The Shining Gem of Africa’s High Atlas Mountains – Ait Benhaddou

Disclaimer: Some of our articles may contain affiliate links; when you click on these links you'll have the option to purchase or register for a service at no extra cost to you, but doing so can help us offset the costs associated with running this blog. Thank you for your support!
The fortified city of Ait Benhaddou

The Ksar of Ait Benhaddou located in the majestic High Atlas Mountains of Morocco is a must-do on any North African itinerary.

Road Trip – Sahara Desert in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco

Our Moroccan road trip had been more exciting and full of surprises than we could have anticipated. We’d been awed by the sheer beauty of the Morocco in places like Volubulis, El Jadida, Chefchaouen, and Essaouira. We’d been overwhelmed at the chaotic energy of the Marrakesh food stalls, the Berber market in Azrou, and the Fez souk, but our next stop had us all sitting on the edge of our seats…for real! As we drove, or should I say careened, through the winding roads of the High Atlas mountains we enjoyed the snow-capped mountains, the sheep trucks, the almost green valleys, and the friendliness of all the people we passed. We were headed to Ait Benhaddou, another world heritage site to check off the list.

Game of Thrones City in Morrocco

This was our goal, Ait Benhaddou, or nowadays thanks to Game of Thrones, it might be better known as Yunkai. Actually, the city has been featured in many other full-feature films as well. How could anyone, let alone a movie producer, not want to go here?  It’s one of those places that doesn’t seem real, a place of make-believe and dreams. Can real people still live here? As it turns out there’s not many who still live in the old part of the city, but they certainly do go there to sell souvenirs and run small cafes. Getting here was definitely part of the fun. We had about a six hour drive from Essouira so we got on the road early, stopping to see some amazing sights along the way, such as those world-famous tree-climbing goats, and arriving in late afternoon. Perfect.

The High Atlas Mountain Range of Morocco

Driving through the snow-capped mountains of the High Atlas affords stunning views the entire way.

First Find the Hotel, Then Go Exploring

We like to get our hotel set up as soon as we arrive, so we headed straight to Kasbah Isfoula and verified that we would love to have dinner there as well. The hotel was a comfortable boutique style complete with towels curled up into swans on the foot of our bed, so we knew that we would be well taken care of while we were there. Decorated in rich Moroccan furnishings, the dining room was full of warm orange and reds, with kilims and hand woven textiles. Our dinner of chickpea soup, traditional chicken pastilla, paired with a vibrant Moroccan Merlot was amazing, but we had all that to look forward to after heading out to the ksarof  Ait Benhaddou, the old city.

Power Tip: Arriving in a destination in late afternoon always works for us, because we don’t have to wait to check into our hotel and we are arriving during some of the best light for taking photographs – the golden hour.
Ait Benhaddou and the Ounila River

Tourists and locals alike must cross the Ounila River by stepping on stones and sandbags.

A “Dangerous” River Crossing

We drove down the road, easily following the signs, and parked the car. There are no vehicles in the ksar, because there is no bridge that crosses the Ounila River. This is probably one of the main reasons that Ait Benhaddou has been able to keep its old-world charm intact. First, we had to cross the river which had rocks with sand bags covering them, making a path that you had to step from the one to the next to cross. The river, although not deep, was rushing by with a bit of a current, so to make some money the local children walk in the water holding your hand to help you across for a small tip. No matter how you feel about children begging or working in these capacities, they had smiles on their faces, and this small act also lent more credence to that colonial feeling where the tourist, all dressed up in safari gear. is waited on hand and foot. I’m not condoning it, but I have to say I don’t think it’s going to change any time soon, and as the tourist who was being helped, you look like a complete heartless git if you let them help you and not tip. It was definitely one of those many times when no matter what your feelings or your ethics, you kind of just have to go with the flow and accept it.

Save these pins for planning your Moroccan Itinerary.

Ait Benhaddou, the gem of the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco

Ait Benhaddou, the gem of the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A crenelated tower in Ait Benhaddou

Crenelations and decorations adorn the ksar of Ait Benhaddou with its world heritage pre-Saharan architecture.

The High Atlas are physically intimidating, hard to cross mountains that brood over the desert like a slumbering giant. Add to that the imposing fortress, the ksar of Ait Benhaddou, it’s many towers bristling like sharp teeth, and you can’t help but feel awed in this magical setting. After we walked through the gate with lots of hawkers, we immediately started to climb…and climb, and climb. The uneven walkways and staircases are all narrow, and the buildings being made of clay, straw, and wood have a rough-textured exterior. There were some handrails, but of course they weren’t everywhere. Since we were there in winter, it wasn’t hot at all, in fact it was a bit windy and chilly so the climb was exhilarating, but I would imagine how difficult it would be if the temperature was much warmer.

Clay pots and wooden doors hang from this building

One of the iconic souvenir shops you encounter as you climb the ksar of Ait Benhaddou.

Fossils of all sizes being sold in Ait Benhaddou

Fossils from the High Atlast Ounika Valley are one of types of souvenirs you can buy in the ksar.

Climb To The Top For the Best Views

As we climbed, we marveled at the ancient pre-Saharan architecture, where for over 500 years people have been living and trading in the ksar. Ait Benhaddou was one of the mid-points of the trading caravans that trekked from the Sudan to Marrakesh. The ksar, or group of dwellings, is surrounded by high walls with towers on the corners which were built to defend the residents. The houses within are everything from small and modest to luxurious and grand; some of them are open to visitors for a very small fee and well worth the visit.

A decorated door and archway in the Ksar Ait Benhaddou.

A decorated door and archway in the Ksar Ait Benhaddou.

Interior of traditional home in Ait Benhaddou

The interior of a traditional pre-Saharan home that you can pay a small fee to tour as you climb to the top of Ait Benhaddou.

As we wound our way up the hill to the top of the crenelated walls and towers, we were rewarded with amazing views of the fortified city and the Ounila Valley. There were plenty of opportunities to stop and buy souvenirs as well, everything from local handicrafts, postcards, to rugs. The ksar still lives up to its trading heritage.

Buildings and towers with crenalations and decorations in Ait Benhaddou

From a higher vantage point, it’s easy to see the many crenelated towers, and the clay, wood, and hay adobe that has been prominent for the last 500 years in the Ounika Valley.

A wooden door and stark shadows provoke an air of mystery

An ancient air of mystery awaits the visit to Ait Benhaddou

Moroccan waiter pouring two glasses of tea.

At the top of the ksar, an inviting glass of tea awaits.

We made it to the top a little before the sun started to set, where we were beckoned through this mysterious door to an open-air cafe so we could warm up and enjoy the views with a great glass of Moroccan tea.  Being so high up, the winds were starting to scream through the valley and warm tea was just the remedy we were looking for before we had had enough and headed down to the car.

The Ounika River and with the Ksar Ait Benhaddou as the sun is setting in the High Atlas.

The Ounika River with the Ksar Ait Benhaddou as the sun is setting in the High Atlas.

Ait Benhaddou is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have been. Not only is it completey different with its amazing history and architecture, but it feels so magical and mysterious, from a time long past. If you haven’t gone, I would highly suggest you make a plan to get here before it is forever changed.

Practical Information:

Ait Benhaddou is located in the Ouarzazate province in southern Morocco, and you have to make it through the High Atlas mountains to get there from pretty much anywhere else in the country. We came from Essouira, however most people make a dash from Marrakesh.

Getting Through the High Atlas 

Getting to Ait Benhaddou from Marrakesh: Travel in Morocco can be slow and difficult, and one of the most popular ways to get here, and probably the easiest and least time-consuming is by taking one of the many Marrakesh desert tours that are offered. A trip to Ouarzazate is usually combined with a camel trek or desert overnight or some Atlas Mountain hiking and of course the tour companies take care of getting you there. We passed only two vans full of tourists, so it’s not a bad way to go.

You can also take a bus from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate, which is a little past Ait Benhaddou, but you can take another bus from there or hire a taxi or driver. It depends on how much flexibility you want. Check schedules and prices at the CTM website.

Of course, we drove. It was part of our two weeks in Morocco road trip, and if you love to be in charge of where you go and when you stop it was really not all that bad. The biggest issue was making sure to be off the road at night. It’s dark; people wear dark clothes, and anything could be in front of you. It was just safer that way.

One of the sitting rooms of our boutique hotel outside of Ait Benhaddou

One of the sitting rooms of our boutique hotel outside of Ait Benhaddou

Where to stay and where to eat:

As I mentioned above, we stayed at the Kasbah Isfoula which I can highly recommend. There are not many places to eat other then very small cafes, so it certainly is convenient to find a place that has meals offered as well.

Are you planning a trip to Morocco?  Don’t you want to visit one of the best places in the country?  Add the ksar of Ait Benhaddou to your itinerary and experience the majesty, mystery, and beauty of the High Atlas Mountains.

Corinne and Jim posing in front of Ait Benhaddou

Save this pin for some travel inspiration or Moroccan trip planning!

Ait Benhaddou, the gem of the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco

 

44 Comments

  1. Excellent stuff Corinne. Yunkai; yep, looked super familiar. I can see why tourists would dig the spot. Not just GOT fans too. I dig your take on the kids helping you cross the river. Sometimes ego likes to disempower folks, or to believe that these kids are suffering. Maybe they are happy doing what they do. Everybody has their place in the world, and some folks would enjoy receiving money to help folks in this capacity, as well as meeting tourists every day too. Loving this post.

    Ryan

  2. Oh my! Your pics look straight out of a movie! Ahhh, I wanna go everywhere but the world is so damn big! How long have you been trekking though Africa? I wanna try that tea in the pics!

    1. Hi, I do think Morocco is a great destination, but I hear you. It’s hard to support a place that doesn’t support you. Let me know if you go, so I can pay attention to your thoughts and experiences there!

  3. Wow, your photos are out of this world. What a spectacular place! I went to Morocco earlier this year but didn’t see anything like this. Guess I’ll have to go back… 🙂

    1. Kay, I hear you. This often happens to me. I go someplace, have a great time, go home. Then I read an article of this great place to go…yes, I plan on returning. At least now I know I’m not alone. I hope you do make it to Ait Benhaddou. It’s pretty darn cool.

  4. Oh wow, I haven’t made to Morocco yet, but loved this post so much. Your photos of the souvenir shop is just stunning and I would love to see myself as one of those tourists crossing the river, stepping across on those sandbags.

  5. I love reading this post Corinne and loving your photos. I was in Morocco last year and fell in love with the place. I hope to be there again soon and I would love to explore this area. 🙂

  6. How is this place even real? No wonder it’s appeared in so many films and shows – it really captures the imagination and visually takes you back a few hundred years. The travel piece has always been of interest for us when it comes to Morocco – so I especially appreciate those travel tips, mixed in with your gorgeous photos 🙂

    1. Holly, Petra is a beautiful place as well, but completely different. In Petra there really aren’t any man-made dwellings, the people live in the caves. In Ait Benhaddou they built the houses from clay, hay, and wood. Both are fascinating destinations!

  7. Wow! Just wow! Your first photo of the Ksar of Ait Benhaddou had me wanting to visit, even before I went on to read the post. I had no idea that the Atlas Mountains of Morocco contained such treasure, and had always assumed they were more about the mountain landscape… plus as a GoT fan, of course I’m keen to visit Yunkai!! Your recommendation of Kasbah Isfoula appeals too, it looks gorgeous. This is going straight onto my To Do list!

  8. The vision of the castle, with the river below is surreal. It was fascinating to see the beautifully shaped fossils, what a great souvenir they make! Everything about Ait Benhaddou is so exotic and magical. Certainly a destination to add to the Morocco itinerary.

  9. Fantastic photos, and it looks like you had a great time! I have not been to Morocco yet but I know I will be going here if I do. I just love exploring ancient ruins / cities like this.

  10. Morocco has always been a source of great fascination for me. But I was not much aware about Ait Bennhadou. We see many posts and articles about Marrakech but not about this place. I can see that it was a totally unique experience starting with the crossing of the river which itself sounds like an adventure.

    1. Sandy, Just getting to Ait Benhaddou is an adventure…the Atlas Mountains are pretty interesting, but yes, Morocco can offer you some things that most people are not aware of. I hope you go.

Share your thoughts!