Ramses II was one of ancient Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs. Not only did he manage to live into his 90s in an era devoid of modern medicine and build an empire over which he ruled for 66 years, but he is thought by some to be the Pharaoh featured in the Bible during the Exodus. (This isn’t likely, but it didn’t stop him from being immortalized in this role by Hollywood in The Ten Commandments.) He had eight official royal wives, dozens of other “unofficial” ones, and over 100 children, 13 of whom he outlived. He undertook numerous military campaigns and expeditions abroad and celebrated his triumphs and greatness with an endless campaign of monument-building to honor himself.
Of all the monuments that Ramses II built to celebrate himself, the greatest is the temple which today rests along the banks of Lake Nasser at Abu Simbel. Despite it’s remote location out in literal BFE (in the far south of Egypt near the Sudanese border), tens of thousands of tourists make the out-of-the-way trek down to Abu Simbel every year to see these magnificent ancient structures. And if you plan the trip right to avoid common logistical nightmares that often come up in trying to get there, it can be totally worth it.
If you want to go to Abu Simbel, you have to go to Aswan first. While there’s no reason why EgyptAir could not offer direct flights to Abu Simbel from Luxor, it’s likely that if they did many tourists would chose to skip Aswan. So they make you visit Aswan too if you want to see Abu Simbel. You can fly to Aswan from either Cairo or Luxor, although most visitors come via Luxor as a continuation of their journey around Egypt’s south. You can also take the train from Luxor to Aswan.
Now I’m not a huge proponent of the train by any means for travel between Cairo and Luxor. That’s a 10-hour, bumpy, uncomfortable, overnight journey and it doesn’t get much better even if you splurge on a sleeper car. But for shorter rides, such as the three-hour rides from Cairo to Alexandria or from Luxor to Aswan, it can be tolerable. The Luxor to Aswan ride is actually even quite nice for the scenery. So if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of an airport check-in, screening, and boarding for the short 45-minute flight between Luxor and Aswan, the train is the another option I can recommend.
From Aswan, you then have two options for continuing on to Abu Simbel. You can take another short flight, or you can book a seat on a tourist bus or van in one of the two daily military convoys that takes you there by land. While this may seem a little scary at first, it’s really just routine in Egypt for the military to offer escorts for caravans of tourist striking out across the desert in remote areas. It’s nearly a 200-mile journey between Aswan and Abu Simbel by road, so it takes about three to three and a half hours each way.
But here’s the catch – the most popular convoy leaves from Aswan at four o’clock in the morning, so you have to be dressed and ready to go by 3:30am. This is because it gets so hot at Abu Simbel, even in fall and spring, that you don’t want to be out there walking around in the height of afternoon heat. They want to get you there, give you enough time to explore, and get you back on the bus for the return journey before you get fried. But despite how out-of-the-way Abu Simbel is, how early you have to get up, and how long you have to spend on the road (if you opt for the land journey), the sheer number of visitors who make the trek anyway should serve as a good indication of how worth it Abu Simbel can be for most.
There is also a later convoy that leaves Aswan at 11am if you can’t imagine doing the 3am wake-up thing to make the 4am caravan, but I would strongly advise against planning to take this one. And here’s why… I’ve had several of clients who went all the way down to Aswan specifically to go see Abu Simbel, but they didn’t want to do the 3am wake-up thing and booked on the 11am convoy. But sometimes the 11am convoy is canceled for random reasons, and this happened to them. Their schedule didn’t allow them the flexibility to stay over another day and try again, so they didn’t get to see Abu Simbel in the end after coming all that way.
The 4am convoy is rarely canceled, and if it ever is then there’s still another chance to go later in the morning. But if you bank on the 11am convoy and it’s canceled for whatever reason, your only choice will be to stay over another night and try again the next day. So my recommendation for visiting Abu Simbel is just to shell out the cash to fly, or do the 4am tourist convoy if you’d rather go by land. Most people just go back to sleep for the three-hour ride that early anyway and wake up in Abu Simbel.
And since you have to go through Aswan anyway, investing in an extra two days to explore another major region of Egypt can be really worth the extra time and effort. Abu Simbel is essentially a two-for-one deal that will be just as memorable as the other incredible places you will visit and explore in Egypt.