Morocco: a road trip through the Atlas Mountains

by Kiwi Fi and Mike the Jock

The Atlas Mountain route from Tinighir to Zagora is home to the greatest variety of scenery, activities and weather I've ever experienced on one holiday. Taking a road trip allowed us to see it all

I knew very little about Morocco before I agreed to join a group of eight friends organising a road trip. The trip's outline gradually took shape over a few months, in various London pubs and with some web-based research. I was a little nervous of travelling in such a large group because of the logistical challenges it may present.

The decision was made to start the trip in Tangier and to end the trip in Marrakech. We gave ourselves ten days to complete this trip. The middle section of the trip was largely undefined even when we stepped off the flight in Tangier. However, there were a few simple boxes that had to be ticked (so to speak), and these were predictably as follows: to ride a camel (hopefully in a desert), to eat traditional Moroccan cuisine and to squeeze in a day or two of outdoor pursuits.

This guide will focus on the section of the trip between Tinighir and the Sahara. Separate guides will provide more in-depth information about Fes and Marrakech individually.

Tinighir - what to see

Tinighir is located at the start of the High Atlas pass in the region of Ouzarzate, Morocco. The main draw for tourists to Tinighir is its proximity to the Todra Gorge, a gorge carved out by the Todra and Dades rivers. The full length of the gorge is around 40km, however the final 400m of the gorge is the most breathtaking, with steep rock walls up to 160m high on either side.

We chose to tick the outdoor pursuits box while in the Todra Gorge. To the left (as you leave) is the steepest gorge section (walking away from Tinighir) and there is a small walking path that looks like it might disappear in to the mountains. This was the start of a two to three hour walk. The walk was beautiful, the path wound its way up a hill side and then down a dried up river bed taking us to a large palmerie and then to Tinighir. The views from the top of the hill pass down to the gorge, to a large palmerie and to Tinighir were just stunning (I’ve included a photo of this walk for your interest). We did get a little lost at one section of the walk and the full walk did take us six hours, instead of three as we had expected, but we did manage it without a guide. If you're nervous of venturing off alone, most Riads in the area offer guides for similar walks at modest prices.

Tinighir - where to stay

When searching online for accommodation information I found it difficult to find any clear recommendations from people and even more difficult to find more than a couple of accommodation options in Tinighir. So, I picked a Riad (guesthouse) at random and wished for the best.

The chosen accommodation, Chez Aissa, turned out to be a real gem. At this Riad the people were quite simply the most friendly we met on this part of the journey. Chez Aissa has lots of different size rooms, sleeping between one and six, and the large blankets and fire on offer made the cold nights far easier to survive. We paid around £16 (around 202 Moroccan Dirhams) each per night, which included a large breakfast and dinner.

There is a large social room, which is great for eating in or relaxing with a book. As you can see on their website the "breakfast balcony" and roof terrace both provide other options for relaxing around the Riad, so even if there were other guests you could always find a private spot.

Tinighir - where to eat

While travelling through the High Atlas and staying in smaller towns we generally found it easier to book our evening meals from the Riad we were staying with. Upon arrival at Chez Aissa we were quickly served with a full Moroccan meal at a very modest price (a few pounds as I recall). The salads and tagines served were traditional and very flavoursome, even for vegetarians! After the meal we were served mint tea and spent the next few hours mapping out our plans for the next few days with helpful tips from our hosts.

Moving on towards the Sahara...

Our next big aim of the trip was to make our way to the Saharan Desert. We decided to stop off at the Valley of Roses (two hours) for a night after our Todra Gorge trek to try and get some of the mileage ticked off. We chose the Valley of Roses as many of the hostels have magnificent views down the Valley. After some research we decided to stay in the Kasbah Itran, a Riad with many positive reviews in travel guides.

The accommodation was dark and smoky which made it atmospheric for a one night stay but could have made it a little uncomfortable in the longer term. However, for one night the entertainment provided by the Riad and the food on offer definitely made it a worthwhile for a stop-off! A traditional Moroccan band played for a few hours from the early evening and even got myself and my friends involved in playing some of the instruments. The large fire in the central courtyard set the scene for the live music and kept us all warm as the night closed in.

The breakfast feast of fresh pancakes, pastries and honey distracted as so much we made a delayed start as we left the next day for the long-journey to Zagora. Not bad at all for around £18 each (227 Moroccan Dirham).

On the road to Zagora...

After a long drive to Zagora (three hours) and then on to Merzouga (two hours from Zagora) we started an early evening tour in to the Sahara, towards the Merzouga Sands (see picture) with dunes as high as 350m. We picked a camel trekking company at random for a one-night trip. This included a 4x4 journey in to the camp, a morning camel ride and then a tour of the desert the next day. All meals, tented accommodation, music and a bonfire were provided. From memory the trip costs around £60 (760 Moroccan Dirham) each but was well worth it for the experience. I'm sure if you had the time you could barter the price down far lower.

We went for a star-lit walk up the sand-dunes that towered over our camp. It took us up to 45 minutes to scale a massive sand-dune but the view of desert as far as we could see was well worth it.

Zagora and the journey to the Sahara was definitely the highlight of the whole Morocco trip. However, so was travelling with so many people. We travelled in February 2009 which meant that most Riads were very quiet and found it easy to cater for a group of eight. In many places we were the only group staying which gave the trip a very private and tailored feel. As it was winter, driving was a challenge at points with changeable weather but this just added to the sense of adventure!