Enjoy culture, history, adventure, and relaxation on this nine-day Morocco tour. Explore Marrakech before venturing into the desert a few days exploring kasbahs, caravan routes, and the Saharan dunes. Cross up and over the High Atlas Mountains, hike between small villages, and spend a night with a local family.

Highlights

  • Wander the old medina and souks in Marrakech
  • Explore oases, hidden valleys and old kasbahs in the desert
  • Hike through the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains
  • Enjoy a meal and overnight with a local Berber family

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Marrakech - Explore the Red City Marrakech
Day 2 Over the High Atlas to Ouarzazate Ouarzazate
Day 3 Over the Middle Atlas to the Desert: Erfoud, Merzouga & the Sahara Merzouga
Day 4 Desert Adventures Around Merzouga, Rissani Market & Todra Gorge Todra Gorge
Day 5 Todra Gorge to Aït Benhaddou, via Dades Valley & Ouarzazate Aït Benhaddou
Day 6 Aït Benhaddou to Marrakech - Tizi n'Tichka Pass Over the High Atlas Marrakech
Day 7 Marrakech to Essaouira Essaouira
Day 8 Essaouira to Marrakech Marrakech
Day 9 Depart Morocco  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Marrakech - Explore the Red City

Sunset over Jemaa el Fna Square
Sunset over Jemaa el-Fna Square

Marrakech, Morocco's second-largest metropolis, is also known as the "Red City" due to the natural red ocher pigment in its walls. After settling into your accommodation, prepare for the shock of vibrant sights, sounds, and smells as you explore this bustling city. How much you can see and do today will largely depend on your time of arrival.

To best understand the layout, orient yourself around Jemaa el-Fna Square. From here, you'll find the souks are to the north, the Koutoubia Mosque & Gardens to the west, and the Kasbah area with the Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace, and El Badi Palace are to the south.

For many, the main draw to Marrakech is Jemaa el-Fna Square, which begins to fill in the late afternoon with musicians, storytellers, acrobats, dancers, henna artists, and snake charmers. As it gets dark, rows of food stalls will appear, serving anything from full meals to fruit drinks, dried dates, and small snacks. For a more relaxed experience, look for one of the many cafes that sit above the square to enjoy a meal or tea while you watch the show below.

Until the square comes to life later in the day, you can choose from a variety of sights to explore Marrakech:

  • Koutoubia Mosque & Gardens: West of Jemaa el-Fna, you’ll see the striking minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque. Although non-Muslims are not permitted inside, you can admire the minaret, the oldest tower built under the Almohad Dynasty. On the north side of the mosque, you'll see the foundations of the original mosque, which had to be rebuilt to properly align with Mecca. Walk around the back of the mosque to the beautiful Koutoubia Gardens, filled with fountains, pools, palm trees, and flowers. It’s the perfect place for a late afternoon stroll when the late-day sun glows on the minaret.
  • Medina and Souks: There are enough small alleys and markets in the Medina to occupy you for a couple of days. Take in the various sights, sounds, and smells as you wander. A few souks (marketplaces) worth exploring include Souk el Attarin for spices, Souk Haddadine for blacksmith goods, and Souk Smata for slippers, rugs, and leather goods. Keep your eyes peeled for Souk des Teinturiers, the dyers’ souk, where you can watch people dying cloth and yarn and hanging them above the streets in the afternoon to dry.
  • Fondouks: Along many of the alleys, you’ll notice large open spaces and courtyards. These Fondouks were once inns used by visiting traders and merchants who slept on the upper floors while their animals stayed on the ground floor. Today, some have been converted into residential places while others are large shopping areas and workshops that you can explore.
  • Medersa Ben Youssef (Koranic School): Built in the 16th century, the beautifully renovated medersa once housed students of the nearby Mosque of Ben Youssef. Inside you can appreciate the carved cedar, stucco plaster, and zellij tiling of the central courtyard, wander the old dorms where up to 800 students once lived, and visit the prayer hall.
  • Saadian Tombs: Hidden for many years and only "discovered" by the inquisitive French authorities in the 1930s, the oldest tomb here dates back to 1557. Enter through a very narrow passage to discover a small garden, graves, and three main pavilions.
  • Bahia Palace: Built in the 19th century, this was the largest and most luxurious palace in its day. Today you can explore the courtyard and gardens, and take in the intricate woodwork and painted ceilings.
  • Majorelle Gardens: Not far from the hustle and bustle of the medina, you can wander these lush, expansive gardens filled with sub-tropical plants, bamboo, lilies, and palms. It’s a great place to relax and beat the afternoon heat.

Other sites in the area include:

  • Almoravid Koubba, the only intact Almoravid building.
  • Marrakech Museum, housed in the 19th-century Dar Mnebbi Palace, offers a collection of sculptures and various other Moroccan artwork.
  • Museum of Moroccan Arts and Crafts showcases woodwork including traditional wedding palanquins.

Day 2: Over the High Atlas to Ouarzazate

Taourirt Kasbah, Ouarzazate

This journey takes you up and over the High Atlas Mountains. The highest peak in this impressive mountain range can often be seen: Mount Toubkal, at 13,671 feet (4167 m.). The Berbers (the mountain people) live here. To see their villages and observe their everyday village activities is fascinating. You can see traditional mud-brick homes as well as recent concrete constructions.

Taddert is en route, an ideal stop for refreshments. The N9 road continues to snake upwards to the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass (7414 feet/ 2260 m.), the watershed of the High Atlas. Great panoramic views can be seen from here, over the mountain range and the road recently traveled.

Descend the south-facing slopes of the High Atlas, and notice how the climate becomes much drier as you approach Ouarzazate

Day 3: Over the Middle Atlas to the Desert: Erfoud, Merzouga & the Sahara

Spend the night in a tent in the Sahara
Spend the night in a tent in the Sahara

Get an early start today, as you'll be covering a lot of ground. 

Your scenic journey this morning takes you through the town of Azrou, over the Col du Zad Pass and through the cedar forests of the Middle Atlas mountains, where you can spot Barbary macaque monkeys in the trees and by the side of the road. You'll enjoy lunch and a short stop in Midelt, "the apple city;" be sure to look out onto the nearby River Moulouya, which enables these orchards to grow in the desert.

After lunch, continue over the Tizi-n-Talremt Pass and into the Ziz Valley, known for its hidden oases and palm tree clusters. Along the road you will see many fortified houses known as “ksars,” built by merchants to protect precious goods like gold, salt, and spices. Just before Erfoud you'll see glimpses of the ever-shifting Saharan sand dunes. Because the dunes travel with the wind, they can encroach on farms, roads, and buildings. You'll also see an ancient method of water "mining" — an ingenious way to transfer water to farmland — as well as nomadic shepherds and their settlements. If time permits, you may even be able to visit a local nomadic Berber family here for a spot of tea.  

The next stop is Erfoud, a bustling market town known for its date festival, fossil mining, and artisan factories. Stop at a local artisan collective, where you can to learn about the area's fossils and see how the fossil-rich rock is transformed into beautiful objects. Soon you will see the sand waves of the Erg Chebbi, an extensive sea of sand dunes. Their colors change depending on the time of day; they are especially spectacular at dusk. 

Take a short break near Merzouga for a camel ride through the dunes. You'll arrive at camp just before sunset. Climb up the nearest sand dune to watch the colorful display over the sand sea as the sun dips in the west, then head back to camp for dinner, followed by an evening of traditional Berber music by your campfire. Before you head to bed, take a look at the expansive night sky, then turn in for the night in your traditional Bedouin tent.

If four walls and modern comfort are more your style, you can also opt to spend the night at a comfortable hotel/auberge in Merzouga.

Day 4: Desert Adventures Around Merzouga, Rissani Market & Todra Gorge

ATV riding on the sand dunes
ATV riding on the sand dunes

Wake up early to catch a spectacular desert sunrise, then spend the morning exploring more of the Sahara. You can rent a sandboard and test your skills on the dunes, take the Erg Chebbi tour (around the dunes), join a quad ATV tour, or relax for a bit by a pool. From there, visit nearby Khemliya, a typical Saharan village (its people are originally from Mali), and enjoy traditional drumming music and dancing before taking a short walk around the settlement.

As you leave the Merzouga region and dunes behind, stop in the market town of Rissani, entering through its impressive gate. Known for its livestock auction, it's worth finding the donkey "parking lot" and taking a walk around its traditional market.

Continue to Tinerhir. This desert town offers fantastic views of neighboring towns along the length of the extensive river oasis (30 miles/ 48 km of palm trees). The surrounding desert landscape reveals impressive buttes, mesas, and plateaus.

Next, you'll reach today's final destination, the Todra Gorge. Almost 1000 feet (305 m.) high and carved by the Todra River through red limestone, here you can enjoy a leisurely walk in and around the gorge, and relax in the cool waters of the shallow river below.

The rest of the evening is yours to explore or unwind.

Day 5: Todra Gorge to Aït Benhaddou, via Dades Valley & Ouarzazate

Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO world heritage site in Morocco
Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO world heritage site in Morocco

Today's journey takes you west along the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, many in disrepair as the kasbahs were constructed of rammed earth. As you head towards Aït Benhaddou, you will pass many small towns where you can see traditional farming methods in use. Be on the lookout for nomads tending to their animals as you make your way through Boumalne Dades, a major town and bridging point over the Dades River, and on to Kela'a M'gouna, the "Valley of the Roses." Here you can admire the cultivated rose bushes and visit a rose collective to see the process of converting rose petals into rose water and oil, used in the cosmetic industry.

Next, enter the growing town of Ouarzazate, a common stopping point along the desert routes. The town was made popular by the growing movie industry, and you have an option to tour a movie studio if you like, including an up-close look at some props and sets.

Continue west to the desert hub and popular filming location of Ouarzazate, stopping first with a quick visit to the el Mansour Resevoir, an important source of water for the local farming community. To learn more about the film-making industry in the area, stop at the Musée du Cinema.

Next, reach medieval Aït Benhaddou, Morocco's most famous kasbah and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old ksour dates from the 11th century, when it held an important position along the trans-Saharan trade route between Marrakech, Ouarzazate, and the southern desert. Settle into your accommodation in the old town before exploring the empty alleys and passageways in the late afternoon, after the day crowds have left.

Climb up to the old granary, an excellent vantage point to see the kasbah and surrounding area, including the historic camel caravan routes. There are a couple of old kasbahs that you can pay a nominal fee to enter and climb up for additional pretty views. Game of Thrones fans may want to trek down to the river to see the gates featured in the popular HBO series, where you might recognize scenes from popular movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and Jesus of Nazareth.

Day 6: Aït Benhaddou to Marrakech - Tizi n'Tichka Pass Over the High Atlas

The winding desert roads lead through the Tizi n'Tichka pass
The winding desert roads lead through the Tizi n'Tichka Pass

Leave Aït Benhaddou behind and begin the winding ascent over the High Atlas Mountains, via the Tizi n'Tichka Pass. 

Stop in Taddert, the first town after the pass, and visit the Argan Oil Cooperative to learn how the local women extract the precious oil from the argan nut to make oil used in the health, food, and cosmetic industries. As you descend the High Atlas, you will notice a dramatic change in the landscape, as the rocks change to foothills and transition again into flat plains. Soon you will be a part of the hustle and bustle of vibrant Marrakech.

After a long day on the road, settle into your hotel and spend the rest of the afternoon as you like. In the early evening, choose one of the many cafés surrounding Jemaa el-Fna Square and enjoy a cup of mint tea and a meal.

Day 7: Marrakech to Essaouira

Fortressed Essaouira
Fortressed Essaouira

Say goodbye to the Red City and travel to Morocco's west coast, following a route that takes you over vast rolling plains. Along the way, pass through an argan tree forest, endemic to this part of the world.

Arrive in the port city of laid-back Essaouira, a nice contrast to frenetic Marrakech, and spend the rest of the day as you choose. Walk the Skala de la Kasbah (the 18th-century seafront ramparts) along the coast. Designed by European engineers, old brass cannons line the walls and offer viewing access over the Atlantic. Explore the UNESCO-listed medina before making your way to the windswept beach. Walk back to Essaouira and enjoy a meal of fresh-caught seafood.

Day 8: Essaouira to Marrakech

Traditional markets

After a morning enjoying Essaouira, head back to Marrakech.

Keep your eyes out for goats in the nearby argan trees as you travel back to Marrakech through the rolling plains. Goats climb the trees naturally to eat the olives; today many farmers "encourage" the goats to stay up there as the passing travelers have become an additional income source.

Day 9: Depart Morocco

Koutoubia Mosque
Koutoubia Mosque

Depending on your flight time, you may have time in the morning to explore more before you head to the Marrakech Menara Airport in time for your flight. Farewell Morocco!

Map

Map of Southern Morocco: Marrakech, Sahara & the Atlas Mountains - 9 Days
Map of Southern Morocco: Marrakech, Sahara & the Atlas Mountains - 9 Days