On the train to Marrakech, a fellow traveler whose family owns a bakery insisted we take some of the pastries he was traveling with, and then immediately put me on the phone with his daughter — an English student — when he found out I was an American studying abroad. Halfway up North Africa’s tallest mountain, we were greeted with “La Bes?” or “No harm on you?” by every Moroccan trail guide or shepherd we crossed paths with. And on our way back down, a new friend insisted we warm up with some hot mint tea before finishing our trek.
This past weekend was exceptional in some respects, but not in others. Our climb to the top of Mt. Toubqal was full of new encounters, but also served only as a reminder of the incredible generosity and Moroccan hospitality that we experience nearly every day here.
On Friday we left after class on a train to Marrakech with our backpacks full of all the hiking snacks we could find at the local supermarket, a change of clothes, and our hiking shoes. We spent our first night in Marrakech, where we explored the narrow maze-like streets of the medina. Only pedestrians and motorbikes can fit between the walls, and we were only able to find our way thanks to all the shopkeepers and children out along the streets who would point us in the right direction away from the many dead ends. It felt like following the yellow-brick road.
We also explored the bustling center square of Marrakech, called Jemaa el-Finaa. Jemaa al-Finaa is like something out of a storybook, especially at night when the square lights up with foodcarts and spice merchants, monkeys and snake charmers, street performers and storytellers. It’s a very popular destination for Moroccan tourists as well as foreigners, so it ends up feeling like a flood of people, music, delicious smells, and a spirited celebration of all things Moroccan.
5 a.m. Saturday morning: We woke up and ate breakfast in dim morning light in the courtyard of our Riad. It was very early to jump in a taxi headed for the mountains, but our driver chatted with us enthusiastically almost the entire way to the village of Imlil, where hikers start their trek up to Toubqal.
We hiked up and up for hours, only stopping to see a local Muslim saint’s shrine, where we sat next to a waterfall and ate our PB&Js. We correctly predicted that the somewhat strange Moroccan peanut butter wouldn’t taste half bad after a couple hours of trekking.
We encountered countless horses and mules wearing colorful blankets and lugging hikers’ possessions up the mountainside. Some of the men who led them up the mountain were singing Amazigh songs to pass the time, and all of them greeted us as we climbed.
That afternoon we arrived at Refuge de Mouflons, which serves as a sort of base camp and hostel for everyone embarking on a Toubqal trek. We claimed three bottom bunks in the large dormitory, bundled up, and played cards and drank mint tea on the terrace, where we watched the afternoon fog roll up the mountainside.
We ate dinner next to a cozy fireplace in the Refuge with fellow hikers from Germany, Australia, and Spain, and made friends with our waiter who was excited to find out that we were studying Arabic.
5:30 a.m. Sunday morning: After a humble mountain breakfast we followed other groups of hikers to find the trail up to the peak of Toubqal. Along the way, we found a Moroccan flag and kept it in our backpack as we scrambled up between boulders and streams, until we reached ice and snow. At 13,671 feet, Toubqal is the tallest mountain in North Africa.
After a generous and prolonged goodbye tea with our Moroccan waiter friend at the Refuge, we all scrambled for hours back down to Imlil, where we had to dodge walnuts being shaken from the trees for harvest day. Finally, we hopped in a taxi, dusty, sweaty, and tired, and the driver drove us — with one hand on the wheel, one hand cracking walnuts on the dashboard — all the way back to Marrakech.