When we decided to extend our trip by a couple months we did so with one aim in mind: to end our journey in Africa. It took us some time to figure out the exact itinerary, but eventually we landed on exploring Namibia for two weeks before spending nearly a month in South Africa. Once that was decided, it was all about figuring out how to get there, knowing we wanted to visit Jordan as well. We eventually decided to use Star Alliance miles to fly business class from Amman, Jordan to Windhoek, Namibia via a 14 hour layover in Cairo – all for 55,000 miles per person (check out our mileage blog for tips!). The down-side of routing this way was flying EgyptAir, which is definitely not our favorite airline (no booze!). The upside? Getting to spend a very limited amount of time in Cairo.
14 hours isn’t nearly enough time to explore a huge, historic city like Cairo, but it is enough time to see a few key attractions. When time is limited, we’ve found the best approach is to hire a driver/guide in order to efficiently see the most important sights while still getting some feel for the local culture. In Cairo we booked a layover adventure through Tree of Life Day Tours. Our guide, Khalid, was fantastic. He was proud of his country, knowledgeable about its history, was great at taking fun photos (see below!), and open to discussing some of the cultural differences between Egypt and the West (which was fascinating). If you’re in need of an Egyptian guide, we highly recommend him!
The Pyramids and the Sphinx
Khalid met us at the airport and then immediately took us to see the Great Pyramids of Giza, about an hour’s drive away. Our first observation: Cairo is huge and hectic! The traffic is insane, and similar to our experience in Jordan it seems that very few road rules apply (we were happy not to be driving).
The pyramids sit slightly outside the city, though the city is rapidly growing to surround them, and they are absolutely stunning. It’s fascinating to hear the theories about how they were built (each stone weighs about 2.5 tons), and it’s awesome to be able to touch a structure that was built 4,500 years ago. Just imagine what life was like for the tens of thousands of people that assembled these structures – it’s crazy!
A few tips if you’re planning a trip:
- When arriving in Egypt, you’re required to get an entry Visa for $25 USD
- Security at the pyramids is tight, so be prepared for car and bag checks.
- Entry to the pyramids costs about $10 USD per person, and if you want to go inside the pyramids you’ll need to pay more (an additional $20 USD to go in the great Pyramid, which we skipped).
- The camel rides are a bit of a racket, yet kind of a must-do all the same (who doesn’t want a picture on a camel in front of the pyramids?!). The camel operators expect a tip and they’re not ashamed to ask for a BIG one. Be prepared for them to make you feel guilty that you haven’t paid them enough, when in fact you’ve overpaid.
- There are “guides” and vendors everywhere trying to sell you things. Our guide told us to ignore them and never respond to them, but that feels so rude that we just couldn’t do it. Instead, we said a firm “no thank you”, which often encouraged them to follow us – it’s hard to win :).
- The Sphinx can’t be missed and may be the highlight of the entire experience. It’s just so cool!
After taking about a thousand pictures at the pyramids, we sat down for a tasty Egyptian lunch before heading back towards Cairo proper. As is often the case on guided tours in other countries, this one included a stop at a shop where we’re pretty sure our guide got some commission on whatever we purchased. For this tour, our stop was at a Papyrus shop, where we learned about how this ancient, highly durable paper is made and got to see a lot of fantastic art painted on it. While we normally don’t buy anything at these kind of stops, John got excited about a small piece of art here, so you’ll soon be seeing that on the walls of our apartment.
Khan el-Khalili Market
Our tour ended with a stop at Khan el-Khalili Bazaar in central Cairo. On the drive there we passed Tahrir Square and had the opportunity to talk to our guide about the Arab Spring uprising, in which he participated. Hearing his first-hand account of that experience was fascinating…and sad. He felt they had come so close to a better governing system, only to see those gains slip away. It really made us appreciate the freedoms we have which are easy to take for granted.
As for the market, it sits near one of Cairo’s most important mosques, Al-Hussain (built in 1154), and listening to the call to prayer from here was beautiful. The Khan el-Khalili Bazaar is huge and caters mainly to tourists, though it is manned primarily by Egyptian shopkeepers. The sense of discovery as we walked through the market was energizing – we saw beautiful pieces of art, smelled fantastic spices, and tasted some really strong Egyptian coffee. It made us wish we had more time to explore this vibrant city. Instead, we had to hurry back to the airport so we could catch our flight to Johannesburg and then on to Namibia.
Next up: we’ll explore a fantastically beautiful desert, kayak with seals, and do a 3 day self-drive safari!