I started my Moroccan trip in the vibrant city of Marrakesh, moving towards South over the span of a 9 days journey. More than enough time to gather beautiful memories around the most meaningful experiences…written here with the hope of inspiring your own journey!
The heart of Marrakesh: watch the sunset over the famous Jmaa El Fna from one of the rooftop cafes around the square:
It’s a welcome respite from the overwhelming crowd beneath- taking a break from the snake charmers, the thug-grinned monkeys, the henna ladies- basically the hard-hustling sellers everywhere. Have yet another glass of fragrant mint tea and watch the evening settle with the call to prayer reverberating from mosque to mosque in a time-lapse atmosphere.
Tip: try Grand Cafe de la Poste & Cafe Glacier for the best views! Ask for atay bi naanaa – the said Moroccan sweet mint tea- as your ‘entry ticket’ to the terrace.
Get lost in the colorful maze of the Medina
…where you will spend more hours than you planned to because it’s highly likely to …yeah, literally get lost – not in the poetic, wandering dervish sense- but fumbling your way back to the Riad like Alice in Wonderland…and stopping for pictures everywhere. Bab Al This and Bab Al That, you will stumble upon countless traditional gates and doors that all wink at you for an Insta-worthy snap. “Your picture obsession is the road to hell, hunger and despair”, my exasperated friends mused whenever I would stop one more time to swoon over pretty angles and colorful storefronts.
That’s my happy face after scoring some good bargains on Moroccan tea glasses and embellished boho-style bags in the souk…most probably I still payed the clueless tourist price but hey, I love a fun haggle between sips of sugary tea and a joke here and there!
Take a day trip from Marrakesh to Essaouira, Morocco’s favorite beach town
I felt like I couldn’t leave Morocco without visiting the windy city of Mogador (the name given by the Portuguese explorers), a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the 18th century heritage fort and a hippie heaven on the Atlantic coast. Sometimes the distinctive smell of places stays with me as the first-call memory: Essaouira is salty, fishy sea breeze with the occasional waft of roasting sardines with harissa, and the scent of thuya wood from the carving artists workshops in the souk.
Greek-island white walls and vibrant blue doors, Oriental gateways and fishermen boats guarded by seagulls. There are local ladies grinding argan nuts for their precious oil on the streets of the Medina, gnaoua music artists to listen to along with reggae-Bob Marley beats (Essaouira is host to a yearly Gnaoua Music Festival, celebrating the ancient African-Islamic beats fused with jazz and blues music, on the hypnotic rhythm of krakebs –traditional castanets- and gimbri, a camel-skin three-strings guitar).
We had a delicious seafood lunch by the port and then spent the afternoon chilling at the Ocean Vagabond, a good-vibes surfers’ hangout by the beach, lounging in their hammocks and snickering at the clumsy tourists trying to climb reluctant camels for their beach ride.
Spot the Insta-famous Goat Tree
“OhMyGod stoooop! I gotta take a picture of this! “ this is what a thousand drivers in Morocco hear when they’re taking a tourist from Marrakesh to Essaouira, passing the argan oil cooperatives and…into goat-tree plantation territory: and I was no different. Nearly jumped out of the moving car camera in hand- and straight up a man who was sitting in the shade of the tree came quick and plopped an adorable bundle of soft cuteness in my arms- a sleeping one-month-old lamb. “Foto, foto madam! Ici, ici!” he encouraged me smiling widely.
Well no doubt goats climb a few branches, jump and make some effort to reach the stubborn leaf, but this was obviously a tourist operation: the goats were placed rather symmetrically to balance out the weight on the branches, and they were posing in a mildly confused expression, very much in the fashion of Instagram models. We were cracking up imagining the goat herders setting up the catchy tree with a goat catapult each morning, and the loud meeeee when the poor creature was catching flight. Hopefully no rough landings. Nonetheless, how to resist?!
Wander around Ait Ben Haddou, Ouarzazate- Morocco’s Little Hollywood and Gateway to Sahara
Yes it’s understandable why a lot of Hollywood movies- The Gladiator! and famous series (Game of Thrones!) used this stunning scenery as a backdrop for their action-packed plot. A sight that has the virtue of taking you back in time, with warriors, knights and horses storming in the citadel and kicking up a thunderous cloud of dust and fear!
See that luscious mud river, with large rocks and sandbags thrown about to help you cross to the Citadel ? It’s an endurance and precision-hopping test. Which I failed, while wearing white canvas shoes (now personalized with a splatter-pattern for that unique touch!). The other tourists laughed and pointed at my misery with no sympathy, the stray dogs snickered like hyenas- well at least they saw me as least of a prey, had mud up to my ankles!
Marvel at one of the most spectacular canyons in the world, the Todra Gorge, and visit the Palm Grove (La Palmeraie) of Tinghrir
From Ouarzazate, we took the Road Of One Thousand Kasbahs and really feasted our eyes on the magnificent sights of nature we were driving through. The Todra gorge represents the last 600 m of river-carved canyon through the East side of High Atlas Mountains, dizzying cliffs of ochre limestone closing in on you and leaving just a narrow passageway, enough for a one by one squeeze through with your horse or donkey, shuffling your feet through the cool waters of the river.
A vibrant green oasis with ancient kasbahs and palm trees stretching for almost 30km, the Palmery of Tinghir is yet another lush sight- one of the most beautiful in the kingdom, as it gets its fresh water supply from Wadi Todra. The trees are heavy with fruit- pomegranate, peach, almond and fig, the palms give a protective shade.
Try a Berber traditional outfit and take it to the desert for a camel ride to the Sahara camps
We stopped at a roadside shop, attracted by the beautifully woven Berber rugs with Amazigh symbols and colorful traditional dresses.Yes, somehow it felt like the perfect thing to wear and trek through the undulating dunes. The Berbers refer to themselves as Amazigh, which translates as free born or noble people.
The ladies were happily chattering around me in Tamazight language, and fixing my coin-twinkling head wrap like they were preparing me for a wedding! This might have been their second thought as they were winking at me and showing me pictures of their sons 🙂 You could still notice the faded tribal tattoos the older women wore on their faces with pride, as a protective and healing omen. For the Amazigh, the practice of tattooing had ritualistic roots in the human spirit quest for immortality.
Finally, the Sahara.
Well, as a United Arab Emirates resident for the past eight years, I had my share of desert safaris and dune gazing- the most awe-inspiring and dramatic ones into Rub Al Khali, the Empty Quarter, driving towards the Oasis of Liwa. So most of my friends back home were rubbing their heads why would I even bother to approach another desert.
In my defense, the vibe here was completely different- a raw feeling of wilderness creeping in as we were leaving the town of Merzouga and any visible signs of civilization behind. Saharan winds sending ripples through the dunes, the sand moving like a river of mercury. The sunset deepening the shadows, the colors shifting from mineral reds to cinnamon.
This is as poetic as it gets…till we reached the desert camp. I had a somehow crazy romantic vision of glamping in private luxurious tents with beautiful Berber carpets laid out and plush pillows to chill on and gaze at the night sky…around a crackling bonfire. Smack! back to reality: our camp had humble and well-worn canvas tents wagon-style- you were separated from the neighbors by a hanging blanket. No bonfire as apparently there had been an incident just weeks ago with the flames getting out of control and burning a few tents in another camp. Was pretty much pitch-black everywhere except the small common area for dining. My iPhone flashlight only showed me that I will share my mattress with a family of earwigs and a huge beetle, which I was advised to accommodate as he might eat the earwigs and other possible insect visitors. Needless to say it was a sleepless night.
Ok now for the rewarding part- yes stars seem so much closer, like your could just touch the Milky Way with your finger and stir it a little. The camp entertainers put on a fun show by setting up a drumming and gnaoua circle, singing for us till late in the night- girls and boys stood up and tried their tribal dance, clapping and swaying to the rhythm, bare feet swirling in the sand. You could go on like this till sunrise, your own private party in the desert…if right at the crack of dawn we wouldn’t be scheduled to go back.
I fell into a heavy sleep and hardly heard the whole camp packing and leaving…so I woke up to an empty camp, the morning winds ruffling the deserted tents and whistling eerily. Prey to total panic (left in the desert ! No network ! Miles away from civilization and i’m no Lawrence of Arabia with orientation skills!) I ran around calling any living soul for a sign…till I found our guide, the only one left, asleep next to his camel. Praise the Lord, we making it outta here to a warm breakfast and refreshing shower.
Enjoy the Moroccan food- the fancy and the simple, the beautiful ornate restaurant or the roadside family-run small cafeteria
From the food stalls in Place Jmaa El Fna (locals eat there happily so must be fresh and tasty, try the famous barbouch– snail soup and the clay-pot meat tanjia!) or tiny snack cafes serving brochettes – sizzling kebabs – and sardine makli – fried sardines with harissa paste- to the more sophisticated establishments, hip rooftops and candlelit courtyards…Morocco is a foodie heaven. My favorite dishes are the seven vegetables couscous, the preserved lemon and olive tagine, the fish chermoula and the wonderfully sugar-dusted and cinnamon-y pastilla (pastry pie traditionally stuffed with pigeon, more common made with chicken).
For dessert I couldn’t resist the kaab lghazaal- literally gazelle horns- crescent shaped pastries filled with almond paste, and the chabbakia, rose-shaped pastries made of crispy fried dough, dipped in honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds (and a bee leg or two, since in the open markets the sugar stalls are abuzz with the sweet-toothed insects, but don’t let that put you off. It’s nature!)
All that goodness is best enjoyed with endless glasses of fresh mint tea (yep, Moroccan tea is served in cute little glasses, not cups!). Pounds pile on easily in Morocco thanks to its flavor rich cuisine, so you might wanna get a stomach bug before you leave to help shed off the excess…JUST KIIIIDING! We went back home satisfied and unharmed.
Observe the people, the customs, the century-old traditions
One of my favorite things to do when arriving in a new place is to sit at a cute cafe in a busy area and sip my tea with a side of people-watching. Simply contemplate the world go by: this is how you let the vibes sink in, the identity of the place take shape in your mind. And oh my, Morocco is rich in cultural personification, touching human expression and unique, whimsical street life.
The children growing up with less but street-smart and fiercely independent, little magpies with twinkling eyes ready to catch every move and sneak everywhere, fastest messengers and treasure hunters. The old man who has been pushing his cart at an alarming speed through the souk for decades; the shopkeeper guarding his wares, the ladies choosing fabrics and trinkets…And here and there dazzled tourists, overwhelmed with the pungent scents and sights, trying to navigate their way through the fascinating chaos around them!
Was a long post but hey, I really had to round up the highlights of my Moroccan trip! Stay safe and remember that as in any place in the world…kindness opens any door…a smile and a small tip help too 🙂