A Day Trip To Ouarzazate & Aït Benhaddou

I rolled out of bed and face planted on the ice cold floor tiles of our Riad in the middle of Marrakesh. Not even the sudden shock of cold was enough to bring me fully into the realm of consciousness. Waking in the dark even before the first call to prayer in Morocco should be against some kind of law. I splashed my face with water and forced myself to wake up. We were going on a road trip and we were leaving early.

Our destination was the small town of Ouarzazate (pronounced a little like “or-zah-zat”). It sits high on a plateau just south of the High Atlas Mountains and is nicknamed “the door of the desert”, as to the south of the town lies the Sahara. The town is very famous for both its scenery and it’s numerous film studios that have produced some of the most famous films of all time (more on this later…).

We snuck out of the Riad and met our driver. It is possible to catch a bus there, but it getting around is highly inconvenient this way. I highly recommend paying a driver. They are cheap and plentiful and can give you lots of banter and local background on the way there. Plus they know all the best spots to stop for photos!

Our journey took is up and over the High Atlas Mountains as the sun was rising. I have to be honest – This part of the journey was already worth what I paid for the driver. The rest of the trip was a bonus. The High Atlas is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Bright red and green rolling mountains that bubble up from the ground in spectacular chaos. Getting out of the car and walking around in the total silence at sunrise was like being on another planet. I will never forget this as long as I live.

We travelled on through the winding roads (not recommended for the car sick…) and passed several tiny Berber villages. At my request, we stopped in one for breakfast and were served a delicious array of cakes and bread to go with our mint tea.

Eventually, you leave the mountains behind and begin to cross a vast and flat rocky plateau. There is just… Nothing…

On the outskirts of Ouarzazate, we passed by the 2 big movie studio locations; Atlas Studios and CLA Studios. Atlas is one of the largest movie studios in the world in terms of total area and many famous movies were shot in these 2 studios including Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven and Game of Thrones to name a few. Sadly, they were filming some kind of military movie (there was fake army trucks and APCs all over the place) and we were shooed away by the police.

No matter – We headed into the town proper.

Parking across from Kasbah Taourirt, the imposing fortress in the centre of town, we were left to our own devices for a time. We popped into the Kasbah and were pleasantly surprised to find it almost completely open to exploration. Many beautiful tiles and Islamic artworks still adorn the walls too.

We took a short stroll into the modern centre just to get a feel for how the locals live. Not much different to the modern centre of Marrakesh if I’m honest. Quiet and sleepy, but not without its charm.

But we had seen enough. It was time for the main event, and the real reason I organised this trip in the first place; Aït Benhaddou.

Situated 10 kilometres out of town, Aït Benhaddou is a small fortified mudbrick town that is built up and around a tall hill. This ancient town is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. It has been featured in dozens of films, often as a stand-in for ancient Jerusalem, but also as fantasy settings like Yunkai, the fictional city in Game of Thrones.

There is a small newer portion of the town on one side of the river, where we stopped to grab lunch and then we made our way across the shallow river over a series of stepping stones and through the impressive gates into the old town.

This part of the town is more or less an abandoned ruin. There are a few stalls dotting the streets selling trinkets, but I doubt any of them actually live here. The streets are narrow and steep and the interiors of the old mudbrick houses are endlessly fascinating. We wandered the streets without any conscious direction, however, we found ourselves moving up and up towards the grainery at the top of the hill.

Getting up here was quite a climb in the now midday sun. I didn’t mention this before but bring plenty of water. There is no shade up here and you will need a drink when you make it up all those stairs. The view up here is nothing short of mind-blowing.

After shuffling back down and wandering the town some more, we headed back to catch our driver. On the way back we passed some camels and a few guys selling bits and pieces of the kasbah, such as the old wooden doors, which they assured me make excellent coffee tables. I wasn’t sure if I should have laughed or cried at the fact that 50 euros could have brought me a priceless wooden door from a UNESCO heritage site for a darned coffee table. I politley declined.

We drove back over the High Atlas as the sun was setting and reflected on what a wonderful day that had been. I can not recommend this enough if you are in Marrakesh and have a day to spare: Make the trip! Aït Benhaddou is easily among the top 10 coolest destinations I’ve ever been to and you will never see anything like it elsewhere in the world.