Most visitors to Morocco usually plan to visit cities like Marrakech, Chefchaouen, Casablanca, and Tangier. My first trip to the North African nation in 2019 was spent exploring these popular tourist destinations. When Ouarzazate popped onto my radar, however, as a lover of history, architecture, and culture, I knew it was a place I had to experience the next time I traveled to Morocco.
Last month, I visited Morocco for the second time, using Marrakech as my base. Located southwest of Marrakech, about a 3 1/2-hour drive from the famed Red City, Ouarzazate is known as “the door to the desert” and people often stop there on their way to the Sahara. The journey there takes you up winding roads through the High Atlas Mountains for some truly scenic views.
While many people choose to visit Ouarzazate as a day trip from Marrakech, there are plenty of nice, affordable hotels you can book if you’d like to spend the night there. Available accommodations include auberges, traditional riads, and even ksars in a historic kasbah.
My family and I opted to stay at Guest House Bagdad Café, which was $45 for the night. The mix of authentic Moroccan charm with modern amenities was perfect for us. The hotel’s café served amazing food and the staff was so wonderful and attentive. The pool was a great place to cool down after a long, hot day and watching the sunset from the rooftop was a special treat. Best of all, the location was convenient for walking to the Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Ksar (fortified village) was the highlight of my trip. The group of structures is the most famous example of southern Moroccan architecture in the area. Fashioned from compressed mud, earth, and straw in the 17th century, and surrounded by protective walls and corner towers, only five families still live in the Ksar today. We were given a tour by Murad, a member of one of the remaining five families.
Murad and his people, the Berbers, are the indigenous people of North Africa. He guided us through the maze-like dwellings and up many sets of stairs, showing us different parts of his home and culture, including indoor kitchens with handmade vessels and tools, outdoor clay ovens for baking bread, a mosque, and various shops and terraces. One of my favorite parts of the tour was seeing how the Berbers used tea to inscribe secret messages, which could then be revealed by the recipient when held over a flame. There were various artworks on display that were also painted using tea.
Despite not having electricity or running water, Murad prefers this simple life to city living. Relying heavily on tourism for income, he had to work in Agadir during the COVID-19 pandemic when tourists stopped visiting Ait Ben Haddou. He was relieved when he was finally able to leave the bustle and noise behind and return home to the quiet and serene Ksar.
In addition to the money tourism brings in, the film industry also contributes to revenue for residents of the area. Over the years, Ait Ben Haddou has served as a filming location for numerous shows and films, including The Mummy, Babel, Lawrence of Arabia, Prince of Persia, Jewel of the Nile, and many more. In fact, it served as the city of Yunkai in my favorite show of all time, Game of Thrones, and was a filming location for one of my favorite movies, Gladiator, in which Murad was an extra in 1999.
Less than a half-hour away lies one of the largest film studios in the world. Touring Atlas Film Studios, I saw amazing vehicles, authentic props, and elaborate movie sets used in many Hollywood films I never would have guessed were filmed in Morocco. With property on nearby mountains and desert land, the area’s environment is able to pass for that of many other countries and regions. Sets mimic scenes in ancient Rome, Egypt, China, Greece, Somalia, and other settings. Movies and shows shot in the studio’s grounds include Black Hawk Down, Vikings, Prison Break, Kundun, Kingdom of Heaven, Disney‘s Aladdin, and many more.
Visiting the province of Ouarzazate was a most enlightening and memorable experience. It was unlike any of the other Moroccan cities I’ve visited. I highly recommend checking it out when in Morocco!