There is something inherently sexy about Morocco. Maybe it was the promise of chaotic and colorful markets filled with handcrafted artisan goods. Or maybe it was the draw of the solitude of the Sahara Desert. Perhaps it was the delicious mint tea and tantalizing traditional dishes that leave fireworks in your mouth. Or maybe, it was just the need to explore a culture so different from my own. Whatever it was, Morocco was calling my name.
I’ve traveled to many countries alone, but Morocco was not going to be on them. While I found Moroccans to be quite friendly and kind, street harassment and safety are still very much an issue in the country, in particular for women. Combine that with a significant language barrier and lack of tourism infrastructure; I decided to join a tour group.
After lots of internet research, I settled on the Adventure Morocco tour with the British travel company, Travel Talk Tours. Travel Talk Tours offers a broad range of tours in countries like Morocco, Egypt, Russia, Turkey all at a great price. After stalking their site for a month, I decided to bite the bullet when I saw they had a 50% off sale. Eight days in Morocco for $500? Yes, please!
Day 1: Marrakech
Our tour started and ended in the city of Marrakech. I didn’t know what to expect with the tour. Groups could range in size all the way up to 20+ people. After landing at the Marrakech Airport, I was picked up by our guide, Abdoul, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that our tour consisted of just four girls, including myself. I lucked out as the previous tour had close to 25 people on it.
Arriving at the airport is a bit of a nightmare. It seems at least four flights land at the same time and well over 500 people were waiting in the passport line. It was like a Black Friday sale; people were pushing and cutting each other. After at least a half hour in line, I finally made it to the passport control agent who gave me a hard time because I couldn’t remember the name of our first hotel. So, I did what every backpacker does and wrote down “Marrakech Hotel.” Well, apparently the Marrakech Hotel is closed now. Crap! After a bit of arguing, he finally stamped my passport, and I was off to find my luggage, exchange my money, and meet my tour guide.
Day 2: Marrakech to Ouarzazate
We woke up early to fill our bellies before a long ride over the Atlas Mountains to our first stop, Ouarzazate. The hotel’s spread was quite impressive. We had everything from French pastries to meat platters to cereal. At 8 am we promptly loaded our bags into the van and hit the road. We didn’t make it far as it snowed the previous night in the Atlas Mountains and the authorities closed the road to plow it.
I consider myself to be quite well versed in geography and nature, but I had no idea that it snowed in Morocco. Coming from Maine where it snows a lot, waiting for the roads to be plowed in Africa was quite amusing.
We spent the two waiting by chatting up other tourists, eating pasta that a local man brought out for people to eat, and drinking traditional mint tea in a goat pasture along the road. Soon enough we were given the all clear, and we hit the road.
If you’ve ever driven through the Rocky Mountains or the Alps then you know what I’m talking about – the roads are scary, especially covered in fresh snow. We wound our way up and up through the mountains on a narrow and windy road with very few guard rails. I silently said a prayer as I sat looking out the window in amazement of the fluffy white stuff around us.
Once we reached the top, we were rewarded with panoramic views of the mountains around us and a snowball fight. Eventually, the snow became barren earth with scraggly brush and goats, and the mountains became plains. After a brief stop for lunch, we stopped at Aït Ben Haddou, an ancient fortified city, and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of its former inhabitants leave across the highway in a modern city, but four families still live inside the city walls. Today, Aït Ben Haddou is a popular spot to film movies. Ever see the Prince of Persia or Gladiator?
Not far from Ouarzazate is the “Grand Canyon” of Morocco, which is not to be missed. It was our last stop of the day, and we made sure to have a little fun. By dusk, we made it to our final destination of the day, Ouarzazate. We settled into our hotel, Hotel Kenzi Azghar, before heading out to explore a bit of the town and eat dinner.
Our original plans were thwart by the wind. Instead of a picnic lunch at the oasis, we ate at the local Mhamid hotel before heading out to our first desert camp. Of course, no trip to the desert was complete until we each had our own turbans. After lunch, we hopped in the 4×4 truck and headed toward camp.
Once again Morocco surprised me with her landscape. Disney and Hollywood totally misunderstand an oasis. Thanks to them I alway thought an oasis is a tiny little bit of land in the middle of the desert with a small pond and a few palm trees. Nope, they couldn’t be more wrong! An oasis can be very large, spreading for miles around a water source. The vegetation can hide whole villages!
After a very bumpy road through the oasis, we hit the first signs of the Sahara Desert. Interesting enough, most of the Sahara Desert is rocky and not sand dunes like I naively thought.
The sand dunes came out of nowhere. We all giggled in our excitement as our driver began zig-zagging his way around throwing us around like ragdolls screaming in delight. The dune bashing lasted only about 15 minutes thankfully as my motion sickness was just about to set in.
Our driver rolled up to one of the tallest sand dunes in the area so we could run around and play like school girls. We quickly kicked off our shoes and ran as fast as we could up the giant dunes. The views from the top were incredible. The dunes stretched for miles into the horizon. If you squinted enough, you could even make out a few camels in the distance. We sat in the warm sand for a while watching our driver complete his afternoon prayers and just taking in the crisp desert air.
As we returned to our 4×4 truck, I noticed Abdoul and our driver smiling and pointing to the top of the 4×4. It took me a minute to realize that he wanted us to climb up on top and ride to camp on our very own “open air truck.” I was reluctant for a moment questioning the safety of it, but I quickly hopped up after the other girls camera in tow. Our driver hit the gas, and we were off!
Our desert camp was basic but comfortable. It had everything we needed – a warm, comfy bed, a clean bathroom, and a colorful dinner tent. Upon our arrival, we were warmly greeted with a hot cup of mint tea. I could get used to this! We explored the surrounding sand dunes collecting firewood while dinner was cooking. Dinner was a delicious traditional dish of chicken, rice, and vegetables. There was more food than any of us could eat.
As soon as the sun set over the last dune, a fire was made, and our new Moroccan friends played traditional music for us. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been feeling well for most of the day, so I called it an early night, but the other girls partied late into the evening.
It was the day that we had all been waiting for – we were going to ride camels! We ate breakfast and quickly packed so we could get to our second desert camp. On our way, we stopped at a traditional pottery factor for a short tour and shopping. You have no idea how badly I want to buy all the beautiful plates and bowls. Someday…
After we settled into our new camp and ate lunch, it was time to ride the camels. We donned around turbans and sunglasses and ran towards the camels. The other girls were a little reluctant to hop on the camels, so I went first. Getting on a camel is no easy feat. You better hold on tight. Camels are strange, strange creatures.
The first 10 minutes of the ride was incredible… you’re riding a camel through the Sahara Desert. It can’t get much better than that! Until your butt starts to hurt and your hamstrings start to cramp. Riding a camel gets old fast. Still, it was a unique experience that I will remember for a long time.
After an exciting two days in the desert, it was time for us to make our way to the sea. We said goodbye to our new friends and hit the road. It was our longest day in the car. Since I had been feeling under the weather for the past few days, I slept for most of the way.
We made several stops along the way that broke up our long journey. My favorite stop of the day was for the tree-climbing goats. Argan trees are endemic to Morocco, and wherever there are trees, there are goats. These death-defying tree climbing goats eat the leaves and the fruit of the argan tree. The goats digest the nuts, which are then collected to make argan oil and cosmetics. Think of that next time you purchase argan oil for your hair!
Eventually, we made it to Agadir, a charming seaside town famous for its fresh seafood. Before settling into our hotel for the evening, we stopped at the argan oil shop for a demonstration on how they make the oil. Have you ever wondered why the oil is so expensive? It’s because it’s hand crushed by Moroccan women! It was pretty impressive to see.
Day 6: Agadir to Essaouira
After spending the past five days traveling hours on end in a mini bus, sleeping on a camp cot, and riding a camel, we were all excited to get a two-hour traditional massage at the local Moroccan spa. Abdoul hooked us up with a killer deal. While the massage wasn’t the best one I’ve ever had, it certainly helped relieve some of the tension in my lower back and legs. And, for about $20 USD, I couldn’t complain.
We followed our massages with a short walk on the beach and a filling lunch by the seashore at a quiet French restaurant. Our waiter was quite the charming character. Even in the middle of winter, the ocean water wasn’t too cold. A few kids were even brave enough to swim. The real highlight was watching a comical fight between a drunk tourist and a few locals. At one point the man just fell on his face.
Our last stop before heading back to Marrakech is the windsurfing capital of Morocco – the colorful little colonial city of Essaouira. The drive between Agadir and Essaouira was three hours along the coast. Halfway between the two cities, we stopped to look for scorpions alongside the highway. Most scorpions hide in the ground during the winter months, so they were a bit hard to find. But, we did find a rare yellow pregnant female!
Out of all the cities we visited in Morocco, Essaouira was by far my favorite. The old walled city contained whitewashed buildings with lovely blue and yellow doors. The markets were vibrant with artisan goods and sweet smelling foods. Essaouira is well known for its silver goods, and its factories are home to great prices. Abdoul led us to one of the best factories in town that is tucked away behind a bank. We would have never found it on our own.
The girls spent a long time picking out the perfect ring from hundreds of options. Each piece is handcrafted in the shop by deaf girls. It was impressive to watch them work the silver around into unique designs. When everyone was satisfied with their purchases, Abdoul let us loose into the souq for more shopping.
We spent a good portion of the morning wandering around the souq looking at various shops and trying our hand at bartering. At one point we got a little lost and found this tiny shop on a random side street. The shop owner saw my Elephant Pants and told me he wanted a picture of the design. When he said a picture, I assumed that he meant a photograph, but the next time I know, he is ushering me into the shop and sits down with a pen and paper to draw it. Awkward!
Despite the slight awkwardness, the event turned into one of the highlights of the trip. Over a cup of mint tea, our new friend told us he comes from a desert Berber family that breeds camels and makes handwoven carpets. He wanted my pant’s design for a rug. As he careful drew, we flipped through his photo albums and jewelry display. One of the girls purchased a beautiful green ring and bracelet set while another girl bought a traditional Moroccan shirt.
The girls got hungry, but I wanted to adventure off to explore the fish market near the old harbor walls. Nothing smells better than salt water from the ocean waves. Dotted with colorful wooden boats, the fish market is a loud, smelly place. In its chaos lies its real beauty – the daily live of Essaouira. Each stall contained various fish caught fresh that morning. You could still see some fishermen along the shore hauling in their catch and preparing the fish for market.
It was time to head back to Marrakech. Our day was not over, though. After throwing our bags into our rooms, it was off to get lost in the labyrinth called the Marrakech souq. After the peace and tranquility of the desert and sea, it was finally time to experience the “real” Morocco. It was every bit chaotic, loud, and stimulating as I thought it would be.
We wandered through the streets listening to shopkeepers serenade us with Adele’s “Hello. It’s me” and catcall us in multiple languages ranging from French to German to Spanish. Our eyes widened at every new sight and smell. Eventually, our stomachs started to growl, and we ate dinner in the main square. As our food was placed on the table, the call to pray loudly shot out of the nearby speaker. I don’t know what it is about the sound, but I find it mesmerising and beautiful. And, just like that, our Morocco adventures were over.
Day 8: Marrakech
I had an early morning flight to London, so, unfortunately, I couldn’t see any of Marrakech. Someday soon I would love to return to the city to rightfully explore it. Her beauty certainly captured my attention. Once again I had issues with the passport agents. I didn’t write my hotel name on the customs form, and I got yelled at, very loudly I might add, by the agent. Luckily I found the Travel Talks Tour itinerary and was able to write the hotel name down so I could get my stamp out.
Overall, I enjoyed my experience with Travel Talk Tours. Abdoul and our driver were fantastic. Abdoul was a wealth of information telling us a bit about Moroccan history, the local landscape and climate, and Islam. I lucked out that my tour group was tiny, and we all got along great. I couldn’t imagine doing that with 25 people! I plan on doing another tour with Travel Talk Tours in the future.
And, someday soon, I plan to explore more of Morocco and its natural beauty and cultural charm.