Last Thanksgiving, Tony and I flew to Marrakech, Morocco from Sevilla, Spain after three full relatively relaxing days. Most of our trip was to camel trek in the Sahara. We landed in a super modern Marrakech airport with smooth customs, and Inwi friendly sales ladies handing out free SIM cards that require a photo of passport (hopefully we don’t get contacted by NSA some day) – though, in our recent trip to China, EVERYTHING is linked to ID/passport.
🗒 Tip: If it is difficult to get Moroccan dirham before arrival, try getting cash at airport ATM as local ATMs could be tampered.
Once we stepped out of the airport, several taxi drivers came to us giving false information, like “the bus does not run anymore” and we were just more determined to take the bus. The bus stop was located after a section of parking lot, we eventually got on the bus that cost less than $1 USD.
Our full itinerary including Spain is here.
From airport to the Medina
The bus ride from MAK airport to Jemaa el-Fnaa was smooth and the first ride we had in Morocco. Jemaa el-Fnaa is a giant plaza with various small vendors, selling everything from famous orange juice (less than 50 cents USD) to all kinds of handicrafts. We booked a riad (traditional Moroccan house usually with an open courtyard) in the Medina, before our camel trek tour booked from TopDesert starting the next morning.
Our riad is in one of the alleys in the Medina (an enclosed town with intertwining alley ways), and some of the roads were not really paved that made lugging our baggage a bit difficult. We finally found the riad located in a very quiet alley, knocked on the door, and for a moment I felt anything could happen especially at this dark hour. Fortunately a lady answered the door, and we were greeted with some Moroccan tea and biscuits, then a huge form to fill out with all the details regarding our travel. Once we got to our room, the bathroom had no door (which continues to be a trend for all the rest of our riad experiences) which we were not very used to.
After settling our bags, we went out on our food adventure near Jemaa el-Fnaa. We looked on Foursquare and found Cafe Bakchich, and there I had my perfect first tagine, a common Moroccan dish with vegetables and meat cooked in a stone pot. I was such a huge fan of tagine, loved the tenderness, I still crave for tagine nowadays. I also got kiwi smoothies that was very tasty, and the whole meal was about $5 USD per person including bread and olives appetizers!
Souks in Jemaa el-Fnaa
After dinner, we walked around the streets near Jemaa el-Fnaa. It reminded me of night markets back in Taiwan, with vendors selling stuff for locals and tourists. Near the food vendors (selling lamb brains), a few of the sales people were a bit aggressive trying to grab our arms to their stands. We got a bit intimidated, and just stayed away from the food area. I had my eyes on some craft items, and from the Internet I learned the need of haggling in Marrakech. It was very interesting figuring out the appropriate asking price, I definitely was still a beginner and one lesson learned – staring at 1/3 of the price they asked first, and ending at about half.
We woke up at 7am, and packed up for our 8am camel trek tour. We picked Erg Chigaga over Erg Chebbi even though the latter has taller dunes and more epic sceneries, after reading some blog posts that Erg Chebbi got a bit touristy and crowded. In retrospect, I felt I would have chosen Erg Chebbi mostly because of the road, and we didn’t get to stop at super huge dunes when we were on camel rides. I got motion sickness quite easily, and the roads and paths (no paved roads) to our desert camp were so winding and sometimes bumpy that I had to close my eyes and try taking naps to get through the tough rides. Let’s rewind to the first day, mostly on paved roads 😌.
Ksar of Ait-Ben-Hadd
After a few hours of winding but paved roads, we arrived at Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou – a UNESCO historic site trades happened with self defense. The houses were built along the hills, by Draa River. A couple of films were shot here, along with Game of Thrones (Yunkai). Our guide Habib took us on a hike to the top of the hill, it was a breeze for him but I did get a bit out of breath. The view was breathtaking, and the architecture was so characteristic.
There were some souvenir shops in the villages there, but not too much. We got lunch later at a restaurant nearby, my second tagine.
After some more driving, we stopped by another village that our guide told us was a different ethnic group from his in Morocco, which has four major ones.
Lodging in Agdz
Finally, in the afternoon we reached our first day of lodging at Agdz on our way to the Sahara. It felt like we were the only guests at the house. I climbed up a narrow staircase to view of the town, and we took a walk around the lodge. There were mostly local houses and a school, not much for tourists from our online search. We did not have tagine for dinner, but the soup and rice plate were equally tasty.
During our one night stay at the guest house in Agdz, we woke up at 5am to a Quran reading summon. After some breakfast (bread and jelly), we hit the road by 8am. We got to the last village before the Sahara, M’Hamid, for lunch. Our guide Habib grew up in this village, and he dropped us off at a restaurant and then had lunch with his family. It was a super windy day, and the tables in the restaurant were covered by a layer of sand from the occasional door opening. We were advised to get 8 1-liter bottles of water at a local convenient store, and I also grabbed a bottle of Pringles (in case I was not used to the food in the desert, which turned out to be not a problem) at a much lower price than other convenient stores before aimed at tourists.
Entering the Sahara
Words could not describe when we eventually reached the desert. This is where the paved roads (route 9) ended, and we entered a horizon full of sand with only occasional shrubs and caravan trails. I thought the camp would just be a few minutes of drive, for every tent we passed, I thought they could be ours. They turned out to be other tourist camps, or nomad camps (could sort of tell if they hang clothes to dry or keep bunch of animals around). The drive was the most painful part of the tour, the paths were mostly flat but with uneven ups and downs and sometimes rocky. Habib did not really tell us how long it might take, and he had no navigation tools – no GPS, he said the map was all in his head.
Reaching our camp
After two hours navigating in the Sahara, we got to our camp! The scenery was beyond words, the feeling of being surrounded by nothing but sand and the closest village was 2 hour 4WD drive away. Definitely some scary feelings surfaced at times, like “what if I get sick and no hospital around?” “what if I get robbed at night?” “what if I get thrown off the camel?” In the desert, we just had to trust our guide and the tour company (TopDesert) and prayed for a safe and smooth journey here.
Camp guard 🐱
Our camp had a guard! A feline guard 😼. I had never thought a cat could live in the desert. But if humans can, why not cats? Our desert cat waited for us to finish meals and jump on the table for leftovers. She/he stayed inside the tent mostly, but once in a while she/he wandered outside.
The sky at night in the Sahara was amazing. Everything quieted down at the whole plain of view. I could still remember sitting down and looking around, feeling so tiny compared to the desert and sky above.
Sunrise in the Sahara
Today we had a full day in the Sahara. We woke up early (actually not too early, 7ish) to catch sunrise for photo shoots. Oh, the temperature had a wide range in the desert. During the day and early evening, it was pretty warm (we were wearing long sleeves and pants mostly for wind and culture). However, it was freezing at night until the sun came up.
Getting ready for camel trek 🐪
After some simple breakfast, we dressed up and hit the road with three camels. Our camp hosts kept them near the tent, they gave the camels commands like whistling with some patterns to have camel sit down and stand up. Camels did follow those commands! To prevent camels from going too wild, our hosts tied some knots around legs so that they could not run too far (now I felt bad for camels).
🍞baking in the Sahara
Once we reached our lunch stop, fortunately under shade around some trees, our hosts prepared chicken skewers with salad and rice from boxes carried by our camel friends. They also made hot water for tea from fire in the sand. After we all finished lunch, our hosts started kneading some dough, flattening it, and burying into the hot sand from previous fire. 15 minutes later, hot fresh flatbread came out from the sand! He dusted sand off the bread, and cut it into pieces to share. Usually I would be afraid of having food not from modern cookware, but this time I took the risk and it was so worth it – bread fresh out of the sand oven was super tasty!
Camels in the wild
After lunch, our hosts rested for a bit and let the camels eat and wander. We just walked around our lunch stop, taking pictures with camels and of the desert.
Finally, after everyone (including camels) was well rested with delicious food, we started heading back to the camp. It always felt faster going back than coming out, or our hosts did take different routes. The dunes were everywhere, not super tall but the sand patterns were beautiful.
After getting back to the campsite, we tried sandboarding… it was just like snowboarding, except the board did not move at all. Somehow the nature of sand had lots of friction, and a typical snowboard would not get past the friction. We tried going to taller dunes from steeper angles, to no avail. Though, our photos looked like we were sandboarding pros to be able to pose on the slope 😀
Food to miss for life
On our last day, we woke up with super tasty “nomad omelet” for breakfast and then hit the road. Another few hours of driving in wild roads, I tried taking naps to make time pass faster. For lunch, we stopped at a local restaurant in a small town, and I had the best tagine of the trip! The vegetables and meat were so tender with the right amount of spice and flavor. Olives were also juicy, with Moroccan bread on the side. If I remembered correctly, the meal was about $5-7 USD?
Back to the city
At about 4pm, we arrived back in Marrakech. Our driver/guide got a guy to help us carry our bags (with tips of course – it was not by choice). After dropping our bags at our second riad (quite a upgrade from our first one!), we just wandered around the streets and souks in Marrakech. Lots of vendors, and definitely a bunch targeting tourists. Our guide from the desert said he could not stand the hustle and bustle of the city (e.g. Marrakech), having grown up in a small town where people know and talk to everyone. He only came to cities for work, and when his family needed to buy certain goods that could not be found in small towns.
This is the end of our Morocco trip. Our next stop – Barcelona, Spain! We had an early morning flight, and our riad staff actually did not show up to get a taxi as they promised. So we practiced our haggling with street taxi again. Thanks for reading thus far, I still have hundreds of photos from Spain to edit and perhaps I will write another one about our time in Spain.