Snowboarding in Morocco had been a goal of mine since Lara and I had attempted to ski on a slope without a chairlift in Ifrane some years earlier. The plan was to round off a Moroccan road trip with my wife and mother-in-law, with a couple of days snowboarding in Oukaïmeden in the High Atlas Mountains. Unfortunately things don’t always go to plan.
I had been driving around Morocco for two weeks. If that wasn’t enough to make anyone crazy, the snowboard in the rear vision mirror of the hire car was beginning to bug me – almost as much as my mother-in-law, who kept reminding me that our Marrakech hotel manager had told me ”there’s no snow in the mountains this year”.
I knew the woman at the hotel was probably right. But the views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains that we gawked at from our hotel riad rooftop every morning over breakfast were too alluring to ignore, and the weather patterns were in my favour.
Adding to the insult of a winter snow journey, on the drive from Essaouira to Agadir we’d passed surf break after surf break, with perfect peeling waves shimmering in the sunlight, and hardly any surfers out on the water. What the hell was I doing bringing the wrong kind of board to Morocco? The incredible surf spots of that amazing coast are no longer a secret.
Snowboarding in Morocco on a Mountain without Snow in Oukaïmeden
Ten days later, as we passed back through Marrakech near the end of our Morocco road trip, I admit it was tempting to call off the whole winter sports adventure and scrap the idea of snowboarding in Morocco, and spend more time hanging out in the medina for the few days until our flight to Paris.
But Oukaïmeden was only a short drive from Marrakech and, what the hell, I didn’t need to sit and sip mint tea and feign excitement when yet another tagine lid was opened before me.
I’d watched the sunset from the Djemma el-Fna on infinite occasions, and, no, I certainly didn’t need to “just look!” at yet another carpet. Dammit, I was going snowboarding in Morocco.
The twisting drive to Oukaïmeden flashed by with scenes of children playing football in the dirt, adolescents selling earthenware pots by the road, juveniles hitching rides, and toddlers waving madly at the crazy foreigners in the rental car with a snowboard poking out of the back seat.
As we climbed higher towards Toubkal Mountain, reassuring pockets of snow materialised at either side of the road, which had been cleared by local residents.
But when we arrived, I knew that I was kidding myself about the snowfall. There wasn’t much snow on the lower slopes at all. I reminded myself that often the lower slopes of a resort are not snow-sure.
As I parked the car, we were besieged by guys bearing ski gear of the kind that I’d only seen in vintage footage from the 1928 Olympics at St Moritz. Young kids sold fresh chickpeas from one hand and in the other held vintage ski boots that were manufactured decades before the kids were born.
At last, I felt smug about bringing a fresh snowboard to Morocco. Mine was clearly several generations more youthful than anything going up and down that hill that day.
And it is quite a ‘hill’ – the highest ski lift in North Africa. While that doesn’t sound like a big claim to fame, the tale of the tape says otherwise. At 3,232 metres it was no slouch in the altitude department. Which is where my troubles started…
After some haggling, I decided to take a local guide to the top of the ski lift. Not only because of the extreme lack of snow, but to encourage, ok, bribe the ski lift operators to actually fire up the chairlift – something they seemed reluctant to do, with only a few potential customers waiting at the base of the lift.
Finally on the way up, my guide wanted me to get off at the first station halfway up the mountain. All I could see were rocks with a sprinkling of ice on top. No thanks, I said. I knew the snow cover would be better at the top of the mountain. After much discussion, we ascended the rest of the way.
Following a fairly hilarious running ‘dismount’ from the lift at the top of the mountain, my guide and I headed off across some flat snow-covered terrain – perfect for me, as I hadn’t strapped on a snowboard for nearly a year.
“This way! Good snow!” my guy told me. Who was I to doubt him? After a few gentle turns at the top of the lift, the snow faded away to rocky boulders.
“What the hell are we doing here…” I wondered to myself. My guide, now clearly excited, took his skis off and began running across the rocks. “You follow!” he called out to me, as I undid my boot bindings. Great, now we’re rock hopping.
I thought of the surfers I had seen near Essaouira doing the same rock hopping and wished I was making my way to the ocean instead, wearing a wetsuit rather than snow gear. Damn, this was a stupid idea.
Suddenly, I began to feel sick. Travelling to a height of over 3,000 metres in a few hours was not a great way to acclimatise. My guide was now 200 metres away from me, disappearing fast over a ridge. I stopped, dry heaved, and dizzily looked out at the view. I hadn’t even noticed it before. The mountains were majestic.
Marrakech, with its cacophony of sounds, incredible sights, and throng of humanity, was reduced to a hazy, evocative, ochre city, enticingly revealing itself through the gentle smog in the distance.
And I was here, alone on a rocky mountain, with only the sound of my wheezing lungs to accompany me. But the view was spectacular.
I remember looking at the same mountain from a Marrakech rooftop café the first time we visited Morocco. It was winter then, too. Lara and I were so cold in our crappy accommodation on the Djemma el-Fna that we slept in the same sleeping bag, shivering in unison.
Now, years later, I was snowboarding in Morocco on the same mountain I had gazed longingly at from many a Marrakech rooftop.
After about ten minutes dry heaving in the snow, my guide returned, looking very concerned. It was all good, I tried to reassure him.
I had regained my breath, recovered my composure, and while I might not have been able to snowboard all the way down that damn mountain, I got to savour one of the most breathtaking views of my life.
Snowboarding in Morocco in Oukaïmeden
Some tips to planning a snowboarding trip in Morocco.
Make Your Snow Adventure Part of a Bigger Trip
Make your Morocco snow sports adventure part of a larger trip to Morocco, and consider it a fun quirky thing to do. Don’t build a whole trip around a Moroccan snowboarding or skiing trip or you could be setting yourself up for disappointment if there’s little snow.
When to Go Snowboarding in Morocco
The Moroccan winter runs from December to March, but if you have your heart set on snowboarding in Morocco – or skiing in Morocco – plan your trip for mid-winter (January) when there’s the greatest chance of snow, but keep your eye on the weather reports.
September 2023 Earthquake
While Oukaïmeden is open again after the September 2023 Morocco earthquake, keep in mind that many of the villages en route from Marrakech to Oukaïmeden were damaged, some devastated, and many lives lost. It will be a sobering drive, however, Moroccans welcome the much-needed tourist income that is helping them to rebuild.
Buy Travel Insurance
Travel insurance is essential for any kind of travel in Morocco. As soon as you buy your flights and book your accommodation, buy your travel insurance to ensure you’re covered in case things don’t go as planned. We love SafetyWing’s Nomad Insurance. They call it travel medical insurance, because it covers medical emergencies, such as accidents, injuries, illness, ambulance, and emergency transport, as well as travel delays and disruptions, lost luggage, emergency responses, and natural disasters.
A Guide to Oukaïmeden
When you’re eyes and lungs have had enough of the Marrakech smog, head up to the ski resort of Oukaïmeden for some fresh air, whether you’re set on snowboarding in Morocco or not.
Where to Stay in Oukaïmeden
While Oukaïmeden ski resort is open to tourists, much of the accommodation closest to the slopes in the heart of town is not. You’ll find many more accommodation options out of town in the villages around Oukaïmeden. You’ll definitely need a car. Make sure to double-check the map locations and distances from town.
In Oukaïmeden town, Chalet Ermitage Oukaimeden is one of the most comfortable new lodgings with wood panelling, stone features, a stunning kitchen, fireplaces, car park, and spectacular mountain views from rooms and an expansive sun terrace. They can organise Marrakech transfers.
Also in town, Chalet Savoyard Oukaïmeden is a cosy, compact, one-bedroom apartment with a kitchenette, parking, and a balcony with mountain views.
Some 8kms from town, Aurocher Ourika Oukaïmeden is some of the best-reviewed accommodation with a variety of comfy rooms with fireplaces and terraces with winter-wonderland views. In summer, there’s a garden and swimming pool to be enjoyed and glorious green mountain vistas.
Years ago, we stayed at Kenzi Louka Hotel, which at the time was the best accommodation in Oukaïmeden, a retro 1970s style lodge with indoor swimming pool, atmospheric bar, raging fire places, and an enormous picture window with panoramic views. Sadly, reviews haven’t been good in recent years and the hotel is closed. Let’s hope it gets a loving refurb and re-opens.
Things to Do in Oukaïmeden
Although only 74 kilometres from medieval Marrakesh, Oukaïmeden feels like it’s eons away. In winter, you can snowboard and ski the 10km/6.2 miles of slopes, and the rest of the year you can climb boulders, hike and walk among the wildflowers and olive trees.
Oukaïmeden, meaning the ‘meeting place of four winds’, dates back to the Bronze Age, and local guides are happy to show you prehistoric rock paintings and engravings dating to 3,500 BC. There’s also an astronomy centre.
How to Get to Oukaïmeden
Rent a car in Marrakech to brave the hairpin bends on the hour’s drive to Oukaïmeden along a mostly winding road. You’ll be rewarded with wonderful views of the High Atlas valleys with its villages perched precariously on the mountainside.
Don’t want to self-drive? Tour booking websites such as Get Your Guide offer loads of day trips and multi-day tours into the Atlas Mountains from Marrakech that feature everything from hiking to berber lunches, however, you’ll have to book a private tour to arrange for Oukaïmeden to be added to itineraries.
Luxury Escapes offers a 9-day tour of Morocco, taking in shopping the Marrakech souks, wine-tasting in Meknes, camel-riding on the Sahara, and a road trip through the mud-brick villages of the Atlas Mountains. The tour doesn’t take in Oukaïmeden, but you could always add a couple of days in Oukaïmeden to your trip for some snowboarding in Morocco.
Image used with permission of our affiliate partner Luxury Escapes
This post has been created as part of a collaboration with our affiliate partner SafetyWing, which offers Nomad Insurance.
Have you been snowboarding in Morocco? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.