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.
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Freelance travel writer, Stephen Bayley, travelled to Fes with Lawrence of Morocco in April 2013, writing for the Independent.
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