After our tough week in Luxor, we were eager to get to Aswan and see what life on Elephantine Island would be like. Our travel day was slightly stressful dealing with aggressive porters and the train delayed for over an hour, but we met a nice couple on the platform that made passing the time faster and the three-hour journey was comfortable. Unfortunately our Airbnb host was late picking us up, which didn’t get us off on a great foot, but we managed.
Arrival and Island Life
Elephantine Island seemed to us unlike anywhere else in Egypt, mostly because there are no cars and the dirt roads are the width of sidewalks. There are a few hotels (including the huge fancy resort called Movenpick) and a number of Airbnb guest houses like the one we stayed in (review below), but we saw far more locals than tourists anytime we walked around the island. The Nubian architecture was quite unique and it really felt unlike anywhere else we’d been in Egypt.
The Nubian people living there are very traditional. Our host warned us the culture is very conservative so we should be more modest with dressing (not a problem for us). You can reach the island by public ferry or private boat but there were far fewer private boats than in Luxor so we generally used the public ferry, which runs fairly frequently (every 10-15 minutes) but is still segregated by gender so Chad and I weren’t allowed to sit together. The women ride in the smaller section at the front of the boat and the men in the back by the captain.
The island was much quieter than everywhere we’d been in Egypt and since there were no cars, we weren’t constantly offered taxis. Though occasionally we’d get approached about hiring a felucca or doing a tour. Most of the highest rated restaurants in Aswan are on the island, all with similar menus with Nubian cuisine and many not serving alcohol (though the two we went to for dinner had beer).
Google Maps showed a couple grocery stores but these turned out to be very small so we crossed to Aswan for most of our grocery shopping. Luckily we did have a produce market close to our house, though it was also not always the best stocked. Our first night I made chicken noodle soup and the grocer didn’t have decent carrots in stock so it was just with onion, zucchini, and canned corn (which was actually pretty good in the soup). Soup proved a good choice though since our small kitchen had several stock pots but no real pan.
Abu Simbel Trip
Aswan has a couple of interesting nearby temples but I believe its main draw is a base for seeing the Abu Simbel temple which is down by the Sudanese border, three and a half hours by car. There are dozens of bus tours down to Abu Simbel that leave around 4 a.m. but we chose to book a private driver through our host to try to avoid the bus crowds. The cost for the driver was $140, about double the cost of two tickets on the bus tour ($35 each).
We took the ferry across and met our driver about 6:30 a.m. because I’d read that the tours are there for less than two hours. However, there were still a few buses when we arrived. We bought our tickets and walked through to see the temples.
The Abu Simbel temples are very famous for a number of reasons. The main temple for Ramesses II is the iconic one you see in a lot of photos with the four huge seated Ramesses II statues. But perhaps its bigger claim-to-fame is that the temple had to be moved when the Aswan Dam was built in the 1960s because the original site is now submerged by the lake. The temples were impressive and the exhibits explaining this were very interesting.
We had a good time at Abu Simbel and it only took about an hour to see everything, but I’m not sure it was worth the 3.5 hours of driving each way or dealing with all the crowds. I also wished we’d left about 45 minutes later since by the time we were leaving all the buses were gone, and with the temples being indoors the heat wasn’t too bad later in the morning. Still, it was very cool and I know if we hadn’t worked it in, I’d always have wondered if we missed out on an epic experience.
Date Nights – Felucca Ride and Nubian Museum
We’d had enough of temples after Abu Simbel, so the only other touristy activities we did were a sunset felucca ride one evening and a trip to the Nubian Museum the other.
Feluccas are traditional sailboats on the Nile. It felt like we were constantly asked to buy felucca rides on the island until the afternoon we wanted to go for our sunset ride. We’d even told a man we’d meet him that day and time on the pier but he didn’t show up. So we walked around a bit and saw someone working on his felucca. We asked if he’d be willing to give us a sunset ride for an hour and negotiated a price of 500 Egyptian pounds. The no-show man had only asked 400, but this man said the extra 100 could be the tip and since it was only about $3 different it seemed fair. He has a friend who helps him that we waited just a few minutes for and we were off.
The ride was delightful, so relaxing and the sunset was beautiful. It was interesting how they zigzagged the felucca down the Nile (to the north, because on the Nile north is downstream and south is upstream)going against the wind. They were very skilled at working the sales. We were also given traditional hibiscus tea to enjoy which is one of my favorites. It was a great experience and they dropped us off about two hours later at the northern pier near the restaurant we’d chosen for the evening, Nubian Dreams. Of course I also gave an additional tip.
Our dinner was tasty from a similar Nubian menu to Bob Marley house. It was a great date night.
For our other date night, we took the ferry to Luxor to visit the Nubian Museum. It was only about a 15 minute walk from the south ferry pier but we were still offered a dozen taxi and tuk tuk rides as we walked it. We arrived about an hour and a half before closing time and this was plenty of time to enjoy the exhibits, which were nicely presented. The modern Nubian part looked practically identical to what we saw each day on Elephantine Island but it was nice to learn some of the significance.
After the museum we walked north along the Nile to an Egyptian restaurant called Osiris at a big resort hotel called Obelisk. We had a great view for watching the feluccas traverse the Nile and enjoyed our seafood meal quite a lot after so much Nubian food.
Our final adventure was a daytime picnic our last day in Aswan. We’d thought to go to the next door Kitchener Island, which has a botanical garden, but there was no public ferry to it and we didn’t feel like negotiating. But we’d noticed a pretty garden on our walk to the museum with a small fee (10 EGP) and lots of trees. It was a great place to picnic and we had some nice interactions with the locals there (none of whom tried to sell us anything) and enjoyed a view of the Nile while we ate.
Honestly, if I were designing an ideal Egyptian itinerary for someone who is only so-so interested in Egyptian history and wasn’t too eager to learn about Nubian culture, I’d recommend skipping Aswan. Still, it was an interesting week and I’ll always remember the experience, especially exploring Nubian culture.
Airbnb Review – Great communication from host Ahmed and his brother Amr throughout our stay. The house was a little rustic but looked like the photos and the bedroom AC units worked well (and were needed!). The kitchen functioned well enough for light cooking, but we had to go across the river for most ingredients (however there’s a great produce shop just down the hill from the apartment). Great hot water shower, which shares space with the toilet but it all dries quickly enough. Beds were quite firm, but that is also typical for Egypt. Wifi worked well except for one day, and Ahmed was able to fix it within half a day. We’re glad we chose to stay on the island because it is very peaceful and interesting. We enjoyed the local restaurants and learning about Nubian culture. Like in most of Egypt there is a daily electricity outage on the island to conserve energy. It was from 11 a.m. to noon during our stay, though the times are not exact and it was usually less than an hour.