Ouarzazate carries with it the usual relaxed charm of the southern regions, but because of its size, it has a bit of a cosmopolitan feel, which is not surprising considering its infamous connection to the box office. The number of A-list celebrities who have graced the streets and cafes of Ouarzazate is impressive. From Brad Pitt to Cate Blanchett and Martin Scorsese, many of Hollywood’s most successful actors, directors and producers have spent weeks, if not months, here working and enjoying all that Ouarzazate and the surrounding region has to offer.
For many, the desert town of Ouarzazate and the ancient Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou are not as recognizable as movie icons like the Hollywood Hills sign or the cactus-filled desert plains of Arizona, but Ouarzazate has a long relationship with filmmaking; so much so that it has been nicknamed “Ouallywood”.
Many directors have maintained an obsession with the beautiful range of landscapes and places that are in easy reach, including Orson Wells, Ridley Scott and David Lean. His most famous was the setting of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) & Gladiator (2000) and The Sheltering Sky (1990) and has even entered the world of television, with Ait Ben Haddou regularly performing as a backdrop in the third season of Throne Play (2013).
One of the best things to do while in town is putting on his director’s cap and head to a movie studio to revisit some of his favorite movie moments!
Probably the most iconic attraction in Ouarzazate is Ait Ben Haddou, a beautiful old Ksar about 30 minutes outside the city. Ait Ben Haddou has been used as a backdrop for countless movies and TV shows.
Ouarzazate’s other nickname, “the gateway to the desert“, is so apt. One of the main reasons for camping in Ouarzazate for the night is its privileged location: with day trips and overnight excursions to the oasis valleys, the sand dunes of the Sahara, the UNESCO World Heritage sites and the ancient Kasbahs, all within walking distance. A commercial stop on the ancient Trans-Saharan caravan route, the city and its province are rich in history and fascinating cultures to learn about.
Both desert regions of Morocco are a half-day trip: M’Hamid or Merzouga. A night in the Sahara is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities you won’t want to miss.
The History of Ouarzazate
Once a military outpost isolated during the French occupation, the surprisingly vibrant city of Ouarzazate is nestled between a barren, rocky plateau south of the High Atlas Mountains, at an altitude of 1160m.
Its vast and arid environment marks the beginning of the Sahara desert – a change in landscape, which in itself, is a sight to behold. Mountains and valleys with beautiful wind-swept formations roll up as far as the eye can see, hiding palm groves and breathtaking views. The extent of something so absolute never fails to impress.
The Berbers and nomads who inhabit these regions of Morocco call this region the Hamada, which literally means “low mountain of the desert.” The word “Ouarzazate” means “silent” in Tamazight, capturing its remote and serene environment.
Today, Ouarzazate hosts the Marathon des Sables, where athletes endure a multi-day gruling marathon across the desert, considered by many to be the world’s toughest race. The city is also in the final stages of completing a solar power station, which, along with hydro and wind power plants, is set to provide almost half of Morocco’s energy by 2020.
What to do in Ouarzazate
You’ll find plenty to explore, in addition to the old Kasbahs and impressive sets of iconic films. The city is ready for all your shopping needs with dozens of souks, souvenir shops, co-operatives and markets to get lost in.
People watch – Place al-Mouahidine, 3rd of March Square, Rue de la poste and Avenue Mohammed VI are where you can find most of the major shops, cafes and restaurants of Ouarzazate. Take a walk and take a break in your favourite bakery or café to experience and enjoy the lively nights in the city.
Shopping around – You can do all your shopping at the local market (especially at the Sunday souk), but you can also explore the surrounding towns for special gifts. The local shops on the market road open at 6am and sell everything from clothes to handicrafts and spices. If you feel like exploring the outskirts of Ouarzazate, the nearby towns of Tinehir and Errachidia are well known for their beautiful silver jewelry and pottery, respectively.
Discover the old town – a more unique side of the city seemingly unaffected by modern life that offers a more personal encounter with Ouarzazate. Walk around the mud-brick houses that line the old streets and watch the locals in their day, bringing bread and cakes to the community’s oven and the children playing football in the streets. The Taourirt part of the old district has an old fortified village, still standing in the heart of the city.
Explore on four wheels – If you want to get to know Ouarzazate and the surrounding area on your own terms, renting a four-wheeled vehicle is the way to go. They are ideal for those looking to take their own day trips to the natural wonders around the city.
Go for a walk – You can also choose to explore the area on your own two feet. Nearby places like fint oasis and the Kasbah of Tifoultoute are perfect for a pleasant walk (15 km and 8 km from Ouarzazate, respectively). If you are on longer walks, the 35km road to the incredible site of Ait Ben Haddou and the Ounila valley will take you through rivers, desert mountains and lost Berber villages. It is even possible to walk or hike the old caravan route from Ait Ben Haddou to the intricate and decorated Telouet Kasbah.
What to see in Ouarzazate
Welcome to Ouallywood! Leave Ouarzazate behind and visit Jerusalem, Mecca and an authentic Kasbah all in one place… or, let’s say, visit the incredible recreations of these places. At CLA Studios you can explore all sorts of impressive sets and props used for films such as Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and the Great Journey (2004).
Route de Marrakech + 212 (0) 5 44 88 20 53. Open every day, 8 AM – 6:30 PM 40/35 DHS. Call in advance to make sure they are not closed for shooting.
If you have some extra time (or are just a movie buff), you can’t pass up the opportunity to visit another one of Ouallywood’s famous studios. Only 4 km away from Ouarzazate city center and for only Dh50, you can explore all the sets made for popular films such as Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra (2002), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Babel (2006) and many others. An experienced guide will tell you all about the secrets behind the scenes that you’ve always wanted to know.
Route of Marrakesh. + 212 (0) 5 24 88 22 23/12. Oct-Feb: 8:15 AM – 5:15 PM; March – Sep: 8:15 PM – 6:45 PM. 50/40dhs. Call ahead to make sure they are not closed for shooting.
Located just across from the Taourirt Kasbah and housed in a former studio, this quiet museum has a rich collection of old film sets, accessories and equipment. This is a perfect alternative if you don’t have time to visit one of the film studios outside the city.
Avenue Mohammed V. + 212 (0) 5 24 89 03 46. Open every day, 8 AM – 6 PM.
The Telouet Kasbah
Possibly one of the best examples of Islamic architecture in Morocco. This little Kasbah was once the palace residence of Thami el Glaoui, Pacha of Marrakech and Lord of the Atlas.
Unfortunately, large portions of the Kasbah of Telouet have been left to crumble and reasons why they are part of its complex and fascinating history. Some large rooms have been restored, showing fascinating mosaic interiors. It is worth getting a guide to show you around the ruins and help you understand the rich history of this Kasbah.
Proche Telouet. + 212 (0) 6 33 91 53 70. Open every day, 8 AM – 6PM.
Located right on the edge of the quieter side of Ouarzazate is where you will find one of Morocco’s most intriguing legacies of wealth and power. Taourirt Kasbah, a massive citadel, lies against the backdrop of the Atlas Mountains and contains almost 300 rooms within its walls.
Although it was built by the Glaoui, it was never the royal residence of the main family and was instead home to the families of many close relatives in the Glaoui dynasty, along with hundreds of servants, cooks and tailors. Its strategic location along the sub-Saharan trade route meant that it enjoyed gifts from passing caravans and was seen as a strong indication of the Glaoui’s undisputed hold on the south.
Some of the restoration work carried out at the Kasbah was washed away by heavy rains, but the main courtyard and some of the main rooms are beautifully decorated. Follow the maze of corridors to a prayer room on the upper floor, which offers stunning views over Lake el Mansour Edhabbi, or explore the village inside the Kasbah for great bargains on local crafts.
Things to do outside Ouarzazate
Before the French army built the Tizi n’Tichka pass in 1936, the Backroad between the village of Telouet and Ait Ben Haddou served as the main passage over the Atlas mountains for caravans travelling to the Trans-Saharan trade route between Marrakech and sub-Saharan Africa. The road runs through the heart of the Ounila, a fertile valley full of olive groves, terraced orchards, ruined cave houses and cliffs.
Recently paved and now an easy journey, this is a great scenic alternative to explore while visiting Ait Ben Haddou and the Telouet Kasbah. Anemiter – a village about halfway up the route is one of the best preserved fortified villages in Morocco, and Kasbah Tamdakht is just 6 km up the Ait Benhaddou Valley.
The picturesque oasis of fint makes it a comfortable day trip, while the Mansour Eddahbi lake is perfect for a hike or bird watching.