Flying from Cairo to Aswan you get a sense of the size of Egypt, mile after mile of sandy desert interspersed with the odd abandoned building and the occasional siting of the green belt along the Nile River. As far as the eye can see it’s nothing but orange sands and blue sky.
On arrival in Aswan we disembarked the plane for the ludicrously short bus ride to the terminal (seriously its about 100 meters!) which we later realized was a good thing. Why’s that you ask? Heat! Several degrees hotter than Cairo, the dry heat of Upper Egypt is unrelenting, yet bearable due to the absence of humidity. In summer temperatures regularly exceed 50 degrees Celsius, while winter is a more sensible 30 – 35 degrees. For our arrival, Aswan turned on a picture perfect, not a cloud in the sky, 37 degree day. The locals are proud to tell you Aswan only gets about 20 minutes of rain twice a year, sometimes 3 times, and even then it’s only a light shower “like tear drops from the sky”.
With a population of around 800,000, Aswan has a much more relaxed, laid-back attitude to life than other parts of Egypt, most notably Cairo, and is less focused on the tourist dollar due to its healthy income from the High Dam and surrounding quarries. Life in general in Egypt has a slow pace but Aswan manages to take it down a notch again and this is where the charm lies in the city.
Of course there are the main attractions which you go there for in the first place – the High Dam, Unfinished Obelisk and Philae Temple, but there are plenty more charms to this city than these famous sites. The Nile River is at its most spectacular around Aswan with the white sails of feluccas dominating the waterway. The dramatic orange dunes of the West Bank plunge to the palm fringed banks of the deep blue river creating a stunning contrasting landscape.
During our stay in Aswan after our 8 day Nile River Cruise, we took a fantastic trip to Aswan Botanic Gardens on Kitchener Island. Sailing to the island on a felucca, it was so relaxing sitting back watching the beautiful landscape pass by with nothing but the sound of the wooden boat slicing through the water. No whirring engines, no chattering tour groups, just us and the Nile. Again our wonderful guide Samir joined us and told us about the Tombs of the Nobles carved into the steep slopes of the West Bank, and the wonderfully positioned Agha Khan Mausoleum looking down over the river. The water is a deep shade of blue and crystal clear once away from the edges, peering over the side of the boat you can see fish swimming in the reeds below as the sun’s rays penetrate the surface.
After sailing for about 20 minutes we arrived at the island where we visited the small botanic museum before enjoying some time strolling the peaceful gardens. Containing plant species from around the world, the space provides a tranquil escape from the crowds and heat of Egypt. There is a small outdoor cafe at the rear of the gardens where we met up with Samir again and sat for at least an hour just chatting about life. I think we covered everything from Islam and Ramadan to rude cockney slang and how to tell the difference between a Canadian from an American accent!
Sailing back to Aswan we had plenty of time to enjoy the ride as our “captain” played in the wind and currents, showing off his expert felucca sailing skills, and giving us a little heart-starter catching the wind at such an angle to tilt the boat on its side so we thought we would fall into the water. With a cheeky giggle he corrected the angle and we continued on our way, sailing for around half an hour. Our captain was the oldest felucca sailor in Aswan and Samir translated to us when other passing sailors would call out to him in Arabic, teasing him to retire.
We later mentioned to Samir that we wanted to watch an English football match that was being played that afternoon but our hotel did not have the channel. Within a few hours he had arranged for us to visit another hotel nearby who opened their bar and showed the match on the big screen TV just for us! Where in the world do you get service like that? Later that night we went for dinner at a local restaurant Samir recommended to us called Nubian House, which serves Nubian food in a peaceful setting. The restaurant sits high above Aswan with spectacular views over the city and the Nile, and we spent hours enjoying the peaceful surroundings.
The hospitality and kindness shown to us in Aswan will stay in my mind forever and is without a doubt the highlight of my fantastic visit to Egypt. Considering the amazing monuments and fascinating history of the country, this is no mean feat.
Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s tours and things to do in Luxor, Aswan & Upper Egypt, and throughout Egypt. Also have a look at traveler photos of Egypt over on the Viator Flickr site.