Morocco

The first country we have visited in Africa has landed us in Morocco.  A new continent for us Flashpackers.  When planning our next destination on our RTW journey, we were looking for a country that had a bit of an edge, a far away feel and an element of exoticness to it.  Morocco delivered on all fronts and exceeded our expectations.

A few people raised their eyebrows at our plan to visit Morocco, a primarily Muslim country.  Would we be safe?  Well, we covered a significant amount of Morocco completely on our own, outside the package tourist bubble.  At no point during our roadtrip did we encounter anything even remotely threatening.  We were always greeted with smiles and kindness.  In fact, I would venture to say that I felt more at ease in Morocco than in my own country.  Forgoing a trip to Morocco for safety reasons is foolish.

I was a bit wary going in regarding safety and had my guard up a bit more than most other countries we previously visited.  I remember having a similar gut feeling prior to our stay in Myanmar (Burma) and that actually turned out being one of our favorite countries.  I drew from the feeling of that past experience and knew once we landed and settled into our riad in Marrakech, everything would fall right into place as it always does.  Barbie and I have visited many countries on our journey, and in the end, it has become evident that we all share way more common values than differences.

We chose to visit Morocco during Ramadan, a month-long Islamic holiday celebrated each year.  While many people balk at visiting during Ramadan, anticipating inconveniences, there’s no reason to put aside your plans.  Very similar to being in Israel during the Jewish holidays, it’s a very spiritual time and easy to get caught up with the electricity and excitement in the air.  I loved all the special foods that are made and prepared during Ramadan that aren’t found any other time of the year.

Overall, we found Morocco fascinating and it turned out to be one of our favorite roadtrips in all our travels.  Morocco is oozing with exoticness, colors and romance.  We spent 7 weeks exploring the country (1,380 miles driven in our rental car) and did so at a leisurely pace in order to take in as much as possible.  Even with a limited 1-2 week holiday, rushing through this country trying to visit as many locations/sites as possible is a mistake.  You may think you’re seeing more of Morocco but you will have no depth of experience.  My thought is always that to rush around, one sees less, not some phantom “more”. The magic lies in blending in with the locals and simply going about your day with no set plans.  In Morocco, it’s best to take your time, slow down and simply observe all the life around you.  Those were our best times.


MARRAKECH –
With no time constraints, we slowly acclimated into the frenzied atmosphere and daily local lifestyle in the bustling city of Marrakech.  We spent eight (8) nights to lead off our approximate 2 month stay we allocated in the country.  This is a few more days than really necessary for Marrakech but the extra days really allowed us to explore this exotic city at a more relaxed pace.

Absolute chaos is the best way to describe this, but that’s Marrakech.  It’s why you go….to experience this version of chaos.  The initial culture shock when you weave through the labyrinthine medina is intense.  Who would have thought walking around the medina is an extreme adrenaline sport as you have to dodge speeding scooters, bikes, donkey carts, horses, barking hustlers, tuk tuks in such narrow spaces you can never possibly imagine.  Our favorite activity was simply getting lost in the exotic maze of alleyways and souks surrounded by the sensory overload of colors, smells, and sounds.

Our first steps into the main square, Jemaa el-Fna and medina felt magical and intriguing.  It really feels like a different world.  This place is not for the timid.  It will definitely take you out of your comfort zone.  It is aggressive and you must be aware of what is going on around you.  It is fun and exciting, yet aggravating and intimidating. You must abandon any western notions of personal space.  Haggling is the rule of the medina, so you have to get used to it quickly.  The touts hawking a whole bunch of shit are true to form sales ‘closers’, a bit annoying and rabidly aggressive.  However, the atmosphere is electric and makes up for the annoyances.  I can really understand how many tourists think the area is one big exhausting experience.  Marrakech is a city you really need to visit to fully understand.  I would describe it a beautiful chaos.  Once you learn to roll with all the chaos, you’ll soon enjoy the ride.

In my opinion, there are not many worthwhile sights in Marrakech and that did not bother us one bit.  Unlike most other big city destinations where you would need to tick off ‘must-see’ sights, we enjoyed not having the burden of planning a single thing during our entire stay in Marrakech.  Our days were filled eating at some of the most amazing restaurants in all of our travels, walking/shopping in the medina packed with stalls, haggling with the vendors and my fav, chillaxing on the day beds on our airy riad rooftop outdoor lounge which felt just like we were living in a local Moroccans home.

We opted to stay in a riad inside the action packed walled medina, allowing us to really feel the pulse of the medina throughout the day and evening.  A riad (usually around four floors high) is like a multi level family house with an outdoor courtyard running thru the center, from the ground floor to the roof.  In my opinion, staying in a riad is a must and offers a much more authentic experience.  I really think you would be short changing yourself staying in a resort style hotel in the more modern area outside the medina as you are likely to miss out on many things that make Marrakech exciting.  We loved our stay in our Marrakech riad so much, this style of accommodation became the default booking option for the remainder of our six weeks roadtripping around the country.

Many travelers intimidated by the thought of navigating around Morocco on their own usually opt for a guided tour.  We have years of travel experience under our belt to many far flung countries spanning the world.  We aren’t fans of taking tours unless it’s wholly necessary or delivers a unique perspective on a place.  Therefore, there was no way, we weren’t going to explore this country on our own.  Yes, many of the spots we visited are accessible using either public transport or booking tours, but nothing can come close to navigating around at your own pace.  Having our own rental car allowed us to plan our own route, take the time to stop off where and when we pleased, head off the beaten track and get to know Morocco in a much more intimate way over a longer period of time.

Following our stay in Marrakech, we rented a car for the next four weeks.  After some planning, the following was the route we settled on.

MARRAKECH – ESSAOUIRA – TAMRAGHT – TIZNET – MIRLEFT BEACH – TALIOUNE – SKOURA – TODRA RIVER GORGE – ERG CHEBBI (SAHARA DESERT CAMP) – DADES GORGE – OUARZAZATE – TIZI N’ TICHKA PASS – MARRAKECH – FES


ESSAOUIRA –

We began our Moroccan roadtrip in our rental car with the first stop being the coastal beach town and bohemian heart of Morocco. With over 300 days of sunshine a year along with the town’s laid back attitude, wide sandy beach and constant cool breeze, Essaouira has become a hub for backpackers, hippies, surfers and kite surfers.

Although this is Morocco, the temperatures in Essaouira are significantly cooler than Marrakech due to the gusts of wind blasting in from the Atlantic sea.  It is windy as shit here.  It’s possible to sunbathe on the beach in Essaouira if you don’t mind being sandblasted but most people opt for the wind surfing.

The city is a great escape from the wackiness of Marrakech as it has a significantly more relaxed pace.  In terms of sights and attractions, the city doesn’t have a great deal to see.  We managed to easily fill our four nights here walking the beach, wandering aimlessly thru the medina, munching out at some fabulous atmospheric tiny cafes and restaurants tucked into hidden spaces which are like gems waiting to be discovered.


COASTAL TOWNS –

TAMRAGHT –
If you are looking to partake in watersport activities like surfing and windsurfing, Tamraght will serve you quite well.  If you are looking to lounge on the beach sipping pina coladas on a dreamy looking white powdery sand beach w/palm trees swaying, then go elsewhere. The beaches in the area are raw, grungy and undeveloped.  Unfinished dilapidated cement buildings that look like they have been sitting idle for years line the coastlines….not the most visually appealing.  The plastic littered along the beaches made me sad as apparently the locals could give a crap about keeping their beaches clean.  I saw a great deal of condo development going on along a huge swath of land along the ocean with hopes of developing Tamraght into a more developed beach town.  However, I have my doubts they will pull off any sort of aesthetically pleasing turnaround as it looks to me they just have not mastered the art of construction.  If stopping here, the best place to stay is Riad Dar Haven.

AGADIR –
We visited the large souk in town so Barbie can purchase some more trinkets and assorted crap which she loves to do. It was interesting to see the locals going about their daily shopping. Super fresh looking and absurdly inexpensive fruits and veggies available here.  Just wish we had a place with our own kitchen to cook them all up.  We loved going to all the Farmers Markets when we were living in Hawaii to stock up on our fruits and veggies.  I found it amazing that purchasing the same $100 in fruits and veggies in Hawaii, probably cost about $15 in the Agadir souk.  We drove around exploring busy Agadir and it did not look appealing to overnight here, so we passed and moved onto Tiznet.

TIZNET –
Tiznet is a real throwback town.  A good stop off for 1-2 nights to immerse yourself into true local living.  During our bike ride and walk around inside the medina, we enjoyed observing true Moroccan small town living.  It sort of reminded me of the Mekong Delta where we did not see any westerners, whatsoever.  The real gem of this town is being able to retreat back to the awesome Riad Janoub.  This riad w/ pool is a true oasis inside the medina.  We took advantage of their amazing home cooking poolside dinners.  The free Royal breakfasts served on the outdoor deck were a pleasure to wake up to as well.

MIRLEFT BEACH / SIDI IFINI –
Upon our arrival to Mirleft Beach, one of the most well regarded beach areas in Morocco, I was initially unimpressed.   It’s dusty, scruffy, raw and utterly underdeveloped similar to all the other towns outside the major cities.  Once I accepted this reality and settled in, I really began to fall for Morocco.  Mirleft Beach kinda brought me back to my early 90’s backpacking days traveling around SE Asia before all of the rapid beach development.  This laid back town has so much potential to be developed into a first class beach town.  It would take a ton of money to accomplish this but probably will never get done.  Actually, I hope it never gets done as I kinda hope Mirleft Beach retains its wacky looking throwback contagious charm.  We stayed in a real cool place called Sally’s high up on the cliffside overlooking the sweeping and wild looking Mirleft Beach.  What I found so neat about Mirleft is the fact that it’s a beach in the desert and you do not see that very often.  We spent 3 amazing relaxed nights here and we both grew to really dig this low key ‘old school’ beach town. We could have easily more time @ Sally’s in Mirleft Beach just watching the simple, slow paced life go by.  The other nearby beaches to visit other than Mirleft Beach include Aftas Beach and the more popular, Legzira Beach.  Sidi Ifini is the other chill beach town, with a Spanish vibe, just a bit south of Mirleft.


INLAND & ATLAS MOUNTAIN TOWNS –

OUARZAZATE –
The big draw to Ourzazate is the impressive Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou which is 30 minutes outside town.  We chose to stay nearby at the fabulous Riad Caravane for the first night before moving onto the town of Quarzazate.  Most travelers with limited time really just pass thru for a quick stopoff enroute to the Sahara Desert from Marrakech.  We had the time, so we stayed a few nights and I’m glad we did.  The town is clean, spacious and I loved the heat as it reminded me of our days living in Vegas.  We stayed in a real cool Riad just outside a kasbah but if I had to do it all over, I would choose a place with a kickass pool as the heat is freaking on in Ouarzazate.  The entire town looked like one big movie set.  The location has been a mecca for filmmakers with the kasbah used as the backdrop for popular movies like Game of Thrones, Gladiator & Lawrence of Arabia being filmed here.  We tried driving to the Fint Oasis which I heard was a green oasis in the middle of the desert, but midway I chickened out as I did not want to risk driving this rocky/dirt, unpaved road in our piece of shit rental car.

SKOURA –
Skoura is a small dusty town just after Ouarzazate that you pass on the way driving to/from the Moroccan Sahara Desert.  At first glance this place might not seem worth a stop but it is a relaxed, non touristic option compared to its big nearby sister Quarzazate.  L’Ma Lodge is an oasis and the absolute ‘must’ place to stay to unwind and get away from the world.  We hunkered down here for four days by the pool and in the hammocks inside the ‘chill out’ sections spread across the lush green grounds. Barbie loved feeding the resident donkey, horse and goats hanging out on the property.  We did venture out of the compound and drove to the Berber village in Toundout just 30 minutes north of L’Ma Lodge.  It’s a tiny village smack in the middle of the steamy desert.
Our sole purpose of our visit to Toundount was to check out the weekly souk/market held on Thursdays.  It was such a cool foreign feeling as we were the only westerners to be found in the entire market.  We were stared at by the locals as if were aliens from outer space.  Similar to our experience throughout Burma.  They took a particular liking to Barbie as they simply could not figure out what she was.  Some mistakenly confused her for being in the Berber tribe with a bizarre western edge.  It was such a trippy experience and what we love most about our travels to far out places.

 

DADES GORGE & TODGHA GORGE –
With our extended time in Morocco, we had the luxury of staying over in both Dades Gorge & Todgha Gorge.  Both are great places to break up the long drive from Marrakech enroute to the Sahara Desert camps.  If pressed for time and I had to choose one gorge valley over the other, Dades Gorge is first choice.  The road into the Dades Gorge is really scenic.  The Berber villages spread throughout were really cool and the surrounding scenery is spectacular.  The cherry on top is a ‘must’ stay at the fabulous Auberge Chez Pierre, nestled against the rocky mountains.  Auberge Chez Pierre had some great Berber hospitality, a great pool overlooking the valley and an amazing 6 course dinner for $25pp.  The other well located rest stop to recharge and break up the drive is in Skoura with a couple of nights cooling out at the fab L’Ma Lodge.  So, a couple of nights at Auberge Chez Pierre on the way to the Sahara Desert and a couple of nights at L’Ma Lodge on the way back from the desert and onto Marrackech or Fez is the right game plan .


ERG CHEBBI, SAHARA DESERT CAMP –

We chose the more frequently visited Erg Chebbi desert camp as opposed to our first choice and the more remote experience of the Erg Chigaga camp.  The primary reason we did so was because we wanted to limit some of the long driving distances and also wanted to visit Skoura, Dades Gorge & Todgha Gorge which is enroute to the Erg Chebbi desert camps.  We had a great experience in Erg Chebbi because we splurged on our stay at the Desert Luxury Camp.  We did so, primarily because we wanted some extra comforts as I certainly did not want to sweat my balls off in the heat of the summer desert.  The Desert Luxury Camp, I believe is the only desert camp with a pool and air-conditioned glamping tents (which unfortunately can only be turned on during the evenings).  We did the obligatory 3 hr. camel ride thru the Sahara, chilled in the hammocks outside the pool staring at stillness of the Sahara Desert.  The camp put on a real cool Berber drum show at night and we were lucky to be there during the full moon which made the experience extra trippy.

 

FES –
Fes (aka Fez) is the spiritual capital of Morocco.  The city reminded me of Jerusalem, Israel.  The great debate between the rival cities of Fes and Marrakech was which one is the top dog to visit.  Going in, there were polar opinions about Marrakech and Fez – if you liked one you didn’t like the other as much.  Therefore, we opted to visit both in order to form our own opinion.  Our conclusion, I would definitely say visit both if time permits and completely skip the other large Moroccan city, Casablanca.  Passing over Casablanca was the general consensus of many fellow travelers we talked with while in Morocco.

We stayed in our Fes riad for five (5) nights which was the perfect amount of time to really take in and observe the local way of life inside the Fes El Bali medina.  So glad we put the extra effort to include Fes in our itinerary as it provided an entirely different experience and feel than crowded Marrakech.  Fes seemed more family oriented, orderly, civilized and the locals appeared way more relaxed.  The big activities include simply getting yourself utterly lost wandering around the colorful maze-like medina.  Outside the old medina is the Fes Mellah, the Jewish quarter which is also perfect for a good wander thru the winding alleyways.  The other big activity inside the medina is the 11th century Chouara Tannery.  It’s the city’s largest tannery, and is where cow, sheep, goat and camel hides are brought to be preserved and dyed then turned into jackets, handbags and wallets.


HUSTLERS AND SCAMMERS –

Barbie and I have a great deal of experience to draw from with this annoyance after our full year spent in Southeast Asia.  In the larger cities of Marrakech and Fes, a slew of creeps, pests and hustlers linger around and at times the random ones can be relentless. Most of these hustlers are miraculously fluent in about five languages so it’s difficult to pretend you don’t understand.  If you have absolutely zero interest in the shit they are selling, they always have a ‘default’ spice or carpet shop they will try to lead you to.

If you click on the ‘ignore’ button in your brain, you will be good to go.  Many locals prey on the tourists thinking they are their own personal ATM, so you must also click on the ‘beware’ and ‘watch your ass’ button.  It’s a shame as sometimes it does not make you feel good being a cold hearted ass, especially when interacting with the random person with good intentions.

OUR PERSONAL RIPOFFS FROM MOROCCAN HUSTLERS –
1) The parking dude with bad breath in Essaouira charged us $6 per day instead of $3 per day.  We miraculously got a refund after pitching a bitch.

2) Barbie overpaid by $10 for her beaded necklace in the Marrakech medina.

3) Got stopped at police checkpoint and had to pay off the cop 150 Dirhams ($15).  He did show me the speed gun from the 1950’s which apparently said I was going 8 mph over the speed limit.  You pay the ticket on the spot with your cash Dirhams to the police officer and off you go.  Who knows where that money goes, it’s just the cost of business of driving around Morocco.
Update:  got stopped again enroute to Talioune for another $15 smackers.  It’s ok, cause I have mentally allocated receiving 4 total speeding tix and with only 2 tickets I am still under quota.

4) Not one single taxi driver in Marrakech was willing to turn on the freaking meter.  Fortunately, we had our own rental car once we left Marrakech so that was the last time we had to deal with these taxi shysters.  The taxi guy got us for $3 over the going rate.

5) The ‘so called’ official looking parking guys wearing the yellow fluorescent that appear out of nowhere that insist on 20 Dirhams (20 cents) for the right to park on the streets.  These guys are like human parking meters.  I did not keep exact track but I must have gotten hit up about 10 times during our roadtrip.  So, that adds up to another $2 bucks.

6) During our stay in Skoura, we opted to eat lunch outside the comforts of our resort after our visit to a local Berber market.  Bad mistake.  There was absolute shit to eat in this hot dusty town.  I did get my hands on a big bag of pistachio nuts for lunch which I think I got ripped off on to the tune of about $3-$4 bucks.

REGRETS –
Many fellow travelers urged us to experience the Sahara Desert at Erg Chigaga for a more isolated desert feel.  We wanted to avoid the extra driving and opted for the Erg Chebbi desert area instead as it was more conveniently located to some other towns on our itinerary.

POSITIVES –
The food is off the charts. The tastiest food seasoned with some of the most incredible spices and just bursting with flavor. Prices are extremely low and just slightly more than Southeast Asia.  Our gourmet dinners for two averaged approximately $15-$30.

Morocco has the world’s best oranges.  The freshly squeezed orange juice is available everywhere at a cost of about $1-$2 for a large glass.  We are not talking about that tart tasting OJ available in other countries, this is the sweetest OJ on planet earth.  These same sweet oranges are also sliced up and sprinkled with cinnamon and served for desert.  So good.

Remembering Moroccan names is simple.  It’s fair to say that during our stay most of our dealings was with men named Mohammed (and throw in a few Omar’s) and most woman are named Fatima.

NEGATIVES –
As well as being an assault on the senses, the main square in Marrakech, Jamaa el Fna in addition to the alleys within the medinas, was an assault on our sense of personal space.  I had read a lot of the hustlers and scammers of Morocco but even marching through the crowded medinas with hat and sunglassees on, thus avoiding eye contact, it was still tricky to avoid these clever little devils.

Have the audacity to take a photograph?  Five people will pop out of nowhere to demand payment even if you didn’t take the photograph of them.

Barbie and I both absolutely loved our time in Morocco.  The only downside was, the Loose Stools Index has been trending on the lower end of the scale during our time in Morocco.  It is now onto the beaches in Southern Spain with a touch of city life in Seville.  Hopefully, the Stools Index will correct itself with the addition of Tapas and the elimination of those tasty Tajines.

 

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