It seemed that no one had heard of Beni-Mellal, and those who had asked “Why do you want to go there?” My friend who’d spent a year in Morocco after high school had posted about Ouzoud over two years ago, and it had become the place I most wanted to see in the country.
Due to its seeming lack of popularity, I wasn’t expecting too much; however, with fantastic company, gorgeous scenery, brilliant food, and a little hiking, Ouzoud took the title of my favourite place in Morocco. Spending a few nights in Beni-Mellal was a glimpse into a less touristy region, a place with a lot of community but still with social issues that wore at me, and an exciting exploration of gorgeous nature.
I had planned this rather last minute, but to my pleasure two friends were able to come. On Friday, I trotted off to the bus station after class to buy tickets for the 20:50 bus. However, I ended up yabbering in my limited Darija and being told that the last bus left at 17:00. Or so I thought.
Back to school I went, grumbling about missing my planned nap, and told the others the situation. However, when we showed up at 16:50, the ticket guy looked extremely grumpy. “Hamsa,” I told him weakly, tapping my watch. “Five.” With my friends’ French, we planned a new course.
We hopped into a grand taxi to Azrou and found a bus to Beni Mellal there about to depart. This ended up working out better as we got in around 21:30 instead of 2AM, and met some interesting Marrakeshi on the bus. With a grand taxi costing 9dh a person and bus tickets 60, and the ticket returning on Sunday costing 70dh, transportation was relatively inexpensive.
Hotels in Beni-Mellal, we had found, were no less than $70 for two people for two nights, and AirBnbs were more. However, Google maps displayed about fifteen hotels within two blocks of the bus station without websites. Thus, we decided to wing accommodation. This worked out incredibly well–as the bus pulled up, I counted seven signs for hotels in half a block. The very first hotel we walked into charged us 50dh/$5USD per person per night for a room with three separate beds.
We wondered the streets a little, finding most things closed, but still succeeding in procuring dinner and in buying strawberries and bananas for the next morning. The full moon was illuminating the silhouettes of the mountains.
When we walked outside the next morning, the Atlas mountains in the distance were stunning. The ground leading up to them was so flat that they seemed like a far off wall of a giant room.
Though we considered taking a bus to Azilal and from there a taxi to the falls, the wait was too long, so we decided to take a taxi the whole way. At 50dh a seat, we paid 300dh so as not to have to wait for the taxi to fill, and departed. Our driver warmed up to us when my friend offered him a strawberry and I asked him his name in Darija. The 50km ride took about 90 minutes and felt like driving through Utah in an odd yet comforting way–other than the crazy switchbacks and gravelly roads that had my friend certain we’d have to get out and push the car at some point. Cactuses were all over the sides of the road–finally, I’d found the expected Moroccan climate!
With our limited language skills, we managed to agree to take the same taxi back. We suggested 5PM; he insisted on 4.
The path to the falls was littered with stalls selling various wares. The waterfalls themselves were almost as stunning as the Lower Falls in Yellowstone (Almost. I’m not that in love. But almost.) and had a perpetual rainbow hovering over them. We climbed down the slippery rock steps to the bottom and crossed, using bags of sand as a bridge.
The path we took ended up connecting to one of the street paths of the village of Ouzoud, and we stunned some small children who stared unabashedly at our strangely coloured hair and unusual features. One, about three years old, yelled “Bonjour! Bonjour!” repeatedly, and was thrilled when we waved back at her and when I asked “Le bes?”
After turning back to the falls, we hiked a way and found a large rock where we relaxed in the sun. The water was frigid and rather murky, but seemed to be pretty clean despite the colour–we theorised that the remnants of the snow storm the previous week was melting and bringing dirt with it. I seemed to have forgotten what warm weather was like and found it very relaxing to be in water again.
A Moroccan/Amazigh guy, probably a few years older than us, was on the other side of the pool, puttering around at the top of the mini falls. Abruptly it seemed, while I was working on giving myself another sunglasses tan (oops), he pulled off his shirt and made a running jump into the water. Later, he came and started talking to us and asked us if we wanted to see the caves. Caves? I thought. There are caves?
As we’d hiked down, cafes had become more scarce but still relatively common, so when he stopped at one little hut to converse, we asked if we could eat there. He had them prepare a tagine while we went to explore the caves.
They weren’t caves, per say, but a place where the river had carved a hole through the rocks. As I am intelligent and dropped my much abused camera phone a little ways down the path before we arrived, I wasn’t able to take any photos (shoutout to my friend for recovering it!) but I again found it very similar to the rock formations one might find in Utah with rippling patterns and rushing water.
The tagine was supposedly traditional to the region and was of eggs, tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers. I’m not the hugest fan of eggs in tagines, but the vegetables were really well done, and I loved how authentic it was–they didn’t even bring us forks, instead letting us use bread as a utensil in traditional style.
After bidding farewell to our friend, we hightailed it back up to the falls, running late. A group of monkeys was playing around, and I swear, one was teasing me by not letting me get a proper picture of him! In the afternoon light, they were, if possible, more beautiful.
We arrived at the taxi at 16:15 to be told that our taxi driver was in the mosque. Of course, we didn’t end up departing until 16:40, so we probably could have gotten away with waiting the extra hour!
Back in Beni-Mellal, we wandered the streets for a bit. A couple of kids decided that we were exciting. The first time we walked by us, they through a rock at us; later, they came asking us for money; and again later, they threw a bowl at us. After that, a Moroccan called to them and gave them a pretty stern telling off. We didn’t see them again.
We took hours over dinner, taking time to drink tea and to have good conversation; as such, by the time we left it was about 10PM. After buying more fruit, we stopped at the bus station to check bus times for the morning. A small child of about eight or nine came up to us begging. I played my I-don’t-have-emotions face and only condoned giving him a banana, but my other friend has a kinder heart and gave him a few coins as we left. Since we needed to buy a pen and there was a Marjane two blocks away, like the Moroccan version of Wal-Mart, we decided to go there because I was curious as to what it was like. However, the kid kept following us. Eventually I turned to him, having previously not even made eye contact, and told him in Darija “no, thank you, goodbye” rather sternly. He ran off, and for a few minutes, we thought we had lost him; however, half a block away, he reappeared, circling us with even more pitiful begging.
Out of nowhere, a guy about our age on a bike came riding up and slapped the kid directly in the face, knocking him to the ground. We kept walking, but saw him kicking the boy out of the corner of our eyes.
The shop was closed, so we crossed the big street and begun heading back. As we walked, we saw the guy on the bike slamming the doors of a police van closed. The boy was nowhere in sight, and we inferred that he had likely been shoved into the van.
Directly across from our hotel, the guy on the bike tried to talk to us, but we didn’t engage, heading straight to our room.
I felt like I definitely saw more poverty in Beni-Mellal than I had elsewhere in Morocco to date, and I feel like again it was a much more authentic experience. In Rabat, in the Agdal district, there were plenty of beggars on the sides of the street, but not in the medina where the tourists go, and none ever approached me specifically. In Beni-Mellal, multiple people approached us, which makes me think that as tourism is such a huge moneymaker, in the bigger cities they are normally encouraged to leave the foreigners alone. This was really an eye opening experience though, because it’s so easy to be oblivious to the larger problems of classism and poverty in the country and to just see the areas designed for tourists. This kid was a heart-wrenching example of this, and it was hard not to feel as though our presence might have landed him in jail, or goodness knows where. I highly doubt he was being taken off to meet a social worker, though, and to see a kid with no means of feeding himself punished for trying to survive–not pretty. Sure, he was hassling us, if someone must be beaten, I’d rather it be one of the adult male cat-callers than a kid trying to feed himself in one of the only ways he knows how.
Breakfast the following morning consisted large juicy strawberries purchased the night before and fresh msemen with orange jam and mint tea, taken at a small cafe from which we could watch the streets and the lady’s small son running back and forth in delighted circles.
On the bus back, I befriended a kid of two or three who was absolutely fascinated by my hair, my freckles, and my hands. Never has a kid been so entertained by me simply making astonished experiences. I actually really enjoyed the five hour bus ride because of all the scenery and the small villages we drove through. If I spoke fluent Darija, or even French, they’d be such great places to stop and just talk to the people. It was easy to sense the community everywhere as it had been in Ouzoud, to see entire generations of families being born, being raised, and dying in the same house. People have donkeys tethered outside their homes; men walk their sheep down the road; giant cuts of meats hang over tagine pots cooking over charcoal grills; people sit around a huge puddle in the sun… This is Morocco.
Supposedly Ouzoud is popular during summer for Moroccans, but I felt like we had picked the perfect time as the weather was gorgeous but not stifling. Ouzoud and Beni-Mellal may be off the beaten track, but I think the travel time was well worth it and the authenticity of the region made it one of my favourite places in Morocco yet.