“Why Morocco?” is the sentiment I’ve gotten most since having decided this North African country would be our next vacation destination. I suppose it may be overlooked as a place to which the average traveler would want to venture, but it’s easily accessible, safe, not too expensive, and one of the most stunning countries I’ve ever laid eyes on. Having said that, I have a bit of a love/dislike (not quite hate) relationship with the place. I have decided that I love Morocco itself as a country but Marrakech is a different story. Three days in that hustle was more than enough and when the time came to hit the road, I was more than ready to get outta dodge.
Morocco is a sensory assault. Your eyes are trying to take in all the color, the smell of spices are wafting through the air and the flavor of tajine is so intense it nearly takes over your entire face. Everywhere I looked there were vivid colors and each way my head turned there was the faint sound of a local man hypnotizing cobras with his flute. The second we stepped out of our riad each morning and attempted to make our way through the complex passageways to the center of the city, there were people and scooters and chickens and cats and honking cars and donkeys and carts full of strawberries or bread or pottery also attempting to make their own way through. Busy is an understatement.
Marrakech is somewhat of the tourist epicenter of Morocco. The city is in two parts: The Medina, which is the old, historical city of winding alleyways and a labyrinth of souks and stalls and the New City which is modern suburbs surrounding the Medina. In the very center of it all is the Djemaa el Fna, the main square where by day you’ll find the snake charmers, monkeys, Berber drummers, dancers and anything else to catch your eye (and a few coins) and by night is where dozens of food stalls set up each and every evening, smoke rolling from the tops as their owners call at you and pull you in attempting to get you to sample their fare. Off this square are several entrances into the twists and turns of the Medina, which it is not if you get lost but when.
As most people do, we stayed within the Medina in a Riad. A Riad is a traditional, several story Moroccan household mainly devoid of outer windows but the center of the home is an entirely open courtyard. It comes from the Islamic view of privacy with a nondescript clay exterior but the inside can be beautiful and opulent, floor to ceiling with that extraordinary Moroccan tile. Riads are a dime a dozen, small, compact and all ranges of prices. Some are more hostel-like and others are along the lines of a 5 star hotel.
We chose the Riad Ka, one a bit farther away from the busyness of the square. The owner, Fred, was a scarf wearing transplant from France about whom I could go on and on and on. He and the husband rambled in French for four days, swapping tales of which I could understand very little. Fred told us about map apps to help us get around the Medina, what time was best to photograph the Jardin Marjorelle and arranged our rental SUV, among a million other things. I don’t know if all Riads are like this, but the service was impeccable. The Ka not only had Fred, but it had killer rooms, a cat named Pam and a huge breakfast all for a $34 a night bargain.
Once we had settled into our Riad and into Marrakech a bit, I realized that I really didn’t love it. I loved the Riad, I loved Fred, I loved the food, I loved the souks, I loved the beauty, I loved the chaos…but I could never fully enjoy myself in Marrakech. The walk from our Riad to the Djemaa el Fna square was about 20 minutes. Along this route was the aforementioned commotion as we wound our way through all the carpet shops, butchers and piles of spices. Left, right, right, left, straight, left, right right, left until we eventually popped out in the middle. Not only will you lose your bearings a time or two, but there will be several “helpful” locals happy to show you “the way”. They simply want to A. guide you for real for a few dollars or B. misdirect you on purpose for a few dollars. Some are pretty persistent and actually get angry if you shoo them off. Riad Ka is situated where the walk is about half open streets and half souks. The bombardment begins the second you step out of the door. Once we entered the souk areas, it wasn’t necessarily someone trying to guide you now, it was someone attempting to lure you into their shop. I desperately wanted to walk leisurely in and out of the beautiful, tiny shops and take pictures and touch things and casually decide if I wished to buy anything, but that was impossible. The second I made eye contact with the shop owners or even slowed down for a millisecond, they were pulling us in with lots of, how much you pay? and only, look no buy! It didn’t make our strolls pleasant ones. It actually got to the point where it was painful to even leave the Riad because we knew what awaited us the second our feet stepped outside the door. It was not a relaxing three days.
It wasn’t all bad, however. Marrakech is an erratic, bonkers city but striking in every sense of the word. I personally tend to find a lot of beauty in the rawness of developing countries. The dirt streets, the barefoot kids, the scooters, the thatched roofs…and oh the colors. The bright walls, the care of the carved, painted designs in the furniture, the patterns in the tile that is everywhere. People import Moroccan tile into their mansions for a reason. My eyes never lacked something beautiful to look at even if my ears were beyond tired of hearing, Square this way, I will take you!
Once it came time to (unhappily) say goodbye to Fred and (happily) say goodbye to Marrakech, we got into our Dacia Duster SUV and began the hectic drive out of the city. Just like the other countries we’ve been where there are more scooters, bikes and cows in the road than cars, Moroccan streets are complete controlled chaos. No one gets in accidents despite the absurd driving. The husband was behind the wheel, white-knuckled and straight-backed until we finally reached the outskirts of Marrakech city limits.
Get out of Marrakech: Check.
The next phase was to cross the high Atlas Mountains which separate the Atlantic coast from our end goal: The Sahara Desert. Everything I read about traversing these mountains was that guardrails are few and semi-trucks barreling around the hairpin turns in the wrong lane are many. They weren’t wrong.
Fred suggested we take a non-tourist route to Merzouga (end town before the desert) and take the typical one back because the scenery is much better. He, like so many times before, wasn’t wrong. We criss-crossed the lush, green valleys and snowy peaks of the Atlas, up, down and around with no harm done. Once we reached the other side, a town called Ouarzazate is the midpoint between Marrakech and the Sahara. This is where we trusted Fred and deviated off the traditional, straight-shot route and headed towards another, smaller mountain range. The farther we drove, the rockier and redder it became until we were surrounded by nothing but naked earth. It was desolate and seemingly devoid of life save for the occasional lone, clay house off in the distance. The terrain became so Mars-like that it genuinely felt other planetary. We pretended to be two astronauts exploring in our Rover and there was not another soul around to tell us otherwise.
We rolled into our hotel, the Kanz Erremal in the town of Merzouga, at dark so we really didn’t know what our surroundings were like or even what the view was outside our window. We had dinner and some drinks on the hotel terrace, played with the hotel’s puppy, and stared off into the darkness not knowing the scene that would await us when the sun rose. I woke up the next morning and darted to the window, pulled back the green, sequins adorned curtain and all I could see were miles of burnt orange sand dunes.
My first reaction was to put my hand over my mouth, gasp, and immediately start laughing. What! How is this real! We had our own terrace off the room, so I went outside into the chilly morning air and just gawked and smiled. The Sahara Desert was staring me in the face as I stood on our own little private veranda, astonished at where I was in the world.
We went downstairs for some breakfast on the same terrace as the night before, the sand pushed right up against the edge of the patio and the huge dunes literally just steps away. I watched some camels meandering around or lazying under a few scattered palm trees as I drank my coffee. The sun warmed the air fast, so on go the bathing suits and to the pool we went. We were camping in the middle of the dunes that night and our transportation wasn’t due to pick us up until later in the afternoon, so we laid by the pool a bit, ate some lunch, pooled a little more and then reluctantly packed our bags. Another fantastic $40 night spent.
There are several camps to choose from in this particular area. We decided that not only was an actual bathroom necessary, but we’d like a little bit more of a lux experience. Glamping, if you will. We had a few splurges on this trip and Ali and Sara’s Desert Palace was one of them.
They picked us up at the hotel and we climbed into an old, rusty, black Land Rover. I got in the backseat and realized I didn’t have a seat belt. I mentioned the fact to the driver and I got a laugh and a “There are no police in the Sahara”. I was more concerned about the thing flipping over and me flying out of a window, but sure, okay. I hung on and off we went, bumping and rolling into the sand. The dunes were getting bigger and bigger and about 30 minutes later we reached camp.
We were greeted with the traditional mint tea, deliciously sweet, piping hot and something I drank so much of over the duration of the vacation I thought I may drown. The rest of the guests began to arrive and in total there were eight people staying there that night. The husband and myself, four Chinese kids and an older Dutch couple. Once everyone was settled in, it was time to head out to watch the sunset. The local Berber people who help run the camp expertly wrapped our heads in scarves for protection from the blowing sand and helped me get on my camel (hilariously named Scooby Doo). I very ungracefully nearly fell off as he was standing up and I had to keep a tight clench on my handles as he took one sinking step after the next in the loose sand.
Our Camel Man, Hamou, picked a good dune for us to scale and once at the top, the husband finally got to do the one thing that convinced him to come on this trip to begin with: Sandboarding. He’s a good snowboarder so he caught on pretty quickly. I, however, just used it like a narrow sled and went down on my bum.
We watched the sunset from the top of that dune and the sand changed to a new shade of orange or yellow every minute. As I was riding Scooby back to camp, it was getting darker and the wind was dying down. It was so quiet. I could barely hear the camel’s steps in the sand and I suppose the dunes are natural sound-proofing. It was eerie how quiet and still it was.
Dinner was waiting back at the camp in the “dining tent”. Food in Morocco is no joke. Not only have I never tasted food like in that in my life, the sheer amounts they give you is unreal. Every meal has several courses and by the time the end comes you’re about as full as you can ever imagine, but still somehow want to keep eating because it’s that good. The dinner at the camp was the time-honored Tajine, the food of Morocco. There are several varieties but includes some kind of meat and/or vegetable slow cooked in a cone shaped clay pot, ideally, over an open fire. It has more flavor than anything I’ve ever eaten, having some combination (or all) of cumin, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and sometimes saffron. Lamb is common and they sometimes throw some apricots in there for good measure. My mouth is watering as I type this.
After dinner, the locals built a fire, got out their traditional Berber drums and sang and played the songs of their tribes. I couldn’t take in enough of this. They let me try them. I was very, very bad.
One thing I was greatly looking forward to while being out in the desert was the star gazing. After reading so much about it and the accounts of people seeing more stars than ever in their lives, the hype was real. Once the drumming was over and the fire extinguished, we walked a little outside the camp to ensure total darkness. And…I was beyond disappointed. I was expecting to see photoshopped style sky here, and it just wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong, there were thousands and thousands of stars and it was stunning, especially given where I was, however I grew up in a very rural, very dark area, so that night sky didn’t look too much different than that of my hometown. It was spectacular, for sure, but not so much more than in West Virginia. I suppose I can count myself lucky that I grew up in a place where I could see the sky like that as a kid.
We had the option to take the camels back out the next morning to watch the sunrise, so of course we jumped on that. The alarm went off at 4:50am. Attempting to not only get on, but to hang onto, a camel at 5am in the cold and dark was quite the challenge, but the end result was the husband and I wrapped in blankets around a fire with the sky lighting up pink and orange as the sun rose over Algeria in the distance. I don’t want to sound cliche and say it was magical…but it was magical.
It was time to head back towards Marrakech, so we needed to get out of the dunes and back to the car. We were driving a few hours to the mid point of Ouarzazate and about 30 minutes outside that city is Ait Benhaddou, an ancient fortified village set against a rocky mountain (like so many in Morocco) where they’ve filmed a myriad of things including Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site to boot. Game of Thrones was my reasoning to go, so I was pretty excited to pretend to be a Targaryen for the day.
Our accommodation in Ait Benhaddou was the Kasbah Isfoula, owned by the coolest French couple. They are both stunt people for the shows and movies that come to town. When we arrived, it was extremely windy and cold. We were still on the desert side of the Mountains and the springtime weather can be a bit unpredictable. We relaxed in our room for a while (the Gladiator Suite; it had actual props from the movie, a separate living room, two terraces and the bathroom was on a second floor), drank some more mint tea and listened to the wind get worse as it rattled the doors and windows.
The actual mud walled village of Ait Benhaddou was about 1km away and there is a river crossing to get to its gates. It was getting colder and the wind was howling but we knew we had to go see it. We bundled up as best we could and drove down. It was worth it. It was like stepping back 1,000 years. It was once a major stop on the old caravan route and apparently four families still live inside its walls.
On the way back, we stopped at a tiny carpet shop owned by a local Berber man where I found a small rug that I really liked. Bargaining is life here and he told me he wanted $70 for it. I said $40. Bartering is important in the Berber culture, so he said that he would take $40 if we also gave him something of ours. I rummaged through the SUV, looking for something I thought he’d like. The husband has an old leather wallet with the WVU logo pressed into it that he brings on vacations. (He puts dummy cards and a few dollars in it just in case he gets pickpocketed and keeps his real money elsewhere.) I thought this would be perfect and I was right. He loved it and said he didn’t even have a wallet. So now and forever, there is a nice Berber man in the middle of Morocco who keeps all his money in a West Virginia University logo wallet. Life made.
We didn’t stay long because of the weather, so we had dinner and relaxed at the Kasbah. By the time bedtime rolled around, the wind was whipping. I have never, to this day in my life, ever heard wind like that. I didn’t sleep very well. It was blowing objects around outside, I could hear the furniture on the terrace being moved and the windows shook all night. It had to have been sustained hurricane force winds. I knew we were pretty safe inside those mud brick buildings, but it got scary a few times.
After waking up, I realized the evening light wasn’t ideal to photograph the village, so we hurried back to catch the morning light which was much better.
This was our last day in Morocco as we had an evening flight out that day. We had to cross back over the Atlas Mountains and get to the airport before 3pm. I heard it had snowed in the mountains overnight so I was a bit worried. Once we ascended high enough, it had definitely snowed. It was piled up on the sides of the road, but luckily had already melted off the actual road. It was beautiful. On the way through them the first time the snow was just higher up on the peaks, this time it felt like we were in the peaks, with the white surrounding us.
We made it back to Marrakech with a few hours to spare, so we had another Tajine then headed to the airport. It was a whirlwind with the constant go, go, go, but I really did love Morocco. You don’t know when you don’t know, but if and when we go back, I’d much rather spend my time in the smaller desert villages. I had way too much of Marrakech but not even close to enough time in the other areas.
Africa has been checked off the continent list and country #19 has been visited. Next vacation we’ve decided that we want a hammock and a pool in a jungle somewhere. If you plan on heading to Morocco anytime soon, let me know! I have lots more to tell.