high atlas mountains

Hiking in the High Atlas Mountains!

We began our morning with a nice breakfast at Riad Karmela.  We found a table in the corner of the courtyard and picked our favorite foods from the buffet which included a variety of breads, jams, fruits, juices, vegetables, cheese, meats and eggs.

Soon after we finished, Omar picked us up for our three-day tour of the High Atlas Mountains.  The weather was terrible…cold and dreary!   I hoped we wouldn’t be hiking in the rain as we drove through a drizzle and clouds so low that the surrounding landscape was hidden.  Who knew there were giant snow-capped mountains in front of us.

Tahannaout

Our first stop on the way to the High Atlas Mountains was in Tahannaout, a town about 45 minutes south of Marrakesh.  Here we visited an Argan Oil Co-op located across from a view point that overlooked Azrou, a 400 year village.  Fortunately, the weather cleared enough for us to see this ancient Berber capital named for the city’s quarry of black volcanic rock.

Feminine D’Huile D’Argan

The Argan Oil Co-op called Feminine D’Huile D’Argan was quite interesting.  The argan oil comes from a nut on the argan tree which only grows and produces fruit in Morocco.  The nut starts as green, then turns yellow and soon falls to the ground.  It is left on the ground until it turns brown and is harvested in May, June, and July.  It is kept for a year to dry.  The nut goes through two shelling processes before the almond is removed, roasted, and ground by hand for edible oil.  The raw almond seed is ground by machine for beauty products.

The fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent noticed the silky skin of the Berbers and soon attributed the aesthetic qualities to the argan oil. With increased price and demand for the argan oil, the oil is considered Berber Gold. As a result, the Moroccan government helped establish women’s co-ops to extract the oil and protect the argan forest.  This has provided much needed employment to women in rural areas.

Moroccan Cemeteries

After watching the nut cracking process and trying a few products, we joined our guide, Omar, on the rooftop where he pointed out the building located next to a cemetery.  The only way to know that is was a cemetery is that it was fenced.  Otherwise it just looked like a grassy knoll, as headstones are not used to mark graves.  Sometimes a small rock will mark the location of a loved one, but after many years when the body has decayed, others are buried in the same location.

Tagum Village

From Tahannaout, we traveled 15 more minutes south to Tagum Village (or Tagom on Google Maps) where we made a very hard right (almost a U-turn) to climb a wending dirt road to have tea with a local family.  They invited us into their cinder block home to see their small kitchen (basically a firepit), a hammam which I didn’t know individual homes had, a shelter space for their cow, and a room for the tea drinking ritual.

Omar quickly asked, “What is a hard tea to swallow?”

Soon, he answered, “Reality.”

Kids played outside which prompted me to ask about their schooling.  They go four hours a day, six days a week.  Large villages have their own primary school while small villages share one.  The government pays for students to attend boarding school for secondary education.

Ait Souka Village in the High Atlas Mountains

We continued on through the Asni Valley where we passed by a hotel owned by Richard Branson before we finally arrived in Ait Souka Village where we had lunch at our Riad in the High Atlas Mountains.  The riad owners served us a hot tajine of chicken, rice with fish, bread, yogurt, and of course more tea which warmed us up before our hike.  It was so cold on the rooftop patio, that we lunched inside and piled on clothes for our hike.

Hike to Village of Armed

We started our “easy” hike in the High Atlas Mountains passing by cherry and apple orchards that were still dormant.  We crossed the bridge to get to the street where we hiked down to an inconspicuous trailhead.  Across the street, we climbed up toward the Village of Armed on a dirt path.  It led us by plain homes with decorative windows and doors, through a batch of trees, across a creek, along an irrigation ditch, and past mules to a waterfall!  The waterfall was lovely and of course, no matter where you go sometimes, commercialism abounds, even in the High Atlas Mountains.

We visited slightly early in the season, so no one was working at the creek side restaurant with a patio and lots of chairs.  The primitive orange juice stand seemed like someone could appear from around the corner at anytime as a basket full of oranges sat on the counter with a knife and hand squeezer.  A make shift sink with a circular spinning hose sprayed water for washing the glasses.

The Berbers

After admiring the waterfall, we climbed some more up a rocky steep path to another village.  All I could think about is how do the Berber people climb up to their homes in slippers or clogs with their groceries or other supplies they fetch at the weekly market.  It’s simply their way of life, and in my eyes quite amazing.

The Berber homes are generally two stories and 300 square feet.  The bottom story is for their animals.  Most families have a cow, some chickens, and a few sheep.  The upper story is for the family, which is usually around six…the parents and four kids.  I think that sometimes Americans just don’t realize what is really needed in life.  A visit to the High Atlas Mountains might change their minds!

Villages of Achelm, Mzik and Arhrene

Our trek ultimately led us through at least four Berber villages in the High Atlas Mountains, including Achelm, Mzik, and Arhrene.  All had a mosque.  The buildings in the larger towns seemed to be more colorful than those of smaller towns.  Kids played soccer and hopscotch and women worked near the house while men transported their goods on mules.

I lifted my camera to take a picture of the hopscotch design on the ground as it differed from the one I grew up playing.  In addition, the kids had drawn it in dirt with water.  The kids were off to the side, but one ran away.  Kids, along with women, are not allowed to be photographed.  I knew this and wasn’t even aiming the camera at her, but their parents told them to disallow it so the little girl didn’t take any chances as she sprinted off.

Berber Children

Most of the kids are quite shy, though occasionally they greeted us with a cheery bonjour.  As a result of Morocco previously being ruled by the French Protectorate, all primary and secondary kids learn French in school. High schoolers study English.  They have twelve years of schooling before they may attend free college, though they must pay for their lodging and such.

The villages in the High Atlas Mountains clung to the steep hillsides which were terraced for their crops. Currently barley was being grown which is used to feed their animals, but for the summer other vegetables will be planted.  Occasionally we glimpsed the snow-capped mountains that poked through the low hanging clouds.  Toward the end of our trek, the skies cleared for some lovely view. Most of the trek felt like it was uphill, but we finally started heading down where we saw three kids rolling loops with a stick, and a few others sharing a tiny bicycle.  They sipped water from a pipe coming from the irrigation ditch.

Imlil

Eventually we reached the bottom of the valley, and its town that catered to tourists.  In fact, 90% of the families that live in the Imlil area of the High Atlas Mountains survive on tourism.  A few outdoor gear stores rented crampons. snow shoes, hiking boots, and poles. Here we met one of Omar’s nephews who was walking home from school.  The seven year old walked at least a mile home with all of his schoolmates.  No parents accompanied them.  They were entirely self-sufficient.  We stopped off at a small convenience store where Omar bought his nephew and his friends candy bars.  As a soccer fan, I was pleasantly surprised by the “Pringooaals!” can.

Riad Accommodations

After 3-4 hours and six or seven miles later, we arrived back at our riad ready for a shower.  Our room included three single beds draped in heavy blankets with a spare by the side of each bed.  Our bathroom was recently remodeled in nice tile and a good shower.  It wasn’t quite finished as a small pillow filled the square window. In addition, the toilet seat wasn’t attached to the basin so it fell to the floor if we touched it!  Fortunately, the shower water was hot, and that was all we cared about aside from dinner.

Dinner

Once again, we ate inside.  This time we wrapped ourselves in the blankets as there was no heat in the mountain house.  We ate a bland soup for our first course.  Neither of us could tell what is was, but we thought it just might be leftover vegetables from our lunch tajine blended together.  Next we dined on a dinner of kefta…ground beef meatballs, tomato sauce, onion, and egg.  We finished with pudding for dessert.  It was tasty.  I’m certain we were offered tea again, but there is a limit to how much sugar we could intake for the day. Occasionally, we were able to get the tea without sugar if we remembered to ask before it was prepared.

Though freezing cold, we expected to sleep well after a busy day.  Not so, we both woke up melting (those blankets were warm), and couldn’t fall back asleep for hours!  We hadn’t overcome the jetlag yet.  Anyway, I absolutely loved walking through the villages in the High Atlas Mountains and could have spent hours watching the Berber way of life. ETB

PS.  Omar asked, “Why don’t hens have boobs?”

He Answered, “Because roosters don’t have hands.”

He has quite a grasp of the English language!

OTHER POSTS ABOUT MOROCCO YOU MAY LIKE

The Amazing Medina in Marrakesh
Summiting Tizi Mzik in the High Atlas Mountains
Another Day, Another Summit…Tizi Oudite
Maneuvering Marrakesh
Off Roading through the Asni Ouirgane Valley 
Casablanca…The White House
Excellent Visit to Essaouira
Rambling Around Rabat
El Jadida, a Coastal Town in Morocco

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Published by

Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned travel photographer and blogger.

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