Sea to Sahara: Morocco in a Nutshell
Morocco is one of the most geographically diverse countries I've ever been to. Casablanca borders the Atlantic coast with the Hassan II Mosque perched right over the waves while Fes has a backdrop of beautiful rolling hills that connect to the Sahara Desert just a few hours away. Every way you look there's new beautiful scenery with a friendly local there to welcome you. I'm thankful to say I was able to spend a week exploring this awesome country, and to everyone reading, I highly recommend adding Morocco to your bucket list (if it isn't already).
If looking up pictures on Google isn't enough to convince you, hopefully my stories will make up for it. So, here's to Morocco:
If you haven't heard of Tagine, Morocco is definitely the place to discover it. Tagine is a classic 'dish' in Morocco that can be made with a variety of meats, vegetables, and spices using a Tagine pot to slowly roast the concoction. The meat, I usually chose chicken, falls right off the bone with the perfect flavors of lemon, tumeric and cumin. It's also so easy to recreate at home for someone who can't cook (me). I started with this description of Lemon Chicken Tagine to give you an idea of what an amazing start I had to my trip, and how the rest of the trip had a high standard to live up to.
The first city I spent some time in was Fes, one of the old imperial cities. When you imagine markets full of spices and beautiful mosaic doors, you're thinking of Fes. To truly experience the full force of this city, you have to walk through the Medina. A medina is basically a market full of everything you could ever want to buy: spices, shoes, jewelry, bags, camel meat, and lamps. The Fes Medina is one of the world's most well known medinas because of its maze-like structure and narrow walkways. You look one way then someone is screaming "BALAK" which means move or you'll be flattened by a cart or even some donkeys. After a day in the medina, you'll understand Moroccan culture and want to dive even deeper into the city. Day two in Fes was even more impressive as we visited the leather tannery and learned how Moroccan leather products were made and colored. Be careful to keep sniffing the mint leaves they give you or you'll get a serious headache from the stench! The tannery has such a terrible smell because they use bird poop to bleach the leather before dyeing it, I know very appealing right? Not at all.
But, on another note, what is appealing is a camel burger. If you can work up the courage to try camel, I recommend Cafe Clock in the medina as their burgers are to die for, and they even have shakes and story time too!
Having traveled all the way to Morocco, we had to see the Sahara Desert. In my opinion the best way to see a country is to drive across it, and Morocco definitely shows off. On our bus ride alone we went from rolling hills to snow capped mountains then desert cliffs and finally stopping at steep sand dunes.
This was when we began the most remarkable part of our journey: a camel ride into the Sahara to sleep under the stars at a traditional indigenous Berber camp site! Camels are not the most glamorous of animals, but you sure do start to appreciate them when the sun is beating down on you, and they’re the ones hiking up sand dunes instead of you.
Also, if you’re planning on riding a camel anytime soon I have some advice for you – wear some padded bike shorts and relax your thighs (you’ll thank me later).
Anyway, after an hour and a half ride into the desert we got settled at our campground and decided to race up the nearest sand dune to watch the sunset over the hills. Let me tell you, these are no ordinary sand dunes. You take one step up you slide down just as much, so the ‘race’ to the top was more of a struggling sort of climb.
However, the view from the top could not have been more worth it. Once the sun set we slid, rolled, and fell down the sand back to our tents to prepare for dinner. The Berbers working at the camp served us traditional Moroccan mint green tea (my favorite drink ever) during our wait and before we knew it we were digging in to another day’s worth of Tagine with perfectly cooked potatoes and bread. For the rest of the night we sang and danced around the camp fire to the tune of drummers until the entire Milky Way opened up above us. Shooting stars were flitting left and right as we pulled our mattresses out of our tents to fall asleep under the stars.
In the morning we woke up early to ride the camels back out of the desert while watching the sunrise over the sand dunes. For the next few days we spent our time making our way to our final destination in Marrakech while checking out smaller towns along the drive. One of my favorite smaller towns was Ouarzazate which is next to the UNESCO world heritage site, Aït Benhaddou, which is a stunning old village with dozens of family run shops to buy traditional Moroccan gifts.
Our last day was spent in Marrakech exploring another large medina, buying spices to take home to our families and any last minute gifts. This medina is definitely the place to get souvenirs as you can barter with the sellers and there are literally shops as far as the eye can see. I would also recommend going in a group and keeping a close eye on your belongings because it gets pretty hectic and crowded at times! Another site we checked out that I would say to see was the Bahia Palace. This 19th century palace is an incredibly ornate building with gardens, fountains, and rooms built for many, many, many concubines and wives that the grand vizier of the sultan had.
If you do check out the medina be aware of the ‘acts’ that go on. There are many people with snakes and monkeys – do NOT take pictures of them if you do not want to pay them. They will charge you for a picture, and they will harass you until you pay it. Enjoy the moment by watching and don’t even reach for your phone. Also be aware of your belongings during these performances as sometimes they are done to distract you will another person pickpockets.
Arrive at the Marrakech airport with plenty of time (3 hours at least). We flew with TAP Air Portugal, and they only had one check-in counter open when we got there early. It took over 2 hours to get through this check in alone, and afterward you still have to go through passport control which would have added another hour or two. They opened a separate line just for people on our flight, and we ran to catch our plane. Dozens of people did not make it on just because of passport control, so definitely give yourself what you think is too much time. Better safe than sorry.