Kasbah du Toubkal – Luxury Trekking in the High Atlas
Warning: Two hikers were attacked and killed outside Imlil in December of 2018. Danish authorities have stated that the attacks were “politically motivated and thus a terrorist act.” Exercise caution in the area.
As we sit sipping sweet mint tea gazing out the sculpted slopes of the Imlil Valley, the call to prayer echoes up from the Berber villages below. I adjust the cushy pillows around me and lean out to take in the mountain panorama that surrounds the Kasbah du Toubkal. Behind our hill-top refuge rises the barren, rocky peak of Mt. Toubkal, which at 4,167 m (13,670 ft) ranks as the highest mountain in North Africa. Opposite us, a wondrous waterfall pours into an oasis of walnut, apple, and – most importantly – cherry trees. It’s literally raining cherries in the valley below.
When trekkers talk dream destinations, the conversations often turn to distant lands such as Nepal, northern India, Tibet or Peru. Scanning our archives will prove that these reputations are well deserved. But trekkers-in-the-know keep a few dazzling finds to themselves, off-the-beaten-track treasures where the hiking enthusiast can walk the trails without the crowds. One of the best kept secrets out there is Morocco.
From the Rif Mountains in the North to the Anti-Atlas in the South, Morocco is overwhelmed with phenomenal walking and trekking options. But trekkers looking for the highest peaks, the deepest valleys and the best preserved village culture should be heading straight for the High Atlas. Hilariously, Imlil, one of the most rewarding trekking destinations in the country, lies a mere 60 km (36 miles) from Marrakesh. In 2016, there are few locations which feel this remote while being so spectacularly accessible. But where to stay?
Hovering above Imlil, the Kasbah du Toubkal has established itself as THE must-visit luxury trekking destination in the country. There are competitors, but the Kasbah du Toubkal has the history and the location, location, location. If it looks familiar, it might be because the kasbah played the role of a Tibetan monastery in the 1997 Martin Scorsese film Kundun. The hotel is so unique that National Geographic has designated it one of the Unique Lodges of the World. That’s an understatement.
After a glorious day hiking through slopes of yellow flowers and isolated Berber villages, Thomas splashes hot water over his body. The kasbah’s traditional hammam fills with steam as we reminisce over our lunch of meatballs and Moroccan salad under a gnarled pine on a distant mountain ridge. “I’m getting too hot,” he suddenly announces. He rinses off the black olive soap and slips into the square dipping pool. Rose petals bob on the wavelets as they spread across the surface. We dry off and return along the stone path leading to the kasbah’s Garden Apartment Suite.
As we enter our two-story home away from home, the orangish light of the setting sun glints off the copper pans in the suite’s private kitchen. We wonder aloud who actually cooks for themselves when the kasbah’s delicious meals – stewed lamb, beef with prunes, couscous – are a clear highlight. We step out onto our huge balcony and take in the views. Up the valley, the picturesque village of Armed (luckily pronounced Ar-med) goes pink as the sun finally dips behind the mountains. Below us, a young boy leads his donkey loaded with wood back to his village. It’s breathtaking.
Even the most jaded world trekkers will find the valleys of the High Atlas surprising. The uniqueness of the Berber culture, the signs written in the exotic Tifinagh alphabet, soaring mountains echoing with the call to prayer, terraces filled with walnut and cherry trees rather than rice… it’s just all so different from other locations. Even those who have trekked in Kashmir and Pakistan in safer times will find something new here. If not, there’s always the next valley.
Into the Azzaden Valley
We wind through a forest of scattered junipers; our mule driver overtakes me while I photograph the scorched mountainscape of reds and browns. Pink, yellow, and purple flowers cling to the shade. I cling to the shade, too. As we move lower, we get our first views of the isolated Azzaden Valley. Our guide Omar takes us to a viewpoint where I gasp at the pristine Berber villages wrapped in green terraces of corn, barley and beans. The lush river valley is backed by a mineral rainbow of eroding clay slopes. We enter our first villages. The narrow mud streets snake through the eroding Berber architecture. We descend along stone steps through tunnel-like underpasses traversing the stacked mud houses. It’s positively medieval in every sense of the word… except it’s 2016.
If you feel tiny Imlil is too cosmopolitan for your tastes, the kasbah has set up a trekking lodge in Aït Aïssa, a small village in the Azzaden Valley. This is a step up in isolation and tradition from Imlil and a must-visit destination for ethno-tourism fans. The lodge is an outpost, it is not to be confused with the more luxurious kasbah. But for trekkers who are used to the bare-bones accommodation in most trekking destinations, the comfort, amenities and excellent food at the trekking lodge will come as a very welcome treat. And it provides the perfect base to explore the nearby villages of Agouinane, Tahaliouine, Tiziane and Tizin Zougouart.
Sitting on colorful local carpets rolled out on the trekking lodge terrace, we stare up in awe at the awesome views of Mt. Toubkal. As dusk settles over the oasis valley, stars appear behind the stony peaks. We are dressed in the jellabiyas which lodge caretaker Mohammed laid out in our room. Once again, a hundred calls to prayer begin to echo throughout the oasis valley. It’s a magical moment in an even more magical place. Mohammed announces our meal of beef tajine with raisins, figs and stewed prunes will be ready shortly. We wonder why it took us so long to discover this secret trekking destination. It’s the first time we’ve trekked in these mountains, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.
More Info on Visiting the Kasbah du Toubkal
Simply staying at the luxurious kasbah is a highlight in itself. For a full immersion in everything Berber, we highly recommend combining a kasbah stay with day treks around Imlil Valley and a multi-day trek to the Azzaden Valley including a stay at the cozy Azzaden Trekking Lodge. If you feel especially daring, you can also organize a climb to the top of Mt. Toubkal. Trips can be booked directly through Discover Ltd, owners of the Kasbah du Toubkal.
The company offers several trip packages combining the traditions of the Atlas Mountains with exotic Marrakesh or Essaouira. We did a package which included a stay at the beautiful Riad Les Yeux Bleus in Marrakesh, as well as the Kasbah du Toubkal and the Azzaden Trekking Lodge in the Atlas Mountains. Transport, food and lots of guided hikes were included as well. Check out their pre-designed trips or contact them for an individualized itinerary.
If responsible tourism is important to you, the Kasbah du Toubkal is the perfect place. Everything is run by locals from the surrounding villages, and each guest pays a five percent room supplement which goes into supporting the infrastructure around the valley. Throughout the years, Discover Ltd. has provided the community with schooling, clean water, an ambulance, trash clearance, and the list goes on. Co-owner Mike McHugo has recently launched a new website dedicated to responsible tourism in the Imlil Valley; check it out at www.imlilvalley.com/.
For more info on the history and vision of the Kasbah du Toubkal, make sure to read through Derek Workman’s Reasonable Plans.