How to Survive a Visit to the Pyramids of Egypt

I am not going to write about the history, the mystery or the grandeur of the pyramids. For over 4,000 years the pyramids have been one of the best-known structures on Earth. We have probably all seen TV shows, read books, or did a fourth-grade report on them so there is nothing I can really add that you can’t get somewhere else.

What I am going to talk about is the physical act of visiting the pyramids. I confess right up front that my experience to the pyramids might not be representative of the experience others have had. I went on a day there were few tourists and by myself. Had I been with a group or on a day with more people, then it might have been a totally different experience. It is one of the few attractions I’ve visited where I can say it is better to go when it is crowded. This is written from my first-hand experience and talking to dozens of other tourists in Egypt who had experiences similar to mine.

From a straight tourist visitation perspective, my trip to the pyramids was the worst I’ve had. The management of the Giza Pyramids site is horrible and little to no investment has been put into even basic things like garbage cans or signs. Other locations in Egypt under the oversight of The Supreme Council of Antiquities are not in this poor of shape or run this poorly. Abu Simbel was was a great example of how an attraction like this should be administered. In fact, every other temple I went to in Egypt wasn’t really that bad. $1,000 investment (which is probably less than one day of admissions to the pyramids) could pay for garbage bins and a crew of people to walk around the ground to pick up litter.

trip to egypt pyramids
This is the cop who shook me down for 20 Egyptian Pounds

The nightmare of visiting the pyramids began with the taxi ride. EVERY taxi in Egypt is going to try and put the screws to you on the amount they charge to take you there. The pyramids are tourist attraction #1 and they know it. The advantage to being on a group tour is that you never have to deal with taxis. If you do take a taxi, make sure to set the price before you go. The cab driver will try to just get you to get in the car without setting a price. There are tons of taxis and they all want your money. Pass and take another if they wont commit to a price. You shouldn’t pay more than 20-30LE (Egyptian Pounds) for a ride. Also, make sure they take you directly to the entrance gate, with no stops in between. There is a Giza stop in the Cairo subway system. It doesn’t go directly to the pyramids, but there is a mini bus you can get on at the station that will take you there. It is a much cheaper option (about 1LE for the subway fare) and you don’t have to worry about everything I listed above. The subway is what I should have done.

You will notice as you approach the pyramids that it is not like what you have seen in pictures all your life. While one side of the pyramids are up against the desert, the other side is right up against a residential neighborhood. In fact right across the street from the main gate to the pyramids is a Pizza Hut. That that is literally what the Sphinx is looking at.

When the taxi was still a kilometer away from the entrance, I had the first run in with the most aggressive and annoying touts I’ve seen at any tourist location in the world: the camel riders. There is a huge business built around giving tourists rides on camels, and they are very aggressive about getting business. When my taxi was still driving down the street, when we had to slow at a speed bump, one of the camel guys jumped into the taxi to try and tried to sell me on a camel.

Trip to egyptian pyramids
Litter at the base of the pyramids

The fact that this guy was willing to jump into a moving vehicle should give you an idea of just how aggressive they are. The taxi driver will get a cut of whatever the camel rider gets, so they have no incentive to protect you from them. They will do anything and everything up to, but not quite, theft. They will lie to you, they will scam you, they will try to con you. You need to know that before you get there because in typical con man fashion, they have developed a routine to try to be friendly with the tourists.

The first question they will always ask you is where you are from. This is not because they are interested in learning about your culture. They encounter thousands of tourists every month. They’ve seen it all before. They ask the question so they can a) set a price for how much to charge you, and b) use it as a hook to start a conversation to make you think they are your friend. If you say you are American, they will say “Obama!”. If you say you are Canadian, they will say “Canada Dry!”. No matter where you say you are from, they will say “Good people from xxxxx!” They are surprisingly adept at negotiating price and engaging in small talk and a wide number of languages.

They will charge higher prices if you are from the UK, US, Germany, or Netherlands. If you can somehow pass yourself off as being from a different country that isn’t very developed, do it. The pyramids were the only time on my trip where I resorted to lying about where I was from. I went from America to Canada, to Slovenia and finally to the fictional country of Karkozia. I’d speak some gibberish sounding Eastern European language and pretend not to know English. If they tell you they are with the government or that it is illegal to walk around the pyramids, they are lying. If you do want to do the camel thing, I recommend doing it early. That way you aren’t just buying a camel ride, you are also paying protection money so the other camel guys don’t harass you. I should make clear that the camel guys are not just outside the entrance, they are walking all over the pyramid grounds as well.

Camels: the source of all trouble at the pyramids
Camels: the source of all trouble at the pyramids

At every tourist attraction in Egypt they have metal detectors. The pyramids was the only place where they even bothered to have them turned on. I had a Leatherman in my camera bag and the guy working the x-ray machine tried to steal it. I put up a fuss and he relented. The lesson here is that even the officials who work there for the government can’t be trusted. While I was walking along the Great Pyramid, there was a small rope barrier. One of the tourist police said it was OK to go over the rope and climb up one flight of the blocks. The moment I got back down he demanded 20LE. Lesson: no one does anything out of the goodness of their heart. They want a tip no matter how inconsequential the advice they give (“stand here to take a picture….5LE please!”)

On top of all that, you have people trying to sell you cheap crap on the pyramid grounds. I didn’t find them nearly as annoying, just because they are stuck in one place because of their inventory. You should just know that all the trinkets they sell are made in China and can be purchased at other shops in Cairo. Despite the fact it is hot and it is in a desert, there was a surprising shortage of people selling beverages. I had one lady (and there are very few women you meet as a tourist in Egypt) who said to me “Sir, would you like to buy a Pepsi-Cola?” I was so shocked at her honest and direct approach of not trying to con me that I bought a drink from her.

My other tip is to bring small bills. If you expect to get change from any of these vendors, they will come up with excuses about not having enough money to make change. I had one guy tell me that he pulled out a 100LE bill and the camel guy just ripped it out of his hand. He almost got into a fight with the guy. Most tourists are not that assertive and end up getting taken advantage of. You have to be very aggressive and if need be come across as a total asshole. Another scam I encountered, but never went along with to figure out how it worked, was the guy who gives you the free t-shirt. They will “give” it to you as a gift and shove it in your hands. I always just let it fall to the ground. I assumed they had partner up the road who would accuse you of stealing or something. If anyone has information on how the scam works, let me know.

In summary, for one of the greatest wonders of the world, the pyramids are a horrible place to visit. I put the blame for the squarely on the shoulders of The Supreme Council of Antiquities which runs the pyramids. I suspect there is some political reason why they let the lunatics run the asylum. They really should be ashamed. They clearly know how to run these properties as I saw in almost every other attraction in Egypt. After a few hours, I was willing to forgo some photos I was hoping to get just because I wanted to leave….which meant getting another taxi.

Most of the independent travelers I met in Egypt had an experience similar to mine. If you do get a chance to visit someday, I hope you can learn something from my visit to make it more enjoyable.