The Atlas Mountains are a magnet for trekkers, mountain bikers, enthusiasts of Amazigh (Berber) culture and anyone in search of solitude. There are three ranges: the Middle Atlas, with its cedar forests and birdlife, the seldom-visited Anti-Atlas and the soaring heights of the High Atlas, culminating in 4,167-metre Jebel Toubkal.
Most visitors head for the High Atlas, whose foothills can be reached in a one-hour drive from Marrakech. In recent years visitor opportunities in the High Atlas have increased considerably. A five-star skiing resort is under construction at Oukaimeden. Trekking, paragliding and quad-biking are all on offer. Or you can hole up in a mountain retreat with a swimming pool and a hydro-jet massage.
As you drive up the winding roads, one of the first things you see are men standing by the road selling fossils and minerals. The Atlas is a showcase for the geology of the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras and you can buy stunning trilobites, ammonites and geodes for a few dozen dirhams (don’t forget to bargain!)
On a shorter timescale, this is the heart of Amazigh (Berber) countryside where the way of life has changed little in a thousand years. A network of paths and mule tracks lead through forests, hunting reserves and fields sown with barley, corn, maize, turnips and alfalfa or planted with olive, orange and lemon trees. Only 80 years ago these places had never been visited by Europeans, and they still possess an other-worldly quality. To the east, lies the Ait Bouguemez valley, home of the oldest-established tribe in the region. The valley is the starting point for hikes up to the massif of Jbel M’Goun, site of some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Morocco.
The Middle Atlas has an altogether different atmosphere. Often called ‘the Switzerland of Morocco’ it is a placid, mid-altitude region dotted with lakes and forests of cedar, cork and holm-oak. In the 1930s, the French built the Alpine-style resort of Ifrane, complete with red-roofed chalets and ski runs.
The Anti Atlas stretches from the Atlantic Ocean at Sidi Ifni to the 3,304-metre high volcanic massif of Jebel Siroua. The mountains offer dramatic trekking through gorges, lush valleys and isolated villages. In the centre of the region is the village of Tafraoute, surrounded by red granite mountains and the famous ‘blue rocks’ of Belgian artist Jean Verame.
Located in the foothills of the Atlas mountains, Asni is a well visited small Berber town. About 50 minutes drive from Marrakech the souk or market is on Saturday. It can be quite busy there on souk day and local hustlers can be a little overwhelming. The drive from Marrakech to Asni is very pretty. In Asni there are a few cafes where one can find a good tagine for lunch overlooking the river, where women can be seen doing their washing and carpets are laid out to dry on bushes.
Turn left at Asni and follow this road for about 7 km to Imlil where life is much calmer and quieter. Imlil is a small Berber village in a stunning valley where you can go for the day and pick up a local mountain guide who will take you on a short or long walk through some of the most beautiful scenery Morocco has to offer. Finish up for tea in a Berber home and enjoy the wonderful natural hospitality of these kind mountain people.
The Middle Atlas provinces cover 23,000 km² in area and comprise 18% of the total mountainous surface of Morocco. The provinces of Khènifra, Ifrane, Boulmane, Sefrou, Khemisset, El Hajeb, as well as parts of the provinces of Taza and of Beni Mellal, lie in the Middle Atlas region. Béni Mellal on the Oum Er-Rbia River is designated "the doorway to the Middle Atlas."
Ouirgane sits over 1000 metres above sea level in a very beautiful valley in the high Atlas mountains. Only 75 minutes drive from Marrakech, it is a great place to relax totally amongst kind Berber people, spectacular natural views and the pleasures of a 'simple life'.
The souk or market is on Thursday and people come from the surrounding villages and valleys to buy and sell goods. Walking and mule trekking are the most common daytime activities in the area and the hotels we work with can arrange mountain guides to accompany you for a half or full day. Ouirgane is a perfect combination with a few days in Taroudant, which is reached by crossing the spectacular Tiz n Test pass.
A wonderful time!
Susan d'Arcy from The Sunday Times travelled to Marrakech with Lawrence of Morocco in July 2012.
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