At the beginning of November, it was time for another travel adventure! This time it was to a destination that I know is high on many “bucket lists” for travelers and explorers, and a favorite trip in the past for many – Egypt. I knew I needed to learn more about what it was like to visit Egypt to be able to share important information about the experience with future clients, so when Ashish Sanghrajka of Big Five Tours & Expeditions shared with me that he would be hosting a very small group of travel advisors in early November to Egypt, needless to say - I jumped at the opportunity.
Similarly, to my trip to Kenya in October, a negative PCR test was required for entry into Egypt, this time it had to be taken within 72 hours of departure. Managing this was straight forward, particularly as I was already aware of the options from my Kenya trip. I chose to fly the most direct route for this trip, which for me was Raleigh Durham Airport (RDU) to New York (JFK) on Delta and the direct route from JFK into Cairo (CAI). The flight from JFK to CAI was just over 10 hours however the option was better than a long layover in Paris, particularly at a time when France’ COVID numbers were dramatically increasing.
I am pleased to share that both RDU and JFK airports are doing an excellent job of requiring masks throughout the airport. My flight to JFK from RDU was uneventful and quite pleasant with Delta continuing to fly with reduced capacity, however the Egypt Air flight rather caught me by surprise. Having flown to/from Kenya with only approximately 40% - 60% of seats filled, I was expecting something similar flying to Cairo, instead I found that the flight to Egypt was close to sold out, with very few empty seats. I was very lucky to have a middle seat empty next to me, as I had chosen to fly economy/coach to reduce costs, so I did have a little more room. The flight left late in the evening from JFK which worked out well as I am a good ‘sleeper’ on long haul flights so was quickly asleep and stayed that way for the first seven or so hours of flying time, making this a very doable journey, even in economy class. The flight attendants were very diligent about reminding passengers that masks are required to be worn, at all times, unless eating or drinking, and the passengers were all very compliant which was wonderful. We also had the comforting knowledge that to have boarded the flight each passenger was required to have the negative PCR test, which certainly isn’t a guarantee that everyone is COVID free, but it does mean that the risk is much reduced.
Arriving in Cairo was straight forward, and very similar to arriving into Kenya. On arrival you were required to have your negative test result reviewed, as well as temperature checked and submit a passenger health form to include your seat assignment on the flight and where you would be staying in Egypt. This is primarily for contact tracing should it be necessary
The Big Five team had arranged for a VIP meet and greet at the airport, which also helped to streamline the arrival process, immigration and visa application process, so with this I was exiting the airport within approximately thirty minutes of landing in Cairo. Prior to entering the transfer vehicle, my bags were sanitized, my temperature was checked one more time and I was given hand sanitizer and spare masks for use during my stay.
As with most educational trips to a destination, our itinerary was extremely full! This enables me, as a travel advisor, to learn about as many experiences as possible during my stay to enable me to share them with my clients and design the best itinerary for each individual client. With this knowledge, I had decided to arrive a day earlier into Cairo to enable me to acclimatize a little and feel refreshed and ready to explore for the following seven days. I have to admit I spent a good deal of my free day at the Four Seasons, First Residence watching the news coverage of the US election as votes were still being counted and the result unknown when I left for Cairo on the 5th November……
Our itinerary for the next seven days, included three days spent in and around Cairo, a flight to Luxor with the late afternoon/evening exploring Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple, followed by a long day in the nearby Valleys’ of the Kings and Queens and other Temples and Tombs, before leaving early the next day by vehicle to Aswan with a couple of stops along the way at Edfu Temple and Kom-Ombo Temple. And finally a full day in Aswan and the surrounding area, before our last day of travel flying back to Cairo and departing late that same evening for the US.
To enable us to have the opportunity of experiencing two of the amazing guides who work with Big Five in Egypt, we started our trip with Manal Helmy Fahmy who was with us for the first three days in Cairo. Manal is one of the top Egyptologists in the country and has been guiding for more than twenty years. She was just incredible, and it was so fun to see just how excited she was in being able to share her wealth of knowledge with visitors to her country again. Egypt, like most countries worldwide has being terribly impacted by the COVID pandemic with their tourism industry cowing to a grinding halt back in March of this year. We were the first visitors returning to Egypt with Big Five and Manal shared with us that she had been a little nervous having not guided for almost eight months, however she immediately demonstrated that her knowledge was so deep, she didn’t miss a beat in sharing the history and culture of her country.
One of the most memorable conversations we had was during the visit to the Citadel in Cairo. As with everywhere we visited it was incredibly quiet and we were seated inside the Citadel with just two other couples, each with a local guide, when Manal shared with us her experience of being an Islamic woman in Egypt today. It was so moving to listen to her talk about her experiences and the choices she has made as a successful, independent married woman who leads other women in her industry, while maintaining her faith in the center of everything she does. It certainly provided me with a very different perspective to my interpretation of the Islam faith. It is times such as this that you realize just how educational and empowering travel can be! We were a small group of four female travel advisors, traveling with a local country partner run by an incredible young woman, Farah Abouseif, and two incredibly knowledgeable female guides. We couldn’t overlook the irony of that moment in a country where the Islamic faith is dominant, and with that an unsaid implication that women were inferior to men. So untrue………
There were so many incredible experiences during our time in Cairo, it is impossible to single out one or two that were highlights as they all were! But if I had to share a few experiences that just shouldn’t be missed I would include going inside The Great Pyramid of Giza (also known as the Pyramid of Khufuor the Pyramid of Cheops) which is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex bordering what is now El Giza, Egypt. It is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact.
Spending time at Saqqara where King Zoser's Step Pyramid was "built to last 'till the ends of time". This vast site in the heart of a desert plateau is the largest necropolis in Egypt. Extending for almost 5 miles, the complex forms a collection of pyramids, temples and tombs that is fundamental to understanding the history of Ancient Egypt. With the very recent discovery of a new burial shaft, this is going to be an area of great interest for many years. In the interim I highly recommend watching the Netflix program “Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb”.
As a Christian, another would have to be visiting Coptic Cairo, where we visited the Suspended Church (Hanging Church), dating back to the late 4th and early 5th century. This basilica was named "Al-Mu'allaqah" because it was built atop the south gate of the Fortress of Babylon. We then visited the Church of St. Sergius, a 5th century Coptic Church. This basilica is built on the cave in which the Holy Family stayed during their time in Egypt while fleeing King Herod. Very close by is the recently restored Synagogue of Ben Ezra, which marks the place where Moses was saved by the water girl of Pharaoh. This is the oldest Jewish synagogue in Egypt built in 882 AC.
Oh, and you definitely can't miss the ‘other’ pyramids at Giza!! Taking the time to go inside the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid was definitely special and ensured that I had my 'stairmaster' exercise for the entire trip!!
There is just so much to see in and around Cairo, I haven't even written about Memphis, the Bazaar or the Museums - here are a few pictures just to give you an idea.
As you can probably guess, we could easily have taken another couple of days in and around Cairo, but sadly after three days we had to say our goodbye’s to Manal and thank her profusely for sharing her unending knowledge with us before moving on to the next destination of the trip!
Please check back next week for Egypt – COPTT Part Two …………