An incredibly well-preserved paleontological site, Wadi Al-Hitan, or Valley of Whales in Cairo, Egypt is more like an outdoor museum embedded in the ground. Millions of years ago, the area was covered by the ancient sea of Tethys which left behind some fascinating clues to the past. In the valley lie hundreds of fossils of a sub-order of whales called the archaeoceti, which provide evidence for the theory that whales were previously land mammals until they evolved to live in the ocean.
From single bones to entire skeletons, these fossils provide a wealth of information on whales as land-faring creatures. They show that these particular whales had small hind limbs and similar teeth to other land mammals, which is quite unlike the whales that exist today. There are also fossils of many other plants and animals at this site, although the whale ones are the most significant, as they provide links to their course of evolution.
On top of the scientific value of the Valley of Whales, the landscape is quite remarkable as well. The valley lies in a desert surrounded by cliffs and buttes. A mountain called Garet Gohannam, which means “mountain of hell,” rises above the valley and provides a gorgeous view as it glows red during sunset. Wind and rain have carved the sandstone, mudstone, and limestone into a valley of unique geological formations in various earthy tones. It was just erosion that revealed the hundreds of fossils in the first place. Since then, archaeologists have worked with great care to excavate many more fossils that were not revealed naturally by erosion.
Although it’s an UNESCO World Heritage Site, it only receives about 1,000 visitors per year, making it one of travel’s best-kept secrets because it’s basically in the middle of nowhere, deep in the desert southwest of Cairo. Nevertheless, tourism is growing in the area, and the only way visitors can even see the site is with a guided tour. The area now features a public park and a campsite for tourists to stay in.
Visiting Wadi Al-Hitan makes for a pretty cool day trip from Cairo. Tourists can make the two hour drive along the main highway and take a guided tour of the valley by foot, camel, or four-wheel-drive. Those who wish to stay longer can stay at the campsite provided by the valley.