Don’t let the 12-hour overnight bus-ride from Cairo be a deterrent: Siwa, an oasis town in the Sahara desert near the Libyan border, is an enchanting place with dozens of natural hot and cold springs and ancient ruins.
Egypt’s oases are home to the Amazigh or Berber people, indigenous tribes that are scattered throughout North Africa. They have their own language and traditions, but also speak Arabic and practice Islam. This makes traveling to Siwa a different cultural experience. The Siwi Berbers are very hospitable and friendly people, and will often invite tourists to join them for tea or a hot lemongrass drink. (The Siwis are more conservative religiously than other Egyptians in Cairo or Luxor for example, so visitors should be respectful of the culture and dress modestly.)
Day 1: Explore the Old Town of Siwa
(Buses from Cairo generally arrive in Siwa around 10 or 11am. After checking into your bed-and-breakfast, head into the old city to get a feel for the culture and architecture.)
The ancient Shali fortress is where it all began, back in the 1200’s. Free to enter, the hilltop ruins offer the best view over the Siwa oasis, from the old city below to the salt lakes to the plateaus in the distance. Surrounding the Shali are many traditional homes, built entirely of mud and sand. Some of the homes are vacant or in ruins, however, many have been kept up or restored and operate as guesthouses.
Siwa is a small but vibrant city, and especially busy on Friday, when the town’s merchants set up a market on the main street. In the old town, permanent shops display traditional Berber art and local specialties, such as woven goods, salt-carvings, and carpets.
In the outer reaches of the city, there are many date-palm farms, as well as olive and guava trees. Friendly Siwis will offer you samples of their fresh fruit and tours of their property. Feel free to tip but do not feel inclined.
Head back to the Shali for an incredible sunset, or to the local hot spring to relax at the end of the day.
Day 2: A Day in the Desert
A short Jeep-ride from the city, and you’ll find yourself in the dunes of the Sahara desert. Offroading, ATVing, and sandboarding are a few of the many activities offered here in dunes. My guide, Sayed, a Siwi Berber, picked fresh karkadeh or hibiscus leaves and made tea, which we drank with the falafel, foul (mashed beans), and roasted vegetables that he prepared for us while we swam in the spring.
There are massive white rocks in the desert, made of shells and coral, a reminder that the Sahara desert used to be underwater thousands of years ago. Sifting around, you’ll be able to find complete mollusk shells and even sand dollars. There are even whale and fish fossils, truly unbelievable. There’s even a cold lake where endemic fish still swim around, right in the middle of the desert!
Day tours are roughly $40-60, and overnight camping is about $80-100 depending on the guide. These are more expensive than most excursions in Egypt, but a day or night in the desert, with freshly-prepared meals included, is well worth it! Siwa is not very touristy so tours are often private or in small groups.
Day 3: Local Sightseeing
The Siwa oasis contains many ancient ruins, such as the City of the Dead, the Oracle’s temple, and Dakrour mountain.
The City of the Dead is a necropolis carved into a plateau and the paintings inside its depict early ancient Egyptian life. Nearby is the Siwa museum, which explains the history and culture of the Berber people of the region.
Further down the palm-tree-shaded road lies the Oracle’s Temple, which is famous for its function during Egyptian Hellenistic period. It was here that Alexander the Great. was named the legitimate King of Egypt in 331 B.C.E. The temple is almost completely intact and surrounded by a walled village and lookout tower.
Dakrour mountain also has the remains of an ancient village, and it is here that the Siwa Berbers host the annual Harvest Festival, a 3-night long event to celebrate the land’s fertility. Though the Berbers are Muslim, they still celebrate/practice some ancient holidays and traditions.
Siwa’s small salt lakes are stunningly blue salt-mines which are just as salty, if not saltier, than the Dead Sea. I was lucky to have one all to myself and spent an hour just floating along. Even in the winter, temperatures in Siwa can be in the 80’s during the day, making the cold water quite refreshing.
Day-tours in a private tuk-tuk make it easy to visit all of the sights in one day ($15-20).
After a long day, you’ll be worn out enough to sleep through the long bus ride back to Cairo! Siwa is a beautiful off-the-beaten-path destination and unique to the rest of Egypt, making it an interesting cultural experience for first-timers or those who have visited Egypt before.
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More on Egypt coming soon! Thanks for reading.