The first real town of the Middle Atlas, AZROU makes an attractive “introduction” to the region, an important but welcoming Berber market centre enclosed by wooded slopes on three sides. The town grew at the crossroads of two major routes – north to Meknes and Fez, south to Khenifra and Midelt – and long held a strategic role in controlling the mountain Berbers. Moulay Ismail built a kasbah here, the remains of which survive, while more recently the French established the prestigious Collège Berbère – one plank in their policy to split the country’s Berbers from the urban Arabs.
South of Azrou lies some of the most remote and beautiful country of the Middle Atlas: a region of dense cedar forests, limestone plateaus and polje lakes that is home to some superb wildlife, including Barbary apes. At its heart, and an obvious focus for a trip, are the waterfalls of Oum er Rbia, the source of Morocco’s largest river.
The cedar forests around Azrou shelter several troupes of Barbary apes (singe margot), a glimpse of which is one of the wildlife highlights of a visit to Morocco. Despite the name, they are actually members of the macaque family (they picked up the “ape” moniker due to their lack of a tail) and roam the forests in troupes of up to a hundred monkeys. The Middle Atlas is home to three-quarters of the world population, though numbers are severely in decline due to a combination of habitat destruction and illegal pet trading, and in 2009 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added them to their Red List of endangered species.
Barbary apes can be found throughout the region, feeding along the forest margins, though you are virtually guaranteed to see them around the Cèdre Gouraud and at the Moudmane junction (on the N13, 8km southeast of Azrou), where they laze around the picnic area in search of food. Be warned that they are very accustomed to humans due to the unfortunate local habit of feeding them for camera-toting tourists.