Cairo - The Great Pyramids
Updated: Sep 1, 2019
I feel like one of the main appeals of travelling is to get out of your comfort zone, and the idea of going somewhere so different to home was both exciting and daunting. Of course, the idea of difference is highly subjective, but having only travelled to Australia, America and a small part of Europe, it seemed likely Egypt would involve some culture shock.
The pyramids were just as impressive as I had hoped. The massive population of Cairo (around 19 million people, that's nearly 4 times the population of the whole of Scotland!) meant that there is a smog that hangs over the city sometimes. On our drive up to the pyramids, we couldn't see a thing in the direction our Uber driver kept pointing to, until suddenly the diagonal line of the edge of a pyramid appeared out of the gloom - far higher than we had been looking. It was really magnificent to see them appear out of the morning mist and get hit so suddenly by the scale of them.
I actually wasn't that worried in advance of the trip, but when I told people I was going I was often met with some level of concern. A couple of times I got responses somewhere along the lines of 'Wow I would love to go there, but I don't think I could / I would be too nervous / I would be too scared'. There are obviously safer places to travel in the world, but I'm of the opinion that anything can happen anywhere and you approach any trip with safety in mind. Honestly, we had a very fortunate trip to Cairo where everyone we met was incredibly hospitable and we never felt in danger.
Saying that, I do have some travel tips for anyone planning on visiting Cairo - and they can probably be applied to other scenarios.
Travel tips for Cairo:
My main advice for anyone visiting the pyramids is, where possible, bring a buddy. Apart from it always being good to have someone to watch your back, some things (such as the tombs and boat museum) won't let you bring in a large bag or camera equipment even if it's in your bag, so it's really useful to take turns and leave your stuff outside with your friend.
Get there early, it'll be quieter and for us the light was amazing! We were advised by locals to take Ubers everywhere in Cairo, but even then it is simply terrifying. The cars generally don't have seatbelts and the roads are simply mental, with 3 lane roads being used as 5 lane roads at high speed with centimetres between cars at times. It is not for the faint hearted! Make sure your Uber takes you right up to the gates where there are large carparks, as outside the grounds of the pyramids there are a lot of intense street vendors and you likely will get hassled. Another reason to use Uber is that there are checkpoints all around Cairo that taxi drivers will need to show licenses to get through, and we got caught out at the airport by taking what seemed to be a very legitimate taxi company that had a booth inside the airport (there are many people outside trying to get you in a cab, it's quite intense) but when we arrived to our hotel it turned out their licenses were fake and there was a bit of drama, but luckily we were close enough to walk up the drive to the hotel. This goes without saying but always check the license plate, always check they can tell you your name and don't give them extra money in cash if they try to get you to. My friend had a bit of a bad habit of opening a taxi door, asking 'Is this a taxi for (name)' and then getting in! They will always say yes to that! Don't offer information to strangers when you travel in general.
We didn't buy tickets in advance, but bring cash and bring more than you need as some of the smaller tombs will charge you extra. On the note of money - although this might change - at the time of travelling we were advised to get cash there and to bring $25 American dollars cash for the visa on arrival (no idea why, but it has to be done in dollars - they will not accept anything else).
Be aware that the main tomb is very claustrophobic, with a small tunnel for at least 50 yards with people travelling in both directions. When I say small, you basically have to walk doubled over and squeeze past the flow of traffic going the other way. This does open up to a larger set of steps after a while, but on our way down we did talk to a woman who was having a panic attack (good on her, she carried on!) but at that point you know there is no other way out than the way you came. The air also feels a little thin due to the large amount of people in a small space with little ventilation. Please do ask yourself if you are up for this and don't feel bad if you're not - actually the tomb was nothing spectacular apart from it being cool that you're actually inside a pyramid. It is just a stone room with an empty slab outer sarcophagus - there are no hieroglyphs or artefacts. I've heard the pyramids in Luxor have much more exciting interiors.
Be prepared to be firm and be rude. People will try tricky ways of selling you things and you just have to not engage or say no with conviction. But actually, this wasn't as bad as I had prepared for and is mostly an issue just in one area as you come in. We actually got hassled way more aggressively in Milan, with people physically tying stuff on Tom's wrists and then asking for money. I found that most of the vendors were relatively friendly and banters but you still had to be dismissive. This also might be worse during peak seasons as we were there in January.
Personally, we didn't feel comfortable riding the camels or horses and these are the vendors that will hassle you most. This is a personal choice but to us they did not look well taken care of, and we watched in dismay with the horses skidding down the main stretch towards the sphinx. Apparently it's much better than it used to be, and I'm sure in areas of Egypt you can take legitimate camel rides where they are well taken care of, but keep this in mind and research well if you're going to do anything like this.
This was one I spent ages researching, finding lots of conflicting information. Finally I found a super helpful blog on Eat Sleep Breathe Travel which gave me first hand advice. Dress comfortable, particularly if you're planning on going in the main tomb as you will get quite dirty. It is also advisable to cover up your legs and arms as a woman, or even cover your knees and shoulders if you are man, but being such a tourist attraction I did see people dressed all sorts of ways with no issue. We also wore scarves to cover our heads if we did find ourselves somewhere it was required, but we never had to use them. I would recommend trainers over sandals because of the terrain and also be sure to bring sunglasses - you will be looking upwards most of the day and it's very dusty!
Don't bring a tripod unless you really need it for a particular shot - you will have to pay extra but you don't have to pay for just having a camera. If you really want a time-lapse or something, there are these handy big ol' blocks everywhere that make a fairly good place to stand your camera!
As ever, I would recommend buying a camera bag pack that is back opening for security. I use the LowePro Flipside 450 which is big enough for my DSLR, a big lens (if I had one!), a couple of water bottles, a few personal belongings inside and even fits a laptop for flights although this isn't super comfortable. To access the camera compartment, you can close the clips around your waist (also good for hiking) and flip it around your body - so you don't have to put anything down and you know no one can access it while you're wearing it. Even if you don't have a camera, these might be a good idea in some areas of the world - such as Barcelona which is known for its pickpocketing. Much more secure and substantial than a bumbag.
Travelling alone to the pyramids can be done but will be tricky. You will have to choose between going in the tombs and bringing your camera. Don't bring a big bag and they might even ask for your camera phone. There are not any form of substantial lockers, just open cubbys to leave things in. I wouldn't trust it. Also research some good general travel tips for being safe while travelling alone, and definitely use Ubers so you can share your location with someone when you're using them. This doesn't just go for Cairo.
The rest of the trip:
After a tiring and dusty morning we visited the museum which I would absolutely recommend, although we only spent a half a day there and you could absolutely spend one whole day as the collection is vast. Photographers be aware that they charge extra for a photography pass, which I chose not to do and just kept my camera in my backpack. Honestly I have no idea how they enforce this what with camera phones but I would follow the rules just in case.
On our last day went to Al-Azhar Park which was very peaceful and relaxing after several busy days in the city. Not long after arriving a couple approached us and (by gesturing) asked for a picture, which we first presumed was them asking for us to picture of them together but soon realised was actually them asking for a picture with my friend Tori and I. We laughed and Matt took a couple of pictures of us with the couple and then just with the young woman. A few minutes later, another couple asked for the same. As we walked around it safe to say a lot of eyes were on us but when we returned their stares we were mostly met with smiles. After a while we stopped making eye contact with people due to them wanting pictures. I've no doubt more pictures of us were taken without our realising.
We were warned we’d get stared at a lot in Cairo but I at least had interpreted this differently. While there was a degree of that, I hadn’t expected other women to be so interested in us. For the record, we both dressed with our arms and legs covered and wearing scarves round our necks, and we seemed to be dressed quite similar to other young women we saw.
As a white, English speaking, fairly privileged person who hasn’t travelled much before it was really eye opening and valuable to be on the receiving end of being visibly different. I couldn’t help but keep thinking about how women from Cairo might be treated in our country and feel ashamed of our national attitude towards other cultures. I didn’t know what to expect, but maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised it felt friendlier than London.
I don't doubt that others have had radically different experiences of Cairo, particularly women, and that there is a good chance we got lucky. We did not stray from the beaten track, something which I would say I generally prefer to do while I travel, but in this case it felt prudent and sensible.
All of this being said we had a fantastic and relatively easy time visiting Cairo, although I did feel quite tense for the duration of our stay. We met quite a few really friendly people in the passing and felt genuinely quite bad we had to be suspicious of their boundless hospitality. It was an utterly amazing experience, I would really recommend going if it's something you've always wanted to see. Would I go back? Maybe not to Cairo, I'm not sure what else we would do there and it is a very intense city, but if ever I have the opportunity to go to Luxor I would definitely feel more confident in going.
Places to stay:
We stayed at a hotel for work and then an AirBnB. Our AirBnB was absolutely lush and very cheap, but actually I would recommend staying at a big chain hotel. It might be more expensive but we felt very secure there and could also eat there in the evenings which was easier than venturing out in to town at night. We stayed at the Hilton Heliopolis Hotel, which was pretty expensive (we had been working in the building so it made sense) but had a bunch of restaurants, a spa and a couple of pools (which to my delight were visited by giant Egyptian fruit bats at night!) so had a lot of advantages. It was on the opposite side of town to the pyramids though so I'd advise finding somewhere similar nearer what you want to see. Also AirBnBs sometimes ask for proof that mixed gender groups are married and not cohabiting out of wedlock which isn't super practical for most people, although luckily ours was quite laid back.
Places to eat:
Since it was such a fleeting trip we didn't experience much local foods and mostly ate in hotels even when we were out and about.
Middle Eastern cuisine is actually quite vegan friendly, but it was sometimes dubious about how strictly vegan some of the foods were. I hope you like falafel!
General travel info:
Remember to check what shots you need plenty in advance and keep in mind that you cannot drink the tap water, so unfortunately you will need to buy bottled water as you go.
Would I go back?
I don't think I'd go back to Cairo in a hurry, as we achieved a lot there, however I'd love to go back to Egypt to explore Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.