Morocco: A Drive Through The Desert

Morocco is a geographically diverse country, with incredible and highly-variable landscapes from arid desert (the Sahara) to beachy coastlines (including the famous Casablanca) to snow-capped peaks (the Atlas Mountains), to abundant fig trees and much more. I didn’t have a ton of time in the country, so I opted to do something I rarely do anymore and took a tour to the Morocco desert in an effort to reduce transit hassle and conserve time. The scenery along the way was absolutely stunning. If I were to do it again, though, I’d skip the tour and rent a car to drive through the desert myself. I would have LOVED to stop in many of the small towns built into the barren landscape to talk to people, try foods and take photos in places outside the requisite tourist stops.

One of our first stops was at Aït Benhaddou (above photo), a village and UNESCO site that is home to an ancient kasbah, or fortress. The rooms inside kasbahs are connected, so you may enter in one place and subsequently roam throughout the buildings. Kasbahs are typically made of mud, reinforced with what the guide told me was “bamboo” but was definitely straw, and there are winding alleys and staircases inside the complex. These buildings are traditional pre-Saharan habitats, and are characterized by 4 corner towers between defensive walls. The guide told us they historically housed a rich and powerful man and his family, and each tower tower housed one of his 4 wives. Interesting, but I cannot seem to validate online that this is true…

These days, the kasbahs around the country are often lived in by different families. In some regions old kasbahs even serve as a place people can live for free, with some of the nomadic people from the Atlas Mountains coming down for 7-9 months of the year to enjoy shelter and so their children may go to school.

While the tour group was eating lunch in the overpriced and inauthentic restaurant, I sent out to explore the town of Aït Benhaddou itself. It was quite cute, albeit tourist-centric, and would definitely warrant a night’s stay if not trapped on the bus. Casually wandering alone through residential areas, I spotted this desert soccer field.

Nearby the city of Ouarzazate (which looked less interesting than some of the other nearby towns) are a few film studios, the most notable of which is Atlas Studios. Allegedly the largest film studio in the world, this studio was built to meet the demand of the many movies filmed in the desert’s rocky landscapes (including The Mummy and Gladiator). You can take a tour and see the crumbling, desert-weathered sets. Our trusty guide said no, though, so we hopped out of the van, ran across the highway, and took a few photos instead.

Another of our stops was the mid-sized town of Tinghir. After being forced down an “authentic” path through the fields where locals each own a small plot of land and all share the fruit of the crops growing in general areas – for free – we had some “down time.” And by down time I do mean people spent 40+ minutes using the restroom (seemed they were scared of the squatty potty) and attempting to bargain for “local” goods. Obviously, I took this chance to stray from the group and explore the outskirts of the town a bit, my regret for not driving myself increasing as it also seemed like a cool place to stay for a night or two.

The Tingir province is also home to the Todra Gorge, which was more impressive than I might have imagined. It’s a popular climbing spot, and we saw some people ascending the very steep and rocky faces when we went through. There were many cute accommodations right in the gorge and leading up to it (with stunning views) for said climbers to stay. We also drove by some great panoramic views of valleys of fig trees and rose bushes.

There are so, so many small towns built into the desert-y mountains. I have no idea which town this is below, but we stopped for lunch and I wandered off.

I bought a 30-cent bread down the road, and read my book on a sunny rock. At this time the tour guide took pity on me slash continued his campaign to convince me to stay in his village and be “his wife” and offered me free fruit and free bread, which was excellent news for my budget.

The drive took us through the Atlas Mountains and Middle Atlas in a constantly-changing landscape. The roads were winding and fun, and when I asked our grand taxi (shared van/group taxis you can flag down from the side of any road) driver if he liked being a driver, he excitedly told me as a kid he played a racing game on Playstation and now he got to do it in real life!

On our final day we stopped in a small town for lunch. I took a screenshot of the Google Map to recall the name, but I have 12 unknown screenshots of random towns I thought looked “cool” so I am not clear which it was. Again I ditched the group (which was expected by now) and wandered the streets while eating my bread and banana rations. It was quite a cute place, and again worth more time than I had.

[Visited December 2019]



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