Egypt: Valley of the Whales

My mom and I went on a three week tour of Egypt in January 2022 — we had to postpone it several times due to Covid and even as we went Covid concerns were hanging over us all. The tour had a maximum of 16 travelers, but for one reason or another there were only five of us on the tour in the end. It was an absolutely amazing trip though and the size of the group meant we could get around more quickly and have a more intimate experience.

The tour we booked was through Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT). We’ve used OAT many times before and really like them for small group travel. Their typical group size is 16 or less and they focus on active travel and cultural authenticity which we appreciate.

We decided to get to Cairo a couple days early to help ourselves acclimate to the time zone and do some exploring on our own. In true Gilbert style, we had planned to rest and not do too much those days and then couldn’t resist booking all-day tours both days and wore ourselves out. But you only live once right?

For our first tour, we visited the Valley of the Whales. I’d never heard about it but mom found the tour and I’m so glad she did as it was a highlight of the 3 weeks.

The Valley of the Whales (Wadi Al-Hitan) is now a desert area and Unesco World Heritage site, but millions of years ago it was a shallow ocean and home to a now-extinct whale suborder called Archaeoceti. There are now hundreds of fossilized whales buried in the desert — many of them intact and easily accessible by foot. The fossils are fascinating for many reasons:

  • It’s desert now — it is so hard to picture this sand-covered arid place was once an abundance of life with whales, and mangrove forests
  • The whales were evolving from land-dwelling mammals to ocean-dwelling, they still had vestiges of hind legs that had been used when they were on land
  • They were ferocious-looking — they were carnivores who fed on smaller whales and fish and they had huge teeth!

Getting to the Valley of the Whales isn’t an easy thing to do if you’re on your own since it is a couple of hours’ drive from Cairo and in a very remote area, so we got a private tour through Viator. Maybe it was because it was our first day back in Egypt (we went there briefly in 2017) or because we were so excited to be traveling again but this felt like a true adventure and we were giddy with excitement the whole day!

The guide and driver met us at our hotel at 9 am (all of the tours we booked while we were in Egypt came with both a driver and a guide). From our hotel, it was about an hour and a half drive out of Cairo to get to Al-Fayyūm. That part of the drive was fun as it was a busy day and people were out and about in the villages and towns along the way, and the driver stopped at a produce stand for some fresh fruit for us to munch on which was really nice. Note that as with many countries, it is advised not to eat fruit unless you peel it yourself so that you don’t get sick — we got oranges and bananas that have thicker peels and are less likely to cause upset stomachs due to bacteria.

Once we got out of Cairo and closer to Wadi Al-Hitan, we switched cars and left the sedan that drove us in Cairo in favor of a 4 wheel drive vehicle more suited for the desert. And we left our driver Muhamed for a new driver named Cousa — Cousa was a local bedouin and was our driver through the Valley. In the 4wd, we entered Wadi Al-Hitan and started the drive toward the whale skeletons.

The “road” to the whale museum and trails was barely a road — for the next hour or hour and a half, we drover over sand dunes and through the desert with Cousa pointing out things along the way and his bedouin music playing on the sound system. It was magical!

Once we reached the Valley of the Whales we got our tickets and visited the museum, watched a short video about the site and walked along the trails to see the fossils — the trails are very well marked and easy walking, and they go on for a few miles so you can walk as little or as much as you want. The museum was fascinating because you are literally miles from civilization yet the museum is quite advanced and modern and they’ve done a great job of trying to make it blend into the environment — reminiscent of the buildings in Tataouine in Star Wars.

After the museum, we set off again in the 4wd for some off-road exploring — going over the dunes and up to a lake lookout and then a quick stop at a waterfall before heading to lunch. Since we were miles from cities at this point, instead of stopping at a restaurant we had lunch at the local bedouin camp. A real treat as we were practically the only ones there and sat on cushions in the tent and had our food cooked for us by the people who lived there. Cousa joined us for a bit as did Muhamed and our guide — a lovely lunch of chicken, kofta, vegetable stew, salad, rice, and followed it up with hot tea.

We could have stayed forever, but after lunch we got back into the Sedan with Muhamed and our guide and headed back to Cairo. It was a long day for our first day in Cairo and we hadn’t given ourselves any time to adjust to the time zone but we had gotten a good sleep the night before and we were okay. A glorious first day in an absolutely mesmerizing country.

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