Touring the High Atlas Mountains and Ait-Benhaddou

When you ask someone about Morocco, most people will tell you about the Sahara, the mystical medinas and the amazing food. I myself didn’t expect to see any snow or mountains while I was here. Surprise, surprise. Morocco is home to the Atlas Mountains which run like a spine through the middle of the country and separate the cities of Marrakech, Rabat, and Casablanca from the Sahara desert. Any trip to Morocco wouldn’t be complete without a stop at some of the towns in the Atlas Mountains. I crossed through the middle Atlas on my way from Fez to Merzouga and that was one of the highlights of my Moroccan odyssey (read about it here). The city of Marrakech (which I will blog about next) is a great base to do some more exploring of the Atlas range and the beautiful towns in the mountains and I highly recommend setting aside a day (or two) to exploring them.

Stunning mountain scenery, hairpin curves, and the High Atlas near Tiz-n-Tichka Pass

The citadel of Ait-Benhaddou

Me and my then girlfriend (now wife!) rented a 4×4 with a driver for a whole day to explore the area. We booked our trip through Discover Morocco tours. Highly recommended and the driver was very professional, we had a lot of fun talking to him about the day to day life in Morocco. He suggested a lot of other off the beaten path destinations in Morocco where you could trek to in the Atlas range and also invited us to stay at his home in a village in the Atlas Mountains where he is originally from. This friendly nature of Moroccans was a hallmark of my trip and we were always greeted and treated in the most cheerful manner and with a lot of warmth all throughout the country.

Scenery along the way

We set off from Marrakech at around 8am and within 30 mins we were out of the city and climbing up the steep, narrow and twisty roads of the Atlas Mountains. The road goes through the famous Tiz-n-Tichka pass which has some stunning scenery and red rock mountains carved out by the narrow roads. We stopped for breakfast at what I can say is the Moroccan version of a “dhaba” and it’s here that I first had Shakshuka(which is now amongst my favorite dishes and I make it regularly at home). I didn’t know the name of the dish at the time possibly because I misheard it when our guide was ordering it for me or couldn’t understand it when the server bought it out to our table. To date it is probably the best Shakshuka I’ve had, the piping hot tomato curry and two fresh eggs baked in them, all this while being surrounded by tall red-hued mountains in all directions. I sadly didn’t take a picture, probably because I was so hungry I gobbled the food as soon as it came.

The red hued mountains of the High Atlas

After the hearty breakfast we continued and made a pit stop at a women’s cooperative that made beauty products out or argan oil. I think this is a hallmark of all tours in this region and its good if you are interested to buy anything of that sort, but they don’t force you in any way so you can have a quick 15 min look around and keep going. I actually found the location very interesting because on the other side of the valley from the co-op were some unique ruins of old settlements that looked as though they had been carved straight out of the mountains.

Centuries old civilization

A couple of hours of more hair raising turns, mountain passes and snakey roads later we were at Ait-Benhaddou. The mountainous roads here deserve a lot of praise. Its a petrol head’s dream come true to be able to drive on the ribbon like asphalt here. It would be a dream to drive a mid engined sports car with a ton of grip and good cornering on these roads. The trio of Jeremy Clarkson, Hammond and James May shot one of the episodes of The Grand Tour on these very roads, which underlines its sheer driving pedigree. It’s not for the faint hearted though.

Motoring nirvana!

Ok, back to the kasbah of Ait-Benhaddou. Before we headed to the kasbah, we enjoyed an amazing lunch at a cafe which looked straight out of the Arabian nights. A hearty meal of lamb kebabs later we walked to the kasbah of Ait-Benhaddou.

A Colorful Moroccan Cafe

Juicy Lamb Kebabs!!

There is a tricky stream to cross before the imposing kasbah comes to view. It is best known to most people as the set of such blockbuster movies like Ben-Hur, Gladiator, Game of Thrones (Meereen), Prince of Persia, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Hawk Down and many many others.

That’s quite a list!

Entrance to Ait-Benhaddou

The kasbah is beautiful in a stark way, with its light brown alleyways filled with souvenir shops, movie props and homes of the native Berbers who still live there! You can feel the grandeur of the place from centuries ago and can imagine a tall warrior thundering down any of the small alleyways at any moment, such is the place. Forty five minutes to an hour are more than enough to explore the inside of the kasbah and you can go outside to enjoy the view of the whole citadel as a whole, it looks mighty impressive and pictures don’t do it justice.


Painting from saffron soaked paint, which is heated to reveal the painting.. magical stuff!

Sunset from the citadel
More views from the ramparts of Ait Benhaddou

This being towards the end of our Morocco trip, we didn’t want to over do the travelling so we headed back to Marrakech. If you have a couple of hours more, a great detour to make is to head on to Ouarzazate and visit the Atlas Studios. They have a great many film sets on display there which should be of interest if you are a film buff. The drive back was along the same road but we had a great time chatting with our driver and learning more about Morocco. All in all, a great day trip from Marrakech. If you have more flexibility in your itinerary you can visit Merzouga (and camp in the Sahara) via Ouarzazate from Marrakech and continue onto Fez instead of taking the train to Fez via Rabat. That way you get to see more of the beautiful Moroccan countryside. Stay tuned for the next blog which will be about the mystical city of Marrakech! Also, take a look at my post covering the blue pearl, Chefchaouen.

All images in this post are copyright and cannot be downloaded, copied or used without permission of the author.

1 thought on “Touring the High Atlas Mountains and Ait-Benhaddou”

  1. Pingback: Mystical Marrakech – MeanderingSoles

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