A Marsa Alam Adventure
by Seif Kamel
Marsa Alam is located in the south of the Eastern Desert in Egypt on the Red Sea. It is 790 kilometers south of Cairo and about 300 kilometers from Hurghada. Marsa Alam is an old, small town famous for diving, fishing, and for its international port. However, in the past few years, Marsa Alam has become an important tourist destination, especially after the opening of the Marsa Alam International Airport. Many people, tourists and Egyptians alike, believe that Marsa Alam in the coming few years will become another Sharm El-Sheikh.
Marsa Alam is located in a very special place on the Red Sea. This is why there are so many coral reefs there that attract tourists from all over the world. Marsa Alam itself is a tiny primitive town with the international port four kilometers north of the town. The town consists mainly of two or three Oriental cafes and four small supermarkets. This is in addition to the bus station, a fuel station and a motel called Negmet Marsa Alam.
This motel is suitable for tourists who prefer cheap prices with average service.. A double room in the motel costs less than ten dollars per night with a private bath. Negmet Marsa Alam or Marsa Alam Star Motel provides some services like laundry, room cleaning, and they can organize some excursions. The only problem is that they have no air conditioners and the weather, even in the morning, is quite hot.
Though there is little in the town itself to allure tourists, the main attractions of the city are the many resorts spread on the Red Sea to the south and north. There are many three and four stars resorts, with five star facilities on their way. The Cataract, Sahara Resort, Breaka Resort, Amaraya, Kahramana, Shams Alam, and Ibortel are all examples of good resorts that offer proper services with reasonable prices.
All of these resorts have good telephone services with international lines and phones in each room. You can call anywhere in the world and the resort will charge you per minute. For the cell phone users, Marsa Alam is connected to the two mobile networks in Egypt, Vodafone, Mobinil, and Etisalat. Most of the resorts have fax and telex services as well.
All the reception areas and the rooms are air conditioned and the front desk in the resorts provide accurate information about everything in Marsa Alam. They have buses to the airport and back to the resorts. The front desk also can organize all sorts of tours for groups and individuals.
Methods of Payment
In the resorts, you can pay with US dollars, Euros, Pounds Sterling and of course Egyptian pounds (LE). You can also use Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and travelers checks. The resorts also provide money exchange service in case you want to have some Egyptian money for tips.
There is a small hospital in Marsa Alam with some simple equipment. In addition most of the resorts have professional doctors that are available 24 hours per day.
Water and Sun
It is not recommended to drink the tap water. Mineral water is sold everywhere. One should drink an average of three liters of water a day in order to remain healthy in the desert climate. The sun is very hot, even in the morning. Tourists should always use sun block lotions to protect their skin, but part of the fun of Marsa Alam is baking on the beach.
The resorts offer great laundry services with good prices. Your clothes will be returned to you ironed and cleaned within 24 hours. Most of the rooms have safety boxes in the closets with a private key for the guest. Room service is operates 24 hours a day. The resorts also provide many other services from pool towels to business services.
How to Reach Marsa Alam
Most of the tourists take airplanes from different European countries like Italy, Spain, Russia, and England straight to Marsa Alam International Airport. Some groups go to Hurghada by plane, spend a few days there, and then go to Marsa Alam by bus. Egypt Air now also offers some flights to Marsa Alam. Misr Petrol Company also has a flight from Cairo to Marsa Alam and vise versa every Monday and Thursday. Many of the flights coming from Europe are charters, bringing tourists on all-inclusive vacations.
Other than that, there are air conditioned buses provided by South Egypt Travel. A bus goes from Cairo to Marsa Alam every night at 11:00 pm. East Delta Travel provides another bus every night at 9:00 pm. These buses have comfortable seats and they show films on the way. The prices range from 10 to 12 dollars from Cairo to Marsa Alam. The problem is the trip takes from 11 to 12 hours with rests in the middle and the bus stops at every city on the way like Ras Ghareb, Hurghada, Safaga, and El Quseir.
I took the South Egypt bus on my way to Marsa Alam. I went to the station 15 minutes before 11:00 pm and I was happy the bus left at the scheduled time. Although I thought the bus would be empty, the bus was full of people and there wasnt a single empty seat. I was lucky to have a seat at the front of the bus in order to watch where we were going. The seats were big and comfortable with air conditioning and private light for each passenger. The man who sat next to me is an Egyptian working as a human resources specialist in Ibortel Resort.
He gave me a lot of info about Marsa Alam as I told him this is the first time for me to go there. They showed two modern Egyptian films on our way that I really enjoyed. There were also four check points along the way where police came aboard the bus to check everyone's IDs. We stopped four times for rest but the longer stop was at a rest house called Zaafarana Star, which is a huge Oriental caf that offers food and barrages. There were many other buses going to different Egyptian regions like Qena, Hurghada, and Tanta. The waiters there bring the food hot and very fast because they know the guests want to catch the buses. I enjoyed two sandwiches of Oriental sausages and a cup of tea. The prices were really cheap. My bill came to less than six Egyptian pounds, are a little less than one US dollar.
The bus stopped in so many cities to take passengers but it was a good chance for me to get off the bus and smoke, because smoking isnt allowed inside the bus. With the sunrise I started to enjoy the ride very much. I was able to watch the sea and the rise of the sun over the sea and the mountains. The view was amazing. When we reached Marsa Alam, we began passing many resorts. Some of them had classic decorations while most of them were in the Bedouin style. Many of the passengers on the bus worked at one or the other of these resorts, so the bus slowly emptied. Finally we came to the town of Marsa Alam, were I to got off to begin my adventure.
Transportation Inside Marsa Alam
All, all the resorts have air conditioned buses to take their guests to different places in Marsa Alam. The buses have schedules with specific departure times. Public transportation is also available with microbuses and taxis that you can take one from town to any of the resorts. Distances of 20 to 30 kilometers cost only about three Egyptian pounds. Otherwise, one can rent a private car at very reasonable rates.
While on my way in the bus I noticed a resort called Balbaa. What caught my eye is that it is really a complex of three resorts, consisting of the Kahramana, Amaraya, and Calmera. I had to stop at the security gate and the security guy had to check my luggage. Everybody is being cautious now days and the security is very strict. The reception of Amaraya was a big hall with many cozy sofas to sit on. I talked to the receptionist at length about what where and what to do in Marsa Alam, and he was very helpful and patient. This guy, and all the staff, were exceptionally friendly and knew a lot about the city and the resort. The receptionist printed me a guide to everything in the resort and in Marsa Alam, so off I went.
The Balbaa Resort has two swimming pools and three different beaches. Two of them are in the resort and the other is ten kilometers away. There are buses that go there all day long. The hotel has 98 rooms with controllable air conditioning, satellite TV, safe boxes, international telephones and private bathrooms with hair dryer.
Most of the people awake in the morning at Marsa Alam wind up on the beach, and they are indeed some of the most beautiful in Egypt. The water is crystal clear and the air is clean and refreshing and although the weather might get hot, a jump in the sea makes one forget about all the world's woes. Many Italians, the main tourist population in Marsa Alam, were enjoying the sun. Some were reading, chatting or just catching some rays, while others were snorkeling among the colorful fish and corals.
The moment I reached the Balbaa resort I wanted to visit the beach, for which Marsa Alam is famous. Although the weather was hot I was enjoying the walk because of the many roses and plants spread in the resort and on the way to the beach. From afar, the sparkling water seemed to be an amazing baby blue.
It was two in the afternoon when I reached the beach. There werent many people there. Perhaps, many had gone on to lunch, but soon the beach began to fill back up. The beach was indeed gorgeous, and it is always times such as this when I regret being alone. It would have been nice to have a friend with me and even magnificent to have my girlfriend along. Everything there is so romantic and calm with only the sound of the waves as if they are whispering to you. Than a clever Italian girl caught my attention, as she positioned a chair in the water for a cool afternoons nap.
I looked around the beach and decided to take a walk. There were many tourists doing different things but they all seemed happy and relaxed. While buying a cold bottle of water from the beach bar, I had a short talk with the vendor. He was a young Egyptian man called Esam. He seemed like he wanted to chat in Arabic because all day long he has to speak Italian with the guests. He told me he has been working here for more than five years and that he likes it here, as the place is calm and the guests are friendly to him. He told me that the Balbaa group is building a new resort called Habiba that should be finished in six months time. We spoke a bit about Marsa Alam and how it will grow in the coming few years before I thanked him and continued my walk.
I noticed a small hill at the end of the beach with some decorations on top. Of course, I had to climb up to the top, where I found a grand view of the beach. In front of you there is the most amazing looking water with different shades of blue. To the left there is the Amaraya beach with huge mountains surrounding it. To the right, there is the Kahramana beach with a view straight off of a post card. The decorations on the hill itself including a big door locals call the time gate. This is because one can walkthrough it and view the sea as as it was 100 years ago. Kahramana has a nice seafood restaurant on this hill that opens in the afternoon and closes at midnight.
Diving in Marsa Alam
Diving is one of the major activities that brings people to Marsa Alam. This is because the Red Sea wears her finest clothing in this remote spot. Some of the fish and corals that are extremely rare. Especially some shark breeds can be found nowhere else. There are more than ten diving centers in Marsa Alam with the best imported equipment. Many European diving centers have branches in the city. Deep South, Wadi Gimal, Ocean Pro and Aquarius are probably the most popular and important diving centers in Marsa Alam.
Another diving center is Pioneer Divers, the oldest diving center in Marsa Alam. I visited this center, and found that, while they were one of the first to open in Marsa Alam, they have all kinds of modern technologies because they import everything from Europe. They have professional diving instructors that speak Italian, English, German and Spanish. Obviously, they are very experience. These guides are certified by major diving federations like PADI, SSI, and CMAS. The center provides all kinds of diving lessons and trips.
There are many diving spots in Marsa Alam and Pioneer Divers organizes trips to all of these places. The most famous spot in Marsa Alam is Shaab Samadai or the Dolphin House. It is an all day trip with two dives viewing some of the oldest formations. There is also a high probability to snorkel with the dolphins. Another very famous diving spot in Marsa Alam is Elphinstone which is an offshore site for advanced diver. This is the best place in the world to swim with the sharks!
Like Sharm El-Sheikh, Marsa Alam comes alive at night, and more than a few of the tourists prepare for that with an afternoon siesta. However if you want take advantage of every minute of your vacation, Marsa Alam will fill up your time.
For those active soles, there is tennis and some of the resorts even provide professional instructors. You can have lots of fun playing volleyball or football (soccer) on the beach. The best thing to do on a warm afternoon is to play a game of beach volleyball, have a few laughs, get hot and sweaty, and then jump in the sea and watch the steam role off your limbs.
On the beach every afternoon, the animation team organizes games for adults and children. They pass by the guests and ask them to join in the games and aerobics on the beach or in the swimming pool. Many resorts have modern health clubs including saunas and massage therapy.. The Kahramana resort has a huge room full of fitness equipment, including treadmills and weight lifting machines.
This was the last thing I thought I would be doing. I didn't think that Marsa Alam would have many shops. Most of these shops can be found in the larger resorts like Cataract, Breaka, Shams Alam, and Kahramana. Mostly, there are gifts and souvenirs such as Oriental perfumes. Their quality is very good and the prices arent bad, considering that these perfumes and oils are imported from different Egyptian regions and some of them from Europe. There are also two or three shops selling Bedouin outfits and accessories. A Bedouin scarf can make a great gift.
The shop that attracted me most was one selling spices and herbs. This is because some of these herbs cannot be found except in Marsa Alam and other Red Sea cities in Egypt. These plants only grow in this region and some of them are beneficial for the health as they are used to help diabetic people and old people who suffer from high cholesterol in their blood. I noticed a dark blue powder that looked strange and the vendor in the shop told me it is used to clean clothes and make them bright. This is, of course, besides some shops that sell medicines and groceries.
There are some great adventure tours for those who might want to experience the desert and mountains of Egypt's Eastern Desert. There are some wonderful nature treks, including some areas with very ancient rock carvings. One can experience this the Arabs way, riding a camel in the desert and enjoying the view of the colorful mountains and rocks. A Bedouin oasis will be waiting for you in the desert to rest and drink Arabian tea. If you are more energetic, you can have a horse ride by the sea or in the desert. Riding Arabian horses has a unique taste. Special instructors always accompany the guests and teach beginners how to ride. If you need more speed in your life, you can ride a beach buggy in the along the sandy beach and into the desert. Such adventures can be arranged from any of the resorts.
Though I am Egyptian, and have lived my whole life in Egypt, I had never ventured for into the desert. I thought it was about time, so I signed up for a beach buggy safari. The tour leader, Mostafa, awoke me at five in the afternoon, after a snooze, and along with an Italian tourist, we traveled to a meeting point of the safari at the beginning of the desert near the highway road. There were about nine other Italian tourists waiting there and examining the buggies. Since I was on my own, I had to drive a single motorcycle.
The instructors showed me quickly how to operate it and I started taking small rides in the area while we were waiting. It felt great driving this thing. I felt I was a kid again and there was this adventurous feeling growing in my blood. The motorcycle was easy to use on the this patch of ground. The tour leaders even took along pillows as some of the guests would spend the night in a Bedouin tent, watch the sun rise, and then head back. Arabian scarves were distributed among us to save us from the hot sand in the desert.
We stood in a line, each on a buggy. Many couples were riding together and laughing, feeling excited about the ride. There were two tour guides but only one spoke proper Italian, and he is the one who was giving the instructions. Of course it didnt make a difference to me as I know very little Italian.
We started moving in a line, with a team leader at the head and one at the end. Never having been on one of these buggies before, I soon ended up at the back of the line. The going here was a bit tougher than the level ground where I had tested out the machine. Nevertheless, the ride was very entertaining and exciting. I did enjoy it, as best I could
In a curved U turn around a mountain, I lost control and almost struck a rock, so I swerved, barely missing another rock. Then I hit the brakes and I was happy to stop. Suddenly I felt a gentle butt at the back of the buggy as an Italian couple hit me from behind. We all started laughing and they continued the ride. All of the group was riding very well except for myself, it would seem.
Soon, one of the more astute tour guides recommended that I should ride behind somebody else. It was embarrassing but I thought it might be a good chance to take pictures. We resumed the ride again with me riding behind Mustafa, the tour guide. I was scared at sitting behind him at the beginning, but it got really exciting and beautiful afterwards. We were going at high speed around mountains and rocks. Some of these mountains consist of sandy rocks and the other red mountains are from basalt. Mustafa told me that there are many animals as well in this desert, like certain types of deer and reptiles. Other than the view around us, the ride itself was great. We went through one area of rocks called the snake house and we went up and down huge mountains We stopped between three huge mountains and the view was fascinating, as each mountain had a different color.
Soon, we reached a little sand hill in order to climb it and watch the sunset. We all raced each other to the top of the hill while laughing at each other because it was not easy going in the sand. All was timed perfectly. Within fifteen minutes, the sun was setting and everyone was taking pictures. It was a beautiful, peaceful moment, with no sign of modern life. We continued the ride and after another fifteen minutes, we reached the Bedouin tent where some would spend the night. We all sat in an Arabian style on the sand, and coffee and tea were served. The Bedouins consisted of a small family with Ibrahim, who served us the drinks, his wife, and two cute, small children .
Of course, at the tent there were many Bedouin accessories for the guests to buy. They all started chatting in Italian and I spoke with Mustafa the tour guide who became somewhat of a friend. I stared at the stars which were very clear because of all the darkness around us. This Bedouin tent has a very romantic mood and I recommend it for a wonderful honeymoon trip. After about half an hour we were on our way back and it was a big adventure to ride the motorcycles at night in the desert.
I realized, as I arrived back at the resort, how much fun it is to go on a new adventure. .
In each resort in Marsa Alam there is at least one big disco and two or three bars. The Balbaa group had a Mexican disco called Ciao Marsa, which is a dance place that plays all kinds of music, especially Latin. Of course, all serve various drinks. Another interesting place is Planet Bedouin, which is a genuine tent on the beach offering Oriental drinks and water pipes every day. A guest can have dinner there as well, consisting of traditional Egyptian food like Molokhia, grilled chicken with special Arab spices, and white rice. They offer an Oriental show with a belly dancer each Wednesday. All of these night spots were empty the night I spent in Marsa Alam. This is because there were other events taking place.
The first event was an animation team with a show in the small open air theatre at Amaraya Resort. Groups of three or four boys and girls would come on stage and perform a dance. All the music was Italian and although I didnt understand anything, it was fun because everyone was energetic and enjoying the show. They performed some funny scenes and dances and all of the audience laugh. At the end of the show, the performers bowed to the audience and asked them to join in a dance. Everyone danced and clapped their hands and the show ended with people from different ages dancing a famous Italian dance.
The second event that night was the beach party held at Abu Dabab, another resort owned by the Balbaa group. We took a bus from Amaraya Resort and most of the passengers were Italian. Soon, they were all singing and laughing. One of the girls of the animating team stood up and started imitating some famous Italians and the group couldnt stop laughing. I laughed myself, even though I could not understand the language, but the gestures they made were funny. We reached the Abu Dabab beach and the party was about to begin. It is a big beach with a big round bar surrounded by many tables to the left, and the dancing area to the right. There was a DJ playing and a light show on the dance floor.
The tourists first went around the bar to get drinks. The bar served all kinds of drinks like screwdrivers, sunrise with tequila and orange juice, together with many brands of whiskey. This is besides some homemade inventions like rum with pineapple juice and lots of ice. The music started getting louder and many other people came to join the party. Everybody started dancing and laughing loudly. They danced in couples and in big groups as well and as time passed by everybody was absorbed by the music and the mood.
Others preferred to sit on the beach and listen to the music. I took a walk, enjoying what had turned out to be a beautiful evening. It looked mysterious with different shades of black and gray setting sea and sky against each other. I found some crabs, and chased them until they buried themselves in the sand. I soon returned to the party and more people were now dancing in large groups. After about two hours of dancing and fun the bus took us back to the resort.
But the Italian group didn't seem much ready for the night to end. There wasnt a single person on the bus who wasnt giggling. On my way back to Cairo, I realized that I had never thought much about visiting Marsa Alam. It is a considerable distance from Cairo, and of course there are other good beach resorts much closer. But I am happy to have made this journey, for I had a wonderful day of sun, beach, sand and desert. I would have certainly stayed longer. It may not always be, but for now, it remains an unspoiled, paradise. I think in the coming years, it might loose some of its pleasant, still somehow primitive charm, but for now, there is no where else like Marsa Alam.
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Last Updated: August 28th, 2011
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