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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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