The meat looked suspiciously unlike any lamb I’ve ever seen. In fact it had more in keeping with the scrawny cat vying for our attention from across the roof terrace. Hubbie gingerly picked through the bone, fat and gristle in the tagine, soon declaring it a no-go area. Not wanting to offend our generous hosts we wondered what the hell to do. The cat had moved closer and was meowing pitifully, no doubt all an act that had been played out many times before. But it gave us and idea…
Imlil is a small tranquil berber village nestled at the head of the picture perfect Aït Mizane Valley in the High Atlas Mountains. At 1740m it is used by trekkers and climbers as a base for exploring the Atlas, and of course the jumping off point for scaling the lofty heights of Mount Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa. Only an hour and a half from Marrakech, it’s an ideal spot for a day trip, or a little longer.
If you’re not peak-bagging or trying to outrun mountain goats on the narrow trails, it’s the perfect place to come to unwind, enjoy the scenery and a bit of walking for a day or two. There are several cute cafes, welcoming guest houses and guides should you want to put your hiking boots through their paces.
Village life here is a complete contrast to the bustling city. Tiny dwellings made from adobe mud bricks cling precariously to the hillside, with mule tracks and footpaths linking the settlements with orchards, walnut groves, irrigated terraces and the mountains that watch over them. Life here has changed little through the centuries and the place is seemingly unaffected by tourism and the outside world. Hospitality is genuine and welcoming, and family values remain a key part of the community.
How to get there
Imlil is about an hour and a half by car from Marrakech. You can either hire a car and driver (our preferred mode of travel in Morocco) or if you’re staying overnight, ask your guest house to arrange a transfer. Hiring a private taxi from Marrakech will set you back about DH400.
You can do the trip by public transport from Marrakech if you are on a budget. Either take a grand taxi from Bab er Robb (the southern medina gate) for around DH40, or catch a bus as far as Asni(for around DH30), then pick up a taxi for the remainder of the 17km journey up the valley (approximately DH20 for a shared taxi or DH50 for private). There’s really no reason to stop in the dusty roadside village of Asni, although the Saturday souk is worth a look if you happen to be there at the time.
Where to stay in Imlil
Richard Branson’s Virgin retreat Kasbah Tamadot is the place to stay if you want culinery indulgence, sublime panoramas and pure unadulterated luxury! We lived like Sultans during our stay here and highly recommend it if you fancy yourselves on the cover of Conde Nast Traveller. And even if you don’t!
The words that spring to mind for this lovely traditional berber guest house are cosy, rustic comfort, and delightful eccentricity. A warmer welcome is seldom found and Jacqueline is a wonderful host, for whom no task is too small. Dining is a friendly communal affair, where you can swap tales of the day’s adventures with your fellow guests. The tree-suite is a nifty little abode, private and stylish, but it’s the house and garden rooms that I think hold the most charm, with their colourful fabrics, cosy alcoves and wooden beams.
Douar Samra is just outside Imlil, in the small village called Tamatert, with great views from the roof terraces across the valley. Lovingly tended gardens make this a tranquil place to spend a few days, and at around €47 per person for half board, it’s really good value for money too.
I sent my very critical brother and his wife here for a few days during the Morocco holiday I organised for them last year, and he came back absolutely buzzing about the place. He had nothing but praise for the management and décor and for him to say such things, believe me, it must be good!
Kasbah du Toubkal
The Kasbah Toubkal is the building in the iconic Imlil vista that conjures up images of mountain kingdoms and tales of adventure. It is perched on a rocky outcrop towering above the village, with the best views in town of the surrounding peaks, valleys and waterfalls.
It’s only a 15 minute walk from Imlil, and although it looks less impressive the closer you get, once you cross the threshold you’ll probably want to stay a while. Quite some while! There are a range of charming rustic rooms and suites, and they organise walks, treks, ascents of Toubkal and other activities.
If you’re just visiting Imlil for the day, this is the place to come for lunch on the panoramic roof terraces!
There are lots of other guest houses in Imlil, something for every budget.
What to do
Really, apart from hiking and mountaineering, there’s not a whole lot to keep you busy here. It’s just great to slow down the pace of life, take a break from city life and relax! There are plenty of trails and hiking options, from the full on ascent of Mount Toubkal to just pottering around the low level village paths, watching the women washing clothes in the river and the men taking their donkeys to work.
In Imlil, we politely declined several offers to ride a donkey along the trails because we’d come to walk, and the sight of the poor animals was enough to make any but the laziest use shanks’ pony instead. Morocco isn’t known for it’s animal welfare, and we didn’t want to add to the suffering of the beasts in any way. It’s perhaps a bit arrogant to suggest a lack of education means the owners treat their animals badly. Although this is in part true, the culture dictates the animals are simply tools, or machines to be used for work, so that families can be fed. Perhaps if we lived as these people do, we’d have bigger concerns than donating to donkey sanctuaries. Having said that, if you’re ever offered a ride here, please refuse and don’t encourage them to continue this mistreatment.
Armed Village Walk
Our favourite circular walk is up to Armed, the highest village in North Africa (and the feature image at the top of this page!). Its only about an hour and a half from Imlil, and the view and proximity to Mount Toubkal is definitely worth the effort.
You can walk up one side of the valley, stop in Armed for lunch at one of the local houses, and then descend down the other side along the river.
We were invited into a berber house by a family for some mint tea during our hike up the valley, and despite the basic construction, dirt floors and draughty rooms, we thought the view from their living room was second to none.
The family were very friendly and welcoming, and told us about their lives there. I can’t imagine living here in the height of winter with all the snow, it would be pretty damn cold! The ladies of the house had a huge weaving loom where they made blankets and rugs to sell at the market in Asni, and in Marrakech. Just seeing how many hours they put in to produce a single item makes you realise that perhaps the extortionate amount of money demanded by the Marrakech souk vendors are not as far off the mark as you think.
When we’d climbed all the way to the top of Armed we were feeling rather peckish so looked forward to a spot of lunch. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect. On the roof of a house in the highest village in the Atlas Mountains. The sky was blue, spirits were high and we were in love with Morocco.
Expecting a light bite (it was only lunch after all) we were pleasantly surprised by the large dish of salads and bread that soon appeared. We tucked in with gusto, and polished it all off, feeling satisfyingly full and remembering we still had the walk back down the valley ahead of us.
Sitting comfortably back in our seats, digesting our lunch and the view, we were more than a little alarmed to discover lunch was in fact only just beginning.
We were next served with goat tagine (they told us it was lamb), and although really not wanting any more food, decided at least it would be tasty. Tagines in Morocco are always tasty, right? We couldn’t have been further from the mark and after pushing the grisly contents around for a few minutes with our forks, we made sure we were alone before giving the pesky cat the meal of it’s life. Thankfully it was ravenous and managed to devour the majority of the evidence.
Our hosts were delighted we’d enjoyed our meal, and returned with a full platter of fresh watermelon. At least that wasn’t so filling and we managed a few slices before declaring defeat. We’re never sure if we’re supposed to eat everything put in front of us, or whether in fact it would be rude to clean our plates. Needless to say it was more of a shuffle than a walk back down to Imlil.
Make sure you have enough dirhams before you arrive, there are no banks or ATMs in the village.
You can arrange a day trip from Marrakech with lunch at Kasbah du Toubkal.
It’s a lot higher up than Marrakech so is noticably cooler. Perfect in the summer months for a bit of respite from the heat, but at other times of year you’ll need everything from a sweater to full winter gear.