If you haven’t heard of Ait Ben Haddou, you’ve definitely seen it. Maybe it was behind Russell Crowe as he fights for his life in Gladiator, or perhaps while Daenerys freed the slaves here in Game of Thrones. Or possibly it was in The Mummy? Or in The Prince of Persia, or in any one of the 20-odd cinematic productions filmed at this ancient UNESCO World Heritage Site?
But Ait Ben Haddou is so much more than a pretty movie backdrop. The history of this fortified village built amazingly from mud and straw goes back over a thousand years, as a frequented stop along the caravan route between Marrakech and the Sahara. Four families still live within the walled confines, without electricity, while others have moved across the stream to the new half of the village, where more new buildings are being constructed to accommodate the growing tourism industry.
Many Sahara tours stop at Ait Ben Haddou on the way to Marrakech, but these tours allot sometimes as few as 20 minutes to this Kasbah that truly deserves several hours at minimum. This happened to me on my first visit to Morocco, and I was so heart broken at how little time I had that I vowed I would return and do this place justice. Three years later, I finally did, and spent two nights, though I had originally planned for only one. To truly enjoy this serene slice of heaven, you really do need enough time, and sometimes the only way to do that is by arranging transport yourself, especially to experience the magic of sunset here. So, without further ado, let’s get to my Ait Ben Haddou travel guide.
HOW TO GET TO AIT BEN HADDOU
Getting to Ait Ben Haddou yourself from Ouarzazate: Ait Ben Haddou is located 30 km west of the city of Ouarzazate. If you are traveling from Ouarzazate, take a taxi here (expect to pay 150 – 200 MAD, depending on haggling skills).
Getting to Ait Ben Haddou yourself from Marrakech: You can take a Supratours or CTM coach bus to Ouarzazate, and then a taxi from Ouarzazate to Ait Ben Haddou. (This requires backtracking, so I have included an alternative* at the end of this travel guide.) Expect a bus ride of 4 ½ to 5 hours through the zigzagy Tizi n Tichka Pass connecting Marrakech and Ouarzazate. If you tend to get car sick, buy your ticket in advance for a better chance of a front seat number.
WHERE TO STAY IN AIT BEN HADDOU
Instruct your taxi driver to drop you off at Bagdad Café, where I highly recommend you stay for the night. This charmingly calm property boats a large courtyard pool, a spacious rooftop terrace with views of the Kasbah, and a scrumptious dinner menu. Upon entering your room, your mind will immediately be put at ease by the slight fragrance of oils and how impeccably clean the entire space is. Sheets and towels are washed and dried by machine (not to be taken for granted in Morocco and even much of Europe), and extra blankets are neatly folded away in the wardrobe for if you need them. The hot water was plentiful, the heater worked wonderfully (I visited in winter), and the WiFi was strong.
Though check-in is at 3pm, the friendly front desk will gladly watch your belongings while the room is being finished up. Head back outside to the sunny patio, where you will enjoy piping hot mint tea and local sweets while being debriefed on how best to explore the village. Once you are ready, take the hand drawn map and head to the Kasbah.
THINGS TO DO IN AIT BEN HADDOU
Climb to the Top of the Kasbah
Cross the makeshift bridge over the stream, being careful of your balance not to fall in. Walk through the large gateway on the right, which is actually a more recent addition to the village by the French.
Stroll through the olive groves and date palm trees lining the path towards the Kasbah. Once inside, explore the narrow streets decorated by little shops, and be sure to climb the steep stairway to the tippy top. Be careful of the heat if visiting in spring or summer, as there is not much shade within the walls, but if you are visiting in winter, the mid-day warmth will be just perfect.
From the top of the hill behind the Kasbah, enjoy views of the new village on one side, and views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains on the other.
Explore Around the Creek
On your way back down, take a different route than the one you took up. Head towards the large bridge over the stream for a different angle of the mud and straw city.
Slowly make your way back to your accommodation. Let the front desk know what you would like for dinner, and at what time, as they require advance notice. I can highly recommend the date and prune tagine, which is available in both beef and chicken (70 MAD a la carte, or 100 MAD with a starter and dessert – both options make a lovely choice). Don’t just take my word for it – I heard other diners singing their praises to the staff during the meal as well. It truly was the single best tagine of my travels throughout Morocco.
Recommended reading: The Easiest DIY Beach Town Day Trip from Marrakech: Essaouira
Catch Sunset with a View
After washing up in your room, head back out to catch sunset over the photogenic village. If you’re up for a 15-minute walk, head down the road from which you arrived by car earlier. You will pass a couple buildings, and eventually see some small, abandoned ruins on your left. Walk slightly past these for a great sunset view of the Kasbah from a slight distance. If you need help finding this, the front desk can point out the spot to you before you depart.
On our walk back, we spotted a lone hyena jogging down below us, which was somehow both startling and amazing.
If you don’t fancy the walk down the road, simply return to the area near the stream for sunset, and relax to the sound of fresh water running over the rocks. All the day trippers and tour guides will have left by now, so it will just be you and the locals. Children will be racing donkeys back and forth along the riverbed, and if you happen to coincidentally be there for Berber New Year like I was, literally the whole village will be out. We watched as they played a huge game of tug of war, played the loudest local music, and raced camels and horses. We were so thankful to observe this piece of authentic life here (before the growing tourism completely overtakes it), and found ourselves wondering what the big fuss about city life was anyways…
Once you are done, return to your accommodation and let the front desk know what time tomorrow morning you would like your complimentary breakfast. Expect eggs, fresh orange juice, different Moroccan breads and jams, and the yummiest fruit bowl you ever did taste. Don’t skimp on the fruit – we enjoyed breakfast here twice and felt no upset stomachs at all.
Day Trip to Fint Oasis from Ait Ben Haddou
Before heading onwards to the Sahara, or circling back to Marrakech, be sure not to leave the greater Ouarzazate area without enjoying Fint Oasis. You endured that grueling drive through the Atlas Mountains anyways, so you’ll want to see all there is nearby to make it as worthwhile as possible. You really could easily spend two to three days in this sunny, relaxing area, touring the nearby movie studios, riding quad bikes, and visiting small villages and oases.
*To avoid that backtracking mentioned earlier, some travelers ask the bus driver to stop at Tazentout for them – travelers claim bus drivers do this in spite of what the ticket office says. From Tazentout, grab a taxi for the 9 km to Ait Ben Haddou. This saves you 40 km of driving time, and will lower your taxi fare. You would not be able to do this in reverse if you are returning directly to Marrakech. You would need to buy a CTM ticket from the office in Ait Ben Haddou, and then take a taxi to Ouarzazate to board the CTM bus back to Marrakech. But if you are not returning directly to Marrakech (i.e. seeing Atlas Studios, Fint Oasis, or continuing even further east to the Sahara), then you do not need to worry about this.
WHAT SAY YOU?
Have you heard of this place before reading my Ait Ben Haddou travel guide? Let me know in the comments below.