Just over a week after moving from Australia to London, my partner Harry and I set out for 10 days in Morocco with Intrepid Travel (South Morocco Discovery tour).
Day 1 Marrakech
We arrived in Marrakech on the first day of our group tour, keen to get to the hotel meeting point. But first things first, we cashed up at the local airport instead of in London because you can’t take more than 2000 dirhams (approx $200AUD) into Morocco nor out.
After reading the plane magazine about local taxi and bus prices from Marrakech airport to the city, we decided to catch the bus at 30 dirhams each. Taxi prices were approximately 100 dirhams so not much more, and direct, though we were still learning about this new place and figured the bus has to stick to a route. We were the only people on the bus! After a few stops, the bus driver pointed out which direction we needed to walk to get to Le Caspien hotel.
Observations at this point – traffic similar to Thailand with what appears to be minimal rules and many scooters, Arabic writing, walled city areas and most women wearing the full head scarf and dress. Out of respect for the local culture, the recommendation as a female tourist is to cover your shoulders and knees. I was all sorted in my t-shirt and long hippie pants.
There was a feeling of relief once we made it to the hotel and because of our early 3am wake up for the train trip to Gatwick airport for our 6:30am flight (which because of a strike turned into a bus journey), we had lunch nearby and then our first holiday nap. Annnnnd awake! Time for cocktails on the rooftop until it was time to meet our group.
We headed down to reception at 6pm (okay, maybe a few minutes late – we blame the delicious cocktails and sunshine) and found it empty except for our tour leader (50:50 guess on his name – most males are called Hassan or Mohammed and lots of the women are called Fatima) asking the receptionist for our room number as we were the last to arrive. He led us up to the restaurant area where we met the rest of our group. Initial thoughts – mix of ages, a few young people to join us for holiday mischief and only one other Australian accent. Our group of 10 people had an American couple, four Canadians, one Sri-Lankan and us three Aussies. After some tour information including which days of the tour you can access ATMs and wi-fi and a Q&A with our tour guide, we walked about half an hour to the main square for dinner.
It was our first experience with Moroccan bread. Yum. We had a mix of different plates to share including olives, salad, eggplant, meat skewers, sausages and calamari. Our cultural backgrounds of big eaters particularly the Americans failed us. The locals had many courses left to give us and we couldn’t possibly eat one more bite. We had plenty left over on the table and a local guy grabbed my half eaten bread while I wasn’t looking. Not a word spoken. So we gave him whatever he wanted from our uneaten share plates. There were also lots of children trying to sell us small packets of tissues. Marrakech and particularly the main square is a major tourist area.
We walked through the square after dinner back towards Le Caspien hotel and there were people with snakes around their shoulders trying to get locals to wear them, ladies decorating people with henna tattoos, games and all sorts of things. The square was full of people! It was amazing to see but we were all a little apprehensive about getting split up and lost on our long walk back to the hotel so we all stuck together and headed back. A few of us stopped at the convenience store across from the hotel to load up on bottled water. Then it was time for bed! Day 1 over.
Day 2 Aroumd
Off to the Atlas Mountains! The rest of the group were much more organised and had smaller carry bags like backpacks prepared. Of course we didn’t. Why did we need a smaller bag? We had to pack an overnight bag to load up on the mule (yes one poor mule) to take up to the mountain gite (our accommodation). New Sri Lankan travel buddy to the rescue! She had some seriously big and sturdy shopping bags that we quickly packed and then met the group downstairs at reception. We all jumped on the private tour bus and drove to the point where the mule was waiting.
The walk to our accommodation was going to take 1.5 hours. Lucky there were lots of distractions along the way. The views were simply stunning. And it was another opportunity to get to know our fellow travellers. We learnt during the bus trip that Morocco has mostly Arabic and Berber people and that because of wars a long time ago, the Berbers were driven into the mountains. Therefore it was mostly Berber people in this area. Our tour leader is Berber and comes from a village in the mountains.
We arrived at the gite and were assigned rooms. We had time for holiday nap number two then got our sneakers on for a mountain trek. Our tour leader told us it would take about three hours return. Um how about 2.5 hours up to the shrine and about 1.5 hours back. But I am glad we did it. On the way up there was a man on the side of the mountain selling drinks at exactly the right spot where we had no water left in our waterbottles. He had a proper stand and everything with quite a good selection for the middle of nowhere, including soft drinks!
Some of our group had the proper hiking sticks and I was even more concerned when we had two guides with us – one to lead us and one to take people back if they no longer wanted to continue. Once we made it to the shrine we learnt that it was a place for Arabics to go if they had an issue they wanted help with like getting pregnant or healing an ailment. The old sacrifice (slaughtered animal) is part of this process and still happens today. As tourists we could not go close to the shrine. We shared a pot of moroccan mint tea (delicious and I can’t believe I’m only mentioning it now, pretty sure we’d had it a few times already!) and started the journey back down the mountain.
On the way down, we saw people riding mules and talking on their mobile phones. What the? We took a different route back and it was very much a cliff hugging exercise. Nearly lost our Sri Lankan tour buddy over the edge after a stumble. Then we got to a flowing waterfall and had to cross on rocks including some that were unstable. Soaked but alive equals win. There were a few goats running down the mountain cheering us on. Somebody somewhere must have been herding them.
We all made it back in one piece and had some more moroccan tea. We also had our first tagine which I had heard all about from my friend who had been to Morocco. Delicious! And mountains of home made bread (pardon the pun). But we’d learnt not to eat too much bread so we could fit in more of the other food. Tagine is generally meat and vegetables. It is everywhere in Morocco. Along with cous cous. Lunch is their main meal of the day. Exhausted. Bed.
Day 3 Ait Benhaddou kasbah – they filmed Game of Thrones here!
What goes up – must come down. Today started with walking back down the mountain to the bus where we met our bus driver that we were going to have for the rest of our trip. There was quite a bit of driving today. We had our second tagine for lunch today on one of the stops. This is also where Harry found his headscarf and moroccan shirt in preparation for the Sahara Desert. It was quite entertaining to watch the haggling process. The rule of thumb generally is that if they suggest 350 dirhams, you should expect to pay no more than approximately half after negotiating. How did Harry go? He spent 250 dirhams (including a scarf for me). Not too bad. I was laughing at the time but had my own interesting negotiation process towards the end of our time in Morocco.
Finally we made it to the fortified city with the old kasbahs. The Game of Thrones fans were pointing out where scenes were filmed. Harry and I are yet to watch it but might have to now! We had some more moroccan tea outside the entrance to one of the kasbahs before exploring. We climbed the steps inside the kasbah to the top where we had a view of the town. It was raining when we were there, and we were wondering if it would all fall apart underneath our feet, considering it is made of all natural materials including mud and straw!
On our journey back, we were about to cross the water on the sandbag steps that we had entered on, before we were advised to go a different way because of the flash flood that was on its way. So we walked up to and crossed the bridge and made it back to our hotel for some quality sedentary time.
This sedentary time included watching a demonstration on how to make tagine and cous cous. There were lots of jokes about our microwave cous cous versus their up to three hour cous cous cooking process. You can definitely taste the difference. I had tagine number three for the trip and Harry indulged in some turkey skewers. Unfortunately it made for a sleepless night with Harry being sick. He was the only one who had turkey skewers so all fingers point to food poisoning. Yay for the bus trip tomorrow.
Day 4 Zagora
Lucky for Harry our fellow travellers had a mix of different medications for all the wonderful things he was experiencing. Even luckier – our first stop for the day was a pharmacy with herbal remedies. Unfortunately the green concoction they gave Harry didn’t stay down. Today we headed towards the Sahara Desert on the bus but stayed in a town on the Sahara fringe for the night. Our other stops along the way included Ouarzazate, a movie studio, antique store with a million (probably) magic carpets and a medical centre. We even had a picnic for lunch in a room above the antique store, where the local cat had to help us eat the massive cut of cheese that our fellow Australian travel buddy purchased! Who would’ve thought that cats liked cheese!
At our hotel we braved the pool and strangely it was still quite cold. We had just assumed it was going to be blazing hot in Morocco, especially getting closer to the desert. Actually I forgot to mention earlier that when walking up the Atlas mountains, we saw mountains in the distance with snow on them!
I had dinner with the group (Harry still not feeling well) and attempted to make friends with some kittens who were playing in the corner. They hissed at me but I still loved them. We had access to alcohol at this hotel so we had a few beers. Morocco’s dominant religion is Islam and therefore you won’t find many places selling alcohol.
Day 5 – Sahara Desert – one of the best days of my life!!!
What a day of adventure! We continued our drive towards the desert and had a few interesting stops along the way. These included where they made pottery (including many tagines!) and a library filled with very old handwritten arabic books under lock and key.
My second favourite moment of the day was lunch at a local family home. This tagine was special! The best of all the land. A full chicken tagine for around three people. Lucky Harry was feeling better! Otherwise he would have truly missed out. The tour leader, Harry and I crouched around the small table and used our hands to tear the chicken apart and used the bread to pick up the vegetables and soak up the sauce. So good. A lot of effort and time was put into making this lunch and you could taste it. Can you tell that I loved it?
At the next stop, a few of the guys including Harry braved a cut throat shave at a local barber. Baby face! Even had a trim for the total price of 30 dirhams (approx $3). I took the opportunity to try on lots of scarves seeing as we were on our way to the desert and there were lots of photos to be taken! I decided on a purple scarf which was also big enough to be a dress.
Our tour leader took up the challenge to fold my scarf, twist it and wrap it so that it fit comfortably on my head. Ta da! We all looked the part and it was time to go for a ride on the camels. Here’s an interesting fact – there’s no camels in Morocco. Camels have two humps. These animals only had one hump and were called dromedaries.
The moment had arrived! It was time to get into the 4×4 vehicles and make our way out to the Sahara Desert for the night. Let’s just say I’m glad I packed a sports bra. We travelled approximately 80km into the desert and pulled up at our camp. First things first – moroccan tea on the sand dunes. Followed by a trek up the sand dunes to see the sunset.
We inspected the toilet and shower facilities and luckily I had given into the non-westernised (squat) toilets at the family home because that was what was on offer in the desert. The showers were also not very inviting so baby wipe showers for us! But that’s enough about toilet and shower facilities…
The sand dunes looked massive but were relatively easy to climb. I’ll never forget seeing the group climbing the sand dunes in their colourful scarves with our fantastic tour leader leading the way. Then that sunset. Take me back! If you haven’t already guessed, this was the favourite moment of the day and turned out to be the favourite moment of the whole trip. After the sunset, our tour leader started running down the sand dunes so we all started to follow him – some slowly at first and others at full speed! Our Sri Lankan tour buddy had quite the fall which made for many laughs in the coming days after one of the group found ‘the photo’ on their phone. She is a good sport! And all okay.
Time for dinner. Imagine a table in the middle of the tent circle, in the middle of the Sahara Desert, candles to light up the table and our faces, the sky slightly cloudy but some stars shining brightly through the clearing. As usual, good company, conversation and food.
We decided to sleep outside the tent under the stars instead of inside the tent which was a bit warm. Harry and I were sharing with the other Australian and one of the Canadian guys. We helped each other get set up outside and then talked, listened to music and spotted shooting stars until we fell asleep. I was trying to stay awake to see my third shooting star for the night but couldn’t make it! Even after the Canadian expressed his concerns for scorpions latching onto our bed blankets and climbing up (I checked with our tour leader after this comment to ensure we would all be okay!)
Unfortunately during the night, the wind picked up and it became uncomfortable to continue sleeping outside. Tumbleweeds were building up next to my bed. And I needed to go to the bathroom. “Haaaarrrry? Are you awake?” Turns out a few of us were awake in these conditions so we helped each other move the mattresses back inside the tent and left the bed frames outside. At this time of the night the sky was clear and the many, many stars were shining very brightly. No clouds in sight. You could actually see more than one galaxy! Just as we were settling back into bed, I saw my third shooting star through the open door! Magical.
Day 6 Taroudannt
Today started with over three hours of bouncing around in the 4×4 vehicles to get out of the desert and onto the next location – Taroudannt. At the start of the journey, our driver asked if his friend could join us as we had a spare seat. We said yes and suddenly there was a guy running towards us from the dunes and joined Harry in the back seat. I had the pleasure of being pushed forward every time we hit a bump by his knees digging into the back of my chair. I think it was a smart move on his part because it saved bumping his head on the ceiling as much! Well that’s what we assumed… he didn’t speak any English. On the drive we passed another guy in the middle of nowhere looking for his animals. He didn’t have any water or anything with him and to us it seemed as though there was nothing around for miles! Though we did stop at a well on the way back to civilisation.
We met back up with the bus and continued our journey. On the way we saw goats climbing the argan trees to eat the fruits. Too bad we weren’t close enough or stationary to take photos! We stopped at a place where they made argan oil from the nuts into food and beauty products. We also stopped at a leather tannery that smelled terrible and they gave us mint leaves to sniff when it got too bad. I didn’t get past the entrance archway. A while later one of the Canadians on the tour walked out and he actually had the mint leaves shoved up his nose!
We all jumped back onto the bus and headed towards our accommodation at The Palais that our tour leader had promised we would like. Once we arrived we found out that we were not staying there! We put our bags back on the bus and drove another 15 minutes to the alternative accommodation. It didn’t seem as nice but it was still comfortable after a night in the Sahara Desert. There were showers!
Tonight was pretty quiet as most of us didn’t sleep very well in the desert. We had dinner then a few of us stuck around and reminisced about the tumble down the dunes which led to good solid laughter for at least an hour before bedtime.
Day 7 Essaouira
Beach time! The first stop on the bus journey from Taroudannt was the King’s supermarket at Agadir. Massive! Definitely wasn’t expecting that. We got a selection of goodies for our picnic lunch on the beach. Then we drove to a spot where you could see Essaouira from up high. Quite spectacular. Very modern looking. Lots of tall city buildings.
Time for the picnic! We found a spot on the beach at Taghazout and got comfortable. There were horses nearby and guys encouraging us to go for a ride. Our tour leader negotiated a good price – 100 dirhams (approx $10) so a few of the group went for a horse ride on the beach. There of course were camels, or rather dromedaries, on the beach as well. Harry bought some icecreams from another guy on the beach so we enjoyed them while the others were on the horse ride. Then as we were packing up, our tour leader gave whatever we hadn’t eaten to the guys on the beach with the horses. Even the horses enjoyed the watermelon! Crunch crunch crunch!
The day flashed by and it was time to go for dinner overlooking the beach. It was a bit fancy! Or atleast compared to other dinners on the tour so far. I think most of us had had enough of tagine and cous cous so there were lots of orders for pasta, fish, other seafood and well, anything but tagine and cous cous. We were drinking Casablanca again (local beer), closely followed by a selection of cocktails. There was live music going on in the room next to us so after the food settled we hit the dancefloor. It was fun watching all of our different dancing styles. The dj was playing mostly clubbing music from the early 2000s and the song that caught our attention was the Shots song by LMFAO which for us didn’t fit the culture of where we were! We all had a chuckle about that on the way home after getting asked to leave because it was closing time. So many cats around. And so glad we had our tour leader with us because everything looked different at night and I’m not sure we would have found our way home.
Day 8 Essaouira continued
Today we had a new tour leader for a few hours – Rashida. Rashida took us on a walking tour around Essaouira including the port. She told us that around 2% of all fresh fish catches go to the needy people first. How great that they look after one another like that. We then went to a place that because of the way it is designed with walls all around, if you stand in the centre and say something quietly, it amplifies to sound so much louder.
From the walking tour we met our favourite tour leader who took us to a local place for lunch. The fish was so fresh, it was cooked as is and as such, we got to look at their heads while we were picking at the body. I would never do this at home! There were a lot of bones to get around and after a few small fish I gave up. They brought around prawns but they were cooked differently and felt a bit softer than what I was used to so passed on those. The calamari however – delicious. All washed down with moroccan mint tea. Surprise surprise.
We did some window shopping back near our hotel and then got ready to go out for dinner. Our tour leader took us to another place near the beach which was lovely to enjoy the sunset. And another few casablancas! We were throwing around the idea of going back to the same place as last night for dancing after dinner but decided to try somewhere new. As we wandered around we passed a place with live music so we stopped in there and enjoyed some music and a mocktail. No alcohol on the menu. But we still managed to have fun!
Another walk home with 2584 cats.
Day 9 Essaouira to Marrakech
Last breakfast in Essaouira then off to get a massage! Most of the tour group got one too though they also got the hammam which the locals get once a week. It involves a warm room and an entire scrub down. It’s part of their culture. Was a nice start to our day! Harry and I thought we’d wander through the streets and marvel at the colourful surroundings one last time and I ended up getting sucked into a shop. The shopkeeper asked me where I was from to which I replied “Australia” and then he said his brother lived there so I asked him where. He said “the capital”. That’s the point I should have walked away perhaps? But no. He came up with Sydney so I agree to have a look inside his shop.
He ended up making tea for us and showing us all his jewellery he had for sale. In the end I found a small silver turkish hand charm which protects you from the evil eye that I could put on my bracelet. Let the bargaining begin! He started at 320 dirhams, I offered 100 dirhams. We got to 140 dirhams and he said whatever I offer next he will take. So I offered 160. Then he said – if you go to 200 I will give you a gift. And I thought okay you have a deal… so what’s the gift? He tells me it’s a Tarik massage. Which I found out from our tour leader later that it didn’t exist and that was probably his name! Oh well, it was a funny experience anyway! He then told Harry he was very lucky and offered 3000 camels for me… time to leave!
A few of our tour group met up and had lunch together on a rooftop that had a very Greek feel to it. The food was very tasty and they had sombreros! They’re always fun. Then we had to say bye to our favourite Canadian travel buddy who was staying in Essaouira for a few more days. Sad! It was time to get on the local bus to Marrakech. We all had an icecream in his honour on the first stop (he became known as an icecream addict after having three icecreams in quick succession) and soon found ourselves back at Le Caspien in Marrakech where it all started. Nooo!
A quick freshen up and time for cocktails at the bar at the hotel. We found a cocktail called Walk Me Down that had seven shots of different alcohol in it. I’ll have three please! I did actually have three over the night. And a Sex on the Beach cocktail. It wasn’t long before I was singing with the hotel entertainer. At first I was afraid – I was petrified! So. Much. Fun.
Day 10 Last day of the tour in Marrakech!
Well after last night, we failed to get up in time to say bye to our tour leader. Also, because the tour was over we were now spread out everywhere with some of the tour group already at the airport, some sightseeing, some staying in Marrakech but changing hotels. Harry and I went for a swim at the hotel after breakfast then found our Sri Lankan travel buddy and ventured off to do some sightseeing together.
We started with the Ben Youssef museum which used to be an Islamic college. We then walked through the souks which are like markets and somehow even cars were driving through but it was a tight squeeze. A KFC cure for our hangover was our last experience in Morocco. We went back to the hotel, got our luggage and caught a taxi to the airport. The bus trek was not worth it today!
Arriving early at the airport was a good idea at the time. Unfortunately our flight was delayed for three hours so we spent five hours at the airport on our last day in Morocco. The less glamorous side of travel. But, it did give us the chance to reflect on how amazing our adventure in Morocco was, and to start planning our next holiday… one week in the South of France.