Morocco is an amazing country. I took a group of listeners of the Amateur Traveler podcast on a trip to Morocco which was run by Intrepid Travel, their South Morocco Discovery tour. Of all the trips we have done on 6 continents, this trip remains my wife’s favorite trip. Was it because everything went smoothly? No. Let me explain…
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The South Morocco Discovery trip starts in Marrakesh and then loops around southern Morocco before returning to Marrakesh 9 days later. One of the things that made this trip so memorable was the variety of the places we saw on our trip. We saw modern cities, mountain villages, the many faces of the Sahara, cities with mud walls that looked like Timbuktu and walled cities on the coast. This was our first trip to Morocco.
Over the course of the trip, we stayed in
- a traditional Berber homestay
- western style hotels
- at a Sahara desert camp in a tent
- a couple of riads (traditional Moroccan palace)
We were met at the airport by a van and driver from Intrepid. We are used to traveling independently but can certainly get used to having someone just come and meet us with a sign after a long trip from the west coast of the United States to northern Africa. If you book a group on a trip that all travel together, then the airport pick-up is included. When you all come from different places, as we did, it is an extra charge but worth it.
Most of our group was smarter than we were and added extra time in Marrakesh at either the beginning or the end of the trip. But we did not have enough vacation time, so we arrived the day the tour started.
We met up with our tour group at 6 pm that night and met our guide, Khalid, for the first time. At this point, much of the group were strangers. We did have my wife Joan’s brother join us, some friends from college, and some former guests on the Amateur Traveler podcast, so we knew more of the group than anyone.
One person in the group missed the requirement that you need to have travel insurance… oddly enough, since this was my trip, it was me, so I had to quickly go online and buy a policy.
We would grow to love our guide, Khalid. He was a deep source of information about Morocco. He loves Morocco but could patiently explain how things work even when he thought they might work better some other way. He is fluent in at least 4 languages, and we were not surprised when he won a worldwide competition as “guide of the year” the year after our trip.
We got acquainted a bit and then Khalid led us to a bus to the Medina. It was a bit overwhelming for the first night, with so many people crowded around. He got us seats outdoors at a large table and began ordering food. It was beyond chaotic, as food kept coming, waiters and cooks yelled at each other, and Khalid yelled at them when he didn’t get what he wanted. There was a huge assortment of food, including couscous with potatoes, carrot, eggplant, bread, sweet or hot sauce, skewers with veggies, chicken or beef, and turkey sausage. At the table next to our people were peeling vast quantities of hard-boiled eggs and making sandwiches or something.
Rachel, who traveled to Morocco by herself, told us that the day she spent in Marrakesh as a solo female traveler was much less comfortable than once she joined the group. This was particularly true when she visited the medina by herself.
High Atlas Mountains
We ate breakfast at the hotel and loaded up in the van and headed into the High Atlas Mountains. Even when you know they are there, it is surprising to see snow-capped peaks within an hour of Marrakesh. The country had received quite a lot of rain before our trip so this part of the trip was through lush green landscapes
We stopped at a weekly outdoor market along the way, which was a big dusty area, with a variety of items for sale, including spices, live animals, vegetables, mule shoes, and pottery. A few “helpful” guides attached themselves to some of us, trying to sell us their wares as they walked along pointing things out to us. A few of us bought a few pieces of jewelry for a few dollars.
We also passed a “room” open to the market with a sheet across the entrance, which Khalid said was the dentist. We’re pretty sure the conditions wouldn’t have been very sanitary and aren’t sure what they would use for anesthesia.
We drove on from there to the town of Imlil where we would leave the van and take just our day packs on up to the mountain village where we would spend the night. There was an option to ride mules if the hike was too strenuous, which a few in the group did. For the rest of us, other mules carried our day packs. It was a decent hike, not too steep for most of it, and took a little over an hour.
We arrived in the village of Aroumd, to the guest house, or gite, where we would stay. We had tea in the courtyard, and lunch of cut vegetables, omelet, rice, lentils, chicken skewers, and oranges.
A local guide took part of the group on another hike in the mountains to a shrine. For the less adventurous, Khalid took us around the village, showing us the bakery, where everyone in town brings their bread to be baked each day, the hammam (baths), and the school nearby. We saw women gathering due to a village woman’s death. There were children running around and playing, and we heard the call to prayer from the mosque.
Dinner was in a large sitting room with benches all around the perimeter of the room, a common arrangement in the country. Each couple had their own bedroom, but the bathrooms were shared. It was quite comfortable, and the air was so fresh outside.
Breakfast was in the same room as dinner, with yogurt, bread, crepes, coffee, and juice. After breakfast, we packed up to head back down the mountain to Imlil to reconnect with our bags. The hike back down wasn’t bad either, though the mules were not available for riding for that stretch.
We began our drive to Ait Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the edge of the Sahara. It was about a 6-hour drive. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, sitting upon a terrace, with chicken or beef skewers and fries.
Ait Benhaddou was built along the salt caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. It was built starting in the 17th century. The site is a fortified village, or ksar, with kasbahs, or fortified houses, within.
We were able to climb the steps to the granary, which would have served as storage but also for protection if attacked.
We were able to go into one of the houses and visit with the woman who lived there, who of course served us tea. We could ask questions through Khalid. The funniest story was that the film Gladiator was filmed there in part, and Russell Crowe had stopped to visit with her. She had no idea who he was, but she has a signed movie poster on her wall that he gave her. Parts of Game of Thrones were also filmed in the picturesque town.
We also got to see someone making art by putting tints onto paper, which all looked yellow at first until he held it over heat, at which point the actual colors appeared. He made paintings this way of desert scenes with camels and the building style of the kasbah. So cool!
We stayed that night in a hotel near the site, Rose du Sable, and had the chance for a cooking class. Several of us made our own tajine, a traditional dish that we ate often on the trip, made with meat, vegetables, and spices, always served with bread. It was fun to put together the meal with the spices they had pre-selected to use. Our rooms were just off the terrace around the pool.
After breakfast at the hotel, we drove to Ouarzazate, the film capital of Morocco. There was a very small cinema museum, which a few of us toured, seeing sets from movies that we had never heard of (mostly biblical stories).
We stopped at Project Horizon International, the non-profit that Intrepid supports in Morocco, to tour and see the work they do providing physical therapy and prosthetics for people with physical disabilities, along with training in art or a craft, so that they can have their own businesses. We were able to buy some of the craftwork in the gift shop, such as jewelry, painted glassware, or ceramics.
We drove on to Zagora, where we saw the famous sign “Tombouctou 52 Jours” (52 days by camel, it’s apparently only 6 days by jeep).
We stopped to pick up lunch food at a market and went to the rug merchant. None of us were interested in buying rugs but it was interesting to learn more about them. We were able to use an upstairs room at the store to eat our lunches, in the company of the cats who lived there.
Ksar Kasbah Taourirt
We took the van to the Ksar Kasbah Taourirt. It was a very well preserved town, restored with 3 sections: administrative (judge), living space, harem, sauna, first lady room, and cellar. It’s like a labyrinth, you don’t go out the way you came in.
We stayed at a 4-star Hotel Ksar Tinsouline. Joan and I tried out the pool, but it was very cold. We sat out on the patio visited. We enjoyed dinner on the patio, tajine, steak, fries, crème caramel. You can pretty much assume that every meal will include a tajine of some sort.
We had breakfast also on the lovely patio, and left around 10:30 am, with a day pack for the camp.
We drove to Tamegroute, where we all bought headscarves to be prepared for possible sandstorms in the Sahara, and visited a library with ancient books of religious studies and math and science texts, where an elderly man gave explanations of what we were seeing.
We stopped at a pottery factory, which operated just as it would have hundreds of years ago, including a man using the spinning wheel sitting in a hole in the ground, and kilns cut into the rock wall. We toured through the mud buildings and were able to buy really beautiful pieces made either there or at another ceramic factory within the same cooperative.
Then, finally, the camel ride. We got to a hotel of sorts with many low buildings and ate our picnic lunch that we’d prepared for at a small grocery store on the way. Then we saddled up, tied on our headscarves, and headed off on our camels… into a thunderstorm. None of us had expected that, and all we could do was laugh as ultimately after only about 10 or 15 minutes Khalid had the drivers turn the camels around and head back. It is not likely you will have this experience as this is the first time Khalid had run into this situation after years of guiding.
We tried waiting out the rain, but it was determined to continue. All the while we tried to find a spot that the rain didn’t come right through the dirt and grass roof and drip muddy water on us. The camel drivers were pressed into service to provide tea, which may not have been a good idea, as the tea probably wasn’t boiled well enough and caused a few stomach ailments for the rest of the trip. If we had had a SteriPen with us, we probably could have avoided that problem.
Khalid was also calling ahead to the tour company to determine whether the rain would wash out any of the ravines we had to cross on our drive in the 4x4s. Eventually, he determined that it was safe, and we headed out. One of the drivers really enjoyed the off-road freedom and raced a bit.
Most of the Sahara in Morocco is barren but not sand. We were driving to one area of large sand dunes.
We all safely arrived at the Sahara Camp, which had several large tents each with 2 or 3 beds, plus a kitchen and dining tent, and a lavatory building with a few stalls and a sink (no toilets – very rustic!).
People climbed up to the dunes for the view, but Joan was feeling pretty queasy so rested, and wasn’t able to eat dinner, finally tossing her lunch during the night. Turns out Jim and Rachel had also gotten sick. After the rain, the sleeping tents also smelled of wet camel… which was not the best smell.
In the morning those who could ate breakfast and eventually we headed out and back to civilization. The drive back was a bit calmer as Khalid had told the drivers to take it easy, especially as we had some cranky stomachs. Joan slept most of the way, surprising the other people in our 4X4 since the drive was anything but smooth.
We stopped along the way to visit with a nomad family who actually has lived in the same location for many years, but they live out in the desert in a few tents made of blankets and tarps. They do have a cooking tent, but of course no electricity. They have a motorbike for trips to town.
They were parents of grown children, who had all moved to the city, but 2 small grandchildren and a flock of goats lived with them. A few of us could fit into the tent and visited some, and when Khalid said where we were from, the mother did not know of America. Khalid explained that it is across the ocean, and she had heard of the ocean. It was amazing to see examples such as this where, in some ways, time has almost stood still, just a few hours drive from modern cities.
We drove on to Taroudant, with a few stops along the way. We were all very interested in seeing the “flying goats” who climb trees to eat the argan nuts. We were very lucky to have the chance to see a flock of goats who were, in fact, climbing in and jumping out of trees very close to the side of the road.
We also stopped to see how saffron is raised. We stopped and visited with a gentleman who grows saffron, and he showed us what the plant looks like and how he extracts the spice from the plant. He served saffron tea, and people had the chance to buy some as well.
We also stopped at an argan oil cooperative, where we could see the very manual process of grinding the nuts down into a paste much like peanut butter after which the oil is separated out and used in cosmetics and hair products.
We stayed in Taroudant, at Hotel Dar Zitoune, a riad in a garden setting, with many paths between the main building and other buildings with rooms. Staying in an old palace was quite the improvement over tents smelling of a wet camel.
We enjoyed a trip to see Taroudant’s original medieval walls as well as the local market.
Our last few days would be in Essaouira, on the coast. This walled city has a large old town medina where we all enjoyed quite a bit of shopping for handmade items such as woodwork, crafts, leather products, pottery.
I enjoyed wandering the side streets and adding to my collection of pictures of old doors.
Khalid took us on a walking tour with a local guide, which was very good. It was good that we had 2 nights here and didn’t have to be in a van at all after some really long travel days. We went out to dinner at a restaurant that mostly offered seafood. I was able to get a slice of pizza and a break from ordering a tajine.
I went out exploring by the fishing port, and a local fisherman gave me an impromptu tour. I went back and paid him for his time later in the day.
We did walk along the water to another area with beaches and a few cafes. It was really a nice town, with a mix of modern and the old in the Medina. We had fun shopping and bargaining (sometimes trying a bit too hard to get the price down, and talking the guy out of the bargain). We grabbed dinner with a small group.
Back to Marrakech. We were back at our original hotel, and all went together to a nice restaurant for dinner. A few of the group members were staying on to see more of Marrakech. We were off to the airport around 7 am for our flight home.
Morocco, specifically southern Morocco is amazing, beautiful and diverse. The Intrepid Travel South Morocco Discovery proved to be a great way to see a lot in a little period of time. Book extra time in Marrakech at the beginning or end of your tour. Bring a large card for your digital camera. I took hundreds and hundreds of photos.
Listen to the podcast episode from the trip.