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Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

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Chattanooga, TN
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Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

Hi,

I just visited Cairo in early January 2011, as part of a larger trip. I also visited Spain, Italy, and Greece. Egypt has always been my dream location so I write this review with mixed feelings.

Here is the real scoop of Cairo: the place is not very clean, it very busy and never stops, and was a big disappointment. Let me tell you that I traveled on a pretty strict budget so I did not expect 4-5 star American standards - I was very open and wanted to see the "real" Cairo. I did not book myself on a larger tour and chose to do lower end ($55/US) and hostel type accomodations ($25/US) like I did in other parts of Europe. Big mistake.

I arrived at night like most folks (you typically arrive either late at 9 or 10 pm or early at 3 or 4 am) and my hotel was waiting with a sign. Great! We got into the hotel cab and my first view was positive - there were streets with sidewalks, what appeared to be beautiful castle-like structures, and the ride was painless.

I have to say that as a solo female traveler I was a little surprised by all of the mean on the plane. I thought it was odd, but I guess I just wasn't prepared for the culture. I was also a little bothered because in boarding the plane the men just kind of pushed you out of the way to get onboard. My thought "we have assigned seats gentlemen so what's the rush?" While onboard I met a couple from Australia and the husband was originally from Cairo. He explained that in Cairo people are more pushy, and that they aren't as gracious - very little thank yous, or please, etc. He was right. He also said that I could "stick with them" and he would ensure that I got to my hotel. I actually didn't need their help, but I appreciated the offer. He and his wife scheduled a driver for their entire trip - SMART CHOICE.

So, my hotel was right across from the Egyptian Museum and it was pretty cool. The street was one of the main roads and it was pretty busy even at midnight. I was scared to cross the street and describe walking in Cairo as playing Russian Roulette - no one pays attention to stop signs, traffic lights, etc. You literally just have to walk out there and like a game of Frogger just maneuver through the cars as they drive by. SERIOUSLY!

I am a walker and walked for 5-6 hours each day while in Europe, alone and often at night with no problems. In Cairo, I did not feel comfortable walking by myself as a woman even in the day. Why? Because 90% of the people I saw were men, very few spoke English, and the streets were not clean and did not seem safe. Besides, once people found out I was an American you would get swindled and the prices would jump exponentially.

Example: I left my first hotel (they were booked for the rest of the week) and went to my second hotel. I asked the bellman at the hotel to get me a cab. The second hotel told me the rate would be about 5 Egyptian Pounds. The cab drivers kept refusing because the rate was too low. So, we finally found one to take me there for 10 Eyptian Pounds. When I got to the second hotel he tried to charge me 20 Egyptian pounds. I argued with him and had to call the owner of the hotel down to help me. That was just the start of things.

When I decided to go see the Pyramids I was so psyched! But, no one tells you that the streets leading to the Pyramids are dirty, full of trash, and that the people are very, very poor. I saw kids playing in the dirt next to piles of trash, I saw trash lining the bansk of the canals. Now I know why Americans can't drink the water!! I also saw why I didn't see women on the streets of Cairo - most of them stayed close to home and watched the kids. I saw donkeys carrying vegetables for sale, people riding on donkeys, and lots of poverty.

It also helps you understand why the people try to swindle Americans - there doesn't seem to be anything to do except take American tourists' money. So, know your currency. Write down ahead of time 10 Egyptian Pounds = $2 US, 15 Egyptian Pounds = $2.25 US, etc. Then, you know when something is a good deal. For instance, I went on a Nile River cruise and they charged me 35 Egyptian Pounds for an apple juice!!! I think that equals almost $6 US!!!!!

Also, I would recommend that you go as part of a larger tour. The tours probably take you to the highlights and you miss a lot of the other stuff that I saw such as the dirt and filth of the city. I stayed in the Downtown area thinking that I could get out and walk around as I did in other places. Big mistake. Most "convenience stores" (or shacks by the side of the road) don't have prices on the items so people just charge you what they want. You always feel as if you are being taken for a ride. For instance, there are prices for Egyptians and prices for everyone else. I happen to be an African-American woman with light-brown skin and long, curly hair. A lot of people thought I was Egyptian (from lower egypt) and so they would introduce themselves to me in Arabic and quote one price for me. But, when they found out I was American the price ALWAYS jumped.

I met another American traveler who left after being at the Pyramids and paying 50 Egyptian pounds to ride a camel. The owner then started taking pictures of him on the camel and then refused to give him the camera back unless he paid 500 Egyptian pounds! When he refused more camel riders and owners circled around him and he said he was scared because he was in an isolated area away from the crowds (and he's from New York). He remembered a travel guide that said if people in Egypt pull this trick on you start hollering and cussing at them so he did this and then the price lowered to 200 Egyptian pounds. Finally, he threatened to call the police and they gave him the camera back! I know this is true because when I was at the Pyramids I talked a guy down in order to ride the horses at the Pyramids and yet when I got to a certain point he stopped and asked for more money to go further. I guess he felt bad for me, being a woman, because I told him I did not have any more money and he gave me my camera back and let me off the horse. Having to watch your back every minute while on vacation got old very quick!!

The owner at the second hotel said he worked with a "travel agency" to book tours. His prices were good, so I decided to do the Nile River dinner cruise and the Pyramid tour the next day and Old Cairo in the afternoon. My "English speaking tour guide" was his friend who showed up and took me to the dinner cruise in his car. He did not speak good English and it was very bootleg. The cruise was decent and the entertainment was good. The bad: most Americans I met on the cruise felt like me - that Egypt was strange, you had to be suspicious of everyone, and watch your money! It was almost like no one felt or acted like they were on vacation because the environment made you so tense.

The "tour" the next day consisted of another friend driving me in their car to the Pyramids, Old Cairo, and the bazaar. The "tour guide" threw out a few facts and then let me walk around by myself. I did not feel informed, guided, or anything. It was a ripoff. I wish that I had just paid a reputable cab company for a driver and just did it all by myself. I paid $55 for the "tour" and $35 for the dinner cruise. The cruise was ok, but the "tour" also consisted of going to a perfume shop and art shop where they tried to sale me stuff for roughly 350 LE or Egyptian Pounds that I could get at the bazaar for 10 LE. SERIOUSLY!!!

U.K.
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1. Re: Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

Hello, firstlove!

Thank you for posting such an informative trip report - I am sure that many prospective first-timers to Cairo will find it useful.

I tend to advise people to take a packaged tour for their first visit - the sights are matchless but, as you have found, the culture is so very different to what we are used to that even crossing the road (you were brave! - we used the Metro station underpass) becomes a major undertaking. I think that almost everyone gets ripped off, more or less, the first time but learns from the experience............ and, after another trip or two, feels like an "old hand".

I trust that you will return sometime to see the sights of Upper Egypt (centered on Luxor and Aswan) and possibly head out to the Western Oases.

Chattanooga, TN
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2. Re: Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

Thanks for your reply - maybe so. If I ever return I will be prepared and will join a tour and only stay in the city for maybe 2 days maximum.

Some other advice and tips:

WHAT TO DO:

1) Egyptian museum - 60 LE; Mummy room is extra at 100 LE;

2) Giza pyramids and Sphinx - 60 LE entry fee;

3) Nile Cruise - $35 / or 210 LE;

4) Write down the denominations ahead of time so that you know how much you are spending for anything. Yes, our money goes further, but that doesn't mean that we should be swindled. For instance, I feel sorry for the people over there because even at McDonald's the french fries are 8 LE, which is only $1.50 for Americans, but seems like a crazy ridiculous price for Egyptians;

5) Rent a driver - you don't want to walk around, and you can't drive in their traffic, which is totally crazy (a four lane highway became 7 lanes and people drive crazy fast). I contacted metro cab company while in Cairo and their rate of roughly 240 LE for 6 hours seemed very reasonable. Wish I had done like the Australians that I met and had someone for my entire trip. At least I would have known the price up front and been able to enjoy myself more rather than feel swindled each time I got in the back seat of a car. If you rent a driver for the day - pay as you go;

6) Travel with friends. I thought I could do it alone and I felt ok, but with the large number of men on the streets, it was very odd. Also, the man primarily seem to work in the tourism industry so they hung out in the Downtown area at all times of the night. My cruise ended at midnight and I swear that I saw more men just hanging out on the street at 12:30 am, than I did at 12:30 pm. One even made a lewd remark to me as I entered my "hotel" and I felt unsafe;

7) As a woman wear clothes that cover up. It is a Muslim country so women are very modest. When I asked the young 20-something desk clerk at my hotel what women wore on the dinner cruise he said "a shorter skirt and pointed to a spot 2 inches under his knees." In America, short is a mini-skirt. I had no idea. He encouraged me to cover up and everyone on the cruise was dressed similarly - even the Americans. I would have covered my head and every part of my body if I thought it would have ensured that I received better treatment - SERIOUSLY; and,

8) Shop at the bazaar. It was cool, bargaining was great, but do it early in your trip or otherwise you might be so sick and tired of the city that you don't really enjoy this part. I went at the end and wish I had been in better spirits and able to shop more. There were trinkets that I could have purchased in Egypt for 10 LE or roughly $1.5, that I saw in Greece for 6 Euros! If you shop at the market, have your money in separate compartments because the men there that run the shops watch you like crazy. If you are flipping through bills they won't negotiate a lower price for you.

WHAT I WOULD NOT DO:

1) Guide at museum - they seemed to rush people through and were expensive at 100 - 150 LE/hr. I did it on my own and read the signs in front of each exhibit. It was fine. If I did hire a guide it would have only been for maybe 1 hour or so and I would do it as part of a group because it is a better deal. Also, know that for groups of 5 or 6 or more (can't remember the number) they require that you have a guide;

2) Day Tour - I contacted a few people listed on tripadvisor, but decided against hiring them. I can't comment on what they offer, but I can say that the rates quoted of $100 - 150 for a full day seemed high for my budget. Maybe it would have been better, but it was a little pricey for me. If you have a group it might be a better deal as the price was the same for 1 or more;

3) Don't give your camera to anyone or allow them to do anything for you because they will want money;

4) Sakara (not sure of spelling) - same entrance fee as Giza pyramids at 60 LE and it wasn't as exciting;

5) Don't take the first offer. Always negotiate; and,

6) Dont' stay in a hostel unless you are totally prepared for very, very basic housing (Ex: breakfast was a piece of bread cut in half and a boiled egg plus hot tea). I chose them because I wanted free wi-fi and had a budget. I didn't like how random people just hung out at the hostel and it made me uncomfortable. If you stay in a hostel, rent a car yourself.

ADVICE:

1) Stay in the suburbs that seemed much nicer (not Downtown). Heliopolis seemed cool. Also, avoid Giza, the area around the pyramids was very poor and the only thing to see is the pyramids. Ex: Cataract resort seemed run-down (almost picked it and glad that I did not), City View was nice and safe with a good breakfast (stayed here the first night), Hilton in Cairo seemed nice, Novotel by the airport did not seem nice. I didn't go in many of these hotels, but remembered the names so that I could post about them - pics are deceiving;

2) Make sure your driver, guide, etc., speaks really good English because sometimes it was hard to communicate;

3) Know that the Egyptians argue as part of their culture. If you don't like something you have to be prepared to address things as they would. For instance, I was ready to leave and got to the airport SUPER early. They would not let me in. Tip: you can only enter the airport approx 2 hours before your flight leaves. I didn't care. They wouldn't let me in, I argued with them and they let me sit down;

4) They are pushy and can seem rude. If you are waiting in line patiently don't be surprised if they go around you. Just stand up for yourself. It seems odd, but you have to stop them from running over you. Ex: at the airport they have lots of security. You have to run your suitcase through a scanner before you even get into the check-in area. A few people tried to push past me as if I wasn't even there. I had to get loud and tell them to hold up because I was next;

5) If you get in a taxi pay the agreed upon price up front. Why? Because then they can't argue that it was a different amount after you arrive at your destination. Keep your belongings with you, including your suitcase - don't use the trunk. If you need to get out quick, you don't want your items in another part of the cab;

6) If you need to go somewhere, have someone write the address in arabic. This helped me a lot;

7) If you are in a public place ask the tourism polic for help if need be. They helped me out a few times;

8) If you are in a cab don't feel pressured. The second cab that I took tried to make me get out early when he couldn't find the address. Thank God I told him "no, I won't get out until I see the hotel" because the place where he tried to drop me was a good 5 minutes away from my hotel and I would have been hopelessly lost; and,

9) Don't drink the water and use bottled water even to brush your teeth. If you get sick, drink Coke.

PM for any additional advice.

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3. Re: Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

Wow...thanks for your impressions. There have from time to time been postings here about women traveling alone and while some are okay I do feel the majority are not...either go with a group or do research here on TA or similar and hire a guide for the days you are there. It simplifies your life and make much better use of your time. Also there have been postings about "walking in Cairo"...this is not a walking city for anyone and as you found out can be quite hazardous !! Getting a driver/guide is the way to go. Lastly Cairo is not a city to book economy lodging. You need the support and standards of a 4-5 star hotel and there are many special prices to make that affordable. In Europe the smaller hotels are actually more charming...same with restaurants etc...not in Cairo!! Hopefully future travelers will read this and learn from your experience. As for the poverty etc. noise and chaos that is all true but I do feel with the help of driver/guide that all becomes manageable and you can concentrate on seeing all the things that make Egypt so special.

Sydney Australia
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4. Re: Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

You obviously had quite a culture shock and I am sure this post will be of assistance to others who may not have been aware of a lot of aspects of Egyptian culture.

I guess I had a bit of a similar shock when arriving in Istanbul in 1977; my husband just loved it but I was uncomfortable. Of course now Istanbul, like everywhere, is different, and I just love it too.

I think that Australians like myself tend to have a bit more experience with cultures where negotiation is the norm. We have to touch down somewhere on the way to Europe and very often have a few days stopover. Also many of the Cairo scams I have read about are similar to those we found, and even fell for, in Bangkok.

However I am definitely going to arrange a guide in Cairo. With a bit of luck I may even enjoy it.

London, United...
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5. Re: Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

I'm sorry you had a bad time in Cairo. But I must disagree with some of the advice you gave.

1) The streets are not empty of women. Egyptian women to go out to work, see friends, shopping etc. If you want to see streets empty of women go to Oman, there women don't use public transport or walk about the streets. However this is not the case in Egypt.

I'm a woman. I mostly travel alone to Egypt. I've feel safe walking the streets alone whether at 3pm or 3am. Cairo has very much a night culture. So there are always people about and I feel much safer in Cairo than I do in European cities. It is not unusual to see children playing outside at 1am!!

There is harassment.. but never danger. The way to avoid harassment is to try to not dress like an obvious tourist, dress reasonably conservatively (more so in poorer areas), don't make eye contact or try to be polite or friendly. Look like you know what you are doing.

It takes a while to get the hang of things. But it does work....now I rarely if at all get harassed. The trick is to imagine these men are flies and treat them as such. Don't let anyone take any liberties or treat you in a way that he wouldn't want his sisters treated.

Never let any man touch you (even in an apparently harmless or friendly way) Always sit in the back of a cab.

2)When taking a taxi never ask the price upfront. Always pay at the end as you leave. Never ask the price, just pay what you think. This is what Egyptians do.

Doing it any other way leads to over charging and uncomfortable journeys. If he says 'how much' or 'kam' as you get in, take another taxi. They are plentiful.

Typical prices or 5LE short trips up to 15 minutes. Most journeys are 10 LE. Further out to the pyramids 20LE. To the airport 40-50LE (the route on a meter might be only 30LE but I like to a little pay more for this trip) .

These fares are a little generous and I never have a problem using taxis.

Alternatively use a a white cab. They have meters. I a driver refuses to turn the meter on, just tell him that you will just pay a fare that is slightly lower than what the fare typically is. The meter will soon be turned on!!

Though watch out for circuitous routes. I still prefer the black and white cabs. Though as a first time tourist the white cabs are better.

The metro is also cheap 1LE, and efficient. And there are female only carriages.

3)Whilst there are some double pricing for example at museums. There is a reason for this to allow ordinary Egyptians to visit their attractions.

Most things aren't. I never allow someone to charge me more because of my nationality. Learn the numbers so you can overhear what Egyptians pay. You will be surprised that many everyday things such as food are priced and there is no need to bargain.

As a foreigner I'm not overcharged for these things. (In restaurants I have seen both the Arabic and English menu and there are the same. I'm often mistaken for an Egyptian so I'm given an Arabic menu... and have change to compare)

If anything it is the opposite on public transport or in fruit juice shops I'm often told not pay anything because I'm a foreigner and a guest.

I don't want to be rude but how do you know you were overcharged because you are an American if don't know Arabic. And if you do understand the numbers just quote the first price and pay that. On the very rare occasion when someone tries to overcharge me I just say the real price and try to back down.

Having knowledge is really important in Egypt.

4)If you are lost or need help ask anyone .... not just the police. All will help...most Egyptians are incredibly helpful. Younger fashionably dressed are likely to speak English.

5)It is possible to have a short Nile cruise for 2LE from Masbero docks on a party boat.

6)Mcdonalds isn't the cheapest place in Egypt. It is possible to east a meal of street food for a few LE or try GAD.

7)I agree that downtown is not the best place to stay. It is noisy and hectic. Zamalek is IMHO the best. Very quiet, upmarket, leafy. Nice to walk round.. also many nice restaurants and shops there, and just over the bridge from downtown.

The President hotel (in Zamalek) can be booked online for 30-35 dollars and is decent enough like a western standard 2 star hotel. If I had the money I would stay at the Marriot.

7)Personally I love Cairo and think it the most beautiful city in the world. I can never get enough of it. There are so many beautiful amazing places. Cairo has it all from Pharaohnic, to Medieval, to elegant turn of the century. And of course there is the Nile.... And if I'm missing countryside the Fayoum Oasis and Lake Qarun is only an hour or so bus ride.

I don't think going on a tour will help avoid the hassle or avoid the ugly bits. If anything it will be worse because you are crammed up together visiting only the most tacky overcrowded parts, forced to visit overpriced shops whilst bypassing real attractions, all the time being asked for baksheesh.

The real problem is that a few people involved in the tourist industry are real leaches. Once you manage to bystep them Egypt and it's people are amazing.

Edited: 10 January 2011, 00:51
London, United...
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6. Re: Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

I'm surprised you had a problem entering the airport early. Was that check-in or just the buildings.

I had to visit the airport recently many times due to an airline losing my suitcase grr. I was not once stopped from entering despite obviously not having a flight. Infact I was allowed to go into some quite offlimits areas without having to show ID.

Not that , not being allowed to enter an early is usually a problem for me. I prefer to leave it as late as possible!!!

BTW if you have time to kill at the airport opposite terminal one is a 'sky mall' not many shops mostly airline desks but there are a few decent restaurants including a Cielo with some of the worst English misprints ever on the menu but decent food and decent prices and shisha.

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7. Re: Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

Firstlove, I think your post is super harsh and you didn't research what you are getting into. Cairo has a chaotic choreography and there are good and bad with the city and the culture, just like any other city or culture in the world. I was alone female and I had an excellent time. I found a charming little hotel in Mohandeesen, always found out the price of everything and if I didn't like a price, I moved on to another vendor, or cabbie or whatever. One cabbie came up with some rule that I owed double and I laughed at him, paid what the trip was worth and I got out of the cab. One of my favorite tricks is pretending not to speak English either! I can play that game too! Certainly you should not have been expecting a middle east Europe? And the dirt and grime in Cairo, and at the Pyramids is well documented! Did you read anything at all before you got there?

London, United...
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8. Re: Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

Yeah humour is a good way to deflect a situation.... too. If someone tries to sell me something for an inflated price... I just offer him my shoes or some cheap item of clothing for 1000 dollars. They soon get the idea and laugh.

Crazy prices are asks more in hope than expectation and are easily ignored.

I think it is good that people are forewarned....it stops any unpleasant surprises. Cairo is either a love it or hate it city. But I would hate if somebody got the idea that Cairo can't be seen except through a tour bus and a women can't visit alone.

Chattanooga, TN
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9. Re: Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

In response to some comments, yes, I read about Cairo before I arrived. Yet, nothing that I read fully prepared me for what I saw and experienced while there. I just think that this was my first time in such a culture and it was a bit of a shock. However, everything that I said was true and accurate. I had the same or a similar experience as several Americans that I met either while in Cairo or while in other places, many of whom are world travelers. As my mother said "everyone can't tell the same lies."

With regards to pricing, I knew that the price was different for Egyptians because certain Egyptians would tell me the "correct" price and what should be paid and then I would be quoted a different price. Ex: the taxi, where I was guided on Egyptian culture and told that the price should be "X" on a typical day, and the driver tried to charge me 4x the price - and this happened two (2) separate times.

This was my experience and it was accurate to a T. I was supposed to stay 5 days, and paid to leave after 3 nights. I think that speaks volumes.

I wrote the post after thinking about it for at least 3 days because I did not want to just slam this city or discourage anyone from visiting. However, while at the airport (for 3+ hours) I made it my mission to offer tips to other women or English-speaking people. I happened to meet two (2) Australian women traveling alone and when I said hello in English they immediately came up to me and said "this place is odd, where are the women because all I see are men." I then proceeded to explain the ins and outs that I had learned over the past 3 days. As a side note, most Australians that I met were friendly and awesome!!!

People I met said that most folks in Cairo are "friendly" and "kind." I am not sure and I can't speak for everyone, but I did not get that sense while in Cairo. Yes, there were certain people who were kind, but overall the culture was not a welcoming one and I felt like an American target, not a welcome guest.

As I have told my friends now that I have returned, go for a few days if you want to experience parts of Cairo, but understand certain things before you go. I stand by my post because it is accurate and I think that other folks should know this before you go because like me, they could have saved for 3 years for such a trip and I want them to have a complete picture.

Let people make their own decisions. I know that the city depends on tourism 100%, but others should understand that when you go on vacation you get to choose where to spend your money and personally, I felt more stressed on this trip than I have any other trip.

If you would like to see pics that I took on the street, PM me - then you can determine for yourself if what I said about the city is accurate. Thanks!

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10. Re: Planning Your First Visit to Cairo - READ THIS FIRST!!!

I'm going to have to agree with 80% with what Firstlove has to say. Egypt is a culture shock to most. You definitely get fleeced on pricing when it comes to buying anything. There is what I call Egyptian price and tourist price. I had first hand experience when I went to Cairo in Nov 2010. My guide bought me a felafal for 1LE ( local as you can get ) When I went back, the same guy charged me 2LE. What's 1LE more? It's not about the money, it's about the principal. I was right there when he bought the first one. I was told it was tip because I'm a tourist. During the day we decided to have the guide buy everything for us except souvenirs. You save alot by doing that. My sister did not feel save in Egypt and she travels more than I do. We read alot of about Egyptian culture but experiencing it is different there is a huge learning curve. We only had the guide for one day but learned alot from him.

If you plan to go to luxor, I think the locals are even more aggressive especially the cab drivers. Everywhere you went, people would ask if you wanted a ride. We had to get a cab at the airport. Be ready to negotiate hard. There is no security or anybody. It's really empty. once you get your baggage, you're on your own.

With that said, it didn't stop us from enjoying all the sites. For people who are not used to traveling without a guide, I recommend a tour.