Discovering the Atlas Mountains in Morocco at Kasbah du Toubkal
Few destinations captivate the imagination like Morocco. Camel caravans winding across the Sahara and the bustling Medina in Marrakech are the images most associated with Morocco but the Berber culture and otherworldly landscapes of the High Atlas Mountains are equally as fascinating. I got to experience this extraordinary part of the world at Kasbah du Toubkal, one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Great properties showcase the local landscape and culture, the best immerse you head first into their customs and way of life. Kasbah du Toubkal will leave you transformed.
I was graciously hosted by Kasbah du Toubkal but as always all opinions remain my own
Kasbah du Toubkal organizes a variety of single and multiday hikes throughout the Atlas Mountains and this is actually where my Toubkal experience began. A two hour drive from Marrakech, with the final leg of the drive on a single lane gravel road clinging to the side of the mountains, is Kasbah du Toubkal’s Trekking Lodge in the village of Aït Aïssa. The unforgiving peaks of the High Atlas Mountains rose above tiny slivers of green that have sustained life in the Azzeden Valley.
We were welcomed into the simple stone and timber lodge in typical Berber fashion, with rosewater to wash our hands, plump dates to dip in milk, and the always flowing mint tea. Handwoven rugs graced the floors and walls of the lodge and all the furniture was crafted of local walnut wood. It felt a world away from the hustle of Marrakech and wholly unlike any place I had even been. With mint tea in hand I watched village life unfold before me, which aside from the recent addition of electricity in 2011 (let that sink in for a moment), I suspect has changed very little. Young men transported the abundant fruits of the valley’s terraced farms via donkey while women walked with their kids (and their other kids) along steep paths towards home. Sheppards brought in their flocks while young children played as young children everywhere do, running through the unforgiving terrain as sure-footed as any mountain goat. The sun set as the call to prayer echoed throughout the mountains and the evening smelled of rocks and juniper; I found myself transported not just to another place but also to another time.
After a hearty breakfast we met our guide Hassan along with a porter and his mule who who be transporting our luggage over the 6 mile hike. The new day’s sun spilled over the mountains as we started our hike along the main road of the valley, passing farmers bringing in the apple harvest loaded on the backs of donkeys and mules. The trail turned upward as we climbed past mud brick homes built into the impossibly steep mountainsides, a young boy yelled “bonjour!” to us as we passed and I marveled at the tenacity of the Berber people that have called this remote valley home for centuries.
After the village the trail became even steeper and more remote, walnut trees were replaced by juniper and scrub and the silence was only broken by our footsteps and the occasional Berber leading a lone pack mule. Each step of mine was strategically and carefully placed while Hassan walked with the ease of a leisurely beach stroll. Along the way Hassan occasionally stopped to talk to us about the ways of life of the Berber people in the High Atlas, traditional herbal remedies and his hopes for his daughters.
After a 6,000 foot climb to Tizlet Pass we were treated to sweeping views of both the Azzeden and Imlil Valleys. At an elevation of over 9,000 feet the views of the Atlas Mountains in all directions were stunning. Hassan beckoned and led us to the shade of some juniper trees where he had laid out some mats and pillows. The rest was more than welcome but then he proceeded to cook(yes, cook!) us a mountain top feast which of course started with freshly brewed mint tea. This was followed by spiced Moroccan meatballs with rice and an array of Moroccan salads, and ended with a platter of fresh local fruit.
Naturally what goes up must come down so we began our descent towards the Imlil Valley. A two hour trek downhill brought us to the gates of Kasbah du Toubkal, the grandeur of this renovated Berber fortress was immediately evident. Standing against a backdrop of the imposing Jbel Toubkal ( North Africa’s highest peak which happened to be obscured by a passing afternoon rain shower when I arrived), the Kasbah looks like it has been part of the landscape for centuries.
We were again greeted with traditional Berber hospitality, rosewater for our hands and generously plied with cookies and mint tea before being taken to our room. Furnishings in the room are simple and comfortable, with much of the decor handmade by local craftsman. A small terrace offered up views of Jbel Toubkal. The handcrafted decor extended to the common spaces of the Kasbah and lush gardens provide a beautiful contrast to the starkness of the surrounding Atlas Mountains. Even better, this garden was full of kittens( which is as delightful and adorable as it sounds). We befriended a black and white kitty and loved watching the tiny kittens scampering about. Covered in dust from our day’s trek some time in the hammam was in order. A hammam is a traditional Moroccan bathing experience involving a steam room, a thorough scrub with a black olive based soap and alternating rinses with buckets of hot and cold water that left me feeling renewed and invigorated.
Dinner was by candlelight, and began with an array of olives and the sweetest dates I’ve ever had. This was followed by a hearty tagine of spiced beef and prunes with plenty of crusty Moroccan bread. The sun setting behind the peak of Jbel Toubkal was our evening’s entertainment and the perfect end to my day exploring the Atlas Mountains.
Responsible Tourism at Kasbah du Toubkal
Resposible tourism has been at the core of Kasbah du Toubkal since its inception. Not only stewards of the environment owners Chris and Mike McHugo have been committed to involving and employing members of the local community in all aspects of the Kasbah, from construction to using locally crafted goods and day to day hospitality. It’s refreshing to see a lodge of this caliber embrace, and be embraced, by the local community rather than be an island from it. A 5 % supplement for each guest goes toward improvements in the Imlil Valley. Owner Mike McHugo also started and runs Education For All, a nonprofit committed to the education of girls in rural Morocco. For more on the history of Kasbah du Toubkal read Derek Workman’s An Unreasonable Plan .
Things to Know Before You Go
- Kasbah du Toubkal is located approximately 40 miles from Marrakech, taking about 1 hour and 15 minutes by car to the town of Imlil. There is then an additional uphill walk of about 15 minutes to reach the lodge. Transportation can be arranged through Kasbah du Toubkal
- The terrain around Imlil and the Kasbah can be uneven and at times steep and may not be suited for those with limited mobility
- The Kasbah is host to a number of yoga retreats throughout the year, check their website for the latest details