After the magic and beauty of Cape Town we were struggling to decide on our next African destination. We considered Tanzania, Botswana, Kenya, but all either looked too similar (and possibly not as great as) Cape Town, or way too expensive. For example, good safaris in the Masai Mara are around $1000 usd/day. So instead of going somewhere and just hoping we’d love it, we decided to head to our next Must Visit destination: Morocco.
Surprise, surprise, the cheapest/least horrible way to get to Morocco was via Dubai on Emirates. There was an option to fly Etihad to Abu Dhabi, which I was seriously considering because I really want to check out the new Louvre Museum. Plus they have a Ferrari amusement park?! But the reviews for Etihad were really poor, and the fear of two potentially awful 10+ hour flights outweighed my desire to visit the museum. Another time, (fingers crossed).
Based on my limited knowledge of Morocco I knew I wanted to: visit a spice market, ride a camel, climb a sand dune, and dine in a traditional Moroccan restaurant. We started doing some research and found the first and last desires could be accomplished in Marrakech, and the second and third could be found in the South, specifically the Sahara Desert. I found a 10-day tour of southern Morocco which included a camel ride, and an evening sleeping under the stars in a Saharan desert camp. Bingo. I signed us up, we bought tickets to Casablanca, and off we went.
I read Casablanca was pretty… boring. Everything kept redirecting me towards other Moroccan cities. “Casablanca is… yeah… hey what about Rabat!”. So we only spent two days there, enough to see the Hassan II Mosque (one of the most incredible buildings I have ever seen anywhere ever) and Rick’s Cafe (delightfully touristy). Other than those two gems the city felt really dull. We hopped on a 4 hour train to Marrakech and instantly felt the difference. Marrakech is alive with the endless hustle of the city. We spent four nights in a riad (a traditional home where all the rooms face in and center around a garden) in the medina (old town) surrounded by the souks (small shops selling spices, leather goods, clothes, shoes, light fixtures, blankets, jewelry, etc.).
We developed a love/hate relationship with Marrakech. The city is incredibly rich with color and culture – very visually stimulating. The gardens, palaces, mosques, tile work, and hospitality are all wonderful. But there were a few nagging detractors. For a country famous for it’s spices the food is oddly bland and repetitive. I don’t think I’ll want to eat couscous again for a very, very long time. As a woman, I received unwanted stares and comments, even though I stayed respectfully covered (shoulders, chest, and knees) at all times. After ignoring a man’s passing comments he yelled “We don’t hate women!” at me. Yeah, right. After the first day of this I started walking behind Patrick, my head down, avoiding eye contact. Not super comfortable. Motorbikes are the preferred method of transit in the medina, being the most equipped for handling the narrow, winding roads. However, the emissions standards are either not enforced or non-existent, because the air pollution they create is pretty intense.
We spent our days wandering the medina, poking our heads into restaurants, shops, and attractions. The main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, was a wasteland of horrible tourist traps. It felt dirty and tired, and we only stayed for a few minutes. However, we did find a few gems:
Five star luxury restaurant in a traditional riad in the medina. Very hard to find, but once you do it feels like stepping into Arabian Nights. Lush fabrics, ornate lanterns, intricate tile work, mountains of pillows, live music, traditional outfits, and endless amounts of food and wine. A very quintessential Moroccan experience.
We got to call this beautiful and traditional riad home for four luxurious nights. Despite being in the heart of the bustling medina, it’s amazingly quiet and calm. The staff was incredibly friendly and cooked us some of the best meals we had in Morocco. Really cool experience of what it’s like to live in Marrakech.
At first glance, you wouldn’t suspect this tiny hole in the wall is the #3 restaurant in all of Marrakech. But once you get a taste of the delicious and impossibly inexpensive food, you are already planning your next visit back. We went two nights in a row, and enjoyed tacos (20 Dhs / $2 usd) and shwarma (25 Dhs / $2.50 usd) which both came with rice, french fries, and yummy sauces.
Very hip little museum set in an old house where the steep and narrow staircases definitely aren’t up to code. Exhibits show old photos of the old town when it was just called “town”. Wonderful cafe on the roof with great views of the medina. Just watch your step on the tiny spiral staircase, it’s a neck-breaker.
Once our four days passed, we were excited to hook up with our tour group. We joined 13 other travelers, from Australia, Canada and the US, ranging in ages from 19 to 70. It was awesome and exhausting. Here were the highlights:
Located in Ozzourarte, a local businessman opened this film studio in 1983 with a few conditions. The production companies were required to hire exclusively local labor to build the sets, and after the film wrapped the sets had to remain at the studio. This way, the studio can rake in the tourism bucks via snap-happy tourists like myself. The result? The sets are giant and incredible. We “traveled” to Egypt, China and Israel in the span of 30 minutes. Basically any movie that involves Egypt or ancient times has been shot here (Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Babel, Game of Thrones, The Mummy, etc). There’s a delightfully amateurish drone video at the bottom of their homepage which gives you a nice flyover of the studio so you can get a sense of what’s there.
Super chill little beach town on the southern coast of Morocco. Has it’s own little medina which is way easier to handle than the giant one in Marrakech. If I went back to Morocco I would spend the entire time in Essaouira.
Sahara Desert Camp
Hey you guys, the desert is hot. Like, really hot. It felt like someone was blasting a hairdryer in our faces and we couldn’t turn it off. The camp we stayed at looked like Jakku: dirty, dingy, dusty, and deserty. We climbed the sand dunes, drank uncomfortably warm water, and waited for the sun to go down. At night, we all dragged our cots out of the hot tents which had been baking in the sun all day, and slept under the stars. The starry sky (sans-light pollution) was so bright it was almost hard to go to sleep. One of the coolest experiences of my life.
Super mixed feelings about this. Animals definitely don’t want to be climbed upon, so I kind of hate that I did this, but sitting on a camel, a good 8 feet off the ground, and feeling it move beneath you is in a very unique experience.
We had tons of highs and lows in Morocco. I’m super glad we went, but I’m definitely not in a rush to go back. Overall pros and cons:
- gorgeous interior architecture
- beautiful gardens
- elements of surprise, tons of amazing sights hiding behind plain, ugly walls
- tons of intact history
- hospitality is on point
- mint tea like woah
- fairly inexpensive
- being a woman is uncomfortable
- old town is dirty and smelly
- getting lost in the Medina is inevitable
- lots of animal-abuse-as-tourist-attractions (ie, monkeys on chains, de-fanged snakes, etc)
- oddly bland and repetitive food (what are they doing with all those spices?!)
- water is undrinkable, can’t even use it to brush teeth
- tons of tourist scams which hinder visitor/local interactions
- HOT AF