One of the cities hardest hit by the downturn in Egyptian tourism is Luxor. It was so obvious when we were there as the remaining people were desperate for business and there were many boats, a former livelihood of tourism, which appeared to be all but abandoned.
We didn’t know going into Egypt how safe we would feel since the US media portrayed the country as scary and unsafe. That could not have been more different than how we felt during our time there. Everyone was very friendly towards us and was shocked when they heard we were American. Most Americans have shied away from going to Egypt because of the negative press that has been received, leaving the British and Germans as the groups that most commonly travel there.
In fact, during our entire time in Luxor, our biggest concern was getting charged foreigner prices for things. It happened a few times which was frustrating, but when we put everything into perspective, the people were really hurting for money and trying to feed their families so you can’t get too upset.
We saw a lot of great things during our time in Luxor and both agreed that 2 days was the right amount of time. Even though we were visiting in February, their winter, it was still quite warm. I can’t even imagine how hot it feels in the summer.
Day 1 in Luxor
On our 1st day we decided to go on a half day tour including both an English speaking guide and driver which was set up through El Mesala, our hotel. By the end of the day, it was reaffirmed that we are not tour people and opted to independently travel the remainder of our time in Luxor.
Valley of the Kings
One of the reasons that we opted to get a guide was because the guide that our hotel worked with and that we met with told us that at the Valley of the Kings there were 60 tombs, 9 of which are open to the public and the entry ticket only includes 3. He made it seem like without guidance, we would pick the wrong tombs. In hindsight, we should have realized that there would be groups of people around the more popular tombs.
We arrived and paid 100 LE or $12.75 each for our entry ticket. There were additional tickets available for 50LE or $6.40 each to see Ay or Ramses IV and 100LE or $12.75 to see King Tut, but we opted against these since it was a significant amount more money. In addition to our entry ticket, we had to pay 5LE or 64 cents for a tram ride which took us from the gates to the tombs. The distance was not long but you were not allowed to go on foot. Basically it was a scam to get tourists to pay more money.
During the tram ride over to the tombs, our guide discussed with us how the Valley of the Kings was made to be. Previously, the kings were buried in the pyramids which not surprisingly were looted. The Egyptians came up with a way to bury the kings in a less obvious manner, keeping their bodies and treasures hidden from the looters.
As is common in Egypt, we went through security before we were able to go into the Valley of the Kings. Because it is a sacred place, there is no photography allowed. As we learned later, this was not actually the full truth.
We were surprised to learn that guides can not go with you into the tombs. This was not mentioned during our initial talk with the guide for obvious reasons. It was a let down that we were not able to have a guide with us during the visit as it it made no difference if we had a guide or not, at least in our minds.
There were workers inside the tombs and they were more than happy to give us information whether we asked for it or not, in hopes of receiving a tip. We did not have any small change, only 200 LE or $20.50 bills, so much to their annoyance, we were unable to tip any of the guides.
Tomb 1 – Thothmes III
Our first tomb was a good starter tomb as there were not many people around. Since we were pretty much on our own, we snuck a few photos of the tomb.
Tomb 2 – Ramses IV
There were more people at this tomb than our first. The worker inside the tomb was showing us things and really trying hard for a tip. In fact, he would not let Andy leave the tomb until he took a picture of the sarcophagus (the Egyptian coffin). On the way out, we had a very awkward exchange as we had no money to give him.
Tomb 3 – Tausert and Setnakht
The most crowded tomb that we visited was also the most ornate. It was possibly our favorite tomb since there were so many people that the guards inside the tomb were not able to single us out in order to give us information in hopes of getting a tip.
One of the more interesting facts that we learned from our guide is that work started on the king’s tomb 70 days after they took power, the same amount of time that it took for the former king to go through the mummification process. When the king died all work stopped on the tomb whether it was completed or not. The longer that the king was in power, the more ornate and larger their tomb would be.
All in all, it was very interesting to see the tombs and we are glad that we went. This was by and far the most popular attraction in Luxor, with hoards of people and tons of tour buses filling the parking lot. The only thing that would have made the visit better would be if we had been able to take photos.
Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple (Hatshepsut Temple)
Our 2nd stop with our guide was to the Al-Deir Al-Bahari Temple. After paying our 50LE or $6.40 entry fee along with 3LE or 38 cents for another scam “tram ride” and another security screening, we arrived at the temple.
The temple was quite large and we heard a lot of stories about the ruler during the time, Hatshepsut, who was a woman. This was the point during our tour that Andy and I both started to crack. Standing in the scorching sun while listening to stories about what seemed like every carving on the temple was not our idea of a good time. Had we gone on our own, we would have spent a fraction of the time and gotten a lot of great photos.
Colossi of Memnon Statues
Our final stop with our guide was at the Colossi of Memnon Statues. This site had free entry and was a quick stop where we took some photos.
Before we took our photos, our guide was giving us information about the statues. I was at information overload at this point and my eyes started to glaze over. I heard him talking but was not able to register anything that he was saying.
It wasn’t the most interesting thing that we had seen but we were excited that marked the end of our tour. We headed back to the hotel where we relaxed for a little bit before grabbing some lunch and continuing the day on our own.
The manager of our hotel told us that in order to get to Karnak Temple, we could take a taxi or a horse drawn carriage for 25LE or $3.20 or a boat for 50LE or $6.40. Knowing that we had seen a number of shared vans similar to what we often used in South America, we decided to give it a try. As the shared vans went by, we said “Karnak”. Most drivers shook their heads and kept driving but after a few more tries, a driver said yes. Unsure of how much the ride should cost, we gave him a 5LE or 64 cent note and were excited when we were handed back 3LE or 38 cents in change. Our ride was only 1LE or 13 cents each, much cheaper than any other form of transit.
When we got off the shared van we weren’t quite sure where to go. A friendly horse drawn carriage guy helped us find the entrance and told us that he would wait for us when we left even though we we told him many times we didn’t need for him to do that.
We purchased our tickets for 80LE or $10.25, went through security and headed to the temple.
Once inside we felt this relief that we were able to be on our own and go at our own pace. The temple was very large – in fact other than Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it is the largest religious monument in the world. The design was really great, with lots of columns in it. In fact, this was my favorite temple that I saw during all of my time in Luxor.
As we explored, there were locals that wanted to show us around for a tip, but with the temple being so large, we were able to avoid them. Similar to the temples that we explored in Cambodia, the tourists generally stay on a certain path. By going off the beaten path we were able to see quite a bit and get some amazing pictures. As we were taking photos, there were several locals that wanted their photos with us. While we have never fully understood this phenomenon, we were happy to oblige and take pictures with them.
When we were ready to leave, we took a rear exit to avoid the horse drawn carriage guy. As we waited on the street for our shared van back to the city center, we talked with a local girl. We were so happy that she was there as without her help, it would have been nearly impossible to find the right shared van to go where we needed to go.
Day 2 in Luxor
On our 2nd day, we worked with our hotel to coordinate a driver, but not a guide. Our driver dropped us off at the first site where we were told that we needed to first go to the ticket office a half mile down the road. Since our driver didn’t know that, we knew that he was a rookie, but we figured he didn’t know so we brushed it off.
After going to the ticket office, we purchased tickets for the Valley of the Nobles, Valley of the Workers, Valley of the Queens, and Habu Temple. While it seemed frustrating we couldn’t buy them on site at the sites, it ended up working out well since we arrived at the sights with our tickets in hand.
Valley of the Nobles
Our 1st stop of the day was Valley of the Nobles. This valley held the bodies of the people important to the kings and queens, including but not limited to advisors, priests and more.
The admission was 40LE or $5.10 per person. The setup of the tombs reminded us of the Valley of the Kings, but on a much smaller scale. There were carvings and statues, but not nearly as many ornate items. Learning from our mistake of not having small bills the day before, we had 5LE notes or 64 cent bills ready to hand out to the guides. This would allow us to take the photos that we wanted without any hassle.
As would come as no surprise, the guides at the Valley of the Nobles did the same speal “want to take a picture”, “go quick”, “don’t tell anyone”. We took our photos then gave them the tip on the way out. They always acted offended that we gave so little, but I can’t imagine giving any amount which would have fully satisfied them.
Our time in the tombs was relatively short as we hated to have the guys be all over us, explaining all of the carvings which we could tell on our own. I think the thing that we liked the most was the fact that there were not a ton of people around which made it feel much more relaxing.
Deir el-Medina (aka Valley of the Artisans)
The Valley of the Artisans is where all of the workers who created the tombs for the nobles and kings were buried. Sadly, often times they were killed before they naturally died as they had insider knowledge of where all the treasure was. It was seen as a very noble job to do, so people willingly did this work, knowing full well that they would likely be killed doing it.
Our entry fee was 40LE or $5.10. The ruins of the living quarters were expansive. The tombs were very small compared to the tombs that we had seen at the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Nobles. Like the others, there were “helpful guides” which went out of their way to show us things looking for a tip.
The temple was somewhat destroyed but we were still able to enjoy what was left of it. The most annoying part of our time at the temple was a guide who held up a mirror which caught the sun and reflected into the unlit parts of the temple. When we left he asked for a tip which we did not give. If anyone thinks that tipping in the US has gotten out of control, they should see what things are like in Egypt.
We weren’t at the temple long and when we left we realized that our driver was not there waiting for us. Since we didn’t want to hang out in the parking lot where there were people selling things, we started to walk towards the road. Our assumption was that the driver may have been getting gas and would be back shortly. Once we hit the road and waited for 10 minutes, we had to decide what to do. We saw a police checkpoint and headed that way. I always keep the address and phone number of our hotels on a piece of paper in my purse so our thought was that we would ask the police officers to call the hotel and they could get in touch with the driver.
Tourists that were abandoned by their driver seemed to be the most excitement that had happened at that police checkpoint in months. There were about 10 officers and more were coming in by car. They tried the hotel number I gave them but nobody picked up. They told us that a car would pick us up and take us back to the hotel in 10 minutes. I’m kind of sad that we saw our driver go up the hill to the site since riding in a police car in Egypt would have been an amazing story.
When the driver picked us up he told us that there was a family emergency and he had to go. We understood, but told him that if something like that happened in the future, he should find a way to get in touch with people since abandoning us without a word was not the right thing to do.
Valley of the Queens
The last of the “valleys” that we visited was the Valley of the Queens. It is an ironic name for it though since the majority of the tombs there were for princes. The entry fee we paid earlier was 50LE or $6.40.
Queen Nefertiti’s tomb is the main draw for the visitors. Because of this, entrance to her tomb is 200LE or $25.50 to enter. While we wouldn’t have paid this much to visit the tomb, it wasn’t even an option for us as they were working on preservation work and it was closed to the public.
As was expected, similar to the other tombs that we visited, there were workers who were trying to show us around the tombs for tips. We even crowned one of them the creepiest worker ever, when he lifted a panel in the floor and told us to look to see a dead baby. We declined and needless to say, did not give him a tip.
I’m not sure if we had seen too many tombs in too short a time, but these tombs were about the same as the others that we had seen and were not as interesting to us. This was our queue that we had seen enough Egyptian tombs.
Medinet Habu Temple
Our last stop of the day with our driver was Medinet Habu Temple. After we showed our ticket, which we had paid 40LE or $5.10, we went through security and headed in.
We were pretty excited that there were not many people at the temple even though it was a really beautiful, large temple which was created for King Ramses III. We set up our camera on the tripod and got quite a few great shots. As with the other temples, there were guys around trying to show us things for tips. By this point, we had perfected our brush off technique, sending the guys away pretty quickly.
The last shot of the day that we wanted was our picture in front of the temple. A man told us that we needed to have a ticket for our tripod which sounded crazy to me. After telling him that he was a liar who was trying to get money out of me I challenged him to come to security with me to confirm it, he backed off but would still not allow us to set up our tripod. On our way out of the temple, we confirmed with the security guard that there was a tripod ticket for sale. I felt a little bad for yelling at the guy, but if the Egyptian culture was different and everyone wasn’t always trying to scam foreigners, I would have believed him.
The most frustrating parts of shopping in Egypt are:
- Nobody will ever leave you alone
- There are no prices on anything so you have to haggle
When we were looking for a place to eat lunch we stumbled upon El Daly Book Shop and Fine Art Gallery which called out that there were fixed prices on everything in the store. Intrigued, we decided to take a look.
I was in absolute shock when the owner said hello, but left us alone as we wandered around the store. There wasn’t anything that we particularly loved, but we knew that we wanted to support this businessman who had created the perfect store for us. After some searching, we found the perfect souvenir that we plan to transform into a Christmas ornament when we return back to the US. We also picked up some postcards for only 1LE or 13 cents each.
When we left, we told the man that he had a very nice shop and that we appreciated that he didn’t bother us. He smiled as he must know that is the main reason that he gets a lot of his business.
After getting dropped back off at the hotel and relaxing for a little bit, we headed back out.
Andy had done some research on restaurants that looked good. Once we hit the street where there was supposed to be a ton of restaurants, we came up empty. After some aimless wandering, we saw an ad for a Thai restaurant on the side of a building. We headed in the direction and were excited when we arrived at Kam Thai as it is the type of place that I love to visit – a small, locally owned restaurant with reasonable prices (around 38LE or $5 for an entree).
After placing our orders, the server talked with us and was shocked when we told him that we were American. He said that it was the first time that he had an American customer at the restaurant. When the food came out we were in heaven. Everything was seasoned perfectly, the chicken was trimmed well and there were plenty of vegetables.
Once we finished up our meal, the owner, a Thai woman came out to talk to us as well. We complimented her on her delicious food and chatted a little. When we asked her where was a good place to get a taxi to the train station, she asked her friend to drive us there. It was nice to have the ride taken care of and not have to haggle with a taxi driver.
Buying Train Tickets
We planned to take the train from Luxor to Aswan. Our hotel offered to purchase the tickets for us, but after they tried to scam us a few times, we decided that we felt better purchasing the tickets ourselves.
When we arrived, the man at the ticket booth spoke English loudly and clearly annunciated his words, something that we were not used to since everyone in South America seemed to speak quietly and mumble. It was easy to communicate the date and time we needed the ticket. We were somewhat surprised when we learned that our 3 hour first class train was only 51LE or $6.50.
After we purchased our train ticket, we headed to the Luxor Temple, our final sight that we wanted to see in Luxor. We had been looking at the temple the entire time we were in Luxor as our hotel was directly across the river from it.
After taking the public ferry across the Nile for 1LE or 13 cents, we walked over to the entrance. We purchased our tickets for 60LE or $7.66, went through security and headed into the temple. Not surprisingly, there were a number of people at the temple. It is one of the most famous temples in Egypt and one of the two temples on the east side of the river which is closest to most hotels.
There was a lot of damage to the temple which was caused when the Romans overtook the Egyptians. It was quite sad as many of the large carvings would have looked amazing, even now, hundreds of years later had they not been destroyed.
There were huge pillars, tons of detailed carvings and an absolutely massive obelisk. When you think about what it took to carve and transport the obelisk with ancient tools, it is mind-blowing.
The light is best in the morning so going in the evening was a bit challenging to get the photos that we wanted. Even though we have some great photos, they would have been better had we gone in the morning when the lighting would have been perfect.
One of the more interesting parts of the temple is actually outside of the temple itself. As excavation projects are undertaken, there are pieces of stone that are collected. There was a large area of stones, all numbered, just sitting there. Andy dubbed this as “the world’s hardest Lego set” which is pretty accurate. I’m amazed how anthropologists reconstruct these temples from all of these pieces of stone.
I knew that we saw a lot when we were in Luxor, but until I wrote this article I really had no idea just how much we saw in such a short period of time.
As we spent time in Egypt, we came to realize that Egypt is likely going to be the most challenging country that we will travel to on this trip. We joked that whenever anyone says “best price” or “no hassle” that directly translates to “I’m going to get you for all you are worth” and “I’m going to hassle you until you leave”. Even after saying no repeatedly, people were persistent, not taking no for an answer or listening to any reason why you are not interested.
Haggling is commonplace, even for something like a bottle of water if there is no price on it. We started to learn the prices of things and pushed back when we were getting foreigner priced on anything.
The best ways that we were able to avoid people hassling us:
- Not speaking English when they were in earshot – if they don’t know what language you speak, it’s harder for them to engage
- Only say thank you in Arabic (pronounced shock-run) when anyone asks you anything or tries to tell you something
- Never say where you are from, it will inevitably lead to a conversation
- Never expect that anyone will back down
- If you are engaged, say you are leaving the next day and sometimes people will leave you alone
While I focused on a lot of the negatives of the Egyptians, it would be completely unfair of me to not mention the rest of the Egyptians who were extremely welcoming and kind. In fact, I was extremely sad that the aggressive people are the ones who interact with foreigners the most as they are the people who give the country a negative name.
We had a good time seeing Luxor. It is possible to see everything in 2 days, but it was exhausting as well. Not only the physical aspect, but the mental aspect as well since dealing with all of the people who were constantly trying to sell us things was extremely draining.