When most people think of Egypt, they think of the Pyramids, mummies, and ancient gods. Across the Suez Canal from ‘mainland’ Egypt lies an entire region of the country that is often forgotten, with a very different culture.
The Sinai peninsula, which connects Egypt to Israel-Palestine, is rich in history, as well as natural wonders. South Sinai is an excellent place for hiking and SCUBA/snorkeling, with several national parks from the ‘Colored Canyon’ of Nuweiba to the coral reefs of Ras Mohammad.
The Sinai desert is home to several groups of Bedouin, Arab nomads, who traditionally live off the land, herding goats and living in moveable camps. Today, most Bedouin are only semi-nomadic, if at all, but are more than happy to show tourists their traditional way of life.
Bedouin towns such as Nuweiba and Dahab are very relaxed, inexpensive and backpacker-friendly whereas Sharm El-Sheikh in the south is more family-oriented and has more luxurious lodging options. There’s something for everyone in South Sinai!
Nuweiba & Dahab
These two sleepy towns are the gateway to Bedouin excursions and the mountain-village of Saint Catherine.
Start the day trekking through the desert and its many colored canyons, and finish on the beach, smoking shisha (hookah) under the stars. Bedouin ‘camps’ rates range from $3 bare-minimum bedding to $20-per night reed huts on the beach, with mattresses and wifi.
Bedouins are also great cooks, so most day-trips and lodging include meals! Here, several Bedouin and I are eating smoked eggplant with tahina (nutty sauce made from sesame seeds), foul (a dish made with mashed fava beans), labneh (yogurt-cheese with olive oil), and freshly-baked bread, on a handmade carpet in the desert.
The Colored Canyons are several hikes in the Sinai desert near Nuweiba and Dahab, where the sandstone has been eroded over millions of years. Deep in the canyons, the colors of the rock range from light bluish-white to almost black, hence the name. The hikes range from easy to very challenging, and all end with a view over the rocky desert.
Dahab also is known for its SCUBA diving. Since its reefs are accessible directly from the shore, diving is relatively inexpensive.
There aren’t any pyramids or mummies in Sinai, but there are important sites for those of Abrahamic faith, such as St. Catherine’s Monastery. The surrounding mountains make for rigorous hiking as well.
The God-Trodden of St. Catherine is considered one of the oldest monasteries in the world and Greek Orthodox monks have lived inside almost continuously since its creation in 565 AD.
St. Catherine was established high in the mountains, feet above sea level commemorate when Moses was given the 10 commandments. Bedouin guides offer guided-hikes (4-6 hours) up Mount Moses (Jebel Musa), where Moses spoke to the burning bush. The best time to begin is around 2am or 2pm, in order to see the sunrise or sunset over the mountains.
It’s a long, cold hike. You’ve been warned.
It’s also a peaceful and scenic hike as well, there are shops along the way serving hot drinks, as well a small stone village in “Elijah’s Basin”. It is possible to sleep here in the summer months, that way people don’t have to hike up and down in the same day.
Whether you drink tea as you go, or celebrate on the summit with a hot chocolate, the Bedouins are there every step of the way to make sure you’re safe and warm.
Coming from tranquil Nuweiba or Dahab, Sharm El-Sheikh seems like a little bit of a mess– everyone is selling something, there are neon signs everywhere, and the streets are lined with loud and smoky cafes. But, venture down to the beachfront promenade of Naama Bay, or the area of ‘Soho’ to find quiet restaurants and beautiful beaches, away from the chaos. Sharm El-Sheikh is full of luxurious all-inclusive hotels, which are surprisingly affordable.
Underwater is the real beauty of Sharm: 30-40 minutes by boat from the city there are dozens of incredible SCUBA/snorkeling sites. From the Straits of Tiran and Sanafir (technically part of Saudi Arabia) to the Ras Mohammad national park at the very tip of Sinai, the brilliant coral reefs of Sharm El-Sheikh are teeming with fish, rays, and eels and in the warmer seasons, larger aquatic life such as sharks.
There are several PADI-certified dive shops that offer half, full-day and also night dives. Sharm El-Sheikh is also a great place to get certified since diving prices here are still pretty inexpensive. For less than $100/day, divers can join two or three guided dives off of a large fully-staffed yacht. Full day dive trips run from 8am until 3 or 4 pm, with a chef-prepared lunch and unlimited tea.
Not a diver? Sharm El-Sheikh attracts a large Eastern European crowd and is a great place to party. There are several large outdoor nightclubs in Naama Bay, which host events with Egyptian and international artists year-round.
Whether you’re just visiting Egypt, or backpacking around the Middle East, stop by South Sinai. A short bus ride from Israel, South Sinai offers great hiking, diving, and hospitality. For a few days, or even a week, South Sinai’s cities are exceptional and affordable destinations.