Cities of Sand: Ksar Ait Ben Haddou and Ouarzazate, Morocco

Driving along East Central Morocco is an experience all by itself, not because the roads are particularly difficult or getting anywhere is complicated, but because of the contrasts flowing rivers bring to an otherwise sandy and barren landscape. About 200 km away from Marrakech is the city of Ouarzazate, perched along the valley formed by the junction of three rivers: the Draa, the Dad├ęs and the Ziz. Once you get used to the light brown and sometime ocher colors of the hills and Atlas mountains arriving to lush valleys that appear to be in the wrong place is like a breath of fresh air, an invigorating panorama that contrasts with what any traveler expects to find here.

Ouarzazate

I found Ouarzazate to be one of the cleanest cities in central Morocco, despite being surrounded by dry hills where rain seldom appears. This is a city that certainly deserves more hours than most of the tours allow, and a great base camp from which to explore some of the nearby Kasbahs said to be among the most spectacular in all Morocco. The adobe houses defy the lush trees standing along the valley walls, waiting to be photographed any time of the day. The city itself doesn’t have much action going on, but there is a movie studio that can be visited.

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Adobe walls in Ouarzazate: the movie studios

Ait Ben Haddou

This is the most spectacular ksar I have seen anywhere- not that I’ve seen a lot, but I find it difficult to think that there any many more stunning and picturesque than this one. It is just 30 km away from Ouarzazate and I highly recommend you visit this beautiful location if you’re anywhere close. Make sure you bring several memory cards for your camera as I only found one store that sold them- at three times their value.

Ksars are fortified villages consisting of attached houses usually located on hill tops and sharing some collective structures like mosques, baths and shops. The ksar at Ait Ben Haddou doesn’t lack the intricate streets made by awkwardly placed homes and several of them are still inhabited by easy going families who are obviously not worried about time.

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One of the best views of ksar Ait Ben Haddou

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Some locals and visitors crossing the dry river

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The adobe house in the ksar. Some are still inhabited

While the ksar is stunning and a gem, it is also somewhat isolated so make sure you visit it carrying plenty of your own water. It is not uncommon for temperatures to rise above 50C (100F) and the dry dust appears to find its way anywhere as soon as a gentle breeze blows. This said there are a few simple restaurants that serve overpriced tagine or couscous ; slightly more complicated meals (but never much) are beyond these prices and from what I saw not worth the spending.

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It was around 45C when this picture was taken- that’s around 120F. The plastic bag you see was half a bottle of water I finished right after the pic.

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A photo taken inside one of the few inhabited houses. It was easily 20C cooler than outside.

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A shop in Ait Ben Haddou

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View from the top of ksar Ait Ben Haddou

Ait Ben Haddou is probably one of the most visited and famous ksars anywhere in the world- although you might not be aware of it. Its perhaps because of its safe location and admirable landscapes that movies like Lawrence of Arabia (1964), Gladiator (2000) or Prince of Persia (2010) were filmed here and I am sure there are many still to come. Make sure any tour you book for this part of Morocco includes a stop here, bring plenty of water, a ready-to-shoot camera and an inquisitive attitude as this is one of the most beautiful sights I have seen in the world. The ksar is free to visit but if coming with a tour expect to be asked for a tip.

Have you visited central Morocco? How about Ouarzazate and the beautiful ksar of Ait Ben Haddou? Is this one of those places you’d like to visit? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below and this post too if you liked it!

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