We didn’t do this but if like me you’re rather fond of camels you might like to know that at several places in the Ourika Valley you can take a camel ride – or more properly I should say, a dromedary ride. This could be just a brief stroll, or a lengthier ride. If you take an organised tour this is likely to be included, otherwise you can just stop when you spot some camels and ask for a ride. If you do the latter, be prepared (as everywhere in Morocco) to haggle about the price. I don’t know what would be reasonable but it will certainly be a lot less than you are first quoted.
So how do you tell that these are dromedaries rather than camels? It’s all in the hump! Camels have two humps while dromedaries have only one. It is these latter that are native to Morocco and are the so-called “ships of the desert”, who have transported goods and people across the Sahara for centuries. A short ride by the Ourika River is surely not going to give you the sensation that you are a desert nomad, but I imagine it would be a very pleasant way to spend half an hour or so.
One of the typical Berber homes in the Ourika Valley has been opened up for tourists to visit and observe the traditional way of life. This is rather oddly part museum and part family home, but is worth a visit to help you understand how people have lived in and farmed this valley for centuries. The first building we saw housed a small flour mill powered by water diverted from the fast-flowing river. Off the same front yard a small steam room or hammam opens, serving as the family’s bathroom.
We then went into the house itself, straight into a kitchen area where a fire was burning, a woman cooking and several cute kittens getting underfoot (check out photo 3 if you're a cat lover). As well as this room we peered into a bedroom and a sitting room kept for special occasions, though this was much more sparsely furnished than you would expect of such a function, having only stone benches built into the walls and covered with throws and cushions. We also saw the metal (pewter?) plates and pots kept for such occasions. At the back of the house was a small garden and steps leading down to the river where the family had a vegetable plot. The stream that had been diverted to power the mill ran through the garden and back down to the river below.
Back out in the front yard we were of course encouraged to visit the small shop in an outbuilding which displayed minerals and fossils apparently found locally and various handicrafts including some quite nice jewellery. We didn't choose to buy anything and weren't hassled to do so, which was a slight surprise.
Altogether, although this is clearly set up for tourists, we did feel that we'd gained an increased understanding of the traditional way of life in the valley, so it was well worth the stop.
We stopped at one of the co-operatives where local women produce argan oil by traditional methods. This oil, which is produced only in Morocco, has a unique nutty flavour and is used in Moroccan cooking and cosmetics. We had seen the fruits growing a couple of days before on our trip to the coast, and it was interesting to now see how they were used. We were shown the different stages of production. First the nut (see photo 3) is removed from the fruit, with the latter being used as animal feed (goats in particular love argan fruits and regularly climb the shrubby trees to get to them). Then the nut is shelled, and the shells used as fuel in household fires. The nut must next be ground to a paste which can be used in making cosmetics such as soap and body lotion or further processed to extract the oil used in cooking. Photo 2 shows the stone press that is used for this stage.
We were then invited to taste some of the oil, using pieces of bread that we were given to dip in it. The oil certainly had a distinctive nutty flavour and reminded me a little of pumpkin oil. We also tried a confection made by mixing the oil with honey which we were told was used on pancakes – it was delicious. Of course these items are available for sale along with the various cosmetics. There was quite a selection of soaps, scented with lavender, jasmine, gardenia and other flowers. We bought a bar of jasmine soap for Chris’s mother which cost 30 dirhams (under £3) and was nicely packaged.
The original plan had been to eat in Setti Fatma, the village at the head of the valley where the paved road runs out and the paths to the waterfalls begin. But when we got there it was very busy and I didn’t especially relish the idea of negotiating the groups of hikers on my crutches, so we asked Mokhtar if there were any good alternatives. He vetoed our suggestion of eating at one of the roadside cafés – I had been charmed by the pretty riverside setting of many of them but he insisted that the food there wasn’t “safe”. Mind you, our hostess at Les Lauriers Blancs said the same about the food served in the Night Market of the Djamaa el Fna and we ate there without any repercussions.
Still, the cafés were out, so instead Mokhtar brought us to a small hotel about halfway up the valley (or rather down, as we had already been to its head). Tables for lunch were laid out in the restaurant and on a sunny terrace, and the weather was absolutely perfect to tempt us to opt for the latter. We were a bit disconcerted to be brought a menu for a set (and quite pricey) three course meal, but when we told the waiter that we only wanted a light meal he said we could choose a single dish from any of the courses. So we both selected one of the starters – Chris chose grilled goats cheese served on toast with some salad, and I liked the sound of a dish called Choutchouka which the waiter explained was a sort of Moroccan version of ratatouille. It proved to be probably the nicest thing I ate throughout the week of our stay! Yes, it was a bit like ratatouille, but spicier, with chillies included in the mix of vegetables. It was served chilled and topped with several delicious chunks of citrons confits, the typical Moroccan preserved lemons which I love. We also asked for bread and olives, both of which were excellent. We shared a big bottle of sparkling water and had coffees afterwards, and paid 250 dirhams including service. This is quite expensive for Morocco but we knew we were paying hotel prices, and taking into account the setting, the accommodating waiter and the quality of the food, we both agreed it was worth it.
Incidentally if you’re looking to stay in the Ourika Valley and don’t mind paying for somewhere nice, I would check this out. It looked a lovely spot, the building was interestingly and tastefully decorated (I sneaked a look when I went to the ladies) and there was a lovely swimming pool and sun terrace.
There are several ways to get to the Ourika Valley. You can do as we did and travel by grand taxi with a driver (we paid 700 dirhams for the day, about £56), join an organised tour, hire a car (the roads were pretty good once we were out of the city) or use local buses although I believe the latter involves changing en route and may be too time-consuming if you’re just going for the day.
The taxi option worked well for us as we could stop whenever we wanted and I didn’t have to walk very far on my crutches. And as I wasn’t able to walk to the waterfalls, which is a standard stop on these tours, our driver Mokhtar took us back to Marrakesh by a roundabout route so that we could something more of our surroundings and get some more photos of the distant Atlas Mountains.
As we drove through the lower parts of the valley we saw a number of local selling little woven baskets of a red fruit beside the road. I asked Mokhtar what it was, and at the next opportunity he stopped the car and called the seller over. After arguing briefly about the price he bought a basket and handed it over to us, explaining that these were arbousiers and grew wild in the valley. He recommended that we wash the fruit before tasting it, so once back at our riad we did just that. The fruit proved to be quite juicy but without a strong flavour and with rather rough skin.
Wikipedia translates arbousier as “strawberry tree” and describes the fruit as “soft, slightly mealy, tart and sweet, and it contains many small seeds.” It is apparently rich in vitamin C but if eaten in too large quantities can induce mild colic. I found it a bit bland in flavour and didn’t eat more than a couple, but we were pleased to have tried them.
The Ourika River is of course the reason that the valley exists, and is also the reason people live here and are able to farm the land so effectively. But it can also be a threat as it is prone to flooding in early Spring when the snow starts to melt in the High Atlas and comes rushing down the streams and waterfalls into the valley. Even in November when the land is at its driest we saw small falls dropping into pools and splashing across the road. In winter the road can be impassable so check before coming here if you’re driving yourself.
The Valley starts about 30 kilometres from Marrakesh and at first is quite wide but soon narrows and becomes more picturesque. The road climbs for 37 kilometres to the village of Setti Fatma, where the tarmac ends. At this point you are 1,700 metres above sea level. You can travel further if you have a 4 by 4, but most people get out and hike to one or more of the seven waterfalls that can be visited on foot. Of course with me on crutches such a walk was out of the question, but I have read that the walks take longer and are a little more demanding than the guides will tell you, so if you plan to go allow enough time, carry some water and wear sturdy shoes or boots.
Favorite thing: Life here in the Ourika Valley appears to go on much as it has done for centuries, despite the influx of tourists. That isn’t to say that people here don’t make use of modern technology at all – the houses are dotted with satellite dishes, and the moped is a popular and sensible form of transport. But the technology seemed to me to be used only where it fitted with their lifestyle rather than to have changed that lifestyle. Many aspects of their daily life appear relatively unchanged – we saw women going down to the river to wash clothes, wood stacked up to fuel the open fires on which they cook, and traditional styles of architecture used even for new houses. This creates a very harmonious impression to the scenery here as everything seems to “belong” – well, apart from those rather incongruous satellite dishes!