Sometimes called the “greatest outdoor museum in the world”, Luxor is a pleasant town on the East Bank of the Nile 313 miles upriver from Cairo. It’s a good place just to walk around or to stroll along the Nile. Many of the main sights like the Karnak Temple and the Luxor Temple are within walking distance of the town center.
Across the river, on the West Bank of the Nile, are the famous tombs of the necropolis called the Valley of the Kings. It’s better to stay on the East Bank in Luxor and make day trips across the river to the West Bank. Accommodation is not a problem in Luxor these days. When I was there, the hotels were at 20 to 30% occupancy. I was able to get a first-class room overlooking the Nile for $30 a night. From my room, I could see hundreds of tour boats tied up along the river. A cruise from Cairo to Luxor used to be very popular. The political turmoil over the previous four years is mainly responsible for this decline in tourism. Some terrorist incidents have also slowed things down. A few days after I left Egypt, ISIS was able to get a bomb on a flight full of Russians flying out of the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. If you go to Luxor be sure to check the travel advisories first. The security situation could change at any time.
On my first day I toured the temples on the East Bank and took many photos. Luxor truly is a giant outdoor museum. I visited acres and acres of ancient ruins. In November, the temperature is ideal. Be careful what time of year you go. It can get blistering hot. During the day, I took a break and I had lunch at an exotic restaurant called McDonald’s. Interesting to see the Egyptian version. In addition to being halal, they have made a number of adaptations for Egyptian tastes.
At night it was very quiet in the town with few other tourists visible. That same night I made my booking at the hotel for a hot air balloon ride and a tour of the Valley of the Kings. The next morning when I compared prices with other passengers on the hot air balloon, I found that prices varied widely depending on who you booked with. The range was from $60 to US$160 for a space on the same balloon. Funny, when you are working your way down your bucket list, cost becomes rather unimportant.
The hot air balloon company picked me up at the hotel at 4:30 AM. Several other passengers were already on the bus. They took us to a boat moored along the Nile. After a few minutes the boat filled up with other passengers and we set out across the legendary river. Buses were waiting on the West Bank to take us to an area where several hot air balloons were being inflated. Each balloon could carry 16 to 20 passengers. After boarding, they instructed us on how to brace ourselves for a strong impact.
I didn’t know it at the time I made my booking, but safety had become a major issue with the Luxor hot air balloon flights. Three fatal accidents had occurred since 2009. The latest one was January 5, 2018. One South African man was killed and several were injured. The worst one however, was in 2013 when 19 passengers were killed.
I doubt that knowing these statistics would’ve changed my mind about booking my flight. “Stuff” happens when you travel in Third World countries. A number of years ago a teacher friend of mine died in a bus crash in the Yucatán Peninsula. She was a very cautious type who hadn’t traveled much. She asked me if I thought it was safe for her and her friend to travel in Mexico. In those days I thought it was safe. I had driven most of the roads of Mexico myself. Today, I would say no. One can never be sure when the end is coming. You get the best information you can and you make the best decision you can. I call it being a reasonable adventurer.
The hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings was well worth the risk. As the sun came up, we could see the Nile snaking through the valley. A dozen other balloons were visible. We passed over several smaller temples. The pilot was able to get the balloon to drop down very near the ruins and then rise back up. The actual Valley of the Kings is a smaller valley, more like a canyon, tucked back in the mountains. As we moved farther north up the valley, we passed the large Temple of Hatshepsut, or the Temple of Queen “hot chicken soup” as one of the tour guides jokingly called it. The infamous Queen ruled Egypt for about 20 years starting in 1458 BC.
After about 45 minutes of flying, our pilot contacted his ground crew and arranged a rendezvous. The landing was rather smooth. Transport was ready to take us back to the launch area where I had arranged for a car, driver and guide to give me a closer look at the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and to look at some of the temples on the west side of the river. Many tombs are available for inspection. You can walk down inside and study the hieroglyphics painted on most of the walls.
Dozens of tombs have been found in this valley. Interestingly, they were still digging when I was there. Many times false entries and other techniques have been used to try to hide the treasures. No doubt, digging will go on for decades more. All the tombs I visited were quite empty. Aside from the hieroglyphics, there was not much to see inside a tomb. I suppose all the good stuff has long since been taken to museums in Cairo and elsewhere.
After my tour of the tombs, my tour guide took to me to see some of the temples and monuments on that side of the river. Most memorable, of course, was the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut which we had seen from the air. The tour guide jokingly had me cross my arms over my chest so I was posed like a mummy. This temple also was the site of the terrorist attack that killed 62 people in 1997. This was the event that had kept me from seeing Egypt 20 years earlier.
After the full day of touring on the West Bank, we headed back to my hotel and I spent an enjoyable evening in Luxor and prepared for my trip back to Cairo and on to Amman Jordan the next day. I could now check off bucket list item number two.