It may surprise you to know that you have almost definitely come across Ait Benhaddou. Even though you may not think that you have heard of it. That is, assuming you have watched a handful of popular movies and TV shows set in the desert filmed in the last 50 years. This post is about why you should take a day trip to the beautiful Ait Benhaddou.
The ksars rise seamlessly from the desert, clay walls blending in perfectly to their surroundings. Fortified walls and towers all clustered together, presenting a breathtaking break in the endless desert landscape that surrounds it. It is honestly hard to believe that it is actually a real place, not just a film set made for these cinematic classics.
The village has starred in Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Game of Thrones and a personal favourite of mine – The Mummy, amongst a host of other notable productions. We wanted to go and see this incredible piece of history for ourselves. And with plenty of options available, decided it would be an epic day trip to do on our 4 day trip to Marrakech.
Booking a day trip to Ait Benhaddou
We booked our day trip to Ait Benhaddou online on a site called Marrakech Desert Tours a few weeks before we went. You can check them out here. It was about £20 (the price was in Euros). Our chosen trip entailed a 3 and a half hour drive to the village and then a further half hour to visit Ouarzazate. This is the capital city of the province, which is known as ‘the doorway to the desert’.
This might seem like a pretty long time to be driving in a mini bus when you are only in an area for 4 days. However, the drive itself is incredible as it takes you up and through the majestic Atlas mountains and back out the other side. The scenic views on the drive were absolutely incredible, even if the drivers were slightly terrifying. Their tendencies to want to overtake anything and everything despite the windy hairpin bends made up most of the journey! Parts of the road are being worked on and widened, which made for some very bumpy non-tarmacked sections. Plus some observation of diggers at 45 degree angles halfway up mountain sides removing rock, which was a slightly alarming sight!
We stopped for a break to grab some snacks and use the bathrooms at a roadside stop. There are a number of these along the route I am sure you will be glad to know. We also got to stop at a photo point with the most stunning panoramic view of the mountains at one of the highest points on the drive which was really awesome. There were plenty of other mini buses doing the same thing, but it wasn’t too crowded. It was easily possible to get some great shots with no one else in.
Craig was particularly excited to be back in the mountains, having done the Atlas Mountain trek with Exodus Travels a few years ago. I could see why he had wanted to come back, they really were extremely impressive, stretching for miles with snowy peaks, small villages perching in the valleys and the occasional stream running down.
We made it down the other side and drove for at least another 45 minutes through mostly uninhabited desert land. We had reached our main stop on our day trip to Ait Benhaddou.
Ait Benhaddou tour
We were dropped off here with a local guide, Ali. He was dressed in the traditional Berber style of long tunic, sandals and a scarf to keep the saharan sun off his head. He took us through the outskirts of the modern side of the village and down some steps for our first view of the village.
That first view was pretty jaw dropping. It looks exactly as you have seen on the big screen before which is a lot to take in. Fortunately we had a bit of time to admire it and get some pictures before the next group arrived and we had to move on. All the details of the little towers and tiny windows are visible even from far away. Plus the view offered a good sense of the scale of the hill it was built on. Although this was even more so the case when we actually claimed up it!
We walked down through the narrow walkways between the orange sandy buildings to the current stream occupying the river bed. This wasn’t much more than a trickle really but had sand bags to use as stepping stones across it nonetheless. After this crossing we walked up the back to get a closer view. We walked past some camels, which I was excited to see in the desert. I did feel bad for them however, as they were tied up to rings nailed into the ground which can’t have been much fun for them.
We first walked through some fields, seemingly away from the village. This was so we could see the fake entry gate that was build for Gladiator, which is much bigger than the actual ancient gate. They also built the arena just behind there, which is pretty awesome. There were plenty of photos outside shops and vendors as you walked through the village explaining this.
We were taken into one shop, as you often are on these tours, where a man was doing paintings and then setting them on fire. apparently to set them somehow, which looked great but I don’t exactly have anywhere for that kind of thing. They had a lot of prints for sale of the Berber alphabet, which is very old and made up of interesting symbols. I recognised some of these, such as the one the grail guardian’s had tattooed on their chest in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If you have never seen it look it up, it is pretty unique looking. The symbols were also carved into some of the walls. Not really sure what this meant but added an element of ancient mystery to the place.
We walked through the actual original gate and started to wind our way up though the copper coloured high walls and narrow streets. There were plenty of opportunities to take photos of the village We also learned from our guide about the different buildings, including the importance of the ksars.
We were taken on a walk through the village, whilst Ali told us about village life. Around 40 berber families still live in the old part of the village, whilst most have moved across to the new village across the stream which has modern luxuries such as running water and electricity. We were able to go in and look around an old traditional style house. There we could see what the space they inhabit would look like and grasped an idea of their daily life.
Walking through the village was like stepping back in time. That is if you could ignore all the tourist shops that you passed along the way with their wares outside their doors, lining the orange sandy walls trying to tempt you in to part with some dirham.
The detailed carvings in the stone work of the ksars were worn down from years of weathering but still clearly visible.
We stopped at one of the lower walls located above many but not all of the buildings. Some of us chose to hike our way up in the blistering desert heat for the ultimate view at the top. Up and up we climbed as the wind became fiercer blowing the dust in our faces. Nevertheless the view was 100% worth it.
And though there were plenty of people around, it wasn’t crowded. There were spots to soak up the ancient site and contemplate what a spectacularly well surviving civilisation these people had built here.
After a few minutes standing in awe of the ancient architecture and pausing to get some photos we headed back down to join the group and across the bridge back to the modern village.
We were then taken to the biggest restaurant I have ever seen in my life to have lunch. It seemed to be made up of about six different restaurants put together decked out in Moroccan furnishings. They were serving fairly standard food like tangines, cous cous and pizza. This was the only place I had pizza. I figured the standard of a restaurant designed to cater on mass to loads of tourists wouldn’t be great no matter what you ate. It was pretty standard as I had guessed. The pizza was fine and Craig said his chicken tagine was more bone than meat, but it filled us up. It also had wi-fi which was nice as this was the only point on the day we had it.
We were then back on the bus to go to Ouarzazate. It was another 40 minutes or so on the bus, and we were told we had an hour to look around.
They want you to go to the cinema museum which is next to where the bus drops you off. However I don’t think anyone in our group paid to go in. It looked rather old and run down and we were more interested in seeing the city itself.
We wanted to go and explore, so we headed into the jumble of buildings and had a wander around. Sadly there wasn’t much there that was open, other than a few shops trying to coax us in.
We found a local cafe with its gates open and went into the courtyard, but there was no one there to serve us. So we continued our walk and were forced to go to one of the few cafes by the museum and the car park for refreshment. We wanted ice cream but the server said the freezer was locked so we settled for some mint tea on the top level, looking out at the views of the town.
Walking round in the desert for a few hours had been pretty tiring. I can only imagine how exhausting it would be if you were there in the height of summer. We were there the first weekend of March, back when you could still travel the world before Covid-19 ruined everything…
We then had that long bus ride back through the desert and into the mountains. It was a race against the sun. You don’t really want to be driving that road in the dark, but it was nice to watch the sun set in the mountains.
My thoughts on our day trip to Ait Benhaddou
The day was really good, I loved seeing Ait Benhaddou with my own eyes. It was undeniably cool to have been on the brink of the world’s most famous desert.
The price of the day trip to Ait Benhaddou was decent value I felt. Although there were extra expenses to the day such as the fee for going to the village. This is because it is a UNESCO heritage site, which was 30 dirham per person to enter. We also had to tip the guide. And all the rest stops we had you had to pay for the toilet so it is worth taking some loose change if you have it.
It is a long day, so try and get a good sleep before you go (we didn’t as I had a cold which kept us both up, sorry Craig!). They were very punctual with their 7am pick up, and it was basically a 12 hour day. Nearly two thirds of which was spent in a mini van. Definitely take snacks and plenty of water to see you through.
If you have time to fit in a day trip when in Morocco, particularly if you are visiting Marrakech or if travelling more around the country I would definitely suggest that you come and stop off here. Book a day trip to Ait Benhaddou and experience a unique piece ancient history still standing on the cusp of the world’s vastest desert.