Trip to Morocco - Jan 12 - Jan 19, 2019
First of all, a big thank you to Yassine and the other members of his team: Hassan, Mohammed & Nabil as well as Chris and Kellie from Kimkim who all worked together to arrange this trip for us. A special thank you to Mohammed, our driver, who drove us all over Morocco, covering great distances. He was an extremely safe and responsible driver who knows the roads and traffic conditions of his country very well.
Ever since I saw the BBC documentary " Sahara" presented by British Actor Michael Palin, many years ago, I wanted to visit Morocco and the Sahara desert. And in January 2019, the day finally came. Before our Morocco tour started, my husband and I have been travelling in Southern Spain for a week. On 11 January, we took the FRS ferry from Tarifa in Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier. We spent one night in Tangier and our driver, Mohammed, met us the next morning on 12 January to start our Morocco of the Beaten Track tour.
Our first stop on the tour was Chefchaouen. The winding road from Tangier to Chefchaouen through the Rif Mountains was very picturesque and a great way to see the greener countryside of Morocco. People often think of Morocco as mostly a dry desert landscape, but the route from Tangier to Chefchaouen is very green and beautiful. Chefchaouen was one of the highlights of our trip. The accomodation at La petite Chefchaouen in the heart of the old town on the hill was great. This small boutique hotel is run by two young brothers who were always extremely kind and professional. The decorations were modern and stylish and practical, similar to small boutique hotels in Australia and Europe. The breakfast was great and the wifi always reliable. The town itself was lovely and the locals very friendly. We always felt really safe walking around on our own. A shop keeper invited us up to his roof terrace to show us the spectacular view and meet his ginger kitten. It was great that he genuinly just wanted to show us the view and was not trying to sell us something. In Chefchaouen in general, we felt more relaxed and not so hassled by every second person as in Fes or Marrakech. When you walk around the Medinas of Fes and Marrakech, everybody wants to sell you something or be your guide. The Moroccans are great sales people, but not all toursits want to constantly buy things, so it can be quite exhausting to keep saying no. If you do not want to buy something, the 2 most useful phrases to learn and to say firmly but always with a smile are: La Shukran or Non Merci!
From Chefchaouen we drove to Fes, again with spectacular views over the Rif and Middle Atlas Mountains and rows and rows of olive plantations. En route we stopped near Moulay Idriss to see the Roman Ruins of Volubilis. For people with an interest in history and museums and archaeology, these ruins are a must see. The views over the surrounding countryside and Moulay Idriss from the ruins are great. Since the trip involves a lot of time on the road, it can sometimes be hard to find a clean restroom, so even if you are not that much into ancient ruins, I would highly recommend a stop at Volubilis, to stretch your legs and walk among the ruins and it also has very clean toilets. Just make sure you have enough coins to tip the cleaning ladies.
We then stayed in Fes for 2 nights at a beautifully old renovated 300 year old house in the Medina, called Dar Mallika, owned by an Australian writer, Susanna Clarke. In winter it is quite cold in Fes and the house was very cold, but the room had heating and airconditioning and the electric blankets on the beds were great. It was also good to have a choice of different high quality English Breakfast and other Teas as well as several international News Channels in any language of your choice, to stay up to date with what's going on in the world while on holiday. There was also a selection of music to listen to while having breakfast, from classical, jazz to Arabian pop! Si Mohammed, the Riad manager was also a great host, very well organised, helpful and professional. Fes was a fascinating city and a journey back in time. It was great to see the intricate hard work and centuries of tradition at the pottery workshop and handmade carpets. The guided tour of Fes was great, however a bit too long for me. I would have preferred a half day tour, but that depends on the type of traveller you are. I think some people will enjoy having a guide all day and don't feel comfortable exploring on their own and prefer the guide to make restaurants recommendations or shopping recommendations for them. I personally am very independent and like to explore on my own and make my own restaurant choices, so for people like me, a half day tour would be better. Nevertheless, the guide was excellent and we learnt a lot from him about the history of Fes.
The drive to Merzouga from Fes takes about 8 hours, so if you want to do the camel ride around 5pm in order to reach the desert tented camp by sunset, you really need to leave Fes no later than 8 am and it is not practical to have too many stops. We left at 8 am and since it was only my husband and I and our driver, we told Mohammed we don't want to make many stops, we prefer to get to the desert early. But for older travellers who may need more stops and rests, I think it may be a good idea to rather stay 2 days in the desert, first night in the desert hotel, and then do the camel ride the next day without having to rush. We had limited time in Morocco and only 1 night in the desert, so for us, leaving Fes early and driving without many stops worked well. That said, it is important to make a few short stops to give the driver a break. It's such a great distance to travel and the roads are not easy, I think all people doing a tour should be considerate towards the driver, as he has a massive task to drive everyone from point A to B safely and deserves to have lunch and tea breaks too. We had a late lunch in Erfoud at a cafe I would like to recommend. It's not that easy to know which restaurant or cafe to pick on the road in this remote part of Morocco, but we were lucky to find the Cafe Restaurant Dakar Erfoud. The cafe had seating outside on a terrace and inside. It was very clean and the young men who ran the cafe spoke very good French and made us feel at home. We didn't want to have a big sit down meal. Just a quick sandwich or pizza, and since they are a pizza place, they made us a Moroccan flavoured pizza from scratch and within 35 min, we were on our way to the desert. The pizza was delicious and the cafe also had wifi and even features in a French Spy novel (we found out later when we did some research about the cafe). Here is their website, have a look.
We arrived at the Hotel on the edge of the desert around 4:30pm, and reached our tented camp after a 1 and a half hour camel ride on two camels called Aslan & Anlal, lead by their master Yussuf who only spoke Arabic, Berber and a few words in Spanish! Yussuf was great, he knows the camels and the desert very well and he was very friendly and an enthusiastic photographer. He took many photos of us on our camels. We watched the sun set over the dunes and reached the camp just after sunset. The dinner at the camp was nice, although a bit cold. One thing I would say about doing a desert safari in winter, is be aware that it gets very cold in the desert at night. It was -1 degrees celcius. So if you travel in winter, or if you are an older traveller with health issues or not the outdoor camping type, make sure to pack enough warm clothes, the kind of clothes you would pack if you go camping on an alpine mountain hike in cold weather!
We left the desert the next morning on the same camels with Yussuf leading the way. This time we saw the sunrise. We met our driver back at the main desert hotel and started our drive to Ait Ben Haddou through many dusty little mud brick . We stopped to see some fossils as well as stops in the Todra & Dades Gorges. We had a great walk through the Todra Gorge, took some great photo and had lunch in a town on the edge of the Gorge, called Tinghir. This town was really pretty and a great tourist stop with many hotels and good restaurants. Since it is such a long drive, I would suggest especially for older travellers to stop in this town for lunch or even one night, before continuing the journey to Ouarzazate or Ait Ben Haddou as it is a very tourist friendly town, you can take beautiful pictures of the gorge and do some shopping. I saw some great inexpensive rugs and clothes and other souvenirs in this town, much better value that what I saw in Marrakech. We ate at a restaurant called Inass, popular with tourists. The food was good and they also have an indoor and outdoor seating area and very clean toilets. Again, run by a group of young Moroccans. I really enjoyed seeing the young moroccans running B&B's and restaurants. They seem to know what tourists want and these guys could also speak very good English and French.
After a quick stop in Ouarzazate, the film studio town of Morocco, we arrived in Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a famous movie setting: Gladiator, The Mummy, Laurence of Arabia and many more were filmed here. We stayed at the beautiful Riad Caravane, owned by a French artist who bought a ruined Kasbah and after 5 years of renovations and art collected from all over Africa & Asia, turned it into a 1st class small boutique hotel with very professional staff and fine dining. The Riad also has a rooftop and small splash pool with panoramic views over Ait Ben Haddou. Although we only stayed 1 night in Ait Ben Haddou, I think it is a town where one could spend more time, especially after travelling such long distances.
On Day 6 of our trip we left Ait Ben Haddou for Marrakech. Although Marrakech is not really that far from Ouarzazate or Ait Ben Haddou, the journey takes a long time due to unfinished road works on the Atlas Mountains. We saw some spectacular scenery driving through the Atlas mountains, but the road is quite scary and unfortunately the only way to get to Marrakech by road from the desert. However Mohammed did an excellent job always driving slowly and very carefully.
We arrived late in the afternoon in Marrakech and that is where we spent out last 2 nights in Morocco. I liked Marrakech, the red (dark pink) city . The Riad in Marrakech was nice, again very friendly helpful staff. This one was very traditionally decorated and also had a spa & hamman. Marrakech highlights for me were the Marjorelle Gardens, Bahia Palace and Koutoubia Mosque. The Jemma al Fna square was interesting to see and a must see especially on a first visit, but too many people. The Marrakech Medina is good for restaurants and shopping but I found it hard to walk there with vespas and motorcycles coming from all directions and also too many people for me. By this time we also did not want to buy anything else as we’ve already done all our shopping. I think staying in the Medina is interesting and gives you a true feel for the place, but it is also quite exhausting to keep saying no to everyone who wants to sell you something and if you don't like crowds, like me staying outside the medina might be more peaceful.
Our guide in Marrakech, Nabil was great. He has a lot of knowledge about the city and showed us some interesting places. He was also easy going and flexible, so when we were tired, we could take a break. I would definitely visit Marrakech again, 2 nights and 1 and a half day was not enough to properly explore the city and I can see there is a lot more to Marrakech than the historic medina. Now that I know the medina, next time I would prefer to stay in the area near the Marjorelle Gardens outside the medina, where it is a bit calmer, less motorcycles and people and more open spaces. But that is just my personal taste. If you like staying in the buzz of everything, a road in the medina is definitely for you!
Now that I know the country a bit better, I think 7/8 days is not enough to see all the things we wanted to see and next time I would make it at least 10 days and spend more time in the smaller towns like Thingir, Ait Ben Haddou and Chefchaouen and also try to see more of the coast.
All in all it was a great first visit to Morocco and we are very grateful to Yassine and his team for this excellent introduction to Morocco. The tour was very well organised and they always took such good care of us. It was always easy to communicate with Yassine and his team and they were there to help 24/7! I would recommend them to anyone who would like to to visit Morocco! Just be clear about what you want and what you like and they can arrange it for you!