Friday, August 1, 2014

The High Atlas

Marrakech is located a little more than 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean in about the north-south centerline of Morocco. Directly north a few hours by car is Casablanca, a port city sitting right on the Atlantic, and Rabat, the capital of the country, is a little further north up the coast. In the south of the country is the western edge of the Sahara Desert, one of the defining geographical features of northern Africa but when you are in Marrakech, there is no hint of the Sahara. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of dirt and sand, but the Atlas Mountains, which run to the south and west of Marrakech, protect the city from the advancing desert, which has been spreading south across the continent. I knew before I departed Madrid for Morocco that I wouldn't be close enough to the Sahara to see it, but I also knew I wanted to see more of the country than just what the city of Marrakech had to offer. The Atlas Mountains seemed like a perfect day trip. They were.

One of the great advantages we had staying in Marrakech was the staff in our hotel, Riad l'Orangeraie. In addition to offering traditional world class comfort right in the center of the old city, the Riad also offers a series of day trips to guests of the hotel. One of the suggested excursions was a day trip across the Atlas Mountains and back which sounded like just the right day out to see another side of Morocco. We decided to spend our second day in country taking this trip as a break from the city. After an early rise and an amazing breakfast, we loaded ourselves into a car, complete with personal driver, of course, and headed west.

Our ultimate destination for our drive that day was the old city of Ait Benhaddou, a ksar on the other side of the mountains themselves. The city (and I used this term very loosely) was established centuries ago along side a former caravan route which traders used to pass from ancient Sudan en route to Marrakech. In 1997, the city was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its importance as an exemplary example of both a Saharan settlement town and for its earthen construction technique. The site is well preserved today because it has been used as a movie backdrop for a number of Hollywood films and series, notably (for me) Gladiator, Game of Thrones and Time Bandits.

The topography around Marrakech itself is fairly flat, but you can see the mountains from within the city in the not so far distance and after driving past some luxury hotels with gorgeously manicured golf courses (NOT what I went to Morocco for), the land starts to get a little rougher and you start heading uphill. Pretty soon, after passing through some residential neighborhoods and past some industrial type buildings, you leave civilization behind (such as it is in Morocco) and are climbing into the Atlas Mountains. 

Stops along the way: cafe and argan products store...
…and couscous fields and farms.
It's a good three to four hour or so drive to Ait Benhaddou so for a significant while heading out there (and then the same amount of time heading back), you are alone with the mountains and the few other cars and trucks that are making the same trip over the hills. The only signs of people you pass are Berber farmers either in their fields or selling crafts on the side of the road or roadside cafes which are sort of the Moroccan versions of convenience stores: a spot to get a drink, a quick bite to eat and to visit the bathroom (with a tip for the bathroom attendant, of course). 

The road to Ait Benhaddou twists and turns along the natural ridges of the mountains, reaching its highest point at the mountain pass of Tizi n'Tichka (pronounced tish-ka, for short). The views are incredible. There are places in which you can see no evidence of man's presence on the planet other than the road you are traveling on, which is a refreshing change after the madness and chaos of the medina in Marrakech. The panoramic photo function on my iPod camera seemed made for these types of views.

In traveling over the Atlas Mountains, it becomes pretty obvious fairly quickly how much of the Moroccan economy is focused on small farms and tourism. There's literally nothing else you pass on the road to Ait Benhaddou that provides any indication of how people survive. Two of the main staples of life in Morocco were on prominent display during our drive. Couscous, the grain that grows on man-made terraces in the mountain landscape, was evident in fields on just about every farm we passed, tended by Berber farmers using donkeys (aka Berber taxis) to both work the fields and travel from field to field. 

The other staple, argan, a nut native to Morocco and no other country in the world, is not eaten as a fruit but is instead used to make oil for cosmetic and food use. As a restorative skin and hair treatment, argan oil is sold worldwide by international corporations in stores like Sephora at fairly exorbitant prices ($48 for a 1.7 ounce bottle). In Morocco, the same oil is hand ground and sold by women's collectives in the stores and stalls you pass when driving through the mountains, along with argan honey. If you look closely when on the road you can see collections of beehives in what look like white cardboard file boxes in the grassy areas on the sides of the mountains.

Driving through the mountains reminded me very much of driving through the American southwest, particularly New Mexico, which is touched by the Rocky Mountains in the north central part of the state. Like New Mexico, the foliage in the Atlas Mountains is limited and the red, brown and yellow colors of the earth are pretty spectacular. When I drove through New Mexico a dozen or so years ago, I remember thinking that if you took away the road I was driving on, I would see pretty much the same thing as the first white visitor to that part of the globe. I felt the same way about this part of Morocco.

Ait Benhaddou.
After a few beautiful hours, we finally reached Ait Benhaddou. The city these days is pretty much like a museum. There are few residents who actually live in the unheated/cooled, unplumbed Berber houses (although some do). The city fills up each morning with people moving in for the day to sell rugs, crafts, paintings and other items and they go away at night back to the place where they live. There is a ten foot or so wide unpaved path that winds around the town and up the top of the hill. The whole place is made from earth and reeds, with the exception of the stone building at the top of the hill which our driver and guide described to us as having a ceremonial function for the ruler of the city, which as we now understand it was a rotating selected position among all the citizens of the ksar. 

The place is worth an hour or so visit; it's not that big to spend too much more time than that unless you really get into looking at everything for sale there. Having our driver with us to explain for us what we were seeing and to take us to some spots we might miss was essential; way better than just roaming around for ourselves. That didn't work that well for us in the Bahia Palace in Marrakech. Ultimately, we didn't end up buying anything from any of the stalls (traveling light) but the carpets are authentic; we watched someone making a piece of one for a few minutes inside one of the buildings in the city.

For me, the worst part of any driving destination is the trip home, and the return four hours or so trip back to Marrakech was no exception. I mean, you have already seen everything there is to see because you've already passed it once so there's no sense of anticipation or discovery. But there's no way around it and there's no alternate route through the mountains. I'm glad we were in a small car; some of those roads are small, especially when passing trucks or other larger vehicles. We came around one corner to find a truck in our lane negotiating the turn. There are no guardrails on some of these roads, just a few hundred feet drop five feet or so away.

I'm also glad we sprang for a driver, rather than just renting a car and making the trip ourselves. The driving part wouldn't have been that bad, even as narrow and twisty as the road was. But the five traffic stops by the armed police or the Moroccan Royal Gendarmerie that we passed through would have been a little more alarming. I can speak French well enough to order a sandwich or a beer and maybe ask for some directions or carry on a light conversation, but I think trying to articulate to an armed man what I was doing driving through mountains would have been a different story.

I couldn't really have been happier with our day out through the mountains. The day excursion did exactly what it was planned to do: get us to see another side of Morocco that we couldn't really experience in person from inside the medina walls in Marrakech. Overall, I feel I could have used a day or two more in Marrakech but there's no way I would sacrifice our day driving in the Atlas Mountains.

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