Egypt is known for its pyramids, temples, tombs, and the Nile. But the peninsula separating Africa from Asia, the Sinai, is also a part of Egypt and distinctly different both in landscape and culturally from the Nile Valley.
The Sinai is covered in rugged desert mountains, their craggy shapes rising abruptly above the seashores from a rocky desert floor. The Red Sea sparkles out toward Saudi Arabia, turquoise and rich, deep cobalt.
The region was traditionally inhabited by the Bedouin people, who still live there in a pretty traditional way. They herd goats, they ride camels, and while they also engage in the tourist industry to some degree leading desert tours and such, they have largely been excluded from the explosive growth of resort towns such as Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab. This has led to some tension between the Bedouin and the Egyptian government, as well as between the inhabitants and the tourist industry of the Sinai.
We flew into Sharm el Sheikh, but not wanting to spend an arm and a leg on chic resorts (which we learned in the Bahamas we hate anyway), we hopped a taxi to the smaller town of Dahab. Dahab used to be a relaxed hippy diving beach camp, but has expanded in the past decade to a full-blown tourist village. There are over 100 dive shops, and a waterfront walkway lined with restaurants, bazaars, and tour companies. We referred to this stretch as “The Gauntlet”, since you are accosted every five steps by someone trying to sell you trinkets or dinner or tours.
Upon arriving, the first thing one notices is the hulking skeletal remains of hotels-in-progress on the south side of the city. The Revolution of 2011 put on hold many development projects — some likely permanently. All over the coastline are the scattered hopes of resort developers, lending an eerie quality to parts of an area that is otherwise a tourist paradise.
The second thing we noticed was the near-biblical plague of flies that swarmed the town after the recent rain. They blanketed sunny walls and bazaar displays, swarmed our faces, and relentlessly attacked our food. We found ourselves continually shooing them with little effectiveness. Annoying, yes. But we just thanked our luck that they were not biting flies.
We spent 3 days in Dahab, relaxing, drinking beer for the first time on our trip, smoking some shisha, snorkeling and scuba diving. We ate falafel, massouka, and shakshouka for breakfast lunch and dinner, since the only restaurants outside the tourist strip served simple Egyptian fare. We could eat a full dinner for $2.50, compared to the $25.00 we’d spend at the tourist joints. Plus, we love falafel!
I dove with Octopus World Dive Shop on the recommendation of our hotel, Alaska Camp. (Why Alaska? Good question. Half the time when you tell Egyptians you are American, they will say “Welcome to Alaska” as a joke. Don’t ask. We still don’t get it.) I decided to get my advanced PADI certification since diving in Dahab is so affordable. The certification course consisted of 6 dives and some knowledge reviews. I did a deep dive (100 feet) in the popular canyon, a drift dive at the Blue Hole, a navigation course, a night dive, and a naturalist dive.
The reef in the Dahab area was lovely, and though it lacks a lot of the big eels, rays, sharks, turtles, and other wildlife we’re used to in the Caribbean, it was full of smaller life that was a joy to discover. Corals, sea fans, and sponges are a main attraction. The night dive was really special, as it revealed neon-glowing jellyfish, giant sea slugs, armies of tiny snow crabs, a lionfish on the hunt (and catching fish by our flashlights), a cuttlefish, and several other nocturnal gems.
Soon it was time to say ma’ salaama to Egypt. It was good to us, and we might indeed return someday!
And, for the record: Egypt is safe for tourists. Never once in our 11 days there did we feel unsafe. On the contrary, we felt well looked after, and the Egyptian people are perhaps the most hospitable we’ve found. They are extremely welcoming to tourists, and we never even feared our belongings being stolen. The biggest annoyance you’ll encounter is the incessant hassling of touts and taxi drivers. Once you learn to say “La’ shukran,” and shrug it off, you’ll do just fine. So, if you’ve ever wanted to go to Egypt, do it!