Morocco

I’ve had some pretty amazing trips since moving to Nottingham, but I think the most unique, jaw-dropping experience I’ve had so far is spending the night in the Sahara Desert, riding a camel out in the morning with the moon on one side, and the sunrise on the other. It was like a real-life, live version of that scene in Aladdin… Incredible.

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But I’ll get back to that later.

There’s no place quite like Morocco. Up to this point, all of my trips had been to other countries in Europe. Mostly city breaks, which I love, but this time… We wanted to go somewhere different. My brother had a dream of him riding a camel in the desert, and a few months later… There we were, on a plane to Marrakesh.

We got in to Marrakesh late in the evening at the very end of April, and arrived at our riad at nearly 11pm. If you ever go to Morocco, I highly recommend staying at least one night in one of the many riads – traditional Moroccan houses or palaces with an interior courtyard or garden. They are run by locals and give you a true authentic stay, and most of them are super affordable as well. Plus, if you’ve got a good camera (which I hadn’t at this point), they’re very photogenic spots and could get you that perfect Insta shot. 😉

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If you do decide to stay at one of these lovely spots, I must suggest that if the riad offers a pickup from the airport… take it. Marrakesh is a maze, with most people not actually able to speak good English, and the places are not well signed at all. Our riad entrance was literally just a big wooden door down two side streets, which we never would have found without a guide from the airport.

Our host was fantastic, even offering to prepare us a traditional Moroccan meal, despite their cook finishing their shift at the same time we arrived. We felt a bit awkward, sitting in the lobby of this place, with the rest of the building completely quiet and dark as we waited to be served who knew what. But he swiftly came with the first round of food, and we were quite pleasantly surprised.

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There were all sorts of salads, bread, beans, rice, fruit… Then he came with chicken tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish, and finished with various fruits and stewed pears for dessert. All delicious, and quite a nice, warm welcome to Morocco.

Our room was cozy and nice, but lacking a bathroom door… We simply had a curtain to pull across to separate the two rooms. Bit awkward for a gal on vacation with her brother, but when in Morocco, you (kind of… eventually…) get used to a bit of a lack of privacy.

We had to be up early the next day, as our pickup time for our 3-day trip to the Sahara was 0700. Our host quickly informed us that punctuality isn’t really a thing in Morocco – 0700 means likely 0720… or even later. Nevertheless, my brother and I were up and at ’em, ready to go by 0700… just to be picked up at 0730.

After some scary driving through the labyrinth of streets in Marrakesh, picking up the rest of our tour group, we began making our long journey to the Sahara from Marrakesh. Our first stop was in the Atlas Mountains, and boy, were we cold. It was the very end of April, and we had been thinking, “it’s Africa, it’s gonna be hot!”. Well, not in the early mornings or nighttime. When the sun’s not out, it’s bloody freezing. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the views.

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Our next stop, at the foothills of the High Atlas mountains was Aït Benhaddou – a kasbah in the Ounila Valley. This place is basically a grouping of earthen dwellings used often as a trading site, situated along the caravan route to the Sahara, or the ancient trading route from Sudan to Marrakesh.

abhThe architecture here is amazing – earthen buildings; some modest, some resembling mini castles – all made of mud brick, fortified with red pise, and the occasional bits of wood. Although the area is mostly uninhabited these days, the buildings are (mostly) well maintained, still simply using earth and wood to conserve the world heritage site.

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Its popularity began in the 17th century, mainly as a trading post for those on the way to the Sahara or Sudan. Still used as a trading site today, but the trade goods are now souvenirs for tourists…

If you’re thinking the place looks familiar at all, it may be because you might’ve seen it on the big screen before. It’s been a film location for several Hollywood movies including Gladiator, The Mummy, Lawrence of Arabia, Prince of Persia… It’s a long list. Or you may have even on your TV screen… This place is the old slaving city of Yunkai in the Game of Thrones series.

We had lunch at a nearby restaurant – more tagine and bread – then continued the journey to our hotel for the night. Nestled in the Dades Valley, this place is pretty much the middle of nowhere. But we had a decent enough view out of our window, and the supper provided here was delicious again.

I couldn’t help but laugh when they brought out the soup with these spoons…

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But they were surprisingly effective!

We ate with our tour group at a big table, which was our first real chance to get to talk to each other at all. There were 14 of us, all couples except for my brother and I, from various countries – the US, Canada (Quebec), England, Spain, Italy, and Slovenia. So we had a great time sitting around chatting about where we’re from and what we do, and just getting to know a bit about each other in general.

With another early start the next morning, we headed to Tinghir, to see a traditional Berber village. The local guide was very eager to show us around, and was quite proud of their alfalfa fields – which the locals eat as well, not just their cattle and sheep.

alfalfa.jpgbvillage3He took us all around the little village; another community of earthen buildings, and we stopped in to one of them to see the traditional method of making rugs there. Of course, they had to try to get us to buy them, but eventually we got out of there and back on the road.

We were all pretty anxious to get to the Sahara already – it felt like we were just delaying the real big adventure with all these other stops, but it would be quite a grueling drive to do it all at once. We made one final stop in the Dades Valley at Todra Gorge, and had lunch nearby before making the final stretch of the drive to Merzouga.

And then, suddenly, like being at sea for days and days, finally spotting land in the distance and calling out “land ahoy!”… We had our first sighting of the Sahara Desert. It was as if someone had just dumped tonnes and tonnes of sand in the middle of nowhere, and left it there.

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After parking and hopping out of the van, we made our way to our next form of transportation for the evening… These guys.

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If you’re wondering how comfortable of a ride they are, they actually aren’t too bad. Like a less graceful horse… which is very awkward to be on when they stand up or sit down. But the experience of padding through the gigantic sand dunes with the African sun beaming down on you, these amazingly bright blue skies and nothing but orange sand surrounding you… is unbelievable.

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Our camp for the night was nestled at the bottom of one of the biggest dunes in the Sahara, and mainly consisted of rugs and blankets used as walls for the tents.

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The locals played music for us, and cooked us supper, and we all sat around camp chatting before heading to bed for the night. We were downwind from the camels, which… was not the best experience. They are very gassy animals. We also discovered we had a cat and her kitten hanging out under our beds, which was just about the most unexpected animal to find in a tent in the middle of the Sahara, but a much happier surprise than what I was expecting.

We didn’t sleep super well, between the sound of the wind whipping the tents, cats meowing, and camels stinking up the place. But I loved every bit of it; we couldn’t help but laugh every time we got another waft of camel stench come through the tent. It’s one of those situations where you can’t help but think, how the hell did I end up here? 

We were up early again the next morning, but even earlier than the previous days… While it was just the moon in the sky providing any light for us. The moon is pretty intense in the Sahara though, shining like a spotlight in the otherwise pitch black sky.

The sunrise was incredible, though. As always, pictures never do it justice.

The drive back to Marrakesh was pretty tiresome, as it was just straight driving minus one stop for lunch partway.  We also had our first run-in that evening with a not-so-nice local.. our bus driver.

When we were getting closer to Marrakesh, we had showed our driver the name of our hotel, and he didn’t say much to us. Then soon we were back in the middle of Marrakesh, nowhere near our hotel, and he kicked us out of the bus. We said we were super far away from our hotel, to which he got very angry at, then threw our bags out of the bus and onto the street, yelling “Taxi! Taxi!” at us before getting back in the bus and driving off, leaving us with our mouths dropped open in the middle of a street in Marrakesh.

It was a bit frightening, being left to our own devices in a busy city where we couldn’t just use Google to help us out – neither of us had bothered to get an African phone plan since we’d had everything booked in advance anyway. However, luckily for us, and much to our surprise, we found some taxis just up the street which were willing to drive out of the city to our hotel.

The drive seemed to last forever, and as we got farther and farther away from the city centre, our nervous glances at each other turned into panicked faces, wondering how much this guy was going to charge us… or if we were even actually going to a hotel, or if we were about to never be seen by anyone ever again. When you can’t really communicate with someone in a foreign country, your mind starts to wander, and after our last driver turning into such an angry dickhead out of nowhere, we were a bit nervous.

Needless to say, we made it out of Marrakesh alive. The guy wasn’t untrustworthy, and actually charged us a reasonable amount considering the distance he drove for us. And that hour was really the only time I was ever really worried or felt slightly unsafe in Morocco – the rest of our trip went quite smoothly.

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Our resort was an all-inclusive, complete with waterslides, which we were pretty happy to get back to after spending the night in a tent made of blankets in the desert, downwind from camels constantly farting and cats meowing underneath the bed.

We didn’t actually spend much time in the city centre of Marrakesh. It’s unbelievably busy, and we both don’t deal well with bartering and being extorted. If you so much as glance into a shop or stall, you’ll instantly be harassed to buy something. Even just walking around, locals will come up to you and almost force you to pay them…

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A common technique is to place something on you, then not remove it unless you pay them; either to take it off of you or for you to keep it and take a picture with it. My friend warned me of this prior to our trip – when she was walking through the market, a man came up behind her, placed a snake on her shoulders, and wouldn’t remove it until they paid him.

The same thing happened to me, but luckily with a cute little monkey rather than a slimy snake. I also had no cash other than a two pound coin on me, so I didn’t have to give him much to leave me alone.

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After our big excursion to the Sahara, we had a couple of chilled out days at the resort. It was very hot during the day, and we enjoyed the sun by the pool and the multiple waterslides. But, in the evening, man, was it chilly. We both weren’t prepared for the cool temperatures when the sun wasn’t out.

We decided to go on another trip outside of Marrakesh, this time just a day trip to the coast. Our tour took us to the seaside town of Essaouira, also known to Game of Thrones fans as the city of Astapor.

Along the way, we saw plenty of fields of Argan trees, including this one tree with goats hanging out in it…

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Even in the middle of nowhere, there’s someone there to harass you to pay them. There’s a guy that hangs out here at this tree, attempting to get you to pay him to take pictures of the tree. No, not get him to take a picture for you, he just wants you to pay him before you take a picture of a random tree with goats in it on the side of the road. It’s bizarre.

After our quick stop for a snap of the tree, we stopped at a factory which makes Argan products. The process is so painfully time consuming, it’s amazing to me that they even still make Argan products. They shell Argan nuts, then put the nut in this grinder and wind the handle up vigorously until a drop or two of oil drips out the bottom. If you ever wonder why Moroccan/Argan oil is expensive… that’s why.

The reflection is pretty horrible at the factory, but here’s a lady on the street in Essaouira to give you a better look of the Argan grinder.

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The ladies at the factory were super nice, and they even had free samples for us to try. They not only make beauty products from the oil, but these food products as well… There were three sort of dips we tried, one similar to a honey texture, one like peanut butter, and the other just an oil, really. They were all quite good, and unlike the men in Morocco, didn’t pressure us to actually buy anything, or make us feel uncomfortable at any point. So we ended up buying a few things from this shop, happily.

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After our tour of the Argan factory, we shortly arrived in the coastal town of Essaouira. I just thought it was beautiful. And completely different than the other places we’d been in Morocco. Our guide took us to the marina area first, with plenty of bright blue fishing boats and seagulls galore.

In this area of town, nobody paid a lick of attention to us. It was fantastic after the awful experience we had in the market in Marrakesh. The salt air and ocean breeze was just what we needed to end off our week.

We then walked along a section of the old walls, which was shown in Game of Thrones.

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It was a great spot for just sitting and taking in the views.

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We carried on to wandering the streets of Essaouira, with its many shops and souvenirs, and even stumbled upon a seafood market selling some pretty interesting things…

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Yuck. I like seafood and all, but… yuck.

The streets are so nice to stroll through, without all of the harassment and discomfort of Marrakesh. I loved the art, and the rugs and such hanging on the walls, and just how colourful the streets were.

Our last stop was for lunch at a spot right on the beach, with a delicious seafood platter. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking on the beach, just relaxing and taking in the coast. The only time we were really bothered was by a guy trying to get us to do a camel ride on the beach, which we likely would’ve been suckered into had we not already spent a couple hours riding camels in and out of the Sahara just days before.

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And honestly, I kind of expected a beach to have touristy things. Even in the Caribbean the locals come up trying to sell their artwork and knickknacks to you. But this beach was fairly quiet in that sense, which I appreciated. And I mean, I get that Morocco is not a rich country, and they see tourists and hope to make money off of them. But they could go about it in a much nicer manner… I’m sure they’d end up getting more money from people just donating to them than they do running after people harassing them.

It’s the one thing I truly hated about Morocco. You don’t even want to look sideways at something, ’cause if you do… be prepared to have that thing shoved in your face, or dragged into a shop, or just simply be harassed until you somehow manage to break free of them. These people do not know what “no” means, even if you try to say it in Moroccan Arabic (lla).

It’s also very unnerving the way the men stare at women. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a burka, covered head to toe, or if you’re with a man. They stare. A stare that makes you so uncomfortable you just stare at the ground and try to quickly pass them. And they don’t stop. It seems to just last forever, it’s very aggressive, and they appear to feel good about how much discomfort they can give you. Honestly, it’s the worst. 

But, despite all of that, Morocco is a very unique and interesting and beautiful country. For the most part, the people were pretty friendly to us. Our guides were all great and spoke pretty decent English, even though Arabic and French are their official languages. The food was all delicious, other than the couple of things I had that were ruined by danged old raisins… bleh.

They have the desert, the ocean, busy cities and quiet rural villages, rivers and gorges and waterfalls and mountains… you name it. The architecture alone makes me want to return, with their medinas and their old city gates, riads, colourful tiles and steps… It’s very photogenic. Morocco has a lot to offer. As long as you can get past the local harassers, and keep an open mind… I definitely recommend giving this place a visit.

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