Nestled in the High Atlas mountains near Agadir, Morocco's Paradise Valley is an oasis of aquamarine beauty for intrepid hikers.
Olive trees surround us, filtering light through its maze of branches and offering a brief respite from the sun’s brash rays. The soft ‘plod’ of ripe olives landing on the undergrowth mingle with the rumbles of waterfalls from afar, but the only sound I can hear is my tired, ragged breath as I struggled to keep up with my guide, seventy-something year old Chris, as he bounded along the trail.
“The waterfalls are just along this path here,” Chris called out. Striding from the shadows of the trees and into the glaring sunlight, we are met with the peaks of the Lesser Atlas Mountains towering over us on all sides. The faces of the peaks bear a combination of dark green vegetation and diagonally shaped rock formations, offering a glimpse of the tectonic plates that formed this landscape thousands of years before. At the base of our feet is a pool of translucently blue water, which bubbles from a series of miniature waterfalls and streams that steadily incline to the peak of the mountain that now stares directly down in front of us.
I stop short and gasp for breath, marvelling at the abundance of wildlife, which stood in stark contrast to the barren, rugged landscape that I had previously seen on my travels around Morocco. Chris waved a dismissive hand at the small brook. “These are only the small waterfalls, the ones higher in the mountains are much more impressive,” and on that note he turned and continued his quick frogmarch up the steep trail towards the mountain peaks.
Located just thirty minutes north of Taghazout in the foothills of the High Atlas, Paradise Valley’s remote location has enabled the region to preserve its vegetative topography and natural beauty. Once a haven for hippies and new-age hedonists in the sixties, today the area is devoid of the tourists that flock to the cities of Marrakesh and Fez, making it an ideal location for trekkers to explore. The local Berber communities that reside in the foothills depend upon the area’s expansive cultivation of olive trees, date palms, and banana trees for sustenance. The region is also home to the argan tree, an endemic flora to Morocco whose kernels produce argan oil. The product is especially popular with the cosmetics industry and its production is completely run by local Berber women’s cooperatives, one of which is open for visitors in Paradise Valley.
Scrambling along the rocky path etched into the side of the cliff, the increasing gurgling sounds combined with the growing density of shrubs indicated we were approaching the waterfall. Shaded by the peering crags, we turned up a short incline and abruptly arrived at a lake, with several waterfalls all thundering above us. Luckily it had rained the night before; Chris explained prior to arrival that the lifeline of Paradise Valley’s waters depended on the area’s rainfall and melted snow from the mountains. Sometimes the Valley became so flooded no one could access the mountains, other times the cascades stopped altogether.
As I craned my neck up to find the source of the water, a feeling of dread began to creep over me. Chris had also mentioned that jumping from the waterfalls was a popular pastime in Paradise Valley; my earlier romantic notions of leaping off a small, bubbling brook was crushed as I imagined the sheer force of those thunderous waters smashing every bone in my body. My trepidation continued to mount as a lump in my throat when Chris abruptly said, “Come on, I’ll take you to a waterfall where you can actually jump and swim.” Inwardly sighing with relief, I eagerly followed him to our next destination
Small schools of fish swam around my outstretched body, creeping near my fingertips only to dart away the moment I stretched my hand. The waters were cooler than expected, but a welcome respite from the heat of midday. Only one waterfall was here, several metres shorter than the previous ones and relatively sluggish when compared. Regardless, the view from the peak of this waterfall awarded all of us with unbeatable panoramic views of Paradise Valley, where one could watch the waterfalls tumble consecutively down the banks like a set of dominoes. A sudden rumbling noise shook me out of my reverie, causing the fish to scurry away.
“Lunch will be ready soon, we better make a move!” Chris called out from the bank. Ignoring the cries of agreement emanating from my stomach, I spent a brief moment basking in the sunshine on the bank, eyes closed, before quickly snapping to attention and bounding after Chris and the others.
Upon arriving at the Valli de Paradis Cafe, the scene unfolding truly resembled every cliqued dream of paradise. White lounge chairs with blankets and guitars sat near a gurgling stream, which kept soft drinks cool. Sunshine peeked out between the palm fronds which offered shade from the midday rays, and the scent of wildflowers and olive trees followed us wherever we walked. The owner, Ali, approached with pots of tea and biscuits and bread, followed by the local condiments of argan oil and honey for dipping. As our lunchtime meal of tagine stewed in the fireplace, Ali spoke about life in the valley and its hardships.
“Most of our livelihoods revolve around the harvesting of dates and olives, and visitors to the area. Some years, it can be difficult; too little rainfall can damage crops, or diseases can wipe out the date palms. We all usually try to share what we produce so no one suffers too badly…” Ali looked away for a minute, and then said with a shrug of his shoulders, “As for visitors, it is complicated. We do not receive enough visitors to make a full-time income, but enough that it helps with everything else we do here for a living. There’s been talk in the past about creating year-round accessible roads, visitor centres, and restaurants to increase visitors, but all that would take away from the beauty of this place. All of us who live here try to keep our residence as natural as possible so we do not disrupt the nature of this valley, and building all those things would only disrupt the efforts we have made.”
My thoughts returned to earlier this morning, when we passed a few cliffs painted in graffiti. Just those illegible scribbles were enough to disrupt the atmosphere of the region, a little reminder that development was creeping closer.
A moment’s silence, and then with a flourish of his hand he said, “In the end, this place is my home and where I raise my kids. I wouldn’t want to see it overrun with tourists and its beauty destroyed just for some extra cash.” And on that note he set the lamb and vegetable tagine in the centre of the table, and continued to regale us all with explanations of life in the valley whilst we tucked into our lunch.
Waving goodbye to Ali we set off on the path back to our car, pausing along the way to inspect various insects and flowers. Looking around at the brooks and rock slabs surrounding me, I hoped to myself that the region’s constantly-changing environment would remain unchanged from the outside world.
A bus service to Paradise Valley operates near the village of Immouzer des Ida Outanane where there is a selection of restaurants and the souk on Thursdays to purchase food. Times and ticket prices can vary, but tickets usually cost approximately 30 dirhams. Otherwise, Surf n’ Stay in Taghazout offers all-day guided tours around Paradise Valley with lunch at Valli de Paradis Cafe included for 250 dirhams. Several hotels and tour operators in Agadir organise tours to Paradise Valley for various rates. Taxis can also organise a trip to Paradise Valley, but booking a return taxi in advance is essential.