Ait Benhaddou or Ouarzazate? Where to stay and how much time to spend

Ait Benhaddou or Ouarzazate? Where to stay and how much time to spendAit Benhaddou or Ouarzazate? 

Ait Benhaddou or Ouarzazate? This is another of those questions travellers coming to Morocco always seem to be asking. Having now seen both places the answer is easy.

 

Ait Benhaddou

A couple of photos before I explain more about this town.

Ait Benhaddou. Ait Benhaddou or Ouarzazate? Where to stay and how much time to spend

Buildings in Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

mud buildings in Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

 

Ait Benhaddou is a Ksar, a fortified village that was a stop along the trade route between Marrakesh and the Sudan. The caravans would be made up of hundreds of camels. They would carry gold, silver and slaves to Marrakech in exchange for salt heading back to the Sudan. This trade route goes back to ancient times and flourished especially between the 8th and 16th century. It was a thriving town, home to thousands. Because the wealth that passed through, it also attracted bandits. So defensive walls were built around the town.

The Trans-Saharan route dwindled by the end of the 16th century. Slowly Ait Benhaddou went into disrepair. Today only 4 families actually live in the old town, everyone else lives across the river in the new town.

But the town became famous for something else: cinema. Ait Benhaddou has been the setting from many movies, from Lawrence of Arabia to Gladiator to Game of Thrones, there’s been tons of movies shot here. Why? Because of the beautiful setting. Ait Benhaddou is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ait Benhaddou UNESCO, Morocco

mud building in Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

Views in Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

geography, Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

mud buildings in Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

view in Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

mud building in Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

street in Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

mud buildings in Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

camels in Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

 

 

Ouarzazate

Whereas Ait Benhaddou is a town (a very small town!), Ouarzazate (which is 30 km away) is a city. It’s not a large city (60,000 odd) but it is very spread out. And while it is an attractive city there’s not really much to see or do. My guide told me that tourists often just use it as a pit stop on the way to the desert. And it doesn’t have the history of Ait Benhaddou. Ouarzazate really only became a town in the 1920s when the French developed it as a garrison town in their pacification of the Berber tribes.

It does have a few points of interest though. Coming into town (from Marrakech), there are a couple of film studios. The most famous is the Atlas film studio which is large with many film sets. I wandered the grounds for about half an hour by myself. There are no signs and I should have hired one of the guides. But it’s honestly not my thing and I didn’t want someone talking my ear off for an hour. I know Lissette would have been much more curious (here is the list of movies that have been shot by Atlas studios in Ouarzazate. Impressive list that might surprise you).

Atlas film studio, Ouarzazate, Morocco

Above: just a few of the many sets on the grounds of Atlas Studios.

More interesting to me was the Taourirt Kasbah on the Southern end of Ouarzazate. It belonged to the Glaoui family, the same family who owned the Kasbah Glaoui in Telouet (which I covered here). The Taourirt Kasbah is not as ornate or beautiful but it is worth seeing – partly to see the incredible maze of rooms and passages. There are 300 rooms in this Kasbah and going through it all is like walking through a labyrinth. Most of the rooms are plain – empty with white walls – but if you continue you’ll find a few beautifully tiled rooms with intricately coloured ceilings.

Taourirt Kasbah, Ouarzazate, Morocco

Above: Taourirt Kasbah

 

The other place you’ll probably visit in Ouarzazate is Oasis Fint. It’s an oasis along a river in a valley surrounded by cliffs. It’s nice. But I didn’t think it was anything memorable (trip advisor reviews rave about the place so maybe I’m wrong…).

So back to the Ait Benhaddou or Ouarzazate question. While Ouarzazate is nice there’s no doubt that Ait Benhaddou is much more spectacular and historical. And being in a small town pretty much in the middle of nowhere it has a charm that Ouarzazate doesn’t have.

 

 

How much Time to Spend?

I spent 4 days in Ait Benhaddou which is waayyy too long. But I’m on a 5 week trip through Morocco so I enjoyed the chilling out time.

You really just need one day to see Ait Benhaddou. It’s very small and there aren’t really any activities (unless you want to maybe ride a camel or an ATV). Maybe you want to visit Ouarzazate as well. If so make it 2 days max. In that time you can also fit in an excursion to Telouet for the Kasbah Glaoui and the fabulous drive along the gorge (which was a highlight for me).

 

 

Practical Information

Accommodation. I stayed in  Kasbah Valentine  while in Ait Benhaddou. Very, very nice and they have an excellent restaurant (rated #1 on Trip Advisor). It was nice having a heated room after freezing in a few of the other places I’ve been (I was here in December. People coming in summer will have to opposite problem).

How to get to Ait Ben Haddou (or Ouarzazate): I wrote about that here.

Organized Tour. Yes, you can do Ait Benhaddou in a day trip from Marrakech. This tour gets great reviews. It’s not the way I would do it (that’s about 10 hours of driving in 1 day) but it’s a scenic drive and Ait Benhaddou is beautiful.

 

Ps. If you find our blog helpful, please consider using our links to book your flights, hotels, tours, and car rentals. Have a look at our Travel Resources page.

 

8 Comments

  1. Good to know! I too have 5 weeks there and I’ll probably stay 4 days in Ait Benhaddou simply to kill time and just enjoy. I’m ok with just hanging out, it means I am stress-free lol

    1. Hi Paula,
      I’m in Chefchaouen right now and I hope it’s on your itinerary. Very pretty. 2 or 3 days is enough, but you shouldn’t miss it.
      I’ll be writing about Fez soon. Lots less stressful than Marrakech. Didn’t love it…but then I’m not so crazy about Moroccan cities. I think it’s the incredible countrysides that I appreciate much more.
      Anyway, I’m very curious about what your experiences will be like as a single female here…

      1. Chefchaouen is definitely on the list. The blue city looks fabulous in photos I’ve seen. I’ve met a couple people who like Marrakech, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed lol. Just in case, I made sure to book accommodations that if nothing else, I’ll be happy not leaving the premises for a week 😉

        1. Just yesterday I was talking to a young French couple here in the guesthouse who didn’t like Fez. They felt so harrassed they didn’t want to leave their riad. They had thought of flying home! I told them that if they had a hard time with Fez they wouldn’t have been able to handle Marrakech. I’m curious how you get on…But you’re an experienced traveller.
          Yes, Chefchaouen very, very pretty. Deserves a few days.

  2. I remember thinking when we visited Morocco in January, 2016 (which BTW was a lot colder that we’d expected) that the sheer age of the country is difficult to get your mind around. I look at your photos and it’s not hard to picture the same scenes from centuries ago. Ait-Benhaddou looks like a fascinating destination and will definitely be on my list should/when I make a return visit.

    1. Hi Anita!
      I’ve had remarkable weather in Morocco – usually close to 20 in the day. Quite cold at night. But it’s been 3 weeks now and every day except 1 it’s been clear blue skies. I’m told we’ve been lucky, that (as you say) it’s quite a bit cooler this time of year in Morocco. Meanwhile Lissette is in Split where it seems to be raining every day….
      By the time I leave I’ll have some good recommendations for you Anita. Ait Benhaddou for sure is interesting. And Chefchaouen where I am right now is glorious and worth a visit.
      I’m sure you’ll make it here Anita. What is amazing is how close it is to southern Portugal and Spain – it’s amazing just because it is so different in scenery and culture. According to Google maps I’m only 580 km away from you in Albufeira, you could drive here in 8 hours or walk it in 105 hours 🙂 It’s only 165 km from here to Gilbraltar. I just find that all amazing because you’d think you’re in another world in Morocco.

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