(CNN) – It is difficult to imagine an oasis in the desert with a magical lake, cascading waterfalls and a valley of ancient whales that are not listed among the main attractions of a destination.
But in a place like Egypt, with its ancient pyramids and beautiful beaches, competition is understandably steep.
Located less than two hours southwest of Cairo, the oasis of Fayoum is undoubtedly one of the country’s hidden treasures.
Made up of numerous lakes and canals, this great region is an ideal weekend or day trip for those wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
“Cairo is chaotic and noisy. The closer you get to Fayoum, the quieter and cleaner it becomes,” Cairo-based Italian director of photography Federico Corno says to CNN Travel. “And then suddenly you see patches of green everywhere.
“People often think of Egypt only as sand, pyramids, the heat or the Red Sea. They don’t imagine green farms, art and ceramics, relaxation and meditation.
“In Fayoum, life slows down and returns to the natural rhythm it should be.”
The Wadi El Rayan waterfalls are believed to be the largest in Egypt.
Courtesy of Eihab Boraie
Wadi El Rayan, a protected national park that spans nearly 700 square miles, is one of the many highlights of Fayoum.
It is composed of an upper and lower artificial lake, with what is considered the largest Egyptian waterfall in the middle.
These waterfalls can be difficult to spot from the upper plateau, as they are slightly smaller than other famous waterfalls.
But seeing the many descents 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 notoriously crowded on weekends (during unrestricted travel periods), so it is best to visit it on weekdays.
However, the area is almost deserted during Ramadan, although some residents seem to rely on what they catch in the lower lake to break their fast.
The vast park also offers a variety of scenic attractions which include moving dunes, natural sulfur springs, mountains and its best kept secret, Wadi Al Hitan.
Wati El Hitan, known as the Whale Valley, houses the only museum of fossils and climate change.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005, Wadi Al Hitan is an open-air museum that offers a staggering representation of the evolution of life.
The skeletons of hundreds of gigantic whales, sharks and infinite fossils fill the desert valley, also known as The Valley of Whales, which paints a vivid picture of the pure scale of its wonderful inhabitants about 40 million years ago.
From a distance, these incredibly preserved bones resemble tortuous teeth protruding from the desert.
This valley also houses the informative Fossil and Climate Change Museum which mimics the natural environment and could easily pass as a home in a “Star Wars” movie.
The centerpiece of a room’s museum is prehistoric Basilosaurus.
This phenomenal 60-foot-long fossil, believed to be the largest intact fossil of the ancient whale, is one of several extinct archaetogenic fossils that can be found in the area.
Basilosaurus possessed two tiny hind limbs, deemed useless for movement, which protruded from its sides, offering evolutionary evidence of the passage of whales from land to marine life.
Magic Lake takes its name from its fascinating waters that change color.
Magic Lake is called as such thanks to its fascinating waters, which change color depending on the time of day and the amount of sun exposure it receives.
Reaching its shores is just as fun as swimming in its magical waters, as this requires dunes that hit the desert in a 4×4.
Looking down from the lake from the top of the dunes is something of a surreal sight, with the calm water acting as a crystal mirror reflecting the sky.
The dunes are also large and steep enough to sand.
Many visitors choose to camp for the night here to capture the magnificent celestial display that only the Milky Way can offer.
“The raw sand and the high dunes in contrast to the color of the sky create some breathtaking photos. In the summer, the milky way is super clear and it seems that someone has placed a carpet of stars in the sky,” describes the Egyptian travel photographer Amr El Hadeka.
Water wheels of life
The area’s water supply comes from a series of water wheels which redistribute water from the Nile canals.
Courtesy of Eihab Boraie
Best-selling author Paulo Coelho wrote about the beauty of Fayoum’s oasis in his classic novel “The Alchemist”, yet Fayoum isn’t actually a true oasis.
While an oasis derives water from an underground source, Fayoum obtains water from the Nile, courtesy of a series of canals known as Bahr Yussef which were built by the ancient Egyptians.
There are around 200 water wheels scattered around the area that redistribute the water from Bahr Yussef, which is responsible for giving the region its fertility and identity.
These famous water wheels were introduced in the third century BC. by the Ptolemaic engineers, who used the topography of the land to raise the water in the irrigation canals, using the natural force of fast moving streams.
Located in the heart of the colorful center of Fayoum, they have become an important point of reference, especially for those who are passionate about history.
Birds of the Qarun lake
Lake Qarun is popular with bird watchers thanks to the 88 bird species, including flamingos, found here.
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 part of what remains of Lake Moeris
Considered the oldest lake in the world, it is not suitable for swimming, but Lake Qarun has become a legendary destination for bird watchers.
From large colonies of flamingos to various duck species, it is a unique ecosystem, which supports over 88 bird species and serves as a lifeblood for endangered species such as the thin-horned gazelle.
The abundance of birds that live in this area has also made Fayoum popular among the Egyptians for a traditional delicacy: the stuffed pigeon.
But this beloved Egyptian dish is unlikely to embellish the cover of any food magazine.
It offers a small amount of meat, which tastes like a darker and slightly darker version of the chicken.
However, none of this matters, because it’s the succulent seasoned rice, which absorbs all the salty flavors from the inside that makes it so popular that people often can’t help but eat more than one at a time.
The inhabitants of Tunis Villlage create beautiful ceramics and handicrafts, which are exhibited in the area.
Overlooking Lake Qarun, this picturesque village teeming with diverse flora and fauna offers one of the most beautiful panoramas that Fayoum has to offer.
Aside from its natural beauty, Tunis Village is considered a thriving cultural arts center because of its artistic residents who have shaped the identity of the village, using their skilled hands to create splendid pottery and crafts.
The popularity of the village has grown among Egyptians and tourists in recent years thanks to the annual Pottery Festival in the village of Tunis.
“I love this festival because anyone who does something artistic can go find a stand and show their work alongside the locals,” Amr El Hadeka tells CNN Travel.
“There are many things going on such as seminars and performances that give the festival an extraordinary atmosphere.
“People come from all over and have the opportunity to learn about culture and be inspired.”
The family festival usually takes place during the first week of November, which is also an excellent time to catch the variety of birds that migrate to the area for the winter.
Looking for relaxation or adrenaline, art or history, there is something for everyone in Fayoum.
Visitors can see many of its major attractions at once by taking a day trip on a 4×4 desert safari, as many of the locations are positioned close together.
It is definitely only a matter of time before Fayoum considered among the Egyptian attractions must see the attractions.
Until then, it remains a relatively unknown treasure, full of beauty and life that precedes any pyramid of millions of years.
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