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It’s difficult to imagine a desert oasis with a magical lake, cascading waterfalls, and a valley of ancient whales failing to be listed among a destination’s top attractions.
But in a place like Egypt, with its ancient pyramids and beautiful beaches, competition is understandably steep.
Located less than two hours south west of Cairo, Fayoum Oasis is undoubtedly one of the country’s hidden treasures.
Made up of many lakes and canals, this large region is an ideal weekend or day trip spot for those keen to escape the bustle of the city.
“Cairo is chaotic and noisy. The closer you get to Fayoum, the quieter and cleaner it becomes,” Cairo-based Italian cinematographer Federico Corno tells CNN Travel. “And then suddenly you see patches of green everywhere.
“People often think about Egypt as just sand, pyramids, the heat or the Red Sea. They don’t imagine green farms, art and pottery, relaxation and meditation.
“In Fayoum, life just kind of slows down and goes back to the natural rhythm it should be.”
Wadi El Rayan, a protected national park that stretches across nearly 700 square miles, is one of Fayoum’s many highlights.
It’s comprised of an upper and lower human-made lake, with what’s considered to be Egypt’s largest waterfalls in between.
These waterfalls can be hard to spot from the upper plateau, as they’re slightly smaller than other renowned falls.
But viewing the multiple drop-offs from the lower plateau is the best way to witness their collective beauty and experience a unique shower in the middle of a desert.
This site is famously crowded on weekends (during times of unrestricted travel), so it’s best to visit during weekdays.
However, the area is nearly deserted during Ramadan, although a few residents seem to rely on what they catch in the lower lake to break their fast.
The sprawling park also features a variety of distinctive scenic attractions that include moving dunes, natural sulfur springs, mountains, and its best-kept secret, Wadi Al Hitan.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2005, Wadi Al Hitan, is an open-air museum that offers a puzzling depiction of the evolution of life.
The skeletons of hundreds of gigantic whales, sharks, and infinite fossils fill the desert valley, which is also known as The Valley of Whales, painting a vivid picture of the sheer scale of its wondrous inhabitants of 40 million or so years ago.
From a distance, these incredibly preserved bones resemble winding teeth jutting out of the desert.
This valley is also home to the informative Fossil and Climate Change Museum that mimics the natural surroundings and could easily pass as a dwelling in a “Star Wars” film.
The centerpiece of the one-room museum is the prehistoric Basilosaurus.
This phenomenal 60-foot long fossil, thought to be the largest intact fossil of the ancient whale, is one of several extinct Archaeoceti fossils that can be found in the area.
The Basilosaurus possessed two tiny hind limbs, believed to be useless for movement, that protruded from its flanks, offering evolutionary evidence of the whales’ transition from land to marine life.
The Magic Lake is named as such thanks to its mesmerizing waters, which change color depending on the time of day and amount of sun exposure it gets.
Reaching its shores is just as fun as swimming in its magical waters, as this requires dune bashing the desert in a 4x4.
Looking down at the lake from the top of the dunes is something of a surreal spectacle, with the calm water serving as a crystal-clear mirror reflecting the sky.
The dunes are also large and steep enough to sandboard down.
Many visitors opt to camp for the night here to catch the magnificent celestial performance that only the milky way can provide.
“The raw sand and the high dunes contrasting with the color of the sky creates some stunning photos. In the summer, the milky way is super clear and looks like someone placed a carpet of stars in the sky,” describes Egyptian travel photographer Amr El Hadeka.
Water wheels of life
Bestselling author Paulo Coelho famously wrote about the beauty of Fayoum’s oasis in his classic novel “The Alchemist,” and yet Fayoum is not actually a true oasis.
While an oasis derives water from an underground spring, Fayoum gets its water from the Nile, courtesy of a series of canals known as Bahr Yussef that were built by the ancient Egyptians.
There are around 200 waterwheels scattered across the area that redistribute the water from Bahr Yussef, which is responsible for giving the region its fertility and identity.
These celebrated waterwheels were introduced in the third century B.C. by Ptolemaic engineers, who used the topography of the land to lift water into irrigation canals, using the natural force of the fast-moving streams.
Located in the heart of Fayoum’s colorful downtown area, they’ve become an important landmark, particularly for those who are passionate about history.
Birds of Lake Qarun
Eons ago, Lake Qarun was known as Lake Moeris and the freshwater lake covered the entire Fayoum region.
Connected to the Nile via Bahr Yussef, this protected wetland is a small fraction of what remains of Lake Moeris.
Considered the world’s most ancient lake, it’s not suitable for swimming, but Lake Qarun has become a legendary destination for passionate bird watchers.
From large colonies of flamingos to various duck species, it’s a unique ecosystem, supporting over 88 species of birds, and acts as a lifeline for endangered species like the slender-horned gazelle.
The abundance of birds living in this area has also made Fayoum popular among Egyptians for a traditional delicacy – stuffed pigeon.
But this beloved Egyptian dish is unlikely to grace the cover of any food magazines.
It offers a small amount of meat, which tastes like a darker, slightly gamier version of chicken.
However, none of that matters, because it’s the succulent seasoned rice, which absorbs all the savory flavors from within that makes it so popular that people often can’t help but eat more than one at a time.
Overlooking Lake Qarun, this colorful village teeming with diverse flora and fauna provides one of the most exquisite views Fayoum has to offer.
Aside from its natural beauty, Tunis Village is considered a thriving cultural arts hub due to its artistic residents who’ve shaped the village’s identity, using their skillful hands to create gorgeous pottery and handicrafts.
The village’s popularity has grown among Egyptians and tourists in recent years due to the annual Tunis Village Pottery Festival.
“I love this festival because anyone who does anything artistic can go get a booth and showcase their work alongside the locals,” Amr El Hadeka tells CNN Travel.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on like workshops and performances that give the festival an amazing vibe.
“People come from everywhere and get a chance to learn about the culture and leave inspired.”
The family-friendly festival usually takes place during the first week of November, which is also a great time to catch the variety of birds migrating into the area for winter.
Whether searching for relaxation or adrenaline, art or history, there’s something for everyone in Fayoum.
Visitors can see many of its top sights in one go by taking a 4x4 desert safari day trip, as many of the locations are positioned close together.
It’s surely only a matter of time before Fayoum considered among Egypt’s must see attractions.
Until then, it remains a relatively unknown treasure, filled with beauty and life that predates any pyramid by millions of years.