Touristing in Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains
Originally posted December 19th 2016 on my tumblr.
Although Casablanca, Morocco is an iconic city thanks to one of the most famous movies of all time, it is not actually much of a tourist destination. In reality, Casa is much more industrial than touristic. If you have ever been to Disney’s Epcot and seen Morocco, it is not based on Casa. Instead, it is modeled primarily after Marrakesh (more often written Marrakech, the French spelling) an inland city at the foot of the Atlas Mountains.
I haven’t done much touristing here in Morocco, but that changed the weekend before Thanksgiving when I spent three days in Marrakesh with my friend Charlotte. We departed Friday morning on a comfortable 3 hour train ride, arriving just after noon. We were overcharged by our taxi from the station to the main square, but we had been told to expect as much. After a bit of wandering in the area of Jamaa el Fna, the center of the old medina, we found our hostel. We were annoyed to also be overcharged here, due to an undisclosed city tax almost doubling the price of the hostel and also being crammed with six other people into a room meant for four. Here in Morocco you’ve got to be prepared to roll your eyes and then roll with the punches when these things happen, so once we had deposited our belongings in our room, we found a cute tajine place for lunch and then we did some exploring.
The area around Jamaa el Fna is so touristy that you might suspect you’re actually at Disney Epcot. On the one hand, this means there’s lots of cool stuff, like street performers and snake charmers and markets full of beautiful leather goods and ceramics and bronze trinkets, and it’s also very accommodating to foreigners with language. On the other hand, the commercialized nature of it makes it feel less authentic, and it means you have to be wary all the time. Wary of pickpockets, wary of being overcharged, and wary of the promoters and salespeople who will stop at nothing to rope you into their shops or restaurants. Due to the constant badgering to buy simcards or step inside a shop, I’m definitely glad to live in Casa and not Marrakesh. In Casa, I’m occasionally bullied into overpaying for taxi fares, but most of the time, locals don’t see my foreign-ness as an invitation to cheat me, and I appreciate that very much since visiting Marrakesh. That said, Charlotte and I still had a lovely time. On Friday we wandered through the souks, visited a small but stunning museum, and ate dinner at a rooftop café.
On Saturday, we ate breakfast and chatted with other travelers at the hostel before we met the driver for our tour in the Atlas Mountains. They arrived right on time and we met the British couple that we would hang out and hike with that day. We climbed into the van and set off for the hazy outline of mountains on the horizon.
Just over an hour later, we arrived in Imlil, a small Berber town in the mountains that has grown to be the home base for most of the outdoor adventure tourism in the region of Marrakesh. I fell in love instantly. Unlike Casablanca or even Marrakesh, Imlil is surrounded by patches of woods that were halfway through turning bright fall colors. The mountains are rugged and capped with snow. When we arrived at 10 in the morning, the temperature was close to freezing, and we were given mint tea or coffee to warm up while our guide Hussein explained the routes to us. Then we set off on our walk. It was mostly uphill, so within half an hour, we had shed layers down to our t-shirts, tying jackets around our waists and slinging them over our bags, that quintessential tourist look.
As we gained elevation, the fantastic views only got better, and it was such a lovely break from the city for my nature-loving soul that I felt like I was floating up the mountain. We crossed some streams and saw a waterfall where an orange juice seller had outfitted his stand with a funnel to divert the frigid water over his fruit supply so that the juice he squeezed out would be fresh and ice cold. At one point, I was taking a photo of a green valley where a few Berber locals were shepherding a flock of sheep against a dramatic snowcapped mountain backdrop when I was berated by an elderly lady, who went so far as to shake her cane at me. I clumsily apologized and put my camera away, and the encounter provoked conversation amongst ourselves about the complicated relationship between tourists and this kind of small community.
As much as I valued the opportunity to see and learn about a culture so different from my own, I could see why locals might resent the foreigners who pay to come walk through their villages. I had no qualms about enjoying the landscape, but suddenly it felt uncomfortably voyeuristic to take photographs of the heavily-loaded donkeys in their bright-colored blankets as men in traditional robes led them across a mountain stream. As picturesque as these scenes struck me, these were people’s everyday lives and I felt like a rude neighbor peeking over the fence to satisfy my own nosy curiosity. Tourism is an important part of Imlil’s economy, and we used a company owned and operated by Berber locals, so I was slightly reassured by the fact that my money was going directly to this community, but I kept my camera pointed away from the people after that.
Not long after the waterfall, we descended into a different village where we had a delicious tajine lunch on a sunny rooftop. It was a perfect break from the steep climbs. Afterward we completed the loop and found ourselves back in Imlil. The tour company drove us back to Marrakesh, where Charlotte and I enjoyed a delicious dinner at Nomad, an excellent rooftop restaurant.
On Sunday morning, we took a walk past Marrakesh’s famous mosque as well as a park where there were art exhibits on display related to the recently concluded COP22 environmental conference. After that we relaxed in yet another rooftop café (truly a highlight of the city of Marrakesh) until it was time to head back to the train station. The train ride back to Casablanca was made unpleasant by the stifling heat despite the cool weather outside, but we eventually made it back to Casablanca. There were a few hiccups and we did not hit all of Marrakesh’s top sights, but the hiking was therapeutic and it was great to hang out and explore with Charlotte. Overall it was a great week!