The Kasbah de Toubkal is a beautifully restored stone and thatched-roof village compound that offers guests an insider’s experience of Berber life in the heart of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.
I love hotels that help you engage with the locals while still enjoying a touch of luxe. National Geographic Traveler writer Daisann McLane captured the sentiment perfectly when she wrote a piece about her favorite South American hotels. “A hotel is a threshold to an unfamiliar culture…Good hotels have a strong sense of place.” The Kasbah de Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco is a perfect example. And to emphasize this fact, it isn’t even called a hotel but rather ‘a Berber hospitality center.”
Re-imagined by British adventure guide Mike McHugo and his friend and fellow guide from Morocco, Hajj Maurice, who grew up in these mountains, the Kasbah de Toubkal was a crumbling fortified village at the top of the Imlil Valley, which at the time had no electricity. Mike saw its potential as a base for visitors who wanted to hike the mountains and explore the surrounding traditional Berber villages and thought it could be a sustainable source of income for the locals. But he didn’t want to create a foreign hotel that stood apart from the community (like Richard Branson’s luxe Kasbah Tamadot at the bottom of the hill).
A Berber Hospitality Center
Fast forward to 2014 and the Kasbah de Toubkal Berber Hospitality Center features a cottage garden filled with fruit trees and flowers. There are 14 rooms, ranging from the original bunk rooms still used by visiting English students from places like Oxford University to newly built villas with traditional furniture, handwoven carpets, oleander-paneled ceilings, and local dark-marble bathrooms. All have commanding views over the snow-capped peaks and terraced valleys.
A central stone tower sports a sunny terrace where guests enjoy mint tea and delectable lunches of locally grown salads and lamb kebabs. A traditional hammam offers hot water and steam to sooth hiking muscles while another tower has a room with a central fireplace and 360 degree views through large windows, perfect to admire the sunset out of the cold mountain air while checking your emails with the free WiFi.
This is a popular spot for the local teenagers after the guests have gone to bed. After dinner one night I wander up here, marveling at the blanket of stars and the moonlight painting the snowy peaks a soft ivory, and discover half a dozen village boys who were tucking into an aromatic tagine and checking their Facebook messages. They kindly ask me, in French, if I would like to share their feast, in one of those cross generational, cross cultural, trans technological moments that fuzes time and makes me smile inside.
Adventures with the Berbers
Getting to Kasbah de Toubkal is part of the fun. It is at the very end of the Imlil valley and cars deposit you at the reception desk in Imlil village. There you are met by a guide and a donkey, which will carry your bags (and you, if you are so inclined) the winding 500-meter path up to the hotel. Along the way, you are likely to meet farmers going to and from the fields, school children, women carrying babies, anyone in the village going about their business. It is a perfect way to get into the local rhythm.
There are several other ways for visitors to connect with the locals at Kasbah de Toubkal. As part of your accommodation package, an English speaking local guide takes you on a walk for a couple of hours around the surrounding foothills. You take winding village paths and meet their friends who might invite you into tea and you learn about the farming traditions of this rich agricultural valley. Among other things, you’ll see the irrigation system weaving around walnut trees, each one owned by a different family.
Luckily for me, I am here during the Id festival, or Festival of Sacrifice, and the biggest religious festival in Islamic Morocco, where each family that can afford it kills a sheep and shares it with those less fortunate. In the following days, the real fun begins in the Berber mountain villages and with my guide I walk right into the middle of the festivities.
Several young men are dressed up, literally, in the sheep’s clothing (they have draped the skins across their backs, and put their own head inside the sheep’s horned skull) and are chasing the assembled villagers with sticks and ash tied up in hessian bags. It is a little bit like an Islamic Halloween. The villagers, boys in jeans and checkered shirts, women with headscarves and long skirts, girls…some with heads covered, others in jeans and sparkly headbands, are supposed to give them money to stop being ‘terrorized’. Men swaying in a circle, dressed in djellabas and drumming on sheepskin drums, sing traditional songs in what passes for the village square with a single string of light bulbs stretched across the buildings, the white craggy mountains a dramatic backdrop in the distance. I am transfixed and surprised not more of my fellow travelers back at the Kasbah have come to watch the spectacle.
I needn’t have worried because later one of the sheep “monsters” makes a visit to the Kasbah, since it is part of the village as well, and a blond four-year-old English girl is charmed with his outfit and scary features announcing proudly that she is not scared at all. She holds his hand for a photo much to the astonishment of her parents.
Giving back to the Berber communities
“Dreams are only the plans of the reasonable” is carved on the front door of the Kasbah de Toubkal.
Discover Ltd, the name of McHugo’s company that operates adventure holidays to Morocco, was influential in setting up the Imlil Village Association, which is funded by an accommodation levy at the Kasbah.
The Kasbah’s biggest initiative has been to set up Education for All, a Moroccan NGO that provides boarding houses for girls so that they can continue their secondary education in a nearby town, too far away for them to commute on a daily basis. Hajj Maurice, Mike’s partner and friend, was a key motivating force to get the program going by convincing his village male friends to let their daughters participate. On my way back to Marrakesh, my driver proudly points out the high school and girls’ boarding house in the town of Agadir at the bottom of the winding valley road. “They do so much for the community,” he says quietly, “and everyone in the village loves working there, too.”
The Kasbah has also contributed to a much-needed garbage disposal system as well as providing the valley’s first ambulance and driver.
All in all, a stay at the Kasbah de Toubkal is so much more than the sum of its parts. You not only gain real insights into Berber life but also your visit itself helps make a contribution towards the local community.
Have you had any other experiences of a similar nature where visitors can interact with and help support the traditional culture of the communities they are visiting? If so, I’d love to hear about them.
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