With three magical days in Marrakech under our belt, it was time to say farewell to the big city and discover some of the diverse and beautiful nature and culture that Morocco has to offer. For the next seven days, we would explore nearly 900 miles (over 1400 km) of Moroccan landscape – from central Marrakech to the eastern sand dunes of the Erg Chebbi desert and then north to Fes, Chefchaouen and ultimately Tangier.
travelhelix tip: for this leg of the journey, we chose to hire a private driver, which provided a safe, easy and stress-free option for exploring the Moroccan countryside. We had a great experience with our driver (and new friend!) Hicham. Research a few options to find the best fit for you, and please feel free to reach out to us with questions about this piece of the planning process!
As we packed the van, we felt sad to leave Marrakech. But minutes after exiting the medina walls, we replaced this short-term longing with wide-eyed optimism, and embraced the next chapter of our adventure.
Ascending the High Atlas Mountains
Twenty minutes outside of Marrakech, we got our first glimpse of life beyond the city and were blown away by the constantly-changing landscape. Large, elegant houses with elegant architectural finishes stood 100-200 yards away from the N9 national highway, surrounded entirely by acres of olive orchards. We speculated that homes of this size belonged to upper-class families. For some, the orchards may have been the source of their wealth; for others, simply an agrarian & culinary hobby.
More olive orchards… then groves of walnut trees… then suddenly – about one hour outside of Marrakech – the landscape took a dramatic turn: green fields and dense orchards gave way to dry, red earth, bursting with cacti. As it turns out, these are not your ordinary cacti; the Sabra Silk that they produce has played an important role in the local Berber culture for thousands of years!
We pulled over to snap a few photos of the “Sleeping Giant,” off in the distance. As we began to climb the High Atlas Mountains, the dry desert landscape quickly transitioned to dense coniferous forest, and the flowering cacti lining the side of the highway were replaced by oleanders.
An hour and a half after leaving Marrakech, we arrived in the small mountainous village of Toufliht, and stopped at the restaurant Tizi Aït Barka, owned by a friend of Hicham’s.
travelhelix tip: whether you’re hungry for lunch, ready for your next hot cup of mint tea, or just looking for a beautiful photo opp in the Atlas Mountains, we recommend a visit to Tizi Aït Barka.
We did not have lunch – in fact we did not even have mint tea – but what happened next, would make a profound impression on us – immediately, and permanently.
Here’s what went down:
reflections from A: atop the restaurant, D and Hicham head to one side of the terrace to photograph the majestic valley. I stroll to the other side and see a group of ~20 children between the ages of 6-12, heading home from school. They play & laugh as they enter the parking lot of the restaurant. Then, I notice a child pick up a small black object, which incites animated banter amongst them. Two minutes later, they can be seen & heard walking away from the restaurant to continue their journey home. Across the terrace, D requests a selfie. As I make my way over, I discover that my phone is not in my pocket. Assuming I had left it in the van, I think nothing of it. Ten minutes later, we head back to the van to saddle up and ride out, except……no sign of my phone.
With Hicham’s help, we turn the van inside and out, but without luck. Panic grows. The material loss of the iPhone 7 itself was not the concern; the idea of losing one of two communication devices, three weeks into a 14-week trip, was the concern! The owner of the restaurant observed our parking lot search efforts from a window, and then joined us outside. Hicham translated:
Shop owner: what are you looking for?
A: a cell phone!
Shop owner: what kind of phone is it?
A: black iPhone 7
Shop owner: ahhh! Did you see that group of children? They found your phone in the parking lot and returned it to me. Let me go get it for you!
reflections from DnA: at that moment, we looked at each other awestruck, minds & hearts connected, thinking & feeling the same things.
The shop owner hands us the phone and tells us that he has already rewarded the children by giving each of them a piece of candy from his store. We tell him that there will be “another round on us” and then jump in the van to chase down this heroic group of good samaritans.
A mile down the road, we spot them. As we approach, Hicham rolls down the window and begins speaking to them in Arabic. At first, there is no response, although a couple of the children look at each other uncomfortably. Finally, one sheepishly raises his hand. Hicham then delivers another message, which elicits beaming smiles across every face in the crowd. The 17 children race back up the mountain towards the restaurant, yelling joyously & leaving only us and a cloud of dust behind them. Hicham turns and says to us:
“I just asked them who found your phone… and then I told them that there is more candy waiting for ALL of them back at the restaurant!”
Back at the restaurant, we share several minutes of smiles, laughs and high-fives with our new friends. Hicham and the restaurant owner hand out not one but two more rounds of candy, and the children all yell “Shukran! SHUKRAN!” (thank you!) before continuing back down the mountain again.
With hearts full of warmth and emotion, we did our best to express our most sincere gratitude to Hicham and the restaurant owner. Hicham’s response was something we will never forget:
“These children are local Berber children, all from small villages around this area. Many are family members, and most are friends, and they are all GOOD PEOPLE: kind, friendly and honest. The idea of taking something that does not belong to them, does not exist. They knew of no other option than to return the phone. Do not be surprised at this outcome; it was the only possible outcome.”
The next several hours of our journey consisted primarily of silence and internal reflection. The emotional & spiritual impact of this event on our hearts and minds, was so tangible you could feel it in the van.
After four days in Morocco, we had visited a handful of places, but after today, we felt a deeper connection with the people.
Our experience in Toufliht very much embodies what we consider to be the spirit of travel, and is one that will resonate with us forever.
Shortly before sundown, we arrived at our destination: the majestic city of Aït Ben Haddou.