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Visit Ouarzazate, Morocco: The Door Of The Desert

Sarah j
Posted Nov 11, 2016

Located on the fringe of the desert and previously used mainly as a starting point for trips into the arid sandy expanses of the Sahara Desert, Ouarzazate has become a destination of interest in its own right. Sitting on a plateau in the High Atlas Mountains, the town is nicknamed the Door of the Desert. Predominantly the home of Moroccan Berbers, the area’s name means “Quiet Place” in the local language of Amazigh. Here’s why you should visit Ouarzazate whilst travelling around Morocco:

Many movie and TV filming locations

The Ouarzazate area has featured in many movies and TV shows, catapulting it into stardom. The dramatic landscapes coupled with the relative ease of access make it a prime destination for desert scenes, as well as places said to be in the Middle East, Ethiopia, Egypt, Somalia, Israel, and others.

Recently, the area was used as Yunkai / the Yellow City in the immensely popular TV series, Game of Thrones. Lawrence of Arabia was a huge hit in the early 1960s, with many scenes having been shot around Ouarzazate. Other productions that have been fully or partially filmed in the area include The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Mummy, Cleopatra, and Gladiator (1999), The Passion of the Christ and Kingdom of Heaven (2004), the Prince of Persia (2010), and Atlantis (2013).

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Atlas Film Studios and CLA Studios

Going hand in hand with the onsite filming locations, the Atlas Film Studios and CLA Studios have diverse sets and state-of-the-art technology to help make excellent movies and TV shows. Curious visitors can go behind the scenes for a peek into the world of movie magic, exploring different sets, seeing various props and costumes, and learning more about the industry.

Admission to Atlas Film Studios is part of a tour, with regular tours running every day. The opening hours are from 8.15 am to 5.15 pm from October to February and to 6.15 pm between March and September. Tours cost 50 MAD (approximately 5.10 USD) for adults and 35 MAD (approximately 3.60 USD) for children aged 6 to 12. It is free for children under the age of 5.

You must also join a tour to experience CLA Studios. Open every day between 8 am and 6.30 pm, tours operate at frequent intervals throughout the day. The entry fee for adults is 40 MAD (approximately 4.10 USD), and 30 MAD (approximately 3.10 USD) for children aged 12 to 16. Children under the age of 12 have free admission.

Located on the outskirts of the town, you can walk to the studios in around 30 minutes, or agree on a price for a local taxi.

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Cinema Museum

Located at the heart of Ouarzazate town, the Cinema Museum is housed within an old film studio. Though fairly small and rather old fashioned, it is still, nevertheless, interesting for visitors who want to soak up as much of the area’s film heritage as possible.

Whilst not as slick and modern as the two active film studios, a major appeal of the Cinema Museum is that you can clamber all over the set remains and grab the props to pose for selfies. You can wander around independently too. Exhibitions include an assortment of old movie-making equipment, such as projectors and cameras, and you can see a wide assortment of film-related posters.

Open between 8 am and 6 pm each day, admission costs 30 MAD (approximately 3.10 USD) for adults, and 15 MAD (approximately 1.55 USD) for children.

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Taourirt Kasbah and el Glaoui Palace

Situated in the centre of Ouarzazate town, opposite the Cinema Museum, Taourirt Kasbah is the historic heart of the old town. The high outer walls contain a small maze of narrow criss-crossing alleyways, with several shops, market stalls, and eateries scattered between the residential homes. Free to look around the exterior parts and ruined areas, you may be offered informal guiding services as you explore. There really is no need to pay somebody to walk around with you, and you can politely decline and keep walking.

Built in the 19th century, Taourirt Kasbah is also home to the former el Glaoui Palace. The large palace has around 300 rooms, with a small section that has been restored to showcase its former glory. Amongst the rooms that you can visit are the old kitchens, reception rooms, and the living quarters of the harem (female household members, concubines, and female servants). Whilst many rooms are now empty, you can still admire the ornate and attractive Islamic and Moroccan designs and details.

Admission costs 20 MAD (approximately 2.05 USD) per person, and the opening hours are between 8 am and 6 pm daily.

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Ait Benhaddou

The complex of Ait Benhaddou is one of the area’s most popular attractions, a gleaming jewel in Ouarzazate’s crown. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the high terracotta-coloured walls, with soaring lookout towers at the corners, were used to defend the inner living quarters in times gone by. Dating back hundreds of years, it is one of the finest existing examples of traditional southern Moroccan architecture. Comprising six individual Kasbahs and many old palaces, most of the local residents now live in more modern dwellings in nearby towns and villages. There are still, however, a handful of people who call the magnificent site home.

As you wander through the expansive area you’ll pass by homes made from earthen clay, with the lower levels reserved for animals and the upper floors for people. Don’t be surprised if you encounter a few chickens, sheep, and goats! There are souvenir shops spread throughout the area, and you can watch an art demonstration whereby an artist paints with saffron and lemon, with the image only becoming visible when the paper is passed through a flame. Head to the top of the hill for terrific views of the barren surroundings and alleys below.

Do note that there is a lot of walking up steps, inclines, and uneven terrain; make sure you wear appropriate footwear!

Although some sources suggest that there is no entrance fee, people at the entrances collect a nominal donation of around 10 to 20 MAD (approximately 1 to 2 USD). When you keep in mind that you are roaming through a walled city where people still live and own land, this isn’t a sum worth arguing over for such a fantastic experience.

There is no public transport to reach Ait Benhaddou. If you are visiting independently, you will need to negotiate the price for a taxi from Ouarzazate town or have your own transportation. It is around 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) outside of Ouarzazate town. You could spend anywhere between a couple of hours to a whole day exploring depending on how much ground you want to cover.

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Other attractions in the Ouarzazate area

If you have a few hours to spare in Ouarzazate town, other local attractions include the Museum of the Liberation Army of Ouarzazate and the Church of Saint Theresa. Every evening, at around 6 pm, there is a lively market in the town centre. It’s a great place to sample an assortment of Moroccan dishes, drinks, and snacks, as well as find clothing, accessories, and household goods.

The surrounding hills and mountains offer many picturesque views, and there are a number of small settlements that dot the rugged landscapes. The Todra Gorge and Dades Gorge are particularly scenic natural attractions, with towering jagged rocks sitting either side of a river.

If you enjoy visiting ruins, don’t miss Kasbah des Cigognes. The crumbling remains are now home to colonies of roosting storks.

Ouarzazate is definitely a place that should be on your list of places to visit when discovering the diversity of beautiful Morocco.

Originally from the UK, Sarah has been mostly based in her second home of Thailand for the past five years. As well as exploring new places, learning about different cultures, and sampling lots of...Read more

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