Siwa travel is no longer a rare dream and nowadays it is quite easy to visit this once-forgotten forgotten place. The lucrative business of salt mining and drip irrigation agriculture has changed the face of the oasis and nowadays this far-flung Egyptian town sees too many vehicles than it can handle. The result is crater-sized potholes on Siwa streets; potholes which can damage any car beyond repairs, and look like wide gaping mouths of greed that are ready to swallow up anything in sight. Funnily enough, this allusion represents present Siwa aptly (at least in my eyes) and everybody, local or otherwise, at the oasis is in a hurry to get rich. Salt trucks carry away precious loads of minerals from the oasis, dates are harvested, packaged and sent off at breakneck speed, more olives are being crushed into oil rather than preserving them to be traditional pickles (as was the custom of the oasis), and every single day parcels of land are sold off to whoever is willing to shell out cash. The result is a surge in expensive thundering cars, tearing down of traditional mud houses to construct ugly concrete structures and mountains of trash that get higher with every passing day. Only two things to have been passed down from the last centuries. Those are vice-like military control of the oasis and the genuinely warm hospitality of the Siwans.
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Plan your Siwa travel before the oasis disappears
The rest of the oasis seems to be disappearing fast. Palm groves are reducing, natural springs are choked with filth and algae, and discarded plastic bloom like millions of colourful flowers across the desert. Does it mean that it is not worth taking the time and effort to visit the oasis? The answer depends on what you seek from Siwa. Do you intend to go there for sand therapy which is an excellent remedy for rheumatism, follow the footsteps of Alexander just out of sheer curiosity, or simply want to bask in the last frontier of Egypt’s fast-vanishing authentic desert life? If your reasons for Siwa travel is any of the above, then think no further, and start planning your trip to the oasis today. It is the time of changes at Siwa and you never know how much time is left until this quaint little oasis is completely corrupted and destroyed by the outside world.
Siwa Travel Guide and Tips
To begin a Siwa travel planning guide, let’s figure out how to reach there. Presenting the options for visiting Siwa.
How to Reach Siwa
- Drive – You can rent a car and drive. However, make sure that you don’t make our mistake and try to do it at one go. Break the drive into two parts. First, go all the way to Marsa Matrouh on the North Coast, and spend a night by the gorgeous turquoise blue sea. Then head south in the direction of Siwa for a duration of approximately 3 hours until you reach the army checkpoint. The journey remains the same irrespective of whether you start from Cairo or Alexandria.
- By Bus – Alternatively, you can take the bus. The distance between Cairo to Siwa is about 750 – 800 KM. There is a night bus to Siwa from Cairo that departs at around 10.00 PM and reaches Siwa early in the morning (around 7:00 am). A round trip ticket costs about EGP 240. You can board the bus from either Almaza station, Al-Torgoman (that’s in Ramses), or Abdel Moniem Ryad in Tahrir Square. The buses are air-conditioned, though a bit cramped and it is a 12-hour ride. For more information, check out this site.
- By Flight – The best option is to fly. Hop on a short distance flight to Marsa Matrouh and then take a bus to reach the oasis thus minimizing the amount of time spent on the road. It takes about 3 hours to reach Siwa from Marsa Matrouh.
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Where to stay in Siwa
Siwa offers a good mix of eco-resorts, guesthouses, rundown hotels, homestays, and camps. If you love the desert, and you want to explore the Siwa oasis with its tumbledown ruins, salt lakes, springs, tombs in full glory, then stay at one of the eco-hotels. It gets very hot during the day in Siwa and a hotel with a swimming pool is a big plus. The old town of Shali also has one or two traditional Siwa guesthouses. These places have loads of atmosphere and no swimming pool. A few of the mentionable eco-hotels of Siwa are the Shali Lodge, Siwa Safari Paradise Hotel (we stayed here and highly recommend), Taziry Eco Village (out of town), Adrere Amellal (complete eco-resort with no electricity, running water, etc, and is out of town), Ghaliet ecolodge and spa, and Mountain Camp Ali Khaled. The last one is quite nice and has awesome barbeque dinners on select nights.
Best Time to Visit Siwa
The best time for a Siwa travel is between October and April, which is before the mosquitoes and the heat arrive. The nights are very cold at that time, so pack accordingly.
Modes of transportation in Siwa
Unless you have your own vehicle or go on a Siwa travel with an organized tour, you will have limited transportation options. Most Siwa repeat visitors swear that the oasis is one of the best places to cycle in Egypt. Cycling past palm groves, mud huts, and donkey carts in Siwa is not only fun but also very relaxing. If you are like me, someone who cannot bike or does not want to commute on a bike, a local tricycle will take you around the oasis. These are easily available and used by the locals as well.
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What to see during your Siwa travel
Within and around the Siwa town
- Shali Fortress – It is a 13-century mud-brick fortress where the erstwhile people of Siwa used to live. Unfortunately, 3 days of nonstop rain in 1926 damaged the fort a lot and most of its inhabitants moved to safer places. Today, it is crumbling majestic remains of a once five stories high fortified settlement that looms over the Siwa town in a most photogenic way. You can walk the labyrinthine ruins which eventually leads to the top passing through a mosque that’s still functional. The fortress is a great spot for watching sunrises or sunsets and offers panoramic views of the oasis.
- The Temple of the Oracle – The ruins of this historic place is also known as Aghurmi or Amun Ra Temple. It was made by the Greeks and is believed to be the place where Alexander the Great received his oracle to head east. Climb all the way to the top for fantastic views of the oasis, its palm groves, surrounding mountains, and the salt lakes.
- Gabal El Mawta or The Mountain of the Dead – It is a hill-side full of tombs belonging to where the Greek and Roman periods. During World War II, these tombs served as a hideout. The view from the top of the mountain offers a stunning panorama of Siwa. The Tomb of the Crocodile contains a painting of a crocodile, the Tomb of Miso-Isis contains the owner’s skull and the Tomb of Niperpathot that has red ink drawings are worth visiting.
- Dakrour Mountain – This is a well-known therapeutic tourism destination. People go there in summer for ‘sand bathing’ which is a traditional treatment believed by the locals to work wonders for medical conditions like rheumatism and joint pain. Plus, the views from there are spectacular.
Things to do during your Siwa travel
- Sunset at Fatnas Lake – This is one of the nicest spots for sunset watching in Siwa. There is a spring at the site, but it looks too unclean to take a dip. The area, however, is tranquil and pretty with beautiful palm groves, a lovely lake, and a rustic seating area. There is a cafe that serves Egyptian tea, soft drinks, and shisha. Enjoy them all with a glorious sun setting behind the mountains on the other side of the lake.
- Adrère Anesbar – It is a viewpoint on the hillside providing views of the salt lake and Adrère Amellal which means the White Mountain. The famous and super expensive eco-lodge Adrère Amellal is located there and the sunsets are stunning from there as well.
- Swim or relax at the natural springs of Siwa – There is a wide range of natural water springs; cold hot ones in and around Siwa. The most famous one is Cleopatra’s Bath and it is located near the Temple of Amun. Though considered to be one of the most famous springs in the area, most foreign visitors find it a bit too unclean for a dip. Abu Sherouf is one of the largest and most beautiful springs in Siwa. It has cool and clean water and is located outside Siwa town. Bir Wahed is a freshwater lake in the middle of the desert. It is a perfect spot for taking a refreshing break during your desert safari and you can swim in the clear cool water. Kegar Well is a natural hot spring located in the desert of the Great Sand sea. Its sulphurous water can reach over 60 degrees and is believed to cure some diseases such as psoriasis and rheumatism.
- Float upon Siwa’s salt lakes – Siwa’s small salt lakes are stunningly blue and extremely salty. They are fun to float upon and are great places to catch sunsets.
- Desert Safaris, Sandboarding, and camping under the stars – Desert safari with 4WD in the Great Sand Sea is one of the most popular day trips in Siwa. There are some of the highest sand dunes in the country in that area and sandboarding is a part of the safari. The safari includes stops at Kegar Well and Bir Wahed. Desert camping is also a very popular activity in Siwa. You can sleep in a tent or simply take your sleeping bag outside and sleep under a sky full of stars. A BBQ Bedouin dinner is included and the desert is a great place for star trail photography.
The food, entertainment, and shopping options at Siwa
- Dinner at Abdou’s -This is the most famous restaurant in Siwa. It is located in the market in the middle of the city. Popular with visitors and locals alike, Abdou serves simple wholesome food. The setting is rustic, service basic, and the food is delicious. Abdou also serves breakfast and dinner. Breakfast starts at 10 am. For more information on Siwa food, check out this site.
- Experience Sufism in Siwa – Every Thursday, Sufis in Siwa host a dhikr circle. It is a gathering where Sufis immerse themselves in chants and prayers. Modest clothing and respect to the local customs are in order if you wish to attend this highly spiritual ceremony.
- Buy the gorgeous local handicrafts of Siwa – Siwa is famous for handmade rugs called Kelim, silver jewelry, products like lamps and ashtrays made out of petrified salt. Siwa embroidery is exquisite and comes in forms of shawls, scarves, ladies galabeyas, purses, wallets, etc.
- Indulge in the excellent Siwa dates and olives – Siwa’s primary crops are dates and olives. You can find many different kinds of products such as dates, dates jam, olives, olive oil, olive oil soap and olive jam for sale at the local market.
- Special Tip (the Date Palm Festival) – For three days around October’s full moon, Dakrour Mountain in Siwa hosts the Siyaha festival. Known as the annual date harvest festival, this special occasion calls for all Siwans, irrespective of their social standing, to dine together at a huge feast after the noon prayer each day. Each evening during the three days of the festival, hundreds of men form a circle for a dhikr gathering. Siwan women do not attend these festivities, although many girls up to about the age of 12 are present until sunset.
The Do’s and Don’ts to remember during your Siwa travel
Below is a list of things to help you get more out of your Siwa trip.
- Time your visit right – Avoid going there in summer. The best time to go to Siwa is between November and February, as the weather will be perfect.
- Have time on your hands – Siwa is best enjoyed at a slow pace. So don’t go for just a weekend. The distance is too far and the destination is too interesting for such a short time. Take a week or at least five days to savour Siwa to the fullest.
- Time your journey right – Siwa is quite far from Cairo, so the distance can either make or break your experience. It is sensible to take a night bus from Cairo to Siwa so that you arrive there in the morning, rest a bit in the hotel, and go for sunset-watching and dinner in the evening. If you are going by car, then take a break at Marsa Matrouh. This North Coast city is midway between Cairo and Siwa and you can even spend the night there, then wake up rejuvenated and go on to Siwa.
- Desert Safari with a reliable local company – A desert safari is one of the must-do activities in Siwa. However, it is important to go with a reliable company in the desert. Check the conditions of their Land Cruiser cars before you sign up and it is preferable to have an English speaking driver. Carry a scarf, sunblock, swimsuit, and extra set of clothes, if you want to swim in the natural springs.
- Bedouin Food – For your meals, Bedouins serve traditional food that includes rice, chicken, and vegetables. It is served with tea. Being picky is not a good idea and inform beforehand, in case you are a vegetarian.
- Choose your hotel well – You are going to spend quite some time in the hotel, so choose a good hotel with clean bathrooms, a swimming pool, and travel services.
- Cash only destination – Siwa is a cash-only destination. ATMs are not really there, so take plenty of cash.
- Take your own essentials – If you think you need medicines, toiletries, and any special snack, then it is best to carry your own. It is not possible to get them in Siwa.
P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will try to focus on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE