We spent our first week in Morocco mainly enjoying the countryside. We had a couple of days in Marrakech to look around the Medina (old neighborhood) and the souks – it was nice, but not a place I would go back to. I have mainly enjoyed getting out of the bigger cities with crowds of people and having to be on edge from the pickpockets. We went to a small town in the High Atlas Mountains called Imlil. The town was small – one road, many donkeys. This was a popular starting point for trekkers who wanted to climb Northern Africa’s tallest peak – Jebel Toubkai at 4167 meters. I’m sure it surprises all of you to find out that I didn’t climb this peak! Instead, I did some good Morocco treks with the Intrepid Travel group into Berber villages.
Meet Berbers in Morocco
Berbers are essentially the hill tribes of Morocco. Some live in mud houses, some live in caves, and some even have normal houses – the Berbers take all forms and, as you would expect of any hill tribe people – they are hearty. They were also a great reminder on why you should wear sunscreen everyday! The countryside was stunning and the hikes were challenging – mainly because it was HOT, there were no trees, and once again…no clouds. You learn to appreciate every little bit of shade you can get in this country! Our guest house in Imlil was basic and cute. Like most hotels/homes it had a big gathering area with long couches and bunches of cushions to simply lounge around on. Our dinner was prepared by the young boys that worked there who then they came out and asked us if we wanted to hear some Berber music. In my head I was imagining them turning on this great chill music that would fill the lounge area and create the perfect mood – so we agreed to the music offer. Instead, the 3 teenage boys came out with 2 pots, and one frying pan; they sat down and started drumming away on the pots and pans and singing!
Trekking The Atlas Mountains of Morocco – Getting There
We left Imlil and headed towards the Quarzazate in the middle Atlas Mountains. The bus trip was long and hot, but when we arrived in Quarzazate our leader, Karina, took us to the local grocery store and there is was, behind the counter…alcohol! Most of Morocco is a dry country – but there are a few places that you can purchase booze – when you find those places, you stock up! Unfortunately this added to my already heavy luggage, but it was worth it! That night we went and toured the Atlas Movie Studios where they had filmed parts of The Gladiator, Kundun, Alexander the Great, and Lawrence of Arabia. Basically – if you are producing a movie and you need a place to shoot a desolate, desert scene or an ancient kasbah – you come to Atlas Studios. The tour was ok, very simple – walk around the old sets and hear some stories. Not quite like Universal Studios with King Kong…but it was entertaining.
We then went on to see the famous Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou – a World Heritage Site. It was a fun climb to the top of the Kasbah for sunset. We then were treated to a cooking demonstration by a Action Couscous. I honestly don’t know his real name…he just went by Action Couscous – and he was as entertaining as his name. Apparently, like many of the locals around there that were fluent in English, he had been an extra in many of the movies filmed around there; he was a star of sorts…I guess. He would speak in movie terms and generally would crack us up. The Moroccan people are hard to crack…but when you do get by the rather stand-offish façade, you realize that they are extremely friendly and funny. The hard part is getting through the shell. I don’t think Action Couscous had a shell. In the end, we drank our wine (that we carried with us from the grocery store), learned how to make chicken tanjine and chicken couscous and had some good laughs.
We next took off for the Todra Gorge. I really didn’t know what to expect from this, but as I stepped out of the Grand Taxi and looked up I was surrounded by high cliffs that glowed orange in the late day sun. It was stunning. It was also rather remote. Our hotel didn’t have electricity except for a few hours in the night. There was one internet café in town, Karina pointed it out to me as we drove by in the taxi…”It’s just up the riverbed and to the left”. Ahhh – this would be interesting…I had never been to an internet café in a riverbed before. The real beauty of this area was the excellent hiking trails around the gorge. In the early morning we took off on a 5 hr hike with spectacular views of the gorge. We were entertained by the calls of the goats in the mountains which sounded like crying children. We would try to rest under any little shady spot we could as we climbed high to the top of the gorge. This often meant huddling behind a large rock – where it was about 15 degrees cooler than the exposed mountainside. Looking back at the valley behind us made all the sweating worth it – a grand landscape.
Trekking and Cultural Immersion
We stopped at a little Berber family’s tent/cave and had some wild thyme mint tea. Mint tea is the national drink in Morocco; however, Moroccans LOVE their sugar, so it’s mint tea with about 3 tables spoons of sugar in it…what’s not to love. The Berber life in the mountains was certainly a rough one. They kept goats, wove rugs to sell, lived in tents in the summer and in caves in the winter and always slept on the ground – there was no furniture – only rugs that served at a couch and bed.
As we descended back into the gorge, we had a spectacular view of the Palmeries- palm tree plantations – on the valley floor. Basically, your whole surroundings were rock and dirt, and then at the valley floor there was this swath of pure green. The whole Todra Gorge area had diverted the water from the Wadi Todra (river) into little viaducts and had planted lush green fields of vegetables and herbs surrounded by tons of palm trees. It was a true oasis in the desolate landscape. The contrasting colors were astounding.
After our hike, we celebrated by taking our bottles of booze to a nearby hotel that had a pool and lounged by the pool the rest of the day! However, you had to lounge in the shade as the direct sun was just too much to take. The bottle of vodka that we bought went quickly as we stayed there for dinner that night and enjoyed the Berber drumming music and songs (with proper drums this time). We danced, we played musical chairs, we finished all of the booze we were carrying with us and we somehow got involved in a huge pool party in which everyone was thrown into the pool fully dressed! I did manage to stay dry by holding on to the bongo drums…whew. As my Intrepid Travel crew drove back to our hotel that night dripping wet, we all agreed – our first week in Morocco had exceeded all of our expectations!