Egypt’s Red Sea coast is as stunning as it is varied. The comfort travelers have Sharm-el-Sheikh and Hurghada, while the offbeat explorers can opt between Marsa Alam and Wadi Lahami. I have not been as deep south as Wadi Lahami (though it is on my agenda) and until now, Marsa Alam is my favourite Red Sea coast destination. I love everything about it: its dinner-plate-sized town, its vast stretches of beaches, clear, warm water, Bedouin heritage, and the thriving marine life. Its small size makes Marsa Alam a nice place to sit back and relax and people are genuinely friendly there. You can buy fresh fish every day, choose between a handful of gorgeous beaches, watch dolphins, sea turtles, and lively corals, and in the evenings shoot some breeze at the friendly bar. If a place like this tempts your mind, then read this Marsa Alam travel guide.

Where is Marsa Alam?

Located 274 km south of Hurghada on the west coast of the Red Sea, Marsa Alam is located at the confluence of the Hurghada-Halaib Coastal Road with the Marsa Alam-Edfu Road.

How to reach?

By Flight – The Marsa Alam International Airport which is 67 km north of the city has regular domestic and charter flight services.

By Bus – It takes around 8 hours to reach Marsa Alam from Cairo and there are many bus services on this route. The best bus company is GoBus followed by Webus. There are also regular bus services between Marsa Alam and Edfu, Aswan, and Luxor but foreign tourists are not allowed to use those routes. Any tourist wishing to travel to Luxor must travel in convoy along the Safaga to Qena road which means you have to backtrack two-thirds of the way back to Hurghada before crossing over to the Nile valley.

By Taxi – It costs approximately 3000 EGP for a one-way ride to Marsa Alam from Cairo.

By Organized Tours – There are Marsa Alam organized trips to and from Sharm-el-Sheikh, Hurghada, Safaga, and Ras Ghareb.a road trip to marsa alam

Where to Stay

Marsa Alam does not a wide range of accommodations like Hurghada and Sham-el-Sheikh. It has a smattering of smart resorts that offer full board facilities, some diving camps, one or two hotels, and a few homestays/guesthouses.

Things to do in Marsa Alam

Although only a handful of foreign tourists venture into Marsa Alam, the ones who do end up visiting describe it as a relaxing, laidback beach paradise. There are plenty of things to do at this seemingly windswept empty town. You can rent a yacht or a boat to watch dolphins and sharks or go diving at the numerous reefs scattered across the coastline. There is one wreck to explore as well. Fishing and deep-sea angling can also be done here along with snorkeling and free diving. Marsa Alam is a great place to dive and in the evenings, you can enjoy a Bedouin dinner at the desert with sunset camel or ATV ride.

nazyak pool in marsa alam

Nazyak Pool in Marsa Alam

Marsa Alam Places of Interest

  • Samadi Reef – Famous for dolphin spotting, Samadi Reef is a must-visit spot in Marsa Alam.
  • Hamata Reserve – Resplendent with mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass, and thriving marine life, Hamata Reserve is unmissable.
  • Elphinstone Reef – Located 20 km from the beach of Marsa Alam, this is a great diving spot. The reef is 300 meters long and stretches to an incredible depth of more than 100 meters. Soft coral covers a large underwater area. Marine life at the Elphinstone Reef includes barracuda, angelic fish, grouper fish, and moray eels. It is also famous for white fin sharks, gray coral sharks, and hammerhead sharks. The reef is reachable from Marsa Alam by boat or zodiacs as they are locally known.
  • Furry Shoals – One of the most pristine areas of the Red Sea, Furry Shoals has both beautiful hard and soft corals.
  • Sataya Reef – Horseshoe-shaped Sataya is the main reef of the Fury Shoals. It has steep walls that slant down to a sandy slope scattered with a great variety of coral heads.
  • Abu Dabbab – It is one of the few places in the world where you can dive with the very rare and endangered dugongs or sea cows. This shallow bay that is covered with seagrass is also home to many green sea turtles. The rare guitar shark can also be seen in Abu Dabbab. It offers great snorkeling opportunities as well. This is a paid site.
  • Wadi Gemal National Park – Literally meaning the “Valley of the Camels”, Wadi Gemal is an extensive area of land and coastal water lying to the south of Marsa Alam. It includes many diverse ecological habitats and a rich variety of animals and birds. Organized tours are available from Marsa Alam.
  • Sharm el Luli – 60km south of Marsa Alam in the middle of the Wadi Gemal Protectorate, lies a pristine sand beach with azure water and excellent coral and fish viewing. Sharm El Luli has no hotels, restaurants or shops and any kind of facilities. Most visitors either come by organized tours or private taxis and they bring whatever they need. It is ideal for a day trip from Marsa Alam.
  • Wadi el Qulan – Wadi el Qulan protectorate has clear shallow water with beautiful natural mangroves. The lagoon is perfect for a peaceful swim and the spot is great for picnics.

Best Time to Dive

Around April and May, the visibility in Marsa Alam is reduced by the plankton bloom but that attracts Manta Rays and Whale Sharks. Coldest water occurs in January when the temperature is about 24°C. Whale Sharks can be spotted between May and June. Avoid November to February as strong winds can make the sea choppy. The best diving conditions are available during the summer months. One can spot Hammerhead Sharks and Manta rays season in Elphinstone Reef runs from May to August. The season of the famous Oceanic Whitetip Shark runs from October to December in Elphinstone Reef.

Diving in Marsa Alam

There are plenty of stunning world-class dive sites that can be easily reached from Marsa Alam. You can explore them either by organized tours or by private rented zodiacs. However, the best Marsa Alam diving experience is possible only by liveaboards. This will help you explore the excellent and more remote dive sites of the Brothers Islands, Daedelus Reef, Geziret Zabargad, Rocky Islands, and St. John’s Reef. These cruises are reserved for experienced divers and one can book them online.

The local Ababda Bedouins

The local population of Marsa Alam is the Ababdas who have a rich Bedouin heritage. Traditionally nomadic, their main profession was to herd their flocks of goats through the network of local wadis in search of water. They are famous for their animal tracking skills and are in danger of losing their heritage due to the pressures of modern life. Nowadays many of them hunt for gold and other precious minerals in the area.

Other interesting facts about Marsa Alam

  • Minerals and old mining traditions – The Wadi Gemal has been famous as a mineral-rich area since the olden days. In fact, the world’s oldest emerald mine dating back to pre-Roman times can be found here. There are also rich deposits of gold and lead in the area. Egypt’s most productive gold mine at Sukari lies some 23km west of Marsa Alam. It is close to the road that connects the town with Esna on the Nile.
  • Historical Sites – The most well known is the Roman settlement of Sakit which they called Mons Smaragdus or Emerald Mountain. There is a rock-cut temple dedicated to Isis in that area. Other historical sites include the Roman town of Umm Kabu where emeralds were brought down from the mountains to be transported down the Nile Valley. One can also visit Marfuah, the emerald processing town which is famous for panoramic views and Apollonia, where remnants of a Roman fort can still be seen.
  • Wadi Gemal Island – Wadi Gemal Island has beautiful coral reefs, extensive seagrass beds, crystal clear waters, and amazing wildlife. It is accessible on a day trip by boat from Shams Diving Center. Only twenty visitors are allowed every day.
  • Dorca Gazelles – Found in a few southerly areas of Egypt’s Eastern Desert region, Wadi Gemal area is probably the most likely place to find them in the wild. They are excellent desert survivors and absorb moisture from the vegetation they eat.
  • The Green Sea Turtle – These gentle giants live and breed in the coastal waters and on the mainland and island beaches of the Wadi Gamel National Park. They are the only known sea turtle that is totally herbivorous. Some are thought to live up to a hundred years and can weigh up to 140kg.
  • The marshland at Ras Baghdadi – There is a small delta with plenty of marshes at the mouth of Wadi Gemal. This area thrives in much salt-tolerant vegetation like the mangrove, tamarisk trees, toothbrush tree, or the SalvadoraPersica. Wildcats, foxes, and gazelle can be seen here due to the relative abundance of freshwater.

Marsa Alam Reality Check

  1. It is a nondescript sleepy town with not much to do except to dive, snorkel, sail, and be a beach bum.
  2. It is quite far from Cairo.
  3. Marsa Alam has limited independent hotels and guesthouses.
  4. Dining out options are limited and as far as I know, there is only one bar at a nearby hotel where you can also buy alcohol.
  5. Public transportation is extremely rare and there are some expensive taxis. Day trips or excursions will require either hiring a car or an organized tour.
  6. Nothing much happens here after sunset.
  7. Even the local transportation in and around the town will require either a car, taxi, or rental bike.
  8. Until now, there is no bike rental agency in Marsa Alam and independent travelers might feel a bit restricted.
  9. There are hardly any repair shops at Marsa Alam, so get your extra batteries, camera covers, etc. Carry your personal hygiene items as well as any phone recharge coupons. There are no authorized mobile phone shops in Marsa Alam.
  10. There are only one or two ATMs in Marsa Alam and perhaps one money changer.

Where to go next

  • Shalateen – Located 270 K.m to the south of Marsa Alam, visit Shalateen for the Camel Market. Here camels brought from Sudan through Shalateen are traded, bartered, bought, and sold.
  • Hurghada – If you want some more creature comforts, head over to Hurghada for five-star hotels, cafes, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and the Red Sea.

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 the expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.

Follow the rest of the offbeat Egypt series here