14 Ways Egypt Surprised me – Part 1

14 Ways Egypt Surprised me – Part 1

If you like surprises, book a flight to #Egypt and you’re in for a treat. My stay may have been short, but it was sweet and packed with a lot of wonderful memories. Starting off the first half of my adventure with the #pyramids, I went on to see the boat museum, the Egyptian museum and ended it with a camel ride which I absolutely loved!


During my brief visit to Egypt, this diverse, historically and culturally rich country surprised me in a number of ways. Here is the first half of that story.

this diverse, historically and culturally rich country surprised me in a number of ways

Back in March, I went on my first paid assignment as an AFAR Ambassador. If you follow our Facebook Page or Twitter, you probably saw mention of my travels to Egypt and you might have wondered why I haven’t written about it. Actually, I have, in multiple places, just not here. Today I’m changing that.

In addition to sharing the work I did for AFAR and USTOA, I want to share some of my personal experiences and a ‘behind the scenes look’ at my all too brief visit to Egypt – a country that surprised me in many ways.

This post is different from my normal articles, because it shares some of my experiences as a travel writer, not just a tourist. I’ve kept my discoveries, more or less, in chronological order. This post is much longer than normal, but I hope you enjoy it.

Incredible Egypt – So much more than I expected
Incredible Egypt – So much more than I expected

A bit of Background

My assignment was to share how travellers could experience Egypt like a local while on an Abercrombie & Kent tour of the country.

Problem #1: Time – I did’t actually get to participate in the whole 10-day tour. I had just over 3 days to cram in as much Egypt as I could. While it was filled with extraordinary experiences (as you’ll see), it was no holiday. In 4 nights, I had about 7 hours of sleep. Total. While the other guests were lounging in their gorgeous rooms, I was huddled in the lobby (the only place I could get Wi-Fi) doing my required social media updates, responding to emails, and keeping CheeseWeb running. When I got home, I slept. For a day.

Problem #2: Restrictions on Media – This could also fall under things that surprised me about Egypt, but it’s important for background. Unlike anywhere else I have visited as a travel writer, Egypt placed restrictions on what we could do and (especially) film and photograph. I was travelling with several other journalists and we were required to register with the ministry of media and have a ‘minder’ with us for one day of our visit. It was truly odd. My hat goes off to the incredible A&K staff, who paved the way for us. They fought to show us the ‘real’ Egypt and not just the glossy brochure version. Even so, the ‘minder’ refused to let us eat street food in Cairo and was pretty particular about where I pointed my camera.

Now, on to the Good Stuff

First, I must admit, Egypt was never high on my ‘places to visit’ list. I felt a bit guilty about this, as I know it’s a dream destination for many. As a child, I loved reading about Ancient Egypt, and even went through a phase of wanting to be an archeologist, but that fascination didn’t carry into adulthood.

I know it’s a dream destination for many

It didn’t help that I had just come from my first experience in North Africa and it had been a challenging one. Add to that my fear of package tours and you can see why I had mixed feelings. While I was excited for this great opportunity, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of trepidation about the whole thing.

As soon as I set foot in Cairo Airport, all of that trepidation vanished.

Surprise #1 – Egyptians may Just be the Most Welcoming People on Earth

Before I even made it to baggage claim, smiling A&K representatives surrounded me, shaking my hands and welcoming me ‘home’. I felt like a VIP as they whisked me through customs. My passport re-emerged in my hands with a shiny new visa and I didn’t have to stand for one minute in the confusing line up. Score one major point for the package tour.

But it wasn’t just the fabulous folks at A&K who were friendly, the Egyptians I met in general were smiling, friendly, and curious. They wanted to know where we were from, why we were there and, most of all, what we thought of Egypt. “Welcome to Egypt” and “Thank you for visiting my country” were phrases I heard countless times over the coming days.

the Egyptians I met in general were smiling, friendly, and curious

Plenty of smiles and waves wherever we went
Plenty of smiles and waves wherever we went

Surprise #2 – the Pyramids are Right There

My plane landed in Cairo at 8:30 pm so I arrived at my hotel in the dark. The Mena Palace is an incredible hotel and the common areas still resemble the palace it once was. (Read my write up of the Mena Palace on AFAR.) But it’s the location that wows, more than anything.

Inside the Mena House Hotel in Cairo
Inside the Mena House Hotel in Cairo

The rooms are in a building separate from the lobby. My luggage and I were loaded into a golf cart and taken to my room. The attendant showed me the room amenities and then led me to the balcony. “Before I go, there is something you must see Madam. 

from  $115

Mena House Hotel

 6 Haram St, Pyramids Road, Cairo, Egypt
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Please sit.” He pointed to the lounge chair on the terrace. I sat and looked up. Through the dark, just beyond the hotel, I could see one of the Pyramids. The attendant pointed out the top of a second one, peeking over the Mena Palace.

just beyond the hotel, I could see one of the Pyramids

My first view of those famous pyramids
My first view of those famous pyramids

In the morning, I opened the curtains and saw this:

I am definitely in Egypt now
I am definitely in Egypt now

Now, rationally, I know the pyramids are close to the city. I even looked up the hotel on Google Maps before visiting. However, there’s something about waking up and seeing those giant triangles of stone looming over you that is unforgettable. I was undoubtedly in Egypt.

Surprise # 3 – Package Tours are not all Created Equally

The first time I ever visited Europe was on a package tour. Andrew and I boarded a Contiki tour bus full of twenty-somethings, the year after we were married. We saw 14 cities in 16 days. It was wonderful, crazy, and we pretty much swore we’d never do it again.

We saw 14 cities in 16 days

While we love to explore the world on our own, we have agreed, there are certain times and certain locations, when a guide is necessary. Still, the sight of big groups of tourists in matching hats, trooping after someone holding a flag in the air, sends me into convulsions. Abercrombie & Kent couldn’t be farther than that image and I would, without hesitation, recommend them to anyone (myself included).

A&K also allowed us to have truly local experiences. While we were hitting the big tourist sites, we also had time to meet people from all walks of Egyptian society and gain insight into not only the past but recent events as well. (Read about my local experiences on the USTOA blog.)

insight into not only the past but recent events as well

Surprise #4 – The Pyramids are Really big – and Empty

Despite being the main attraction in Egypt, the pyramids were not my favourite ancient site. (We’ll get to that soon). However, I can’t deny, from the outside they are impressive.

The Pyramids at Giza are vast and touching them for the first time was truly a thrill
The Pyramids at Giza are vast and touching them for the first time was truly a thrill
When you see how tiny the people are compared to the stones, you begin to realize how huge the pyramids really are
When you see how tiny the people are compared to the stones, you begin to realize how huge the pyramids really are

You can go inside the Great Pyramid, but honestly, there is nothing to see. It’s quite a trek to get inside, up a steep incline, to reach a small, empty chamber. You can’t take photos inside, although I honestly don’t know what you would photograph. If you’re pressed for time, admire the pyramids from the outside and then move on.

If you’re pressed for time, admire the pyramids from the outside and then move on

Surprise #5 – The sun Boat Museum is Fascinating

The Sun Boat Museum was fascinating
The Sun Boat Museum was fascinating

Right behind the largest pyramid is the Solar Boat Museum. It was the one thing on my agenda I expected would be boring. I was wrong. 

Surprise #6 – Riding a Camel is Touristy, but I Loved it

Touristy but fun- The ‘Egyptian Taxi’ is everywhere
Touristy but fun- The ‘Egyptian Taxi’ is everywhere

You can’t avoid the ‘Egyptian Taxis’ all around the Giza Plateau. Yes it’s the touristy thing to do, but it was still one of my favourite experiences.

Surprise #7 – the Egyptian Museum is Vast (and Well Guarded)

You could spend a whole day at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and you probably should. I just had a few hours there and I was literally running from exhibit to exhibit. You aren’t permitted to take photos inside (I had special permission thanks to my ‘minder’) but honestly you should just focus on taking it all in.

you should just focus on taking it all in

The Egyptian Museum
The Egyptian Museum
Inside the Egyptian Museum
Inside the Egyptian Museum

Having a great guide here is well worth it, because there is little explanation of the individual items. In fact, a new modern museum, near the pyramids, is in the works. It will be much better for preserving the artifacts and easier for tourists to get to. Still, there’s a great colonial atmosphere in the current museum: the dusty shelves, the cluttered displays. I kind of loved it.

Having a great guide here is well worth it, because there is little explanation of the individual items

Clattered but Charming – the displays of the Egyptian Museum
Clattered but Charming – the displays of the Egyptian Museum

Of course the big draw is this guy.

Meeting King Tut face to face
Meeting King Tut face to face

All I can say is seeing King Tut’s treasures in photos and film, does not do justice to the opulence and sheer volume of objects that came out of a tiny tomb.

A small taste of the treasures pulled from King Tut’s tomb
A small taste of the treasures pulled from King Tut’s tomb

One aspect of the museum, you won’t see in the brochures, is the huge police and army contingent guarding the building. The museum is located in the heart of Cairo, just steps from where the bulk of the Arab Spring uprising took place. During the confusion, a few of the artifacts were stolen or damaged. Since then, the museum has been under heavy guard to protect the invaluable history here.

The heavily guarded Museum was in the centre of the revolution
The heavily guarded Museum was in the centre of the revolution

I can honestly say I have never walked a gauntlet of tanks to enter a museum before.

After the museum… we went for food.

Next week, I’ll share my Egyptian food finds
Next week, I’ll share my Egyptian food finds

Pop by next week for the second half of my whirlwind tour in Egypt (including the tasty treats we discovered!).

While in Egypt I was on assignment for AFAR and USTOA. I was a guest of Abercrombie & Kent tours and Experience Egypt. All opinions expressed here are, as always, my own.

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