Farafra Oasis: An alternative Egyptian holiday
By Rowan El Shimi
At the end of a drive through the desert with sand on either side of you, glancing for hours on the road ahead with the endless landscapes of soft sand, rocks, and mountains, you will find yourself arriving at your destination, the oasis of Farafra, a place truly like no other.
|Sunset while driving to Farafra||The road to Farafra|
Spending a few days in Farafra during your visit to Egypt is a great idea. Farafra is a town that offers many interesting sights to see such as a forest in the middle of the desert, natural hot spring baths, a visit of the ruins of the ancient Qasr el Farafra and a museum capturing the culture of Farafra through the art of a self-taught local artist. Also, it is a great place to stay in when visiting the White Desert, which is only 40 kilometers away.
Farafra is an oasis, or rather a small town, where a mere 7,000 people live (practically nothing compared to Egypts capital of 17 million). In the past, Farafra was a place where the Farafronis from the area lived, grasping on to their connection with their cultural heritage, which is visible in the architecture of the oasis. Most people lived in one floor clay brick houses, with rooftops made of wicker, in compact streets all around Farafras fortress (Qasr El Farafra). During attacks from other tribes, the people of Farafra would go into the 120 packed together rooms within the fortress for shelter. The fortress collapsed in 1958, following some intense rain (which is extremely rare in Farafra) and now all that remains are the ruins of the fortress and the houses there. You can read more about Farafras ancient history here. During the past 15 years though, Farafra saw many changes in both its culture and architecture due to massive immigration from Upper Egypt and the Nile valley to it. Now, Farafra is more of a town than an isolated community where you can find people from various backgrounds from around Egypt, buildings up to three floors high and paved streets. Most of Farafras income is based on farming, herding and some on tourism.
|Farming in Farafra in the middle of the desert||Farafra with its various building styles|
Qasr El Farafra
This is where the old city of Farafra was located within the fortress. All that remain are the ruins of the fortress, still, it does make an interesting walk within the ruins trying to imagine the generations of Farafronis using this as shelter and protection from external aggression. Not to mention that there is a small hill inside the fortress that you can climb and from there you see the view of the old houses, new red brick houses, the greenery and the desert. If you visit the Qasr on a Thursday morning, you can catch the market where locals sell fruits, vegetables and other products. The Farafroni women usually handle the market.
Qasr El Farafra ruins
Truly one of the very interesting places to visit while in Farafra, Badr build the museum himself in the traditional Farafroni way with clay bricks, narrow doors, and a large courtyard in the middle. Badr is a self-taught artist, and is the first from the oasis natives to exhibit his work in Cairo and abroad. His museum aims to shed light on Farafroni history, culture and traditions, as well as use his sculptures, sand, oil and watercolor paintings to capture the suffering of different peoples around the world. Badr also holds workshops where he teaches his guests how to paint with sand and practice sculpture making.
|The artist with one of his sand paintings||The museum from inside built in the typical Farafroni way||Badrs work remembering Farafras edlers and leading characters|
A great walk to take in Farafra is near the fortress where you walk into a piece of land full of palm trees that stretch many meters up, creating a small eco system that feels like youre in the middle of a forest. Farafroni families own the palm trees, and at the entrance of this place you can find a well with natural water that you can drink from.
Palm trees and creeks in the middle of the desert
Hot Spring Baths
Farafra as an oasis, has various wells that are used to irrigate lands, and bring water into the community. Driving (or walking if youre up for it!) a mere five kilometers outside of the main Farafra area, you can find Well 6 and Well 7 where you can bathe in the natural hot springs in the middle of the desert. Most locals go swim there during the day. However, I would highly recommend the swim at sunset so you can relax and marvel at the beautiful pink, orange, purple and blue colors of the sky during that time of the day and also avoid intense heat. Another option is to do it at night, since you can bathe in the hot springs under a sky full of stars with shooting starts flying left and right and the Milky Way galaxy stretching above you.
The White Desert
A protected area in Egypt, the White Desert consists of rock formations that rise up from the mostly white surface of the desert. Though there are many beautiful trips to the deserts of Egypt, and each unique in their own way, the White Desert is definitely the most interesting. These rock formations have quirky shapes like a rabbit and a chicken, but with a vivid imagination you can see even more random shapes in these rocks. Spending a night in the White Desert, with the stars and moon reflecting the light off the white surface of the ground, is truly a majestic experience. You can even enjoy a night under the stars with Bedouin food and music.
White Desert at Sunset
Where to stay
There are three hotels in Farafra: Aqua Sun, Sunrise and Badwiya hotel. Aqua Sun is a bit outside of the city, but next to Well 6. Sunrise is similar to Badawiya and cheaper, though not as nice. Badawiya hotel is built all on one floor, with rooms in the shape of domes and all the walls inside the rooms are painted on and has photos of Farafra and the White Desert. It is very clean, with good food and great staff. Highly recommended to stay in.
|Entrance of Badawiya hotel||View from rooftop of hotel|
Where to Eat
Any of the hotels will have meals there, but for a more authentic experience, go down to the restaurants in the main street of Farafra. They offer Egyptian-home cooked food like rice, vegetables with tomato sauce and spices, along with grilled chicken or fried meat. Samirs restaurant has the most variety in dishes, and the food is quite good! After eating you can head down to the Montaza Cafe in the newly opened park on the main street where you can enjoy a shisha in the hang out place of the local youth.
Shopping in Farafra
Although not exactly a shoppers paradise, Farafra does offer some alternative shopping options. In the Badawiya hotel they sell some handicrafts like bracelets, clothes, scarfs and other things from the non-governmental organisation Hayat, that works to encourage the creation of handicrafts by local artisans, especially women. You can also find a variety of products in their headquarters. Another famous Farafra character is Mr.Socks. He makes wool socks and scarves, which are perfect for the deserts intensely cold nights.
Farafra is a place that you just fall in love with, for the purity of its people, the simplicity of it, and the various (and mostly random) activities it offers. A must see if you want to see something alternative to what you expected Egypt to be.