The Atlas Mountains divide Morocco in half. To the north of the mountains are lusch green lands, with trees, shrubs and ground-cover vegetation. To the south is an arid desert. The mountains between the two areas are a combination of the north and south, with the highest peaks covered in snow. You can be standing in the desert looking up at the snow-capped peaks. In two hours driving time, you can be standing in the snow. It’s hard to process how drastically different the climates can be over such a short distance, but this is one of the reasons that Morocco is such an interesting place to visit.
Those that venture south into the desert almost always make a stop in Ouarzazate, a calmer town that Hollywood loves to use as a stand-in for the Middle East. Movies are the main industry here, and many of the locals make a living off of being extras. Hollywood gives them a range of roles that includes screaming Saudis, screaming Somalians, and screaming Taliban members. There are also two movie studios in town where you can see some of the sets and props used in the films. On the other end of town is Kasbah Taourirt, one of the best preserved kasbahs in Morocco. Ouarzazate was originally a small stopping point for traders heading north to Marrakech and Europe, but in the early 1900s the city took off when the French used it as a base of operations for dealing with rebellious Berber groups in the south.
Just north of Ouarzazate is Ait Benhaddou, a well-preserved historical city that has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is truly impressive, and walking through its streets will feel like taking a step back in time. It’s easy to see why it has been used as a scene in several movies including Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. The short walk to the top of the city’s hill provides sweeping views of the desert and High Atlas Mountains. The top of the city is also where I experienced some of the strongest winds I’ve ever encountered.