Egypt

Egypt

image; egyptian gentlemanWith over 4,000 years of history encompassing the most fascinating ancient history on earth, few countries boast as much as Egypt for historical sites, priceless treasures, and mystical intrigue. Situated on the north-eastern corner of Africa, Egypt welcomes millions of tourists a year, making it one of the most heavily visited countries on earth. With some creativity, travellers can still discover Egypt’s hidden treasures and avoid most of the crowds by heading west and east away from the Nile Delta to the little visited desert oases and rugged Sinai Peninsula.

Start by exploring the frantic, bustling capital of Cairo, wandering down the narrow alleys of and making a pilgrimage to the iconic Pyramids of Giza, one of the seven wonders of the world. Head west to the desert, stopping at the tiny, lush oases of Siwa and Kharga that serve as vital resting places for nomadic tribes. Arrive in Luxor, in the lower Nile Valley, where visits to the Karnak Temple and the Valley of the Kings (resting place of Tutankamun’s Tomb) can be complemented with a sunrise balloon ride over the desert.

Head further south to the Sudanese border, visiting one of Egypt’s most famous sites, the temples of Abu Simbel. Travel back up north, relaxing on the many beaches of the Red Sea coast, before reaching the rugged Sinai Peninsula, where fantastic diving in Ras Mohammad and the Straits of Tiran can be combined with intriguing desert treks.

Whilst Egypt is definitely on the tourist trail, the beauty of her stark deserts, the centuries of history displayed in her thousands of temples and the vibrant reefs teeming with turtles and reef sharks guarantee that even the most sceptical visitor will be awed by the ancient magic of Egypt.

Cash

The currency is the Egyptian Pound and it is divided into 100 piastres.

Approximate conversions:

$ 1 US = 6 Egyptian Pound
£1 Sterling = 10 Egyptian Pounds
€1 Euro = 7 Egyptian Pounds

For up to date currency information, check the Currency Converter.

Costs while travelling in Egypt vary greatly depending on the kind of comfort level you need; both cheap guesthouses and five star hotels are available throughout the country and you get what you pay for. Always check the quality of budget accommodation before handing over your money and avoid paying for too many nights in advance. It pays to be careful when arriving at Cairo airport to avoid the scams and rip offs that are a common ploy of the city’s taxi drivers. For frugal visitors, $20 dollars a day will be enough to cover accommodation, food and basic transportation, but other expenses will depend on the number of historical sites visited each day and whether surface or air transportation is used to get around (one way flights from Cairo to Aswan cost $200 US dollars each way). At the other end of the spectrum, visitors staying in 5 star resort hotels, diving on the Red Sea and taking a hot air balloon ride over the Nile can push costs into the thousands of dollars for a two-week trip.

Traveller’s cheques and credit cards are readily accepted in every major city, and cash machines are increasingly found in tourist centres like Cairo, Luxor and the Red Sea diving resorts. If you are heading off to the western desert you should bring all your cash in Egyptian Pounds with you to avoid bad exchange rates. It is possible to exchange your leftover Egyptian pounds back into your home currency before you leave but its best to only do this with clean, new notes.

Travel

Domestic flights are expensive in Egypt, so unless your time is short, flying is a pricey option. One-way tickets to Luxor can cost as much as $120 US dollars. Trains and buses are a better and cheaper option with air-conditioned buses leave from Cairo to many destinations in Egypt, which are cheap and convenient. Trains make comfortable overnight journeys down south to Luxor and Aswan, though sleepers aren’t always much cheaper than flights.

Cairo is a traffic hell, but the efficient metro system makes getting to central locations easy and convenient. Once in the towns, service taxis and microbuses make cheap short journeys possible and attractions easy to find. On rivers, feluccas offer touristy but fun river rides at sunset. Bargaining is essential and the more people you have the cheaper it will be. Camels are also a mode of transit but are most often only at sites like the Pyramids at Giza.

People

Egypt has the second largest population in Africa and is the largest Arab nation in terms of population. There are 70 million people squeezed into the Nile River Valley and the Nile Delta, in one of the fastest growing populations in the world. Though modern Egyptians claim to be descendents of the pharaohs, centuries of invasions and cultural influences from Romans, Greeks, Libyans, and Arabs have changed the ethnic mix of modern Egypt from the days of antiquity. The most important of these influences has been Islam, which defines the lives of most Egyptians and whose code of ethics dominates politics and daily life. In the Western Desert, minorities of Berbers and Bedouins live in oases and desert settlements while large numbers of Nubians live in the southern areas along the Sudanese border. Islam is the dominant religion in Egypt, as it is across the Middle East and Northern Africa, but minorities of Christians exist in communities and monasteries along the Red Sea coast. The Egyptian Christians were originally a part of the Byzantine Christian Church, and the religion actually was the dominant faith in Egypt before Islam was introduced.

Food

Most travellers don’t leave Egypt raving about the food; it tends to be basic, uninventive and bland. What it lacks in flavour is made up with price, and travellers on a budget can get fed on just a few dollars a day.

The staple of the Egyptian diet, aysh (bread) comes in several forms. The most common is a pita type made either with refined white flour called aysh shami, or with coarse, whole wheat, aysh baladi. Stuffed with any of several fillings, the Egyptian sandwich is delicious. An Aysh sham is bread made from leavened dough allowed to rise in the sun, while plain aysh comes in long, skinny, French-style loaves.

The most common staples of Egyptian food is fuul and ta’amiyya, both are made with crushed fava beans, though ta’amiyya is a mixture of spices and is fried in oil. Both fuul and ta’amiyya are served in a flatbread either alone or with vegetables. Shwarma, similar to a Greek gyros, is a mixture of grilled meats, spices and vegetables in a flatbread wrap. Other dishes include haman (stuffed pigeons) andfirekh (spit roasted chicken).

Vegetarians are well provided for with salads, though they tend to be served drowned in vinegar dressing.

Language

Arabic is the language spoken in Egypt, with all major European languages like French, German and English well understood throughout the country. It helps to learn a few simple phrases in Arabic to break the ice, especially when travelling off the beaten track.

Climate

Egypt has a desert climate, with low humidity and high temperatures most of the year. Hardly any rain falls below Cairo, with as little as 10mm in Aswan; the Mediterranean coast can get nearly 200mm per year. In spring, dust storms are common and the sky can be tinted completely red with dust blown in from the Libyan Desert in the west. Summer daytime temperatures (June to August) of over 45C are common and can make travel very uncomfortable, especially in Aswan, Luxor and anywhere in the Western Desert, where shade is at a premium. It is the least popular time to visit Egypt, and historic sites will be empty, but searing temperatures may limit your sightseeing to early morning hours and late afternoon. Winter, from December-February, falls in the middle of the high season for tourism. It’s much cooler with highs in the mid 20’s throughout the country, although in the desert the night-time temperatures can fall to 2C; if travelling then, prepare with adequate layers of clothing to prevent hypothermia. Spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) are good times to avoid high temperatures and temples invaded by tour groups, although the beaches can be crowded on the Red Sea coast.

Dress

Dressing comfortably for high temperatures and to avoid offending Islamic sensibilities can be a challenge: long, loose light coloured cotton clothing is recommended, for both men and women, and both sexes should avoid revealing too much skin, especially shoulders, legs and upper arms. This should also be followed when on a beach vacation along the Red Sea coast.

Health

Diarrhoea and upset stomachs pose the greatest threat to travellers in Egypt; it pays to avoid undercooked food and to make sure bottled water is sold in sealed containers. Malaria is a risk in the Nile River Valley area of Al Fayoum; avoiding bites and taking medication is essential. Sunburn and dehydration pose a threat when travelling in the deserts or even just doing too much sightseeing in the middle of the day. Every traveller should visit their doctor to discuss their trip in detail and to get recommended vaccinations, particularly if travelling southward through Sudan and Ethiopia.

Visas

Most travellers from Europe and North America can get a visa on arrival in Egypt; the exception being travellers coming overland from Jordan and Israel, who need to obtain a visa in advance. A passport with at least six months of validity is required to get a visa, which costs $15 US dollars. If you plan to stay longer than 90 days you must apply for a special visa in your home country, and if you plan to work in Egypt you will need to obtain a special work permit.

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