Drinking Tea in Egypt

There comes a point in every trip when a traveler needs a moment to themselves.  A moment to just sit back and take it all in.  This happens to me whether I’m sitting beside a busy pool on a family vacation or in the middle of a crazy market trying to negotiate my way into buying some ridiculous souvenir I’ll probably wish I hadn’t bought when I return home.  (Editor’s Note: Ok, so I am still in love with everything I buy overseas – I just don’t know what to DO with it when I get home!)

One of the nicest things about traveling in the Middle East, especially Egypt is the tradition of tea drinking.  Egypt holidays wouldn’t be the same without the hustle and bustle of a local market, nor the busy streets and shouting vendors, nor would they be the same without the brief break for a few sips of tea with a shopkeeper.  It’s like stepping away from the world for a few moments.


A few moments of respite.
A few moments of respite.

I’ll never forget the moment when we stepped off the busy street in the Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo.  We had just entered the area with souvenir shops and night had fallen on the market.  Vendors had their stalls lit up like Christmas enticing passersby with welcoming gestures and good natured heckling.  We stopped to look at a drum in a stall across the street, careful not to approach until we knew we were really interested.  As we approached the vendor, who had other customers in his shop welcomed us with a hearty greeting and pulled out a cushion for me to sit on.  Immediately a cup of tea was thrust into my hand as he invited me to sit while he continued with the other customers.  We sat there for a moment discussing the drum in Spanish (another market buying technique- avoid speaking English if you can!) before he came over to join us.  Then of course the negotiations began, but for that brief moment before he returned I remember looking out onto the bustling, noisy, bright as daylight street and feeling cocooned in his little shop.

Sip, smile, repeat.  Take a break from the bustling market outside.

Then walk out with something that if you’re like me, you’ll cherish, but not know what to do with when you get home.  Onyx candle holder anyone?


Photo Credit: Flickr user AG Gilmore via creative commons licensing.

Hiking in Egypt

Hiking in Egypt’s Sinai desert is more fun than you think.  Surely desert hiking requires a bit of preparation, but the Bedoin’s have it down to a science. From small kiosks along the hiking route up Mt. Sinai to a bevy of guides willing to help you from town, they’ve perfected the art of hiking with ease.

Mount Sinai (2285m ) is the most famous and probably most sacred mountain in Egypt.  Pilgrims from all over the world converge on the mountain, usually late at night to be on the summit for sunrise.  We chose to do the exact opposite, and hike up to the summit for sunset.  It turned out to be fantastic, as the sunset reflected on the rocks was a sight to be seen.  Read more about our hike up Mt. Sinai.

While we made it up on our own two feet, there are plenty of people who make it to the top and are too tired to come down.  Hence this guy trekking up on a camel.  Huts along the path provide every kind of nourishment and comfort you can imagine, but still some find the path too difficult to navigate and the Bedoin’s are more than happy to provide transportation up or back.

Mt Sinai in Egypt


IF YOU GO: Hiking in Egypt does require a bit of pre-planning, even with the bevy of help from the local Bedoin’s.  It is still a desert, so sun protection is a must, as is adequate water.  You can imagine how expensive a bottle of water can be at the top of a mountain in the desert.  In addition to hiking Mt. Sinai, you can also climb Mt. Catherine (also leaves from St. Catherine), Egypt’s tallest mountain.  St. Catherine is easily accessible if you travel to Sharm el Sheikh first, as there are tour buses that leave every day.  From Cairo, you will likely have to change transportation in Dahab although there are a few buses direct to St. Catherine every day.  We have an independent traveler’s guide to Egypt that you might find valuable if you’re traveling in the area.



Country Guide: Egypt

Egypt may be a touristy place but it is also extremely backpacker friendly with a rather large selection of budget accommodation options in all major tourist spots as well as 50% student discounts at most attractions with a student ID, including an ISIC card.

Transportation: Getting up and down the Nile is best done by overnight train. Egyptian security conditions, or at least the Egyptian Government’s opinion of those conditions, is always changing meaning that other options may or may not be available. For planning purposes best to expect to use one of the more expensive trains to travel between Cairo, Luxor and Aswan. Sinai is connected to Cairo by daily bus service.

Aswan: Aswan does not hold the same ‘must see’ status that Luxor does. If you have extra time by all means it is worth including as it does hold some fantastic sites but if you’re a bit short then you won’t miss out too much. The Temple of Isis is truly magnificent, if not completely rebuilt in the modern era, and the region is covered with various Nubian artifacts and restored temples from when Nubia was downed under the rising waters of Lake Nasser. A trip to Abu Simbel could be a way to top off any trip to Aswan, and might even be your entire reason for going, but choose wisely as most trips depart Aswan at 3am, leaving you a bit tired for your big tour. Get to Aswan from Cairo via either overnight train or a short flight. Transportation options to Luxor will likely include either bus or train; at the time of writing, caravans are no longer used by the police along this route.

If visiting Aswan from Luxor you will also have the option to book a Nile cruise to take you to and from Aswan. These typically are all inclusive and run anywhere from $50 to $500 per person per night, quality naturally varies immensely.

Luxor: The ancient city of Thebes in all its glory. This city just bleeds Egyptian history from the impressive Luxor Temple right downtown to the incredible Karnak temple that even played a role in a James Bond flick. Just outside of town are the valleys of the Kings and Queens (home to some rather impressive tombs and more tourists Disney) as well as more temples than you can shake a stick at. The options abound and you could feel quite satisfied after only a couple of days, but even if you spent a full week you probably couldn’t see everything. Lodging options abound, as to tour packages so be careful when booking.

Cairo: A big and bustling city but you probably came here for more than just the shwarma… you came here for the Pyramids and the Egypt Museum. Unless you are the first in line at the pyramids there isn’t much reason to getting up early as they will be packed from 8am on till closing. We have been told the extra money one must pay to enter the pyramid’s is not worth it so if you are considering this, do think twice. The Egypt Museum is rather impressive to look through but if you’re the type who likes organization and the ability to learn something you will either need to hire a guide or be prepared to be disappointed.

Sinai: Dahab and Sharm el Shek are the two main attractions on the coast. Both offering all you could ever want in the form of beach and underwater excitement with some of the best diving available on the planet. The difference between the two is that Sharm is where the nice hotels are and Dahab is where the backpackers go. Tours to Mt Sinai can be booked from either location but for our money it is better to base yourself in St. Catherine’s and climb Mt. Sinai by day rather than to take the package trip and climb by night…cheaper as well. There is also a ferry service across the Red Sea but we were told that the bus through the canal zone is actually faster, more reliable, and cheaper.

Onward Travel:

Israel: The only land border open to US citizen and most others without prearranged visas, this is straight forward but can be nerve wracking if you have any other Arab visas in your passport.

Jordan: The ferry to Acaba is straight forward if not always running late. Be prepared to spend the day dealing with this two hour crossing. If you want to get to Petra the same day you should prepare to put a group together while on the ferry to share a private tax.

Sudan: The Aswan ferry to Sudan runs a bit more according to schedule but it is long and uncomfortable. Choose a spot on the port deck (Northbound) if planning to sleep outside so that the morning sun doesn’t hit you dead on.

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Atop Mt. Sinai

Hiking Mt Sinai is the sort of thing that manypeople come to Egypt to do. Most people fly to one of Egypt’s expensive coastal cities, book a tour, get on the bus around midnight, arrive sometime before 2am, and with some luck are at the summit with one thousand of their closest friends that they never met before who are all just as tired and cranky as you’d expect them to be…..oh, but the sunrise is spectacular. We decided against that route.

We arrived in the small yet touristy town of St. Catherine’s in the afternoon. This is little town is walking distance from the actual mountain but sees a mere fraction of the traffic the mountain does…since no one wants to sleep here. We were welcomed to town by nice cool air (it might be a desert but it is as high as Denver) along with a Bedouin man who took us rather quickly to his hotel where we quickly made ourselves comfortable as the only guests there. We sat out under the stars,enjoyed a nice Bedouin dinner (which looked surprisingly similar to Italian) and prepared to sleep in rather than waking up at 2am to start our hike…we slept until 10 am.

Doing this hike in the afternoon has three clear benefits from my standpoint. One, you’re awake. Two, you can see things and will enjoy yourself rather than injure yourself. Three, hardly anyone else does it this way. Teaming up with another fellow who arrived at our hotel long after we did we set off around midday to start our hike, passing the usual camel in the road, a couple of fruit stands, and an overpriced souvenir shop.

Arriving at the St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of the mountain we obtained the mandatory guide (in lieu of an entry fee) and started up the long windy trail rather than the steep staircase. On the way we passed 16 overpriced snack shacks but only a handful were open…they really exist for that morning crew. We had the mountain to ourselves the entire 3 hours we hiked.

At the top we were the first to arrive and immediately set to work. First I needed to find to large stones in the shape of tablets. Then, I gave myself a “desert nomad” look using my bandanna and found a suitable place for the photo shoot where I cast myself as Moses. Finally, I posed for the camera with my props approximately 250 times. Most of these photos remain private however, and will be used at a later date.

As far as I can tell, the sunset was just as spectacular as the sunrise would have been except that we were awake to see it so it didn’t feel quite as otherworldly as many who climb in the pre-dawn hours might experience. We went down that mountain rather quickly, and aided by the light of the nearly full moon. We ate well that night and slept even better.

IF YOU GO: Trust us, go and spend a couple of nights in St Catherine’s rather than doing this as an uncomfortable bus trip from Dahab. We stayed at Sheik Sina (owned by Sheik Musa’s son/) and had a found it very comfortable with a lot of options regarding lodging. Getting out the options were a bus to Dahab or a bus to Cairo (where we came from) so we took a cap to Nuweiba in order to continue to Jordan. You can walk to the Monastery and the hike from town without a problem.

Foodie Friday: Falafel

Sold as a street side snack falafel is as common as coca cola in the middle east.  Deep fried balls usually made from chickpeas, falafel can be served alone, with fuul or stuffed into a pita with fresh vegetables and salads.  In Sudan the falafel or t’amiyya was made of fava beans and was served alone or as an addition to fuul.  It was mostly plain in flavor and texture.  In Egypt we started to see falafel in pita with some salad and sometimes a tahini based sauce.  In Jordan we started seeing falafel topping bars, but it wasn’t until Israel that we had the full on falafel sandwich with chips, sauces, pickles and salads.  So its deep friend, but actually falafel is packed with lots of vitamins, fiber and iron making it also relatively good for you!

I’m sure everyone’s tried falafel before given how popular it is worldwide (we even had it in Mexico!), so I’ll just leave you all with a recipe from Tyler Florence on the Food Network:


  • 2 cups dried chickpeas, picked through and rinsed
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 small onion, coarsely chopped
  • 6 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 handfuls fresh flat-leaf parsley, leaves coarsely chopped
  • 1 handful fresh cilantro, leaves coarsely chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Vegetable oil, for frying
  • 8 warm pita bread, store bought or homemade recipe follows
  • Tahini Sauce, recipe follows
  • Shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, chopped cucumbers


Put the dried chickpeas in a large bowl and add cool water to cover by 2 inches. Soak the beans in the refrigerator for at least 18 hours or up to 24; the chickpeas will swell to triple their original size. Drain and rinse thoroughly.

Put the soaked chickpeas in a food processor and pulse to coarsely grind, not until smooth but with no whole chickpeas remaining either. Add the baking powder, onion, garlic, spices, and herbs; process until the mixture is pureed; scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate while heating the oil, this should take about 15 minutes.

Pour 3-inches of the oil in a deep fryer or deep heavy pot and heat to 375 degrees F.

Roll the falafel mixture into ping-pong size balls. (Alternatively, use an ice cream scoop.) Carefully slip a few at a time into the hot oil, making sure they don’t stick to the bottom. Fry until the chickpea fritters are a crusty dark brown on all sides, turning as needed, about 5 minutes per batch. Remove the falafels with a slotted spoon and drain on a platter lined with paper towels.

Open the pita bread halves to make pockets (don’t split all the way) and put 4 fried falafels into each. Drizzle with the tahini sauce and layer with lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Serve immediately.