A day trip to Marrakech to Aït Benhaddou, a kasbah famous for scenes in Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones. Getting to Aït Benhaddou includes 8 hours in a car; driving through the High Atlas Mountains, through the desert, seeing a palindrome of red and green.
The Drive to Aït Benhaddou
Started the day early, we wanted to take a Marrakech day trip to Aït Benhaddou and Quarzazate; 4 hours away. We met our driver, Hassen, at our riad in Marrakech at 8am. Fluent in English, Hassen, was great and extremely knowledgeable about the Berber culture; he is Berber, so… I guess that helps.
High Atlas Mountain Range
Driving to the base of the High Atlas Mountain Range, it was like nothing I had imagined it would be; Going from the flat and dry desert environment of Marrakech to the steep, tree and snow covered mountain tops. Apparently there are ski resorts on the snow capped mountain tops. Who knew!
Climbing higher and deeper into the mountain range, it was cold, rainy, with steep windy roads, and sheep and goat climbing up the sides of cliffs next to us. Stopping for a break, we were able to catch some awesome views of the High Atlas Mountains. Hassen informed us that the place we stopped is a popular spot because of the number of toilets, not the view.
As we kept driving, I still couldn’t get over the two extremes of the land. The landscape is maybe comparable to Lake Tahoe area, but the people are so much more raw in Morocco; in a good way. Driving through the mountain range we passed many Berber villages. Wishing we had more time to stop, Hassen informed us that Berber people tend to live past 100 because life is so simple. He stressed that traditionally the Berber people lived as one with nature, as the animals due, not by religion or country. Berber people were originally nomadic tribes, traveling with their flocks, in search of food and water.
Mesmerized by the red earth and then the green vegetation, before I knew it I was in the North Western Sahara desert. A vast nothingness; it is truly remarkable how villages existed and still exist in the middle of nowhere. It blows my mind how these people for centuries have been able to control what ever water was found, to continue life out in the desert.
Kasbah Aït Benhaddou
4 hours later, and one hell of a ride through the mountains, we finally arrived to Kasbah Aït Benhaddou. A kasbah is a fortified village, usually set up by a wealthy leader, that would be defended against enemies.
Seriously, out of nowhere, there is this fortified town built on to the side of a large cliff face. Kasbah or Ksar Aït Benhaddou, is a UNESCO world heritage site, due to it’s authentic southern Morocco architecture and preservation. The best part of Aït Benhaddou, for me, was the vast openness. I felt so calm, so at ease. Feeling even better, knowing that this was the land of the Dothraki (ironically a nomadic tribe) from Game of Thrones. A lot of famous movies have been filmed at this location including Lawrence of Arabia. Walking through Aït Benhaddou, I felt like I was walking through the world of Aladdin; people still live in the dwellings which is crazy.
Matt and I noticed that the Kasbah walls had the same small holes as did the walls of the Marrakech medina. Hassen told us that since they didn’t have ladders or scaffolding, builders would stick wooden planks into the wall to stand on to build walls higher and higher. Genius.
Basically climbing a mountain, we had worked up an appetite, so Hassen took us to a near by restaurant for lunch. Simple and delicious, the restaurant had a selection of tajines, grilled plates, and some amazing vegetable soup. After lunch we made our way to Quarzazate, known as the Hollywood of Africa.
Quarzazate is about 40 km from Aït Benhaddou, or a 30 minute drive. It is a randomly large modern city in the middle of the desert. There are about 3 to 4 large movie production houses that operate in the city; guessing they are the major employer. The city even has it’s very own lake in the middle of the desert. Dang.
The Drive Back To Marrakech
Not having much time to explore Quarzazate, we made our way back to Marrakech; a 4 hour drive. Passing 2 accidents and truckloads of stacked cows, we were back in Marrakech; at Riad Luciano. Phew.
Marrakech Day Trip Review
Overall this Marrakech day trip to Aït Benhaddou is amazing. The excursion takes about 10 hours; a 4 hour drive there and 4 hours back. Our guide was awesome, and provided us with a wealth of information, and willing to customize our day trip how we wanted. He spoke English well and was a jokester. I give this excursion 8 out of 10 points. Look for more top things to see and do, read my article Experience Marrakech.
Some Important things for this trip:
- I highly recommend hiring a driver and or tour guide, as the streets are super narrow, steep, not lit, and in poor condition.
- It is cold in the mountains, like cold enough to snow cold; Dress in layers
- Passing through the High Atlas Mountains may be impossible during the winter months when it snows