“This is the most famous viewpoint in all of Morocco,” said Omar, our Marrakshi guide for the day. “It is called Tizi n’Tichka pass and what you are looking at are the Atlas Mountains.”
It had taken nearly two hours of driving along some of the scariest and most nausea-inducing roads in Morocco to get there. At its highest point we were 2,260 metres above sea level. I had never seen anything like it before.
We were on our way to Ouarzazate and Ait Benhaddou, two sites made popular thanks to films and television shows like Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and of course, Game of Thrones. I was looking forward to seeing the well-preserved ksar in Ait Benhaddou and confluence of the Dra and Dadès Valleys in Ouarzazate; what I wasn’t expecting was to feel the wonder of recognizing that I was but a tiny speck among the layers of snow-capped mountain ranges and vast valleys of the High Atlas.
We stopped at Glaoua Valley to see the terraced farms in the steep Atlas valleys. As we were busying ourselves taking photos, a man in a djellaba (a long, traditional Moroccan robe worn by men and women) sitting side-saddle on his donkey rode past us. He stared at us from under his straw hat until we were out of eyesight. I wondered whether he was pleased to see us appreciating his country or confused as to what we saw in something that was commonplace for him.
After a few hours of tight corners and hairpin turns it was smooth sailing from there on. We arrived in Ait Benhaddou first, 9 kilometres down a bitumen road off Tizi n’Tichka. Omar asked us if we wanted to hire a local guide to show us around and get information but we decided against it. The group decided to have lunch, but my stomach still hadn’t settled so I decided the get on with seeing the village.
The ksar of Ait Benhaddou is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to the mud brick city that has been maintained since the 17th century. The ksar is a group of dwellings inside ramparts, which include a mosque, a square, a caravanserai, and Muslim and Jewish cemeteries. While exploring I looked up close at the walls: I could see each element (earth, pebbles, and straw) that made up every elaborate structure.
Finding my way to the top of the ksar was a feat of navigation and fortitude. It was easy to wind up on a dead end street and even easier to spend all of your money on handmade Berber wares, especially when there someone beckoning you into their shop for “Just a look!” at every turn.
At the top a man played his ginbri, a traditional Berber instrument with two or three strings, similar to a banjo. He wore a fez hat and a white djellaba, singing about the towns in Morocco, and waited for tourists to throw him a little baksheesh (tip). I stood along the rampart and appreciated the view: the white and grey mountains seemed painted onto the horizon above the desert.
Around 3 we made our way to Ouarzazate, just over 30 kilometres away from Ait Benhaddou. As soon as we entered the town I understood why it’s affectionately called Moroccan Hollywood. The first clue was Atlas Studios—the largest film studio in the world—followed by the roundabouts with movie-related statues in the middle, ending with the Cinema Museum in town across from the kasbah.
Ouarzazate’s kasbah is over one hundred years old, and while it is outdone by the ksar in Ait Benhaddou it’s still worth a visit. The museum, mud architecture, and the palace belonged to the Glaoui family – the main rulers of the Atlas region in the 19th and 20th centuries. I took a walk around Tassoumate and the river bank to see kids playing soccer and women baking bread in the community oven.
The sun was setting as we drove back to Marrakech, making the mountains glow with colour I had never seen before. At every turn throughout the day trip, the landscapes just seemed so surreal – the dusty hills scattered with shrubs, mountains that seemed digitally retouched… Spectacular! After seeing how they’ve preserved history and continued traditions, I understood why this country has been the destination of choice for science fiction and historical films.
This post was originally published on Viator’s Things to Do blog, as they covered the cost of the day trip and paid me for writing and photography!