Note: The following article is about my visit to the Giza Pyramids during October 2012. For an updated situation about Tourism in Egypt in 2015 scroll down to the end of the article. All the photos in this article are from my recent visit to Egypt in May 2015.
In 2012 I finally fulfilled my dream to visit the last standing Wonder of the Old World: The Giza Pyramids at Egypt but little did I know how the harsh reality of Modern Egypt is vastly different from the romanticised version we have about Ancient Egypt.
This misadventure of wonders started when I arrived to El Cairo airport and decided to go to the toilet…
Culture shock in Egypt: The meaning of baksheesh
“Baksheesh, baksheesh” the small Egyptian man screamed at me as soon as he handed me over a piece of toilet paper. I looked at him in the most confusing manner and said “Uh?“.
As I left, he tried to follow me around shouting the same words over and over. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Baksheesh, my name is Raphael” I replied. His face turned red in anger as he left uttering curse words in Arabic.
When I told the story to my taxi driver, he laughed and explained to me that “baksheesh” means “tip” in Arabic and that the small man at the toilet actually wanted me to pay him for handing me over toilet paper.
“But that doesn’t makes sense. I mean, I could have easily gotten the toilet paper from the toilet itself. One cannot seriously hope to get extra money for things that others can get on their own, right?”
Afterwards, the taxi driver and I joked and laughed about the entitlement tipping culture of the globalised world and how now even DJ’s in America demand a tip from customers in addition to the salary they’re getting.
Is tipping really a sign of gratitude when it’s forced upon you? That’s a good question to reflect on, isn’t it?
And yes, as soon as I descended from the taxi and proceeded to my hostel, the driver extended his hand and asked “baksheesh?”.
I shook his hand and told him: “May the Gods reward you for your services, for I certainly won’t”. He laughed and drove off, not before offering me a tour to the Giza Pyramids the next day.
Little I knew that my Egyptian scam nightmare was just starting.
How to reach the Giza Pyramids from El Cairo
From El Cairo, there’s basically three ways of reaching the Giza Pyramids, the first is by using public transportation, the second is by taking an organised tour and the third is by taking a random street cab to reach them. It’s an easy 30 minute ride and shouldn’t cost you more than 4 USD…at least in theory.
You see, taxis in El Cairo are metered but none of them will accept to turn it on if you’re going to the Giza Pyramids since they’ll have to come back empty to the city so they will try their best to scam you. Yes, I’m sure that it is possible to find an honest taxi driver that will accept to turn it on but after spending half an hour trying to find one I decided to negotiate a reasonable price (6 USD) and just go.
20 minutes later I saw my first glimpse at the Giza Pyramids, big triangular monuments lost amid the urban development that has contaminated this wonderful sight. Then, just as I could feel the Pyramids getting closer…we stopped. At a horse barn.
“From here the only way to the entrance is by horse carriage” the taxi driver told me. “Come on! You’re lying. I know you’re lying and you know I know you’re lying. Take me to the entrance or I’m walking out without paying you”.
As you can predict, his face also turned red in a routine that I call the “Egyptian Tantrum” which takes place when scam artists find someone who is smarter than them.
After a few more minutes of heated arguments he finally relented and offer me to take me to the real entrance as long as I paid him double the price. And believe it or not, the worse was yet to come.
Surviving Egypt Scams at the Giza Pyramids
I agreed to give my driver 15 extra Egyptian pounds (roughly 2 USD) for him to take me to the entrance to the Giza Pyramids where I bought my tickets and got ready to ditch my dishonest companion, “How long you stay at the Pyramids? I take you up back to Cairo later, yes?” he told me. “I must really salute you for you are a very good comedian” I replied as I walked away to the entrance.
So there I was. Alone in front of one of mankind’s greatest creations…but as soon as I was getting ready to snap some shots of the beautiful Pyramids and enjoy a lovely time of solitude and reflection, at least a dozen touts approached me asking to be my tour guides.
Their Egyptian scam arguments were…let’s say very creative.
“I’m a licensed tour guide by the Egyptian government, look at my driver ID” (!),”It is illegal to go to the Pyramids without a guide” (?), “Please, sir, I have three families to feed” (!!!), “My camel is sick, choose me, I need it the most” (???).
As I realised that there was no human way for them to leave me alone, I budged in and made an agreement with the most honest looking one. We agreed on 150 Egyptian Pounds (20 USD) for the one hour tour, which included a camel ride. Sure, why not, at least I’ll have a hassle-free visit.
At least that’s what I thought.
The Egypt Scam of the Giza Pyramids: Beware the Camels
I’ll admit it, riding a camel at the Giza Pyramids is one of my best memories of all Egypt. The freedom and the sense of wonder is incredible as you imagine yourself in the shoes of the many travellers who came to this land centuries ago and were soon face to face with monuments beyond words or description.
Timeless pieces of history that once shined across the desert with their golden decorations. It is something truly special…at least until the hidden Egyptian scam fees start to arrive.
At the end of the tour, which included exiting the Giza Pyramid Complex to go to the “Papyrus Museum” (aka the papyrus shop of the uncle of the tour guide), your tour guide will ask you to pay many hidden fees which include photography, camel handling and of course, the traditional baksheesh.
To add insult to injury, the tour guide asked me for 150 USD instead of 150 Egyptian pounds that we had previously agreed on! This was literally the last straw that broke the camel’s back (no, not literally) and I exploded at this Egyptian scam artist and shouted at him:
“You’re lying, you’re a big liar, none of what you’re saying is true, you’re a disgrace to your country, culture and religion”.
You see, most Egyptians are good honest hard working people so it’s a real shame to know that the Egyptians that you will end up encountering inside the number 1 most visited site of the country are dishonourable persons who make a living by ripping off tourists.
At this point, I was so boiled up in anger that I did the most daring thing ever: I started to run the hell away from him without paying anything as he chased me on top of his camel. “Pay me, pay me, pay me!!!” he shouted as he started to chase the Man of Wonders. Eventually, I managed to outrun him and I headed out to the exit in front of the Sphinx.
After a minute of catching my breath I began to think about how to proceed. Should I go back to the main entrance and hope that he’s not there? Should I lay low for a while until he disappears? Should I agree to pay him the 150 USD? Hell no!
In the end, I did what any other Mexican would do in times of stress and despair: Eat. Luckily for me, there was a KFC AND a Pizza Hut located right in front of the Sphinx entrance.
The best part? No bargaining for prices and definitely no baksheesh!!! Plus, an unparalleled view to the Giza Pyramid Complex from the rooftop. After a few hours, I went back to the main entrance and the scam artist was long gone, probably preying on a new victim.
Want to know the sad part of the story? The tour guide could have gotten a well earned 20 USD but he shot himself in the foot by aiming to high and trying to rip me off demanding the unrealistic sum of 150 USD.
The Man of Wonders awards honest people and feels sadness those who are not. I sincerely hope that this lesson in humility will help the tour guide to find inner peace and self-reflection. To him, I wish him the best…
UPDATE MAY 2015: In the last couple of years, Tourism to Egypt has dropped significantly (more on that on a future article at Journey Wonders) which means that each day there are less and less visitors to the Giza Pyramids. The number of scam artists has also decreased and there are now signs with set prices for camel rides (50 Egyptian Pounds for 30 minutes).
However, there have been cases of camel handlers extorting travellers at the end of the ride for an unrealistic mandatory tip at the end so my best advice is to go on a organised tour to the Pyramids (this May 2015 I went with Busabout. You can read all about our journey in the Nile River next week here at Journey Wonders).
All official tour guides have a friend at Giza who can give you an all inclusive price for a camel ride (that is, tips included) in order for you to avoid the stress of baksheesh and other hidden fees. If you’re not with a organised tour, you can always approach the guide and he’ll be happy to help you out.
And yes, please remember that you shouldn’t judge all Egyptians by the actions of the scam artists who dwell in the Giza Pyramids. Most Egyptians are honest people who really want you to have a good time in their country.
After all, we travellers are the ones who will end up improving the local economy of Egypt by inviting our friends to visiting this country filled with the amazing wonders of Ancient Egypt.
Have you ever been a victim to an Egyptian scam? How was your experience at the Giza Pyramids? Share your thoughts and let me know what you think!