For a milestone birthday, my wife and I decided to take a bucket list trip to Morocco. We had always wanted to visit Morocco and it completely exceeded our expectations. In preparation for Morocco, we spent many weeks pouring over forum posts, books, and Google Maps preparing for our trip. We usually travel independently and organize trips ourselves, but we came to the conclusion that it would be best for us to use a private guide because we wanted to see as much of the country as possible in our limited time. After much research and several email exchanges, we chose Around Morocco Tours because of the owner Lahcen's quick response times, willingness to answer lots of questions, and flexibility with the itinerary.
Looking back, this was the best decision we could have made. Our guides, Mohammed B. and Lahcen, showed us more of the country than we would have ever seen on our own. They shared with us their Berber culture, the history and geology of Morocco, and gave us insight into the daily lives of Moroccans. Throughout the trip, they demonstrated boundless energy, knowledge, openness, and a great sense of humor.
The logistics were also much simpler - all we needed to do was meet up with Mohammed or Lahcen in the morning. They took care of all of the payments, setup our local guides for day tours (e.g., medina walking tours), and knew all the best local places to eat and shop.
We came up with the following itinerary which is similar to their Best of Morocco Tour:
We landed in Marrakech on a beautiful day and were met at the airport by Mohammed B., our guide for the majority of the trip. He led us to a clean, almost new Mercedes minivan, which proved to be very comfortable and had very large windows.
As we approached the city center, Mohammed safely navigated us through increasingly chaotic traffic (animal, vehicular, and otherwise) while pointing out historical sites on the way. Mohammed speaks at least six languages which was a great help in moving traffic along.
We finally made it to our riad, freshened up, and ventured out ourselves for a walk around the medina. The medina streets are poorly marked, narrow, and often dead end. There are maps available, but holding up a map in the middle of a walkway is like holding up a sign that says "I'm lost" - kids will quickly ask to "help" you (for a fee, of course). We found it helpful to look at a map in a shop, out of the main walkway.
The next day we took a guided walking tour of Marrakech. Our guide showed us the Koutoubia Mosque, the Saadian Tombs, Badi Palace (ruins only), and the El Bahia palace. These landmarks have a deep historical and religious significance and feature incredible artistry. We also walked extensively through the medina and noticed the varied architectural styles in the different areas. Each small neighborhood, developed over many centuries, reflected waves of immigration through the years as different religious and ethnic populations migrated to the country. We ended the day with a walk through Majorelle Garden, which was a lush, peaceful break from the sensory overload of the city.
The next day we drove over the Tizi n'Tichka pass in the High Atlas Mountains to Boumalne Dades, a drive described as "terrifying" by several online sources. It's not. It is a beautiful drive, and if you've driven on a mountain (or one of the actually terrifying drives around a Hawaiian island) then you've already driven worse.
With the assistance of our guide, we explored the UNESCO World Heritage site Ait Ben Haddou for an hour or so. It was like traveling back in time. It was like something out of a movie and a place we could have explored for much longer. It was interesting to see the pre-Saharan architecture and building techniques used to keep a mud and straw fortress from succumbing to the elements. A great place to stop and explore.
After getting back on the road, we then stopped at the Atlas Studio film lot - aka, the "Moroccan Hollywood." We wandered through sets used for such films as Lawrence of Arabia, Kundun, Jewel of the Nile, and Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, we didn't get to see any dragons. The desert's red & yellow sunsets attract filmmakers from around the world and support a local educational system that specializes in film-related careers.
Past nightfall we arrived at Boumalne Dades. It was a long day, but it never felt long thanks to Mohammed. He has an excellent music selection (including Desert Blues and African music), many interesting stories, and a great sense of humor. There are lots of places to stop along the way to drink coffee, take photos, or just look around at the villages in the mountain valleys. These villages still use traditional farming techniques, and the almond trees blooming against the rich green farmland is a beautiful sight.
Since we were all in the van for long stretches, it was also a good time to ask questions that you often find yourself scrambling through guidebooks to answer. From talking about local school hours, the significance of embroidery on women's clothes, the political environment, or just about anything else, Mohammed made the country come alive. This was a recurring theme throughout the trip - you can see a lot through a window, or walking around, but you'll understand and appreciate more with a guide. On a practical level, it also frees you up from the daily logistical challenges like where to get gas, directions, and food.
Up early the next day, we first drove to the Todra Gorge, but were a bit rushed because we needed to get to Merzouga in time for the trek to the desert camp for the night.
The Todra Gorge features a long hiking trail at the end of a paved road running along a small river. We spent a short time there. It was nice, but I think it would have been even better if we had time to hike a few miles up into the gorge.
We then hurried into Merzouga to quickly change and catch up with our tourist caravan. We joined three other tourists on a 1.5 hour camel trek into the Moroccan dunes to a semi-permanent camp. We were to spend the night there, hoping to see a desert sunrise and sunset, and if all went well, some amazing stars. By sunset clouds had completely covered the sky and winds were gusting to at least 30 mph. Moreover, the generators wouldn't start so the camp was without electricity.
Despite these obstacles, aided by lanterns and flashlights, our leader Ahmed and the team made one of the best meals we had on the entire trip. The Moroccan salad of tomatoes, garlic, and rice and a spicy chicken tajine with potatoes were incredible. We washed dinner down with Berber Whiskey (aka, green tea with mint) and swapped traveling stories. After dinner the guides sang traditional Berber folk songs and several of us rotated in on the bongo drums while singing. A great memory.
After a few hours of sleep and a few pounds of sand in the tent, we awoke the next morning and rode back to the hotel. We thought we'd be sore or in pain after never having ridden camels and also having back issues, but we weren't. It's a different motion than an off-road 4x4 or even a horse - more like being in a boat. Maybe that's why camels are known as the “Ships of the Desert.”
This was a Friday, so the town was very quiet with most people staying home. It was also a special day for us, as Mohammed invited us to eat lunch at his house in Rissani with his mother, grandmother, and sister. His mother had prepared an excellent tajine and Mohammed's sister painted a henna tattoo on my wife's hands while lunch was being readied. It was wonderful to meet his extended family and learn about their lives.
Another long day in the car, which was again broken up by numerous stops for coffee and photo opportunities. Once out of Merzouga, we started to make our way to Fez. This drive took us through the Ziz Valley, which had we known better would have been a great hiking destination.
The Ziz Valley is rich farmland fed by the Ziz River. The valley cuts through the otherwise flat volcanic landscape and is the home of numerous date palm groves. Huge, hundred-year old palms shade farmland plots, with the occasional farmer taking a quick nap in their field. There is a trail that winds through the valley, and my wife and I dreamed of walking along the trail under the palms with charcoal smoke lingering in the air.
We took a quick break in Ifrane, the "Switzerland of Morocco," which was a good place to grab a snack. The streets of this mountain town, lined by rows of deciduous trees, were hard to reconcile with the high-plain desert gorge we saw in the morning. It highlighted Morocco's density - we were continually struck by how many different ideas, peoples, histories, and geographies were compressed into such a relatively small area.
Towards the end of the day we made it to Fez. When planning the itinerary we were concerned that this would be a difficult driving day, but it passed quickly and pleasantly.
The next day we spent exploring the medina of Fez and its historical sites. While we appreciated the medina's unique exclusion of motorized vehicles and pottery artists, we preferred the souks of Marrakech. Fes had excellent ceramics and rugs, but in general there were many more mass-produced products on display compared to Marrakech.
Nearing the end of the trip, and already starting to miss the Berber culture, we finally met Lahcen as Mohammed had some business to attend to in Marrakech. Lahcen assumed driving responsibilities as we made our next stop at Volubilis on the way to Chefchaouen. Lahcen was as interesting, entertaining, and knowledgeable as Mohammed and was a great person to end our trip with.
If you like Roman/Greek mythology or archaeology, Volubilis is definitely worth the stop. The ruins are well preserved and again, a walking guide really helps make the area come alive. If there's an architecture buff in your group, imagining how the buildings were controlled and built with water is worth the trip alone. Besides the educational aspect, the landscape is very beautiful - with rolling farmland hills, wildflowers, and storks nesting on ancient columns.
After spending longer than planned at Volubilis (because we were having such a good time), we drove up to the blue city of Chefchaouen. It's a small mountain town, and like nothing we've ever seen. The "blue washed" walls are beautiful, but it doesn't need more than a day. Get up early in the morning, and if the light is right, you'll get some great photographs. The doors and handmade door knockers are particularly impressive.
And with that, we left Chefchaouen in the early morning for our final drive to Tangiers and our flight out of Morocco.
Morocco is a country with a tremendous amount of historical, geological, natural, and cultural depth compressed into a relatively small area. There is a feeling of sensory and temporal overload as you travel. Depending on your experiences, you may initially find this overwhelming. But, after a couple of days, you'll understand the rhythm. And after you've been home for a few months, those feelings will make you want to return.
It's partly because of this density that Morocco is the best place we've ever visited. There was never a dull moment, and it was often a moment we never expected. A lot of those moments happened in the van or on the road with Mohammed and Lahcen, where Morocco was just the backdrop. My wife and I were initially uncertain about this arrangement, but after having completed our trip, we actually tried to change our post-Morocco plans so that we could return because we enjoyed it so much. The "tourist checklist" items were enough for us to visit once. But, the Berber culture, the beauty of the landscape, and the experience we had with Around Morocco tours makes us want to visit again.