Connect the dots

Monday, October 31, 2011

Salt, Sand, Siwa Oasis

Dali-esque 13th Century Shali Town

Most Egyptians tried to convince us to go to the closer (to Cairo) oasis of Bahariya, but other travelers urged us to go to the further, and therefore more isolated oasis of Siwa. An effort it was. The only direct way to get there from Cairo is a super chilly air conditioned 9 hour overnight bus ride. Otherwise, it's bus hopping from Alexandria, along the Mediterranean coast to Marsa Matruh and then away from the sea and into the desert 350km south.

Although we hardly slept on the bus, seeing the sunrise over sandstone formations in the desert already made the trip worthwhile.  Still groggy, we were tuk-tuk'ed to the Albabenshal Hotel right in the center of Siwa and directly next to the melted Old Shali Town. Understanding how tired we were, we were immediately escorted to our rooms and demanded to sleep! Where else can you get a 6:30am check-in? Already, this was a sign of good things to come. 

As much as we would have loved to stay in the posh Adrere Amellal, we were happy to settle with its budget attainable sister hotel. We weren't getting all the bells and whistles, just simple, comfortable and authentic construction typical to Siwa and containing original handicrafts. Naturally insulated walls constructed of mud, salt and straw, ceilings with thick palm tree trunk beams, reddish rugs handwoven by Berbers, palm-frond bed frames and tables, neutral wool blankets for the cool desert nights, and the room warmly lit with light fixtures made out of salt blocks.

Our cozy room at Albabenshal Hotel

Each morning we were offered the best breakfast we've had so far in Egypt. Hot bread, fresh farmer's cheese, falafel, eggs, guava, fresh squeezed lemon juice and a house made salty-sweet olive-rosemary jam.

More olive rosemary jam, please
Our view at breakfast

Siwa is renowned for its laid back attitude and slow pace compared to the rest of Egypt. You almost forget that you're still in Egypt. Being so far and isolated has it's benefits. Filled with date palm and olive trees, salt lakes, hot springs, ancient Egyptian sites, and the Great Sand Sea right next door, Siwa is paradise in the desert. You also can't help but enter its many bazaars and fall in love with its crafts which are world renowned and collected such as those in our hotel room as well as hand crafted heavy silver jewelry and colorful hand embroidered typical wedding dresses. We hired a donkey and cart to explore it's sights for the day.

Mahmoud and Ali Baba our hardworking donkey
Alexander to the Oracle: Am I the son of Zeus?
One of many crafty stalls
A dip in Cleopatra's hot spring?
A sunset drink at Siwa lake 
Beyond the oasis is the Great Sand Sea, approximately 195,000 sq km of sand dunes shared by Egypt and Libya. You can't miss spending the day in the desert visiting an archeological site containing early human footprints, remnants of the former sea, meteorites, a dip in a cold salt water lake and hot sulfur spring, and of course, riding the dunes in a jeep and on a sand board. Mohammed and Ahmed, from Albabenshal, were our gracious guides who made sure we had a full dose of what the desert offered.

Early humans
Our little collector
Remnants of the former sea

Going over the edge
Looking for shells in the salty lake
Delicious lakeside lunch
Ahmed - dune driver and tea maker
Sitting between meteorites
Sulfur hot springs
A warm, medicinal dip

Going down sandboard style
Sunset tea
*A huge thanks to Jurgen who was able to capture our time in Siwa when our camera gave up on us! 

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