About Cascades de Setti Fatma
The Setti Fatma Waterfalls (Cascades de Setti Fatma or Cascades Ourika; I think is pronounced “OO-reek-ah”) was our first waterfalling experience in Morocco. Not knowing what to expect other than what we had read in our guidebooks, they were said to be a series of seven waterfalls above the village of Setti Fatma nestled in the Ourika Valley, which itself was one of a handful of valleys in the High Atlas Mountains. In our experience, Julie, Tahia, and I (along with a guide) managed to reach just one of these waterfalls (not counting the handful of smaller waterfalls and cascades en route), which seemed to have an impressive drop of about 25-30m.
Beyond this first falls, I went alone with the guide on a very rough trail high up to an overlook that allowed me to view at least two more waterfalls in addition to the first one (see photo at the top of this page). This perspective made me appreciate the context of the overall scale of just the first three falls. We had read that conceivably you can trek up to the remaining waterfalls (assuming I didn’t miscount the falls by not counting the smaller ones we saw en route to the “first”), but it was clear to me that the ascent became more difficult and dangerous the farther up I went. Thus, I can’t comment any further on the waterfalls higher up than the three that I managed to see.
Perhaps what really stood out to us about this experience was the seemingly paradoxical contrast between accessibility, popularity, and commercialism. Allow me to explain. First, the trail was not easy by any stretch of the imagination. It was a mostly uphill trail that started off innocently from the village of Setti Fatma, then it crossed bridges (none of the bridges we encountered had railings mind you), before continuing uphill on a series of steps, then uphill dirt paths with more stream crossings (mostly bridged though some not), then ultimately on rocky surfaces. Most of the bridged stream crossings were over fast-moving water so we had to be real cognizant about not falling off. As we went higher up, the surface pretty much became all rocky scrambles with some mild dropoff exposure. Often times, the trail was steep and potentially slippery enough (especially with wet shoes) that we needed to use our hands as well as our feet to get by some of the obstacles. The uphill hike took us about an hour to reach the first waterfall (though I did carry our daughter in a carrier so it could take a little less time and difficulty than what I’m making it out to be).
Second, this excursion was very popular, which given what I had just described about the difficulty of the trail, it seemed almost crazy to think this could be possible. Nevertheless, this might be attributable to the fact that the Ourika Valley was said to be about 64km southeast of Marrakech, which itself was a very popular and busy city. We’ve read that many foreigners come to this falls as half-day or full-day trips from Marrakech, but we noticed many more Moroccans during our visit (in fact, I recalled encountering hardly any foreign tourists in the late afternoon of our visit). What was even more baffling was that amongst the folks doing the hike were women, older children, middle-aged, and even some more elderly-aged people hiking in flip flops, barefoot, or even dress sandals (in the case of some women). We had a hard enough time on the trail with our sturdy hiking boots yet they seemed to have a successful visit themselves.
Lastly, the trail seemed to have no shortage of opportunities for Berber locals to monetize the traffic on this somewhat difficult trail. From the village up to about the half-way point of the hike, we encountered several cafes, souvenir shops, drink stands, and even fruit stands. It seemed like a lot of trouble to even haul up the goods up to some of these spots on the trail, which probably spoke more to how comfortable and confident the Berber people are in mountain settings like this. It seemed mind-boggling to me that they could have a built-up cafe right next to the base of the first waterfall, which was also Julie and Tahia’s stopping point. For just getting to that first waterfall and cafe involved a steep scramble onto a rickety bridge with no handholds over the brink of a cascade. Even more amazing was that on a very steep and potentially dangerous scramble up to the lookout as well as the remaining waterfalls, there was a refreshment stand right at the lookout itself! Little would we realize that this was actually pretty common practice on just about all the popular trails that happened to be long in Morocco.
In addition to these contrasting aspects of the experience, we also encountered several smaller waterfalls and cascades throughout the excursion. I wasn’t sure if these counted as part of the seven waterfalls that our guidebooks talked about or not, but I didn’t count them as such. There were also some water channels providing some small scale water diversion besides some of these waterfalls to which our guide was quick to point out that the Berber people knew how to do this before the Romans. In fact, he said that the Romans may have learned their water channeling techniques from the Berber people.
Overall, we spent almost three hours total on the route that we took. It seemed like there were other ways to reach the main waterfalls, but since we didn’t do those, I can’t really say more about them. In any case, the first hour was spent hiking from one of the bridges just below the center of the Setti Fatma village to the first waterfall. The next hour was spent enjoying the falls as well as allocating a half-hour of this enjoyment time so I could do my rough scramble up to the lookout and back while Julie and Tahia stayed at by the Waterfall Cafe. Then, the last hour was spent descending back to the Setti Fatma village. Normally, going down would be much faster than going up, but given how rough the trail was, this was not the case. In fact, even going down from the lookout was very dangerous, and I needed the aid of Berber locals to properly place my feet and position my body to descend to the ladder below a steep slope. The hiking difficulty given at the top of this page includes the scramble I did to get up to the lookout of the first three waterfalls. The difficulty could be bumped down to 3 or 3.5 if the goal is only to reach the first waterfall then return.
Finally, even though I carried our daughter on the hike, I have to admit that it was a little risky given the exposure to hazards. Have a look at the photo journal below and make your evaluation as to whether the risk reward would be worth it to you or not if you’re in a similar situation with kids.
Our starting point to Les Cascades de Setti Fatma was at the village of Setti Fatma in Ourika Valley. Setti Fatma was said to be about 64km southeast of Marrakech yet it took our driver about 90 minutes to two hours in each direction. Since we were driven here, we can only give the time commitment. We can’t give specific directions.
That said, if you do decide to hire your own car, besides the challenges of driving in a developing country, you do have to be cognizant of numerous police checks along this route. Our driver was even stopped at one point for speeding. So if you’re wondering why it takes so long to go about 40 miles, these are the big reasons why.
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