Author: Mihai Voinea
Date of Trip: August 2014
It was the summer of 2014 when I went to Egypt for a 1 month cardiology internship in Cairo. The perks? I was working 3 hours a day in the morning 4 days a week and sometimes even less. The whole group was comprised of 7 people from all over the world.
Five days before our departure at the end of August, I suggested going to Sinai (for those who don’t know, according to the Book of Exodus, Sinai is the mountain at which the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God). Egypt is a wonderful place and there are a few spots you should simply not miss. Sinai (St Catherine Monastery) is one of them.
It is there where I lived one of the best nights of my life, under a sky full of stars so big that I thought I was dreaming.
I was already familiar with the Arab world, but our trip to the peninsula was unlike any other. For instance, the trip to Abu Simbel and Luxor (about 1000 kilometers south from Cairo!) made me understand how different Egypt is. Southerners had a much darker skin colour and lived in brutal poverty, as opposed to northerners who had lighter skin colour and had access to technology. I met a 21-year girl who had never seen alcohol.
There were only two people who left for Sinai (me and a girl who really wanted to see the St. Catherine Monastery for religious purposes). Although I’m orthodox, too, I just wanted to see the biblical spot, take pictures and see the sunrise from the top of the mountain.
One of the reasons the others quit: attacks were reported in the Sinai Peninsula (the bedouins had shot a man).
There are three ways to visit Sinai from Cairo, as there’s a considerable distance (around 500 kilometers and absolutely no highways).
1. You either take a flight to Sharm el Sheikh and then take a bus to Sinai (which is VERY expensive)
2. You either take a bus from Cairo and sleep one night at a hotel in Dahab. There are daily tours to Sinai and usually people go there to see the sunrise (therefore they ascend the mountain at 2am) and visit the monastery in the early morning after the descent.
3. You either take a bus straight to Dahab and then go to Sinai (no sleepover). We chose the third alternative as we were short on time and didn’t have enough money for a flight.
As a general rule: if you go to Egypt, always have an Egyptian buy tickets for you and arrange everything in advance. When you get there, you won’t understand a thing and you risk being mugged. Egyptians love tourists they can trick. After all, most of them are poor and make a living using tourism.
So we took the bus to Dahab and we were told by our fellow Egyptian students that someone from a hotel (which would arrange the trip to the mountain) was going to take us to the next bus. We arrived there pretty late (around 1am) and the guy asked for our passports.
“Why?”, I asked.
“Aren’t you checking in?”
“No, we want to ascend the mountain tonight”.
“That’s not possible, the last bus has just left”.
After a few minutes of arguing with the guy, he called a cab driver and arranged our trip to St Catherine Monastery (go and back for 30 euros – around 120 kilometers).
We went through another five military checkpoints where they checked our passports and visas. They do this mostly because there are many tourists coming from Israel, too, and they only receive visa to ascend the mountain and come back. We had a different type of visa that we had bought from the airport.
If you’re planning a visit there, make sure you check your visa requirements. I used https://www.visahq.com. For instance, in 2015 I visited Israel and wanted to visit Sinai again but I couldn’t – they would not grant visa like in 2014 (in the airport), so this is very important. Plus, I wanted to cross the border with a rented car.
Going back to my story. We arrived there are about 2:30am and the cab driver was going to wait for us a couple of hours. We were assigned a bedouin (a local guy) who would take us to the top of the mountain.
Some useful info here:
– You are not allowed to go to the top with a local guide. That’s the rule.
– There are two ways to ascend – you either take ‘the camel way’, which is longer (about 7 kilometers, but the elevation spans over a longer distance), or you take ‘the stairs’ (there are about 3000 in total, sculpted in the mountain, and the same elevation spans on just 4 kilometers, so it’s way harder to climb). Of course I chose the latter and the girl who was with me almost vomited. Be careful which one you choose – if you’re a sports guy like me then you probably understand
– Watch your pockets on the way up (the area is very poor)
– Take some extra clothes with you (it’s very cold out there, even in the summer the temperature goes down to about 5 degrees Celsius)
– Always tip your local guide (they don’t receive much from the agency and make the ascent almost every day – be grateful)
– Take some food with you
Total costs for a 24-hour trip:
– the bus from Cairo to Dahab, go and back (30 euros per person)
– the taxi from Dhab to Sinai, go and back (15 euros per person)
– food (7 euros per person)
My brother visited Egypt last summer (2015) and he got better prices than I did. If you go there, check with 10 agencies before you choose one. The price variations are so high that you won’t even believe it.