Walking and trekking
Morocco is a revelation for walkers. There are few places so nearby which offer quite such as ‘elsewhere’ experience, and with the explosion in accessibility to Marrakesh, the exoticism offered by this North African country has never been more achievable. Chief amongst the attractions for walkers are the High Atlas, which run along the southern border of Morocco and make for outstanding trekking and a full-on cultural experience. In these mountains you can trek on ancient mule tracks between Berber mountain villages (some of which have only just been electrified), stay at family homes converted for use by trekkers (gites), drink many cups of mint tea and sit in thrall of a mountain range which in winter is comparable to the Alps in every way except in price and tourist throngs. It’s a humbling experience, and comes with a number of satisfying bonuses: least of all the ability to climb some 4,000m peaks. Most popular of these is Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco and in North Africa. It is typically climbed from the Neltner refuge (Refuge du Toubkal), which lies at 3,000m at the mountain’s base. To get here involves a two day trek from the roadhead at Imlil, usually via the atmospheric village of Aroumd, where several gites serve the needs of trekkers. It’s a spellbinding walk from verdant upland into glacier-scoured mountain, and can be done at any time of year. Winter is an especially magical time, provided you have winter skills and are happy trudging through snow, as the temperatures are very pleasant and crowds fewer. While you are here, you can also climb the neighbouring peak of Ouanoukrim (4,083m) which, with a scrambly east ridge, is a more technically satisfying peak and offers fine perspectives on Toubkal. Those who are more ambitious can take an extended trek around some of the Atlas Mountains’ less frequented high passes, such as Tizi n’ Ourai, Tizi n’Likemt and Tizi n’Eddi, which can turn an ascent of Toubkal into an extended circuit of the range’s highest peaks.
Without doubt, one of the hidden gems of the Atlas is the area around Mgoun (4,060m) one of the highest and most sacred peaks in Morocco. Very different in nature to Toubkal, Mgoun is made of softened sandstone deep-cut by millions of years of weathering, and overlooks the high plateau of Tachedidd. Here you can trek through violently-cut gorges over the Tessaout river, barren slopes of scree and forested valleys and visit one of the most unspoilt and perfect Berber villages in the high Atlas: Magdaz. The region gives an extraordinary look at a hard, basic and unceasingly friendly way of life. Contact the bureau of mountain guides in Imlil and organise an expedition if you want to trek in either of these regions. (See links.)
Elsewhere in Morocco, you can trek on sand dunes in the south, where the Sahara creeps into the country. Ouarzazate, Zagora and Erfoud are ideal bases to explore this region, where the ochre dunes are as spectacular as any you’ll find in the sandier countries. The Anti Atlas are a range south of the High Atlas, and are gentler (if wilder) mountains which top out at 2,500m Jebel Aklim. The Ameln Valley is one of the most spectacular and rustic parts of Morocco, known as the valley of 26 villages, which cluster up the sides of the hills like pink lego. A standout hereabouts is Aguerd-Oudad. If you prefer sea air to mountain air, there are some fine places to walk along the Atlantic coast, such as the area around Essaouira. There are few places where you can hit so many bases in one trip: take advantage of it and you’ll be amazed how good a time you’ll have.
Morocco – while hardly an adrenaline junkies’ paradise – is most certainly finding its feet as an outdoor destination, recently waking up to the natural bounty it has to offer. A lot of the country is still largely unspoilt, so provided you respect the local customs, even in the most basic rural communities you will be treated with at best a very warm reception, at worst mere diffidence. Essaouira is gaining a reputation as being a bit of a surf city, and is the resort destination of choice for many younger visitors to Morocco.
Marrakesh is full of sultry souks and markets where you can rummage til content, though you will end up spending most of your time haggling if show more than a passing interest in anything. At night the city comes even more alive, with the main square turning into a fragrant open air restauraunt which is quite a sight. Stake out a seat on the veranda of a café overlooking the square early and wait for dark.
Skiing is very popular in the High Atlas in winter, and there are several companies in Marrakesh which ofer rafting excursions and hot air ballooning. Horse riding and sea fishing are also gaining in popularity to take further advantage of the bountiful Atlantic coastline and the inland trails. Somewhat surprisingly, golf is also a very keen pasttime in Morocco, especially around the capital Rabat, which has an international-level course. Also try if you can to experience a hammam (Moroccan sauna) which will clean you in a manner you never dreamt. Some hotels allow non-residents to use theirs, otherwise check if the hammam is open to tourists first.
Alcohol is illegal in Marrakesh: FALSE. It is available fairly freely outside of the medina (walled old city), though inside the medina it is harder to come by as it is a Muslim city and drinking is far from commonplace. Do some digging before you go for licensed bars within the medina.
Moroccan houses are painted orange as a defensive measure to blend in with the desert: FALSE. They are painted orange because white walls reflect the summer sun too strongly, blinding passers by.
Must see and do
- Take a hammam bath in Marrakesh
- Go for a haggle in the souks of Fez or Marrakesh (recommended purchase: a berber robe).
- Climb 2 4,000m peaks – Toubkal and Ouanoukrim - in two days from the Refuge du Toubkal.
- Stake out a seat to watch the evening feast in the main square at Marrakesh
- Chill out for a weekend at Essaouira.
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