In February of 2020 I cycled from Luxor to Abu Simbel in Egypt, and then on to Sudan, for a little slice of the Cairo to Cape Town route. The Egypt part of the route took me 11 days, including a few days of sightseeing in Luxor and Aswan, and a rest day in Abu Simbel.
Egypt was a very interesting place to cycle, sometimes mentally challenging, with a wide range in terms of culture, infrastructure, and mood. The ancient sites are unparalleled, and the culture outside the most touristy areas is peaceful and welcoming. The cycling itself is fairly straightforward, mostly on good paved highways through areas with adequate infrastructure.
In this post I’ll share my general impressions of cycling in Egypt, some tips to help you prepare, and notes for each section of my route.
Starting in Luxor
My focus was mostly on Sudan and I had limited time, so I made the decision to start my bike ride in Luxor instead of Cairo. I’m happy with this decision, as it saved me time, expense, and the chaos of trying to fly into Cairo with a bike box and then cycling out on busy streets. Someday I’ll have to return to Cairo to see the city and the pyramids, but I still feel like I got my fill of ancient sites in Luxor.
I booked a plane ticket straight to Luxor, connecting through Cairo, for not much more than the price of flying into Cairo. If you do this, I recommend a longish layover in Cairo. You will have to get your Egypt visa on arrival (quick and easy), go through immigration, and potentially also pick up your checked luggage and recheck it. I had a three hour layover in the middle of the night, which was plenty of time, and the airport was not crowded.
It’s also possible to fly into Cairo and then bus or train south to Luxor.
General Tips for Cycling in Egypt
There is already plenty of information out there about traveling in Egypt, for example this guide for backpackers. I also found the Lonely Planet Egypt Guide helpful mainly for the sections on history and the details of archaeological sites. Here I’ll add my own notes that are especially relevant to cycling in Egypt.
Along the Nile, drinking water is not hard to find. I usually filled up at my guesthouse or police checkpoints, but you can also find water in clay pots by the road. Bring a water purifier / filter system that can make this sometimes silty water safe to drink.
Egypt has a fairly conservative culture that’s closely tied to its dominant religion, Islam. One obvious sign of this is the highly polarized gender roles and norms, which can be a complex situation for travelers of any gender. As a female traveler, I missed interacting with women and found it draining after a while to only meet men. Male travelers will need to take care with how they interact with Egyptian women.
The degree of conservativeness seemed to vary a lot from location to location, with small villages feeling as conservative as rural Sudan and larger cities like Aswan feeling relatively “progressive” (lots of women out in public, a few wearing pants, etc).
Though Egypt gets a bad rap among travelers for the hassle factor, this is mainly due to aggressive touts in the touristy areas. Outside of the main corniche streets along the Nile or the archaeological sites themselves, I found hassle was pretty minimal.
In non-touristy places, Egyptian culture felt nearly as hospitable as the famously friendly culture of Sudan. The people I interacted with seemed happy to welcome me and wanted to make sure I was having a good experience in their country.
For more context and tips I recommend reading this nuanced collection of impressions from bicycle travelers in Islamic countries.
What to Wear While Cycling in Egypt
For those interested in respecting cultural norms and not feeling out of place (any moreso than already necessary), women and men should both wear long pants and a shirt with at least short sleeves. At minimum everyone should cover their knees and shoulders. Women will want a high neckline and loose fitting clothes; leggings are a definite no-no in my opinion.
At the touristy sites in Egypt you will see people wearing all kinds of wildly inappropriate clothing. But these people mostly come in buses and interact very little with Egyptians outside of the tourist sites, and I personally would not have felt comfortable dressing that way on my bike tour. I felt most comfortable in loose long pants and a long sleeve shirt, and the sun protection was nice too.
For women, covering your head is optional and didn’t seem to make much difference in how I was treated. In areas with lots of tourists it’s definitely not necessary and would probably seem silly. But in small villages along the road or in certain situations you may feel more comfortable throwing a scarf on.
Egypt is generally slightly less conservative than Sudan when it comes to womens’ clothing, but the incidence of sexual harassment also seems to be higher. I think to some extent clothing doesn’t matter (some harassers will harass anyway), but dressing conservatively may help lower your odds of a bad experience.
Police Escorts for Cyclists in Egypt
Police escorts are unavoidable when cycling in Egypt. The only place I didn’t have one was the first few dozen miles south of Luxor, and a few other shorter stretches. Otherwise they would always at least accompany me out of the checkpoints. Sometimes they would stay very close until the next checkpoint, other times they would disappear and come back, and sometimes they would disappear entirely and I would be solo until the next checkpoint.
I know many cyclists feel the escorts are annoying, and they definitely can be. But they also have some advantages. As a solo traveler who doesn’t speak Arabic, honestly, I kind of appreciated the opportunity to interact with them. Usually one or two of them knew a few words of English and wanted to chat, and oddly enough this was my most frequent means of interacting with locals while in Egypt.
A few of the crews were really friendly and encouraging, pumping their fists in the air to praise my progress and pretending to race with me on open stretches of road. One car kept feeding me sugar cane out the open window. The best crews would drive up ahead a bit, park by the road, and wait for me to pass before leapfrogging again. Seeing them every so often broke the monotony of the long desert stretches without the burden of having them constantly on my tail.
Though I didn’t have any issues, I’ve heard sexual harassment can be a big issue for female cyclists in Egypt, and sometimes having a police car nearby felt reassuring. Had I been male or traveling with others, I might have found the police more annoying.
My best tips for dealing with police escorts in Egypt:
- Always be friendly and try not to show frustration. It feels much better to be trailed all day by a car of friendly faces than by a bored group of guys who really doesn’t want to be there.
- Arriving at a new checkpoint is the best time to set a good tone for the interaction. The guys you meet there will be in charge of organizing the escort car, and I found a positive first interaction at the checkpoint usually led to a much more friendly experience with the guys in the car.
- Pass around a bag of dates to each new group of police. This always seemed to get a positive reaction.
- Smile for the selfies and photos. They love to take photos.
I brought US dollars to exchange in Egypt, but ended up getting Egyptian Pounds from ATMs instead. They seem to be everywhere, especially in the main cities, and are simpler and faster than waiting in line and trying to figure out the system at the bank. That said, it’s always wise to have cash on hand when traveling, and if you’re headed to Sudan you’ll need a bunch of it anyway.
If you do need to exchange money at a bank, you’ll need your passport.
Egypt can be an expensive place to travel, but if you’re on a budget it can also be pretty cheap. The tickets for archaeological sites were definitely my biggest expense, costing anywhere from around $6 – %15 per site. Otherwise, if you are staying in budget guesthouses or camping at police checkpoints (free) and eating a lot of street falafel, your money will go reasonably far.
Bargaining is expected in Egypt, and if you shop in areas frequented by tourists there is a very good chance they will try to rip you off. If you know what something should cost, you can often bargain them down, but sometimes not. Away from the main tourist areas though, sometimes even just a few blocks, I often found shopkeepers were fairly honest.
Falafel sandwiches! Order two or three of them at a time, usually for $0.50 – $1. Unlike in Sudan, Egyptians add tomato and cucumber and some sauce, and they are delicious. Koshary, a noodle and lentil dish, is also popular and fairly easy to find at street stalls. Beans / “ful” is also popular.
For food on the road I relied on feta-flavored “cheese” in boxes, bread, canned beans, processed cheese wheels, cookies, peanuts, and dates. Tea and dark coffee are available everywhere.
If you camp at police checkpoints you will likely be offered meals with them, but it’s best to bring your own supplies and not count on this. On the stretch from Aswan to Abu Simbel I think I finished with more food than I started, thanks to the generosity of the police!
Wild camping in Egypt is tricky because of the police escorts. Technically, if you can avoid an escort and find a place you feel safe camping, then it should be possible. I did camp in Egypt, but only at police checkpoints.
The safety situation in Egypt can be a bit confusing. At the time I visited, certain areas like Sinai and the Western Desert were discouraged or off limits due to terrorism concerns, but the main route was considered safe. The constant attention from the police can make one feel both safer and more in danger at the same time. They seem quite concerned about safety, yet I haven’t heard of travelers or cyclists having any problems recently.
My personal experience was that I felt fairly safe, though having a police car behind me for most of the ride might have contributed. The mood seemed to change a lot depending on where I was. Some villages felt peaceful and welcoming, while others felt gritty and either unfriendly or reserved, hard to tell. The highways usually felt safe, though my only justification for that is that nothing bad happened to me on them. I get the sense that theft or robbery is maybe slightly more likely in Egypt than in Sudan, but still unlikely overall.
If you visit the tourist sites or walk along the Nile in the main cities, you WILL be aggressively approached by touts trying to sell you a boat ride, taxi ride, horse ride, trinkets, food… They can be pretty hard to get away from. Some people ignore them, which is probably good advice, because once you respond (even if it’s “no”) they will latch on and follow you.
I’m bad at ignoring people and I preferred to just keep walking and continue the banter of “no, maybe tomorrow, I have somewhere to be” etc. Usually this didn’t bother me that much and sometimes it was even a positive interaction. In a couple really bad cases I had to stop, turn to face him, and very firmly say I wanted to walk alone (this always worked). If your Arabic is good, I suspect this is a good time to practice it.
The main highways in Egypt are generally good, with a decent hard shoulder (unlike Sudan). Towns can be chaotic; leaving early in the morning or on a Friday is always better. Drivers passed respectfully and I usually felt safe. Take care on the massive speedbumps in villages and towns.
Southern Egypt Cycling Route: Luxor to Abu Simbel
Here are notes on the route I cycled, with information about alternatives where I have the information. The map below shows each place I spent at least one night:
Luxor to Aswan (215 km)
I rode from Luxor to Aswan in two days with an overnight in Edfu. Leaving Luxor the police let me pass, but after a few dozen miles I picked up an escort all the way to Edfu. The following day I was again allowed to ride solo for a little while until the car caught up with me.
There are roads on both the east and west side of the Nile south of Luxor. I’ve read that (as of 2016) the west bank road is poorer quality and goes through more villages, making for more tiring riding and sometimes a little too much attention from locals. Apparently the road quality deteriorates the further south you go and it might make sense to cross to the east bank at the Isna bridge.
I was in the mood for a bit less attention and a smooth ride, so I took the east bank road the entire way and was happy with the choice.
South of Edfu, partway to Aswan, the highway becomes busier and less pleasant. I actually accepted a ride from my grumpy police escort at this point, which made us all happier. It should certainly be possible to ride though, if you’re in the mood. There’s still a shoulder, but more local traffic and vehicles parked in the way. Closer to the city I started riding again and they escorted me to the outskirts, then disappeared.
Staying in Luxor
In Luxor I stayed at and highly recommend the Grand Hotel. It’s in the budget category for Luxor but is clean and the staff is extremely helpful and friendly. I booked with them online since I was starting my trip in Luxor, and they also arranged an airport pickup that could fit my bike box.
It’s definitely worth taking a couple days to explore the vast open-air museum that is Luxor. I spent two days, one exploring the temples of the east bank by foot, and another biking to some key sites on the west bank. There are a bewildering number of options, but these are the sites I visited and would recommend:
- Luxor Temple (east bank)
- Karnak Temple (east)
- Valley of the Kings (west)
- Valley of the Queens (west)
- Dier el Medina (west)
- Medinet Habu (west)
The one popular site I didn’t see, but that looks very cool in pictures, is the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut.
Staying in Edfu
In Edfu I stayed at a very hospitable budget guesthouse marked on iOverlander near the west bank highway. I didn’t visit the temple there, having just come from Luxor and being a little “templed out,” but some travelers do visit it.
Staying in Aswan
Aswan is a trickier city for bike-friendly accommodation. I ended up staying at the friendly and reasonably priced Hathor Hotel, which is in a great location in town right on the Nile. However, there are lots of stairs… I left my bike locked in the lobby, which was already up one flight of stairs, and used the tiny elevator to take my bags up another 5 flights of stairs.
Another option is David’s Hostel, which is a few miles south of the main downtown area, walkable but only if you like long walks, and cyclable if you don’t mind Aswan’s chaotic traffic.
David’s doesn’t have a sign outside, but go to the location on Maps.me and ask someone to point you to it. David was very helpful (I was sorting out visa issues and had some questions for him), his rates were cheap, and it seemed to be the place to meet other cyclists and backpackers. If you’re willing to carry your stuff up many flights of stairs, you can camp on his roof for nothing more than a small optional donation.
Aswan is a pleasant and fairly modern city, interesting to just wander around, especially a bit off the main corniche where all the cruise tourists hang out. Or you can enjoy the nicest McDonalds I’ve ever seen, right on the Nile (guilty!). The Duty Free Shop sells beer, as do a few of the touristy restaurants right on the river.
Since I was stuck in Aswan for a couple days sorting out Sudan visa issues, I took some time to see the sights. I really enjoyed the Nubian Museum, which provided some wonderful background about the area I would be cycling through for the next few weeks. I also took a boat across to the Nubian villages of Elephantine Island, which was a nice way to spend a couple hours, but maybe not as exciting for us bicycle travelers who tend to see a lot of villages anyway. The Unfinished Obelisk is also a common site to see in Aswan, but I skipped it.
Aswan to Abu Simbel (280 km)
Not everyone who cycles through Egypt goes this way. Until a few years ago the road wasn’t even open to tourists, and even now that it is, some still choose to take the longer ferry ride from Aswan to Wadi Halfa. While this would have been interesting, I was in the mood for some desert riding and wanted to visit Abu Simbel on my own, so I pedaled this section.
Cycling from Aswan to Abu Simbel took me three days, camping at police checkpoints both nights. There is one about 115 km from downtown Aswan, and another one about 115km later at Toshka, where the highway turns east toward Abu Simbel.
If you have a police escort, wild camping isn’t an option, but the police were very welcoming hosts and I mostly enjoyed camping with them. There are a couple cafeterias where you might also be allowed to camp, but they weren’t spaced correctly for my daily pace.
Aswan’s streets can be chaotic, so I left early in the morning when things were a bit quieter. At the Aswan High Dam you’ll be stopped – no cyclists and pedestrians allowed – and the guards will flag down a vehicle to take you across. This should be free, though one driver demanded $10 before I got in! (I passed that one up and waited for another).
Much of this section is wide open desert and quiet road, which I enjoyed. There are little shade roofs every so often where you can take a break out of the sun, but not much else. It’s good mental preparation for the deserts of Sudan, if you’re headed that way. 🙂
Cycling into Abu Simbel, with its relaxed streets and Nile greenery, is a nice surprise after the desert. The police were content to leave me on my own once I said I knew which hotel I wanted to go to. If you plan it right you can arrive in Abu Simbel and see the temple the same day, then take the ferry and continue to Sudan the following morning.
I arrived on the last day of the bi-annual solar event that lights up the temple in a special way, so I waited until the next morning to visit the temple. Then I enjoyed a lazy rest day and left for Sudan the day after.
Staying in Abu Simbel
I would highly, highly recommend staying at the Eskaleh Nubian Ecolodge in Aswan. Their rooms would be a splurge, but they allow camping on their beautiful grounds for $5. They have an amazing breakfast, which may or may not be included depending on your negotiations, and a wonderfully friendly owner who speaks great English. They really went out of their way to make me feel welcome, and I enjoyed it so much that I stayed two nights.
To visit Abu Simbel Temple, you can simply walk or ride through town. I recommend going early in the morning, because a) that’s when the sun lights the front of the temple, and b) it’s before the larger tourist groups come. I went for sunrise and there was almost no one there, even though it was the last day of the bi-annual “sun festival.”
Ferry From Abu Simbel to Road to Wadi Halfa, Sudan
There are two ferries from Abu Simbel to the road leading to Sudan. They both seem to leave every hour or two throughout the morning. Their locations, and potentially more detail about timing, are marked on iOverlander.
I took the military ferry and had a good experience. I first tried the local ferry, but was told it had just left and the military ferry would be leaving sooner. The military ferry seemed to be the “place to be” and I met a group tour of Dutch travelers there, plus an Egyptian man who works at the border and helped smooth my crossing later.
The ferry takes awhile to load, with all the massive trucks, but it’s entertaining to watch and the crossing is scenic. I would allow roughly two hours for the process of waiting, loading, and riding the ferry.
If you’re trying to get to Wadi Halfa by night, it’s worth trying to catch an early ferry, but it doesn’t need to be absurdly early. I think I ended up on the ferry around mid-morning, maybe 9am, and had plenty of time.
Once on the other side of Lake Nasser it’s a quick 35 km to the border crossing into Sudan! I got some nice cheering and encouragement from the truck drivers lined up for the ferry as I started this last stretch. “To Khartoum?” they shouted.
Route notes from here are continued in my post on cycling in Sudan.
Gear Notes for Cycling in Egypt
For the paved highways of Egypt I think a simply and sturdy touring bike, like my own beloved Long Haul Trucker, is perfect. Water capacity is a consideration for the desert stretches, where I carried up to 6 liters at a time. If you’re planning to continue to the desert crossings in Sudan, you’ll need more than this anyway.
You will definitely want a water treatment system that both filters and purifies, and you will definitely want a backup method. The drinking water you’ll encounter is sometimes taken directly from the Nile.
Roads are flat and generally decent quality. I used my typical dual-sided clip-in pedal system and thought it was perfect. The attachment is really nice for powering through those long flat stretches, and the flat side is nice for staying nimble in town traffic.
I cycled Egypt in late February and found the days hot and the nights chilly. I was glad to have a sleeping bag for the nights I camped at police checkpoints. A simple silk sleeping bag liner is also good for those guesthouses with questionable sheets.
Notes for Women Cycling in Egypt
To be honest, I was pretty intimidated by the idea of cycling solo in Egypt. I’d read some pretty negative experiences from other women, and arrived with my defenses up, ready to ignore catcalls and fight off gropers at every street corner.
As it turns out, I had basically no issues with harassment in Egypt, aside from one rude gesture from across the road and one confusingly friendly (but possibly well-intentioned) police officer. Maybe I was lucky, or the police escorts helped. But I want other women to know that aggressive harassment, while unfortunately possible, is not a guarantee in Egypt. It was exhausting in the beginning to always have my defenses up, and my trip got better once I was able to relax more.
I do think it’s important to dress conservatively to maximize your chance of a good experience. I wore loose long pants and a long sleeve shirt. I occasionally covered my head, typically in small roadside villages that don’t get many tourists, but the locals didn’t seem to care either way.
More Egypt Cycling Resources
The best way to find Egypt cycling information is generally to look at the travel blogs of Cairo to Cape Town cyclists. Here are some I used to research my own trip:
- Detailed route notes from Blanca on a Bike (2018)
- More general Egypt travel info from Blanca on a Bike
- Crazy Guy On A Bike journals about Egypt
- London 2 Capetown blog
- Crazy Guy On A Bike journal from early 2020
More Bicycle Travel Resources
If you’re craving a long bike trip, in Africa or anywhere else, you might find these helpful:
- Does your bike repair kit have everything you need?
- Cycling Chile’s Scenic Carretera Austral
- Clipless pedals for touring: pros and cons
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