One man in business partnership with The Universe
Why was this news to me? I’m a seasoned low-cost retreat seeker, thrilled to finally learn that you can experience a full long-haul culture shift only 31/2 hours away by plane from London. Having made dreary all-night slogs via Doha and the like to truly escape the ‘west’, it turns out there’s a deeply exotic and mystical vibe to be relished on the edge of the Atlas mountains, just a 45km hop from Marrakech airport.
Salama Ayurveda opened in 2011 in the heart of the National Park of Toubkal. It stems from the vision and passion of Morrocan-Dutch owner Khalid Boukhima, who ran a travel agency in The Netherlands specialising in trips to Morocco. He felt an irresistible calling to build Salama Ayurveda from scratch with a unique insight of how the perfect ‘holiday for the soul’ would materialise.
Khalid follows the Sufi tradition, a mystical arm of Islam, and when he tells me that his marketing strategies are minimal and that he relies on The Universe as his business partner, I can see how this might require a lot of faith. He is, indeed, a deeply spiritual man who visualised how the Salama Ayurveda would look before leaving The Netherlands and felt a “spiritual embrace” when he found the right spot at first sight.
“To provide a place in which a person feels happy, healthy, relaxed and eternal – as is the aspiration of every living being. Anyone who aspires to draw on wisdom and knowledge to understand the meaning of life and healing, gains a greater meaning to their life and clears the way for a happier and healthier future.”
It wasn’t an easy translation from the mind’s eye to the steep, rocky inclines of the national park. The retreat is built on multiple levels sweeping down from the roadside to a clear, luscious stream running along the narrow valley floor. At the top is a yoga shala, then further down, the exotic indoor salon, the terraced dining area with mind-emptying views over pristine mountain ranges, a swimming pool and hammam, then at the bottom, massage rooms and – my favourite spot – the hammock zone by the river.
Along the descent, there are numerous hidey-holes and cool hippy hang-out areas where the staff seem to sense your presence instinctively and bring you herbal teas and fresh fruits throughout the day without being asked. You can eat your meals wherever you like so there’s no pressure to socialise, although the main dining terrace is astonishing – especially at sunrise and sundown when you can watch the light change over the mountains and admire the villagers across the ravine working and playing, without any notion of Wifi or 4G, and venturing out in their traditional finery for worship.
There are only 13 guest rooms, which is a blissfully small number considering the facilities, and just four or five were booked when I stayed in July 2019. I was the only Brit (the key market is The Netherlands), which is why I must urge you to consider a trip – I found it by chance (or by Universal Intervention) because Khalid had temporarily listed it on a yoga booking web site. It’s a bit of a secret so far in the UK.
The rooms are described as “simple” and “according to Moroccan Berber tradition”: they are very basic. But, given the wonderfully low prices of the stays, you’d be a bit leftfield to expect more, and minimal time is spent in the rooms as there’s so much to do!
However, I did arrive at Salama Ayureda in the dark – driven by smiley Achmed from the airport and greeted by Khalid and Neeltja the yoga teacher with a full meal (this is at around midnight). I was then shown to my room down steep windy paths with little sense of my surroundings save the river frogs in full chorus and, once inside my room, some disquieting ‘insect noises’. I would like to take this opportunity to confess that after grappling with my nascent Buddhist inclinations in this spiritual setting, I did duly murder the terrifying, thumping creature that kept hurling itself against the inside of my curtain and which turned out to be a nice green grasshopper. I deeply regret this.
Khalid typically offers packages that include full board and a pre-set menu of treatments and extras. My package, for example, was a four-night stay for €495, including airport transfers, yoga classes, escorted walk, a foot and a regular massage, hamman and a trip to the nearby waterfalls. You can add on extra excursions to Marrakech, Essaouira, Ouarzazate among others by prior arrangement. The packages are a guide and there is flexibility – you can come just for the accommodation and treatments or use it as a base for exploring the Atlas mountains and the Sahara desert beyond. Khalid can make special arrangements if you contact him directly. His relatively new ‘oasis camp’ on the edge of the desert sounds like a no-brainer to me.
Tips for the trips and treats
Yoga: I booked this trip via a yoga site and had the extraordinary good fortune of being taught daily by Neeltja Donkers, a free-spirited globe-trotting yogi with a cracking sense of humour. If yoga is your primary focus, then do check beforehand because the yoga offering varies, or book on one of the specific yoga retreats. I have my sights firmly set on the Yoga in the Desert one for my next sortie.
Meditation: If you have a mediation practice underway then you can fast-track it at Salama Ayurveda. I got so far into ‘the zone’ after a yoga class on the terrace that I saw thousands of lights dancing in the sky and had to be left on the floor while everyone started breakfast. During the “inspiration walks with meditation”, you are escorted briskly uphill to a spring for reflection then down through Berber villages where life is entirely unmodernised – all in silence which heightens your awareness of the natural beauty.
Massage & Hammam: Naima provides sublime foot massages in the shallow river bed post-hill walks. I unfolded completely while contemplating the river frogs in their various stages of development and chatting to Naima (working in full veil) about being a single working mum in a highly traditional Muslim society. By providing the vigorous Hammam treatments and cleaning the rooms as well, her workload far exceeded that of several men who ran the kitchen at a very leisurely pace (it’s the same the world over I guess!). The Ayurveda in the place name denotes Khalid’s Ayurvedic training, but you need to book this treatment specifically as it doesn’t come as a standard.
Excursions: I stayed in the retreat apart from brief forays nearby but, from the destinations listed, I can highly recommend Essaouira. I’m not sure why you’d want a day-trip to Marrakech to shatter your serenity mid-retreat, but a couple of nights there first might be perfect. (Give the local argan oil cooperative a miss – it’s a rip-off.)
I left Salama Ayurveda feeling nourished, revitalised, spiritually re-connected and a little sad to say goodbye to some wonderful soul mates. But I think you need to be a bit self-sufficient and wiling to go with the flow. You won’t get ‘taught’ how to meditate, for example, but I recommend a chat with Khalid about The Universe if you get the chance. If you expect all the activities to be perfectly administered as per your package, you may lose some cool. Open-mindedness and trust will enable you to absorb the right ingredients for peace and re-connection quite naturally – perhaps it’s that mystical essence that Khalid first sensed.
So give your soul a holiday – it’s not all about the body or the mind, even if you are British! Take the short trip out to Salama Ayurveda and prove we’re not all hell-bent binge drinkers in the UK – The Universe may be calling you …
“Realise your dream using The Universe as your partner.” Khalid Boukhima
When to go: December to February can be cold and wet in the valley and the dessert trips don’t run in July and August. Check the web site for special retreats.
How to get there: There are direct flights on airlines such as EasyJet, Tui Airways and British Airways to Marrakesh from most UK airports.
www.salamaayurveda.com. Contact Khalid at firstname.lastname@example.org
Words & Pictures: Jane Cooke