There’s something magical about putting down your map or guidebook and losing yourself to the sights, smells, and sounds of a new city-something which I find hard to do when traveling with a guided tour (which is why they’re not my first choice when traveling a new destination). The closest thing to guided tours that I frequently partake in are walking tours- which to be fair, I actually really like. But those are usually only a couple hours long, relatively cheap, and once it’s over I’m free to do as I please- whether it’s see every touristic point in the city, sit at a local cafe and people watch, or just continue wandering the city streets.
There are exceptions however, and given my experience in Turkey (which of course shares a similar culture to Morocco), I felt that I’d personally feel a bit more comfortable and safe to do Morocco with a guided tour group.
When I booked the trip I hadn’t quite realized how ambitious the itinerary was- as it turns out we quite literally traversed just about the whole perimeter of the country. I honestly could probably write a novel about my time in Morocco, but I won’t (I’ll try to keep it as short and sweet as possible).
Anywho, two of my couchsurfing friends from Madrid invited me to this week long “Moroccan Adventure” with a travel company called City Life Madrid (side note- the trip really should have been called “Road Trip through Morocco” because we spent so much time in buses haha). Since the tour group was so large it had to be split into multiple buses and I unfortunately ended up being separated from my two CS friends. On the bright side though, my Seattle friend (Megan) and I were put on the same bus where we ended up making friends with some pretty cool people! As it turns out there’s no better bonding experience than being stuck shoulder to shoulder in a small bus for a total of 52 hours in a foreign country with people you don’t know haha.
The 7 day adventure involved a lot of time on a bus, which makes sense since we literally drove around the whole country with stops in: Tangier (mainly just as a port destination), Casablanca, Marrakesh, Ait Benhaddou, The Sahara Desert, Fes, Atlas Mountains, Chefchaouen and then back to Tangier…Admittedly a pretty exhausting but worthwhile trip. In any case, here is a city by city summary!
1. TANGIER– I guess I can’t really count this one TBH. We only used this as a point of entry and departure since it is the port city from Tarifa, Spain.
2. CASABLANCA– We made a quick stop in Casablanca which is considered the economic capital of Morocco. It’s pretty bustling and notably more modern than other cities we stopped in (it’s also not the most beautiful if I’m being honest). There’s isn’t much to see aside from the Hassan II Mosque which is Morocco’s largest mosque that sits atop the coastal edge of the city.
Casablanca was also the place where we tried the first of many, many, many Tagines (Tagine is essentially the Arabian take on stew).
3. MARRAKESH– After a couple hours in Casablanca we were herded back into our buses in order to arrive at Marrakesh at a reasonable hour. Despite leaving on time, our drive took longer than expected and we arrived in Marrakesh later than intended. We dropped our bags at our hotel and a group of us headed towards the Jemaa el Fnaa, which serves as the main square of the old city and a popular meeting point for locals and tourists alike. We wandered around the market, perusing the shops and stalls offering all kinds of traditional Moroccan goods (spices, dried fruits, clothes, leather bags, you name it) until we worked up an appetite and settled on a food stand in the middle of the market. This unassuming little market stand actually turned out to be the best food I’d have in Marrakesh (and some of the cheapest as well). This market however, also has some scary locals who harass you for money if you take a picture of anything- even if they’re not in the picture of own anything that you’re taking a picture of. You could be taking a picture of the sky and I think they’d try to charge you.
The next morning we were taken on a tour of the Bahia Palace (a smaller, less impressive version of the Alhabra in Granada) and the Marrakesh Medina. We stopped at a female run cooperative in the center of Medina, where I bought (and later lost 😦 ) some Argan oil and Moroccan spices! Soon after, we were again rushed into our buses and on our way to the next stop. I don’t think we really did Marrakesh any justice since we were there for such a short period- I didn’t even get to see a snake charmer for goodness sake (I know, I’m such a cheesy tourist)- so I’d like to go back.
4. AIT BENHADDOU– I had no idea what this was, or why we were going here- in fact I barely knew that this was a destination at all. But it turns out it’s actually kind of a big deal. The Ait Benhaddou is UNESCO World Heritage protected fortified city that is made of of six kasbahs (forts). Once a normally populated city, Ait Benhaddou is now home to only four families who form a tight knit community. Given it’s splendor and beauty, it’s been a popular film site for many large budget movies and TV shows such as Gladiator, The Mummy, and Game of Thrones to name a few.
After climbing to the top of Ait Benhaddou and watching the sun’s rays settle over the golden panorama of the fortress we headed over to our hotel where we were served a four course meal- pretty great way to finish the night, right? Except it wasn’t over! They’d set up a what can best be described as a little pow wow in the hotel’s party room where we all sat in a circle and partook in dancing, singing, and chatting with one another. When the clock struck midnight, the group even sang happy birthday to my CS friend, Jordan, and I (we happen to share a birthday!)
5. SAHARA DESERT– This was definitely the most unique leg of the trip and it was awesome it coincided with my birthday- not just any birthday, my golden to birthday (I turned 24 on the 24th of March)….okay not an actual big deal but I thought it was cool. I probably would have been happy if all I had had a chance to do was this. We left Ait Behhaddou early in the morning and reached the Sahara in time to watch the sun set over the seemingly endless sand dunes as we rode into the Berber* campsite in camel caravans- not gonna lie, this was pretty awesome!
We took a pit stop along the way to go sand boarding on the dunes, which was cool, but surprisingly difficult! Upon arrival to our campsite, we were offered Berber whiskey (aka Moroccan tea) while we sat around a campfire and watched the desert Berbers put on a show that involved chanting and dancing to some desert hymns. By the time the performance came to an end we, or better I- I was starvinggggg so there was really no better news than hearing that it was time for dinner. We headed over to dinner tents where we sat on the floor at the low standing Berber tables as we waited excitedly for dinner, which to noone’s surprise happened to be chicken Tagine (at this point I’d had Tagine pretty much every day and it’s novelty was quickly fading). So, the food wasn’t great but it was food.
We had the rest of the night free, so naturally people pulled out the bottles of alcohol brought over from Spain (alcohol is expensive and hard to find in Morocco, so most of us brought some along) and mingled with the rest of the group. We joined my CS friends and some others in a tent, played mafia for a while until people started peeling off into small sub groups. From that point on, the night got a bit strange. Not bad strange. Just strange.
Somebody at some point decided it was a good idea to climb the GIANT sand dune situated behind our camp site. Let me emphasize the word GIANT again, because it could probably be classified as a mountain. Of course after a couple of drinks and a bit of smoke, this seemed like the best idea that had ever existed. So a group of us headed up the dune only to be caught in a sandstorm on the way up. To this day, despite multiple washes, I’ve still got sand in the clothes I was wearing that night- that’s the kind of sandstorm it was. In the middle of the trek, I also genuinely feared I was gonna be stranded at the top of the dune in the wee hours of the morning and that somebody was gonna have to send a camel riding Berber to rescue me. LOL. So many things crossed my mind while on that dune. Luckily, I (barely) made it back to the bottom. Almost as soon as we were back in the campsite, we were herded into a tent by one of the event coordinators. The first thing I saw was a line of Berber men in traditional garb just standing in the entrance- was I in trouble for drinking I thought (generally frowned upon in Moroccan culture)? Were they upset we’d put ourselves in danger by climbing in the Dune? Would I be banished from the campsite? Nope. Turns out they were surprising me and two others for our birthdays- they’d even brought a cake all the way out the the desert and sang us birthday music.
Some dancing followed and eventually we went to bed. The next morning I miraculously woke up early enough to watch the sunrise atop the giant sand dune (I can’t believe I tried to climb it a second time). We also had an early wake up anyways since we needed to head out of the desert to our next stop. So we ate breakfast, which was the best one we’d had yet (it even included Berber omelette and cheese), and headed out of the desert!
6. FEZ– After the desert, Fez was….. a bit underwhelming. We were taken to many artesian shops including a tannery (leather shop), textile, and a ceramic shop.
They were nice, but I think we spent to much time in each and there was an unspoken, but definite pressure to buy something….. I almost just wish I had skipped these and explored the city on my own. In any case, the Fez medina was an interesting experience to say the least and probably the most memorable part of the city. There’s 9000 streets in it, so I’d imagine you can get lost in its walls for hours, maybe days. So, Fez wasn’t my favorite, but the weather was nice and it was good to see.
7. ATLAS MOUNTAINS– We drove through the Atlas Mountains twice (once on the way to the desert, and one on the way back), which I again didn’t realize was a part of the trip. Since they’re actually at a pretty high elevation, we drove through some snow at the tips of the mountains. Gotta say it was pretty awesome to wake up in the hot Sahara desert and be in the middle of a snowy mountain a couple of hours later! The drive through the mountains also included a stop in a monkey sanctuary.
For whatever reasons there weren’t too many monkeys, but we did manage to see two up in the trees! They were so cute, they looked like little furry angry old men!
8. CHEFCHAOEN– The last leg of our trip was Chefchaoen, otherwise known as the blue city. We stayed in a cute, and of course blue hotel, just a short car ride away from the city center.
The first night we wandered into the city, got dinner in the main city square, and explored for short bit before heading back to the hotel. Since it was the last night, people of course also stayed up late drinking, dancing and hanging out- we had to go out with a bang. Anyways, I woke up a but hungover the next day but since we had the day to ourselves (free to do what we wanted, yay) our little bus caravan set off into the streets of the city.
We wandered around the streets of the city, mesmerized by the blueness of it all haha. We finally settled on a rooftop place for lunch where we had a great panoramic view of the city! It was a great way to end our time in Chefchaoen, and Morocco in general.
Then climbed into our little buses to begin our journey back to the land of tortilla and siestas!
If you’re still reading, this was longer than I intended….whoops XD There was just so much to cover!!! Definitely recommend visiting Morocco. I’d actually like to go back to certain cities and explore at my own pace, but for now I think I got a good sense of what the country is like and I definitely had one of the mos memorable (and unique) birthdays of my life!
– Sinceramente, Gigi
*According to our bus driver, the term Berber comes from Portuguese conquistadors who referred to the natives of Morocco as “barbarians.”This was then shortened into “Berber”- gotta say knowing the origins of the word makes it a lot less fun to say 😦