A Day in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

From a rooftop in Marrakech in the early morning sun, the Atlas Mountains are just visible in the distance. At first glance, it’s a trick of the light, a mirage, you don’t really believe they’re there. They would barely be visible at all if it wasn’t for the sunlight catching on the snowy peaks, evidence of the cold winters that Marrakech, though that’s also difficult to believe when it’s 17 degrees at 8am in March, and will rise to 28 degrees later on in the day. The mountains, I think, are what distinguish Marrakech from being just a city in a barren desert. On the plane, it’s the flat landscape that’s most noticeable, but here on the ground, looking out across the rest of Morocco, the mountains are most prominent and you forget there’s desert there at all.

When I booked to go to Marrakech, I decided that I would have to visit the Atlas Mountains, if only for a day. It’s possible to stay in luxurious hotels in the mountain valleys for the full, remote experience (one resort in particular is owned by Richard Branson), but, for me, it was good enough to just have a day there. On TripAdvisor, there are plenty of day trips at very reasonable prices available that will whisk you away to the mountains, and that include all manner of activities including camel riding, mule riding, visits to local villages, lunches with the local Berber people, or visits to farms. As it stood, we had chosen one particular trip that advertised itself as ‘Atlas Mountains and Berber Villages with Short Camel Ride Day Trip from Marrakech’. I was skeptical at first. Once the tickets were booked, we really had no control over the day—were forced to go wherever our guide went and do whatever our guide did—and if it was boring, or not what was advertised, that was our fault for falling for it in the first place.

We’d been told to meet at a cafe in Jmaa el-Fnaa square at 9am on the morning in question. I was already concerned about this one required step—we’d only been in Marrakech a day, and I didn’t feel too confident in my ability to get from the hotel to the square in less than 30 minutes, let alone find the specific cafe we needed after that. Luckily, Cafe Argana is a popular pick up point for day trippers, and there were already three minibuses parked outside when we got there just after 9. After a short detour to pick up some hapless tourists who had got the wrong pick up address, we were on our way, heading due south directly towards the mountains. Our guide, Omar, told us that it would be about two-hours until we were in the Atlas Mountains, but that’s because we still had a few stops planned before we got there—the first of which, a local Berber market.

If Jmaa el-Fnaa market during the day was intense, the local market early in the morning was something else. Thousands of stalls stacked in a walled-off area, comprising everything from meat and fish, clothing, nuts, seeds, spices, and fruit and veg. This isn’t the touristy souks of Marrakech Medina, but a true local market, where villagers from miles around will come weekly to get their food. We sat in a small tent while our guide ordered some bread, meat and peppermint tea, listening to the sounds of haggling and pleasantries exchanged between the locals and the merchants. On the way out we see the real backbone of the market, in the form of the hundreds of mules used to carry the goods in the morning.

Driving still further towards the mountains, the landscape starts to change—gradually, it becomes more hilly, and then all of a sudden, the desert simply falls away, and green hills take its place. We stop at a pleasant vista to take pictures of a traditional village over the valley, a place where the native Berber community has lived alongside a Jewish community for over 400 years. I’m overcome by a feeling that I’m not really standing there at all, or perhaps what I’m seeing isn’t real—everything looks like a movie set, a feeling I also experienced walking through the Medina in the centre of Marrakech. In fact, our guide is quick to tell us that Tom Cruise filmed Mission Impossible on these very roads, something he seems quite proud of. It’s a landscape well suited to Hollywood, a ready-made film set, something slightly magical and unreal.

But it wasn’t all views from a distance—our next stop offered us another chance to see an aspect of Berber life, as with the local souk. Argan oil, a product I’d only seen in reference to hair products, can only be produced in Morocco as the argan trees are endemic to Morocco. Tourists can visit local argan oil cooperatives in the lower reaches of the Atlas Mountains to sample the oil and witness the production process (which can also be used for cooking), where local Berber women work to produce most of the argan oil that is now sold around the world in cosmetic products. You can tell how touristy the process has become now, as hoards of tourist day trip buses like ours turn up at cooperatives—one of the women at the cooperative was put in charge of teaching us about the product and production process, reeling off a clearly practiced explanation of how it’s made (take fruit from tree, feed pulp to animal, take kernel, grind kernel for two hours to extract oil), its uses (can be used in cooking or as a treatment for the skin and hair), and the products available to purchase in the shop (balms, soaps, and bottles of scented argan oil). We were also invited to try the oil as a repast with more Moroccan flatbreads, something I was intrigued by, having only ever seen it on the side of shampoo bottles. For culinary uses, the nuts are roasted before extracting the oil, resulting in a nutty, perfume-y taste, something a little less savoury than olive oil. The oil is also used to make amlou when mixed with peanuts and honey, a dip traditionally eaten with Moroccan bread. This was basically comparable to peanut butter, but delicious nonetheless.

Olive oil, argan oil, and amlou

Though it had only just gone noon, I was already impressed with the things our group and seen and done since 9am. Now, we were really in the heart of the mountains, taking winding roads that overlooked sheer cliffs and the river valley. We passed a car that had overturned, and the bus collectively let out a groan, hoping that our driver had more sense. The rule for Moroccan roads usually seems to be ‘every man for himself,’ but it seemed our driver today understood the care needed for this environment, and crept round the mountain corners.

When I’d booked the day trip, the ‘camel riding’ part of the adventure was the least exciting to me. I’d ridden horses before when I was younger, and besides, I wasn’t quite sure of the ethics of camel-riding, especially it came to treatment of the camels. I left these concerns behind though, deciding to throw myself into it, and enjoy it all the same—and in the end, it was probably one of my favourite parts of the day. I sat at the front of the camel-queue, led by a local Berber, as the midday sun shone down and the Atlas Mountains peeked out from behind hills and trees. This seemed like the proper way to experience the mountains—when in Morocco, do as the Moroccans do, so to speak.

Our guide made conversation to us as we wandered past a stream and through a valley. He picked up a tortoise; asked us what the English name was. “La tortue, in French,” he said, and I repeated. “Salihafa, in Arabic.” Again, I repeated. Finally, a word in the Berber language of Amazigh, one I don’t remember and can’t find again. He asked me how many languages I could speak; “two,” I replied. He could speak five, he said—Arabic, French, Berber, a little English, and a little Spanish. He said he loved tourists and loved his camels—”this is a good camel,” he told me, “some of the others are not.” I was pleased with this comment, trusting that my camel would not trip up like one at the back of our group had.

After readjusting ourselves to walking (camel rides are not painless, and it does feel a little unnatural), our little bus headed for Imlil, a village mainly catering to mountain tourism, as it’s the last stop tourists see before heading up Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa at 4,167m. We were here for a small hike through traditional Berber villages in the area—there were nine villages clustered around Imlil, with a total of 6,000 inhabitants. This seemed quite a lot for such a remote area, and on our little hike through further up the mountains, we saw barely any locals except for tour guides, mostly just groups of Americans on spring break. We hiked down irrigation streams, created to feed the farm land around these villages as well as the sheep that graze here, until we reached a stream, then followed that further up the mountain to a small waterfall. From almost everywhere, the mountains stayed in view, and it was hard to believe these were the peaks that seemed so distant that very morning.

I gave my camera to Omar (“I am a very good photographer,” he said) to record this moment—me standing close to the falls, water soaking the back of my legs, a welcome coolness. I quickly dried off in the sun on the walk back down the mountain, a route which took us through a field of cherry blossom trees, where I think we all experienced another moment of disbelief—cherry blossom, in Morocco? The Atlas Mountains are full of surprises.

Our little hike ended, not back where we started, which we expected, but at another little Berber village further up from Imlil, where Omar had arranged for us to have lunch. We sat on the rooftop terrace, surrounded on all sides by the Atlas Mountains, and all collectively took it in. The sun was warm, even at some 1800m above sea level, but a slight breeze took the edge off, a wind coming from the very tops of the mountains. We were served traditional Moroccan dishes—fava bean soup (bessara), tagines, and French-inspired crème caramel to finish. Afterwards, we all collapsed on the bus, a combination of tiredness, heat, and contentment. I watched the mountains fade from view, grateful for this little adventure into the mountains.

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