Should I Hire a Guide? Trekking through Berber country and the Atlas Mountains
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
I’ve always been interested in designing a hybrid travel itinerary for Morocco. From cuisine to décor, from religion to culture, it all was so intriguing and foreign to me. So much so, that I found myself going back time and again to websites that invited a visit. I’m also a mountain lover. And no matter how many peaks I climb, the view from the summit and the composition of the rock is what makes each range so different. So I knew that any trip to this part of Africa would include trekking through the Atlas Mountains and a summit of Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in the area.
(See our complete 15 day Active Travel/Luxury Travel itinerary for Morocco here.)
So I started planning my hybrid travel experience by searching for a trekking guide. My husband and I are pretty self-sufficient when it comes to navigating through most mountain areas. But for this trip, we saw no reason to spend extra time pouring over foreign terrain maps and trying to correspond with remote mountain accommodations when a local expert could provide the same in less time. We also saw an opportunity to have five days of education about the region and a more personal introduction to the culture by way of firsthand knowledge from a local. Our experience with our selected guide far exceeded our expectations and became one of the highlights of our entire trip.
Toudaoui Tours is run by Brahim and Mohamed Toudaoui. They speak four languages, are certified mountain guides and members of the Royal Ski Patrol. So their credentials speak for themselves. The company also delivers safe and ecologically responsible tours in both winter and summer. Several of their tours cater to travelers wanting to trek, ski or mountain bike in the Atlas Mountains. They also operate family and city tours as well, for those looking for something a little less strenuous.
Although they had several pre-set itineraries that ran 8 to 22 days in length, they were very flexible in accommodating our limited travel dates and our 5 day trek limitation. We also requested a private guide and the option to stay in more upscale lodges rather than tent camp on this trip.
Accommodation, transportation and meals
It’s important to understand that in Berber country, the term ‘luxury’ means that your accommodations are local guesthouses or the best lodging that the area can provide. In some areas, the ‘best they can offer’ may mean simple rooms and does not guarantee an en suite bathroom or shower - a rare commodity in the countryside. So come with an open mind and a heart of gratitude for the hospitality these locals do offer. Although the basecamp mountain refuge was stark and basic as we expected, our nights in Tigmi Tachddirt and Kasbah du Toubkal offered some of the most uniquely beautiful lodging with incredible outdoor viewing decks. All meals on the tour were included, and either provided by that nights lodge or prepared by our guide and his muleteer. Transportation to and from our Marrakech hotel was also included and timely. Before our trek, we were provided with a gear list and at the end of this post I have listed some additional tips and recommendations for what to bring. The trek itself was very well organized. Correspondence was a bit hit or miss initially, as Mohamed (one of the owner and also a guide himself) was off leading another trek of Kilimanjaro. But as our trip neared, everything ran on point and correspondence was timely and accurate. All money transactions were handled safely, with a deposit wired to his bank initially. But the rest we paid in cash at the end, when we were satisfied – which we definitely were! Everyone we worked with along each step of our experience was really friendly and always eager to please.
A typical day
On the first day we were picked up by a company driver and then headed out to pick up our guide. We drove to the base of ski area about 30 minutes outside of Marrakech where our guide took us on a short introductory hike to assess our hiking ability and pace. After a simple hot lunch prepared by a local vendor, we began our first days hike. On subsequent days, we started after breakfast, which was around 8am. At Toubkal’s basecamp, weather determined when the summit attempt would begin.
In addition to a guide, we also had a muleteer. This is a second assistant guide who owns a pack mule and also serves as the cook for the trek. Mules are very expensive to own and to care for in Berber country. So working as a muleteer often supports an entire family. We were pleasantly surprised that even when we stopped in what felt like the middle of nowhere, the prepared meals were tasty and plentiful! We were shocked on the second day when our muleteer set up an entire picnic lunch-spread with pasta salad, a fresh hot tagine dish and complete with mint tea served in a silver teapot! The evening meals were also simple but very satisfying. And on the nights we stayed Kasbah du Toubkal, we were treated too complete three or four course meals. The memory of sitting on the Kasbah’s rooftop deck, surrounded by the Atlas mountains, and listening to the haunting sounds of Muslim Adhans being played over village loud speakers will probably stay with me forever. (Go here to read more about our full 15 day Moroccan Itinerary)
All I can really say is, “wow”. If you want to have an authentic experience in Berber country and trek with one of the best guides in the area, Brahim is your man. Although his given name is common in the Berber language, he is not the owner of the company. He works for the company as a guide in order to support his family. So if you have a chance to request him by name, do it. We saw many groups with other guides who were not from the local area and did not have the backcountry expertise that our guide did. Brahim had been guiding for more than 15 years, in addition to his six year service in the Moroccan mountain military Search and Rescue. This is also where he learned to backcountry alpine ski, in case you are interested in a winter experience. We could not have asked for anyone with more relevant experience. And we felt very safe and cared for the entire week that we spent with him.
Brahim lives in a local Berber village near Imlil. So everywhere we went, in every village along our route, people recognized his colorful headscarf and ran out to greet him like family. He was obviously very well known and well–liked. And I could see why. He had an infectious smile and such a receptive and loving warmth about him that both adults and children alike ran up to hug him as if he was a beloved film star. He also did an excellent job on the first day of casually assessing our footing ability and hiking experience. He then picked our routes for the week accordingly. If you are a novice trekker, there are more simple, straight-forward approaches to Mount Toubkal. But if you are experienced and like some challenge as we did, Brahim knows of some unique and beautiful alternative routes. The one he selected for us required hand scrambling over boulders and crossing shallow rivers. But it also left the more highly traveled routes to the masses. So when you book, let the company know you comfort level and they will design a route that matches your ability.
The Takeaway and some suggestions
Toudaoui Tours does a great job at providing safe, and reasonably priced trekking tour in the Atlas Mountains. They have very experienced guides, are quite organized and know the area far better than any international tour company. Ask for Brahim as a guide and Hassan as muleteer and your trip will be a memorable one.
Here are some tips that we suggest from our experience
Bring full rain gear, including pants! It was 100 degrees in Marrakech when we left. But it actually snowed the night before we summited Toubkal and rained for 4-5 hours the following day after our summit! We were prepared with rainproof jacket, fleece hat, gloves, thermal top, trekking poles and appropriate footwear, but had left our rain pants back at the Riad in Marrakech, thinking we would not need them. We were very wrong. The weather around Imlil is highly variable, so plan accordingly.
Bring small bills and coins. This is something we wished we had thought of as we traveled through Berber villages. We were invited into tea, which was terrific. But we did not know that it was customary to leave a small amount for the host, so felt badly that we did not have any cash on us. Also, the villages need tourism dollar to thrive. So there is opportunity for visiting tourists to help out by buying extra water, snacks or souvenirs from the local people.
Plan to tip your guides! Just as in any other country, both your main guide and Muleteer heavily rely on and deserve tips. They work very hard and are away from their families for several days. So plan to hit that ATM ahead of time, as there are not many once you leave Marrakech.
If you want to help out even more, bring small homemade medical kits. Band-aids, gauze, small packets of antibiotic gels – these are all luxury items to the Berber people. A small boy ran up to us with a cut finger on one route and we were happy to help him from our medical kit, but wished we had more.
If you have any extra outdoor gear, especially men’s sizes, that you are planning to upgrade or get sell, consider donating it to the Atlas Mountain Guides. Our guide was outfitted by tourists who donated trekking poles, backpacks, pants and windproof jackets – expensive items for a local trying to make a living here.
Enjoy! The area is very unique and I think you will love it.