Morocco’s Ait Bougmez Valley, High in the Atlas Mountains
By Ann Banks
True or False: The harder it is to get to a place, the more worthwhile it’s likely to be once you arrive.
I tend to be convinced of this proposition when I’m in the planning stages of a trip – but less so when I’m actually en route via, say, an impossibly narrow, twisty road snaking over a high pass with a sheer drop and no guard rails in a country where the existence of a splendid afterlife is universally agreed upon.
Our eventual destination was Ait Bougmez, a remote valley in the Atlas mountains, nicknamed Happy Valley for the purported disposition of its inhabitants.
Going there had seemed like a reasonable idea when I was back home deciding on our itinerary. It would be summer, a good time for visiting mountains, but by all accounts, Morocco’s most popular high-altitude destination, the Toubkal National Park just south of Marrakesh, would be mobbed with trekking-minded tourists.
Nature’s Answer to Prozac
The Bougmez Valley, on the other hand, I’d seen described as “the best-kept secret in Morocco.” Admittedly, this was something I’d read in the Lonely Planet Guide to Morocco, and Bougmez is also mentioned at least briefly in a number of other guidebooks.
But no two guidebooks even spell the name the same way – which I thought was a promising sign. And until fairly recently there was no paved road to the valley, so it was plausible that this was still an unspoiled Shangri La.
I was eager to see if Ait Bougmez really was “nature’s answer to Prozac,” as the Lonely Planet described it.
A Fork in the Road
First, though, we had to get there. At this point the road itself was the least of it. Though it was precarious, we were in a study four-wheel drive and our driver Ahmed had shown himself both skilled and cautious behind the wheel.
But it was getting late, we had come to a fork in the road and Ahmed and I were locked into a polite disagreement over which was the correct direction.
I bolstered my case by pointing to the Michelin map of Morocco given to me by our host in Fez. It was clear that both forks led to the Valley and both looked equally tortuous. But the road on the left was marked with a solid, substantial-looking line, whereas the squiggles marking the right-hand turn looked decidedly fainter.
Unpersuaded, Ahmed took the question to a passer-by, who decreed (after a protracted and passionate discussion in Arabic) that we turn right.
And that is what we did, fortunately, since the right fork was the one that had been paved. My map was years old, I later discovered, and the route that had looked so tempting had not been maintained, and was, I was told, “no longer a road.”
Bougmez, The Secluded Mountain Kingdom
Bougmez, when we finally arrived, did resemble the secluded mountain kingdom of my imagination. The land is intensely cultivated in precise geometric patterns that form intricate mosaics on the fertile valley floor.
Scattered here and there are clusters of fortified houses made from the same red clay that they rest on and stacked like blocks turned out from a child’s sand bucket.
We were staying in one of these mini-kasbahs in the village of Imelghas, a French-owned eco-lodge named Dar Itrane.
Simple Berber Style Gites
Remote though it is, the Bougmez valley has hosted trekkers for years, and they mainly have lodged in the simple Berber-style gites or guesthouses, sprinkled along the valley.
Dar Itrane started life as one of these, until it was bought by a French company, and expanded and upgraded to the most luxurious accommodation in the valley.
Which is to say that, while it’s very charming and comfortable, it is still a simple, unpretentious place, surrounded by hollyhocks and lavender and decorated with Berber artifacts in the local style.
If the solar heating system does not perfectly regulate the flow of hot water, if there is only one choice of entrée for dinner, well, this is Happy Valley and it would be churlish to grumble.
At Dar Itrane, Vincent Borgne, the manager, explained that there are a number of local excursions on offer, ranging from strenuous multi-day mountain climbing to visits to the local organic honey and walnut cooperative. (The latter was started by young women of the valley and has won awards and funding from the EU.)
As a starter outing, Vincent recommended climbing a nearby cone-shaped hill to a circular granary that is also a shrine to Sidi Moussa, a local holy man whose healing powers are said to be especially effective in cases of infertility.
When we arrived, the keeper of the shrine was sleeping, which was understandable since he told us that he climbs the hill every morning to assume his duties and that he is 120 years old.
After making us tea, he handed out candle stubs and we climbed to the upper floors of the turreted granary to admire the 360-degree views of the valley.
Village Perdu and Ait Bououli
The next day Vincent proposed that we engage a guide to explore Ait Bououli, one valley over from Ait Bougmez, and even more remote.
After driving to Abachkou, a small village at the end of the road, we hiked for several hours through a stunningly beautiful red rock landscape to Ighoud, a tiny settlement reachable only on foot – the “village perdu” our guide called it.
On the way, we passed tiny children riding donkeys and women in dressy-looking Berber outfits toting bundles of twigs.
Back at Abachkou, we had lunch at the local gite, which turned out to be one of our best meals in Morocco, a chicken tagine made with vegetables grilled in a wood-fired oven.
Basic though it was, Gite Abachkou had an extravagantly colorful décor that wouldn’t look out of place in the pages of a shelter magazine [a magazine focusing on interior design – ed].
The gite was also home to the local weaving cooperative, where the women spend the winter months making blankets using locally produced natural dyes.
Supporting Local Initiatives
These are the same blankets that decorate Dar Itrane. They were for sale, and later Vincent told me that every few months he journeys to Abachkou to stock up on more.
This is only one of Dar Itrane’s efforts to support local initiatives and to encourage responsible tourism in the Valley. I was all in favor of these endeavors. Happy though it may be, the Bougmez Valley is very poor and development is a priority.
Might it end up thronged with tourists, as the Toubkal range is said to be? This hasn’t happened yet, and given the rigors of the journey, it’s hard to imagine.
If the Bougmez Valley is in fact Morocco’s “best-kept secret,” it is a very open secret. So if you are up for making the trip, you are likely to find your Shangri La.
Bougmez: The Practical Part
We arranged our own trip to the Bougmez Valley and traveled from Fez, an eight-hour drive away.
If I were to do it again, I’d depart from Marrakesh, about half the distance – and I’d leave the arrangements to someone who knew what they were doing.
Specifically, I’d engage Charlie Shepherd, an Englishman who owns and manages the tour company Epic Morocco in Marrakesh.
Although Epic Morocco specializes in adventure tours off the beaten track, Shepherd will also put together a tailor-made itinerary to individual specifications, and he has been sending people to the Bougmez Valley for years.
While I didn’t use the firm’s services, I had a number of pre-trip conversations and email exchanges with Shepherd and found his recommendations and advice to be spot on.
44 020 8150 6131
The eco-lodge offers 17 rooms, many with terraces overlooking the valley, a traditional hammam, and a library of information about Berber culture.212 0 52 345 931
In addition to offering basic lodging (shared bathrooms, squat toilets), the people at Gite Abachkou can arrange hiking excursions, with or without accompanying mules.
Abachkou, Ait Bououli
212 023 459 980
Having Ahmed El Abdi as our driver was a great stroke of luck. Not only was he soothing and skillful behind the wheel, but also he was an exceptionally good-humored man. He speaks only French and Arabic.
Ahmed El Abdi
212 661 375 164