When planning our road trip through Morocco, we included a visit to Ouarzazate region, especially for the beauty of Ait Benhaddou ksar. I’ve added it to our moroccan bucket list cause it looked like a giant sand castle. What can I say, always keeping in touch with my inner child. Until then, I had never heard about this place, but Mihai recognized it as a filming location for Game of Thrones. Cause a geek always a geek. Obviously, no negotiation was needed, since we both had our own hidden agenda.
Ouarzazate is the perfect starting point when exploring the southern part of Morocco. In the past, the town was the administrative center of the region, being developed with this purpose during the French colonization. In addition, the place is known as the gate to the Sahara Desert. Being at around 4 hours driving distance from Marrakech, Ouarzazate is the first berber town from the south. It is also known for its amazing sunsets and for the cool landscapes combining both desert and mountains.
Ouarzazate is called the Moroccan Hollywood. The cheap filming fees and the pieces of history were the perfect combination for movie makers. The Cinema Museum, Atlas Film Studios and CLA Film Studios can be visited. People can see the places where movies like: Troy, The Mummy, Alexander the Great, The Exorcist or Gladiatior were filmed. The entrance fees vary between 3-5 EUR.
Ouarzazate is also a historical site, as it is home to Toruit Kasbah.
Since we were on a hurry, considering our final destination – Ksar of Ait Benhaddou, we only visisted a film set and we had a look from the outside at the Kasbah.
What is a Ksar
In the past, the Ksar were places larger than the villages, but smaller than the cities containing several Kasbahs. They were a mixture of community, culture, religion and wealth. The Ksars were home to several families, sometimes only relatives were living there, sometimes not because they were very welcoming to people of different religions.
Being built from red clay, most ksars played a role of fortresses and were raised to a tall height to provide a good view when recognizing potential attacks. The houses were not terribly sophisticated, but the upper floors (3-4) were decorated with ornamental patterns. Moreover, a tower is built in every corner of the house. The more sophisticated the towers, the richer the owner. Many towers are so overly-decorated that they seem to have crowns. However, since they were all made of some kind of crunch, after many years, due to weather conditions, they collapse.
Hundreds of buildings like these are found throughout Morocco, but in the southern part of the country, they are not only relics of history, but also homes for many families. The homes ( kasbahs ) express the simple lifestyle of the locals, as well as the great aspirations of the desert rich people.
All in all, it is certain that the spectacular design of the ksars and their kasbahs attract visitors from all over the world and locals take full advantage of it.
Ksar Ait BenHaddou is a fortified citadel, part of UNESCO heritage. Being placed on the commercial route, on the way to and from the Sahara, this was a safe haven for merchants in old times. It consists of six Kasbahs from the 17th century. The fortress is more than a town on a hill, it’s a piece of history. Some craftsmen still have small shops in the fortress, and some families continued living there without electricity, water or gas. Most people moved to the other side of the river, in the new village, where all the hotels and restaurants are.
Where and how
When you decide to travel to Ouarzazate, Ait Ben Haddou is the place that should be on your list. The Ksar is located 30 km from Ouarzazate, on the way to Marrakech. Below, I’ve put together a list of things to do in Ait Ben Haddou, some tips on where to eat, information on how to get there, how much it costs, and how long do you need to be there.
There are no restaurants in the fortress because there are no utilities. All facilities are located over the river in the new area. The prices are decent, you will obviously get the menus and tourist scores. We tried to ask for local (more varied) menus everywhere we ate in Morocco and luckily for us we got them. We went for traditional stuff: vegetarian tajin. We were on a road trip and there are not so many things that could go wrong with this dish.
The Ksar is open from 8am to sunset. Travelers can access the village through the main entrance where 1 EUR per person is perceived as a donation to restore the fortress. There are other entries that can be used, but locals might ask more money from the tourists to allow the use of those entries. Check and make sure you do not get into unpleasant situations because, as I have said before, the Moroccans take full advantage of the tourists’ pockets.
As a small tip, the first word we learned in Morocco was “laa” which means ”no”. For sure this was also the word we used the most often in our attempts to dribble all sales and service guides. You do not need a guide to visit the city, although many will offer their assistance. The guide will be paid extra even if you arrive at Ait Ben Haddou on an organized tour and you have already paid your trip. If you have bad luck and you are stuck with a guide, negotiate the price before you start your tour.
Things to do and see in Ait Ben Haddou
Walking through the fortress
The Ksar is small and easy to see. 3-4 hours are more than enough to explore the whole area. The fortress was beyond our expectations, being completely different from the crazy Marrakech or Fes. We felt safe, so we explored the streets and we got lost through the maze. And I literally mean: we got lost. Somewhere between the base and the upper part of the fortress we made a wrong move and we found ourselves inside the home of one of the few families living there. We fled quickly as we were not sure about the owners’ reactions and we wanted to avoid trouble..
It is worth climbing both hills, the hill above the Ksar and the one in front of it, because they offer completely different perspectives of the area. As we visited Ait BenHaddou at the end of February, the panoramas were amazing: hundreds of palm trees and oases were at the base, while the Atlas Mountains covered in snow were in the backdrop.
You should visit the souvenir shops, if you have the time. The local craftsmen sold souvenirs that were different from those in Marrakech and Fes. Haven’t checked the prices, but obviously, you will pay for all of them the tourist prices. I really appreciated the store owners who were less pushy in forcing us to buy something.
The interior of a Kasbah
It is a must to visit the interior of a Kasbah and climb its stairs (preferably an uninhabited one, which is already a museum). We’ve checked them both, thanks to our lack of orientation skills. Anyway, going inside a Kasbah was a nice chance to catch a glimpse of the Berber culture, especially of their lifestyle.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it. I recommend this place. It deserves a visit and it is actually one of our top three best Moroccan experiences.
Until next time,