Visiting Morocco and wanting a taste of adventure and mountain life? Your best option is a Marrakech 4×4 day trip in the Atlas Mountains – just add hiking to Imin Tala and you have the perfect mountain adventure.
Each day spent in Marrakech is a day you’ll be teased with rooftop views of a mountain range named after a Greek god holding up the skies – a tempting reminder of the adventure offered just an hour away. Hiking in the Atlas Mountains was a great escape from the city and an introduction to what Morocco has to offer adventure travellers.
Marrakech is a maze of alleyways, a blur of activity and bustle: colours, smells, intriguing geodesic patterns, and those crazy moped drivers. I loved it, but after three days we needed the mountains. With just a day to spare we also needed an expert guide who could give us a real insight into not only the mountains, but also the local culture.
We rolled out with Maroc Nature and two guides, both Berbers and born in the mountains. After making quick work of the morning traffic we got to see another side of Marrakech: Sprawling estates and new developments are testament to a country that’s fast developing, and struggling in places to keep up appearances.
Where the souks are filled with colour, the suburbs look bleak by comparison. That said, it wasn’t long before we broke from the road and into the foothills.
I have to say at this point it was a little underwhelming. With heavy clouds obscuring the view of the mountains you need a little faith that you’re on the road to adventure. Thankfully it wasn’t long before we got what we were looking for.
The road north dips and curves up over Agafay, otherwise known as Marrakech Desert. From May to October it’s a barren place, befitting its name, however throughout winter its rolling hillocks are covered with freshly sown barley giving it a short green head of hair. After a couple of easy stream crossings, and some pretty skillful 4×4 driving, we were back on the hard top. But the easy going wasn’t to last…
The previous day’s downpour had brought down the small bridge into Infirwin forcing us to backtrack, winding off-road to the next solid road. At this point it was clear just how isolated these villages are and how much they are at the mercy of the weather: piles of stones in the road were the only indication that the road ahead ended in a watery drop; worth considering if you plan to venture this way at night…in fact, I’d not drive here at night without a guide.
We paused to walk for a while – the morning tea had run its course – and got our first feel of the ground. We climbed briefly into a pine forest, the soil claggy and rich, the air crisp and refreshing after the stress of the city.
Back in the wagon we plateaued at Amizmiz (960m/3140ft), about 75km south of Marrakech, and collected tangerines for the trip. Surprisingly, there are hotels up in the foothills. The empty looking Hotel France a reminder of the French connection felt across this once colonial interest of both Spain and France.
At this point the clouds cleared and the as yet elusive mountains appeared. Rising like a wave to our left, at first they looked lush and forested, yet hiding behind this pleasant front were the pyramidal peaks of the High Atlas Mountains. Hard edged and snow covered they came and went from view, teasing as we climbed ever higher.
There are six separate ranges in the Atlas Mountain Range, which spreads across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Marrakech sits under the gaze of the High Atlas, home to the region’s tallest peaks, which top out at a blood thinning 4,165 meters/13,665 feet on Mount Toubkal.
It’s about this time you realize that your Marrakech 4×4 day trip in the Atlas Mountains isn’t for the faint-hearted; there are no second chances on these roads and you’d need to be cooler than a Moroccan Mojito to not be white-knuckling your armrest from time to time!
(Huge credit here to our Maroc Nature driver – who quickly became our new best friend thanks to his deft driving skills)
The Berbers are descendants of the pre-Arab inhabitants of North Africa. While communities exist across Morocco, they are increasingly economically tied to the country’s growing cities and the challenges of modern life.
The fast-growing Marrakech needs natural resources and building materials, and pulls them aplenty from these mountains (look out for strong slices of iron in the exposed strata). This, however, poses an issue for driving as often there’s only room for one vehicle – and the truck full of quarried stones coming downhill inevitably gets right of way!
Dropping off the road it’s possible, and sometimes necessary, to drive up the riverbed between villages. We jumped out at this point and began hiking to Imin Tala (Imi ‘NTala / Imi n Tala) one of the main Berber villages.
Along the route there’s repeated reminders of the irrigation skills the Moroccans are famous for, with streams neatly tapped to feed tidy terraces cut from the hills. To one side there was what looked like a small orchard, to the other young trees in blossom. Underfoot the light brown mud made hiking to Imin Tala slippy in places, and above our heads the skies cleared and shapes appeared of the peaks we were searching for.
Imin Tala (1500m/ 4800ft) is one of three Berber villages on the climb to the highest peak at Djebel Toubkal. Houses here are made from local stone and earth, with the village in an armchair cut from the hill, opening spectacular views across the Anogal valley.
The home we visited was tardis-like: we were led through a corridor that branched past rooms and open family spaces before it reached the kitchen. Berbers build their houses this way so as to house the whole family; we’d forgotten that today only some would be present – it was a Friday and prayers were just getting under way.
As we settled on the family’s terrace with yet another tea – I swear they have more tea and biscuits than the English on a wet October afternoon – the call to prayer sounded from the nearby mosque. It’s a sound I’ve always loved since I heard it in Bosnia some time ago (depending on who is calling). Today the imam’s calls sent right up the valley and bounced back in echo from the High Atlas Mountains, now in full view.
We stopped our chatter and listened together, respectful for a moment of a religion we in the west often find difficult to understand. Here daily life and religion are as one.
Food was tagine (the name of both the clay pot and the dish – it’s slow-cooked lamb or chicken, topped with vegetables and flavoured with local spices) and fresh oranges, with warm bread straight from a clay oven. The bread is like an over-sized circular nan – and it didn’t last long between four of us! We used it to mop up the dregs of the tagine to the sound of the sermon, then tried impossibly to catch the moment on three cameras.
Leaving town we passed the men folk dressed in their long hooded Djellabas, ever cautious of the camera. Top Tip: Don’t photograph people in Morocco without asking permission. It turns out that tempted by the beauty and backstreets, foreigners have often taken pictures without permission and residents have later found themselves in Western publications. Don’t do it.
With any Marrakech 4×4 day trip in the Atlas Mountains you’ll benefit from a guide as well as an experienced driver. Our guide Hicham was born in a village similar to the one we visited and his insight was invaluable. He has a skill of letting you enjoy the moment without turning it into a guided tour. He answered questions with ease and some detail. What we enjoyed most was his company; a kind fellow, with a love of the mountains and his culture.
For safety, definitely take a guided trip. As much as it’s tempting to head off alone into the mountains, I’d think twice.
What’s great about using a specialist tour company, such as Maroc Nature, is that they can tailor the day’s activities to suit your fitness level. Conquering peaks is possible, but so is walking the final 4km into a village in time for food.
If, like me, you wince at the thought of an organized adventure, you’ll be pleased to know it’s possible to take a Marrakech 4×4 day trip in the Atlas Mountains and not be part of the tourist trail. On the day we were the only tourists there. No trip buses. No swathes of selfie takers. And it felt like a real adventure. We’ll definitely return, Insha’Allah.
If you are interested in a Marrakech 4×4 day trip in the Atlas Mountains and would like to experience hiking to Imin Tala then check out Moroc-Nature based in Marrakech. They offer a range of activities, including guided trekking, family trips and bespoke mountain biking tours. They are also the official Cannondale supplier locally through another company Atlas Sport Morocco.
Thanks to Hassan, Hircham and the wonderful Julia Horbaschk @bunt_am_meer for helping with images for this Marrakech 4×4 day trip in the Atlas Mountains article.