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Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Exploring Egypt: Dos and don'ts for a trip to Siwa

Lina El-Wardani , Thursday 13 Oct 2016
Siwa
The cold water spring in Siwa Oasis (Photo: Lina El Wardani)
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Last weekend, I packed my rucksack, and went on a quick getaway trip to Siwa.

I just couldn't resist the oh-so-many ads on Facebook for weekend trips to the oasis town. I picked a themed trip with a young travel company whose programme included a day of sightseeing, a day of desert safari and a night sleeping under the stars, something I have always wanted to do.

We travelled on Wednesday night, using the great opportunity that 6 October was a bank holiday, so no work for me, no school for the kids; yes, I made the mistake of taking my three-year-old and my five-year-old on this laborious trip.

The trip took 12 hours; we left Cairo at 10pm and arrived in Siwa at 10am. The 800 km between Cairo and the isolated oasis in the Western Desert was truly laborious in the minibus I took. The road is smooth at first but once you cross Marsa Matrouh, it’s bumpy and you can’t exceed 40km per hour for many stretches.

We stopped at three rest houses and two gas stations so the bus could fuel up but most of the bathrooms on the way are not clean, so my advice is to abstain from food and drink and take the potty for small kids, take your portable toilet seat, go girl or whatever that makes you comfortable in basic bathrooms.

After a quick check-in and a hurried shower, we were on our way to discover Siwa, the oasis that I had heard and read so much about.

Siwa
Dakrour mountain, the site for Siwa unity celebrations. You can see the whole oasis from its top. (Photo: Lina El Wardani)

Dakrour Mountain

Our first stop was Dakrour Mountain. This is not an ancient sight like the rest of the monuments in the oasis as it’s only a hundred years old. Its significance is that it is a site for Siwa union celebrations; this is where east and west Siwa unite to celebrate the end of decades of tribal conflicts that left the two sides at odds. From 14 to 16 October Siwans celebrate their unity and gather here to sing and dance.

Amoun Temple

Alexander's oracle temple of Amoun is the most important remaining temple in Siwa. In 331 BC when Alexander came to Siwa guarded by the Greek army, he went to the temple of Amoun and went inside the chapel alone to receive his oracle. The son of Zeus was then on the path to be son of Amoun as well.

To modern visitors, the site appears strange and fascinating. The actual temple is small, but the entire setting is like something out of a fantasy novel. The temple complex, complete with a well (which is quite well-preserved) takes up all of a little hill rising up from the oasis. Seen from a distance, the site is like a white island floating on green palms. Upon entering, a wall rises above you, and when standing next to the temple you will have fabulous views.

Unfortunately, there is little to fascinate a visitor with the temple structure itself as no wall-paintings and no fine details have survived. It is best when seen from a distance.

Cleopatra’s bath (Ein Juba)

Cleopatra didn’t bathe here, she didn’t even come to Siwa, but somehow this was named Cleopatra’s Spring.

I don’t recommend bathing here as it was smelly and crowded with kids and teenagers swimming in their clothes, and there were lots of donkeys and horses carrying dates from palm trees as it is the season for the tastiest dates in Egypt. Don’t forget to reach out and pick some.

There are a couple of cafés here, and a comfortable Bedouin-style floor seating area. We had Siwan tea, and the kids had lemon juice. The drinks were tasty and we paid EGP 50, but it was so crowded -- I stood in line for 15 minutes.

Again the bathrooms were not clean in the café.

Fatnas Lake

This is a nice spot for sunset watching. There is a spring but again it was smelly and I couldn’t get myself or the kids to bathe, and the bathroom was not clean. Having said that, you can walk through the beautiful palm trees and come to a magnificent lake for a breathtaking sunset. We had Siwan tea, which consists of black tea, lemongrass and lots of sugar. It was very refreshing and the sunset was breathtaking.

Dinner at Abdou's

After sunset, we head to a famous restaurant in the market in the middle of the city called Abdou, where we had vegetables, rice and chicken. The food was ok, basic but tasty, nothing flashy or extraordinary.

Then we headed to the hotel to have a much-deserved night’s rest. The hotel was away from the city, in a quiet location by the lake.

Desert safari

The second day we checked out from the hotel and went on our desert safari, which turned out to be the highlight of our trip.

We left at 1pm to take our Toyota Land Cruisers and we delved into the desert. The views of the endless white sand known as the sea of white sand are breathtaking.

Siwa
A dip in the hot natural sulphur water spring, is relaxing after a day of action in the desert. (Photo: Lina El Wardani)

It was a rollercoaster going over the sand dunes with the cars and we all enjoyed the adventure and the adrenaline rush, kids included. Then we stopped at some of the sand cliffs to do sand-boarding, which was fun.

Siwa
The Western Desert is both magnificent and peaceful, its endless sand dunes evoke a sense of calm and happiness. (Photo: Lina El Wardani)

After that we stopped at the cold water spring which looks out of this world, but there were no changing rooms, so we didn’t enjoy the bath.

Siwa
Cars parking in the Oasis, so people could have a dip in the hot water spring (Photo: Lina El Wardani)

The hot water spring also looked very inviting and there was a changing room, but it was too crowded and we decided against it.

Siwa
Sand boarding among the dunes is a fun adventure (Photo: Lina El Wardani)

After that we watched the sunset from a high cliff in the desert, which was stunning.

Siwa
Sand boarding is fun for kids, only if accompanied by adults and done on a safe and not so high dune (Photo: Lina El Wardani(

Then we headed to our camp site. We were served dinner, which was also basic: chicken, undercooked rice and vegetables. It wasn’t really to my taste, but we were starving so we ate anyway.

Then we set up our tents, took our sleeping bags and gathered around the camp fire for marshmallows and Siwan tea.

Unfortunately the kids were too tired; one slept before and the other slept through dinner, so they missed gazing at millions of stars and the rest of the camping experience.

The next morning we woke up, went back to the hotel for showers and breakfast, then went to the market for last minute handmade souvenirs and yummy dates. Then we began the 10-hour trip back home.

Siwa
Sunset in Siwa is breathtaking (Photo: Lina El Wardani)

Dos and don’ts

There were a couple of things I did wrong that made the trip less enjoyable. Below are a list of things to bear in mind, to help you get more out of your Siwa trip than I did.

1. Pick your time carefully -- don't go in summer. The best time to go to Siwa is between November and February, as the weather will be perfect.

2. Don't go over a weekend, take a week or at least five days.

3. Take a night bus from Cairo to Siwa, arrive there in the morning, take your time to rest in the hotel, you can go for sunset-watching and dinner in the evening, no sightseeing the first day, you won't enjoy it when you’re too tired.

4. If you are going by car, take a break in Marsa Matrouh. This beautiful coastal city is midway between Cairo and Siwa and you can even spend the night there, then wake up fresh and go to Siwa.

5. Do your research before going, find out exactly what you want to see in Siwa, and ask the hotel to arrange a car and a guide for you to take you where you want, not where they want.

If you are going with a travel company, read their reviews well before going, because a good company and a good programme makes all the difference.

6. If you want to do a desert safari and go to the great sand sea, which I highly recommend, choose a trusted company, with good Land Cruiser cars and experienced drivers, take your sun bloc with you even in winter, a scarf to protect your head against the sand and sun, and put your swim suit on under your clothes as there is nowhere to change in the desert.

After you do sand-boarding and sand dunes you could use a dip in the cold water spring and another dip in the hot water spring. There is a changing room at the hot spring, but none at the cold water spring.

7. Take your sleeping bag with you if you want to sleep under the stars and camp in the desert; also stock up on refreshments as some cookies and dry snacks could come in handy.

For dinner and breakfast, Bedouins serve you some traditional food with tea only. Keep your room at the hotel, in case you find it too cold in the desert and decide to go sleep in your warm bedroom.

8. Don't take small kids with you as it's too tiring for the little ones, but if you have to, make sure you take the potty with you, along with wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and lots of healthy snacks.

9. You don't have to see everything in Siwa, you can skip things like Cleopatra's bath (Cleopatra didn't go there so the name is misleading), as it stinks and is neglected. You can also skip Dakrour Mountain if you won't use the sand bath which is said to have healing powers for rheumatoid arthritis. But you have to go in the summer and allow at least four days if you do want the rheumatoid sand treatment. 

10. Choose your hotel well. You are likely to spend some time in the hotel, so choose a nice hotel with clean bathrooms, and good clean food, something you don't often find in Siwa.

Bon voyage! 

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