City Guide to Cairo, Part 3: The Great Pyramids of Giza
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This is part three of a multiple part series in our City Guide to Cairo. Don't miss part one and two!
- City Guide to Cairo, Part 1: Things to Know Before You Visit
- City Guide to Cairo, Part 2: Sightseeing Itinerary
Today was the big day; it was the day we’d be seeing the Giza Pyramids! We set aside the entire day to explore the complex and enjoy the major attraction. We left considerably early in the morning, to avoid the sun and heat of the day as much as possible. Our goal was to be there at opening time. We did a bit of research online, and from what we could tell, it opened most of the year each day, at 8 am. However, during the summer, of which we had just entered, it opened at 7 am. We called down to the front desk of our hotel to confirm the 7 am opening, and they did. We set our alarm nice and early and were outside waiting for our Uber ride a few minutes before 7 am. However, when we arrived at the bottom of the hill that leads to the Giza Pyramid complex, we were turned away. We couldn’t understand the security guard, and our driver didn’t speak English, however, we did get the feeling that something was off. We’re not sure if a small ‘tip’ (commonly referred to locally as 'baksheesh') to the guard would have gotten us on the grounds, or if it really was closed until 8 am. Instead of waiting, since our hotel was only a few minutes away, we chose to go back to the hotel and come back an hour later.
Giza Pyramids – Giza Necropolis
Built during the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, the three Great Pyramids have become synonymous with Egypt. Khufu’s pyramid, known as the Great Pyramid of Giza, is the largest and oldest of the three pyramids. It’s the first pyramid you’ll see when you enter the complex. Stand below it and you’ll get a full feel for the 481 feet it stands above the ground. It’s thought that this was the tallest man-made structure in the world for nearly 3,800 years. Pyramid of Khafre, to the south west of Khufu’s pyramid, may look taller, however at a height of 40 feet less (441 feet in total height), the son of Khufu had his pyramid built on higher ground. You’ll also notice that this is the only pyramid that still has a significant amount its limestone covering in place. The third pyramid, Pyramid of Mankaure, is the smallest, standing at 339 feet.
In addition to the three Great Pyramids, the complex is the site of smaller pyramids built for queens, the Great Sphinx of Giza, cemeteries, worker complexes, and the Khufu Ship. Although these structures of great wonder were built nearly 5,000 years ago, discoveries are still being made. The Khufu ship wasn’t discovered until 1954, and just as recently as 2011, a portion of the wall around the Great Sphinx of Giza was uncovered.
Guide or No Guide
We spent a decent amount of time considering whether we should take a tour, have a guide, or go at it alone (DIY) when visiting the Giza Pyramid Complex. Here's our list of pros for both options:
Pros of Taking a Tour or Having a Guide
- Air-conditioned vehicle.
- Knowledgeable guide (we'd hope so!).
- We wouldn’t miss seeing anything.
- Someone to take pictures for us.
- A guide would manage and reduce the amount of people who approached us to offer services (guides, camel and horse rides, photography, etc).
- A guide would keep away the scammers (demanding to see our tickets, asking for more money, etc).
- Easy, and less work.
Pros to Going at it Alone (DIY)
- No additional cost beyond the entrance tickets.
- We could see things on our time schedule.
- No need to book anything, just arrive.
- We’d only have ourselves to worry about, not additional tourists with us.
Of course there are cons to every option as well. The more we read up on tips to seeing the pyramids, the more we heard stories about how much haggling the visitors had to deal with, how hot it was and that walking on your own would be miserable. However, we hesitated, we like doing things on our own and really didn’t want to book a tour if we didn’t have to. Ultimately, we reached out to a tour guide that was recommended by a blogger to see if he was available, but the email bounced ('un-deliverable'). We then considered hiring a tour company, but we noticed that tours were a minimum of four hours and seemed to include entry into the Great Pyramid (something we’d decided not to do, more on that soon). Four hours was just more time than we wanted to commit to. So, even though we were still a bit uneasy (yes, Shannon more so than Sergio), we went ahead and committed to doing it on our own. After all, isn’t that what adventures are about!?
We’d read about plenty of scams ahead of time, so we were prepared. And it’s a good thing we were. On our second attempt to visit the pyramids (after 8 am!), our Uber driver stopped and pulled over for a gentleman that waived him down on the road up to the main entrance. He was trying to sell us a carriage ride to the top, telling us that it was the only way to get to the entrance. We knew this wasn’t true, so we declined. He then went as far as to get in the passenger’s side of the car, even when we told the driver to tell the man that we weren't interested. The Uber driver didn’t really know what to do, he froze and simply looked at us, as to say ‘I can’t take you any further’. The man pointed to his badge and told us he worked there, a tactic we’d seen several times on this trip already. We finally responded to him with a louder ‘NO THANK YOU’, and told the driver to end the Uber, we’d simply walk the remainder of the way (it was only a few hundred feet to the entrance). Miraculously the man selling the carriage ride left us alone and our Uber driver offered to take us to the entrance. We said goodbye to the driver at the entrance, although he continued to charge the ride until he'd made it to Alexandria, Egypt, nearly two hours later; something we of course took up with Uber. Was it deliberate or was he flustered with the situation at the Pyramid entrance and didn’t realize he hadn't completed the ride on his end of the Uber App? We’ll never know.
We purchased our tickets for the basic entrance to the complex ('Area' tickets). This is where, if we wanted to, we’d have to purchase tickets to go inside the Great Pyramid, but we just didn’t think it was worth it. From pictures and experiences we’d read about, it was pretty much tight quarters and narrow tunnels that led to a big open room with nothing more than an empty sarcophagus. It might be worth the experience, ‘hey once in a lifetime’ right? But for us, we decided not to. Basic tickets ('Area' tickets) were E£80, which was just under $4.50 US dollars at the time of our visit, and granted access to just about everything in the complex. Going inside the Great Pyramid and seeing the Khufu Ship are additional costs.
We walked up to the Great Pyramid (Pyramid of Khufu) and had the view of a lifetime. There’s nothing like that first view, right up close, where you have to strain your neck to see the tip top of the Great Pyramid. There are a few well worn steps that you can climb up for pictures, it's also the path towards the entrance to go inside the pyramid. We moved rather quickly here, knowing that we’d be able to come back. Since the park had just opened, we wanted to get ahead of other people and enjoy as much of it as we could with less people around.
As we made our way to the other side of the Pyramid of Khufu, we had several people approaching us, asking us to buy something, take a tour, take a ride on their camel, or to take a picture of both of us. We even had someone ask to see our tickets, insisting that he worked there. We refused and kept walking. However, we learned a huge lesson. If you engage in conversation, for example answering them with where you’re from, the person will follow you for quite some ways. We decided from that point forward, we’d simply say ‘no thank you’ and keep doing what we were doing or continue walking. We learned later that “no thank you” in Arabic is “La Shokran”, a handy phrase to learn. It’s hard, because we want to be kind and our nature isn’t to be short or dismissive of people. Each and everyone one of these vendors were just trying to make a living, put a roof over their head and food on the table. They weren’t inherently bad people, just persistent.
We continued on and saw the Great Sphinx of Giza. It was incredible because there were only two other people around during the 15-20 minutes we admired the structure and took pictures. The other areas in the complex had anywhere from a dozen to fifty visitors around, but not here. We think it may be because we went there first, while most people possibly go to the main lookout point first. But that's just our theory.
After admiring the most well known and the largest sculpture of a sphinx in the world, we walked up the road to the smaller pyramids and then made our way to the main outlook. The road is easily walkable for anyone in moderate shape, however it does get pretty hot. We arrived at the Giza Pyramid Complex at the opening time to avoid the harsher mid-day sun, however we were still in the middle of the hot Egyptian desert. Our daypacks were packed with extra water and we had plenty of sunscreen on. If you're not up for the walk, most people have a guide take them by car, camel, or horse. Either way, going to the lookout is a must, it's the place where you can get the pictures of all the pyramids lined up. We're not sure our trip would have been complete without that staple tourist photo! It’s also the place where people get the iconic shots of the pyramids with someone standing with their finger touching the tippy-top of a pyramid, or sitting on the wall ‘leaning’ against a pyramid. It’s actually an amusing sight to see, a crowd of 40-50 people, all standing on the sand, posing with their arm up in the air, with the occasional person doing the ‘jumping’ shot.
Why We Chose Not to Ride a Camel
There's so much behind the choice of riding a camel or not. First off, this is a personal decision, and everyone needs to do what they’re comfortable with. Which is exactly what we did. It also should be mentioned that we are by no means veterinarians, nor are we animal, horse, or camel experts. Frankly, we’re far from experts of anything.
A camel ride around the pyramids is iconic. So much so, that it may seem like it must be done to have a complete experience. There are camels and horses a plenty, and they’re really very inexpensive to ride. Starting price, without negotiating while we were there was only E£50, roughly $3.00 US dollars. So, even with the additional money they’ll almost certainly request as a tip later on, it’s not expensive at all. However, we’d read stories about the poor conditions of the animals; that they were malnourished and had scars on their necks, possibly from mistreatment. We really wanted to take a camel ride, so we held out hope that we’d arrive and see very healthy animals. We were even willing to pay more for the ride if we could find a camel that looked well cared for. Unfortunately, by our not at all trained eye, we saw exactly what we’d read we’d see: camels that looked extremely skinny, only to be covered by fancy cloths, and necks with dark gashes on them (they didn’t look like brandings to us, but again, we’re not experts).
So, with a sad heart and desire to save every animal we saw, we declined the offers to take a camel or horse ride.
Things to Know Before You Go: Tips for the Giza Pyramids
- Be aware of your surroundings, it’s common for paths and roadways to be shared by camels, horses, cars, tour buses, carriages, and pedestrians.
- Despite what people say, you can walk the entire complex. Even to the outlook. If you’re in relatively good health, it shouldn’t be too difficult. However, take into account the sun and heat. It was in the mid-90’s and we did it without difficulty.
- People asking you for camel rides, horse rides, and other services will approach you constantly. If you don’t want it, we recommend saying no and moving on. Engaging in even the simplest of conversation or answering their questions, like ‘where are you from?’, will likely open up the gates for more questions and conversation, where they’ll continue to search for an ‘in’ to sell their service or get a tip.
- People may say that ‘sales pitches’ and the people ‘hustling’ are way too much. They can be if you let it get to you, but it’s really not as bad as people make it out to be, not in our opinion anyway. Just stay focused, enjoy the Pyramids, and don’t let it define or ruin your experience.
- There’s a tourist police station in the complex. It’s on the road that leads to the look out, near the second pyramid.
- If you purchase a camel or horse ride, negotiate the price, and be clear about what you’re paying for (how long, where to, how many people, etc.). Chances are, they’ll ask you for more money at some point, no matter how clear you were up front. Just expect it and calculate it into the price to begin with.
- Go to the bathroom ahead of time, there were very few facilities available. If you do need to use a restroom and can find one, have tissue with you and be prepared to tip the attendant.
Tips: What to Wear and Bring with You
- Bring water, and plenty of it. It’s a sandy desert and hot as all heck. There’s water to purchase on site if you need more. Just be sure the bottle cap seal hasn't been broken when you purchase it.
- Wear comfortable and durable shoes. We went back and forth on closed toed versus sandals. We have some awesome sandals (Bedrock Cairn Adventure Sandals), which we’d have been okay wearing. But, ultimately, were glad we chose to wear closed toed shoes. We rinsed them in the hotel sink to clean them up afterwards and they dried very quickly in the sun on our balcony. Contrary to what we read online, our shoes weren’t ‘destroyed’ by the end of the day. Well, not unless some soil and sand equals destruction. It’s to be expected, you’re in the dessert after all.
- Sunblock, sunblock, sunblock. The sun is intense and even with sunblock on, after only a couple of days in Egypt our skin was noticeably darker. If you can, consider a sun hat (we use Sunday Afternoon's Ultra Adventure Hat).
- Just like the rest of Cairo, you should dress conservatively. It’s a good idea to stay away from skirts (above the knee), shorts, tank tops, and tight fitting clothing. This applies to men as well.
- If anyone asks you for your tickets, don’t hand them over. We had people ask for them, who weren’t legitimate. And then, we had someone ask us who was. It’s hard to tell the difference between people who work there and those that don’t, since everyone is dressed in street clothing. We only showed the tickets when the gentleman insisted, wouldn’t let us pass, and had a walkie-talkie. Even then, we held on to them and didn’t give them to him, we simply showed them to him. We felt bad once we confirmed he actually worked at the pyramids but unfortunately, there’s really no consistent surefire way to be sure you’re not being scammed.
- Don’t let a local take a picture for you, and whatever you do, don’t hand them your camera. We prize our camera, it’s an amazing little piece of engineering (here are some examples of the quality you can expect) that Sergio poured hours into finding (Panasonic Lumix ZS100), so we’re extremely careful with it. It’s a good rule of thumb not to let someone who offers to take a picture for you, take it, since it could be a scam to steal your camera or hold it for a small tip/ransom. However, at the pyramids, be even more vigilant. It’s common for someone to offer to take a picture by what seems like the goodness of their heart, and then demand a tip. We saw two tourists stuck in this predicament, one man having taken the camera out of tourist’s hands. To avoid this situation, we only asked fellow tourists to take our picture.
- Even before you enter, you may be approached by someone telling you that you need to take a carriage ride to the entrance, that the entrance is a different way, or that you can only enter with a tour guide. This isn’t true, plain and simple. Simply decline and keep walking up the hill, the entrance is essentially impossible to miss.
Our Impressions of Cairo
If you made it this far, through parts one and two of our Cairo adventures, you have a pretty good understanding of our time in Cairo. We were so eager and enthusiastic to go to Cairo and see such an old city that held both modern and ancient history. However, our excitement was subdued by some of the experiences we had. Experiences that we haven’t had in the last 6+ months of travel. We’re not sure if this is just ‘normal life’ in Cairo, part of the history and culture as it’s always been, or if this is a byproduct of the recent revolution. Cairo, as we’ve read and heard from other people, is a place of mixed reviews. However, if your adventure level is high and you go with eyes wide open, we think it should be a place you consider visiting. We’re glad we went, and can even see going back someday. However, unlike our usual advice of going at it alone, we’d probably have a local guide or ‘fixer’ to show us around.
Catch Up On Parts One and Two!
This is the final part of our City Guide to Cairo. Don't miss out on the rest of the guide and our adventures!
- City Guide to Cairo, Part 1: Things to Know Before You Visit
- City Guide to Cairo, Part 2: Sightseeing Itinerary