All about exploring the Atlas Mountains near Marrakech in a sustainable way with Kasbah du Toubkal in Morocco. If you’re planning to go trekking in the Atlas Mountains, the village of Imlil is very close to Mount Toubkal and the perfect area for hiking in Morocco. Read about my experience trekking in the Atlas Mountains with Kasbah du Toubkal in Imlil, Morocco.
Last time I was in Marrakech I could see the Atlas Mountains from the roof terrace of my riad and I wished I had more time to go and explore them. There are plenty of day trips from Marrakech that will take you to the Atlas Mountains, but I wanted to spend some time trekking and exploring, so I left it for my next visit. And I’m really glad I did, as I was able to spend enough time to get a good feel and understanding of the local Berber culture thanks to Kasbah du Toubkal in the village of Imlil.
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About the Kasbah du Toubkal
Located at the foot of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in Northern Africa, the Kasbah du Toubkal was the summer home of a Caid, a Moroccan local chief, during the time when the country was a French Protectorate. However, after Morocco gained its independence in 1956 the Caid abandoned it and it fell into ruin. After a change of law that allowed foreigners to own property in the country in the late 1980s, Mike and Chris McHugo, two British brothers, teamed up with Hajj Maurice, a local mountain guide and ski instructor, and decided to purchase it.
Both brothers were great lovers of Morocco and its people and they regularly visited the Imlil valley, even before electricity or paved roads had arrived in the area. They initially bought the Kasbah to convert into accommodation for school groups on study courses, which were the main customers of their small travel business at the time. But before they started any work of restoration and expansion that would last almost 20 years, the McHugos laid out a set of objectives for the Kasbah du Toubkal that would become the foundations of the sustainable enterprise it has become today.
A Berber Hospitality Centre of reference
Some of the objectives that were laid out for the Kasbah du Toubkal before its rebuild included the following:
- To be a showcase / flagship development for sustainable tourism in a fragile mountain environment.
- To be a viable business involved in the development of the Moroccan economy and its growth.
- To contribute to the enhancement, viability and vitality of the life of the local community.*
*Source: Derek Workman, Reasonable Plans – The Story of the Kasbah du Toubkal
With these points in mind, the building started to take shape into the fort-like appearance we see today. It was designed with low level of consumption and high level of insulation in mind, but looking like it has been there since time immemorial.
And this approach to build a sustainable enterprise has really paid off, to both the community and the Kasbah itself. The Kasbah du Toubkal has won an array of awards and is a founding member of National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World.
From the very beginning of this project, the intention was that it would be built using materials locally sourced as much as possible, and by a local workforce. And this principle still carries through today and is extended to every element of the Kasbah. The carpets, the cushions, pot, pans, plates, etc are all bought locally. And the staff that look after the guests are all from the local villages, as well as the food that is served, which comes from locally produced ingredients. In fact, the Kasbah du Toubkal has now become a Berber Hospitality Centre of reference, where you can enjoy the best Berber (or berebere) experience when it comes to warmth, friendliness and generosity.
A ‘sustainability first’ approach
Establishing a sustainable local economy is so important for the Kasbah du Toubkal, that in the late 90s they helped create the Association Bassins d’Imlil, the Association of Villages of the Imlil Valley, who would receive the funds from the filming of Martin Scorsese’s film Kundun. The Association has now become self-financing through local businesses and a five percent levy that guests pay for staying at the Kasbah. The funds are used for local projects such as a rubbish clearing system, the provision of an ambulance and the construction of a village hammam, a communal bath, just to name a few.
Another initiative that the Kasbah du Toubkal are very involved with, is that of making education accessible for all, but in particular girls, with a program called Education For All (EFA). With the message that an educated girl educates the next generation, this program helps provide a college education for girls in rural communities of the High Atlas Mountains.
And last but not least, a very important point for those who care about the treatment of working animals. Mules are used for carrying loads in the Imlil Valley, but you can rest assured that the mules used by the Kasbah du Toubkal are registered in a care program that ensure that they are chipped, only work a certain amount of hours and are very well looked after. But it’s not just about the mules. The muleteers get paid a living wage, which means they will have a better quality of life and in turn, they will be able to look after the health and welfare of the mules.
Staying at the Kasbah du Toubkal
You’ll probably think I’m exaggerating when I say that this is probably the best place I’ve ever stayed in, but I’m not. The Kasbah du Toubkal is not a hotel in the traditional sense. It’s more an extension of the hospitality that stems from the home of the Berbers that run it, and the best way to describe it would be a Berber Hospitality Centre. And it’s this hospitality that makes it the ideal place to stay if you are a female travelling solo in Morocco.
The Kasbah has different kinds of accommodation, from standard rooms to superior and deluxe rooms, a garden house or a Berber lodge for up to 4 people – all of them arranged around a beautiful garden.
I stayed in a Standard Room and it had every comfort you need, especially after the 15 minute trek from the village. It was equipped with an ensuite shower room, a desk, tea and coffee making facilities, and spectacular views over the Imlil Valley. In fact, no matter which room you stay in, the incredible views are guaranteed.
One of my favourite things about the Kasbah was that breakfast and dinner were set either on the open terrace, with Mount Toubkal directly in front of us, or in the covered area next to the terrace. And with 360 degree views, no matter where you sat, you just couldn’t but be in awe of your surroundings.
There is also a library where you can relax while you get lost in the pages of a book, and a hammam, which is perfect for those days after trekking in the Atlas Mountains.
Trekking the Atlas Mountains
Even though one of the reasons I stayed at the Kasbah du Toubkal was hiking in Morocco, just staying in and enjoying the setting and hospitality and exploring the village was just as rewarding. But still, hiking in the Atlas Mountains, sometimes falsely referred to as the Marrakech Mountains, is a must do experience – whether you want to do day hikes or longer treks.
I opted for the two-day hike with an overnight stay at the Kasbah’s Azzadene Trekking Lodge, in the Azzadene Valley. Our guide Mohamed was a young local man who grew up in the Imlil Valley and had been guiding Atlas Mountains trekking groups since he was a teenager. His English, which he had mostly learnt from his customers, was excellent and he had a great sense of humour. It was three of us on the trek, plus Mohamed our guide, Mohamed the muleteer and Daisy the mule (or tasardunt in Berber language), who carried food, water and our overnight luggage. Mohamed, our guide, was a great source of information when it came to Berber culture and he even taught us a few Berber words that we were able to use while we were in the area. Mohamed, our muleteer, didn’t speak much English, but our guide acted as a bridge between us and we were all able to join in on the jokes we told along the way.
Being the middle of July, the weather was extremely hot, and on the first day we climbed almost 800 metres from the Kasbah to the Tizi Mzik Pass, at 2,489 metres. Needless to say, we arrived to the top of the pass in need of a break, so we found a shady spot under a tree and we got ready to have some lunch that both Mohameds prepared for us with some lovely mint tea.
After replenishing our energy, we continued the trek this time going downhill. The landscape around us was truly magnificent, and as we descended we went through a couple of Berber villages that felt as if they were deserted. They weren’t, of course. It was such a hot part of the day that all the villagers, except from a couple we crossed paths with, were indoors. But just before we got to the villages, we reached a natural viewpoint where you could see the whole of the Azzadene Valley ahead of us. Still today it’s one of my favourite views ever!
We continued down towards the valley and soon we reached the Berber village of Ait Aissa, where the Azzadene Trekking Lodge is located. Perched on the side of a hill overlooking the village and the valley below, again, we were not disappointed. In fact, quite the opposite – despite the physically demanding day, we couldn’t hide our excitement about being there.
Staying in a Berber Lodge
Mohamed, our host at the Azzadene Trekking Lodge, welcomed us with true Berber hospitality, pouring orange flower water on our hands, which we used to splash our faces, and with a plate of dates that we dipped into a bowl of milk in order to regain some energy.
We were served a very welcomed mint tea and shown around. We had the Lodge to ourselves! The views were again a feature of every window and we spent some time in the terrace just enjoying the valley and the mountains around us.
After freshening up we got kitted out with traditional Berber dresses, very comfortable and great for keeping cool, and we headed for dinner. Mohamed our host served us harira to start with, a traditional Moroccan soup, and the most delicious tagine I have ever tried – and I have tried many! It was made with lamb, figs, raisins and vegetables. I could have easily eaten the whole thing myself!
As it got dark, we moved to the terrace where we enjoyed the sunset and the incredibly starry night sky. We even tried our hand at some astrophotography!
But after such a demanding day we had an early night in preparation for an early start the next day, when we trekked back to the Kasbah.
The return hike was mostly downhill, and it was lovely hiking through the mountains with stony red soil and surrounded by juniper trees. Every so often we came across the odd sleepy village camouflaged on the side of the mountain, and for most of our trek the only sound we could hear was the sound of our steps, the cicadas and the occasional goat. And soon we made it back to the Kasbah in Imlil.
If you don’t have enough time to stay at the Kasbah du Toubkal overnight, or to do multi-day trekking in the Atlas Mountains, you can try a day trip from Marrakech with lunch at the Kasbah. It includes a Berber village trek that will give you a taste of Berber culture so you can start planning your next (hopefully longer) visit!
Getting to the Kasbah du Toubkal
The Kasbah du Toubkal is about 1.5 hours from Marrakech. If you don’t have your own transport, the Kasbah can organise a private transfer for you or you can get a taxi, which can cost as little as 30 Euros.
Once you get to Imlil, the Kasbah reception is in the centre of the village. There you will do the check in and the receptionist will arrange for a mule to carry your luggage. The Kasbah du Toubkal is 15 minutes walk away up the hill from the village. There is no road going up to the Kasbah, so there is no other way to reach it other than a short trek. But believe me – it is worth the effort!
Have you ever stayed anywhere as unique as the Kasbah du Toubkal?
Let me know in the comments!
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Disclosure: A big thank you to Green Pearls and Kasbah du Toubkal who hosted me during my trip. As always, all views are my own.
Teresa is an award-winning travel blogger based in London. She’s on a mission to explore the world through responsible cultural and adventure travel, and through deeper, more meaningful local experiences. She’s a lover of adventure, the outdoors and everything food related, and she’s always looking for ways to make a positive impact through sustainable travel.