The advertisements for my riad included excursions available in and around Marrakech. One of these excursions included a trip to Ourika Valley. I paid twenty-five dollars to the manager of the riad and they scheduled a driver to pick me up on Thursday morning for the all-day trip.
A man arrived at my riad promptly at 9:00 a.m. He took me on his motorbike to an alley where another gentleman placed me in a taxi. From there we drove to the plaza where tour buses were lined up for the trek to the Ourika Valley and its waterfalls.
The trip took roughly two hours. Even though I had had a minimal amount of sleep the night before, I opted not to nap along the way. I wanted to absorb everything I could.
Morocco is an interesting mixture of the old and new. We drove down a four-lane boulevard with an enormous median liberally accented with palm trees, shrubbery, walking paths and benches. Along the way, I noticed how the outskirts resembled the exurbia of Los Angeles.
There were huge apartment complexes under construction. Hotels and shopping centers were popping up. Vast tracts of land were being cleared for future development and construction cranes poked into the sky.
Yet, juxtaposed against such modernity were toothless old (and young) men riding in donkey-pulled carts that contained sticks, upholstered cushions or watermelons. Outdoor cafes and homes had thatch or bamboo roofs. The obviously wealthier buildings had tin roofs.
Eventually, we reached the outskirts of the city and our four lane boulevard narrowed to a two lane highway. We drove through several small towns, each heavily populated with roadside stands selling terra cotta pottery, t-shirts and various handmade items. As we drove on, our nicely paved two lane highway turned into a rough, poorly maintained road that started its way up the mountain.
The road meandered up into the Atlas Mountains along the Ourika River, a boulder-strewn waterway. Driving up into the foothills the road became worse, narrowing in some places to one lane due to the collapse of the other lane into the rushing river. Despite that, the road was actually quite safe.
Along the entire route were yet more roadside stands selling yet more items for the tourist trade. Camels munched contentedly along the road as their owners shouted out entreaties for their tours.
Restaurants lined each side of the river, sometimes venturing into the river. Because it gets so hot in Morocco, many of the small restauranteurs would place rickety tables with brightly colored resin chairs in calm sections of the river so patrons could cool off from the blazing sun. Cushioned couches in red, blue and orange also lined the riverbank sheltered from the sun by large umbrellas or bamboo overhangs.
Our trek to the waterfall was not technically direct. Along the way our driver stopped at a small herbal farm where we were expected to disembark and listen to a rapidly-speaking sales girl make her pitch.
After first taking us through a beautiful little garden which supposedly supplied all the natural remedies, the young lady brought us into a little room of benches where she then described their amazing products for sale that eliminated cellulite, cured baldness and lessened the sting of hemorrhoidal itch. A tray of spicy herbal tea was offered. Herbal creams and soaps were passed around to sample. No one bought anything.
We left the herbalist and drove for another ten minutes before we stopped at yet another small home-based business. This enterprise showed us how flour and cous cous were ground via the rushing water underneath the home. Moving along we were encouraged to buy bread or flour from the proprietor. Another man was selling pottery and ceramics. I opted for an elaborately painted and beaded plate.
Fortunately, the miller was the last of the hard sell businesses we experienced. It was obvious to all on the bus that these stops were part of the tour and that all involved got a cut of the sale. For my money, I found it a bit irritating, but I also realized that I was in another country and must be willing to play by their rules. Whether or not I bought anything was up to me.
The drive continued up into the mountains. We passed elegant villas with lush gardens and ornate entry gates. Red clay apartment buildings saddled up next to red rock and brick houses. Neighborhoods were built into the hill on each side of the river.
Eventually, we reached the small town of Setti Fatma. From this location we would walk the path to one of the main waterfalls in the Ourika Valley. We piled out of the bus, a group of people that included England-born Bangladeshis, Turks, Pakistanis, French, a large contingent of Brits and one American expat living a fantasy in Italy.
Our guide told us to follow him. We walked across a narrow point in the river on flimsy boards nailed to felled tree trunks. More restaurants hugged the riverside and the small sandbars in the rivers middle. We started walking up a path.
The guide told us the Atlas Mountains jutted over 13000′. We were at the 5500′ level and would climb another 1500′ to the waterfall. No problem. In observing the trail immediately ahead, it seemed easy enough. People were being led up and down the trail by guides and in places it was quite narrow, but it was an actual definable trail.
Walking, we were enchanted by the quaint coffee and juice stops along the way. Shops were set up along the path offering the same trinkets and ceramics in the Marrakech souk and along the drive up the Ourika Valley. Stopping continuously, we would snap pictures of these little juice bars, with a small waterfall or finger of the river pulsating nearby. Color was offered everywhere in the umbrellas and upholstered couches.
We walked and walked, constantly stopping to take yet photos of stunning waterfall views. Selfies proliferated. My iPhone battery, famously wretched, was, of course, dying already. I opted to wait until we reached the pinnacle before taking more shots, reasoning I could snap more photos if the battery cooperated.
As we trudged upward, we noticed that the “path” had pretty much ended and we were now climbing rocks. The “path” had transmogrified into steps onto flat rocks over multi-ton boulders and up steep slopes. Some tourists had made the unfortunate mistake of wearing flip-flops or sandals, footwear that was magnificently inappropriate for such a trek.
We kept climbing. Even as the elevation increased and the accessibility became more difficult, juice bars still proliferated. Regrettably, toilets did not. I was unable to calculate how the locals running the juice bars answered the call of nature. Fortunately, I was not hearing the call too loudly.
Walking in many instances became a literal climb. At one point, we had to climb a metal ladder straight up to get to the next part of the “path”. We grabbed outcroppings and hoisted ourselves up. The guide was available for the weaker among us as well as the Muslim women fully adorned in head coverings and hajibs.
Yet it was worth it. With each corner we rounded, with each boulder we clambered over we were rewarded with stunningly beautiful views of the barren Atlas Mountains or gushing waters. Our walk/climb lasted much longer than the forty-five minutes our tour guide promised because we were snapping photos, so awestruck were we at each juncture.
Eventually, we reached the 7000′ level, our goal. We observed people in the upper elevations trucking along, however, that was not our tour. At our destination, which required one last physical climb, everyone relaxed with a Coke or some freshly-squeezed orange juice. Selfies snapped relentlessly.
The climb down was decidedly more casual and less strenuous. Indeed, it was wide and an actual “path”. When we reached the location of our bus, we were directed to a restaurant where we could order lunch. I had befriended a delightful Bangladeshi newlywed couple from Manchester, England, Abdullah and Amara. I told them of my desire to take the Beatles tour in nearby Liverpool before returning to America and they enthusiastically insisted I call when I fly into the nearby Manchester airport.
We opted to eat our lunch together and chose an area away from the rest of the patrons. We wanted to sit in upholstered couches, not resin chairs. And we wanted the table in the middle of the river on a small island.
Moroccan bread and succulent olives arrived. My meal consisted of Moroccan salad, a spicy Moroccan meatball and cheese entree along with cinammon-spreckled sliced oranges for dessert. All washed down with a litre of sparkling mineral water. Two men singing traditional Moroccan folk songs serenaded us. For thirteen dollars it was a good buy.
Our 1500′ walk/climb upwards and back in the hot Moroccan sun coupled with a satisfying lunch of Moroccan delicacies was just what the doctor ordered. The bus ride back was quiet as most everyone conked out in their seats. Including yours truly.
It had been a full day. One that will not be forgotten.