Marrakech is one of the most colourful, vibrant and bustling cities you could visit. It will draw you into its kaleidoscopic vortex and before you know it, you’ll find yourself lost in the medina, looking for the lantern or carpet you plan on taking home with you. Yet, as colourful and exciting as Marrakech is, it can sometimes feel a little overwhelming. Besides, I wanted to explore a part of Morocco that I had not been to!
My boyfriend and I had already planned on spending some time in the Atlas Mountains, so just one day after I landed in Marrakech we hired a car and made our way to Setti Fadma, just one and a half hours away by car from Marrakech. Setti Fadma is a little village that’s seen a whole lot of tourist action in the past decade and is neatly nestled in a canyon beneath the High Atlas mountains.
The Berber village of Setti Fatma is actually in the Ourika Valley. The valley is located about 45 minutes from Marrakech, although there are about 30 kilometres between the town of Ourika – where you can say the valley begins – until Setti Fatma, which is where the road ends and you can contemplate the best views. In this last section, the winding road runs alongside a small river that anticipates the landscapes that will be contemplated later and has enough restaurants to enjoy a delicious lunch by the river.
Once we arrived in the village, we headed straight towards our accommodation, a superb room at the bottom end of the village, right by the Oued River. Opening onto the garden, our room offered a river and mountains view together with our own seating area and private terrace. We could not have asked for anything more as it was pure bliss in fantastic surroundings!
Setti Fadma is famous for its waterfalls with waterfall hikes ranging from pleasant 20-minute strolls to rather more arduous treks. You can follow the paths yourself or have a guide lead the way on foot or by mule. Each waterfall is found higher up the mountain and becomes more difficult to scale. It’s can be tremendous fun, though: heaving yourselves over boulders, hopping along dry stones to cross rivers, and scrabbling up steeper rock faces. Not that much fun for us though as we are both scared of heights! But we overcame our fears and enjoyed the views and the trek itself!
The morning after we arrived in Setti Fadma, we decided to hike up to the waterfall. Even though we could have walked it, we decided to drive to the closest car park to the waterfall trail. After we had safely parked the car, we found a guide, or rather the guide found us! He offered to take us up to the cascades but not by the usual touristy route so that we could also admire the views. Probably a bit expensive but we had a great time and it’s nice to keep the locals in work. All in all, it was actually a good idea to hire a guide as he took us along the more picturesque route and made sure we were safe all the time.
The “hike” is manageable for most, but it does get quite slippery so be careful. However, it was definitely worth the hike to the top to see the first three cascades The seven waterfalls, of which only the last three can be seen in the lower part of the mountain, are a half hour’s walk from the village, always up stony mountain trails. If you decide to take the direct route to the first cascade, then you need to follow the road that runs parallel to the streams that come down from the mountains.
After visiting the waterfalls you can enjoy a delicious tajine by the river or on a panoramic terrace, as if it were a picnic, highly recommended. However, to get better (and cheaper) prices for the same quality of food, it’s best to move a bit further down the river.
Following our two days in Setti Fadma, we made our way towards Imlil, a small village that has become the centre for high mountain trekking. It may lack the charm and tradition of other Berber villages in the Atlas, but it makes up for it in adventure and scenery. From here you are surrounded by often snow-capped peaks, the highest of which is Mount Toubkal at 4167 metres.
Google Maps provided us with the fastest route which should have taken us around two hours but we decided to take a ‘short cut’ along mountain passes which took us close to three hours instead as these roads are poorly maintained, twisted and rather treacherous at times! In fact, I think I had the car in just 2nd gear most of the way! My boyfriend was terrified at times but I calmed him down by saying that I’m an experience driver who has driven along similar mountain passes in the past, particularly in Albania. In any case, the journey to Imlil still took our breath away but in more ways than one as the views along the way are fantastic.
Imlil is the main base for attempting to summit Toubkal, the highest peak of North Africa. Almost 90% of tourists visiting Imlil come here to climb Toubkal. However, you don’t need to climb Toubkal to visit Imlil. Surrounded by the Toubkal National Park and located at 1800 metres altitude, Imlil is dotted with small Berber villages. Here, you can explore these authentic villages, breath fresh mountain air, and relax.
Imlil is a perfect place to escape into the Atlas Mountains. Compared to Marrakech, the region of Imlil is cooler and more tranquil. Besides, here in Imlil, prices for accommodation and provisions are nothing compared to what they cost in Marrakech. In fact, we were staying at a local guesthouse for just €16 per night, including breakfast!
One of the reasons so many tourists make day trips from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains is because of the food. Breakfast is a feast of home-made bread dripping with olive oil. In fact, in Imlil, we ate breakfast on the sunny terrace with stunning views of the surrounding mountains! And we were amazed by the amount of apple trees not only in the hills and mountains surrounding the village but right outside our bedroom window!
In Imlil, you are not annoyed by the touristic crowds and people selling you everything (like Ourika valley or Ouzoud waterfalls). Of course, you will meet other travellers, especially in the day time, when groups come for day trekking activities. However, travellers visiting the village are somehow different to the ones in Marrakech. They all come to Imlil for an authentic experience and respect the peaceful nature. And if you decide to stay overnight, as we did, you’ll have Imlil pretty much to yourself in the early morning and late evening.
If trekking is not your thing, then I would suggest visiting the waterfall for an easy and beautiful walking trail. The path towards the waterfall is surrounded by local shops and on the way you will meet locals riding their mules and donkeys. You can find the waterfall yourself by asking locals or by using Google Maps; you don’t need a guide here unlike at Setti Fadma. Although the waterfall itself is nothing wow you will still enjoy the walking experience and the freshly squeezed orange juice sold at the spot.
All in all, I found driving pretty safe in Morocco, even along the winding mountain passes, but then I’m used to the crazy driving in my own country Malta and I’m also an experienced driver who has driven in various other countries, including along mountain passes. However, if driving is not for you, then you can easily take a tour from Marrakech. There are many tours to choose from but be careful, do your research and ask many providers beforehand as you may get scammed in Morocco. And if you do decide to hire a car, just make sure you keep your passport handy just in case you might be asked for it at a police checkpoint. In our case, there was no need for that as we were waved through with a smile and a warm greeting the three times we were stopped!
The appeal of the Atlas Mountains lies in its many contradictions. Here, arid desert landscapes and snow-capped peaks (not in the summer of course!) frame fertile valleys dotted with remote Berber villages so make sure you add them to your bucket list. The best time to visit is in autumn (October to November) where temperatures are mild. It gets really hot in the summer, and it snows in January and February. I went in October and it was a bit chilly at times, but it’s a nice time to visit.
There are many ways to visit this colossal artery that runs the length of Morocco, depending on how much you want to immerse yourself in mountain magnificence. You can chill out at a beautiful guesthouse, breathe in the mountain air, take in the fine views and eat superb Moroccan food. You can go hardcore and summit Mount Toubkal (north Africa’s highest mountain), or you can walk at your own pace on a tailor made trip, driving across the high mountain passes as we did. And you can even push the boat out and go canyoning, cycling or camping. The world is your Atlas!