Aït Ben Haddou conjures images of biblical towns, long lost villages, and battling Persian and Greek armies. It’s been used in many films and is best seen on a road trip through the Ounila Valley.

For centuries, the Ounila Valley was the main passageway between Marrakech and the caravan routes of the Sahara. Tradesmen came to exchange their wares and the powerful watched on to extract their taxes. The remnants of their power can still be discovered in the magnificent decaying ruins of Telouet Kasbah and the fortified town of Anmiter that still line the route.

The highlight at the end of the valley is Aït Ben Haddou. A beautifully set fortified town, its red mud-brick façade and walls conjure images of biblical towns, long lost villages, and battling Persian and Greek armies. It has been used in films including Gladiator, Jesus of Nazareth, Jewel of the Nile and The Mummy. But is perhaps most famous for Game of Thrones.

Many visit Aït Ben Haddou by driving from Marrakech to Ouarzazate taking the main N9 road. But it’s much better to take the P1506 and head through the Ounila Valley. Not only are there ruined kasbahs and towns but the river has carved dramatic canyons. Dotted with green crops contrasting against red-rock valley walls it is one of the most beautiful places in Morocco.

This guide captures all the highlights of driving through the Ounila Valley to the Game of Thrones famous Aït Ben Haddou.

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Ait Ben Haddou

IN THIS GUIDE

A road trip to Aït Ben Haddou


01 – TELOUET KASBAH

02 – ANMITER

03 – OUNILA VILLAGES

04 – TAMDAGHT KASBAH

05 – AÏT BEN HADDOU

DRIVING TO AÏT BEN HADDOU THROUGH THE OUNILA VALLEY

Most get to Aït Ben Haddou by driving from Marrakech over the Tizi n’Tichka pass high in the Atlas Mountains and down into Ouarzazate, before taking a short detour to the ruined town. But it is much better to take the P1506 through the Ounila Valley.

The P1506 leaves the N9 just south of the Tizi n’Tichka pass and re-joins it just west of Ouarzazate. The road is paved and easy to drive in any 2WD. It takes 1 hour and 30 minutes to drive through the most picturesque section of the valley without any stops.

However, you will want to give yourself 4 or 5 hours to see all the highlights along the way, plus extra time to stroll around Aït Ben Haddou. End the day staying at one of the guest houses near Aït Ben Haddou to catch sunrise or sunset in this most stunning of places.

The route is shown on the map below and the rest of the post details the highlights along the way. Before you get started, read our driving in Morocco guide.

1 – TELOUET KASBAH

Before the new road between Marrakech and Ouarzazate was built in the 1930s the Ounila valley was the main passageway between the northern cities of Morocco and the caravan routes of the Sahara Desert. The tribal leaders that controlled these routes became fabulously wealthy from the taxes they could impose on passing trade. The last of these tribal leaders was Thami el Glaoui and it is his family that built the magnificent Telouet Kasbah.

From the outside, this large kasbah (fortified home) looks like a red ruined hulk with crumbling walls. But head inside, pass through a warren of tightly packed rooms, and you soon get a glimpse of the majestic wealth that must once have been on display here. Glorious painted cedarwood is fitted into the ceilings, intricate plaster carvings adorn the doorways and bright zellij mosaics cover the walls. Even the fine views from the windows are framed by elegant iron grills.

It’s a glorious expression of Glaoui wealth and opulence in the most remote of settings and one of the finest kasbahs in Morocco.

2 – FORTIFIED KSAR OF ANMITER

Just a few miles east of Telouet Kasbah the Ounila River meets the road and the landscape changes. Instead of miles and miles of barren rock, green slithers of vegetation line the valley floor providing food and water for the old fortified village (ksar) of Anmiter.

This is one of the best-preserved ksars in Morocco and is what Aït Ben Haddou would have looked like before tourists and movie fame came calling.

If you have the time, Anmiter is worth exploring. Either take the rough road down into the town or leave your car at the top and make your way down on foot. Alternatively, stay the night at Kasbah Tigmi N’Oufella just south of Anmiter and get the helpful host to organise a sunrise or sunset walking tour for you.

Ait Ben Haddou

3 – OUNILA VILLAGES

From Anmiter, the tarmac road now winds its way south through superb road trip country. Following the path of the river, the road twists and turns – clinging to the canyon edge. It’s a glorious road in fantastic scenery. You could complete the drive in an hour, but it would be madness to do so.

Instead, take your time, stop, get out and appreciate the stunning scenery of rippling red rocks, towering canyon walls and lush green valleys. The beautiful scene is all backed by the Atlas Mountains. Oblivious to the few road trippers who make this journey are women working in the fields, men herding sheep and donkeys being ushered along towards local villages.

If you have time, stop and have a stroll around Tajeguite, Assaka and Taïfaste. It’s a glorious exhibition of Moroccan scenery and life.

Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou

4 – TAMDAGHT KASBAH

While Tamdaght Kasbah may lack the opulence of Telouet Kasbah or the movie star fame of Kasbah Aït Ben Haddou, it has a more genuine Berber feel. Set amidst attractive surroundings, this Glaoui stronghold is an impressive sight standing proud over the Ounila Valley.

There is no formal entrance or opening times, instead, you have to knock on the front door and see if someone will let you in. It can be a bit of a hassle so it might be better to stroll the town and take pictures from the road. In particular, the views from the south across the green valley floor looking up to the kasbah are excellent.

It’s easy to see why Alexander the Great and other classics were filmed in this attractive setting.

Ait Ben Haddou

5 – AÏT BEN HADDOU

While many travellers skip the Ounila Valley, most make the short journey from Ouarzazate to Aït Ben Haddou. This exotic location has been used in films including Gladiator, Jesus of Nazareth, Jewel of the Nile and The Mummy. But it’s perhaps most famous for Game of Thrones.

Set attractively across a shallow stream, the red mud-brick façade conjures images of biblical towns, long lost villages, and battling Persian and Greek armies. Castellated walls rest on the side of a hill from which there is a magnificent view of the surrounding area.

Inside, tiny alleyways and staircases meander around the red brick buildings which are in various states of decay. Some have been left for ruin while others have been renovated or completely rebuilt by the tourist industry. It’s less about an authentic look at rural Morocco, and more about old film sets, large crowds and local salesmen.

However, head here at sunrise or sunset and the crowds will have disappeared, the stallholders gone and Kasbah Aït Ben Haddou will shimmer in the evening light. Furthermore, head up to the top of one of the easily climbed surrounding hills and you will be rewarded with some beautiful desolate mountain scenery.

WHERE TO STAY IN THE OUNILA VALLEY

Like many places off the beaten track in Morocco, the Ounila Valley has some excellent value and atmospheric accommodation. Far from the chain hotels, many of the sleeping options in the area are local independent riads or small charming hotels.

The other benefit of staying in this particular part of Morocco is the chance to indulge in a fortified-ksar-inspired lodging and to capture Aït Benhaddou at sunrise and sunset.

We have more suggestions for visiting Aït Ben Haddou in our guide to Ouarzazate.

ANMITER

KASBAH TIGMI N’OUFELLA

Just south of Anmiter, the helpful host is happy to organise local tours and chat about local life. Breakfast and dinner on the roof terrace is excellent.


GREAT VALUE TAMDAKHTE

RIAD TAMDAKHTE

Just north of Aït Ben Haddou, this excellent value riad has magnificent views from both its upstairs roof terrace and the front patio. Large and comfortable rooms beautifully decorated in local Moroccan style make this our favourite in the area. It’s a 30-minute drive to Ouarzazate.


AÏT BEN HADDOU

RIAD CARAVANE

In a minimalist style, this upmarket riad is only a 10-minute walk from Aït Ben Haddou. The views of the surrounding countryside are excellent.

WHEN TO VISIT THE AÏT BEN HADDOU

The Ounila Valley is at its most beautiful in spring. At this time, the lush green crops on the valley floor contrast beautifully with the red rock. However, in early spring the passes over the mountains can still be covered in snow making them impassable. So we suggest you plan your visit from late-March to early May when the roads should be open and the temperatures not too high.

After the summer temperatures drop, mid-September to mid-October can also be a good time to visit although the green valley floor will not be as vibrant as in spring.

While not essential it is also worth avoiding Ramadan. Morocco is a very religious country with strict adherence to fasting. This means guides are not keen to take long hikes, and local cafes and services are often closed.

Aït Ben Haddou is best seen at sunrise or sunset when the crowds have disappeared, the temperatures are cooler and the golden light shimmers on the buildings.

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