The Door of the Desert: An Escape to Ouarzazate and Ait Ben Haddou

Nicknamed the “door of the desert”, Ouarzazate and nearby Ait Benhaddou offer a glimpse into a completely different side of Morocco. Ancient kasbahs, clear open skies, and tranquil landscapes of the mountains are a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

One of the greatest joys of traveling through Morocco is seeing its incredible diversity. This short trip from Marrakech to the desert city of Ouarzazate is a perfect example. Marrakech’s bustling old medina, complete with centuries-old Islamic architecture and traditional markets, complemented by a lively modern nightlife and arts scene, makes it the first destination for many tourists. But travel about four hours east to Ouarzazate (pronounced war-zazat), and you’ll be stunned by the contrast. Nicknamed the “door of the desert”, Ouarzazate and nearby Ait Benhaddou offer a glimpse into a completely different side of Morocco. Ancient kasbahs, clear open skies, and tranquil landscapes of the mountains are a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Here are eight things to do to make the most of a weekend trip:

1. View the Tizi n’Tichka pass

Framed on one side by the High Atlas Mountains and on another by the Sahara Desert, Ouarzazate provides breathtaking views of the Moroccan landscape.  The drive from Marrakech to Ouarzazate includes the famous mountain pass of Tizi n’Tichka. As you wind through the narrow roads of the High Atlas, you’ll pass wide expanses of rocky red mountains and green valleys dotted with sheep. While Ouarzazate is most popular to visit in the spring months, in the winter you’ll find the mountain peaks capped with snow!

2. Wander through Kasbah Taourirt

A kasbah is a walled, fortified quarter of a North African city. Kasbahs grace the old medinas of countless Moroccan cities, but Ouarzazate’s Kasbah Tarourirt stands out as a stunning example of the distinct architectural style of southern Morocco. Built out of striking red mud-brick walls and decorated with bold geometric motifs, Taourirt is one of the best-preserved kasbahs of its kind. Wander the intricate streets of the Kasbah and shop, or climb to a terrace for incredible views of the red fortress against the Atlas Mountains.

3. Shop for local handicrafts

Ouarzazate was once a hub of trans-Saharan trade, connecting traders as far away as Timbuktu in Mali to Moroccan markets. As you shop, you can still see the vibrant mix of Saharan cultures at play in Ouarzazate’s handicrafts. Look for an iconic hand-dyed Tuareg scarf, the bright blue linen head wrap used to protect against the harsh sun and sand of the Sahara. Or marvel at the local artists painting Saharan landscapes with aquarelle, a traditional watercolor technique using natural materials like saffron, indigo, and tea. Across from the kasbah, tour the Artisanal Complex, which houses workshops of local artisans. You can shop for handmade carpets, jewelry, and artwork and watch craftsmen at work without the pressure to barter.

4.Tour the sets of “Ouarzawood”

The year-ound sun and clear blue skies of Ouarzazate, along with close access to the mountains and desert, make this city a prime filmmaking location. For decades, this ancient desert town has provided sets for iconic films like Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Drive just outside of the city to Atlas Studios, where you can tour sets that brought countless stories in film and television come to life. Move between Cleopatra’s Palace, a Tibetan Buddhist temple, and ancient city streets, as one of the studio’s guides leads you through the history of Morocco’s impressive contributions to the silver screen.

5. Explore the Ksar of Ait Benhaddou

Just a 40 minutes drive from Ouarzazate, the small village of Ait Benhaddou is home to one of Morocco’s most impressive sites. The red mud brick buildings of the old fortified city rise up on a hill overlooking an oasis of palm and olive trees. This fortified city, called a ksar, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site as an authentic example of traditional Moroccan earthen architecture. Trek through the narrow streets, up to the summit to get spectacular views of the ksar from above. Along the way, you can shop or take a tea break at a rooftop terrace, which will offer more picture-perfect views of the city. For tv buffs, Ait Benhaddou is a must-see set from Game of Thrones, which transformed the ksar into the city of Yunkai for the show’s third season.

6. Enjoy a Sunset Hike

In the evening, take a moment to enjoy the slow pace of life that still survives Ait Benhaddou, and end with an unbeatable view of the ksar lit up in fiery orange at sunset. Take a walk through the shaded groves of olive trees and small garden plots, where you may pass farmers and their families at work harvesting olives. Move from the gardens to the Ounila River that runs through the town, and follow along the rock bed to reach the ksar once again. From across the river, you find a great vantage point to view the ksar sunset up close.

7. Experience Moroccan hospitality in a guest house

Get a feel for Morocco’s famed hospitality when you stay in a traditional guest house. Run by local families, guest houses are small operations that are perfect for hosting couples, families, or solo travelers. You’ll be greeted with a pot of Moroccan mint tea, or atay, on arrival before being taken to a room brightly decorated in Moroccan rugs and artwork. If you want to stay in at night, your guest house will cook a comforting meal of hearty harira soup and tagine. Before going to bed, head to the rooftop for a breath-taking panorama of the night sky.

8. Keep the adventure going

Ouarzazate is called the “door to the desert” for a reason! This area is a fantastic starting point for forays deeper into the south of Morocco. If you want a true desert experience, head eastward on an excursion to Erg Chebbi or Merzouga for sweeping landscapes of orange sand dunes. If the ancient architecture of Ait Benhaddou and Ouarzazate captivated you, take a tour down south toward Zagora and the Draa River Valley. You’ll find miles and miles of lush oases of palm groves dotted with more traditional kasbahs as you wind along the Draa River.

By Claire Smith