Ouarzazate - Morocco’s Hidden Hollywood Gem in the Desert

Aït Benhaddou is one of the must-see destinations in Morocco
Aït Benhaddou is one of the must-see destinations in Morocco | © ONMT

Surrounded by the vast Atlas Mountains, Ouarzazate is known as the ‘door of the desert’ and offers stunning natural landscapes, historic kasbahs and – as the Hollywood of Africa – the city’s backdrop has been featured in many movies and TV shows. With direct flights now available from London, it’s never been easier to explore an authentic Moroccan escape whilst avoiding tourist hotspots. Here’s a guide to one of the best destinations for a cinematic adventure in the desert.

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UK tourism to Morocco has been on the rise in recent years, with the country attracting a diverse range of visitors seeking to experience its vibrant culture, breath-taking landscapes, and rich history. The country’s easy accessibility from the UK, along with its warm climate and affordable prices, make it one of the most attractive destinations for UK travellers. The most popular cities for overnight stays this year also include bucket list spots like Marrakech, Agadir, Casablanca, Tangier, Fez, Rabat, Essaouira, and Ouarzazate.

The final city on the list, Ouarzazate, is the least known of these, but probably the one you’ve seen the most of without even knowing it. Home to the biggest film studio in the world and a famous road known as the ‘Route of a thousand Kasbahs’, there’s a surprising amount to see and do here although you will certainly notice the lack of crowds that flock to other parts of the country.

Taourirt Kasbah in Ouarzazate

Things to do in Ouarzazate

After an early flight you might want to check into your hotel and relax for a while but given that the flight is just over three hours long and there is no time difference in the summer for UK travellers, its probably worth powering through an making the most of your day.

The Berbere Palace Hotel is less than 15 minutes by car from the airport. Its steeped in film history and there’s a small museum dedicated to all the films and actors that have a connection to the city. There was a palpable buzz as I checked in, not for my arrival obviously, but for the impending arrival of a large Hollywood crew. I would later find out that a sequel to an Oscar-winning film was about to begin production and I was sharing the hotel with the director, but more on that later. I was already fascinated by the film history associated with the city, and I would soon be able to see the world’s largest film studio first hand.

Berbere Palace Hotel in Ouarzazate

Kasbah Taorirt is a small fortified village close to the hotel that is an excellent, lived-in example of the style of dwellings that once dominated this part of the world. People still live here in the old mud-brick buildings but there is also a renovation process that is looking to save a number of the old buildings. The exquisite construction utilised by Berber communities and passed down through generations have actually held up well, and you’ll get a much better idea of this at larger sites located a little further away.

Visiting the biggest film studio in the world

Atlas Film Studio is one of a series of film studios in the small city. Having been used as a location in films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Ouarzazate has become the centre of cinema in the region. The main studio was developed around the mid-1980s when The Jewel of the Nile (1985) was shot here. You can still see a prop F-16 that was used in the movie at the studio, and other props and sets remain here which makes this a unique shrine to cinema.

A small section of Atlas Studios in the Moroccan desert

Unlike other studios, and thanks to the vast area that stretches into the desert and Atlas Mountains, there is no need to dismantle anything here. Martin Scorsese built a Tibetan temple for Kundun (1987) and it still stands here next to ancient Egyptian courtyards and Roman villages. Having visited other functioning studios in the past, this is a real treat. The sets can be reused, or in some cases redeveloped as is the case with a structure about a kilometre from the main stages. Sir Ridley Scott shot part of Gladiator (2000) in Ouarzazate and returned to the city for Black Hawk Down (2001) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). For Gladiator 2, yes there is a sequel and it sounds incredible, Scott is using part of his set from 2005 and building new ones too.

Oh, it was the British director and his crew I spotted at my hotel!

For film fans and setjetters, this has to be considered one of the top 5 destinations to visit anywhere on the planet. You can see bits of movies you know already as well as feel the buzz of new productions happening in front of you very eyes.

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Ksar Aït Benhaddou and the route of thousand Kasbahs

Whereas the studio looks to recreate ancient villages, the real thing has been recognised by UNESCO. Aït Benhaddou is a historic fortified village that sat on the route between Marrakech and the Sahara. The buildings are some of the best examples of the earthen clay architecture we saw earlier and the views are breath taking.

Sitting on the slopes of a hill beside a river, you can see how this would have been an intimidating structure for anyone looking to conquer the area. Proving how integrated the the country once was, and how it remains open to all, there is a Muslim cemetery and Jewish Synagogue within close proximity of one another. The walk up to the top isn’t too taxing and if anything can compare to the view of the site from afar, then the lofty vantage point is also one to remember.

Aït Benhaddou in Morocco has become a popular location for film production. When we visited, Sir Ridley Scott had just begun work on a sequel to Gladiator (2000)

Aït Benhaddou is also, obviously, a popular film location. Prince of Persia (2010), Babel (2006), The Living Daylights (1987) and dozens more have featured this spot but arguably the best use of it was in Game of Thrones. If you remember the scene where Khaleesi (Emilia Clarke) turned her dragons on the slave traders for the first time, then the gates at the entrance will look very familiar.

Leading on from here you will see many other kasbahs, most of which are nothing more than crumbling ruins. These too, however, are worth seeing if you can as the route away from Ouarzazate leads into the desert and another one of those experiences you will feel compelled to do in Morocco.

A night in the desert

As we head away from the city, one notable landmark still remains in view. I spotted a huge metallic tower as we flew into Ouarzazate and knew it was part of an energy project, but seeing it dominate the skyline is a remarkable vision. The Noor Power Station was officially commissioned in 2016 and uses an innovative process to focus sunlight across a vast field of solar panels. Its part of the Moroccan Solar Energy Programme and powers a huge amount of the surrounding area. Noor means ‘light’ in Arabic, and its easy to see how this tower got its name as its illuminated tower is visible for several miles.

The serenity of the a night in the Moroccan desert

On the way to a remote desert camp we stopped off at Kelaat M’gouna – The Valley of the Roses. The sweet scent of flowers permeate the air and you can buy several products made from roses that are hard to find anywhere else. There’s also a major festival held annually, where a Rose Queen is crowned every year. It sounds like one of those things you have to experience for yourself, but at least the town itself goes someway to capture that spirit with pink taxis and brightly coloured buildings turning it all into a tourist attraction.

A more natural attraction is the Dades Gorges where modern roads carve a mesmerising path through sandy rocks, green fields and craggy mountains. We stopped off at Xaluca Dades for a light lunch – its worth mentioning that all the food we tried was a delicious combination of local and modern cuisine from Morocco – before finally spotting the dunes that had previously evaded us.

Xaluca Belle Etoile lets you experience a sunrise and sunset camel ride into the sand dunes at Erg Chebbi near the small town of Merzouga. You really are in the desert wilderness here and I opted to spend the night in a luxury tent before heading back to Ouarzazate. Its a five hour drive each way, so I think its deserved!

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