The reason: I’ve been so busy traveling! Cairo is a modern and diverse city, but not exactly representative of Egypt as a whole. Excursions outside of the capital city provide an opportunity to get a different perspective of Egypt. And with bus tickets running anywhere between 30-90 Egyptian pounds ($5-16 US), and accommodation as low as 15 pounds a night (if you choose to stay in Bedouin camps), it’s incredibly easy to travel around.
As a study abroad student in London, I depended on the Let’s Go guidebooks, because they’re written by college students and aimed at the younger (and poorer) traveler. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to find a good guidebook for Egypt. There are few to choose from, and they all seem to be aimed at the older traveler who has a bit more money and a bit more time (Frommer’s is proving to be my favorite, for those who do need a guidebook recommendation).
AUC, nicely, has a travel office that basically provides free travel agency-like services for students but tends to recommend the most comfortable places to stay and the most pleasant ways of getting places (i.e. planes and first-class trains).
But my best experiences in Egypt so far have been when I was roughing it: camping in the black and white deserts; staying at a Bedouin camp by Mt. Sinai; lounging at a hostel in Luxor.
Since it can sometimes be difficult to tell where to stay and what to do from the tiny blurbs in travel guides, here’s my guide to some of the best excursions in Egypt:
The Black and White Deserts
After a five-hour bus ride through a flat and seemingly endless desert, my group and I finally arrived at the Bahariya Oasis, a small village marked by a spattering of palm trees. Our enthusiastic guide, Badry (who owns the Sahara Camp in Bahariya), met us at the bus stop, shuffled us into ancient-looking Land Rovers, and we were quickly whisked out of town.
Because none of us brought our passports, we were instructed to say we were German to avoid being assigned a police escort. This made me a bit nervous, but we were easily waved through all the checkpoints without any chance to say “Ich bin Deutsch.”
We drove for about an hour on a bumpy road when the driver suddenly made a sharp left and we were flying over sand dunes. Some of the dunes were so steep, the vehicles were turned practically sideways, and visions of the jeep flipping over and rolling down the hill filled my mind. Without seat-belts, we were bumping our heads on the ceilings of the jeep as if we were on some kind of crazy amusement park ride. It was simultaneously terrifying and wildly fun.
The adrenaline-pumping drive proved to be well worth its dangers, as a dramatic valley suddenly appeared below us. We spent at least an hour, in awe of the stunning scenery, scrambling up crumbling hills to get the best view of the otherworldly dome-shaped rocks. Innumerable tire tracks and footprints made deep impressions in the golden sand, creating a unique drawing on the desert canvas. We were all reluctant to leave, but were herded back into the jeeps to make it to the white desert for sunset.
As our bedouin guides set up our camp and prepared tea and dinner, we watched the sunset color the white sand and mushroom-shaped white rocks. So far away from paved roads and towns, surrounded by such a landscape, sitting by the fire under the starriest sky I’ve ever seen, I felt completely content and so grateful. The desert is starkly beautiful, and it is humbling.
We ate a delicious meal of grilled chicken, stewed vegetables and rice, and spent hours sitting around the fire, listening to our guides playing instruments and singing, and watching the moon rise. We had no tents, only mats on the ground to protect us from the sand as it becomes quite cold at night.
While it was nice to sleep with the stars above, I probably would have been happier with a sleeping bag! I was completely unprepared for how cold Egypt can get, so I only had a few warm clothes on, and the two heavy blankets didn’t save me from feeling like I had frostbite on my toes when I woke in the morning.
Luckily, the sun warmed us quickly in the morning, and as soon as our 4-Runner (whom we affectionately named Leroy) defrosted, we set off to see rabbit-shaped rocks, the crystal mountain, and the black desert.
Back in Bahariyya, we dipped our legs in one of the area’s many hot springs, which locals say have healing powers. Although a bit tired, and desperate to wash my hands with soap, I was sad to have to leave the quiet desert and its fresh air.