Morocco has it all: Surfing spots, mountains, rivers, canyons, farms, beaches and deserts. Marrakech is undoubtedly on the bucket list of anyone with the travel bug, for its notorious sense of chaos, overwhelming colors, smells and sounds in stark contrast to the tranquility found within the walls of the city's atmospheric luxury palaces and riads.
Once exhausted from the many streets of the medinas and scrubbed clean in the hammam, there are a million more experiences waiting outside of the city.
The best way to travel through Morocco is independently, using the country's vast network of amazing roads. Driving in Morroco is pretty safe and from our experience, driving standards were high and we saw very little of the dangerous driving that you might normally associate with Africa.
On our 10-day adventure in Morocco, we travelled through the Draa Valley by motorbike with Palm Road, then rented a 4 x 4 Mitsubishi Pajero for a road trip along the Atlantic Coast to Essaouira.
1. Ourika Valley
Known as a cool, blooming and colorful retreat from the stifling heat of the cities, this valley is home to a variety of plant life and cultivation due to its comfortable temperatures and location in the shade of the Atlas Mountains. Spring is when the valley really comes alive, offering beautiful treks through wild flowers and almond and cherry orchards.
It's only 45 minutes by car south of Marrakech, it's so easy to escape for a couple of days and learn about the nature and produce of the valley. Here are some suggestions of what you can do:
- Dar Taliba: a girl's secondary school specializing in botany and research on indigenous herbs and their properties. Run by a local NGO the school offers education to students from remote villages and tourists can support by visiting and sampling refreshing herbal teas between 3 and 5 pm Monday to Thursday and Saturday for a donation between Dh250 and 500.
- La Cledes Huiles: a mecca for olive enthusiasts, this eco-museum is housed in a farmhouse where you can learn all about the olive-oil making process with many tastings on offer. Also on site is a restaurant, accommodation and a pool hidden in the olive grove.
- Safronerie: Visitors to this saffron farm in early to mid-November between 4 and 5 am can witness the harvest of the saffron flower, with an option to buy this gold-dust at Dh13 per gram.
2. Ouirgane Valley
Another 45 minutes south brings you higher into the Atlas Mountains to the Toubkal National Park and the quaint Berber Village of Ouirgane. At 1,000 meters, travelers here will be rewarded with a quieter setting for great treks and mountain-biking excursions along the river, and up into the mountains to see the variety of birdlife that reside here. Here are some suggestions of what you can do/visit:
- Berber Markets: Asni on Saturdays is 15 kms away, Talat n' Yacoub on Wednesdays is 35 kms away and Ouirgane itself on Thursdays.
- Tinmal Mosque: This is nice to wander to slowly in the morning enjoying incredible views along the way.
- Activities: Walking, mule and horseback treks
3. Takerkoust Lake
Forty kilometres from Marrakech is a man-made lake. It was originally built to provide electricity to the city and surrounding areas, and also as irrigation for the fields of Haouz roughly 80 years ago. It is now popular with locals and tourists alike to swim, sunbathe and partake in the many available activities. Although it's not originally a natural feature, the lake blends beautifully with the stunning landscapes around it.
Recommended activities are:
- Activities on the lake: jet-skiing, kayaking, water-skiing, wake-boarding, pedal-boating and fishing
- On land: quad biking, walking, mountain-biking, horse-riding
- Above ground: microlight flights -- either as a passenger or pilot.
4. Tichka Pass
This pass through the High Atlas Mountains sits at 2,260 metres above sea level (the highest in Morocco), and travelers can find it by taking the Route Nationale 9 toward Ourzazate from Marrakech.
The best time to make this journey is in winter, with the possibility of adding snow-capped peaks to the already remarkable views. But take note that this is a very winding pass, so take lots of breaks to enjoy the scenery and avoid car sickness.
5. Draa Valley
The most lush section of this valley is the 95 km stretch between Agdez and Zagora, in which the most oases can be found emerging from the desert. This drive can be done in about four hours, but those with more time should take the Circuits Touristiques, which takes you directly through the vibrant scenery.
Places to visit in the valley:
- Zagora: a trading post and meeting place, this lonely spot often hosts lively festivals and a regional souk on Wednesday and Sunday.
- Tamegroute: a place of pilgrimage home to a Quranic school and also a library of ancient illuminated texts.
- Kasbah Timidarte: One of the finest examples dating from the 17th century, now open as a guest house.
6. Merzouga Dunes
Merzouga and Hassi Labied are two villages shadowed by dunes that rise dramatically above them, Erg Chebbi. The legend goes that these dunes bury a wealthy family who refused to shelter a poor woman and her son. As a punishment from God, they are now the dream destination of visitors seeking a once in a lifetime desert experience.
A paved road from Ouarzazate gives access to the edge of the dunes, where many tour companies offer journeys by 4WD, and of course, by camel back.
7. Todra Canyon
If timed correctly, tourists will arrive at this orange limestone ravine early in the morning in time to see the sun's golden glow light up the gorge and the crystal-clear river below.
The deepest points of the fault reach 300 meters with a narrow pass for trekkers to follow. Traveling from Tinerhir, you will pass through green palm groves and Berber villages for 15 km before reaching this magnificent site.
8. Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou
South Morroco's silhouette is one of overlapping blocks rising into hillsides as a result of the traditional Ksars, many houses crowded inside defense walls with corner towers for extra fortification.
Ourzazate is home to one of most striking of these pre-saharan architectural treasures, Ait-Ben-Haddou.
9. Ammeln Valley
This valley is home to 26 villages, rich in cultivated green land and stunning backdrops of the Jebel el Kest. The landscape around these villages is perfect for trekking, biking or rock-climbing and a few of these worth mentioning are:
- Oumesnat: home to La Maison Traditionelle, which resides a Berber family teaching visitors about daily life there
- Anameur: the source of a natural spring
- Tazoulte: famous for its ancient Jewish Cemetery and Jewish silverware
- Tagoudiche: the highest village accessible by a rough track in 4 x 4
- Tirnmatmat: even further and more remote where prehistoric rock-carvings can be found.
- The Ameln Valley has the majestic Jebel el Kest as a backdrop, with gold and copper colored terrain punctuated with patches of green cultivated land watered by springs and irrigation canals. The valley has 26 villages.
10. Tizi'n Test Pass (2000 meters)
Almost reaching the height of the Tichka pass at 2,092 meters above sea level is Tizi n' Test. It cuts right through the centre of the Atlas Mountains connecting Marrakech with the Souss Plain and the desert.
Since its completion by the French in 1932, the engineering required has been admired for allowing important trade passage that had been otherwise impossible before.
While maneuvering the hair-pin bends travelers can appreciate incredible panoramas of the Souss Valley and spot the groups of villages in the Nfiss Valley on the descent.
Note: This article first appeared on my Travel blog, 15 Places to go in South Morocco that you must not miss.