Abu Simbel in Upper Egypt was saved from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, growing behind the Aswan Dam, in a massive archaeological rescue plan sponsored by UNESCO in the 1960s. The complex of temples dedicated to the Pharaoh Ramsis II "the Great" remain an evocative and unforgettable destination.
Abu Simbel is a village lying 280 km south of Aswan and only 40 km north of the Sudanese border. It is a very small settlement with very little to attract visitors other than its great temples for which it is famous. Few tourists linger for more than a few hours, although there are 5 hotels to attract visitors to stay the night.
The temples at Abu Simbel were formerly located further down the hillside, facing the Nile in the same relative positions, but due to the rising waters of Lake Nasser, the original locations are underwater. In the 1960's, each temple was carefully sawed into numbered stone cubes, moved uphill, and reassembled before the water rose.
The Great Temple of Ramses II was reassembled fronting a fake mountain, built like a domed basketball court, where the stone cubes occupy a section under the dome; from outside, the fake mountain looks like solid rock.
Archaeologists have concluded that the immense sizes of the statues in the Great Temple were intended to scare potential enemies approaching Egypt's southern region, as they traveled down the Nile from out of Africa.
Don't feel deflated upon seeing the temples after taking all the pain to reach there, these are much smaller than Luxor or Karnak temples in scale and crude in finish. The unique feature may be the engravings related to battle of Kadash between Rameses II and Hitites which led to the first known peace treaty in the world. You have to read more to identify the scenes of this battle from the temple walls.
Abu Simbel is now accessible to foreigners travelling by their own car or with a rental car (November 2018), but police permission will be required and depending on the mood of the officer, you will either be able to go on your own, or you will go with a relay escort (in our experience Nov 2018, this was 9 changes of escort vehicles during the 250 km route on the way TO Abu Simbel, and no escort at all on the way back the following day). Police permission can be obtained when leaving Aswan at the checkpoint next to the airport going towards the desert, and it is free but takes around half an hour to get organized. Tourists are only permitted to drive on the Abu Simbel road during daylight hours, so make sure to arrive no later than 1 pm if you are self-driving, else you will probably not be let through the checkpoint. More commonly, tourists can rent a car with a driver from a local Aswan agency to take them to Abu Simbel and back. The convoy system for tour groups and Egyptians in their private cars was abolished in October 2016, so it is now possible to leave Aswan for Abu Simbel at any time of day if going with a tour group (but it is strongly recommended to travel during daylight hours). The trip takes 3 to 4 hours, depending on the speed of the driver.
Expect to pay at least 1000-1200 EGP (USD $60, Nov 2018) for a private car for this tour round-trip if done in one day. If you wish to arrange it in advance with a company like Aswan Individual , you can expect to pay a bit more (1500-2000 EGP). If you are looking for a better price, it is possible to shop around for a cheaper price from an official agency once on the spot in Aswan.
By chartered bus
Foreign travellers can get to Abu Simbel by coach or minibus from Aswan. Seats on the minibuses can be arranged at your hotel or through the Aswan tourist office. The cost for a return trip is at least 200LE. This does not include entrance fees, but may include travel to additional sights in Aswan such as the High Dam or unfinished obelisks. Make sure your minibus has air-conditioning.
Tip: All the hotels will charge at least 200 EGP for a trip to Abu Simbel and they’re all the same. They source them from the same pick up company, so if you contact that company directly, you can book directly with them and save yourself at least 40 EGP, as booking with them directly is 160 EGP.
N.B. If you aren't careful and you get there later, some Aswan native will certainly tell you that they work at this office and they can call "the boss", who will arrange a tour for you. Of course, it probably won't be the same person, but you'll still be able to book a tour.
Tip: Sit on the left hand side of the bus. You will see the sunrise in the morning (if awake) and be in the shade on the way back.
By public bus
There is also one public bus from Aswan bus station at 08:00am, costs 50 LE (one way) it will arrive around 11:30am but you'll find it going back 01:00pm so you can stay as much as you can and get back to the downtown at 4 clock and take shared taxi to Aswan with the same price.
You can walk to the temple from the bus stop but if the sun hot take taxi to the temple cost 5LE maximum 10LE. Taxi saves you the 17 min walk there. Recommended to take a taxi to the temple from the bus stop and then walk back or take a taxi back (to save time).
Buses need to leave for their return journey to Aswan by 4pm latest. Make sure you make the most of your little time in the temples. Shared taxis leave when full, so it might be 6 or 7 pm. One way 40 LE (Jan 2015)
The convoy from Aswan to Abu Simbel was abolished in October 2016
It is possible to travel by cruise ship from Aswan through Lake Nasser to Abu Simbel.
The town of Abu Simbel is small enough to navigate on foot.
Few people actually stay in Abu Simbel as most opt for the day-trip from Aswan or travel by cruise ship and stay on the ship in Abu Simbel. If taking an early departure from Aswan for a daytrip, be sure to ask your hotel in advance for a breakfast box to go (assuming that breakfast is included with your hotel, they'll be happy to do this free of charge). Despite the pain of such an early journey, Abu Simbel is often a highlight for many on their trip through Upper Egypt.
Read more about the temples before arriving: time at Abu Simbel will likely be limited, with little time to read about the stone carvings inside the temples. Beyond the temples themselves, the detailed description of sawing and moving the stone cubes is also an interesting story to read.
As with the pyramids at Giza, reading about them, before arriving, in no way diminishes the impact of seeing them firsthand. The reconstructed temples at Abu Simbel appear entirely real, not like a simulated building at some theme parks; however, do go inside the dome of the Great Temple to appreciate that it is a fake mountain.
Visitors might need to bring their own snacks and beverages, due to the length of the journey and the limited time at Abu Simbel. There are many cafes along the main road. Prices are high due to the number of tourists.
Many people do Abu Simbel as a day trip and fall asleep on the ride to/from Abu Simbel due to its early time. The only reason to stay overnight is to see the Sound & Light show or to break up one very long travel day into two kind-of-long travel days. Note that getting up at 5am to get to the temple right when the gate opens will not ensure a private visit as the cruise ship passengers will also arrive at 5am. If you want a private time in the Abu Simbel temples, the best time is around 7-8am: after the cruise ship visitors have left, and before the day trip visitors from Aswan arrive. However, sunrise is lovely; just don't expect to beat the crowds by waking up early.
Do not swim in Lake Nasser because of the Nile crocodiles.