Backpacking in Egypt quickly conjures images of pyramids or busy Cairo, but many backpackers actually begin their trips on the Sinai Peninsula along the Red Sea. Budget flights to Sharm El Sheikh – a popular holiday spot on the peninsula – can often be found for less than flights to Cairo.
Sharm El Sheikh has plenty of resorts, nightlife, and is busy. Many backpackers choose to head directly to the much smaller and quieter town of Dahab on the Red Sea. I did exactly that and thoroughly enjoyed the Sinai Peninsula before setting off for a month in the rest of Egypt.
Why Go to Dahab?
While the beach and excellent scuba diving are the primary draws to Dahab, you’ll also enjoy a far more relaxed culture. There are opportunities for camel or horseback riding, rock climbing, desert excursions, classes, and more. Dahab is traveler friendly and provides a little softer landing for getting adjusted to Egypt than the hectic pace in Cairo. I spent a pleasant week of recovering from jet lag, meeting people, and learning a little Arabic before moving on to places further afield in Egypt.
Getting to Dahab
Start with flying into Sharm El Sheikh International Airport (airport code: SSH), the third-busiest airport in Egypt. Budget flights to Sharm El Sheikh are often a decent bargain, particularly from London.
You’ll receive a 14-day Sinai stamp in your passport upon arrival; no other visa for Egypt is necessary unless you plan to leave the Sinai Peninsula. Go ahead and arrange your visa for Egypt if you intend to explore the rest of the country.
Dahab is around 53 miles north of Sharm El Sheikh, so you’ll need to hire a private car or take one of the many public buses to Dahab. If you intend to go directly to Dahab, grab a taxi from the Sharm airport for the quick, six-mile ride to the main bus station. Don’t believe your driver if he says that there are no more buses to Dahab. Technically, taxi drivers aren’t supposed to drive you all the way to Dahab. I naively accepted my driver’s offer and we were stopped at a checkpoint between the two towns.
Once at the bus station on the outskirts of Dahab, you can jump into another taxi – some are just pickup trucks – or walk the 25 minutes to town.
Visiting Mount Sinai
Mount Sinai, the sacred pilgrimage site where Mosses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, is only around two hours from Dahab. Trips can be booked from travel agents in Dahab or from your accommodation desk.
Once at Mount Sinai, you’ll have two options for climbing to the top: the challenging ‘Steps of Penitence’ trail or the ‘Camel Path.’ Both require that you hire a guide, despite the trails being easy to follow.
The Steps of Penitence are carved directly into the rock and are used by annual pilgrims. While the path only takes around 45 minutes for people who are reasonably fit, you’ll have to climb 3,750 leg-burning steps! The Camel Path is used for exactly that, camels, and takes around 2.5 hours to hike.
Surviving in Dahab
Dahab is safe, however, there are plenty of scams that target travelers.
Just because a restaurant is situated on the Red Sea does not mean that the fish are fresh. In fact, fishing is illegal in the area. Make sure you check seafood displayed in the front of restaurants for freshness before ordering.
Marijuana is easy to find in Dahab; you’ll be turning down offers often. Know that, despite availability, drugs are illegal and plain-clothed police officers could approach you for a bribe if you are caught.
No one knows the temperament of the sea – and where to find the best food/parties – more so than the resident divemasters. Ask them about the notoriously strong currents before swimming. Hiring your snorkeling gear from a dive shop is best; you’ll receive superior gear and get a chance to ask about where to see the most marine life – and where to find the freshest fish for dinner.
Getting Back to Sharm El Sheikh
There are many daily buses departing for Sharm El Sheikh, because you must pass through there to reach other parts of Egypt from Dahab. Any southbound bus will do, but make sure your ticket is only for Sharm so that you don’t get charged a higher fare.
A bus from Sharm to Cairo should take between six and eight hours, depending on how many times the bus is stopped and searched. Remember, you’ll need an Egyptian visa to cross out of the Sinai Peninsula.
- See this funny travel story about my experience at the pyramids after leaving Sharm El Sheikh.