Morocco is a land of striking contrasts with modern and historical cities, large metropolises and tiny villages, lush mountainous areas, and barren deserts. It’s worth visiting multiple areas as only then will you get a real feel for all that Morocco is.
One trip I highly recommend is going from Marrakech to Merzouga. Marrakech is one of the largest cities in the country and the most popular on the tourist trail. Even so, it’s well worth seeing and there are a lot of fun things to do in Marrakech.
Merzouga was one of my favorite places in the country, but in this case, it’s not just about the destination but also the journey. Ait Ben Haddou and Todra Gorge are two pearls in the middle of Morocco, kind of in the middle of nowhere.
They are nestled between many of the other famous and popular places to go, like Marrakech, Merzouga, and Fes and could easily be overlooked, except they shouldn’t be as they are amazing and add another layer of learning and interest about Morocco. You should definitely make this journey, and this post includes what you will see along the way.
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If you’re visiting Morocco, chances are you are spending time in Marrakech. It is the top tourist destination in the country for a reason—there’s a ton of great things to do in Marrakech. Jardin Majorelle, Bahia Palace, and Koutoubia Mosque just for starters. But, there are many other things to see and do as well to learn about this amazing city. It’s a great representation of Morocco and worth every minute you spend there.
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Marrakech is what most people know about Morocco and I think that’s great. But there’s another side to Morocco. If you only see the cities you’ll definitely be missing out on it. I encourage you to see Marrakech and it was a favorite of mine, but do take the chance to explore beyond Marrakech, both with day trips and more time than that if you are able to. A great recommendation is to visit Merzouga.
Eventually, you must leave Marrakech and I highly recommend a visit to the Merzouga Desert to see the Sahara sand dunes. It’s soothingly tranquil, particularly important after the hustle and bustle of Marrakech. If you’re looking for a peaceful place to relax in solitude, Merzouga is your kind of place.
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It’s not a quick trip to get from Marrakech to Merzouga and it takes around ten hours in total driving. I recommend you don’t try to make it straight through in one day. Instead, take the time in between because it provides you with an amazing opportunity to see some of the most incredible parts of Marrakech in the central region of the country. The true highlights of this trip, in addition to driving through the impressive and statuesque High Atlas Mountains, are Ait Ben Haddou and Todra Gorge.
I really loved this trip as it shows you a wide range of Morocco from high mountain peaks to crumbly old cities, a massive and beautiful natural gorge to a vast stretch of sand dunes. It’s truly worth it and I believe breaking it up to enjoy each of these distinct areas is the way to go.
How to Get to Ait Ben Haddou
You have a number of options to get from Marrakech to Merzouga. The easiest way is to take a group tour that will stop at the must-see sites on the way from Marrakech to Merzouga. There are many group tours available. You could also take buses, but that will require changing multiple times and you may not get to see as much. This is the least expensive option, though. So if budget is a primary factor, it’s a solid option. Believe it or not, a taxi is an option, though it may be costly, especially if you want to make stops along the way. A final means of transportation is to rent a car.
Once you leave Marrakech you will drive through the High Atlas mountains, filled with spiky peaks and tightly winding roads. Most take the Tizi-n-Tichka mountain passage which is spectacular albeit a tad bit scary. It’s a beautiful and exhilarating drive through some tight turns and massive drop-offs.
This also takes you past the highest point in the country called Col du Tichka, and with it, a significant temperature difference from Marrakech. It’s an elevation of 2,260 meters (just over 7,400 feet). You will see some tiny villages along the way as well as a number of argan oil co-ops.
The drive to Ait Ben Haddou takes around three-and-a-half hours. If you drive, be sure to take your time as this road can be challenging. Take breaks at some of the pull-off areas to enjoy the impressive scenery and the massively long drop to the base of the mountains.
I was a little torn about going to visit an argan oil co-op. It’s a popular thing to do and I personally love argan oil, but I had read a number of blogs recommending that people not go. They described a lot of pressure to buy, though more accurately, guilt of not buying the products.
We did end up stopping at one and it was a great experience. We learned a bit about the manually-intensive process from the women and got to watch them at work. I personally felt no pressure to buy something or guilt about the small amount that I did purchase. It may very much depend on the argan co-op you go to.
Most of the blogs that I read or reviews were about argan oil co-ops on the way to Essaouira from Marrakech. Essaouira is a top day trip from Marrakech (or spend longer than a day!) and I highly recommend that. However, I’m not sure I’d recommend visiting an argan oil co-op on that route.
There are argan co-ops all over the place through the High Atlas Mountains and in other areas through the country. They have many products including various types of argan oil, black salt soap (which is used when you visit a Moroccan hammam). They also have other types of soaps, and some food products. If you do go, definitely try amlu. It’s a Berber treat of ground almonds, honey, and argan oil. It is like a sweet, finely-ground almond butter and it’s very good. You can also get edible oils.
Ait Ben Haddou
The first place I recommend seeing on your trip from Marrakech to Merzouga is Ait Ben Haddou. It is a fortified village, also called a ksar, along the former caravan route between the Sahara Desert and Marrakech. Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognized as an example of Moroccan earthen clay architecture. The ksar includes a group of earthen buildings that are traditional pre-Saharan and an example of southern Moroccan architecture. It’s located on the southern slopes of the High Atlas mountains in the Province of Ouarzazate.
The high walls around the village protected it from raiders. Inside the walls are a number of kasbahs, or merchant’s homes where you can buy souvenirs. Much of it has been reinforced and reconstructed due to many years of neglect, providing a great glimpse of what life was like here hundreds of years ago. It’s quite picturesque and in fact, has been featured in a number of movies. Films like Gladiator, The Mummy, Lawrence of Arabia and many others, as well as on Game of Thrones.
The settlement was believed to have been from the 17th century. It has suffered many years of neglect which is what led the inhabitants to move across the river. Reconstruction efforts have successfully restored portions of the settlement while maintaining the original authentic feel of it. There are a number of buildings as well as a mosque, a public square, two cemeteries (Muslim and Jewish), and others.
Where to Stay in Ait Ben Haddou
We stayed at La Rose du Sable, a tourist-class hotel that was almost across the river and the street from the ksar and only a 15-minute walk away. I didn’t find a proper address for it, but here is the map where La Rose du Sable is located. The location was ideal and the view from the roof deck was superb. Behind the hotel were a number of small local homes so we had a chance to view local life from above. The hotel restaurant was very good as well. I got Moroccan eggs (made in a hot pot-type of dish with tomatoes and olives).
If you’d like to stay a little way out of town in a beautiful riad on a hill with a view of Ait Ben Haddou, Riad Tamdakhte is a great option at the same price point. It’s located at Douar Tamdakhte à 5 km d’Ait Ben Haddou, Aït Benhaddou, Morocco. A more upscale riad option within a 15-minute walk of Ait Ben Haddou is Riad Caravane. It also doesn’t have a proper address but the map of Riad Caravane is here.
Where to Eat in Ait Ben Haddou
As I mentioned, I did like the restaurant in my hotel, La Rose du Sable. As of this writing, the recent reviews on Tripadvisor were not positive, but older reviews were. I found the service in line with Morocco and the food was very good. Other nearby places that look good are Kasbah Valentine Restaurant and Auberge Azaddou Tamlalt.
Only around 30 minutes away from Ait Ben Haddou is Ouarzazate (pronounced “where-za-zat). It’s on the way and worth stopping by. This city has gained fame as the “Moroccan Hollywood,” or “Mollywood” as it’s sometimes called. Filmmakers from around the world have used Ouarzate as a Moroccan base, and there are two film studios located here. Many famous movies and tv shows have been filmed here including Gladiator, Mission Impossible, and Game of Thrones.
You can visit Atlas Studios to tour old movie sets. If you decide to take it easy and let a local do the work, this group tour from Marrakech includes Ait Ben Haddou, Ouarzazate and Atlas Studios. There is also a Museum of Cinema if you have the time and want to learn more about the filming here.
Ouarzazate is also called the Gate to the Desert as it’s bordering the beginning of the desert region in the southern part of Morocco.
Atlas Studios does not show an online address but here is the map to get you to Atlas Studios. It’s open from 8:15 to 6:45 daily except for Monday when it closes at 6 p.m. I was unable to find any official information from Atlas Studios, but did read that the cost is 50 MAD ($5.25 USD).
The Museum of Cinema is located on Avenue Mohammed V, Ouarzazate 45000, Morocco and it’s open from 8 to 6 daily. Like with Atlas Studios, I did not find a website for the Museum of Cinema but did see it noted that the cost is 20 MAD ($2.10 USD).
Another interesting place to check out is La Caravana des Epices, the paradise of senses. We met Herboriste Ismael, who received several years of training to help people with herbal medicines. Herbal and natural products are very popular in Morocco overall, and I did notice a few other similar shops as we toured the country.
He introduced us to many incredible smells and had us guess what they are. Things like sandalwood, amber, prickly pear, musk, orange blossom and others, then he shared what they are used for. There are over 1,100 products in his shop including herbs, spices, and perfumes. They also offer services like massage and Moroccan hammam.
Ouarzazate to Todra Gorge
Todra Gorge, and the nearby city of Tinghir, are around a three-hour drive from Ait Ben Haddou. It’s close to three hours from Merzouga, where you can visit the Sahara Desert on the southern edge of Morocco.
This stunning canyon is located on the eastern side of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco. It was carved by the Todra and Dades Rivers through cliffs of stunning orange and red rock that are quite high—over 500-feet tall (152 meters).
Though the river is mostly a memory, it’s easy to imagine the power it must have once had to carve such a large canyon. The gorge stretches for many miles and the Todra is the last 2,000 or so feet (around 600 meters) of the canyons.
Even though the gorge is in an area of Morocco that is fairly remote, it is a popular tourist destination. It is a few hours’ drive from Ait Ben Haddou and is fairly on the path of driving between Marrakech and Merzouga. There is not much to do in the town, however, it’s a beautiful site to see and a nice stop to break up the long, ten-hour drive between these areas.
Vendors line the canyon walls selling souvenirs, much like in most places in Morocco. Buses often clog the area as well, which is a well-maintained dirt path. You can walk a while into the gorge thought the area, past the buses to really get an appreciation for the power of nature and the many colors of the rocks in the area. You can also see an old, closed hotel which must have been quite a place to stay at in times past.
Where to Stay in Todra Gorge
The town of Tinerhir is within walking distance of Todra Gorge and is a good place to spend the night. There are many hotels as this is a popular tourist destination, and it’s also a popular place for Moroccans to go for holidays.
Wander through the kasbahs, and climb through the various areas to the top of a peak to see some great views of the surrounding area. Ait Ben Haddou is one of the best places to visit in Morocco given how interesting and unique it is. And if you are heading between Marrakech and Merzouga, it’s a great place to stop for a break in your travels.
La Belle Etoile is where we stayed and it’s a cute little place that’s maybe a 45-minute walk from the gorge. Like many places in rural Morocco, I was unable to find an address but the hotel map is here. The restaurant was good as well.
A good option for a place outside of the town is Riad Timadrouine, located at Douar Timadrouine – Ouaklim, Tinghir 45800, Morocco. A hotel option in town but a little off the main road is Hotel Saghro. It’s located at Avenue des Far, Bp46 Tinghir, Tinerhir 45800 Morocco.
Where to Eat in Todra Gorge
Just like with Ait Ben Haddou, most of the hotels have restaurants. I did enjoy La Belle Etoile, and a highly-rated one is Cafe Restaurant Centrale. Several reviews commenting that they had the best tagine in all of Morocco caught my eye.
Last Push from Marrakech to Merzouga: Todra Gorge to Merzouga
At this point, you’re only 3 -4 hours by car to Merzouga. You’ll notice the scenery starts to change a little over an hour out. And you can actually feel the shift to desert even before you see it. The sun feels just a bit more intense and the air feels drier. You’ll notice the landscape start to shift and before you know it, you’re there.
Merzouga is a magical place and I highly recommend taking the time to enjoy it. A visit to Merzouga can be a lot of fun as well as incredibly relaxing. It’s a lavish and comfortable shift from much of Morocco.
Though it’s fun to visit the cities in Morocco, it’s equally an incredible adventure to visit the areas in between. The trip from Marrakech to Merzouga is a great road trip filled with some absolutely magical places that are worth seeing. Morocco is an adventure of a lifetime, the cities and in between.
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