Morocco: Marrakesh, Essaouira, Sahara Desert, Dades Valley, and Fes

morocco

Words & Videography by M.Deermount / Photography by N. Jebson

 

Why we went

We went to Morocco because we wanted to visit North Africa. Morocco is at the same time both highly exotic and tourist friendly…even if sometimes a little pushy. The best thing about Morocco is that it lets you feel a maximum sense of adventure while also feeling pretty safe. Of course it also has the Sahara desert, a fascinating ancient culture of the Berber people, and walled in desert cities that conger up images of Aladdin and Ali Baba.

Morocco

The country is a land of extremes; there are beautiful beaches along the Atlantic, giant sand dunes in the Sahara desert inland, and the mighty Atlas mountains in-between. In the far north, the city of Tangier is just a few miles from southern Spain and easily connected via ferry from Gibraltar. When we visited, two things stood out, one good and one bad.

First the bad – visiting Morocco as a western (read: white) person you will be viewed by the locals as a walking talking ATM machine. Virtually everywhere you go someone is going to try and sell you something you don’t want or need. They can get pushy but it never felt really threatening. And when I say everywhere I mean it. We went sand boarding in the Sahara desert, like miles away from civilization in the Sahara desert. After a grueling climb we glided down our chosen sand dune only to discover a guy in a flowing blue robe that had laid out his trinkets for us to see. Dude, where did you even come from!? Tipping is big in Morocco and as a westerner you will be expected to tip…everyone. I found this a little weird. You’re actually expected to tip if someone gives you directions. The locals will charmingly tell you that it’s part of their culture. I had doubts that locals tip each other when they ask for directions.

Now the good – Morocco is spectacularly colorful, from the landscape to the people to the fabrics and the food. People often always ask us “What was your favorite trip?”. That’s an impossible question to answer as there are far too many variables. However, sometimes they ask which country was best for photography. That’s an easy one…it was Morocco…and it’s not even close. Morocco was by far the single most photogenic country we have ever been to.

 

Accessibility

Morocco is much further west on the African continent than most people realize. There are 6.5hr direct flights to Casablanca from NYC, via Air Maroc. That’s shorter than going to either Rome or Paris. Of course you’re probably not coming all the way to Morocco a long weekend in the modern and sterile Casablanca. No offense to Casablanca, its a nice place to check out after you land. But if are coming to Morocco you’re going to want to spend most of your time around Marrakech and Fez, both about a three hour drive from Casablanca. You could also fly via a connection in Europe or Casablanca directly to Marrakech or another inland city. But we wanted to see a couple things in Casablanca, and who doesn’t want to say they’ve been to Casablanca?

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Upon arriving into Casablanca we stopped to see the huge Hassan II Mosque before driving on to Marrakech.

Getting around the country requires a car. We decided to hire a driver/guide for the entire time. Using a guide was both good and bad. To be clear this was not a tour. It was just the two of us and our driver. As independent travelers you’re giving up a lot of decision making and control by getting a guide. However, Morocco is much harder to navigate than Europe and having someone who knew the cities was extremely helpful and most certainly led us to things we otherwise wouldn’t have found. In addition to driving, these independent guides will book hotels and sometimes even meals. In many cities and sights they will leave you with a local guide they know. Some are good, some are bad, all ask for tips. Before we went to Morocco I priced out the same trip our guide organized and added in the cost of a rental car. It wasn’t much cheaper.

 

When we went

September 2012.

Itinerary: Flew into Casablanca, drove to Marrakech (slept 3 nights) – day trip to Essaouira – drove to Ouarzazate (1 night in Atlas mountains)- drove to Merzouga (2 nights including one in Sahara Desert) – drove to Fez (2 nights) – left out of Casablanca.

 

What we did

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The busy streets in Marrakech just outside of our riad.

Day 1: We arrived into Casablanca and explored the Hassan II Mosque before a delightful lunch at a modern cafe picked out by our guide. Afterwards we drove on to Marrakech, which would be our home base for the next 3 nights. Like many European cities there is an atmospheric old town and a more modern city just outside the walls. Within the old city walls there exists a gigantic tangle of winding medieval lanes and the world’s largest public square, Djemaa el Fna. While there are big hotel chains in the new city, within the old town staying at a riad is your best option. A riad is kind of like what we would call a bed and breakfast, most often located within a old aristocratic mansion. There has been a revival in these kinds of accommodations in Morocco over the past few years. As a result most are newly renovated and often run by great hosts, many of whom came back to Morocco (often from the US) to open one. Many are also quite luxurious. However, you’d never know that from the outside. The raids, like much of the old city, hide behind high plain concrete walls. The streets of the old city are dusty and dirty. There are donkeys and motor bikes and people shouting everywhere. Wall through the big outer door of a riad and the tranquility washes over you.

Djeem el Fna in the day is filled with monkeys, snake charmers and fortune tellers.

Our riad in Marrakech was a short walk to Djemaa el Fna.  This is the world’s largest market square. During the day it is filled with street performers, snake charmers, games, monkeys and fortune tellers; in the evening it became a huge outdoor food market.  Beware that if you start to take photos of the street performers they will expect some form of payment! Don’t overpay…$5 for a photo of a monkey is more than acceptable. Just walk away when they get pushy.

 

Djeem el Fna at night turns into a giant food market.

Essouria was built right along the Atlantic Ocean.

Essouria was built right along the Atlantic Ocean.

Day 2:  We took a two hour drive to the dreamy coastal town of Essouria, a walled-in city on the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by crystal blue water. If this looks like some from the set of Game of Thrones that’s because it is. Part of Season 4 here. It’s old stone walls are still guarded by canons and a there’s a rocky beach just on the other side.

Boys diving and swimming in the fishing boat marina.

Like every Moroccan town Essouria has a market full of exotic goods and people that easily captivates the western tourist. Essouria’s market was in no short supply of fresh fruits, breads and of course fish, which are delivered fresh each morning via the town’s little fleet of blue boats. Our guide helped us pick out an assortment of the daily catch for lunch. Just next to the market is an open air restaurant, with a beautiful old stone court yard, that will grill your fish. Come here during the weekend and every table is full of local families enjoying a huge seafood spread. Don’t confuse this place with the more tourist friendly market stalls along the little harbor.

Picking out our lunch at the fish market

Day 3: Today we stayed in Marrakech. We visited the Bahi Palace, the Saadian Tombs, the Koutoubia mosque, and toured the souk.  While the palace, tombs, and mosque are interesting, its the souk that we’ll always remember. This is the ancient market area of the city and it feels every bit as though you’ve walked back to the middle ages. The twisting alley ways, unchanged by time, are filled with sounds of merchants and crafts men selling goods and hammering metal the same way they have for hundreds of years. Different areas of the souk sell different things. There are the weavers, the metal works, the rug sellers, the leather goods, and nearly everything else a modern Moroccan may need, from a new tea set to a Sponge Bob backpack. There are no price tags.  Everything, absolutely everything, can be and should be haggled over.

Haggling tips – At first this can be intimidating. These guys are pushy, very pushy. And they’re really good at what they do. It’s best to have an idea of what you want to spend ahead of time and do not be afraid to walk away. Always be polite but firm. Just assume that whatever the first price they give you is, they’ll be willing to settle for half of that. If you get them below 50% of their initial offer, consider yourself above average. Generally the hawkers in the city souks are a bit pushier and more aggressive. Those outside the city are more laid back. Expect a longer process and maybe even a cup of tea.

Mike chats with a man who weaves and sells his own hats.

Yves Saint Laurent garden in Marrakech

Yves Saint Laurent was so captivated by Marrakech that he decided to build a house here. It’s now a beautiful garden area that you can go and visit. To us it looked like Antoni Gaudi took a break in Barcelona to build a house in Marrakesh. Lots of tile, lots of water, and that same sense of an oasis we felt at the riad.

At least one night for dinner you must go to the food market in Djeem el Fna. They must serve more kebabs nightly then the rest of the world combined. Don’t be afraid to try more than one stall. Many look similar but often have a specialty. Look to see what everyone else is eating or what they have the most of if it’s early. Many western cities have restaurant areas where the pushy maitre d’ tries to get passers by to come in. Think Little Italy in NYC. Well those guys have nothing on the Moroccans in Djeem el Fna. After dinner we found a modern rooftop bar, Kosy Bar, in the Jewish quarter, only a few minutes walk from the main square and our riad. Since most places in the city are dry this was our first taste of alcohol in three days.

Day 4: Marrakesh is on a flat plain of land that leads to the ocean. While the city is dry and dusty the area just outside is lush and green, full of argon trees and the goats that sometimes climb them. About 50 miles to the south and east of Marrakesh is the desert and that’s where we were headed. Separating the coastal region and the desert are the mighty Atlas Mountains. The road on both sides is steep and winding and the views, particularly to the north, are amazing. There are plenty of road side pull offs for photo ops. The higher you go the better they are. Morocco’s scenery can change dramatically and this was how first taste of how quickly that can happen. In less than an hour we were rumbling down the back side of the Atlas Mountains and those lush green plains outside of Marrakesh gave were replaced by arid and rocky terrain. This area of the country sat along the ancient spice trail and is known for its many Kasbahs. These were often the final resting place of traders before their grueling last leg over the mountains.

Ait Benhaddou, the famous jewish kasbah

Many of the kasbahs are open for tourists. There are bigger more famous ones like Ait Benhaddou and Taourirt in Ouarzazate. If these look strangely Biblical to you its because they are often used as the setting for Biblical movies. In addition to the actual kasbahs you can visit there is the Road of 1000 Kasbahs. A drive along here should be accompanied by some traditional Berber music and will be accompanied by lots of smiling and waving children.

A woman gets water from the town’s main water well at the Taourirt Kasbah in Ouarzazate.

Day 5: We continued our drive towards the Sahara via the Dades Valley. The Dades Valley looks biblical. The rocks and soil, like much of the rest of Africa, is red. Every village looks ancient, many really are. This is also a land of bright green oasis’.  They look fake, like someone painted a mirage on the rocks. You’ll drive for miles through what looks like desert and suddenly come upon a fertile green field bursting with color and plant life and lush crops. We’ve seen many things while travelling but to this day one of the most peculiar was the first time we saw small boys selling freshly picked apples along a desert road.

A burst of green plant life in a sea of red sand and rock

Our drive continued south and east through the desert and the outpost town of Risani to Merzouga, literally the end of the road in Morocco.  If you’re heading off into the Sahara Desert this little town with dusty roads and simple brick homes is your last taste of civilization. We stayed in a great little riad the first time. Our dinner was a private affair on the roof, complete with tagines and a panoramic view of the northern edge of the Sahara Desert.

Day 6: In the morning we toured a local ksar, which once was a palace of the royal family. Today it is looked after by one old man in a flowing white robe who once worked as a servant within its walls. For a small fee he’ll guide you through the now abandon halls.

We also got a chance to see the outpost town of Rissani, which was a bit bigger than Merzouga. Rissani is your best bet to stock up before any desert excursion. The town is famous for it’s meat market and donkey parking lot. In the first expect to see a lot of animal heads hanging from stalls. The second is like a park and ride if your preferred method of transportation is a donkey.

In the afternoon, back in Merzouga, we did something both of us had been looking forward too. Sand boarding. There are few paved roads in the town but it’s surprisingly easy to find snow board rentals in tiny Merzouga.

Sand-boarding in the Sahara Desert is for obvious reasons one of the best travel stories you will bring home and one of the best Instagram shots that you will post on your trip. It is however, very difficult. Do you know why there are chairlifts at ski resorts? So you don’t have to walk. Unfortunately, that is a luxury you won’t find in the desert. It’s 110*, there is no shade, the incline is about 30*, and you’re carrying a snow board up a mountain made of soft sand. For every step you take expect to lose about half of it to the sand.

See the two little figures in the left hand corner in the photo below? That was us making our way up the dune on our first and only run. We made it more than three-fourths of the way up!

Back in the riad it took considerable time to get all the sand out of our hair and clothes but wow, is that picture worth it or what!?!

In the evening our guide arranged for a man with two camels to pick us up and escort us into the desert for a night under the stars. He walked and we rode for about 2 hours until we reached a tented camp several miles outside of town in the shadow of one enormous dune. The ride is perfectly timed with the sunset and the colors are out of this world. The camp is a nightly retreat for tourists. There are tents to sleep in but most people choose to stay outside. Our camp had about 20 other people. There were roaming bands of musicians that came to entertain some of the guests but we decided to hike out of camp a little ways to enjoy the serenity of the desert at night. The stars here are amazing and the milky way was so dense it looked like you could walk across it.

Day 7: As the sun rose the camp came to life. It doesn’t take long for the desert to heat up. With each passing minute it seemed to get one degree warmer. Under the mid-morning sun we began to trek back to Merzouga.

After a much appreciated shower in our riad, we started our final leg north towards Fes. Once again we had to cross the Atlas Mountains. This area of Atlas, further to the east than our first pass, is far more fertile than the part we crossed earlier. In the morning we woke up in a desert and by lunch time were were in a dense cedar forest, complete with ski resorts and road side monkeys. Did I mention how dramatically the scenery changes in Morocco?

This alpine region of Morocco is home to a small population of furry apes. They live along the roads and they are accustomed to being fed by passing motorists. Pull over with a few apples slices and one these guys will appears out of nowhere to take it right out of your hand. They’ll even drink from your water bottle.

The primary city in this region is Ifrane, which is home to the aforementioned ski resort. It literally looks like a Swiss village, with a lot more mosques. Much of the countries elite have home here. The upscale cafes and fancy cars are a far cry from the donkey carts and homemade contraptions you’ll see on the roads closer to Merzouga.

The day’s drive was one of our longest, nearly seven hours. Our stately 16th century riad in Fes was a welcome relief. It was days like this that we were particularly happy to have a driver who know where he was going.

Day 8: There is no way to describe Fes other than a full frontal assault on your senses. A week earlier we had thought Marrakesh was exotic, even other worldly. It turns out Marrakesh was just the baby pool to the vast ocean of old world chaos that is Fes. For every narrow ally in Marrakesh they must be 1000 in Fes. Don’t believe me, look at Fes in Google earth. It just looks like a giant tangle of humanity. Get lost here and you may never make it back. When you do go out exploring….and you must go out exploring…make sure you’re either with a guide who knows where he’s going or your really good at backtracking. Fes is one of the world’s oldest walled in cities and one of the most learned centers in the Islamic world. There are several gates around the wall that provide the only ways in and out. One of our favorite experiences in Fes was having dinner under one of the walls mighty gates.

The mess of streets that is Fes.

Fes is famous for it’s leather goods and a fine place to purchase an authentic Moroccan poof. You can even see exactly where they are made, in the city’s tanneries, which have been operating in the same spot and using the same technique for hundreds of years. Many of the stores selling leather overlook these tanneries that still use pigeon poop to cure their cow hides. Lunch anyone?

Tanneries in Fes. A little smelly, but the leather prices can’t be beat!

One thing that was strange about Morocco was that even though they aren’t as devoutly religious as many other Muslim countries they still didn’t let foreigners in the mosques. Fes has a lot of historic and famous mosques but the closest we got was the outer doors. In case of Fes that means there is really only one thing to see….Fes, where even a stroll around the block can end up lasting half a day.

The outer door of a mosque in Fes.

Accommodations

Ksar Anika; Marrakesh. A fabulous riad within the old city walls.  Great rooftop lounging, courtyard pool and quiet (delicious) dining.

Riad Nezha; Merzouga.  A perfect place to stay before or after a Sahara desert adventure.

Riad El Yacout; Fes. A fine old merchant mansion with a beautiful inner courtyard. It’s close to one of the city’s gates so it’s easy to wander a little bit without getting totally lost. Alcohol isn’t allowed to be sold within the city walls but the staff can purchase some wine bottles in the new town if you ask nicely.

 

dining recommendations

If you’re with a guide chances are they will find most of your restaurants. Of the restaurants we went in the menus were often limited. Expect a heavy rotation of tagines. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t think either of us got sick of them in the course of 9 days. Even the common “chicken tagine” can vary greatly from place to place with everyone putting their own little spin on it.

In general we would say avoid places in the city that appear to cater to large tourist groups, unless of course you really want to see belly dancing.

Without question the best meals we had were actually in our riads, both for the atmosphere and for the food.

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