The Treasures of Luxor, Egypt

Luxor, Egypt
By Rick Steves

With my travel spirit flapping happily in the breeze, I pedal through Luxor on my rented one-speed, catching the cool shade and leaving the stifling heat with the pesky baksheesh-beggar kids in the dusty distance.

Choosing the "local ferry" over the "tourist ferry," I'm surrounded by farmers rather than sightseers. As the sun rises, reddening the tomb-filled mountains, I pedal south along the West Bank of the Nile. The noisy crush of tourists is gone. The strip of riverbank hotels back in Luxor is faint and silent. I'm alone in Egypt: A lush brown-and-green world of reeds, sugarcane, date palms, mud huts, and a village world amazingly apart from what the average tourist sees.

An irrigation ditch leads me into the village of Elbairat. Here, I am truly big news on two wheels. People scurry, grabbing their families to see the American who chose them over King Tut. I'm sure, somewhere in the Egyptian babble, were the words, "My house is your house." They would have given me the key to the village, but there were no locks.

Elbairat is a poor village with a thriving but extremely simple farm economy. A little girl balances a headful of grass, heading home with a salad for the family water buffalo. A proud woman takes me on a tour of her mud-brick home, complete with a no-fly pantry filled with chicken and pigeons.

This is the real Egypt...how the majority of Egypt's 78 million people live. So close to all the tourists, yet rarely seen.

Start your Egyptian experience in the urban jungle of Cairo. It has a chaotic charm. With each visit, I stay at the Windsor Hotel. Stepping into the ramshackle elevator most recently, I asked the boy who ran it if he spoke English. He said, "Up and down." I said, "Up." He babied the collapsing door to close it, turned the brass crank to send us up, and expertly stopped us within an inch of the well-worn second-floor lobby where even people who don't write feel like writers. I kept looking for the English Patient.

Across the street, the neighborhood gang sat in robes sucking lazy waterpipes called shishas (a.k.a. hookahs or hubbly-bubblies). With everyone wearing what looked like hospital robes, playing backgammon and dominoes with pipes stuck in their mouths like oxygen tubes, and clearly going nowhere in a hurry, it seemed like some strange outdoor hospital gameroom. For about 25 cents, the smoke boy brought me one of the big free-standing pipes and fired up some apple-flavored tobacco.

For a sensuous immersion in this cultural blast furnace, hire a taxi and cruise through the teeming poor neighborhood called "old Cairo." Roll down the windows, crank up the Egyptian pop on the radio, lean out, and give pedestrians high fives as you glide by.

Then head for Luxor. The overnight train ride from Cairo to Luxor is posh and scenic, a fun experience itself. A second-class, air-conditioned sleeping car provides comfortable two-bed compartments, fresh linen, a wash basin, dinner, and a wake-up service.

I spent more time in and around Luxor than in any European small town, and I could have stayed longer. On top of the "village-by-bike" thrills, there are tremendous ancient ruins. The East Bank offers two famous sites: Karnak (with the Temples of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, one mile north of Luxor) and the Temple of Luxor, which dominates Luxor town.

To the ancient Egyptian, the world was a lush green ribbon cutting north and south through the desert. It was only logical to live on the East Bank, where the sun rises, and bury your dead on the West Bank, where the sun is buried each evening. Therefore, all the tombs, pyramids, and funerary art in Egypt are on the West Bank.

Directly across the Nile from Luxor is the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Deir el-Medina, Ramesseum, Colossi of Memnon, and the Valleys of the Kings, Queens, and Nobles. Be selective. You'll become jaded sooner than you think.

Luxor town itself has plenty to offer. Explore the market. You can get an inexpensive custom-made caftan with your name sewn on in arty Arabic. I found the merchants who pester the tourists at the tombs across the Nile had the best prices on handicrafts and instant antiques. A trip out to the camel market is always fun — and you can pick up a camel for half the US price. For me, five days in a small town is asking for boredom. But Luxor fills five days like no town its size.

Five Days in Luxor

Day 1. Take an overnight train from Cairo. If it's too early to check in, leave your bags at a hotel, telling them you'll return later to inspect the room. Hop a horse carriage to be at the temples at Karnak when they open, while it's still cool. These comfortable early hours should never be wasted. Check into a hotel by midmorning. Explore Luxor town. Enjoy a felucca boat ride on the Nile at sunset.

Day 2. Cross the Nile and rent a taxi for the day. It's easy to gather other tourists and split the transportation costs. If you're selective and start early, you'll be able to see the best sites and finish by noon. That's a lot of work, and you'll enjoy a quiet afternoon back in Luxor.

Day 3. Through your hotel, arrange an all-day minibus trip to visit Aswan, the Aswan Dam, and the important temples (especially Edfu) south of Luxor. With six or eight tourists filling the minibus, this day should not cost more than $20 per person.

Day 4. Rent bikes and explore the time-passed villages on the west side of the Nile. Bring water, your camera, and a bold spirit of adventure. This was my best Egyptian day.

Day 5. Tour the excellent Luxor museum. Enjoy Luxor town and take advantage of the great shopping opportunities. Catch the quick flight or overnight train back to Cairo.

Egypt seems distant and, to many, frightening. The constant hustle ruins the experience for some softer tourists. But once you learn the local ropes, that's less of a problem, and there's a reasonable chance you'll survive and even enjoy your visit.

In the cool months (peak season), it's wise to make hotel reservations. Off-season, in the sweltering summer heat, plenty of rooms lie vacant. Air-conditioning is found in moderately priced hotels. Budget hotels with a private shower, fan, and balcony offer doubles for around $20. A cot in the youth hostel costs $3. But Egypt is not a place where you should save money at the expense of comfort and health. For $100 you'll get a double room with a buffet breakfast in a First World resort-type hotel with an elitist pool and a pharoah's complement of servants.

Eat well and carefully. With the terrible heat, your body requires lots of liquid. Bottled water is cheap and plentiful, as are soft drinks. Watermelons are thirst quenching. Cool your melon in your hotel's refrigerator. Choose a clean restaurant. Hotels generally have restaurants comparable to their class and price range.

To survive the summer heat, limit your sightseeing day to 5 a.m. until noon. The summer heat, which they say can melt car tires to the asphalt, is unbearable and dangerous after noon. Those early hours are prime time: The temperature is comfortable, the light is crisp and fresh, and the Egyptian tourist hustlers are still sleeping. Spend afternoons in the shade. Carry water and wear a white hat (on sale there). An Egypt guidebook (I'd use one by Lonely Planet or Rough Guides) is a shield that shows unwanted human guides that you need no help.

Stay on the budgetary defense. No tip will ever be enough. Tip what you believe is fair by local standards and ignore the inevitable plea for more. Unfortunately, if you ever leave them satisfied, you were ripped off. Consider carrying candies or little gifts for the myriad children constantly screaming "Baksheesh!" ("Give me a gift!") Hoard small change in a special pocket so you'll have tip money readily available. Getting change back from your large bill is tough.

Transportation in and around Luxor is a treat. The local taxis are horse-drawn carriages. These are a delight, but drive a hard bargain and settle on a price before departing. The locals' ferry crosses the Nile from dawn until late at night and costs only pennies.

Travel on the West Bank by donkey, bike, or automobile taxi. You can rent donkeys for the romantic approach to the tombs and temples of West Thebes. Sun melts the romance fast. Bikes work for the cheap and hardy. A taxi is the quickest and most comfortable way to explore. When split among four, a taxi for the "day" (6 a.m. until noon) is reasonable. Save money by assembling a tour group at your hotel. You'll enjoy the quick meet-you-at-the-ferry-landing service and adequately cover Luxor's West Bank sights.

Cruise on the Nile in a felucca, the traditional sailboat, for just a few dollars an hour. Lounging like Cleopatra in the cool beauty of a Nile sunset is a romantic way to end the day and start the night.