Visiting Morocco has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. I have always wanted to ride a camel, see the desert, explore labyrinthine medinas and drink tea with Berbers.
Standing over the Sahara one morning, gazing at the rhythmic, undulating dunes of the desert, that dream had come true. I had ridden a camel to the place where I would gaze at a million stars that night, smiling at the fact that I was finally in the place I had dreamed of, under those same stars, thousands of miles away.
For a fortnight, I travelled the country on Intrepid Travel’s Your Tours in Morocco, devouring couscous, drinking my body weight in mint tea, hiking and taking in the sights and sounds of Morocco.
Morocco was an incredible and rewarding experience. It indulges the senses and is full of surprises. If you are looking for reasons to travel, here are some highlights of my trip:
1. Camel Trekking in the Sahara
While I wish you could still ride the traditional camel caravans from Morocco to Egypt, I settled for one night beneath the stars. It turns out that riding a camel for an hour is fairly painful, but seeing the stunning colours of the desert up up and personal, camping with Bedouins, and staring at a million stars with no light pollution made it all worthwhile. When the wind slows down in the desert, there is an eerie quiet and you experience a tremendous feeling of tranquilly just sitting and being in nature.
Surprisingly, it poured when I was in the desert. There was a wild, wild lightning storm – one of the most violent I’ve ever seen. The thunder sounded like a million bombs exploding, and the lighting transformed night into day. It hadn’t rained all year, but the sky opened up for a brief period that night to let out all her rage. Surreal.
2. Hiking the Atlas Mountains
The Atlas Mountains cover most of Morocco, and we spent a lot of time in the low, middle, and high parts of the mountains (it’s hard not to). My favorite part was crossing the High Atlas, where we climbed for an hour to get to a small farmhouse where we stayed with a local family (who made us the most delicious tajine dinner and Berber omelet of the whole trip).
Since we arrived early and did not leave until late the next day, we had plenty of time to hike and explore the area. Since I love hiking, I enjoyed the opportunity to really get out into nature, walking through riverbeds and seeing Mount Toubkal (North Africa’s highest peak) in the distance. Next to camel trekking, this was my favorite experience.
3. Eating at Café Clock
This Western-style café, with locations in Marrakech and Fez, was recommended to me by many and is famous for its gigantic and delicious camel burger (which tastes a lot like spicy shawarma). The food is excellent: The burger, green smoothies and buttery chicken couscous were so filling that I ate here twice.
And in the crazy and chaotic medinas of any city, the cafés are an oasis of calm where you can refuel, use Wi-Fi and cool off with air conditioning. They also offer cooking classes and host regular events in each place!
4. Getting Lost in the Medinas
The medinas are the historic heart of every city in Morocco: part residential district, part shopping centre, part food market. Here you’ll find winding alleys lined with shops, restaurants, markets and homes, their buildings seemingly too close together and too old to last much longer.
For someone who loves to get lost, the medinas were heaven. I spent hours wandering through them, turning right, turning back, walking through squares and streets that somehow looked familiar, finding my way, only to get lost again on purpose. They were a labyrinth that I enjoyed trying to solve while I drank tea, ate delicious and fragrant food and took in the sights.
A word of warning: Fes is a little unsafe, so do not stray too far from the beaten track. Stick to streets with lots of people. I had a few close encounters with pickpockets and potential robbers.
5. Exploring Volubilis
Volubilis, an important trading centre and the southernmost settlement of the Roman period, is one of the best preserved (and least visited) ruins of its kind in the world. I found it empty of tourists, not built over and open enough that you can really get up close and see the structures without standing behind metre-high barriers and being mobbed by crowds. Most of the city hasn’t yet been excavated, so the site gives a very rough impression. I’ve visited many Roman ruins on my travels, but I like this one the best.
6. Seeing Aït Benhaddou
Although I did not get to spend much time here, exploring this place full of kasbahs (fortified houses) was quite impressive. The Kasbahs are the Hollywood of Morocco and have been featured in Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and many other films. It was the most picturesque ksar (fortified village) I have seen, which is probably why it’s in every movie!
It fits the image you have of an old ksar. I enjoyed strolling through the streets and climbing to the top to enjoy the view.
7. Enjoying the Beach and Seafood of Essaouira
My favourite town in Morocco, Essaouira, is a couple of hours from Marrakech on the Atlantic coast and is a popular beach destination for tourists, especially Brits. I liked the relaxed atmosphere of the town, the lack of pushy touts, the sea air and the abundance of fresh fish.
Be sure to visit the wonderful fish market in town where all the small fishermen sell their catch of the day. Afterwards, visit the small fish stalls in the main square where you can enjoy fresh seafood at a very reasonable price.
8. Visiting Marrakech
Marrakech was exactly as I had imagined it: a modern mix of Moroccan and international culture with a great variety of delicious international food (visit PepeNero for Italian and Latitude for a Mediterranean-Moroccan mix) and beautiful architecture in the medina.
Although Marrakech does not have the spiciness and bite of the rest of the country, it was the most diverse city on the trip.
The chaotic pace revealed a city and people always on the move. The famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square is truly the chaos everyone describes: Tens of thousands of people eating at night, shopping, getting henna tattoos, listening to bands and storytellers and watching magicians (and snake charmers during the day). It’s one of the most hectic but fascinating people-watching places in the country. I am still amazed at how big and crowded it was! (In contrast, the Saadian Tombs are an attraction I would skip – they are simple, the grounds are small, and overall it was just bland).
9. Eating Lots of Couscous and Tagine
At the end of my two weeks there I was a little “snuffy”. Nevertheless, I threw myself headlong into eating as much as I could – I loved savouring the flavours, seeing the regional variety and learning how long it takes to prepare each dish. Tagine (cooked with meat, dates, nuts, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and saffron in a clay pot) was by far my favourite dish in Morocco.
The Berber omelette with egg, tomato, onion and herbs, also cooked in a clay pot, is also worth trying.
10. Drinking Mint Tea
I have never drunk so much tea as in Morocco. In a country where “drinking a beer” is not common, the locals replace it with pots of mint tea. There is even an art to pouring: the higher the teapot, the better. I could not get enough of this minty, sugary treat and sat with the locals in the tea shops watching football. I must have drunk a pot or two a day. Man, this stuff is addictive!
While I’ve been to predominantly Muslim countries before, in Southeast Asia, I’ve never experienced an Arab Muslim country or heard the call to prayer. There was something beautiful about the melodic nature of the call, and it was a great alarm clock at 5 a.m. Seeing people flock to the mosque in their white prayer clothes was a unique cultural experience I couldn’t help but observe.
Morocco is an incredible destination. At times, it was trying, stressful, chaotic, and overloaded my senses, but for all the stresses of travel, it was a country where I felt out of my element and like I was truly somewhere new and different. I loved that feeling and everything else about Morocco.
Editor’s Note: I went to Morocco with Intrepid Travel on their Best of Morocco tour. It was part of my ongoing partnership with Your Tours In Morocco. They covered the cost of the tour, flight, and meals.