A week or so before Christmas, a travel article appeared in the Washington Post (Tourists are ruining these destinations. Here’s where you should travel, instead) that offered less crowded travel alternatives for some very popular and increasingly pricey and crowded destinations. For example, another Pre-Hispanic site was proposed as a replacement for Machu Picchu in Peru.
Over the last 50 years, the growth of air travel has made many formerly remote areas both accessible and affordable. The mention of Machu Picchu brought up a memory.
When I was in college in the mid-sixties, Chuck, the student in the room adjoining mine in Cutter Hall, had been in Peru. Perhaps his family lived there. Travel to the famous Inca site was less common and more difficult than it is today. He recounted how he and a buddy arrived late, watched evening arrive in the mountains, and then settled into their sleeping bags. Alone among the ruins, they had the “lost city of the Incas” to themselves. The experience was almost spiritual. They could hardly wait till dawn.
When they awoke in the morning, however, the dawning day was not what they had expected. With considerable commotion, a film crew was setting up for a movie shoot, The Last of the Incas, staring Victor Mature, a B-film actor whose claim to fame was his role in the biblical epics, popular in the 1950s.
Now, in all fairness, I couldn’t find a film of that name with or without Victor Mature in it, so perhaps the movie was the Secret of the Incas with Charlton Heston or something even more forgettable. Whatever the film being shot, when Chuck and his friend awoke, Machu Picchu was a long way from being “a lost city.”
I wish it had been a Victor Mature movie. The American star, Mature had a reputation as a mediocre actor, and at Harvard, the students fêted him with Worst Actor of the Year Award, more than once. He took this all in good humor. He once applied for membership in a golf club in California, and was rejected “for being an actor.” His indignant reply was: “I am not an actor, and I have sixty-four films to prove it!”
The list of spots featured in the article included Mt. Toubkal as a replacement for Mt. Everest. The Everest base camp in Nepal has become a popular trekking destination. Part of the difficulty and danger of climbing 8,000 meter Himalayan peaks had once been simply getting to the base of the mountains. Early ascents certainly attest to the difficulties of the approaches, and accounts were sprinkled with descriptions of porters quitting, dangerous river fords and leech-filled rhododendron forests.
Nowadays anyone fit, and with the airfare, can find a means to hike in, and it should come as no surprise that parts of the Himalayas have been overrun. In Europe climbers have to queue up on popular routes, and France has just announced limits on those climbing to the summit of Mont Blanc.
Now Toubkal is a different scale altogether from the Himalaya, with a different kind of scenery. The summit of Toubkal is thousands of meters below the Everest base camp, and should you want to see snow in Morocco, you had better visit in a season other than the summer. That said, a Toubkal visit is relatively inexpensive, and it is a short ride from Marrakesh and quite easily accessible. Having spent time in that area of the High Atlas, I would not hesitate to recommend the scenery. Getting to the base of Toubkal is easily done by foot or by mule, in hours, not days, and most hikers can deal with the modest altitude.
Sadly, within a week or so of the article mentioning Toubkal, two young Scandinavian women camping near Imlil, were brutally murdered. Moroccan police quickly captured suspects, and, according to press reports, some of the perpetrators involved had pledged allegiance to ISIS.
In the last 20 years or so, Morocco, like the other countries of the Maghreb, has experienced terrorist attacks, but these have been few and far between. Tourism constitutes a major source of revenue for the country, and the safety and security of foreign visitors has always been a major concern of the Moroccan government.
I lived in Morocco not long after its independence from France. In those days, religious tolerance of non-Muslims varied depending on many factors, but few Moroccans held beliefs comparable to today’s radical Islamists. Moroccans, secure in their faith and comfortable with their religion, dealt confidently with non-Muslims. After nearly a half century of colonial rule, and centuries of conflict with neighboring Christian and Muslim powers, conflicts which involved competition for land and trade far more than religion, Moroccans knew who they were. The younger, more educated Moroccans whom I knew seemed to be less religious than their elders and often poked fun at folk beliefs, but there was no question in their mind as to the true religion, apart from a few self-proclaimed atheists who would only talk privately and cautiously. In the seven or so years I lived there, I experienced few incidents of religious prejudice. The one I remember most vividly was on Jbel Alam, during the moussem of Moulay Abdessalem ben Mechich, when a young woman went out of her way to attack me and a friend. She did not think that we belonged there and was vocal about it, but her shouted sentiments were not echoed by the hundreds of others on that crowded mountain top and she was led away by her friends or family.
Moroccans may well have become more conservative over the last 50 years. Saudi Arabia has worked hard to export its own concept of religion around the Muslim world, and, with an abundance of money, has had success. The Saudis I met while touring Saudi Arabia made no secret of their disdain for the religion in Morocco, which they saw full of black magic, witchcraft, and saint worship, and disparaged Moroccan elites for their attachment to the French language and culture.
Radical Islam offers a tempting outlet for individuals, often poor, disenchanted, and unemployed, who really cannot otherwise express their political opinions. The “army of the idle”, an ironic Arabic term, is always there, a wellspring of young and impressionable recruits for special causes.
Islam is a political religion, and in Muslim countries, there is no separation between religion and the state. There are no secular Muslim countries. On the other hand, there are many other ways to view Islam apart from that of the Saudis. Morocco, whatever its deficiencies, has traditionally exemplified moderation and tolerance.
The French Alpine Club built comfortable huts in the Toubkal region during the Protectorate. Over the years, tourism has grown, with many private companies, usually French and British, offering excursions and treks, not just around Toubkal, but in other scenic mountain areas of the Atlas. Imlil has grown and prospered with the foreign tourism.
If you are planning a trip there, I encourage you to go without worry. My only caution is this: young women camping alone anywhere in the world involves risk. I would suggest traveling with male companions, an organized group, or else staying in a mountain hut. Tenting alone may invite trouble. That said, there have been many more domestic terrorist attacks in the United States over the last few years than in Morocco, so don’t let recent events put you off of a Moroccan excursion.
Treq es-Slama! (Have a safe journey.)
A ridge of Tsoukine, at sunset.