Last week I posted a detailed account of the first leg of our February trip involving four delightful days in Jordan where we floated in the Dead Sea, hiked all over Petra, explored Wadi Rum and snorkeled in the Red Sea. When initially booking this trip to Jordan, I wanted so badly to fit in seeing the legendary pyramids into our itinerary. Yes, we could have fit in visiting Jerash and Amman in Jordan, however visiting Cairo has always been a bucket list item and I was rather stubborn and insistent on making that long held dream become a reality. With this goal in mind, I set out to start planning this last special leg of our journey.
The late flight from Amman to Cairo was very short, with us touching down just after midnight. After exiting the plane via a staircase, we all boarded buses where we were then taken to a terminal where we passed through customs. Agents from our tour company were waiting for us just inside the terminal where they helped us fill out our declarations form. We had purchased our Egyptian visa ahead of time in an easy online process that took only a few days to get approved. Once we made it through customs, our agent helped us quickly navigate through the rest of the airport, collecting our luggage, and ushered us into our waiting van. We had a 45 minute drive to our hotel Le Meridien Pyramids in Giza in traffic hardly notable, which was surprising as Cairo is the largest city we have ever been in and we were still having nightmarish flashbacks to Lima’s traffic. As we were were driving along, just before pulling into the Le Meridien, we were jolted away upon spotting the dark outline of the pyramids in the dark night sky! They were so very much bigger than I had ever anticipated. Buzzing with anticipation, we pulled into Le Meridien where we went through security before meeting by our wonderful tour guide Waleed, who helped us get checked into our hotel. We had been introduced to Waleed through our incredibly talented wedding photographers, who are seriously the sweetest people. Seriously, check out Tiberius Images! Not only did they take stunning photos that truly captured our special day, they were a godsend with all the little details throughout the day from bustling my dress to folding pocket squares. Anyway, Russ and Rebecca are avid travelers too and having recalled their trip to Egypt from a few years ago, I’d reached out to inquire their advice regarding tour companies. They connected me to Waleed right away after providing a glowing review for him and highlighting how by the end of the trip you become part of his family. The praise is well deserved, as you’ll read more about during our next two days in Cairo, with Waleed taking wonderful care of us and providing so much wonderful detail every site he took us. He has his doctorate in Egyptology from the Cairo University and his first class knowledge as passion about his country was on display throughout this tour. You can read about Russ and Rebecca’s Egyptian adventure here and contact Waleed here.
We didn’t book through an official tour company but instead booked a private tour with Waleed. All of our conversations and planning happened through Facebook Chat or sometimes phone calls, but Waleed was always quick to answer any question I might have. When initially researching hotels, I was convinced we wanted to stay in the super fancy (and pricey) Marriott Mena House, but Waleed convinced us to stay at the Le Meridien due to more reasonable rates, with still a stunning view. We loved our stay at Le Meridien and were so thankful we went with Waleed’s advice. Their morning breakfast spread was sprawling and that view of the pyramids, as you can see below, speaks for itself.
Giza Pyramid Complex
Due to having only two days in Cairo, we met Waleed early in the morning for our highly anticipated formal introduction to the Pyramids of Giza. I still have a hard time putting into words how large and overwhelming the pyramids are in real life, especially with the added emphasis of their remarkable age. Once we passed through security, Waleed took us to the base of the Great Pyramid, which is the largest of the three where he told us a brief history of the site and what we know people who built this world wonder. You can enter the Great Pyramid, but based on the masses of people and tight confines we were content to explore the base. The inside tomb of the Great Pyramid requires an extra ticket does not have any hieroglyphs or markings to make the experience stand out, in sharp contrast to the tombs we entered in Saqqara the next day.
It is rather shocking at how close the city encroaches on the pyramids. From photos it appears as though the pyramids are in the middle of the Sahara, however in reality they are just up the hill from our hotel.
After leaving the Great Pyramid, we crawled back in our van to drive to the back of the complex where we had the most scenic view taking in all three of the pyramids. Before our trip I’d read countless accounts of travelers navigating the Giza Pyramid Complex by themselves, however after experiencing this sprawling area first hand, I still don’t know how you could manage it without having much stress induced anxiety. I say this fully as a traveler who typically enjoyed exploring sans tour guide.
Waleed knew all the spots for the best photos and when we wanted to ride a camel, there were no negotiations, he knew the base price with a family that he was been working with almost 20 years. Our camel ride started out at the scenic view point, and lasted approximately 15-20 minutes, where we were dropped off next to the Pyramid of Khafre, the middle of the three pyramids. Riding a camel between pyramids stands as one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had and I highly recommend the excursion. If you’ve ridden horses before, climbing onto the back of a camel is fairly comparable, except for on and off stages. Our camel guide also knew the best spots for photos, positioned us just so, and capturing the perfect photos with one shot. Our camel’s names were Banana (mine) and Mickey (Kara).
Waleed was waiting for us at the Pyramid of Khafre, where we then headed over to the much anticipated Sphinx. While researching the pyramids, I’d encountered the same sentiment repeated many times that the Sphinx in general was markedly disappointing because of its size. That being said, I think my expectations had been mitigated because I didn’t have that reaction at all when finally seeing the Sphinx for the first time. Instead, I loved it! Did you know the Sphinx has a tail? The Sphinx with the three pyramids in the background was one of my favorite overall views of the complex.
When our morning with the pyramids had drawn to a close and it was time for lunch. While we were waiting for our reservation, Waleed took us to a papyrus store where we saw a demonstration of how the ancient paper was and is created, along with the legends behind several of the key images found throughout the store.
After our trip to the papyrus store Waleed took us to a friend’s restaurant, the El Araby Kebab Egyptian Kitchen, where we were treated to a variety of authentic Egyptian dishes that were positively fantastic. There was so much food and we were quite stuffed by the end. The lamb, bread, and hummus! It was all delicious.
Once we’d finished at lunch, our delightfully busy day continued at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. This old museum dates back to 1902 and contains over 120,000 Egyptian artifacts. The new Grand Egyptian Museum is slated to open in early 2021, and has been a $795 million dollar project that has been under construction for since 2002. You can get private tours of the GEM for $250 and the early photos of the modern museum look stunning! I’d picked Waleed’s brain about this early access tour instead of going to the existing Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, because I was concerned items would already be transferred over. Waleed assured me that exhibits would still be open in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities and that in the future when we came back to Cairo that the old museum would be closed to the public so it is worth visiting now. I’m so thankful we took his advice, because we had such a great time exploring this old museum that could take days to explore. Waleed’s expertise and passion was in full display in the museum as he excitedly described the key items that the museum housed, as well as their historical significance. After hitting the highlights, Waleed let us wander around on own to explore and take in all of the beautiful, ornate items, while trying to process how impossibly old everything around us was.
The King Tut room was amazing! You can see his two sarcophagi below. Photos inside the room were not permitted, but I managed to snap one from outside the barrier through the crowds.
After the museum we had some downtime before our evening excursion. We had the option between a Nile River Cruise and a light show at the Pyramids. Other than driving over the famous river several times, we hadn’t gotten a good view of the Nile, which we’ve heard so much about throughout our lives. The cruise contained a dinner buffet, followed by a show featuring a talented belly dancer and Tanoura performers.
The next morning we set out for Saqqara, which is a massive burial complex and houses the ancient Djoser Step Pyramid. The Step Pyramid is the oldest and first of the pyramids, with its age falling somewhere around 4700 years old. The 50 minute drive from Giza to Saqqara proved interesting in and of itself, as we transitioned from the city to the country. The Step Pyramid was built by Imhotep, a name that will be familiar from the Mummy movie series. You can see Imhotep’s wooden sarcophagus below that is displayed in the Imhotep Museum. Upon arriving at the complex, Waleed took us through the highlights of the museum before giving us a brief overview of the layout and history of Saqqara.
One interesting aside was throughout the day, almost every security guard we came in contact with Waleed passed a few dollars their way. He called it buying their tea. He explained it wasn’t bribes or corruption, instead just a way of smoothing the gears.
As we began exploring this sprawling complex, we first descended into the Pyramid of Teti, which was one of my favorite things we did in Cairo! When visiting the Pyramids of Giza, you don’t actually see any hieroglyphs until you visit the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Saqqara is a merging, where you can actually enter pyramids and see the hieroglyphs and authentic paints that are mind boggling old and still intact. Entering the Pyramid of Teti, the the pyramid structure itself has been damaged and looks like a crumbling pile of dirt, but the path leads you to an entrance that descends down into a corridor that leads into tomb. As you can see in the photo below, this entry is quite short, forcing you to stoop backward as you climb down. Once in the vestibule, there’s another relatively long, height challenged hallway that you must stoop through to get to the burial chamber. As someone who has mild claustrophobia, this wasn’t the best of circumstances, but believe me when I say, any discomfort experienced is absolutely, 100% worth it! This chamber was stunning with the hundreds of hieroglyphs covering the walls and ceilings.
Leaving the Pyramid of Teti required more stooping and aid from the hand rails but the experience as a whole was amazing, leaving us excited to see what other wonders Saqqara had hidden. We entered a few other tombs where you could see the ornate hieroglyphs still painted in their bright colors. It was a bit shocking to see these tombs containing open windows in the ceiling, allowing natural light to illuminate the dark rooms, however also exposing the paint and carvings to the elements. Regardless, we loved exploring and could have spent more time ducking in and out of every open room.
Our wandering eventually lead us in front of the Step Pyramid where in front there is a large open area. Under this open space are 400 interlocking rooms that have only recently been restored and opened back up to the public. We missed the reopening of the Djoser Step Pyramid after 14 years by a mere two weeks. The Pyramid was closed after an earthquake damaged the structure in 1992. You can see a video of someone’s decent here.
Continuing along the perimeter of the complex, we climbed a hill where we could spy the Red Pyramid in the distance, however behind us Waleed pointed out that you could still see the massive Giza Pyramids.
Leaving Saqqara, we stopped at the Saqqara Carpets School where we were given a brief tutorial on the skill and effort that goes into making these beautiful rugs. The costly, stunning silk rugs had price tags that reflected the amount of work and skill that went into creating the works of art. We ended up leaving with our own beautiful rug that was a bit more in our price range.
We next ventured to Old Cairo where our first stop was the Hanging Church of the Virgin Mary that was built in the 4th century. This beautiful church gained its name due to being built over Roman Gate Towers that you can still see. This ornate church is a great example of Coptic architecture.
The Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus (brick arches in the photo below) was next on the itinerary, through the winding streets. You have to enter this church by descending down below street level, where it opens up into vaulted room with beautiful brick arches. What makes this church notable is that legend has it that Mary, Joseph and Jesus hid in the crypts of this church shortly after his birth. You can enter the dark crypt where they were said to have stayed but there are tons of people packed together without being able to see a whole ton. I walked through this cramped area to see it but due to COVID concerns was rather distracted the whole time.
Over lunch Waleed had a special surprise in mind. He treated us to a picnic along the Nile where we picked up Egyptian falafels from Felfela before getting us kushari to top off the meal. Kushari is Egypt’s national dish and a popular street food. It is made of rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas and fried onions, topped off with tomato sauce and garlic vinegar. This dish is very filling and full of flavor. Honestly, I’ve been craving the Egyptian falafels for weeks now that were unlike any falafel I’d ever had before. Waleed explained that in Egypt, falafels are made from fava beans, making it lighter and more moist than traditional falafels made out of chickpeas.
After lunch our surprise continued with an excursion sailing on a felucca, a traditional Egyptian vessel, along the Nile but it was too windy so we instead headed out in a pontoon boat. It was so interesting to see the Cairo skyline from the center of the Nile.
After lunch we went to the Amr ibn al-As Mosque. This mosque was completed in 642 and was the first one in both Egypt and Africa.
Our tour drew to a close with the must see Khan el Khalili Bazaar that has been active since the 1300s. Today this market is completely over ran with tourist items and it was packed with people but there was so much to see every where you looked. Waleed took us to have the best smoothies and then gave us a packet of Turkish coffee from his favorite shop where he picks up coffee for his whole family.
We ended our tour on the roof of the Le Riad Hotel where we enjoyed one last cup of tea before heading to the airport. We were there just at dusk when the pigeon farms were being called home to their roosts for the night. The pigeons are housed in large precarious structures built on roof tops. Can you spot them in the second photo down? Each set of pigeons responds to a unique whistle from its owner and you could see the flock after flocks swooping home together the night. You can read more about one farmer’s experience here.