Despite its grandeur and history, Cairo can get monotonous. The notorious rush hours, the grey buildings, the vendors and the honking cars; the city shares many of these features with any other major city, but when was the last time you could take a weekend off to see pharaonic monuments in New York or lush greenery in the middle of a beautiful desert outside of London? Luckily, these locations are only a few hours to a day away from Cairo and with some help, you could skip that fourth trip to the citadel in favour of something more unique.
Tour Egypt has been organising these weekend getaways for 15 years and they regularly visit one of their most popular but still mostly underrated locations, including Siwa, relatively accessible to Cairenes, as well as other locations that will help you find appreciation for the deserts that form the majority of Egypt’s land.
The road to Siwa
The only way to get to Siwa is via the Alamein Road on Egypt’s north coast where visitors will often stop for the night in Matruh before continuing their journey from there. The road is usually taken on a private bus and after the initial three to four hours to Matruh, and a night’s rest, another eight hours on a direct road leads to Siwa. The road is smooth and direct but Karim Elemam, manager of Tour Egypt, warned it could be full of fog in the winter. “We often do this on a long weekend where we take Thursday off as well.”
Elemam said it is important to travel during daylight because camels regularly cross the road and may not be visible at night. Besides, travelling during the day enables one to make scenic stops. “When you are in the Alamein area, be sure to visit the WWII cemeteries of Germany and Italy, where the battle of Alamein took place,” he said.
There are also many monasteries along the way, in the Wadi Natroun area before Alamein, but Elemam said you should visit those on their own and not sacrifice precious time on a short break.
There is a military airport close by, but you need special permission from the military to use it.
“There were plans to build a direct road from Cairo to Siwa but so far nothing has materialised. The proposed road would save three hours of time and so reduce the time of the trip from eight hours to five,” Elemam said.
Siwa is essentially a small village in the middle of nowhere. Its people are called Siwis and they speak their own language, Siwi, which only exists in spoken form. Siwis are known for their hospitality and their honesty; the locals frequently leave doors and cars open and unlocked.
Elemam described them as being “very religious” and “almost Salafi” but he noted that they are extremely welcoming to tourists. “Siwis are very conservative; you will not see Siwi women a lot, for example. But they are welcoming to tourists and as long as you use common sense, they will welcome you into their community.”
But common sense, Elemam explained, does not mean one needs to cover from head to toe or be tense about dealing with the locals. “Just remember that this is not Gouna.You cannot walk around in you bathing suit, for example.The locals will not do anything but they will take it as a sign of disrespect. This goes for the men as well. They are a conservative culture, so men cannot walk around the village shirtless,” he said.
The village is famous for its springs and Elemam said the same guidelines should be followed when swimming there, “just use your head,” he said.
The locals have a strong sense of pride, so attempting to give tips is not advised.
“Everything in Siwa operates on a more relaxed and informal system than in any city,” Elemam said. “There is no official check in and out or even the same sense of timing. Many of the locals speak English since many work in the tourism industry.”
Siwa is famous for dates and its agriculture has provided them with a steady supply of tourists throughout most of the year. The old town is built largely out of mud brick and the older houses are carved into the mountain where one can watch the sunset or the sunrise enjoying a panoramic view of the surrounding area.
What to do there
The main attraction in Siwa, besides the desert, is the town itself. Unlike other oases in Egypt, where the desert is what drives most to visit, the town in Siwa has historical monuments and there is a lot to do in the small village.
Elemam said many locals use bicycles to get around since cars are expensive and Siwa is isolated. “Visitors can use them to get around as well,” he said. There is the famous Cleopatra spring that is almost as big as a swimming pool. The springs in Siwa are famous for their therapeutic properties and their mineral content. “There are both hot and cold natural springs all around the village, all next to each other,” said Elemam.
Elemam said the springs should be avoided on a Friday. “This is when the locals kids will come to the springs and it becomes very crowded. Other days are better for a more relaxed experience.”
The great sea of sand can be used for sand boarding, whileyou can visit pharaonic monuments, such as the mountain of the dead and the temple of Amun Ra in the Dakrur mountain are nearby. “The sands in Siwa are said to be therapeutic also and this, coupled with the springs, is a reason why many visitors go,” he said.
Camping is another activity that Elemam said compliments the trip. “Camping there is great, the stars are breathtaking, you can barbecue, sometimes people will play music and the desert is beautiful.”
The island of Fatnas, actually a peninsula but called an island nonetheless, is a famous place where many go to relax and enjoy the outdoors. “We take our 4x4s, pack a light lunch and go to the desert. The place is very relaxing and people will sometimes sit there for quite some time meditating in silence,” Elemam said.
Finally, the sunsets and the sunrises are something you will definitely not experience in Cairo and Elemam said the simple act of watching the sun set or rise is one of their most popular activities. “From the old town you can see the whole oasis with the sun and the beautiful weather, it is definitely something to behold.”
When to go
Siwa has a moderate climate and AC is not needed for most of the year, even though many hotels are equipped with it. “The winter is when most people go but if you want to camp, then summer would be best because the night is very cold in winter,” Elemam says.
Any time around the official holidays, such as Eid and Sham El Neseem, will be crowded. Elemam said, “we see more and more schools organise trips to Siwa and this is when they go.
“The spring and the fall is when you have the mildest weather and most foreigners prefer the winter because the heat is often too harsh to what they are used to,” he added.
Where to stay
“Siwa has hotels and lodges that range all the way from EGP 30 to $600 and above per night. There is a famous luxury hotel that VIP guests have stayed in, but the hotel does not release the names of their guests,” said Elemam.
The hotel is called Adrere Amellal and Prince Charles famously stayed there in 2006. Elemam believes it is the most expensive hotel in Egypt. The electricity-free eco-lodge is an environmentalist’s dream, often hailed as a model for sustainable tourism and development. With the likes of Prince Charles, however, we can be sure that the experience comes at a very steep price.
There are numerous other eco-lodges around the village. “Most of the more affordable ones are located in the old town, known as Shali, where houses are carved into the mountain,” said Elemam.
“Unsurprisingly, most people tend to favour the places in between these two extremes so that they have a less jarring transition from what they are used to.”
The hotels can easily be managed through your travel company and Elemam recommends you do not try to manage it yourself since the travel companies that do this often have their own connections and have penetrated the local community. “Most of the hotel owners will be local, so it is easier to have someone who has been doing this for a while do it for you if they have the connections.”
Elemam says his company has been making trips to Siwa every weekend for three years, but they recently reduced their trips to every other weekend until tourism in Egypt recovers from the current slump.
If Siwa whetted your appetite for more desert and green, Tour Egypt organises weekend trips to the Bahariya oasis as well. The road is, thankfully, direct from Cairo but it is 360km and as Elemam warned, “it is the most boring road ever. There is nothing to do or see except when you are actually there. Though it is probably safer than Sinai today, I would still recommend you go by day.”
The oasis give you access to the white and black deserts. “The deserts are right next to each other and are literally white or black in colour, the white desert has beautiful sand and rock formations that are moon-like, while the black desert has volcanic remnants that give it its name,” explained Elemam.
“Among the things you could do there is visit the Bahariya museum, the English mountain, the Crystal mountain and the Black mountain. The mountains are in the desert itself and they are famous for the way they look and their unusual rock formations. The desert is the oasis’ biggest attraction and is worth going for in itself,” Elemam said.
The trip to Bahariya is done early on a Friday. “We arrive there after prayer and we return on Saturday night to Cairo,” he said.
“Most of our clients are not Egyptian, but they are not regular tourists either. They are usually expatriates or foreigners who are staying in Egypt for a longer period of time. Most people do not visit the oases unless they stay for two or three weeks in Egypt. If you are here for a few days or a week, it is very unlikely that you will go out of your way to visit an oasis. Not to mention, many travel companies do not tell their clients about it if they are not staying very long,” said Elemam.
“We have had all kinds of people, like foreign students, though we have had professors too,” he said.
Elemam says that since the revolution, the number of expatriates living in Egypt has gone down substantially but he is hopeful that the tourism industry will recover when the country is more stable.
“We usually have 10-12 people per weekend trip and we adjust the bus size accordingly,” he said.
“Tour Egypt is the oldest tourism website in the country,” said Elemam. “We have over 10,000 articles and we focus on culture more than we do profit. We really want people to learn about this country,”
The company has been around for 15 years and has been doing the Siwa trip for the last three. Elemam said many people have contributed over the years to developing and adding to the content on their website. “We have contributions from staff as well as freelance writers and we have everything from antiquities to history, food and a kids’ section with crossword puzzles to help them learn about Egypt.”
The company organises other weekend trips to low-key or unorthodox places for foreigners in Egypt such as Rosetta by the Nile, the Dakhla and Kharga oases, Minya, Fayoum, and Wadi El Hitan, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Places like Elba Mountain, a national park on the border of Egypt with Sudan, is currently only allowed for Egyptians. “It is a beautiful but inconvenient place. The territory is disputed and where it used to be allowed to foreigners and Egyptians, it is now only allowed for Egyptians and with special permission from the appropriate authorities,” said Elemam.
Elemam said that the classics are still the most popular. “I do not mean Sharm El Sheikh or Hurghada, I mean Luxor, Aswan, Cairo and Egypt’s deserts. We focus on trips that feature interaction. If we go to Sharm El Sheikh, everyone will stay in the hotel and go out on their own at night and that does not necessitate our presence except for logistics. The White Desert has been very popular, I have been there 13 times myself.”
When it comes to Sinai, Elemam said that after the revolution and in the current situation, the region has ceded its most popular position to other places in Egypt but it still contains attractions that cannot be found anywhere else, “places like Hamam Mousa or St. Catherine, Tur Mountain and the coloured Canyon.”
Siwa has proven to be one of their most popular trips, “Siwa does not get its fair share in general and it is under the mercy of Cairo but nonetheless, its popularity has risen and in comparison to the Bahariya oasis, people often find the town much nicer.”