Ait Benhaddou--A Journey Over the Atlas Mountains

2:22:00 PM Brooke Neal 5 Comments

This post is a review of our day trip to the Unesco World Heritage site of Ait Benhaddou about 180km south east of Marrakech, on the other side of the Atlas Mountains.  It's going to be a longish post, so for those who want the cliff notes version, I will cut to the chase.  THIS IS A HORRIBLE DAY TRIP. The village is impressive and the area is very cool to see, but it is too far of a drive to be enjoyed in a day.  Our fatal error was not staying overnight.  Most desert tours are 2 day minimum and now I know why. The mountain pass is painful!  If you are prone to car sickness, you will be miserable on this trip because the majority of the drive time is spent on mountain switchbacks and you do it twice because there is only one road back to Marrakech. 

See those smiling faces below, this photo was taken at the beginning of our journey before we started to wind our way through through the Atlas Mountains.
Cliff Notes:  €150, 8+hours driving with about 3 hours of sightseeing including lunch.  
For as long as we were in the car we could have heard the entire history of Morocco, that is, if our guide had been inclined to share anything with us, but he didn't. Once at Ait Benhaddou we were handed off to a local guide who was informative, if you could keep up with him.  He hauled us up and back down from the hilltop village so quickly I didn't realize the tour was over until we were standing in front of the restaurant where we met our driver.  We could not possibly have spent more than about 50 minutes in total with this local guide--not impressed!  
To be fair, the trip details did say..."we will cross the High Atlas on our way..." you just have no idea that crossing will take most of the day.By the time we made our first stop here at the Argon Oil "factory" I was so car sick I literally walked in took this photograph and walked out to lay on the sidewalk. This is clearly a tourist trap.  An English speaking woman met us at the door, explained the centuries old process of producing Argon Oil, then said, "please take your photo" and ushered us into the store room.  

Now, I have no problem with people making a buck--but I almost felt like we treated these working women as some sort of zoo exhibit.  They are lined up along this wall literally cracking open nuts with stone hammers, separating the waste which will feed the animals from the nuts which get roasted over a fire before being pressed or crushed with a stone grinder.  All done by hand.  As you can imagine, it is a labor intensive process and therefore the oil is quite expensive.  Even in my weakened state I looked at our driver and said, "ahh, couldn't they do that with a machine?"  He smiled and said, "but this is the traditional way and it gives them work..."  I am no raging feminist, but I was a little bugged!  I mean really, they'd still have work running a more efficient assembly line and not have to sit on a floor for hours a day.  But then, we tourists wouldn't have something to photograph and Morocco wouldn't have "hand pressed" oil to sell.  
Our second stop was here at the highest point of the mountain--I didn't even get out of the car because at this point I was throwing up and the rest of my family, in the back seat, was doing their best to keep it together as well. 
As we made our way out of the mountains the scenery changed to this red barren desert.  The contrast of the green down by the water was stunning.  Again, I took these photos from the car. 
 
Finally after 4 hours, we made it to Ait Benhaddou and I willed myself out of the car.  The mud brick village is really, really cool. Only 6 families live there now; with no running water or electricity I am surprised anyone still lives there as a modern village is literally across the street. Hollywood has been making movies here for the last 50 years including Lawrence of Arabia, The Ten commandments and most recently, Gladiator. Ironically, bits of architecture built for movie sets look so authentic they were never taken down. I couldn't help but wonder, is this just another facade to bring in the tourists?    
When I say mud brick, I mean it.  The village is constructed out of mud, straw, and reeds. The homes fall into disrepair quickly if not being attended to regularly.  
See those snowcapped mountains in the background--URG!  I didn't get the best angle, but that is a donkey inside that dark door way.  I had to take a picture of his "manger."
Anyone familiar with the desert knows water is the life blood of survival.  Unfortunately, this water flowing next to the village is undrinkable.  It is full of salt so in ancient times (an not so ancient times) villagers had to travel hours with buckets/jugs to find potable water.


Eden was not very happy we made her cover her head.  Even with sunscreen our little angel burns!

That semi circle in front of the hill is where the gladiator ring was set up in the movie Gladiator. I am pretty certain Russell Crow flew in on a helicopter, there's no way he came over the Atlas Mountains.
As I mentioned, the tour of the village was super quick--I definitely didn't get the time to explore I would have liked, but we did take a leisurely lunch before loading back into the car for our return trip home.  As this post is already long I will spare you the details of our small car accident (not the drivers fault), the incidental skirmish with the German driver, our having to return back to the police station 30 minutes into our return trip to Marrakech, and the 45 minute wait there while the authorities fought over who was at fault.

By the time we returned home at 8:00pm (we left at 7:30am) we were exhausted and frazzled!  I have said this trip was absolutely not worth it as a day trip (and it's not), but if you have time for 2+days in the desert it would be better.  We loved the sunshine and unique architecture, it's just a pity we didn't have the time to enjoy it more.

5 comments:

  1. Oh wow, sounds horrendous, I get travel sick too, just awful. We stayed in Ait Benhaddou on New Years eve in 1999 and had a very different positive experience. I remember looking up in the sky the next day to check the planes were still flying and hadn't been hit by the millenium bug!

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  2. Fascinating information, and what an interesting village. Too bad that you didn't have a little longer time visiting, and less time in the car. This is probably one of those trips that many years from now you will say you are so glad that you did it once, and you will remember it well. Glad you didn't have to spend the night in jail.... that was good. Will have to watch those movies now, and will think of your post. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. The view seems amazing! Too bad you had to suffer so much to get there. But those are the unforgettable adventures that we can tell over and over again.

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  4. Amazing once you got there. Love those huge, carved doors!

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  5. Wow! We did a day trip from Marrakech into the Atlas mountains too but we didn't have such a bad experience. Of course, we didn't make it to Ait Benhaddou (just the Ourika Valley). Thank goodness though because our kids are younger and they couldn't have coped with such a car journey.

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