After spending about 4 months in Europe, we were excited for this next part of our trip. We explored some more unfamiliar and different areas than typical Western Hemisphere countries. We had our hesitations about traveling in the Middle East, but after talking to people who had visited the region, I was a little less anxious. Even still, there were two countries that we’d be visiting that I was still somewhat nervous about, Egypt and Turkey. Our first stop after Europe was Egypt to visit the Pyramids of Giza. The Arab Spring was back in 2011 and Egypt has gone through some growing pains while trying to decide who should rule and how they should rule after former President Hosni Mubarak's rule. Since we wanted to minimize our risk, we decided on a quick two-day stop in Cairo to see the pyramids and then move on our way to the rest of the Middle East.
We got up at 6:20 AM to take the 9 AM train from Malaga to Madrid Atocha. We bought train + flight combo ticket from Iberia which included an overnight stay in Milan before making it to Cairo. It was a pretty good deal and we arrived on time to take our flight from Madrid to Milan. In Milan, we stayed near the airport and took a train to our Airbnb. We ate dinner at My Chicken restaurant and then stayed in the room for the rest of the night.
The next day we took an 11 AM flight from Milan to Cairo and arrived around 2:30 PM. We previously arranged an airport transfer through Viator.com with company South Sinai Travel ($16 pp) but they were late to pick us up. It was a little nerve racking sitting in the area before the passport control for about 30 minutes. We asked other drivers who were there to call our company. They were pretty nice and helpful and the company said they were on their way. We bought our visas on arrival ($25 pp) and our driver finally showed up and let us through immigration. He drove us straight to our hotel (Le Meridien) in Giza. There was a lot of traffic so it took almost 2 hours to reach Giza. We checked in and ate at the buffet restaurant downstairs in hotel. It was dark out and our room was supposed to have a view of the pyramids but we couldn't see it. We found out later that the light show is from 7-8 PM every night and that was the exact time we were at the buffet. It was disappointing because we had a Nile River cruise scheduled the next night so we would miss the light show again.
Our only full day in Cairo we had a pretty busy day planned. We booked full day tour through Viator with Emo Tours ($37.50 pp). Our tour guide picked us up from hotel at 8 AM and first stop was supposed to be the Giza pyramids basically right across the street. However, we saw that it was still hazy out and asked if we could save it for last. The tour guide said that was no problem and we went to the Sakkara step pyramids first. The Sakkara pyramids were ancient burial grounds in Egypt and the most famous pyramid is the Step Pyramid of Djoser. We first went into one of the smaller pyramids to see the tomb. Our guide said that pictures weren’t allowed inside the tomb but if you gave the guard some money then he would allow it. It wasn't that impressive but sure enough, we gave him 10 Egyptian pounds (~$0.50) and he let us take pictures. He even offered to take pictures of us but the pictures he took were pretty awful and blurry. It was cool to see the hieroglyphics up close and the ceiling had all these starts and the room had a coffin that I could go in. Afterwards, we went into a tomb of a nobleman outside. It was a nice building with lots of wall paintings. Our guide talked about how to recognize the class order of the different people depicted by the size of the paintings. The bigger the person was drawn, the more important he was. It was pretty interesting to see the different events depicted in the paintings and the detail involved. We then went to the main Step Pyramid of Djoser and took a picture in front of it. The tour guide explained that this step pyramid was a precursor to the larger Pyramids of Giza and gave a history of the man, Imhotep, who designed and built these step pyramids for the king.
Next, we drove to Memphis. Memphis was founded by the pharaoh Menes. It was the Capital of Egypt during the Old Kingdom and it remained an important city throughout ancient Mediterranean history. It occupied a strategic position at the mouth of the Nile delta, and was home to feverish activity until it lost much of its economic importance after the rise of Alexandria. The main sites of old Memphis are displayed in a small courtyard with many old statues and ruins. A temple nearby houses the colossus lying statue of Ramses II and we stopped there for a bit to take pictures and for the guide to talk to us. Our guide was a talker so he took a lot of time explaining the history of Memphis and the different hieroglyphics on the statue. The statue used to be standing up in the Great Temple of Ptah but because the base and feet of the sculpture are broken off from the rest of the body, it is currently displayed lying on its back. We took more pictures of the statues in the open air museum, including a picture with a miniature version of the Sphinx (see above). After walking around for a bit, we then drove towards Giza for a lunch break. Lunch was included in our tour and we were surprised that our guide took us to a very nice restaurant that overlooked the Pyramids/Spinx. We choose the mixed grill and it was really delicious and satisfying.
After lunch we made our way to the Pyramids of Giza. There are 3 main pyramids in the complex: thePyramid of Khufu (also known as the "Great Pyramid"); the somewhat smaller Pyramid of Khafre; the relatively modest-sized Pyramid of Menkaure. The Great Pyramid of Giza is one of the original 7 Wonders of the World and the only one left standing. It has long been a tourist attraction and a marvel of engineering. Many alternative, often contradictory, theories have been proposed regarding the pyramid's construction techniques. Regardless how they were built, they are a spectacular sight to behold.
As you drive into the entrance lot there are a large number of people/scammers in the road. They basically stand in the middle of the road, block your car and try to convince tourists to pay them money for the entrance ticket or for a guided tour before they actually get to the ticket window. Luckily our driver went right past them but almost hit a couple as they are very aggressive in trying to stop cars. Our guide told us they people will pay $200 USD to these people thinking they bought a ticket only to find out when they get to the entrance window that they've been scammed. The actual entrance fee for foreigners is 200 Egyptian pounds (~$13), which is a bargain compared to a lot of places elsewhere in the Middle East (e.g., Petra). We saw all three pyramids from the biggest to smallest. The complex is very large so luckily we were driven around in the car with our guide. Next, our guide took us to a panorama view point and gave us a free camel ride. It was a nice experience and we got some pretty pictures. Lastly, we went to see the Sphinx. To see the Sphinx, there is a another entrance you have to go through and show your ticket again. It wasn't as impressive as I expected but still nice to see. There were also a number of seats in front of the Sphinx for the light show later.
After, we went back to the hotel around 3:30 PM. We showered and took a short nap. We got picked up for our Nile Dinner Cruise at 6 PM. We booked the dinner cruise via Viator with Pyramid Land Tours ($33 pp). They advertised a 3 hour cruise but it's actually about 2 hours. The food was ok and the view fro the boat wasn't anything worth mentioning. The cruise included entertainment with the meal which consisted of a belly dancer, a singer, and another dancer The belly dancer was not good to watch and the singer wasn’t very good. The highlight was the guy dancer with a twirling skirt and his little person costar. The dancer (and occasionally his costar) basically just spun around in a circle for like 15 minutes straight. He would spin things on his hand, pour and drink a glass of water, and spin a glowing cape around as he spun. It was a lot cooler than it sounds, but here's a short clip of the dance. After we were driven back to our hotel and went to bed.
Our flight the next day left at 5 PM and we just hung around the hotel before it was time to go. I went to the gym and the pool to get our last look at the pyramids. We left around 12:30 PM because the traffic in Cairo can be pretty bad. We didn’t see a single traffic light the entire time in Cairo and the roads were covered with sand and dust. It was also surprising to see how many people were walking across and hitch-hiking on the major highways around the city. We got to the airport around 2 PM and took the short flight to Amman, Jordan on our way to Petra.
Besides the worries about Cairo being dangerous, we were warned from other people that the vendors at the Pyramids are very pushy with selling you stuff and could ruin your visit. Maybe it was because it wasn’t busy or maybe because we had a tour guide, but we didn’t get harassed too much. The Pyramids and all the other sites weren’t crowded and we were able to easily get clear pictures of the Pyramids and Sphinx. We had an amazing time in Cairo and the people were really nice and friendly. The guides and the staff told us how much tourism in Egypt has declined as a result of people being afraid to travel there. We never felt unsafe but to be fair, we were never without a tour guide around and didn't travel around much at night. We would love to return to Egypt and take a longer Nile cruise down to Luxor and visit Alexandria, but we were really happy with our trip.
See the full gallery of our time in Cairo here: Cairo, Egypt.