Travel blogger Abdalla Ali visits the pristine Red Sea getaway and comes away with a scuba diving license – and an unforgettable experience.
written and photographed by Abdalla Ali
My friend Anas Sabry and I decided to take a couple days off and get out of noisy Cairo for a New Year’s getaway. We usually head north to Sinai, a vast desert surrounded by water from three directions with endless seaside spots made for relaxing and chilling out, starting from Ras Sedr all the way to Dahab, Nuweiba and Taba. This time we decided to head south and discover an entirely new destination. Seven hundred kilometers south along the coast lies one of the Red Sea’s little-trodden beauties: Marsa Alam.
We arrived on the morning of New Year’s Eve, checked in to our pre-booked tent at the ecolodge Marsa Shagra Village and got a tent that was in the front row to the sea with two beds, a table, fan, carpet, light and an electric outlet. The tent was about 10 meters away from the shore; it was clean, tidy and even had housekeeping.
Our lodge had the option of renting tents, huts or even chalets. We chose the humble tent, which has the best location just in front of the water. It was comfortable and a bargain at LE 240 a night, including three hot meals a day and free hot drinks and sodas all day. It was a bit chilly at night because it was January, so we requested extra blankets and we were good.
The lodge has its own reef where you can snorkel and dive. It has a diving center where you can rent scuba gear and dive with a guide if you’re inexperienced. Anas and I decided to take the open water scuba diving course which we’ve had on our to do lists for a long time. It was a spontaneous decision that had us spending the next four days under the sea.
It was New Year’s Eve, so we met a friend of a friend living in Marsa Alam. He introduced us to his friends and we all went out to celebrate the new year at a nearby party. We enjoyed music, danced and left at around 4am (which was really stupid because we were starting our open water course the following morning.)
On day two, we woke up — surprisingly —energetic. Waking up in a tent that looks directly to the sea will, on its own, make your day. We had breakfast and headed to the diving center and picked up our gear.
We spent most of our time over the next few days diving in the house reef and swimming with beautiful creatures in the chilly January waters. On our first dive, we saw a tortoise. It was awesome! Between dives, we spent our time eating, sipping hot drinks and studying our diving books and videos. Our evenings were all about chilling with our new friends, eating some more and just sitting for hours in silence watching a sky full of stars whilst meditating on a view we cannot find back home in Cairo.
When the magic happened
On our last day in Marsa Alam, we were relaxing on the beach right after breakfast, each of us reading a book and having a cup of tea when all of a sudden people started standing up and looking toward the sea. They were pointing at something. We got up to have a look, and there they were … dolphins!
They were about a hundred meters in the water, their grey fins rising and dipping in the silvery morning waves. People hurried to the Zodiac motorboat, and so did we. Wearing our sweatpants and sweatshirts, we ran to the Zodiac along with a couple of tourists. In a minute we were in the middle of a pod of no less than 50 dolphins. I took off my sweatshirt and jumped into the water, I was swimming with the dolphins and shortly afterwards more divers and snorkelers arrived.
It was one of those moments when you feel overwhelmed and satisfied at the same time, swimming among a large group of these cheerful giants. At the beginning you’re terrified: you realize you’re in open water with some of the most powerful creatures of the sea. Wild animals that are two and a half meters long, weighing 300 kilograms. If they choose to attack you, you’ll be dead in seconds and you’re surrounded. Soon you realize they’re just as excited about you as you are about them. After all, they have the whole sea, yet they choose to stick around you for a while, approach you, spin around you and talk to you. You realize you’re not in control but they are. It is a truly unforgettable experience.
After that, we had our final dive and the final open water exam. We left Marsa Alam at 10pm with a brand new scuba diving license and some memories we know we will never forget.
Read more from Ali’s travels on his blog at egyptianwhotravels.weebly.com, and follow him on Instagram at @egyptianwhotravels
How to get there
Marsa Alam is located about 700 kilometers north of Cairo. It is accessible by car via a long 1,100 km road that passes Ain Sokhna, Zafarana, El Gouna, Hurghada, Safaga and Quseir. On our trip, we took a bus from Cairo at 12:45 am and reached Marsa Alam at 11:30 am. That’s 10 hours, including two hours of stops. You can usually do the trip in 8 hours or even less via car. The road is smooth and has only one police checkpoint (which is a good thing, considering Egypt). Or, you can always cut it short and fly there in an hour and a half from Cairo.
Where to stay
The coast of Marsa Alam starts right after the airport, beginning with Port Ghaleb all the way to the city of Marsa Alam. On the way there are a lot of hotels, resorts and ecolodges. Your accommodation depends on your vacation goal — you always need to set a goal for your vacation. Your goal can be to relax and chill, to explore, dive or even just to sleep.
I’m the explorer type. I travel to explore a place and enjoy nature. In the case of Marsa Alam, there is a lot of nature to explore. For me, it was Marsa Shagra Village, an ecolodge, in a tent 10 meters away from the shore. Ecolodges are good choices in Marsa Alam. Most of them are very organized, with housekeeping (yes, they clean your tent) and full meals. There are always more luxurious options of hotels and resorts available.
What to do
Marsa Alam is all about nature. If you’re travelling by car or bus, you’ll start noticing the beauty of the landscape early on. Desert and mountains to your right, and an endless blue sea to your left.
Marsa Alam is mainly about the water. Because it’s a relatively new touristic destination (only about 20-25 years), it has a lot of virgin reefs that have not yet been exposed to human traffic; and the further south you go, the better spots you find. Dolphins, sharks, tortoises, orcas and even manatees are very common on Marsa Alam’s coast. If you’re a marine life lover, it’s the place for you. You can go snorkeling practically anywhere. Scuba diving is a great option, too.
Wadi Gemal and El Nayzak are two magical spots where the sea meets the desert, and they’re definitely worth seeing. The dolphin house is a natural reserve where you can swim with dolphins.
You have three options:
Party: Usually someone is organizing a party somewhere. If this is your thing, you can check with your hotel reception. They usually know where the fun is happening.
Chill at a nice restaurant or cafe: A good place to do this is Port Ghalib. They have a beautiful marina where you can find a variety of spots to just chill, have a nice dinner or drink. There are a lot of hotels where you can sit and enjoy a peaceful evening.
Star gaze: Again, Marsa Alam is all about nature. One of the best ways to spend the nights in Marsa Alam is to just kick back on the beach and watch the sky with a hot drink and some relaxing music. Locals offer night rides to the desert as well, where you can completely get away from the artificial lighting of the city and have an unforgettable view of the stars with a campfire and grilled marshmallows.