A Trip Around Southern Morocco

Continuing on my journey of visiting one new country a month, for March we ended up in Morocco.

I booked my flights to Marrakech on a whim. Having only conducted some light research, I felt comfortable enough to book.

Later on as I started to dive deeper into itineraries, I realized that I didn’t have enough time to do all of the new things that had made its way onto my list! I struggled for a long while with logistics and eventually decided that it was worth paying the change fees to extend my trip (something that I would almost never do unless it was worth it).

We arrived in Marrakech on March 20, 2019, which was a Wednesday night. Inside of the airport, both myself and my husband picked up sim cards from the local telephone providers. It was pretty affordable, 5gb per person for 10 euros total (yes, we paid in euros instead of dirhams, aka MAD).

From the airport, we had pre-arranged a pick-up and were escorted directly to our hotel, Riad Miski.

Wandering through the streets and small alleyways of Marrakech was incredible. Here’s what a typical alley looks like, in this case it was the alley that we took to get to our riad.

I was super excited to arrive at this riad. I’ve seen beautiful pictures of it online, and in person, the riad did not disappoint.

After arriving, we were led to our room where we got ready for our hammam. I’ve never had a hammam before, so I figured when in Morocco… am I right?

I guess I should have known better and should have better prepared myself. I have a tendency to get light headed and faint.

The hammam took place in this small two person stone room that feels very much like a sauna. During the time that you’re in the room, an attendant comes in to lather you in different oils and scrubs over a period of time. In between each session that the attendant comes in, you just sort of lay there.

About 40 minutes in, I started to get very uncomfortable. I started wiggling around, sat up, and kinda needed to pee. Moving around is probably what got me. Next thing I knew, I had lost sensation in my body and my vision was starting to go black. My head met the stone wall and when I gained some consciousness, I was in the arms of my husband who was quickly carrying me out of the hammam.

It’s crazy how much energy was taken out of me from the hammam. I laid down unable to move for almost 30 minutes. I couldn’t feel my legs or arms. Eventually I found the courage to walk myself back to my room (really was a risky move). My body was a wreck and it broke down. In the bathroom I used all my strength to shower off the scrub and oils that were still on my body and hair from the hammam. The shower slowly brought me back to life.

Unfortunately though, I had missed my massage that was scheduled after that hammam. But better safe than sorry, right?

Once Erick returned to our room from the massage, we got ready for our dinner at the riad. I think I must have been greedy to plan a hammam + massage + dinner for that night. Dinner was alright.

The next morning was nice. We had breakfast on the rooftop and I got to see the sun rise over the Marrakech buildings. I’ll never forget this view with all the satellite dishes.

We had a quick but nice breakfast before we were picked up by the driver of the tour that I booked. I’m not usually one to book tours, but in the end, I decided that this was the easiest way to see everything I wanted to see. I booked not 1, but 2 tours.

Before our trip, I had to prep Erick a bit. I told him that most of the days, you’ll hate it because we’ll be constantly in a van going from site to site, but that it would all be worth it. And it truly was.

Our first tour was the 3-day Sahara Desert tour from Marrakech to Merzouga and back. It was quite cheap actually, costing only ~$120pp. This included hotels, transportation, breakfast and dinners, camel rides, and more. What it didn’t include was lunch, which typically cost ~$20pp (but you’re not obligated to eat if you don’t want to). There were also upgrades for hotel rooms and tents, but I decided to stick to the basics and we were happy with the accommodations.

So back to where I left off before going on this whole tangent… We were picked up by our tour driver early morning on Thursday directly from our riad.

For the next hour or so, our driver drove around the city looking for each tour group member and our bus slowly filled up the seats. There were 14 tourists in total.

Our first rest stop along the drive took us to a shop where you can stock up on snacks, grab coffee, or catch views. The red rocks pictured above behind me were gorgeous.

We had a couple of other stops along the way, one of them was to look at this valley pictured above. The breaks during the drive were frequent enough where you didn’t feel like you were stuck on a van. I really didn’t mind the drive at all!

Eventually we arrived at one of my must-see locations that I had on my list, Ait Ben Haddou. This is one of the reasons I booked the trip, because they stopped here. Do you recognize this location? It’s been used in a ton of films and tv shows. Most recently it’s become known as the city of Yunkai from Game of Thrones. We were here 1 month before the premiere of GoT season 8. Too bad we didn’t realize that season 8 was going to be soooo bad (damn you D&D and your sh*t writing). I miss the good ole days of seasons 1-6.

Our tour group gave us a local tour guide to show us around. He was so hip, really. Chrome mirrored sunglasses, brightly colored scarf, and this unmatched swagger.

I have no japes about the tour, except for this one detail. The tour never mentions that although you are in a van that has max capacity, you are actually traveling with a bunch of other vans who are on the same tour. When you’re sightseeing or dinning, you’re going to see the same people from all the other vans. It’s a con if you were looking for a smaller more intimate tour, but definitely a pro for changing it up so that you can meet other people from around the world. However, it can get tiring if you don’t feel like being social and you find yourself chatting people up just cause.

Our guided tour ended with the guide taking us through what he claimed was his home. We don’t believe him. This photo that I got of the lighting coming in through the rooftop is amazing though and one of my favorites that I captured from the trip.

After we finished touring Ait Ben Haddou, they took us to a shop and tried to sell us scarfs to use in the desert. They taught us how to properly tie the scarf around our heads for different weather conditions. It was nice that they didn’t pressure anyone to buy at this location, I appreciate that.

For lunch, we ate at this nearby hotel restaurant, L’Oasis dor Ait Ben Haddou. It seems like that’s where they took all of the tourists in the area to. Food was not bad. The best thing is that they had hot sauce here, most other places didn’t.

After we finished eating, we continued our way in the van over to Ouarzazate. This city is known as the Hollywood of Morocco. We literally stopped only for a few minutes and far away from anything to be seen. The van basically stopped and the driver pointed at some studio props from a far, we snapped a photo, and left. Kinda anticlimactic, but I was okay with this. Had I had more time to do a road trip on my own, I would probably have looked around more though.

Our next stop was at a Rose Water shop. They sold all things made from rose, but most of all, was a great place to stock up on more snacks and caffeine.

By around 5 PM, we found ourselves at Hotel Bougafer. The accommodations were quite spacious and best of all, clean. The first thing we did at the hotel was grab a beer. Thank goodness they had alcohol. Morocco is mostly a dry country and only tends to have alcohol in certain tourist locations.

Dinner was served together with all of the many vans from the tour group. We shared dinner family style in a round table of roughly 10-12 persons. There was this one British guy (aka berber ninja) that we kept hanging out with throughout the day, funny guy — we ended up sharing a bottle of wine together after dinner. By the end of the night, I was ready to ktfo.

 


 

The next morning (Friday), we woke up at the hotel well rested and ready for another day of adventure. We packed our bags and headed over to the communal area for our self-serve breakfast.

Afterwards, we all filed into the vans and took a very short drive over to some farm lands. There, we learned a little about the types of agriculture that they grew locally and some of the struggles they’ve faced within the villages. Life for these local villages rely very heavily on their water sources, in this case a natural river that flows through the village. If the water ever stops flowing, the villagers are greatly impacted. Most of the world has it pretty good with all our water on demand homes.

During the tour, I saw this sad donkey being used to transport produce. Later on, the same donkey rode by us, but this time with the owner riding on top. It’s sort of weird because as they neared us, the rider started beating the donkey to go faster. He only did this when he was near us, almost as if he was putting on a show to demonstrate his dominance and control over the donkey. He was the real jacka**, amirite?

Here’s a shot that I snapped within one of the berber villages that we visited. At one point, I took a photo of a cat and one of the berber women thought I was taking a photo of her. She started yelling and running towards me. I ran away.

Something annoying during these kinda trips is the assumption that people make about others. I hate it when I’m asked, “Where are you from? Japon? Chinois?” I always just tell them that I’m from America. They usually don’t stop bugging me about my background until I tell them that my parents are from China.

What a pain this has been for me travelling. Some people get it, and they leave it at that when I say America. It’s usually the younger generations that understand. But I have so many difficult encounters with the ones who don’t get it. Because along with all their biases comes their unintentional racism. I’m really excited that the media nowadays is changing to show and tell more different unique stories that exist across the world. Entertainment plays a very important role in this day in age, especially for those who can’t afford the luxury of traveling to experience and meet other cultures.

Towards the end of our village tour, we were taken into a rug shop, Ait Chaou Abdelkarime. There they served us some tea and educated us a bit on the process of hand weaving their rugs. The designs are just gorgeous, but I found the sales staff to be quite aggressive. They told us that we could touch the rugs and that they aren’t like the other shops who will pressure you to buy. However, as soon as I touched a rug, the guy came up to me and said do you want to buy it?

Wow, I was just touching the material of one rug! Leave me alone. He wouldn’t stop bothering me for the next 5 minutes. I told him I had no money, let alone a house to even put the rug in. Jezz, I was annoyed. Besides, this was one of the same guys who likes to as, “but where are you really from?”

Leaving the rug shop, we were taken to another store to look at some more odds and ends. At this point, it’s really just junk that they are trying to sell you as you try to use their bathroom. Everyone’s gotta make some money somehow, so nbd.

The next ride in the van was very scenic. I remember tuning in to listen to my Indiana Jones soundtrack as I looked out the window at the rocky mountains. This was my second most favorite moment of gazing out the window.

We took a quick break on the side of one of the highways that overlooked the city, hopped back in the van, and eventually found ourselves at the Todgha Gorges. It was really quite a nice walk through the gorge and looking up at the canyon walls. Best of all, I didn’t feel rushed at this gorge, like some of the reviews mentioned. We probably spent about 30-40 minutes in total here. That was more than enough time for me.

Lunch came after at a nearby cafe, less than a 10 minute drive from the gorge.

It was a very eventful morning. The rest of the day was mostly spent in the van driving towards the Sahara desert. We only took one bathroom/snack break on the way there. The rest of the ride was to get us there asap.

This is the drive where I experience my favorite moment of gazing out the window. Watching the terrain slowly change from large boulders, to medium sized ones, to rocks as far as the eye can see. Slowly the rocks got smaller and smaller, the plain leveled out, then bam! In the distance. I could see a far glimmer of this magical orange mound. It was literally as if someone thought it would be funny to dump a pile of sand in one place (a large Sahara desert size full of sand I might add).

And there I was, getting super excited by myself in the van, unsure if anyone else was awake seeing what I was seeing. I looked around eagerly for others to share my excitement with. Not sure if anyone was excited as I was though — I tried to contain myself.

Upon arrival, we all got ready and dressed for the desert heat. Since it was March, the weather was great, not too hot nor too cold. Just right for me!

I remember my first couple of steps into the Sahara sand from where it stopped and started. The sand is super fine and soft. The absolute best type of sand. We walked up a small hill and just on the other side were rows of camels waiting to transport us to the campsite (yes, we got to spend the night in the desert!).

The camel ride was so fun, about 1 hour in and 1 hour back out the next morning. I think we took probably hundreds of photos in the desert. Arriving at the camp, we dropped off our belongings in our makeshift bedroom. The room walls were constructed using a combination of rugs, piping, a metal crate door, and a single hanging light bulb. The bathrooms were communal (and frankly abysmal by the end of the night having been shared amongst so many guests).

We spent the remainder of our daylight in the Sahara desert camera whoring and playing in the sand to our hearts delight. Seriously a lot of fun. Takes me back to the sandpit days of my childhood years at the park.

Dinner was shared under a tent together with all the new friends that we’d made over the course of the 3-day tour. After dinner there was live music and drumming around a firepit. I can still hear the beats of the drum and the singing in my head. It was that memorable. Eventually when everyone broke out dancing around the firepit, we slipped away into the desert night for some stargazing.

The night sky was mesmerizing.

Our eyes traced the sky for shooting stars, not knowing where to look for our next runner. While we gazed up into the night sky, we noticed that it was getting brighter. Low and behold, behind us just over the desert horizon, a full moon was beginning to peak. This is hands down, one of the largest moons I’ve ever seen. Watching it rise up and take its rightful place in the blanket of stars was even more satisfying than the millions of stars itself. What a night.

 


 

The next morning I rose dark and early, right before dawn so that I could catch the daylight seeping in. It was horrendously cold this morning. The winds blew long endless chains of flowing sand atop the curving hills of sand. I almost wanted to give up waiting. Actually, Erick gave up and left me alone to wait for the sunrise. But as the sky slowly filled with little sprays of pinks, peach, and orange, I knew that it was all worth it.

After the sun had risen just enough, the guides quickly hurried us onto our camels to complete the journey back to our vans. The camel ride was back was a total different vibe, as the sky and sand glowed with a beautiful soft pink.

Before heading into the van to start our long journey back to Marrakech, we were served breakfast and a chance to clean up. I wish I didn’t do such a good job cleaning up. I would have liked to have keep some of the sand that I had collected in my Toms shoes.

The drive back that day was long, but we took a decent amount of breaks. I tried my best to sleep as much as I could, listen to music, or chat with others in the van.

Towards the end of the drive, we asked our driver if he could play some music. That was really nice. It turned into a karaoke van for the last hour or so. This was the longest driving day out of the entire tour, most of which was spent retracing the drive back that we had originally covered over 2 days.

We arrived back in Marrakech at night time, a couple of hours before sunset. It was sad having to say goodbye to some of the new friends that we made, but we made sure to exchange contact information to keep in touch. It’s always nice making new friends while traveling.

That night was our first experience walking through Marrakech. I was cautious from the stories that I’ve heard, but didn’t experience any of what I read online. More on that later.

We walked through the town square, Jemaa el-Fna. It was a very different world from what I was used to. I’ve never been in a square that was soooo huge with so much going on. Vendors here, food there, makeshift carnival games, dancing snakes, dancing monkeys… oh, those poor chained up monkeys forced to perform against their will. It breaks my heart.

We continued through the city’s winding markets and alleyways, definitely made a few wrong turns before getting back to making the right ones. My navigation skills eventually led us to our new hidden away home, Riad Chafia. The owner from France was super accommodating. Also because he knew it was our wedding anniversary, he made us two clay mugs. We love these mugs and use them on the daily!

For dinner and live music entertainment, we went to Kui-Zin. It’s a very unseemingly nice rooftop restaurant. You’d never think so if you were just walking past it. This seems to be the trend in Marrakech.

After dinner we met up with the berber ninja (our new friend from the tour), and shared another 2 bottles of wine together at his riad. We left sometime after midnight and wandered back to our own riad. The medina was quiet, except for some youngins trying to slang us some green and a couple of drunk female tourists.

I finally took my first shower since starting the 3-day tour. A great way to end a long a** day.

 


 

And *BAM*! Just like that, Sunday morning slaps you in the face and it’s time for another tour — our day trip to Essaouira from Marrakech.

Meet up locations for tours can feel like risky business when you don’t know who you’re looking for. We got the easy part down when our riad agreed to walk us over to the tour pick-up location. But once there, the tricky part is figuring out which tour van is yours! Most of the vans are identical in body and color, so it’s really easy to get them confused. Especially when they have matching tour destinations.

During the time we were waiting around for our van, we met two sisters from Scotland. I should have exchanged contact information with them, they were super nice. Regrets~

Eventually the four of us found the right tour van. Actually, it’s more like the van found us. There’s a guy who comes around with a clipboard and checks that your name is on the list.

We picked up a couple other people on the way out of the city from other pick-up locations. This is when we discovered the contemporary city of Gueliz. We were so ignorant to assume that all of Marrakech was like the historical medinas, old and traditional. Instead, we found an entire city thriving with young locals, businesses, and large shopping centers. Glad we were able to see this other side of Marrakech, even if it was just a drive through.

On the way to Essaouira, the van makes 3 stops:

  1. The first one is just a rest stop where you can pay to use a bathroom or grab some coffee and snacks.
  2. The second stop is part of why I wanted to take this specific tour, it stops at the goats in a tree. Generally the locals want you to pay to take a photo. You can also pay to hold a goat. We had so much fun taking photos here and looking at the goats that the van driver yelled at us because the rest of the tourists were ready to move on.
  3. The last stop before the final destination took us to an argan oil center (I think it was argan…) where they educated us on the process of creating the oils. Later you’re led into a shop where you can buy some products.

Finally, just around noon time we arrived in Essaouira just by the coast. I forget that I haven’t actually been by an ocean in a very long time, so it was quite an exciting moment.

The place where the bus drops you off, is the same location where they also pick you up. There’s an optional free tour that you can take when you first arrive, but we just skipped out on it.

Essaouira was a magical city that hit all the right spots for me. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll probably recognize this city as Astapor.

But besides all the GoT excitement, Essaouira really does have a lot more to offer (at least in comparison to Ait Ben Haddou)!

The stone architecture with the green water, iconic blue boats, and seagulls flying overhead really makes you want to fall in love with this place.

Walking around the city, the entire vibe is completely different from Marrakech. Everyone’s relaxed, easy going, and just trying to have a good time. Essaouira is a great place if you’re looking to do some shopping without feeling pressured. It’s a great place to eat seafood, grab some drinks, or just listen to some street music.

Moreover, if you’re looking for a nice walk even further away from the city, you’re only a couple of steps away from the beach. We walked all the way down the beach barefoot in the sand allowing the gentle tides to wash our feet as we went.

Also, if you didn’t get a chance to catch that camel ride, you can ride one on the beach!

After our pleasant day trip to Essaouira, we were pretty satisfied with my entire trip to Morocco. We boarded our tour van and headed back to Marrakech.

For dinner, I had booked reservations at Le Foundouk. I highly recommend the food. It was fairly easy to find and we didn’t think the surrounding area was sketchy like much of the reviews made it out to be. We even walked home from there after midnight without any issues.

This pretty much wraps up our trip! We flew out super early the next morning.

 


 

Now, to dispel some of what the internet has been writing about Morocco and what I have found after visiting.

  • You can totally visit as a solo-female traveler
  • Be respectful and cover up yourself, not just for the locals but to not draw attention to yourself
  • The roads through the atlas mountains from Marrakech to the Sahara desert are totally drivable on your own, especially if you’re used to California driving with single lane, two directional roads (think windy mountains like Yosemite or Big Bear)
  • But maybe try avoid driving in the mountains at night as others have said, otherwise, driving at night from Marrakech to Essaouira is totally doable
  • The “craziness” of driving in Marrakech isn’t any worse than how it is in southeast asia
  • There’s nothing wrong with being lazy and just going on one of the Morocco tours, they are just too affordable to pass up!
  • Be a smart traveler (and that’s nothing different from anywhere else you travel to!)

Both my husband and myself truly enjoyed our Morocco trip. It definitely makes onto our imaginary list of best places that we’ve visited in the past few years. I highly recommend traveling to Morocco if you haven’t already.

Have you ever been to Morocco? If so where? And what were your thoughts?

As always, thanks for reading!

x
Sarah

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