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Quick budget getaways: 36 hours in Luxor

In Cairo, we often put a lot of pressure on a trip. We break the internet researching “things to do in X” or “most affordable places to stay in Y.” We save up for months and wait for vacations and long weekends to get ourselves out of the city.

But travel doesn’t need all that fuss. In Egypt, it can be spontaneous and inexpensive. If you step out of Cairo and the usual suspects like Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Ain Sokhna, it can be incredibly good value. And personally, quick getaways keep me sane and able to deal with the crazy city I live in.

Last weekend, I spent exactly 36 hours in Luxor,site of the ancient city of the New Kingdom Thebes (16th century-11th century BC), and it was totally worth the long trip.

On a whim a friend of mine had over Christmas, we went there to take a ride on the infamous hot air balloon which allows for an aerial view of some of the city’s amazing sights. My friend invited a friend of hers, who in turn invited a friend of his, so we became a little group of friends and strangers traveling together with no particular plan. We agreed to keep the trip low-budget given that the balloon alone costs 40 euros per person (were we foreign, of course, hotel, sights and transport would cost a fair bit more — as we’ll see).

So we took the overnight train, but not the sleeper, to go and come back. On the way we got the Spanish train (apparently built or renovated in Spain). Tickets from Cairo were LE110 for first class and LE60 for second class, and we opted for first. While the ride was hectic and freezing, I did get a semi-decent night’s sleep. But I’m blessed with a tendency to sleep soundly on any moving vehicle (lots of childhood practice) — my companions had a rockier night, as I discovered when we arrived at 9 am in Luxor. On our way back we took the new “VIP train,” which was a significant upgrade. Second class was the same price as Spanish first class but much warmer and more comfortable (first class VIP train tickets would have been LE200). Foreigners going to Upper Egypt are only allowed to catch the sleeper, though, for which tickets are around US$100.

Renting an apartment from Airbnb, we stayed on the west bank of the Nile, overlooking the Luxor Temple on the other side. The apartment was in an “apartment hotel” called Abdu’s and run by Abdel Rasul (whose nickname is Abdu), a very warm and helpful host. The two-bedroom place cost $US40 (LE300) per night, with wifi, satellite television, and shared use of a beautiful terrace and swimming pool.

Our first morning was spent lounging in the sun on the terrace, after having eggs and delicious Egyptian white cheese at one of the Nile-side restaurants next to our apartment. We had missed the sun in Cairo, and Luxor’s winters are famous for their amazingly bright days with moderate temperatures.

In the afternoon Abdu treated us to a sunset boat ride to Banana Island, which is actually very underwhelming, but we had a nice walk through endless banana fields. This was marred by one incident: During the walk you bump into two cages which have crocodiles in them, and their keepers poke them with the stick to get them to make a sound, which I just found pretty sad. In another tiny cage some snakes eat little mice.

As city-dwellers, we don’t get to do much walking through fields, and while I wouldn’t say Banana Island is a Luxor must-see, it was free and the walk largely pleasant, ending up near a dock where you can have tea and fresh bananas.

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luxor sunrise

That evening we treated ourselves to dinner at the Lantern Room on the busy Rawda al-Sharifa Street, which has lots of boutique eateries and bars. The restaurant was elegant, service swift, and the food, an assortment of original versions of local and international dishes, delicious. We fell in love with a fried camembert appetizer with sweet chilli sauce. Between the four of us we had three appetisers, four mains and drinks, and each paid LE120, including tips.

After dinner, we walked back in an attempt to break down all the fried cheese and meat, passing several interesting bits graffiti and street signage. Pictured above is some leftover revolutionary graffiti, innovative advertising for the Luxor Egyptian and European Film Festival, and one of the Luxor Traffic Authority’s pop culture, social media, rhymes and puns inspired attempts to encourage people to respect the various traffic laws.

Translation: I’m surprised at the citizen! They waste hours in front of TV series but drive in the wrong direction on a one way street to save a few minutes!! With regards, Luxor Traffic Authority.

I’m surprised at the citizen! They waste hours in front of TV series but drive in the wrong direction on a one way street to save a few minutes!! With regards, the Luxor Traffic Authority.

We reached the Luxor Temple (founded in 1400 BC) for the last hour before it closed. It was lovely in the evening with its soft tungsten lighting and the sounds of chants and drumming coming out of the Abu Haggag mosque, built into the temple. The mosque’s minaret is believed to be 12th century.

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The following morning we dragged ourselves out of our warm beds into the shivering cold at 4 am to take our hot air balloon ride. It was the reason we were in Luxor. It was priced LE250 (significantly cheaper than we had found online) and our microbus picked us up promptly at 5:15 am. We sat near the hotel waiting for the other riders to arrive. By then it was 6 am and we were cold, mosquito-bitten and anxious to catch the sunrise. “Can’t we just go without them if they’re late?” we kept asking the guides, who replied that they were also waiting for the air controllers to give them the okay to fly since fog meant visibility was low. Eventually we realised the inevitable had happened. Our balloon trip was cancelled.

We were a bit disappointed since we had to be in Cairo the next morning and therefore wouldn’t get another chance to get on a balloon. But we swallowed our sorrows, got a refund, had a short nap, and decided to make the most of our last day in Luxor with some intense sightseeing.

The Valley of the Kings is full of pharaohs’ and aristocrats’ tombs constructed over a period of 500 years, and we got access to three tombs with our LE10 tickets (foreigners LE100), with the option of buying extra tickets for the Tutankhamun tomb (LE50) and the Ramsis VI tomb (LE35). We opted for the latter since we heard King Tut’s tomb wasn’t particularly interesting and all its artefacts are in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Ramsis VI’s tomb was indeed impressive, with a long corridor leading to one chamber after another in which writing and drawings, some engraved and others painted, covered the entire walls and ceilings. It was like being transported into another dimension. We were overwhelmed with the beauty of the tombs constructed for the pharaoh’s afterlife.

The Tutmose III tomb is also captivating. You have to climb up and down a lot of steps to get in and out of it, but it’s well worth the trouble. Tutmose ruled for 54 years (22 with his stepmother and mother-in-law Queen Hatshepsut when he served as head of her army) and in that time created the largest empire in Egypt’s history. Historians later dubbed him “the Napoleon of Egypt.” But his tomb is unfinished, with its drawings painted rather than carved.

After the Valley of the Kings we paid a visit to Hatshepsut’s temple. Parts of it are thought to have been intentionally torn down because of a spiteful Tutmose III and his successor and son Amenhotep II  Hatshepsut assumed the position of pharaoh during his reign and delayed his son’s. But the temple is great. She was one of the most successful pharaohs in creating a strong government, construction projects and trade routes, and besides her mortuary temple on the west bank she contributed various structures to Karnak Temple, including one of the oldest still-standing obelisks in the world.

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Our final stop was the Karnak Temple back on the east bank. We only had an hour and a half since we had to catch our fancy train at 9 pm. But on arrival we realized that it’s closed at night and you can only visit it by seeing the sound and light show. We’d just missed the moderately priced Arabic one (LE20) so had to go for the English version at a hefty LE100. The guards sympathized with our Egyptianess, though, and let us have 50 percent off.

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The show was really impressive. Spectacular voiceovers, light manipulations and projections told us the stories of the temple and the pharaohs — approximately 30 built over 2000 years — who contributed to its structure. 

Afterward we found our way from temple to station, where a predictable and fortunate few-minute delay to our train gave us time to buy sandwiches from the makeshift cart on the platform and gasp as the vendor hopped back and forth across the empty rails to grab missing ingredients from his colleague on the other side. Just as we knew the train would eventually arrive, somehow we knew that Mr. Sandwichman would make it safely to the other side.

The guide:

  • Find your trains on the Egyptian Railways website and book in advance at Ramsis Train Station, any Central, or via services like Mashaweer or E7gezli.

  • Book an apartment through Airbnb or find hotels through or Trip Advisor.

  • The hot air balloon can either be booked through the hotel you stay in, by walking down the east bank corniche to find a tourism company, or online.

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist