Believe it or not, you haven’t really experienced authentic Morocco unless you’ve traveled off the country’s beaten path through the Atlas Mountains. This is the Morocco that deserves the most recognition for its immeasurable beauty and traditionalism.
You hear a lot about Marrakech, Fes, Tangir, Rabat and other charming Moroccan cities. But the finest gems lie in the land of the Atlas mountains and Sahara desert. This is the Morocco that left the biggest impact on me as a traveler and individual. It’s the land of traditional Moroccan Berbers, where you’ll experience their fascinating culture and relive history.
Our guide, Mohammed, arrived early that morning. His scent, a fresh mix of dates, honey and musky oud. Oud (or oudh) is the oil from agarwood. It’s used in Arabic countries as perfume. “Assalamu Alaykum, I am so pleased to meet you,” he said beaming from ear to ear. He helped us with our things and off we drove into the most authentic parts of Morocco.
Authentic Morocco: Life in the High Atlas Mountains
The High Atlas Mountains are a series of the greatest mountain ranges in North Africa. Undoubtedly, they make up the most beautiful region of Morocco. They are also home to the Berbers, the indigenous Moroccan people. In fact, around 80% of all Moroccans are born Berber. But, only about half of them live the authentic Berber lifestyle.
Driving through the High Atlas Mountains was one of the highlights of my Moroccan experience. I’ve never seen this kind of natural beauty anywhere in my life. The stark contrast of colours in the landscape is mesmerizing. But the zebra-like layers of rock formation simply blew my mind. It looks like it belongs on another planet.
Far away from Morocco’s urban core, life is simple here. Homes and mosques made of mud, sand and straw lay the foundation for Berber villages. Berbers wander along mule paths carrying large pales of water and milk back to their homes. Both ancient and fascinating, this is the authentic Morocco that Marrakech or any other city can’t offer. It’s North Africa’s leading destination for hikers, mountaineerers and adventurers seeking to experience life on the road less traveled.
Authentic Morocco: Kasbah du Pacha el Glaoui of Telouet
As we drove along the Tizi-N-Tichka pass through the Atlas mountains, I felt a sudden wave of nausea. The serpentine road and change in altitude got to me. Mohammed stopped for a quick break and fresh air at the village of Telouet.
Across from us was a rundown and what seemed like a very old fortress. Mohammed pointed out that it’s actually fairly young and built in the early 20th century. The people hated the despot leader, el Glaoui, who had built it and lived in it. After his death, a mob looted the Kasbah and left it torn apart. We opted in for a private tour.
Some parts of the Kasbah are properly looked after. There are several gorgeous rooms that represent Moorish architecture and Andalusian style. But unfortunately, many areas are collapsing. The decaying passageways make it difficult to see and walk through. But the maintained areas illustrate the luxury and beauty of local architecture.
Rarely do travelers find their way to it. But, the Kasbah is a gem that waits to be explored before it crumbles down.
Authentic Morocco: When Nature Calls …
After scrambling our way out of the Kasbah, I decided that it would be smart to visit the public bathroom before getting into Mohammed’s 4×4. I’ll spare you the hideous details of what I found when I walked in. Let’s just say it was a like a war-zone in there and not for the faint-hearted. But I managed to come out alive and a stronger individual with an experience that’ll stay with me for life…
A quick note to travelers regarding washroom breaks in the Berber Villages. Unless you’re stopping into a restaurant or hotel, prepare to pay for using the public washrooms. Also make sure to have following on you:
- Water – Stock up on water bottles because the public bathrooms don’t have running water.
- Hand sanitizer – Liquid or wipes are fine.
- Toilet paper – Buy a few rolls in the market before you leave for your trip. You won’t find any in the bathrooms either.
- A strong heart – Need I say more?
Authentic Morocco: Lights, Camera and… Ait Benhaddou
At the foothills of the High Atlas mountains, lies an authentic ancient Moroccan town. The Ksar Ait Benhaddou was once a busy trading post along the route that linked ancient Sudan to Marrakesh. Today this fortified town stands abandoned, with only a few Berber families living in it.
As a UNESCO world heritage site, Ait Benhaddou holds a lot of historical importance. The techniques used to build the Ksar are traced back to the 17th century. It’s a fascinating example of pre-Saharan architecture of Southern Morocco. But, it also serves as a historical reminder of the importance of trade for Moroccan Berbers. They were the ones that influenced early commerce by establishing trading routes between West Africa and Sub-Saharn regions.
With his turban breezing in the wind, Mohammed began telling us about Ait Benhaddou. It was founded by Ben-Haddou, whose tomb he said, supposedly lies somewhere behind the town. The Ksar is a protected representation of Southern Moroccan culture. But today, it also has a different purpose.
“You have seen ‘Gladiator’ movie, right?” Mohammed asked.
“Of course I have. It’s one of my favourites,” I responded.
Movie buffs will recognize Ait Benhaddou from “Lawrence of Arabia”, “The Gladiator” and “Jesus of Nazareth”. With some ‘cosmetic’ Hollywood touch-ups, this is the home for many Hollywood movies that are set in the desert.
Authentic Morocco: The Doorway to the Sahara
Our day ended in the city of Ouarzazate, the doorway to the Sahara desert. Ouarzazate literally means “without noise”. But ironically, Ouarzazate is very loud.
“Many Hollywood movies are shot here. Famous actors come here to sleep and work. This is Morocco’s “LA”. It used to be quiet. Today, it’s very loud,” he explained.
Exhausted from our long day with Mohammed, we retired in a traditional Moroccan Riad. But first, I took an amazing and very long hot shower. After all, it was the only thing I yearned for all day after walking into that bathroom in Teloet.
The adventure doesn’t end here. Stay tuned to ‘Experience Authentic Morocco: Day 2 off the Beaten Path’. I’ll continue my story of meeting Mohammed’s Berber family and experiencing authentic Berber hospitality. I’ll also write about my experience in the Todgha Gorges and camel trek in the Sahara desert.
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