to the burial box so he could take pictures for us. It wasn’t something I would have taken a picture of, but it definitely made things clear to me about how the tipping system works. I gave him a US one dollar bill and he tried to talk me up to $100 or $200 or $300 because, as he said, “that is like nothing” to me. Ha. I told him to have a nice day and he seemed fine.
I think the Great Sphinx was the most underwhelming monument at the necropolis. It’s not in great shape and they keep everyone a pretty good distance away, which is probably a good thing because it’s the most crowded spot in the entire complex. It looks like they are rethinking access to it and building some ramps much closer to it, but right now it’s not great.
We knew our time was limited in Egypt on this trip, so we bailed on our last ticket and headed out to grab an Uber back for a shorter-than-we-would-have-liked visit to the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. They are mostly done building a new museum that will house a lot of the exhibits currently in the Egyptian Museum. The new museum was supposed to be complete years ago. The official word is they hope to open in 2023, but all the locals we spoke to think it will be 2024 or later before it’s complete.
Whirlwind Museum Tour
We hired a licensed guide to help us hurry through the museum and see the “big things” including the artifacts collected from the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Our guide made sure to emphasize that King Tut “didn’t really do anything as king. He wasn’t involved in any wars, he didn’t build any monuments, etc.” and that “He is only famous because his tomb is the only untouched tomb of a pharaoh that has ever been found.” It’s an interesting thing to think about. The riches they found (his inner coffin was 110kg of solid gold, among other things) were likely not as extravagant as what may have been buried with longer-lived, more important kings. But nobody will ever know, because all the tombs of the “important” pharaohs were looted long ago.
We decided to walk about a mile from the museum back to our hotel and hoped to find some good food on the way. We walked across a bridge over part of the Nile River onto the island where our hotel was. We picked a restaurant between the bridge and the hotel and walked up to it. It was in a gated area and as soon as we stepped inside the guards told us it was a private area for members and sent us back outside the gates. There are several restaurants and other businesses inside the gated area, but there wasn’t much we could do about it right then.
Saved by the Hotel
We decided to go back to the hotel to regroup and grab a pre-dinner snack at the executive lounge while we decided where to go for a real dinner. Unexpectedly, the executive lounge wasn’t just offering hors d’oeuvres; they were serving a full dinner meal. We sat down and had another great meal for free. What a great hotel.
In the morning our first Uber driver decided he didn’t want to take us to the airport after seeing us in the parking lot. He cancelled the trip and another Uber driver pulled up in less than a minute. During the confusion, the hotel staff offered to get us a shuttle to the airport. Luckily the better Uber driver pulled up before a much more expensive commitment was made. The replacement Uber was much bigger than the first and we made it back to the airport for another $5. So crazy.