Morocco’s rugged High Atlas region, and the desert that lies just to the east, is home to some of the country’s most raw and spectacular landscapes. Villages nestle in deep valleys or more precariously cling to mountain slopes. Snow-capped peaks glisten on the horizon, as beneath a carpet of lush green fields roll before you. This is Morocco’s number one destination for outdoor activities and its hiking and mountain biking attractions bring thousands of outdoor enthusiasts here every year. Even if sweating isn’t your thing, this region has plenty to offer. The Kasbahs of Ouarzazate, Ait Ben Haddou, Tifoultoute and Telouet should convince even the most seasoned city slicker that there are plenty of things to do.
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1 of Ben Haddou
The astonishingly beautiful Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah has to be one of Morocco’s most photogenic buildings. Set amidst a field of almond trees, the voluminous, orange adobe walls look as if it has sprung organically from the ground. As one of the finest mud-built buildings in the country, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The beauty has captivated Hollywood for decades with scenes from Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth and Gladiator all filmed here. Climbing up the kasbah turrets gives you a panoramic view of the village.
Location: 30 kilometers from Ouarzazate
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Ouarzazate is located at the crossroads between the Draa, Dades and Ziz Valleys and is home to the beautiful Taourirt Kasbah. Surrounded by dramatic scenery beloved by film crews (scenes from Gladiator, Kundun and Alexander the Great were all filmed in the surrounding countryside), this town has become a popular base for excursions into the High Atlas. The weekly magazine Sunday market is a vibrant affair that sells everything from manufacturing to crafting. Don’t miss it if you are in town at the time. Taourirt Kasbah is the only real sight in the city. Built in the 19th century, the Kasbah was used extensively in the early 20th century by the Glaoui family, who ruled much of this region at the time.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ouarzazate
Often visited by day trippers from Marrakesh, Telouet’s Kasbah is a mighty mountaintop eyrie. Although it was only built in the early 20th century, it is a bizarre medieval-style castle built by the Glaoui family as their home. It’s an atmospheric place with a maze of rooms inside that still retain some of their original luxurious decorations. From Telouet there are excellent 4WD and hiking opportunities in the Ounila Valley and you can explore small villages that dot the Mellah River. In particular, don’t miss it Anmiter with its crumbling Kasbah.
From Tifoultoute Kasbah is a beautifully well preserved mudbrick fort with stunning views from the tops of its towers, where storks can often be seen nesting. This Kasbah, built in the early 20th century, like that of Ouarzazate, was built for the Glaoui family who once ruled this area. It is very easy to combine a day trip from Ouarzazate to both Tifoultoute and Ait Ben Haddou, giving you a great overview of the Kasbah architecture of the High Atlas.
5 Ouzoud Falls
Not far from town Azilal, these beautiful waterfalls are one of Morocco’s top natural attractions and are popular with both local tourists (who come here for a weekend picnic) and foreign travelers. If you are lucky enough to reach the cascades after a lot of rain, the water runs a reddish brown creating a very dramatic and rather otherworldly effect. The lush countryside here is home to many different shades of green, adding to the calming and tranquil feel of this little corner of Morocco.
6 Dades Valley
The Dades Valley is one of the premier hiking and trekking destinations in Morocco due to the strange rock formations and breathtaking mountain scenery in the canyon. Nature lovers should keep their eyes peeled for eagles and bearded sightings, while trekking fans will simply love the empty trails here.
Several interesting villages are in the vicinity. El Kelaa M’Gouna dorp is the center of Morocco’s rose growing area (used for the famous rose essence), and being here in the spring when the flowers bloom is delightful. A souk is held here every Wednesday. The village Azlag is known for producing the most finely crafted daggers in the country, and is home to approximately 120 working blacksmiths. The kasbah is the main attraction in the village.
7 Todra Gorge
Surrounded by massive pink and orange hued rock walls, the 14-kilometer-long Todra Gorge is a great place to visit and is Morocco’s premier mountaineering destination. While many people come here on four-wheel drive tours, it’s best to experience the canyon. There are cafes and other facilities along the gorge, as well as a number of accommodations. And if you’ve spent too much time in the cities during your travels, this tranquil setting makes for a particularly peaceful retreat.
8 Draa Valley
The Draa Valley is the gateway to one of Morocco’s most famous desert dune fields, but the valley itself is a very interesting place to visit, with the architecture of Kasbah and Ksour (fortified village) and landscape of palm trees. The villages all along the valley are home to well-preserved ksour.
Agdz in Tamnougalt are the best places to stop and visit this ancient ksour, and at the end of the valley you will notice Zagora – an excellent base for excursions, with good accommodation options – and Tamegroute, home to a famous mosque and its influential medersa (madrassa: Islamic school of learning), with a library collection of beautiful illuminated Qurans. This village is also known for its characteristic green and brown pottery. Green is obtained from manganese and copper, while brown comes from antimony and copper. Prices here can’t be beaten.
9 Ourika Valley
One of the easiest parts of the High Atlas region to visit from Marrakesh (within easy reach for weekenders and day-trippers), the Ourika Valley is one of Morocco’s most popular regions for outdoor activities. Surrounded by lush green fields, this valley offers beautiful waterfalls and excellent hiking trails. The village Setti Fatma is a good basis for further explorations and also the start of it Djebel Yagour trekwhich usually takes three days.