A few weeks ago I found myself in Morocco. One does not normally wake up and find oneself in Morocco, so I knew it would be a special trip. However, this trip was full of days of what I call SWT meetings (Suit-Without-a-Tie meetings) and my schedule gave me little opportunity to get out and see what special sites the country had to offer. Fortunately, I realized I had one 6-hour window sandwiched between two meetings when I could try to explore the beautiful country. So I stopped by a tour guide desk to inquire about possible short day trips and found myself with a dilemma: should I take the tour into town and see the maze-like markets, or should I take a 2 hour drive to see the countryside and go for a hike in the mountains? Well… anyone that knows me and enjoys my photographs will quickly realize that I opted for a trip into the Atlas Mountains, which had been calling me all week from their visible perch on the horizon.
(Pretty pictures of the mountains on my trip at the end of this post)
The agency informed me that I was in luck because 3 other people had also signed up to go as well, bringing the cost per-person down so I signed up immediately. Then I went off to an extravagant dinner and filled my stomach with local Moroccan food. And so did the other participants of the tour, or so I was told the next day. By the guide. Who proceeded to inform me they had all gotten sick and the tour was canceled. I was willing to brave the trip with my own slightly upset stomach, but my companions had given up on the thought. I was told that the minimum charge for an outing was two people, and thus my price went up rather drastically. I explained there was no way I could pay $140 for such a small outing.
Then… they came up with a solution: “How about if you go without a guide?” IE, just go by just myself and a driver, and no one to show me the route or tell me the stories perfectly crafted for tourists. “Sure”, I said “that sounds great”, while simultaneously wondering “what could possibly go wrong???”
My driver, Halleed (which is how I spell it; I’m sure he spells it differently), was a very friendly guy but spoke only minimal English. With what little English knowledge he did posses, he tried to dissuade me from heading into the mountains. “Not good view. Bad day.” No, I said repeatedly, I really did want to go into the mountains and not to the other places he was offering to take me. So we set out, but I was admittedly not really sure where we were headed given the conversation. “What could possibly go wrong???” And the random car-stops by police with rifles didn’t concern me at all either, certainly. I’m rather glad they didn’t stop our car. My driver informed me “tourism checks”. That didn’t exactly give my stomach warm fuzzy feelings. Neither did learning, by experience, that it is possible to pass someone on a curvy, one-lane road at 40 kph. That, fortunately, didn’t go wrong.
Fortunately, after a 2-hour drive through the countryside, I was dropped off at the foot of an impressive hill with the stunning Atlas mountains looming just beyond. And if you don’t come to a tourist stop with a guide, one will surely find you. And one found me before I had even opened the car door. My friendly guide seemed knowledgeable, spoke English quite well and seemed to know my driver. (I later discovered this was not the case.) And he sported a bright yellow official-looking vest (which I later discovered was just a bright yellow vest).
So, I agreed to follow him (“What could possibly go wrong?”) and he and I set off together up the hillside. We were starting, he explained, at 1700 meters (5577 ft) and were hiking to a small village at 2100m (6880 ft). “It’ll only take an hour”, said the acclimated local who made this trek probably multiple times daily. And who wasn’t suffering from an upset stomach. And who wasn’t planning on stopping every 100 ft to take pictures.
Reaching the small, cobblestone-paved, stone-walled, collection of brick houses at the top of the hill would have been worth the climb alone. When you combine that trek with the stunning mountain range just beyond it became a hike well worth remembering. I was very glad to have my English-speaking guide with me, who informed me about the surrounding area and the stunning countryside in which he lived. I quickly learned his name (Omar) and asked him about his local village. It’s always a good idea to connect personally with your travel guides, drivers, etc. I’m miserable at remembering people’s names, but I wrote Omar and Halleed’s names down so I’d remember them. I did this so that I could call them by name during the course of our time together, because the more bonded you become with local residents, the more they’ll feel like protecting you. Or at least, hopefully, not robbing you.
Omar pointed out his small village tucked into the side of the mountain. And he talked extensively about the endless fruit tree-lined countryside. I’ll be honest: I didn’t expect Morocco to have a heavy fruit industry. You know, being a desert and all. But the hillside was sprinkled with all sorts of fruit and nut trees (cherries, apples, grapes, apricots, walnuts, …), and my guide made sure I spotted each cluster. He let me know that the sheep that were just as prevalent as the trees were the primary source of protein. He explained that the kids wandering the streets with backpacks on were all heading home for lunch at noon. They’d return to school at 3 PM and stay until 6.
And then… and then there were the mountains. Sharp, stunning, jagged, snow-covered cliffs rose ahead of me during my upward assent. Those ice- and snow-covered ridges provide all the water for most of the country, Omar told me. Though the rest of the countryside received no more than a few rain days in the year, the mountains collected snow quite well. The mountains were also a place of refuge when the temperature in the cities like Marrakech reached 50 degrees C (122 degrees F). In the mountains it was only 35 C (95 F) so people flocked there during the summer months, which probably felt like pure joy in comparison.
I returned from my trip to Morocco and their beautiful mountains with a happy heart and a camera full of images. I enjoyed the hike immensely, even with my upset stomach.
Did I miss seeing the bazaars that Morocco is so famous for? Absolutely.
But you know what… every mountain range that I’ve been to in various countries has been equally as unique as the shopping districts. And as much as I love walking around local shopping districts, I’ll take the sharp, rugged mountain peaks any day of the week. Visiting the Atlas mountains was a wonderful side trip, and I’m extremely happy I took the gamble with the random driver, the random guide, and the beautiful, beautiful peaks.