Some spots on earth are not well known to many outsiders, and yet they hold natural wonders that inspire with their sheer aura of mystery. Morocco's Draa Valley is such a place, where you can stay in a hotel with a courtyard door that opens into the Sahara.
— By Pamela Grant
Should your heart be telling you to take an exotic trip into unknown parts, think of the Draa Valley. It is a land of oases lying below the Atlas Mountains in deep south Morocco and above the Sahara desert. This is not a place where you find amusement parks and concert halls. Instead, you will find Kasbahs evoking ancient times when feuding nomadic tribes built high walls around their towns to make a fortress for protection.
This is an ancient place where time may not have stood still, but it is slowed enough to make you feel that way, especially as residents travel by you on donkeys to reach houses in the Kasbahs still used today. This is the home of Berber villages, unique sand dunes, and the flowing Draa, all with a background of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
A trip to the Draa Valley is a spectacular adventure where the ancient past persists despite the world's encroaching effort to destroy them in so many places.
Door to the Desert
Eco-travel is not just about staying in places that conserve water and use solar energy. It is also about journeying to places to witness geographical richness, view ancient sites, and understand humankind's relationship with nature and survival over the centuries.
Draa Valley begins at the edge of the city of Ouarzazate and extends into the Sahara Desert. What makes the Draa Valley so special is that the landscape and the valley's inhabitants have an intertwined relationship that has existed for centuries and continues today. The Berbers are ethnically indigenous to North Africa and were distinct in every way from the Arabians and others—people who flowed into the area from the East many centuries ago—in terms of culture, language, and spirituality.
Ouarzazate is called the "door to the desert." You have a choice. Stay in a hotel like Dar Paru in M'Hamide where there really is a door on the wall of a garden that opens to the desert. The second option is to stay in a tent in a tourist camp.
If you choose the hotel, you will experience a blended experience with a simple room and terrace or patio and opportunities to enjoy local foods that deliver a cultural experience. There is a garden desert of olive trees and date palms where you will find the door that opens to the Sahara desert. The water basis is the swimming pool. End each day with a sunset camel ride, and you may not want to ever want to go home. M'Hamide is the last Moroccan town before reaching the Algerian border. It may feel isolated to people used to living in busy noisy cities, but is that not what this trip is about?
For those who desire a true desert experience, take a one to four day Sahara tour and stay in a tourist tent camp. Imagine driving in the desert, stopping to visit local villages and Kasbah and taking a camel ride to reach the campsite. Enjoy the colorful panoramic sunsets that only the desert can deliver, eat a traditional dinner under the stars, and feel the ancient embrace of the desert.
Adapting to the Desert
The River of Draa once flowed all the way to the Atlantic but now ends in the valley, much of it having dried up. There is plenty to do during your visit, but it is not a trip where you will find typical tourist sites.
Those who visit this remarkable area choose this location for that very reason. There are no Ferris wheels and water slides, but there are Berber villages and ancient Kasbahs where buildings are made of mud and straw and are perfectly adapted to the harsh desert climate.
Visiting a Berber village in the Atlas Mountains is a must-do for eco-travelers who appreciate cultural experiences. These are the people who have lived in this area for more than 4,000 years and were instrumental in establishing trading routes between West Africa and the Sub-Saharan desert. From the desert, goods were transported to Northern Morocco.
The Imlil village is such a place. Set in the high Atlas Mountains, people live in homes carved into the hillside or in clay homes. You can start here if planning on climbing to the top of Mount Jbel Toubkal – a three day hike to the highest mountain peak in North Africa - or just want to hike around the area. There are a number of guest houses in the area, like the Kasbah Imlil in the Tamatert village, which is 3.1 miles from Imlil.
Far, Far Away…
The time you spend in Draa Valley can include a visit to a market in the town of Agdz, where you will find delicious local grown dates and palm oasis. In October, locals pick, select, and pack dates, and you can try it yourself. Visit various villages, and try Moroccan mint tea and a chicken or lamb tagine dish.
Fortified with Moroccan food renowned around the world for its amazing inclusion of a blend of spices and ingredients cooked in a clay vessel or slow cooker, you have plenty of energy to shop. Check out the local products like handmade carpets and silver jewelry made by local artisans, meaning your money supports the community.
A visit to Draa Valley is a unique trip that satisfies a craving to spend time in a place that is truly peaceful and "far from the madding crowd," if allowed to borrow the words of Thomas Hardy.
It is a place where people are satisfied with their lifestyle, friendly, and ready to share their culture. If you are lucky, you will get to dance a traditional dance with the Draa Valley villagers – under the stars, of course - because most things in the desert are done under the expansive sky.