Friday, February 26, 2010

The Atlas Mountains, Berbers, and Waterfalls

We decided that we wanted a break from the chaos of the Medina for our next day of vacation, so Mohammed helped us with an itinerary. We decided to hire a driver to take us to see the 7 waterfalls of the Ourika Valley in the Atlas Mountains.

The Atlas Mountains are about 45 minutes away from Marrakesh. Our driver said that in the winter, they are typically covered in snow. There is even a ski resort! However, this winter, there was only snow at the highest altitudes, which were much farther away than we were planning to go.

On the way to the waterfalls, we would pass a village with an authentic Berber market, so we planned to stop there on the way. We were so excited with the idea of seeing Berber people and their wares.

Sidebar: Here is a little history gleaned from my research and from our driver. The Berbers were the original inhabitants of Morocco when the Arabs arrived. The Berbers then fled to the mountains and the desert to maintain their cultures. Now the Berbers live in fairly remote places, such as high in the Atlas Mountains, in the Sahara, etc. The Berbers grow most of the fruits and vegetables available in the cities. This means that they grow the produce in terraced gardens on mountainsides!

The Berber market was a bust because it was pouring rain. The rain would not have stopped us, but the mud that resulted from the rain was definitely a show stopper. We really tried! We walked through about a block worth of the market, seeing spices and vegetables, before I finally called a halt. By that point, I had mud squishing between my toes. Gak!

I wish I had snapped a picture of the mud, to give you the full impact of just how awful it was. However, my camera was safely tucked into my jacket to protect it from the rain. Darn.

So, we climbed back into the van with our driver, and we set off to see the 7 waterfalls of the Ourika Valley.

Well, we thought we were off to see the waterfalls. It turns out that when you hire a Moroccan guide, you actually make a lot of stops along the way.

Our next stop was a shop on the road that sells fossils, pottery, jewelry, and other Moroccan items. Dado fell in love with a 2-foot tall, 40 pound fossil (left); we all fell in love with the gigantic fossils (right - but no, we did not buy any); Max fell in love with a stone chess set; and I fell in love with a silver bracelet with a lovely pink stone.

Next, we stopped at a cooperative where local Berber women make products from Argan nuts.

According to the spiel, which was delivered by a beautiful, young Berber woman, argan oil is fabulous for cosmetic purposes: wrinkles, stretch marks, just keeping your skin lovely. Mike learned this in his Moroccan research, too. It is also delicious, so you can use it in place of olive oil.

The spiel was interesting. Apparently, the cooperatives that produce the authentic Argan oil are run solely by women. However, I think what that really means is that only women are allowed to do the hard work of shelling the fruit, cracking the nuts, grinding the nuts, etc.

They even let Josey have a turn grinding the nuts into oil.

However, they truly use every bit of the nuts. The fruit husks are used to feed animals; the nut shells are burned for heat; and the paste produced from grinding the nuts into oil is used to make Moroccan black soap, which is a vital element to the hammam baths. More on the hammam baths later.

I did indeed buy some Argan beauty products: body lotion, anti-wrinkle cream, and cosmetic oil. Mike bought some Argan oil for cooking. It is really, really delicious. Even the kids liked it.

By now, we were back on the road, but it had been 3 hours since we left the hotel, and we still were not at the waterfalls! So, we asked for a lunch stop.

Our driver obviously has many friends along the route, and he knew of a restaurant for us. It was actually a restaurant/hotel on the side of a mountain with a lovely garden. A little oasis from the crowded road.

When we left the restaurant, we asked that our driver take us straight to the waterfalls. No more stops!

Try to picture the scene:

We are driving up a mountain road with small houses (almost huts) occasionally sprinkled on either side of the narrow road. Occasionally there was also a larger village. Most places seemed to have some electricity, but everything was muddy from the rains. This is a land not used to the rains! Mike and I were both getting depressed by the poverty, yet there were still shops and restaurants strung rather frequently along the road. There were many, many cars full of tourists like us. There were also many, many mules bringing Berbers to and from their tasks.

Occasionally there was also a more picturesque looking village across the river. According to our guide and what we could see, most of these villages were accessible only by foot.

About 15 minutes later, we arrived at what appeared to be another tiny village along the side of the river. The difference was that here, the road literally stopped!

Here is the tiny village at the end of the road and the riverbed (very little water despite all the rain, which was very surprising) you cross to get to the trail head.

Our driver offered to get us a guide to lead us to the waterfalls, but Mike wanted to do it alone. As we tried to walk to the trail head, there were several men who tried to sell their guide services. They all insisted that you can't do it without a guide, especially with kids. Finally, Mike agreed to hire one of the men.

It was a good call for two reasons: one, we would never have found the trail head because it was camouflaged by restaurants and shops; two, our guide was awesome.

Here is a picture of Max crossing the first of several sketchy wooden bridges and the trail head, which weaves through the restaurants.

It was raining, and the rocks were very slick! And there were some sketchy places that made me and the kids nervous. However, our terrific guide helped us each across the tough spots. He was like a mountain goat - springing right up the side of the mountain. The climb was fairly steep, but we're all in good shape, so it wasn't difficult at all.

It turns out that our guide is a serious mountain guide. He leads people into the Atlas Mountains to a lake that is a 3-day trip each way. He was also very educational about fossils that are found in the Atlas Mountains. We were fascinated by him. And, best of all, he wasn't trying to sell us anything.

Here is a picture of him in a tiny little tea shop at waterfall number 3. Here we were sheltering from the rain with several other people. They were serving traditional Moroccan mint tea (which our guide called Moroccan Whiskey, although there is no alcohol): green tea is steeped in boiling water then poured over mint leaves and lots of sugar. The result is yummy but a bit too sweet for me. (I think it's hysterical that he was wearing a "RipCurl" hat!)

Along the way, there were many restaurants and little shops. You simply cannot escape commerce in this country it seems. Here is a man who was carving little trinkets and Berber masks from the rocks of the Atlas Mountains.

The waterfalls themselves were anti-climactic. We were only able to climb to number 3 of 7 due to the weather. We have seen far more majestic waterfalls. However, it felt good to be outside exercising a bit. It was a bit too touristy for us. There were a lot of other people on the trail, even considering the rain. The guide said that during the summer, there are up to 20,000 tourists there each day. Gak!

At the bottom of the trail, there were - of course - more little shops. The kids found the fossil shop immediately, and Josey started bartering. Meanwhile, Mike found an authentic Berber wool jacket, and he was bartering with the men in the next store over. I was supervising the kids (well, just looking official - they handled themselves perfectly). Max was a sweety! He wanted to buy belated Valentine's gifts for Dado & Josey. So, from the fossil shop (where the man said that his father found the fossils himself in the mountains) he bought Dado a really cool geode, and he bought Josey a cool fossil scorpion necklace.

Dado and I each got a Berber jacket. Yes, the Billats were out-of-control on the spending! However, so far, the purchases were deemed a very good deal, and we were supporting the local economy. Plus, given my love of fiber arts, I really wanted one of those Berber jackets.

Finally, we were back in the car and headed back to the riad. No stops, thank you very much!

We made it back in time to shower before dinner. We ate dinner at Argana, which is a restaurant with a terrace that overlooks the chaos of the square. Dinner was good fuel, but there wasn't anything very noteworthy. The highlight was the Moroccan pastry assortment at the end! Well, that was my highlight. I think I was the only one who really liked the sweet, nutty little delights. One definitely needs to brush and floss after indulging in those!

Love to all!!

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