One of the brightest and most colorful countries that I have ever been to, Morocco gives visitors a vibrant welcome with its hectic souks and medinas filled with savory foods cooking on every street corner, markets with mounds of bright colored spices and heaps of fruit, and scrumptious glasses of mint tea being offered by the friendly store owners to entice you in for a look at their wares. Once exploring past the city limits, there is much more to see in the countryside with the Sahara Desert stretching to the eastern border and sleepy surf cities lining the coast. Every trip to Morocco I have been hooked a little more and always discovered another reason to go back and explore a new area. It has yet to disappoint!
Seven things you won't want to miss on your Moroccan adventure:
1) The Medina of Marrakech- One of the most exciting cities, even the name Marrakech brings ideas of an exotic place to mind. The central medina is located in the walls of an ancient castle, but even the most well-oriented individuals can find themselves turned around in the winding streets. I struggled to find my riad hotel in the narrow labyrinth of streets and eventually had to stop and ask for directions. The tiny streets are filled with donkeys pulling carts, vespas zooming in and out, and goods from the stores in the souks spilling out into the passage way. The fragrant scents from the restaurants waft through the air and the unique Moroccan architecture and hidden courtyards provide the charm of the old walled city. There are plenty of historical sites to visit around the outskirts of the medina which include the Sultans Tombs, El Badi Palace ruins, and the Museum of Marrakech, all of which help to gain a better appreciation for the foundation of the city. Visiting the night market is another essential part of the experience as snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, street performers, and rows of food vendors fill the square. I enjoyed wandering the busy square taking in all of the sights while snacking on various delicacies from the stands including fried calamari, fresh fruit smoothies, and a full box of dates!
2) Ait Ben Haddou- This recognizable clay city has been featured in numerous movies and TV shows such as Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and Game of Thrones (think Daenerys liberating the slave trading city of Yunkai). It is a small oasis in the desert on the edge of a mountain blocked in by a stream providing excellent protection and warning for approaching threats. The remarkable architecture remains from the 1600's when it originally served as a stop for caravans passing through from the Sahara. A visit to the city is possible from Marrakech and is included on the itinerary for most tours in the area due to its popularity with tourists. During the stop here, my tour group provided the history of the origins as well as the various locations where movies have been filmed around the city. After climbing the mountain and exploring inside the walls, we stopped at a local shop to purchase our “ticket to the Sahara,” brilliantly dyed scarves for a few dollars to keep sand off our face the next day during our camel trek.
3) Camel tour and Berber camp- After two long days of driving towards the desert with a few stops in between, we finally arrived at the edge of the Sahara. The flat sands began mounding up to form massive dunes in the distance. We left our main bags in the van and took only what was necessary for the overnight adventure. With the chance of sounding like an alcoholic, I will admit that before we arrived I requested to make a pit stop in the final town to pick up some wine to take out with us. So with a small bag consisting of warming layers and wine, we loaded up on camels and began the trek out to a Berber camp situated in the desert a few miles off the Algerian border. The views along the ride out of the impressive dunes with the shadows of our camels shifting along as they trudged on in silence was simply incredible.
Eventually we spotted the small Berber camp nestled in at the base of one of the largest dunes. We climbed off our camels and headed part way up the dune to catch the sunset as the wind whipped the sand around us. After it set, the temperature quickly began to drop and we all plunged down the side of the dune in a full sprint (definitely the most fun part of climbing the dune) until we reached the camp. We settled into our heavily blanketed tents and waited by the fire pit in the center on old rugs until dinner was announced. Everyone dug in to the delicious carb heavy smorgasbord of meat, olives, and bread. After filling up on the hearty meal, we returned to the fire pit and lazily lounged with several other tour groups. Our hosts came out in their traditional attire and began playing local instruments and drums, encouraging us to clap and join in. The various groups came from all around the world and eventually a drum competition began to see who had the most talented musicians. I may be a bit biased, but I am pretty sure that our group absolutely nailed it, which could be in part because we were the only ones with the foresight to bring wine to the festivities.
As the group eventually began to wander off to their tents a handful of us decided to climb to the top of the dune. I generally tend to think of myself as being in good shape, but climbing that dune kicked my ass. As we climbed we continually slid back down and by the time we reached the top of the dune, about 45 min later, we were crawling like zombies on all fours. The exhausting climb was 100% worth it. In complete silence and lit only by the moon, we were at one of the highest points in the desert and could see the sky filled with stars and the desert sloping out as far as the eye could see. It felt like stepping into the pages of the Alchemist and Paulo Coelho was absolutely right that “The simple things are also the most extraordinary.”
4 & 5) Casablanca- Hassan II Mosque and Rick's Café- Casablanca is another Moroccan city that simply the mention of it brings to mind glamorous images from Hollywood films. Although it has many of the same characteristics of the country and has souls and medinas to explore, it is much more of an urban center. Two unique places stand out and are worth taking the time to visit: the Hassan II Mosque and Rick’s Café.
-The Hassan II Mosque is situated on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in a dramatic and beautiful location in an expansive courtyard. Everything about the scale and design of the Grand Mosque is enormous including the retractable roof which is opened on sunny days. Costing over $600 million dollars, it is the largest mosque in Morocco and has the world’s tallest minaret. Tours are offered on certain days and times and it is worthwhile to see the inside of the mosque hall and the underground baths.
-Although a little cliché, Rick’s Café is an essential stop in Casablanca. Designed to look just like the movie set, the Café includes the bar, piano, and even the gambling table. Upstairs in a small lounge, the film is constantly being played for visitors to stop and catch a bit of the movie. The food and service are excellent and come at a very reasonable price. Guests are encouraged to explore and take as many photos as they want, then given a postcard as a parting gift. For fans of the movie, stopping here for lunch or dinner is a must!
6) Souk- The marketplaces are closely-lined aisles filled to the brim with fresh foods, products, clothes, souvenirs, you name it. The goods are offered at reasonable prices and almost always up for bartering. No trip to Morocco is complete without a stop at a souk to stock up on argan products and gifts for friends of leather wallets, ornate lamps, and intricately designed purses. Although the souks can be a bit chaotic during their busy times, there are always interesting products to check out and foods to sample. Argan oil hair and skin products are offered for a fraction of the price they sell for in the US and elsewhere, so it is an excellent place to try out a variety of products without spending a fortune.
7) Hammam scrub- For my first hammam, I really had no idea what I had signed up for other than it was highly recommended on trip advisor and was supposed to be a fantastic steam bath for making skin extremely smooth. Showing up at the bath house, I was given a room to remove my clothes (leaving on swim bottoms) and waited to be taken into the bath room. An older lady arrived and escorted me into a small tile covered room and began to soak me in hot water before aggressively removing my top layer of skin. Using a small hand mitt made of scrillo pad type of material, she worked her way over my whole body scrubbing and rinsing me off. It was slightly painful and definitely uncomfortable, but I sucked it up after she showed me all of the dead skin she was removing. She used a variety of soaps and oils on my hair and skin, giving brief breaks before starting to scrub again. After sitting in the steamy room for about another 15 min, I was taken into a different room for a massage. By the end I was fully relaxed and my skin was probably the smoothest it has ever been. Although I was thankful to be in a private room because it was a bit weird to be an adult being bathed by a stranger, but by in the end I really enjoyed the overall experience.
Even though I have had the opportunity of visiting Morocco four times and extensively seen the country south of Casablanca, I have yet to visit one of the major attractions, Chefchaouen the Blue City in the north. I have no doubt that it would easily make this list, but that just means I need to make another trip or two to continue exploring this country!
Hostel Average Cost: $12
Drink: Mint Tea.
Food: Camel Tangine.
Electric Outlet: European-Type C
Visa: Not Required.