Our five night trip through Morocco was packed. In hindsight, seven days would have been much more manageable (having a buffer day between long journeys) but here’s what we did, learned and have to share from our experience:
The best flight options were into the capital, Rabat. After long days of travel, we took a taxi straight from the airport to the guesthouse (riad) where we were staying. Negotiating prices is a major thing, Google maps will get you very lost in the older parts of the cities (Medinas) which are full of tiny winding streets and dead ends. After some comical wrong door opening, we got help from a father and his daughter and arrived at the place we’d booked in advance (we decided to book the first two nights’ accommodation + one activity on Airbnb ahead of time and stay open for the rest).
Riad Marlinea (actually located in Rabat’s sister city of Salé) blew us away! The place was gorgeous, decadent.. the best place we stayed on our trip. Quite a good first impression.
Riads are sort of like bed and breakfasts, we were fed a variety of bread and juice and coffee in the morning then took off for our pre-booked cooking class (our first Airbnb Experience) after postponing a bit due to morning rain.
We met our cooking class ‘host’ near a tram stop (Rabat & Sale have a very nice tram) and stopped by small shops and a market to buy everything we needed to cook an extra large lunch. We stepped into a pastry shop which was swarming with bees, bought fresh cheese and spicy olives as well as produce from a small street market and went to our host’s house to cook.
I wrote down a few notes about the dishes we made (most of which are pictured above–though I forgot to photograph the Tagine):
Vegetarian Tagine: Onions, carrots, potato, bell peppers, zucchini + cilantro & parsley, mix turmeric + ginger + pepper w water, cover w oil, lid (This is cooked in a special clay pot though I think you could use a dutch oven)
Dish similar to a Spanish Pisto: Blacken peppers, smoke inside closed container…skin, fry w EVOO + garlic, diced tomatoes add turmeric, pepper, paprika, parsley + cilantro
BEST DISH EVER: Carrots OR Lima beans (take a bit of peel off so that they don’t explode) + fresh cilantro & (less) fresh parsley + fresh tomato sauce, pickled lemon* (keep a bit of lemon peel) + mucho EVOO & some water (soupy)…cook down and allow to cool
Everything was made stovetop except for the cheese pastries (the little triangles which we wrapped and are pictured above) these are similar to samosas and can be sweet or savory- filled with anything you like and baked until crispy!
*Pickled lemon: slice, add a lot of salt + lemon juice, seal jar leave for one month. This is the most interesting flavor! Can use for veggies and fish–my number one takeaway from the class!
We went straight from the class to take the train to Fes. Many people had advised us to take first class (and we would have, it’s not much more than second) but it was sold out so we settled for second class which was fine for the short three-hour trip.
Fes reminded me of Chiang Mai, Thailand for some reason… TOURIST SATURATION
We stayed in the Medina near the blue gate. This is a tourist hub and gave us proximity to taxis which was ideal given our short turnover.
Arriving at our hostel in Fes, we were given our first fresh mint tea and at 10pm we began planning our trip South to the Sahara Desert (the city of Merzouga) the next morning! Having booked this hostel based on reviewers noting the host’s helpful nature paid off and we were able to secure a ride the next morning at 8am.
We paid 150 Euros for transport (6-8 hours taxi each way) + all-inclusive camping (glamping) for one night. This price was a bit higher than when some others had told us but given the time crunch, we took it and didn’t regret it at all! Amazing experience!
The first 8 hr drive was the worst part. The driver made tourist stops (to feed monkeys on the side of the road, at “his family’s” terrible restaurant)… and when we were suddenly told to get out on the side of the road at the outskirts of the desert we weren’t sure what to think! Another car dropped off two French ladies then the four of us went in a third car literally into the sand until we arrived at a hotel in the desert. We handed off our backpacks and climbed upon camels (I went first!) then began to walk towards the dunes.
Camels are funny, stubborn animals! We traveled in a long line and the young men who led us seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. I was reminded of my summer spent working at a tourist ranch/resort in Montana (specifically of the wranglers and guides there). When we go to the base of the highest dune around we got back on our own two feet and made the climb to the top before sunset (hiking up a mountain of sand is hard work!).
pro tip: sit on the sunny side of the dune (the shady side is VERY windy; we took too long to learn this)
The landscape of the desert is really unique and beautiful to me. On our way down we saw a beetle! Finding a little life on a huge pile of sand was pretty cool!
After sunset, we took the camels to our campsite where more tourists (maybe 20) were waiting. We had dinner (lentil soup, Tagine, and round bread) then gathered around a fire, played drums & danced. This was really nice.
Our “room” was a wooden structure covered in many layers of blankets. We had a lifted bed frame and again SO many blankets to sleep on/with which is nice (kept us warm) but in the middle of the night the winds picked up and sand was blowing everywhere! Our “door” was just a single blanket draped over the opening to our room so we placed our bags on it to keep everything more airtight and were able to sleep through the night. Waking up early to see the sunrise almost happened but we just missed it (and that turned out to be OK since it was a cloudy day- actually there was a bit of rain! In the desert!)
The drive back was a bit faster (our young driver was daring!) The one fun moment was an unexpected parking lot dance party when a bus full of students carrying a large speaker parked behind us and pulled us into the party. We needed to get to Chefchaouen, a city a few hours North of Fes, the next morning and when we realized that the buses were sold out we asked our taxi driver for a contact. Negotiating the car to Chaouen was chaotic. Finally, after multiple calls back-and-forth, we found ourselves running through the pouring rain to a meet someone sent by the taxi company to give a cash deposit. After all of this we opted for a nice dinner at Café Clock (our favorite item was the Fes Platter) then went to have a shower and rest before the next day’s early morning adventure.
In the morning the rain followed us to Chefchaouen. We went to the bus station first thing to get tickets for the next morning (7am on the CTM tourist bus because the local bus option took twice the time). I’d booked a room through Airbnb but we went to have a big lunch first which was really lovely- we sat on a balcony with an open window and a fire near us in the rain.
As the rain cleared that afternoon, we really just wanted to wander around the beautiful blue city. We walked halfway up to a mountainside lookout and walked in circles around the medina stopping for street-side sweets and taking pictures. It was lovely.
The only bus back to Rabat was in the morning so we planned to take advantage of our last day starting with a glam Hammam experience then a nice big lunch… but things didn’t go as planned. The first THREE Hammams we tried were are all broken/closed. We found ourselves in taxis all over the city and finally gave up. We went to a lunch spot: Pause; near the main train station and gave up completely on the Hammam dream… until in literally the final hour we walked by a massage place which happened to offer hammam and happened to be below our budget and happened to have availability right away which was all too lucky.
What is a hammam?
Essentially, it’s a way of bathing. I understand that there are two types of hammams: group or private. The group hammams are walk-in, self-serve steam rooms where you bring your own towels, soap, etc. and the private are in more of a spa setting, can be individual or in some cases couples-friendly. We took this second option and I wore a bikini (though I’m sure it isn’t mandatory). Two women washed and seriously scrubbed my body, scalp and hair. I left feeling incredibly clean which was especially dramatic after all of the camping, taxis and rainstorms we’d experienced throughout the trip. We went onto the airport feeling like new people. Great ending to the trip!
Below are some general notes I’d give to any future traveler who’s planning to visit Morocco:
- biodegradable wipes SAVE YOU
- hand sanitizer IS IMPORTANT
- Closed-toe shoes ARE IDEAL
- Scarf (for the dessert) — I didn’t have this and had V sandy ears..
- Cropped pants/skirts/dresses — long things that touch the ground would be gross
- LADIES Cover elbows & knees (note that this trip left me with some ruined clothing, I’d advise against bringing anything too nice)
- No CCs are accepted save for some tourist restaurants; Cafe Clock for example (small change needed HOLD IT DEAR), euros accepted
- bartering- my strategy (cut in half, meet halfway AND/OR your reasonable price) I’M NO EXPERT
- Airbnb BEST WAY TO BOOK THINGS IN ADVANCE
- No alcohol ENJOY LIFE WITHOUT IT
- Early mornings EXPERIENCE NOW, SLEEP LATER IS THE MOTTO
I’m concerned that tourism has taken its toll on Morocco. I think there’s a lot of hype built up around traveling here and it was hard to feel at ease or to ask for help from people because they’ve already helped 1,000 people before you. I’m sure that there’s a lot to be found hidden amongst the chaos here but I felt drained and without much replenishment after our six days in the country. I’ll cherish the memories and the companionship built but I’m not sure when I’ll return to Morocco. For those of you who do visit, please treat it well and give yourself time to rest in between/after the chaos. I suppose there are two ways of traveling: as a tourist or as a visitor. Being honest about which you are and why you are there is important. We were tourists in Morocco. We didn’t know anybody and needed to navigate the array of traps and guardrails which had understandably been placed in our way. All in all, these first steps in Africa were pretty inspiring. There were some high highs and low lows. My travel partner was the best. All in all, good memories.