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Morocco

Experience the Magic of Morroco

A melange of cumin, cinnamon, and coriander wafts through the air. Terracotta earth crumbles beneath your feet. The call to prayer rings out and men clothed in intricate kaftans filter into the temple. Morocco is a magical land where tradition pervades.

One step inside of the old city walls or beyond the development in the Atlas or Rif mountains transports you into a world that consumes your senses. On this trip I will show you the Morocco that stirred my soul. With ten days and overland travel from Spain I will send you to Morocco’s most beloved small town of Chefchaoeun with unique textiles made by the berbers in the Rif mountains. Just a half hour taxi ride away are stunning waterfalls and natural pools where you will swim with locals and sip fresh mint tea boiled over open flames while sitting on stools carved from the stone. From Chefchaoeun you will head just a few hours by private transport to either Fez or Meknes. Fez will show you the true unfiltered Morocco with fascinating markets and incredible food while Meknes will awe you with stunning tilework and architecture. An overnight sleeper train will take you to Marrakech, which may feel like disneyland after being in Fez. However in Marrakech you will sample some incredible cuisine and explore stunning architecture. From Marrakech I recommend a private driver through the Atlas mountains to the Sahara who will stop at different berber women’s cooperatives where you can learn about and purchase textiles. Many have incredible antiques that they only show tourists when specifically asked. You will finish the journey into the desert on the back of a camel, an unforgettable experience traditional to the Toureg way of life. Your time in the Sahara will be spent camping in an eco friendly luxury tent equipped with a private bathroom and shower and an inspired decor.

Arrive in the Blue City

Depart in the morning from Malaga to Algeciras by private transport, which should take about 1.5 hours. Ferries depart Algeciras regularly for Tangier and take 30 min to 1 hour depending on which you catch. When you arrive in the busy port of Tangier catch a taxi directly to the charming mountain town of Chefchaoeun. The ride should take about 2-3 hours. I suggest you stay at the Lina Ryad and Spa, the most luxurious hotel in Chefchaoeun, which can also arrange a pick up service if you prefer.

After checking in have a late lunch at Molin’Arte, which has gorgeous views of the medina and an inspired French fusion menu. The owner is an artist and the place is full of paintings.

Spend the day wandering around the medina sampling dates and fruit, shopping for handmade leatherware, or marveling in the traditional Berber textiles. Bear in mind the Rif Mountain villagers have their own unique style of handicrafts that you will not be able to find in the cities further South nor in the Atlas Mountains. So, if you like what you see, buy it here.

When you get tired from travel, take advantage of the swimming pool and spa services at Lina Ryad.

For a snack, head to the cafe below Hostal Vallparadis and enjoy some delicious homemade Moroccan pastries. Last August the owner offered to cook an elaborate Moroccan meal with his mother for my travel companions and I. It was the best food I had on my entire trip with multiple courses of traditional Moroccan food for less than $10. Ask if he can offer you the same experience the following night.

Just before sunset walk up the hill to the Old Spanish Mosque that overlooks the medina and has gorgeous views of the surrounding mountainside.

Stay at the Lina Ryad and Spa ($150 per night for a suite for 2).

Explore the Waterfalls at Akchour

Enjoy a typical Moroccan breakfast on one of Chefchaoeun’s lovely terraces. Most menus include freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee or fresh mint tea, and an omelette with homemade bread or a crepe with marmalade.

After breakfast take a taxi for just thirty minutes to the stunning waterfalls at Akchor in the Rif Mountains. Be sure to arrange for your taxi driver to return and pick you up afterwards, which they will do happily. You can easily hire a guide when you arrive, or go at your own pace to God’s bridge. You can stop for some mint tea and sit on a bamboo mat on the rocks, but you will need to bring your own food, as there is nowhere to eat here. The markets in Chefchaoeun have plenty of olives, homemade bread, savory stuffed pastries, grilled meatballs, dried and fresh fruits, and nuts that you can pack for a delicious mezze lunch. After God’s Bridge head to the waterfalls. If you’re adventurous you can jump from the waterfalls into the stunning pools below.

Stay at the Lina Ryad and Spa ($150 per night for a suite for 2).

A Mad Day in Fez

Arrange private transport through your hotel to Fes. The entire journey should take just 3-4 hours.

Check in to the Riad Idrissy, owned by a chef and a designer who restored this 400 year old riad using only product made, sourced, and designed in Morroco. The palace has a ruined garden where the chef owner grows fresh herbs he uses in the cuisine. Have lunch here in the garden when you arrive and sample elevated Moroccan fare with organic ingredients. The salted lemon cheesecake is divine.

In the afternoon take a mini tour of the medina. Be sure to walk through the old Andalusia quarter, which will completely transport you in time. The Attarin Medersa Quran school has stunning traditional architecture and unlike the mosques you can walk right in. The medina will overwhelm and amaze you, so spend some time just walking around and soaking it in. You will see camel heads hanging in the street, trays of cow tongue, flocks of chickens, and many people will try to sell you things.

To relax after the hectic souks, enjoy a truly local, authentic experience by going to a small hamam. You will need to go separately as men and women do not bathe together. These public bathhouses are used by locals who do not have proper plumbing in their homes and have become social gathering places for men and women (separately of course). Many hotels have high-end versions, but in Fez it’s a real treat to experience a local one. For just a couple of dollars you can have someone scrub you down with a traditional scrubber and black soap made from Argan oil. The clay or stone floors are heated and the entire space steams up like a spa.Wear a swimsuit if you’re modest, otherwise go nude, everyone else does!

Stay: Riad Idrissy ($160 per night for a suite for 2).

Haggle Your Heart Out!

Hire a private guide and head into the madness of the souks. Be sure to tour the tanneries and the famous weaving factories, but have your guide take you to smaller, more authentic places to purchase goods. If you want to buy antique Berber rugs, especially the gorgeous Beni Ourain rugs, you will need to ask for them specifically as they keep them hidden. Do some vintage and antique shopping around the Place Seffarine. Sample all kinds of treats in the street, Fes is famous for its pastilla.

Stop to dine at the famous Cafe Clock, an expat and tourist hangout with a rooftop with city views and try their famous camel burger.

Stay: Riad Idrissy ($160 per night for a suite for 2).

Luxury in Marrakech

If you want to experience train travel, book a first class cabin on a train from Fes to Marrakech. The journey is long, about 7 hours, and not particularly spectacular. Alternatively you can hire a car, which will still take about 5 hours and you won’t be able to walk around. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights, all stop in Casablanca. If you take the 9am train you should arrive in Marrakech at 4pm. If you want to save a day, there is a night train, but the night trains do not have sleepers, so you’ll be sitting up on a bench the whole night.

Marrakech has plenty of luxurious resorts and charming riads to choose from. I recommend staying at the quaint and ideally located Riad Dar Moussaine in a beautiful, quiet area just a five minute walk from the bustle of the Djemaa el Fna. The riad has a swimming pool and suites have their own fireplaces. The place is small so it remains intimate and has stylish Moorish decor.

Dine on Moroccan fusion food at it’s best at the ultra exclusive Maison MK restaurant. Be sure to book ahead as they only let in 10 outside guests per evening. Set tasting menus include dishes like duck leg confit in foie gras and asaparagus tart with persevered lemon and carrot puree.

Stay at the Riad Dar Moussaine ($120 for a suite for 2).

Soak in Marrakech

See the best sites of the city on foot including the architecturally stunning Bahia Palace, the tranquil Jardin Majorelle owned by Yves Saint Laurent, and tour the outside of the famous Koutoubia Mosque. Wander around the souks and pop into shops, but after Fes you may find yourself disappointed.

In the afternoon have a pre dinner spa treatment at the famous Le Bains de Marrakech which has a range of spa treatments including the traditional Moroccan hamam scrub.

For dinner sample different foods in the famous Djeem al Fna. Munch on grilled delicacies and traditional Moroccan dishes while watching snake charmers, acrobats, and other bizarre acts in Morocco’s best known square.

Stay at the Riad Dar Moussaine ($120 for a suite for 2).

High in the Atlas

For a truly special experience in the Atlas Mountains, head to Kasbah Bab Ourika just an hour outside of Marrakech. This Kasbah has sweeping views, gorgeous interiors, and arranges plenty of tours including visiting Berber markets, hot air balloon rides over the mountains, trekking, and even skiing in the Atlas.

If you want more time in the mountains, I alternatively recommend heading here straight from the train station on your first day in Marrakech and heading into the city for a day trip instead. Or, you can cut out one day in the Sahara desert and stay here an additional day instead.

Stay: Kasbah Bab Ourika ($250 per night for a room for 2).

Into the Desert

Arrange private transport to Merzouggah in the Sahara Desert. Use the budget you’ve saved on accomodation other nights, and splurge at the oasis Le Red Sand. This is a luxury desert camp where you sleep in tents with your own hot water showers and comfy beds among the sand dunes. The entire drive lasts about 8 hours, so leave early. When you reach Merzouggah, arrange a sunset camel ride through Le Red Sand to reach your tent.

Spend the evening dining on traditional food inside of the massive communal tent, then listen to traditional Berber music and dancing around the campfire. Walk up to one of the dunes at dark and stare at the millions of stars.

If this is beyond your budget, there are affordable 3 day 2 night trips from Marrakech (starting at $100 each for all 3 days) into the desert that include simple tent lodging, shared bathrooms, camel rides, and dinners. Ask at your hotel for the best companies.

Stay: Le Red Sand ($830 for a two person tent including dinner and breakfast).

Desert Adventure

Spend a full day in the desert either sandboarding on the dunes or taking a hot air balloon. Alternatively you can cut this day out and spend an extra day in the Atlas Mountains at Kasbah Bab Ourika and just spend one night in the desert.

Stay: Le Red Sand ($830 for a two person tent including dinner and breakfast).

Back to Marrakech

After a sunrise camel ride from the tents back into Merzouggah, take your private shuttle all the way back to Marrakech. If you want they can stop at women’s cooperatives on the way where you can learn about different handicrafts and beauty products made in Morocco. Purchasing goods here supports the women who work in the cooperatives. The Argan oil products are particularly nice.

Spend the night back at Riad Dar Moussain and prepare for your flight the next day.

Stay at the Riad Dar Moussaine ($120 for a suite for 2).

Takeaways

Haggling It’s impossible to buy anything in Morocco without haggling for what can feel like ages. Moroccans love to negotiate and will likely sit you down with a cup of mint tea while they discuss prices. These days vendors know the value of their goods in the USA, especially with textiles, but you should still be able to haggle down to about 25% of the original asking price. Antique handmade Beni Ourain rugs may start at over $1,000, but it shouldn’t be too hard to snag one for $300.

Eating Morocco has a vast assortment of flavorful, regional dishes. Be sure to try lemon chicken tagine, with tender pieces of chicken simmered with carmelized onion, preserved lemon, and briny olives. Some of my other favorites include lamb kefta simmered in tomato sauce, crepes with local soft cheese and marmalade, and roasted marinated eggplant salad called zalouk.

Drinking Alcohol is not readily available in most areas of Morocco. If you wish to imbibe, head outside of the medina to Western hotels and restaurants. Marrakech has plenty of nightlife if you take a taxi beyond the old city walls. Locals drink freshly squeezed orange juice and fresh mint tea, available everywhere. Generally it’s not safe to drink the water, but in Chefchaoeun at the “waterfall” at the end of town you’ll find pure clean spring water.

Safe Travel Keep your belongings on your person during train travel. Like many cities in Europe it’s common for thieves to grab unattended luggage or even pick your pockets when sleeping.

Scams There are plenty of scams in Morocco, but once you know the warning signs you can usually steer clear of them. The most common is a local asking if you’re lost and offering to show you the way. This always comes with an expected tip. If you’re happy to pay it can make finding your way in the souks much more manageable. It’s also common to be offered marijuana, hashish, often. If you don’t want to buy, explain that you do not smoke for moral purposes and you should get their respect.

Cultural Expectations/Attire Though a popular tourist destination, Morocco is still a conservative Muslim country. Respect the local culture by wearing modest clothing. Not surprisingly this mostly applies to women. In Fes this is particularly important, as it is the center of Islam, whereas in the new areas of Marrakech it’s not uncommon to see women in club dresses. Non-Muslim tourists are not allowed to enter the mosques, though you may discreetly peek through the gates to see the architecture and watch the prayers.

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