Meet the adventurer: Morocco’s first female mountain guide, Hafida Hdoubane, on a life shaped by the High Atlas

I have been an official guide and tour leader since 1994. I was one of the first women to get a place in the training of mountain guides in Morocco, and the first to be qualified. At the time, most guides working in the Atlas Mountains were European, and Moroccan women had to stay home and focus on raising a family. But I decided to follow another path.

I grew up in a family of strong women. I was the eldest of five sisters and my father couldn’t hide his disappointment at not having a son. It made us hard. We had to prove ourselves. When I told my mother that I wanted to work in the mountains, she said to me: “And the wild animals? Lions?” Needless to say, we don’t have lions in Morocco! I think that was just her way of saying how worried she was.

While earning my guide certification, I was treated no differently than the men in my course. We all had to run up and down with heavy bags on our backs. On the contrary, I took on more difficult challenges. I didn’t want anyone to think that special allowances had been made for me.

I think I have the best job in the world, but I had to make sacrifices along the way. Balancing my job with marriage and motherhood has not been easy. Partly because of these commitments, Morocco still has very few female mountain guides. I only have one son and unfortunately my marriage did not last.

If people are jealous of my accomplishments, I have to leave. Sometimes it’s women who think I have it easy, laughing and joking with tourists while they work hard to farm and take care of everything at home. And sometimes they are men. But in general, Moroccan attitudes towards career-minded women have changed a lot since the 1990s. We see it in politics, business and other areas.

There are differences between male and female guides. The first is that I’m often seen as a mother or sister figure, especially by women who are unfamiliar with Morocco and fear certain aspects of traveling here – staying safe and being culturally sensitive, for example . My job is to be safety conscious, reassuring and empowering. I am also a bridge between worlds, connecting tourists to local people. Because I spent a lot of time in Europe, I understand both sides. We may live different lives, but in many ways our needs are exactly the same.

I’ve led many trips to the Moroccan Sahara, but I’m happiest in the mountains. I have climbed the highest peaks in Morocco more times than I can count. Much like the people who live in the Atlas Mountains, I am a nomad at heart. There is something about hiking through these incredible canyons that makes me feel completely free.

I believe tourism in Morocco can be a force for good in a post-pandemic world. Tourists have a lot to offer people in rural Morocco, and not just financially. They can demonstrate the value of education, independence, and a sense of adventure. In return, rural Moroccans can show tourists that wide open spaces and close families are equally important and valuable.

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveler (UK)

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