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High Atlas Travel Guide

Ourika Valley

A great day trip from Marrakesh, the Ourika Valley is prime hiking territory in all seasons, especially if you aren't up to hitting the heights of Djebel Toubkal. It's also stunning. Less than 20 minutes out of Marrakesh you can see green gorges, sparkling yellow wheat fields at the foot of snowcapped mountains, and the ferocious flush of the Ourika River,

where women wash clothes in the spray of waterfalls at the roadside. Look out, too, for flat Berber homes; they're assembled in stacked villages the same red as the earth they merge into. The only vertical line that breaks the slither of horizontal roofs is that of the village mosque, whose minaret towers above it all. As you leave Marrakesh, the approach to the valley is lined with flat, spiky cactus and eucalyptus trees, before reaching the foothills of the Atlas and hugging the left-hand bank of the fast-flowing River Ourika.

The best and most free-spirited way to enjoy the valley is probably from the window of a rental car (or a hired car with driver), with plenty of pit stops and a couple of days trekking. There are also five daily buses from Marrakesh (6 DH to Ourika) and grand taxis (10 DH to Ourika, 20 DH to Setti Fatma).

So you probably didn't go to Morocco for the snow. But if Vail's novelty value has worn off—and if you have a day or two to kill—then a bit of powder isn't out of the question. The ski station at Oukaïmeden is also a good place for novices to get in some practice without the stress of jam-packed slopes, and is becoming an increasingly popular retreat. A range of walks is available outside the ski season.

Unless you're Moroccan, or a ridiculously enthusiastic ski bum, it's highly unlikely you'll arrive with any of the right gear. Numerous shops are ready to help out. As in the souk, nothing has a fixed price, so you may need to bargain. As a general rule, expect to pay around 150 DH per day for some warm clothing, boots, skis, and poles. The next step is the ski-lift pass, which is in fact a frustratingly long distance away (particularly in ski boots). To ride on the big lift to the very top of the mountain (known as the télésiège in French) a lift pass costs 100 DH per day; access to the six smaller chairlifts (téléskis) costs 50 DH per day.Although Oukaïmeden is small, don't think its 20-odd runs (pistes) are basic. Apart from three green (easy) runs and four blue (medium), everything else is either red (advanced) or black (difficult). Only red and black runs go down the télésiège, so go ready for a challenge. The long red run starts to the right of the lift drop-off point—everything else to the left is black, and with names like Combe du mort (Vale of Death) they aren't for the faint-hearted. It's currently undergoing massive investment. The ski season lasts from December until late March.Tnine de l'Ourika is a small village and easily explored on foot. Its Monday souk ranks among the best in the region. Aside from that, the only thing to see is the local zaouia (sanctuary) and the ruins of an ancient kasbah. However, there are two must-see sights nearby.To get to either Nectarome or La Safranière (two magnificent gardens), take the left turn at Ourika for the road that heads for Tnine de l'Ourika and Dr. Caid Ourika. The turn is signposted to both Nectarome and La Safranière, but easy to miss. La Safranière is down one of the first left turns down a small track (signposted); Nectarome is also a left, a little farther up (also signposted); then through a gate on the left after a few minutes' drive. Any local can give directions. If you are looking to take a break in Ourika, have a cool drink on the terrace of the stunning Riad Bab Ourika, which perches above the village; the tourist information center can give you directions.

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