Aït Ben Haddou

29km (18 miles) NW of Ouarzazate; 209km (130 miles) SE of Marrakech

The village of Aït ben Haddou receives up to 130,000 visitors each year, and every one of them is coming to view the same thing. Perched upon a low hillside overlooking an often-dry riverbed, the Aït Ben Haddou ksour, or kasbahs, are one of the most scenic sights in the country. Towering defensive walls and elaborately decorated corner towers surround the collection of houses, stables, lofts, and even a mosque -- all constructed from a mix of red earth and stone called tabout -- connected by a maze of narrow, winding lanes. Probably established as early as the 11th century, the site was an important stronghold of the clans that controlled the lucrative southern caravan trade that passed through here and Telouet. This strategic geographical importance was severely diminished in 1936 by the French construction of the Tizi n'Tichka road to the west. The ksour has since remained virtually abandoned, bar a few families that still reside here eking out a rural existence that is now somewhat subsidized by travelers who climb past their kasbahs on the way to the hilltop. A ruined fortified granary, or agadir, sits atop the hill and lays testament to the historical reasoning behind the kasbah's strongly defensive position -- their highly prized supply of grain. Since the late 1970s, the kasbahs have been used for numerous movie shoots with the odd bit of Hollywood restoration work undertaken, even though a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 has assisted the Moroccan government in retaining some control over its exploitation.

The best time of day to visit is very early in the morning when the red-earth tabout contrasts strikingly against the bright blue sky -- and while the tour groups are still eating breakfast in Marrakech or Ouarzazate.

To reach the hilltop and the ruined agadir, simply enter the ksour through one of the entrances -- reached by walking across the usually dry Oued Mellah from one of the hotel parking lots in the new village -- and follow the maze of lanes uphill until you eventually come out at the top.

Note: The kasbahs are still inhabited, and some of the residents don't take kindly to being photographed or intruded upon. This is fair enough considering how many people pass by each day. On my latest visit during field research for this edition, most visitors were being physically denied entry unless they paid an entrance fee of 10dh, paid at a makeshift -- and unofficial -- ticket booth at the main entrance into the ksour. I witnessed several unsavory altercations between the "ticket collectors" and those visitors who didn't want to pay. It appears that this setup has the blessing of the local families, although there's no way of knowing who receives the money. My advice is to pay this relatively small amount of money, if only to allow your visit to be an enjoyable and pleasant experience. The moral to the story is that this UNESCO-listed site should be better managed by the local and national authorities.

A Picture from a Forgotten Time

As mentioned, the kasbahs receive their fair share of visitors, most of whom stop only for a picture before moving on. If you can, stay the night. Rise early -- before the tourists and the touts -- and find a spot next to the pebble-strewn riverbed. As the sunlight begins to cross the ksour walls, visualize the site during its prime -- before the west coast of Africa was discovered by the seafaring nations of Europe; before the French built a faster, safer route through the Atlas; before the border with Algeria was closed. Caravans of more than a hundred camels -- laden with cloth, glass, and other wonders from the modern world -- would pass by here en route from Marrakech to the kingdoms of Timbuktu and the old Sudan, returning months later with their booty of gold, ivory, salt, and slaves.

Getting There

Twenty kilometers (12 miles) from Ouarzazate, on the main road to Marrakech, is a small roadside settlement with a signposted turnoff for the narrow tarred road to Aït ben Haddou, 9km (5 1/2 miles) away. Buses traveling to Aït ben Haddou are few and far between, with the majority only stopping at the turnoff from where you can usually catch a grand taxi (40dh) to the village. A better idea, if traveling from Ouarzazate, is to charter a grand taxi for the return trip (400dh per taxi).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.