Trip Report: Lower Atlas Mountains through Berber Villages

Submitted by Laurel Bradley, December 2015; Photo above is of our guide Jamal and the author.

Taking advantage of cheap international flights from my 2015-16 homebase of Dublin, Ireland, my husband and I travelled to Morocco for the 2015 Christmas season. Avid hikers, we sought access to mountains near Marrakech, our debarkation point. We found the perfect opportunity to walk 4-6 hours daily through agricultural valleys and rocky or forested mountains, and to experience the particular pleasures of Berber culture with a five day, four night journey organized by Berber Travel Adventures, a small company based in Amazmiz (55 km from Marrakech). Jamal, the sole proprietor and trained mountain guide, led the way. We were also accompanied by Mohammad, an able and cheerful muleteer, and by Maria, the patient beast of burden.  They put together a great trip for us!

Day 1: Amizmiz to Ait Irghit (12 km; 4 hour walk)

Our Berber adventure began with a tour through the weekly souk or market, scheduled for Tuesdays in Amizmiz for centuries. Intense smells, sounds and sights accompanied commercial transactions over fruit, vegetables, meat, spices, clothing and services. Highlights of this market immersion included a view of the “donkey parking lot” and a roasted chicken lunch – our first of many meals eaten by hand, with torn pieces of local flatbread as eating utensils. By early afternoon, we were on the trail, heading up into the Atlas foothills along traditional footpaths that led through small villages, and terraced fields – roughly ploughed, some sprouting brand-new barley plants awaiting rain.

Dry open country alternated with cultivated fields and a thick pine forest throughout the afternoon. Finally, as we made our way around to the other side of the front range, signs of intense cultivation greeted us – orchards, green terraces, all fed by irrigation ditches. We had arrived at our first overnight spot – Mohammad’s home village – and indeed, Mohammad’s family compound. His dwelling unfolded on the hillside; walls contained a rough space for the mule, and then a doorway into a rectangular courtyard circled by rooms including our bedroom and the all-important kitchen set into the corner of the complex. Mohammad’s wife, daughter-in-law, and two young grandsons made us welcome as we relaxed over tea. That night we feasted on the first of twice-daily tagines (just about) – made with fish purchased in the market down below in Amizmiz.

We bedded down in sleeping bags provided by Jamal, with extra warmth pulled from blanket stacks that are a regular feature in these village homes.

Day 2: Ait Irghit to Imintala (27 km, 5-6 hour walk)

Morning sought warmth with the family in the kitchen, where bread was being prepared in the open-topped round fireplace/oven. I accepted a pre-breakfast snack of warm white gruel made from flour, barley, water and salt (villagers work long hours, taking small meals every few hours at home). Our regular breakfast was served after we had packed our belongings; we enjoyed flatbread (its distinctive curved shape derived from the fireplace/oven), olive oil, hard-boiled eggs, olives, honey and fresh butter AND the ubiquitous Moroccan tea – a blend of green tea, mint, other herbs, and sugar.

The walk wended through a pine and oak forest (even though protected by law it is constantly under threat by villagers in of firewood and animal feed), across open terrain and with views of terraced valleys surrounding villages. As became our pattern, lunchtime was spent in a village – where we were welcomed into a home with courtyard and reception room lined with upholstered benches or beds. Today we dined right under the village mosque – our host a former imam. Lunch was followed by naptime followed by a few final hours on the trail with very comfortable daytime temperatures in the low 70s F.

We spent the evening in a relatively large village, located near a prolific spring, and nestled against towering red rock cliffs sculpted into fantastic shapes.   Our host resided with multiple generations in a large house with imposing façade paid for by years of employment in France. A cleansing bathe in the domestic hammam washed away dust accumulated over two days’ walk.

Day 3: Imintala to Anomrou (short day, 4.5 hrs)

Another beautiful walking day, happily absorbing the sun to store up warmth against our eventual return to cold Northern climes. The chilly morning quickly gave way to very comfortable walking temperatures; a touch of sunscreen and a sunhat added protection from the North African sunshine. By evening, though, we were reminded that ours was a winter journey when temperatures dipped to the upper 30s Fahrenheit. Since Berber houses are not heated (wood is too scarce) we spent a couple of evenings completely wrapped in blankets as we settled in to our quarters to chat, read, and then eat another tasty tagine together.

Each day, as we approach a village, small children gather to greet up with loud “bonjours!” And requests for “stylos” – pens or pencils – which are apparently more popular tokens of exchange than candy. At Jamal’s request, we had brought a stash of pencils and writing pads as gifts for children of our nightly hosts. Berbers have a splendid tradition of hospitality, sheltering travelers for up to three days. Although we were paying guests, the hosts – usually a younger man – served us and then often joined us to partake of tea during lunch and evening meals. A daughter – usually in the early teenage years – usually also attended to our needs.

Day 4: Anomrou to Azgour via Medinat (17 km, 5-6 hrs)

Christmas Day, appropriately, proves to be our most beautiful day as we head upwards through fertile farmfields and orchards toward the high ground and the approach to Erdouz. This 3600 meter peak crowns the ridge that rises above the Berber villages that shaped our route. Our guide, Jamal, suggested that we come back in the summer when longer days would accommodate the seven hours up and five hours down required to “bag” this peak. Instead, we hiked through lovely irrigated fields, our boots crunching through thin patches of ice, to take a late morning break surveying the valley below and the peak beyond.

The hot hammam awaited the footweary travellers. We happily enjoyed twilight in a front garden looking out on a row of large impressive buildings originally constructed for mining officials and now in use as a regional high school.

Day 5: Azgour to Amizmiz via Wadaker (24 km, 5 hours)

Strenuous walking route for our last day as we climbed out of the village into the mountains pock-marked with holes and tunnels excavated during active mining period under the French Colonialist regime. Wound our way up along a ridge defining one side of a deep river canyon, spent some time on a new road –as yet barely open to traffic, and then over to another river valley, where we traversed rocky wooded hillside up and down until the final descent into another river valley and its villages encircled by green cultivated fields and orchards. Atypically, we were “in the wild” for just about the entire hike, encountering few signs of human habitation until the end. This was probably our most rugged hiking day, even if it ended early with arrival at our last lunch spot, a town from which one could glimpse Amizmiz and Marrakech beyond.

SPECIAL NOTES: The Berber villages on our route are very small – from 200 to about 2000 inhabitants — and NOT on any established tourist circuit. The fact that a pre-trip internet search of village names yielded NO information confirmed that BTA offers a truly authentic, off the beaten track, experience. Ours was a custom-designed trip, tailored to our interests and fitness level.

Beds and Toilets: Anyone considering a guest-house hike in the Atlas Mountains should expect with beds of varying quality (including a simple pile of rugs on a cement floor), and squat-style toilets.