Out of Marrakech and across the High Atlas mountains heading towards the Sahara desert, you will find Aït-Ben-Haddou - a breathtaking sight! We made a stop here on the first day of our tour from Marrakech to Sahara.
Aït-Ben-Haddou is a fortified village (ksar in Arabic), and consists of earthen adobe dwellings going up a small hill and enclosed by a defensive wall. There are many such villages along the road between Marrakech and Merzouga (the Moroccan gateway to the Sahara desert), but none as impressive as Aït-Ben-Haddou. The village dates back to the 17th century and stands as a fine example of Berber traditional architecture in Southern Morocco. Back in the day, it was an important stop for merchants on the caravan route between Sahara and Marrakech. Aït Ben Haddou has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for over 30 years now and is one of 9 such sites in Morocco. This well-deserved status, as well as its popularity amongst film-makers, has helped it stand the test of time. The preservation is truly remarkable, given that the houses are made of soil, not the most durable of materials. You’ll notice a great level of detail around some of the rooftops.
This is one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting in Morocco. I’ve been eyeing it for many years before our trip. And it did not disappoint. It has a unique look that fascinated me, of a place frozen in time.
It’s a 4h hour drive to Aït-Ben-Haddou from Marrakech, and a further 6h drive to Merzouga, should you come the other way. It’s one of the most popular attractions in Morocco despite its remote location, and there are many ways to see it, some cheaper or more convenient than others.
There is the inexpensive public transport option by bus or grand taxi to the nearby city of Ouarzazate. If you can get off at an earlier stop, take a short taxi ride from there. This could save you some cash, at the expense or time, comfort, and a couple nice viewpoints in the High Atlas mountains. There is no train option.
If you rent a car and self-drive to the desert, this is a short detour from the main road, one that should not be missed.
The other option is to go for a private tour or join a group tour. Since many travellers choose to see the desert during their trip to Morocco, it makes most sense to stop here on the route. The journey from Marrakech to Merzouga is done in at least 2 days. Most tour operators have you spend the night a little closer to the desert (in Dades Valley) to spread out the driving time more evenly. It’s a beautiful quiet area, with great accommodation options. But should you really want to spend some extra time in Aït-Ben-Haddou, I imagine it wouldn’t be impossible to spend that night there instead - particularly if you can spare an extra day. Is it worth it? Maybe.
What to do?
Aït-Ben-Haddou is made up of two main areas, a newer part where all the hotels and restaurants are, and the ancient village, on the other side of a river which may or may not be there depending on season. From the parking lot, you get the first glimpse of the fortified village - at that point, I was already captured by its beauty. There are two ways to enter the village, the obvious one, by crossing a bridge, and the better one, by crossing the river bed a little more to the right. Depending on when and where you enter the village, it may be free or you might be charged a small fee (the equivalent of $1).
We entered via the bridge. Today, the village is largely a display of Moroccan merchandise, and the road to the top of the hill is lined with souvenir shops. There are a couple options for accommodation and food in the old town, but most are found on the other side of the river. All but a few families have moved out of the old village. It is clearly lacking the authenticity it had, as a result of mass tourism, but one can easily imagine how life once was while walking through the narrow streets. Once at the top, you can enjoy a nice view of the village from above as well as the surrounding desert-like landscape, against the snow-covered mountain tops. An interesting combination.
Most visitors seemed to return the same way, down the souvenir path once again and straight onto the touristy lunch spots. From the top I did spot the second main entrance into the village and asked our friendly guide Ali to go that way instead. This other route was much more interesting and there was barely anyone around. Once on the river bed, we were looking at our favourite view of Aït-Ben-Haddou. Guides may have the tendency to rush the visit, in order to reach the overnight stop in good time. Take your time and compensate with a quicker lunch, it’s worth it.
You could spend more time browsing the stalls to snatch a good bargain or sip on Moroccan mint tea on a kasbah rooftop (one is particularly Instagrammable), but other than that, there is nothing else to do there. A couple hours stop is enough really. But spending the night cannot be a bad decision. It’s most likely you would end up here mid-day, and it’s easy to see why the colours of Aït-Ben-Haddou would come alive at sunrise or sunset. In addition, you’d have the village all to yourself, no crowds, as all the tour groups arrive at noon. It’s a breath of fresh air after the hustle of Marrakech or Fez, a safe place to relax. It would be a better experience, if you can afford the extra time.
We had a typical lunch at a restaurant on the new side of town (tagine, what else!) and then continued our journey towards the desert.
A film location
Aït-Ben-Haddou is an extremely photogenic place, from any angle, and for that reason it has become a very popular film location. By that, I don’t mean one big film, but more than 20 films or TV series, many of international success. Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander, Prince of Persia, The Mummy - they all had scenes filmed in Aït-Ben-Haddou and/or the nearby Atlas Studios. Game of Thrones fans should recognize the village as Yunkai from Season 3. The famous end-of-season Mhysa scene was filmed at the gates of the ancient village. The real Aït-Ben-Haddou is, of course, not as spectacular as the CGI-enhanced Yunkai, but it’s not far!
We did stop at the nearby Atlas studios, but didn’t actually go in. It did come across as a little touristy and tacky, but I could be wrong. However, there is no doubt you would get a lot more from historically-rich Aït-Ben-Haddou as a filming location than a nearby movie studio built specifically for film.
All those films have attracted hordes of tourists in recent years from all over the world, probably more than the landmark itself. Like any other place, it’s struggling, but gaining from it too. In addition to the development of the local community, a film-less Aït-Ben-Haddou might look very different nowadays. World heritage sites always benefit from preservation efforts, but the films have played their part as well.
Aït-Ben-Haddou looks exactly like a place out of a movie, and it is, but that beauty is real!
Aït-Ben-Haddou was all that I wanted it to be and more. We only spent a couple hours there, and yet it was one of the highlights of our Morocco trip. The image of Aït-Ben-Haddou will always remain a vivid memory in our minds. If you have 1-2 weeks to spend in Morocco, spend less time in the larger modern cities (e.g. Rabat, Casablanca). The real beauty of Morocco lies off the beaten path, and, while it’s hard to beat the desert experience, Aït-Ben-Haddou is so much more than just a stop along the way.