Unique tour guides in Egypt are making little-known destinations popular. If you want to see Egypt beyond the pyramids and Luxor, they’ll take you there.
It’s past midnight and I’m headed to Marsa Alam on a bus filled with Egyptian students, many who never thought this would be their next vacation.
We’ve been promised three days of pristine beaches, snorkeling and encounters with the endangered Dugong (a marine mammal related to manatees). The bus is loud with chat and laughter. Organizers pass out water, chocolate and blue pins that say, ‘I am an Egyptian Adventurer.”
Many of the students weren’t familiar with Marsa Alam. “I never thought I’d be here,” a couple of them told me on Day 2 of our itinerary, after we’d toured Qulaan’s mangroves and lunched on grilled fish.
For many Egyptians, vacations mean popular destinations at home like Alexandria, or trendy tourist havens abroad. Foreigners, on the other hand, often see Marsa Alam as a tiny resort town where life revolves around scuba diving.
This three-day trip to Marsa Alam would be an eye-opener. Organized by tour agency Footloose Egypt, it’s one of many offerings that have put Egypt’s lesser-known wonders on many bucket lists.
When Footloose organized its first trip to Marsa Alam, only about 20 people signed up because nobody knew much about the destination, says Sherif Fawzy, co-founder and CEO. But word of that trip – and Instagram-worthy beach photos – spread quickly on social media. The company’s second trip to Marsa Alam (which I joined in 2016) had a packed bus of 45 people.
“We’re no Greece, but we’re better,” organizers had enticed on the trip’s Facebook event page. “Proof? Our Marsa Alam’s shore Hankorab is listed as the 13th most beautiful shore worldwide.”
Footloose has since grown quickly among young people as a reputable and affordable tour agency perfect for youth, backpackers or solo travelers.
Egypt off the beaten path
To date, Footloose has taken some 4,500 travellers of 36 nationalities to trips around Sinai, and offered off-the-beaten-path itineraries like stargazing in Wadi el Hitan, yoga in Ras Sidr and backpacking in Luxor. They also offer private tours, and packages for schools and organizations.
And while major travel agencies are concerned with bringing tourism back to Egypt, and convincing visitors that it’s safe, smaller agencies like Footloose are brainstorming new destinations and “trying to combine different cities in a way that’s never been offered before,” Fawzy says.
During my three days in Marsa Alam with Footloose, we snorkel, spot the illusive Dugong, dive and shop at Port Ghalib. The jam-packed itinerary includes a photographer who chronicles each episode for social media.
I return home tired yet refreshed. Others were similarly inspired, says organizer Lavinia Sawires. There were those who’ve conquered their fear of heights, or those with asthma who’ve climbed mountains.
“When we first started, on the very first trip we went to different hotels and camps, and we were the only ones there. We were the only ones in Nuweiba, and in Ras Shitan,” Fawzy says. “On our 10th trip to Wadi Hitan, we had 900 people on Facebook in four days saying they were interested in going.”
Downtown Cairo isn’t on many tourist itineraries. My first visit to Cairo included a few hours in the famous souq of Khan el Khalili and a visit to the Egyptian Museum.
I only started exploring downtown after I moved to Egypt. And I didn’t know about Cairo’s rich modern history until I explored it with a tour guide. There are no plaques on historic buildings, cinemas or squares to make a self-guided tour easy.
Cairo D-Tour is a free guided walk held every Friday morning when the city is quiet. Lead by tour guide Ahmad Al-Bindari, the tour goes through the city’s famous squares, like Tahrir, heritage sites and old cinemas that showed the Egyptian films that became famous in the Arab world.
You’ll see the Egyptian stock exchange on a sidestreet lined with potted plants. You’ll have a drink at Cafe Riche, where revolutionaries once gathered to plot against the British occupation. And you’ll peek inside the Yacoubian Building, the setting for Alaa Al-Aswany’s infamous novel depicting homosexuality.
But I love how the tour goes beyond the iconic sites to offer insights into modern Cairo life. There’s a stop at the hip cafe Kafein, bar El Horryia (my favorite spot for beer on hot afternoons), and bookstores, theaters and art galleries.
In an age of emboldened racism and stereotypes, it’s crucial to get realistic looks at people’s real lives and go beyond the typical postcard views.
Cairo’s City of the Dead is a dense Islamic necropolis where people live and work “amongst the dead.” Founded in 642, it’s the final resting place for generations of rulers, royalty and conquerors. It’s also home to Egyptians who moved to the capital in the 1960s and couldn’t find affordable housing.
During my first trip to Egypt, our guide said in a hushed voice that people there live among the tombs. A mysterious, impoverished district tinged with eeriness and danger.
But the City of the Dead is also the signature tour of Walk Like an Egyptian, a tour guide dedicated to uncovering Egypt’s hidden gems.
I joined this tour and found plenty of historic tombs. But I also discovered a bustling district full of street art and glass blowing workshops full of beautiful vases and lamps.
I also toured the Mosque of Ibn Tulun with the group’s founder Asmaa. The itinerary included a stop for an authentic Egyptian breakfast and a ride in a tuk-tuk. The guides were informative and spoke insightfully about Egyptian life to give visitors an authentic experience without the tourist cliches.
Tour Guide Muhammad Zeineddin doesn’t have a marketing department. He markets his initiative Mosaic Club – which offers city tours, trips and cultural exchanges – solely on social media.
Social media has also made researching new destinations much easier, Zeineddin says. Even the smallest towns have their own Wikipedia pages.
And Mosaic Club offers trips you won’t find elsewhere.
Last year, Zeineddin lead a “Banknote Tour” around Cairo that hit an array of mosques found on Egyptian banknotes. Tours of little-explored museums like the Abdeen Palace have also proved popular, Zeineddin says.
The Mosaic Club’s cultural exchange events also give Egyptians an opportunity to experience new cultures. Zeineddin’s posts on volunteer work or scholarships abroad get thousands of shares and inspire many to travel.
Expats and foreigners both love the tours as a safe and hassle-free way to explore lesser known parts of Egypt.
“Egypt needs to promote itself outside of the desert and camels stereotypes,” Zeineddin says. “Tour agencies need to offer more variety. They need to give people something more interesting – because we have a lot of competition.”