You’ve dreamed of traveling to Morocco. You’ve scoured National Geographic Traveller, Afar and Pinterest for the colors, the sites and the sounds – your imagination sufficiently captivated. But now that the time has come to plan a trip to Morocco, you are stuck with questions of how best to experience this North African country.
What if I told you that instead of visiting the Sahara desert for a overnight under the stars – against the backdrop of sand dunes – the best way to get a sense of Morocco is with a trip to the Atlas Mountains? That by spending 4 days of mountain bliss at the Kasbah du Toubkal, you can not only satisfy your sense of adventure and wellness with sublime hiking trails, but that by trekking through Berber villages you will leave Morocco with a deeper love of the people, culture and landscape.
Or at least, that is what happened to me. When faced with 8 days in Morocco with my family, I knew that we’d see Marrakech. But then came the decision…what else should we see and do? While I’d always romanticized a trip to the Sahara, it just didn’t seem practical to spend so much time in a car each way, just for one night. And? My preference is always to add an outdoor element to family travel – no matter where we are. So when I first heard about the Kasbah du Toubkal in the village of Imlil – less than 2 hours from Marrakech – I knew we’d found the perfect solution with four days of hiking in the Atlas Mountains.
Why Stay at the Kasbah du Toubkal?
The Kasbah du Toubkal is more than just a hotel. Following the mules that carried our bags from the village center to the Kasbah, we knew right away that we’d found something unique. Greeted with mint tea and dates once we arrived, this Berber hospitality center prides itself on taking care of guests as if you were visiting a traditional Berber home. 14 rooms of varying sizes, plus 3 “Berber Salons” (aka dorm rooms) provide a wide range of options – all of which include well appointed rooms with Berber djellaba’s (robes) and slippers. And the views? I could have happily slept on the rooftop terrace with Jbel Toubkal looming in the distance.
The story of the kasbah dates back to 1989, when Mike Hugo traveled through Morocco with his brother – Chris – as guests of a Hajj Maurice – a local mountain guide and respected community leader. Together, the three set out to create a center and experience that promotes the Berber culture and simple lifestyles of area residents scattered among the village of Imlil of narrow footpaths and mule tracks.
Perhaps the most distinctive reason to stay at the Kasbah du Toubkal is that every stay supports the Kasbah’s mission of sustainable tourism and contributes to the “Association of the Valleys of Imlil.” The association is funded through a 5% tax on all room bills at the Kasbah and has made a significant impact on the local community including building the first community hammam in the region, assisting in the construction of a school for 80 children, reinforcing flood protection and providing the area’s first ambulance and driver.
Hiking in the High Atlas Mountains
The best part about a stay at the Kasbah du Toubkal are the endless hiking possibilities – ranging in length from a few hours to multi-day treks to the summit of Jbel (mount) Toubkal. And while the snow capped mountains offer enticing vistas, my favorite part of the landscape are the Berber villages that line the trails and rise out of valleys.
Day hiking trips to explore the villages around Imlil
Guests at the Kasbah du Toubkal receive a complimentary half day guided hike which is a great way to acclimated. We explored Targa Imoula – a village that can be seen from the Kasbah for our first hike which not only helped us get our hiking legs at an altitude that we weren’t used to – but also gave us our first glance into daily life as locals traversed the trails and roads on their way to and fro.
On our second day, we headed in the direction of Tizi n’Tamatert – although we only got as far as the village of Tamatert. With no foreigners in site, we climbed through a dry stream towards the top of this isolated village while locals came bounding down – hurriedly on their way. Here, the wider roads of Imlil were replaced with narrow passageways between buildings – providing local children ample hiding places and allowed us to listen in to the din of moms and grandmothers in their homes.
The best part of these hikes? Stopping to rest with a cup of tea or freshly squeezed orange juice. Forget 7-Eleven stores or fast food, it was impossible to resist a roadside stand and the Berber hospitality.
Overnight hiking trips
Hike to the remote trekking lodge
The Kasbah du Toubkal can help arrange multiple overnight treks into the surrounding mountains. For our trip, we hiked a circular route to the Azzaden Trekking Lodge at Aït Aïssa, about 10 km from the Kasbah.
Led by Abdullah – our trusty and incredibly patient guide – we made our way along the trail over ridges and through valleys. Stones speckled with sulphur fascinated my daughter (distracting her from the distance and incline) – and although we also had a mule and handler who offered to let her rest her legs by riding on the mule – she was determined to hike the whole way. (My sense is her bravado had something to do with Abdullah’s stories of his two daughters – who walk to school in another village – approximately 40 minutes away because the school in their nearby village was full. But whatever it was – it worked and she trekked the entire route on both days.
Juniper trees ripe with berries and thyme dotted the landscape as other hikers on their way back to Imlil crossed our path. Although I knew that we’d have lunch along the way both days, I did not expect the spread that awaited us. Set out like a picnic with freshly cooked (on the mountain) beef tagine, rice and salads – we could not help but feel like royalty relaxing under a tree.
Throughout our hike, we came upon small villages, farmland and enclaves of dwellings. These glimpses into the rural lifestyle was a stark contrast to the chaos and energy of Marrakech. What stuck out more than anything – as we trekked up each pass – was the feeling of community, kindness and generosity amongst locals as they greeted each other. There was never just a “hello” like you might experience on a trail in the United States, sometimes barely even making eye contact as you pass. Here, each individual stopped and greeted the other with a warm embrace – as if the distance and ridges that separated communities in these mountains were just figments of my imagination.
Any way you look at it, a six hour trek – even with a relaxing lunch break – is a long hike especially for little legs. I am not sure which of us was happiest to take off our hiking boots and slip on leather slippers when we reached the small Azzaden Trekking Lodge. With only four rooms this lodge is a retreat – in the village of Aït Aïssa – making the town of Imlil seem like a metropolis. A terrace with a dramatic view over the valley and a lounging space with comfortable sofas were exactly what the doctor ordered after the trek – not to mention the hammam to soothe tired muscles.
The hiking was not difficult per se, but was steep in some areas with loose gravel. I imagine the trails would be rather slick during rainy season and marvel at how quickly locals seemed to sprint through the valleys as these mountains were part of their daily commute.
I don’t think it ever crossed my mind to want to climb to the top of a mountain – until our trip to the Kasbah du Toubkal. It was hard not to think about the possibilities as we watched countless groups getting ready for their Toubkal Ascent which includes a 5 hour trek to base camp, an overnight stay at the Neltner hut and then a final push to the summit which sits as the highest mountain in North Africa at 4167 m.
Watching the groups go up with technical gear and heavy packs I could feel myself being pulled – as if the summit was a magnet pulling me towards it. According to the Kasbah, the climb is appropriate for people who are “reasonably fit and without “specialist climbing skills.” The trip to the summit is best climbed during the summer months – but on these spring days I started to wonder if one day that could be me. I cannot think of a more perfect mountain experience and much to the surprise of my husband and family, have added a trip back to Morocco to climb Jbel Toubkal on my adventure travel must-do list.
Tips for a stay at the Kasbah du Toubkal
- Once you arrive in Imlil, cars and bags are unloaded so that you can walk up to the Kasbah while mules carry your bags. The walk takes about 15 minutes.
- The Kasbah du Toubkal has a hammam that can be used by families, couples or individuals. Time in the hammam can be reserved at the front desk.
- Light hiking boots or higher boots with ankle support are perfect for treks around the Kasbah. Trekking poles are a good idea (you can borrow trekking poles during your overnight trek to the remote lodge or based on availability for shorter day hikes).
- Transportation can be arranged to and from the Kasbah from Marrakech or other cities. Although we did not price out other options, it was very convenient to have this pre-arranged.
- Dinner is served family style at both the Kasbah du Toubkal and the Azzaden trekking lodge. Vegetarians should ask about alternatives to meat based meals when they check in.
- Make sure to give yourself at least one afternoon or morning to relax on one of the two rooftop terraces at the Kasbah. There is nothing quite like basking in the glow of Jbel Toubkal while sipping a cup of mint tea and reading a good book.
- Yoga retreats are occasionally offered at the Kasbah. Keep an eye on the Kasbah’s Facebook page for a chance to blend hiking, mountains and daily yoga.
Don’t just take my word for it. The Kasbah du Toubkal has received international accolades including being named one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World.