Most people that visit Egypt go to Cairo to see the pyramids and Luxor to see all the temples. Not that many people make it down to Aswan which is a shame. We saw a lot of really interesting things and were surprised that there were so few tourists around when we were there.
Getting to Aswan by Train
We arrived in Aswan by taking a first class train from Luxor. While our tickets said first class on them, it did not feel anything like first class. The train was 30 minutes late to arrive and super dirty – sunflower seeds on the seats and floor as well as trash in the seat pocket. We couldn’t complain too much though since we only paid 51LE or $6.50 for a 3.5 hour ride.
It was obvious that most tourists take tour buses or fly as we were the only non-locals on the train. We never felt uncomfortable, since in our short time we had been in Egypt, we had learned Egyptians are very kind people who are very welcoming to tourists.
Getting Around Aswan on the Public Ferry
Since our B&B was on the west bank, we took the public ferry whenever we needed to cross the river. It was a short 5 minute walk from our B&B and very easy to navigate. Locals pay 1LE or 13 cents to ride, while foreigners pay between 2-4LE. Never wanting to get foreigner priced, we always had 2LE or 26 cents each whenever we took the ferry. After handing the attendant our money we kept walking, never getting stopped to pay more.
As is common in less developed countries, there is no schedule of when the ferry comes and goes, it simply leaves when it is full. We never had to wait more than 10 minutes so the service is pretty regular.
I was very surprised that there was still a tradition where the women ride in the front of the boat while the men ride in the back. It was strange being separated from Andy, but we respected the traditions and sat in the appropriate places. It was always very obvious that we were outsiders when we were on the boat. Just about every woman in Aswan wears the traditional clothing, many of which wear full veils in addition to a head scarf. Riding the boat in my pants and t-shirts, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I think it bothered me more than anyone else though as you could tell that the looks I received from those on the boat were more of interest in me than anything else.
Day 1 – Aswan Sightseeing with a Driver
The sights in Aswan are more spread out than other parts of the world and with fewer tourists, your options are to hire a driver or a guide for the day. Since we are pretty independent, we decided to hire a driver and move at our own pace.
Before setting off to hire a driver, we talked with our B&B host about pricing that we should pay for things. He gave us insight, without which we would have severely overpaid.
Once in the city, we asked a driver how much he would charge to drive us to the 3 main attractions in town – the High Dam, Philae Island and the Unfinished Obelisk. He started at a comical 400LE or $51, I laughed and replied back with 100LE or $12.75. We then met at 150LE or $19, a price that was within the expected price range we were given.
There are 2 dams in Aswan – the low dam built in 1902 and the high dam built in 1970. We paid the 20LE or $2.50 entry fee to visit the high dam. Once we arrived, we realized it wasn’t that interesting. We took a few pictures then headed back into the car.
On the way out of the dam, we stopped at the friendship monument, a pretty cool looking monument created to celebrate the friendship of the Egyptians and the Russians.
Since Philae Temple is located on an island, we told our driver that we would go to the island and meet him back at the parking lot in 2 hours.
Surprisingly, or not surprisingly there are no ferries which run the route to the island. This meant that we had to charter our own boat. It was extremely frustrating since we knew there should be an easier way, but sometimes tourist attractions come with a tourist size price tag.
I spoke with the man who was in charge of getting fares for the boats to get an idea of the cost. He started at 150LE or $19 which made me laugh. I countered back at 75LE, then very slowly with lots of back and forth got a price of 90LE or $11.50. In true Egyptian fashion, he added in that we should pay the driver a 10LE tip, making the total 100LE. I told him that we would see how the driver did and decide if we would tip.
After we arrived at the island, we purchased an entry ticket for 60LE or $7.50 and a tripod ticket for 20LE or $2.50, then headed through security and were on our way.
When we first entered the temple we were a little bit frustrated that there were quite a few large groups there. Fortunately for us, they pretty much stayed out of our way, allowing us to get quite a few great pictures. The temple’s carvings seemed to be better preserved than other temples that we visited in Luxor. This was surprising for us since we had heard so much about the temples in Luxor and relatively little about the temples in Aswan. In fact, Andy liked it so much he named it as his favorite temple in Egypt.
Most of the groups left at 2pm, since we left a little after 2pm, we essentially had the entire temple to ourselves, getting some of the best pictures of us in front of the temple without anyone else in sight.
It is surprising to learn that Philae Temple was painstakingly moved before the dams were built. If the temples had not been moved, the water would have covered up these archaeological treasures, destroying thousands of years of history. You would never know anything had been moved from visiting the temple since everything looked like it had been there forever.
Our last stop of the day with our driver was to the unfinished obelisk. We paid our 40LE or $5 entry fee, headed through security and were ushered into a theater to watch a movie.
The movie explained that the unfinished obelisk was the largest obelisk that the ancient Egyptians had ever attempted to cut out, but it had cracked during the excavation. Because of this, the obelisk was abandoned. It was not all for naught though, the stone gave archaeologists clues as to how the Egyptians created and transported obelisks.
When the movie was over, the worker asked for a tip. We got pretty annoyed as we knew that the movie was part of the ticket and just walked away. I’m sure that some tourists feel obligated to give the guy a tip to press play, but we are not those tourists.
Once we went to the obelisk site, we were somewhat disappointed. It was hard to get a good picture and it was less interesting than we had hoped. If we were to do it over again, I would have just watched a short film about the obelisk instead of making a trip to see it.
Day 2 – Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel is a complex with 2 massive temples carved out of the mountainside. These temples all but disappeared for a while, getting buried under sand until they were rediscovered in 1813.
There are only 2 ways to get to Abu Simbel – a very expensive flight or a police escorted convoy from Aswan. Since we knew that flying was out of budget, we coordinated a tour with our B&B for only 230LE or $30 which included transportation from the B&B to the site and back to the city.
Since the police escorted convoy departs promptly at 4am, we had to leave our hotel at 3am to ensure that we were there in time. To say it was an early wake up call would be an understatement – luckily we knew that we had some time to sleep on the drive to the temple.
The security check for all of the vans which are part of the convoy was intense. Mirrors on wheels were rolled under the vans, ensuring that there was nothing that would cause any trouble. Every passenger of the convoy had presented their passport when they booked their tickets, ensuring that nobody was on any watch lists.
Once the convoy left, the ride to the temple was uneventful. The road was straight and we were able to go at a good pace. During the ride, we experienced a number of different check points – from checking off our van’s license plate at security points to seeing armed guards along the way. It seemed a bit crazy that there was so much security, but it shows that the Egyptian government is serious about protecting all tourists.
When we arrived at the temple, we weren’t quite sure where to go. We walked along the parking lot before cutting into the grounds to purchase our tickets. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were able to avoid the long row of shops in doing so. There was no such luck on the way out as the point that we entered was blocked off.
The entrance to the temple was pretty expensive at 100LE or $12.75 per person + additional fees of 13LE or $1.65. Andy had brought 500LE to pay for the entrance. He handed the guy 400LE but only received change for 300LE. Initially he challenged the guy asking for the rest of the change, but I could have sworn that I saw him give 300LE. In the end, it turned out that the guy did scam us out of 100LE. I think the most frustrating part of the whole transaction is that you expect to have your change shorted when you’re buying something from a hustler on the street, not a ticket booth at a national park.
When we arrived at the temples, we were disappointed that there were no photos allowed inside. While I can certainly understand this when things are painted and a flash could cause damage, I do not understand why cameras are not allowed inside the temple. Regardless, this made us go through the temples much quicker as we were not spending the time taking photos. Surprisingly, we were able to get some great photos outside of the temples, something I never thought would happen when we saw the sheer volume of people that were on the grounds.
The architecture of the temples was pretty amazing. The fact that not only the exterior, but also the interior was carved out of the mountainside is mind blowing, especially when you consider the tools that were available when these temples were built. Even crazier, the temples were moved when the high dam was built. This meant taking apart and rebuilding the entire complex – piece by piece – a task that took 4 years.
When we arrived at 7am and were told we would leave at 9:45am, returning to Aswan in time for lunch, I was worried if we would have enough time. It turned out that we had more than enough time. Even though we had to wake up extremely early, it was perfect to go in the morning – the light was right for photos, it wasn’t too hot and we had the rest of the afternoon to relax.
Day 3 – Rest & Relaxation in Aswan
We started out with great intentions of doing several different things on our final day in Aswan, but ended up not doing very much at all.
Tombs of the Nobles
Since the Tombs of the Nobles was walking distance from our B&B, we had planned to eat breakfast, then walk over to check them out. Our plans changed when a guy that we met on our tour to Abu Simbel showed us his pictures. They didn’t look as interesting as we had thought they would be, and we also felt like we had seen quite a few tombs in Luxor previously, so we decided to save our money and not make the visit.
I read online that you can visit the Elephantine Island ruins by taking the free ferry to the Movenpick Hotel, then walking over. This is not the case as the Movenpick Hotel is completely separated from the rest of the island.
Since we weren’t sure if we were that interested in seeing the ruins, we decided to save our money as we would have had to hire a boat 2 ways to see them.
Visit to Movenpick Hotel
The only thing that we successfully did on our final day was visit the Movenpick Hotel. The hotel is located on an island, but the hotel runs a free ferry from the east bank to the island.
I had read that it was difficult to get alcohol in Muslim countries, but since it was relatively easy in Luxor, we didn’t expect too much challenge in Aswan. It was extremely challenging to get alcohol in Aswan, in fact, the only place that we even saw alcohol was at the Movenpick Hotel.
When we arrived, we sat in the lobby bar and enjoyed both the air conditioning and free wifi. Closer to sunset, we decided that we would go up to the Panorama Bar to take in the view and watch the sunset from above. Our plan was foiled when we learned that there was a 75LE or $9.50 minimum per person should you not be staying at the hotel. We took our pictures and headed down, opting to get dinner elsewhere.
We really enjoyed our time in Aswan. It was the perfect place to have a reprieve from the hard salesmen that we experienced in Luxor and knew that we would experience when we arrived in Cairo.
Many tourists skip over Aswan when they go to Egypt and I think that is a shame. I am glad that we made the trip down to see the sights as some of the things that we saw ended up being some of our favorite sites throughout all of Egypt.