Aswan & Abu Simbel, Egypt

A view of the best hotel in Aswan, The Old Cataract, Aswan, Egypt

A view of probably the best hotel in Aswan, The Old Cataract (more properly known as Sofitel Legend Cataract Aswan) and the Nile River with feluccas awaiting custom. Photo by Marc Ryckaert.

The Old Cataract is the place to stay, IMHO, if money is no object. It’s grand and magnificently historic. If you’re not staying in the hotel then do head over there for sunset drinks on the terrace overlooking the Nile, with the high-winged feluccas tacking past. It might be a good idea to dress up a little in case the management decide they prefer only to serve their guests.

Aswan & Abu Simbel – How to Visit

Elephantine Island on Aswan

Elephantine Island on Aswan’s west bank, the almost totally undeveloped side. Photo by Marc Ryckaert.

Aswan is a lovely, relaxed oasis-kind-of-place beside the Nile down south from Luxor, good for a little felucca sailing but not much else.

There are no monuments here but Aswan is on the way to the Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, a 180 mile road trip or short flight.

Aswan suffers a similar problem to Luxor regarding Nile tourist boat overload, though a boat trip down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor, stopping off at a couple of wonderful, monumental temples on the way – Edfu and Kom Ombo – is a great way to experience the Nile. They take 3-5 days and may have an onboard swimming pool among other luxuries.

Aswan Weather

Best: October – May. It almost never rains here, perhaps one day every three years.
Worst: Christmas and Easter school holidays (overpriced and overcrowded) June-Sept (heat).

Aswan Sights. Err, almost none.

The endless Egyptian monuments of Luxor and Cairo can bring any mortal tourist to his or her knees, so any vacation in Egypt should end with a little peace and quiet and an almost complete lack of mega sights.

That’s where Nile-friendly Aswan is onto a winner, as a tranquil retreat from the frantic must-see madness up the river.

Walks

Across the Nilefrom Aswan is Elephantine island, the Nilometer and the tomb of Agan Khan. None of the sights come close to what you have already seen further north but make a pleasant short hike if you need the exercise or diversion.
Upstream a bit are the Tombs of the Nobles also make a scenic hike and Nubian villages which are interesting to visit and have a cup of tea and a water-pipe smoke with locals. Take a cheap local ferry there from the Aswan corniche or hire your own felucca.

Sailing

The river is particularly curvy, calm and attractive here in the deep south, with desert scenarios on the opposite (west) bank and fleets of felucca waiting to take you for a ride, literally and metaphorically – if anything is a must-do in Aswan it’s a lazy sail in a (necessarily) crewed felucca, but a little walking, price comparison and firm negotiation is vital if you’re not going to spend a month’s wages on a boat trip. And keep a sense of humour! This is the Egyptian way. More on Feluccas below.

Feluccas

Inside an Aswan felucca, Egypt

An Aswan felucca, crude but effective. No modern sailing equipment visible here. Calm, solid and very relaxing. Photo by Jim.

Over two million tourists cruise the Nile every year, most of them aboard two hundred squat, hideous, smelly, vibrating cruise boats and mostly on the Aswan – Luxor route, but with a little courage and a few Egyptian pounds any serious traveller should experience Egypt’s traditional sail boats, the felucca, even if it’s only for a sunset experience. And BYOB – bring your own bottle!

Felucca design

The felucca‘s primitive design dates from the medieval times and whilst a competent western dinghy sailor might feel capable of piloting one himself, the owner will never rent the boat out for self-drive, only with – at minimum – the ‘captain’ and a crewman. This is fair enough since owners are totally dependent on boat profits and the Nile does have hidden rocks and tricky currents, especially in the Aswan area.
Felucca’s crude and leaky hulls are propelled by a triangular cotton sail, or the Nile current, or in the case of failure of both systems a couple of massive oars can be thrust into action.

Felucca Captains

Felucca captains, like taxi drivers, come in all shapes, good, bad and indifferent, so it’s best to get a recommendation from the Aswan tourist office for lengthy trips – but don’t bother for just an evening sail. When hiring find a captain that you feel comfortable with and feel free to bring your own tipple or smoke.

Sleeping on board

The guest seating arrangement is cushions laid on a flat bench so people with back problems are not going to enjoy much time on one of these craft. Naturally there are no toilets (a bush on the riverbank is as good as it gets), fridges, electricity or cabins, but there will be an essential sun canopy.
Sleeping involves – if you’re lucky – a strip of foam on the deck or the bank of the river, while washing is taken care of by Mother Nile. Eating and drinking facilities are equally basic.

However, if you are reasonably hardy (especially about the butt! ) and enjoy camping this kind of calm and restful transport is the perfect way to maximise the Nile experience, stopping off wherever seems interesting or pleasant, getting a fish-eye view of Egypt’s bird life, herons, egrets, coots and visiting riverside temples before or after tourist mega-boats arrive.

Routes

The most efficient route in a long-distance felucca is downstream with the current, so from Aswan to Edfu is a favourite three day trip, stopping off at villages and temples en route. Kom Ombo’s crocodile god temple is the first and monumental and well-preserved Edfu, province of Horus the falcon god, last. Or continue for the full 130 miles to Luxor and the mass of amazing structures (and tourists) there. Nile Cruises

Capsizing

‘I spent three days on a felucca in late December sailing from Aswan to Luxor. Our crew were extremely professional and we felt very safe in their hands. The only threat I could discern was from the juggernaut tourist boats which ply up and down at all hours and could have run us over without noticing.
Compared to road transport in Egypt feluccas are infinitely safer. Anybody who has driven or tired to cross the road in Cairo will understand this’.

Edfu temple walls with tourists, Egypt

Edfu temple beseiged by tourists off a cruise ship between Luxor and Aswan. Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae temples are only accessible by boat these days. Photo by Jim.

Kom Ombo paddle boat, near Aswan, Egypt

An unusual and charmingly old-fashioned paddle cruise ship on the popular route from Aswan to Luxor (or vice-versa), stopped off at Kom Ombo. Photo by Olaf Tausch.

Dahabiya

A Dahabiya boat near Aswan, Egypt

A Dahabiya near Aswan. Photo by Olaf Tausch.

A recent innovation on the Nile are smart, big, comfortable (and pricey) sailing boats called Dahabiya that contain cabins, furniture and all mod-cons so providing tranquility (when the wind is blowing) and an excellent alternative to eco-unfriendly cruise ships.

Abu Simbel, Nubia, far south Egypt

The Great Temple exterior, Abu Simbel, Egypt, North Africa

Abu Simbel’s Great Temple cut into this rock cliff in 13thC BC on the command of Ramases II (now that fellah had an ego and a half), one of two temples here in far south Egypt. The little figures above the large statues are baboons. Photo by Olaf Tausch.

Of course another Aswan must-do is the final Egyptian sight, 175 miles (280kms) still further south and practically on the border with Sudan, Abu Simbel’s two monumental temples on the west edge of Lake Nasser, moved here in 1968 when the Aswan High Dam was built and the consequent lake was about to drown these magnificent rock-cut temples.

Many tourists coming to Abu Simbel fly but budget travelers or those too late to book a flight can take a bus ride of 300kms/188miles, but comfortable and scenic, sometimes including a visit to the Aswan Dam and another potentially immersed temple that was moved to a dry spot, little but lovely Philae.

Great Temple interior relief of Pharoah Ramasses and Nefertari having a romantic barbeque, Abu Simbel, Egypt

Inside both temples are detailed and relatively good condition reliefs. Here inside the Great Temple we can clearly see Pharoah Ramases and his lovely mate Nefertari having a romantic barbeque.

Photography is allowed outside the two temples, but not inside these days.
The Big Temple was dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty and Ptah, as well as Ramesses II while the Small Temple was for the god Hathor and Neferati, Ramasses’ queen.

The Small Temple of Hathor (god) and Nefertari (Ramasses

The Small Temple is dedicated to the god Hathor and Nefertari, Ramasses’ wife. Photo by Olaf Tausch.

Henry:
From Cairo we got the train down the Nile to Aswan to visit the Sun Temple of Abu Simbel, built by Ramses II over 3, 000 years ago. It was one of the most impressive sights I have ever seen and what was even more incredible was that the whole thing had been moved to a higher position above the Nile to prevent it being flooded by the waters trapped behind the Aswan dam.

Abu Simbel weather

The good news: No rain! Ever!
The bad news: Between March and November the average high temperature is over 30C/86F and June-August over 40C/104F. But you may need your sweater on the air-conditioned bus/plane!

Getting to Abu Simbel

By road

This is the budget or last-minute way to reach Abu Simbel.
There are generally two convoys of buses and vans to Abu Simbel from Aswan daily. One group leaves early around 4: 00am and gets back early afternoon. Another departs at 11: 00am and gets back early evening. Did you read about temperatures up there? take the early shift! .   Both allow visitors two hours to explore the two temples at Abu Simbel. On reaching Abu Simbel, the vehicles stop about 300 meters from the temples. The entry ticket includes the service of multilingual guides which you really don’t need to tip.

By air

Aswan Airport is 16kms/10miles south of the city and there are two or three flights daily between Aswan and Abu Simbel.
There is no public bus service between Aswan and the airport so it’s down to arranging your own taxi (which is, on a budget, a pain or get an Egypt Air bus for a small fee from their office on the Nile corniche.
At the other end Egypt Air buses will take you to Abu Simbel temples free of charge.

By boat

This is possible though extravagant as you would have to drive to Lake Nasser or fly to Abu Simbel airport anyway, and then board your cruise ship. As far as we know you cannot boat from Aswan to Abu Simbel directly as the Aswan High Dam is in the way and it’s quite a serious obstacle.

By train

Nope, no rail connections at all.

Philae temple, only visited by boat

Philae temple exterior, Aswan, Egypt

Philae temple exterior. Photo by Jim.