Let me just preface this post by saying that V. and I are not, by any means, hardcore backpackers; nor are we veteran, world-weary globetrotters. We enjoy lounging by the pool, mojito in hand, as much as the next couple. Once in a while, though, we get the urge to see new cultures - and this itinerary we put together for our one year anniversary managed to hit all the right spots.
The beauty of Morocco is that because the culture is so vivid, and the landscapes so varied and dramatic, that 10 days is more than sufficient for first time visitors to get a full dose of otherworldly wonder. You'll feel like an explorer just being there.
If this is your first visit to North Africa you will experience some culture shock - I definitely did - but if you take it all in stride, I promise you'll have an extraordinary time.
AND OFF WE GO!
Morocco is a country of culture and contrasts. Your journey will start in the "Ochre City" of Marrakech, home of one of the busiest market squares in Africa; you'll drive over 600 kilometers towards the desert, across sweeping valleys, up the cliff-side roads of the Atlas range, and through countless un-named roadside towns full of wonderful people; you'll go by camel into the Great Sahara, and spend a night in a Berber camp - and that's only half the trip!
DAY 1 TO 3: MARRAKECH
The hotel we stayed in was in a beautiful traditional riad nestled within the crowded alleyways of the Medina, a few streets from Bab Doukkala (one of nineteen gates into the Old City), and about a 15-minute walk from Jemaa el-Fnaa (Marrakech's main square).
Passing through the entrance of the riad is like entering another realm altogether - the bustling sounds of the street fade away, enveloped by the quiet trickling of a marble fountain in the riad's courtyard. We were welcomed with a small plate of biscuits, and a pot of mint tea, a gesture of hospitality throughout Morocco. The tea helps to soothe any aching pains from travelling, and gives you a moment to take in your surroundings.
One place you'll definitely want to see in Marrakech is Jemaa el-Fnaa. In the evenings, the square is packed with locals and tourists, huddled around food stalls serving mounds of shellfish, and mouth-watering tajines. Snake charmers, performing Barbary apes, dancers, and even amateur boxers all clammer for the attention of gathered onlookers.
Lining the edge of the square is the main souk, a huge, sprawling, and maze-like North African marketplace selling pretty much anything you can imagine - from spices, to silks, to jewelery to carpets, to fragrant oils, overwhelming your senses with all manner of sights, sounds, and smells.
If you're hungry, stop at one of the many stalls that line the square for a bite. Be adventurous - try what the locals are having! If you're thirsty, what's better than freshly squeezed orange juice on a warm summer night?
Explore Marrakech at your own pace for the next couple of days. At some point you'll need to make a visit to a car rental company to get a car - ask your riad for recommendations. We had a GPS in our tiny Hyundai, which was helpful, if anything just to reconfirm what you're seeing on your driving map (which may be slightly out of date,) and to give you estimated driving times.
DAY 4: MARRAKECH > SKOURA
Get an early start - you'll be covering over 250km on narrow mountain roads to the small town of Skoura (population 2,808), roughly halfway between Marrakech and the Sahara. You really don't want to be driving in darkness along those treacherous Atlas roads (trust me, I speak from experience,) so keep an eye on the clock. As you ascend the windy roads of the Atlas range towards Skoura, you'll be driving through countless villages and small towns, some bustling with people, others perched silently over dramatic precipices.
DAY 5: SKOURA > ERFOUD > MERZOUGA / HASSILABIED
One of the most fascinating aspects of the journey is experiencing the vast changes in landscape as you make your way from the city to the desert. Notice how the dusty, crowded city streets of Marrakech make way for flat, open highways, which gradually transform into red, clay-coloured gorges and valleys as you approach and ascend the Atlas range, and finally to the grey, slate-like cliffs at the highest point of this journey before starting the descent on the other side of the mountain range.
We stopped for gas and lunch in Erfoud (at the Pizzeria-Restaurant des Dunes - great food, by the way) before continuing on to Merzouga. If you get approached by "well-meaning" locals who claim that the road to Merzouga requires a 4-wheel drive / dune-buggy, or a tour permit, and that (conveniently) they have a brother that provides such vehicles or tours - you can safely ignore them. The road to Merzouga can be traversed even by a beaten up old Hyundai.
We arrived in Hassilabied just before sunset. Hassiabied is a small village on the edge of Erg Chebbi - one of the larger dunes of the Moroccan Sahara. Sitting on the roof of our hotel, a large mud brick building, we sipped mint tea with Lahcen, one of the three Segaoui brothers who own and operate the hotel. We had previously communicated via email, and had arranged a camel trek the next day, so he recapped our itinerary and welcomed us to his hotel. It turned out that it was low season, and so we were literally the only guests in the hotel for the next two nights!
In the distant horizon, we could see the undulating waves of the Sahara - the inhospitable conditions of the desert softened by the warm glow of the setting sun.
DAY 6: SAHARA
As morning broke across the distant dunes of the Sahara, Lahcen drove V. and I to the edge of the desert to meet the two Berber camel men who would be our hosts for the trek. During high season we would probably be camel trekking in a much larger group, but here, as in the hotel, V. and I were the only guests. It only occurred to me later that we were in fact entrusting our lives to complete strangers, but at the time I was too mesmerized by our two rather majestic camels to realize.
"Wait, wait, wait," said Lahcen. "You have a hat?" he asked, pointing at my bare head.
In all the excitement I had left my cap back at the hotel.
"No, no - you must cover head. The sun."
At which point he immediately began to unravel the bright, tumeric coloured scarf that was on his head.
"Come, I help you."
And thus our Saharan camel trek began with another act of typical Moroccan generosity.
A few hours into the trek, and with Hassilabied somewhere far behind us, we were alone among the dunes - V. and I on the camels, the two Berber men leading us deeper into the desert, and miles of sand stretching in all directions as far as the eye could see.
"Camels are the ships of the Moroccan desert", as they say. It's true - riding a camel is like gently bobbing along to the current of the dunes.
Eventually, we rounded a crescent shaped dune where the Berber men signaled to the camels to stop. Just over the lip and about a hundred meters below at the base of the dune were a scattering of small Berber tents, sheltered from the winds by the dunes themselves - this would be our home for the night.
DAY 7 TO 10: HASSILABIED > OUARZAZATE > IN AND AROUND MARRAKECH
Gradually make your way back to civilization. If you've made it this far, the return trip should be a breeze. As always, take your time and enjoy the adventure!
If you're already considering a trip to Morocco - you can safely stop considering now. Go ahead and tell your boss you're taking *at least* ten days off, because there's a simmering tajine and a pot of mint tea waiting for you, under a blanket of stars and among the dunes of the Great Sahara.