I’ve heard more and more about Morocco over the last few years and it seems to be a growing destination for tourists. Early on in our trip, the group decided we would take a side trip to Morocco while we were in Portugal since it was a short plane ride. To be honest, when I booked the trip I just wanted to get the typical picture atop a camel with sand dunes for miles on either side. What I got out of the trip was much more – a better understanding of muslim culture, an admiration for the vast markets and colors of Marrakech and an appreciation for air conditioning! Morocco was a place unlike I had ever been to before and it is was the perfect contrast I needed after spending 2 1/2 months in Europe. It gave me a different perspective and it was nice to work for a vacation for a change. It makes you appreciate the experience a bit more.
We flew from Lisbon to Casablanca to Marrakesh. Our tip Itinerary was 2 nights in the Marrakesh city center, 1 night camping in the Sahara, 1 night at a hotel near the desert, 1 night back in Marrakesh before we left. Our first two nights we stayed in a wonderful Riad right in the city center of Marrakesh. A Riad is a traditional Moroccan house with a big open area in the middle of the house with the rooms surrounding it. Our Riad had a pool in the open middle space, a lounge area and a roof top deck with great views of the city. We got in, hung out for a little bit and then took to the streets to explore the local market. The market was a very cool and new experience to me. It is a huge open area with local vendors, food stands and hundreds of people coming up to sell you whatever they had in their hands. There was music, the smell of fresh cooked food and the sound of hundreds of people chatting in a variety of languages. Very quickly we learned that people expect some money if you take a picture of what they are doing and if you look at something too long, you will be hounded for the next few minutes asking to buy their product. Early on, we saw some monkeys and someone I was with looked and pointed and within a few seconds she had two monkeys on her shoulders and two guys demanding money from her. We got out of that scene fairly quickly but it definitely set the ground rules for the trip – everything has a price. At first it was a bit overwhelming but at the end of the trip, I felt like a pro negotiating for goods, politely saying no to over sales-y vendors and sneaking pictures and videos of the scenes without getting noticed.
That night we went to a nice traditional Moroccan restaurant and the only one that served alcohol around. After a long day of travel and getting adjusted to the 100 degree temperatures, we all wanted a cold beer even if they did cost $6 each. The dinner was delicious and we tried the traditional meat skewers, couscous and tangine. It was a great first meal because I was able to appreciate all the flavors of Morocco cuisine. At the time, I also didn’t realize I would eat only those 3 things, mostly tangine, for the rest of the trip. After dinner, we took a little swim, drank a few beers and cheers-ed to our first successful day in Morocco.
Day 2, we had a few specific goals. See the three main sites (Old Palace, Palace ruins and Botanical Gardens), buy our Moroccan outfits for our desert trip and make it to our dinner spot by 8pm. Our Riad owner made us breakfast in the morning (Bread with butter and jam, pancake-type things, coffee and juice) and we headed out to our first attraction, which was an old palace that someone important used to live but not anymore (sorry I didn’t dive into the details too much). The palace was a really cool maze of rooms and gardens with amazing tile work in each. Each of the rooms had unique tiles and it was how they showed respect to their gods. In Christian religions, we have tons of pictures and sculptures of Jesus, angels, and so on but in the Muslim religion it is disrespectful to depict their gods in this way. This is why they show their respect with beautiful tile mosaics. After the palace we went over to another old Palace, this one mainly ruins. It was a gigantic place that had been one of the biggest and most lavish palaces at the time, some hundreds of years ago. Now, it is a vast open area with underground tunnels, look out towers and old ruins everywhere. Some of the rooms had really interesting artifacts from the time period including shackles they used on slaves. It was a bit creepy as we were walking past the dungeons and saw the actual shackles just outside, but it was cool none the less. After the two palaces we headed over to the botanical gardens the ashes of Yves St Laurent were scattered. I didn’t know who that was but the girls in the group told me it was a big deal.
After the garden, we took to the markets to find out Moroccan desert outfits. The maze and enormity of the market was truly amazing and it was hard to keep everyone together as people would disappear into a vendor’s shop for a few minutes. We finally found a place that had what we were looking for and we got a nice bulk discount for all shopping at the same place. My $27 outfit consisted of aqua-marine colored pants, a Senegalese inspired shirt and a black and white checked scarf. None of it matched but it was just what I wanted so I was happy! After all, in the desert the more colorful the better! After our “shopping spree”, we went back to our Riad for a short swim and then got ready for dinner. We ate dinner at the same place David Beckham apparently celebrated his 40th birthday party. It was a nice restaurant with belly dancers and live music. The food and drinks kept coming so it was a great end to our night before we hit the desert the next morning.
At 8am, all 19 packed into 2 SUVs and a Van. We were told it was about an eight hour drive. It ended up taking us around 10-12 hours to get there with stops and lunch included. Also, I was surprised that half of the trip would be scaling a mountain range that separated Marrakesh and the Sahara. Luckily, the van had AC and I was able to sleep for most of it. The car ride was a good example of the “side you don’t see” while traveling. Everything I post on Instragram or Facebook usually doesn’t take into account how that picture came to be. I am super fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit the Sahara but to get there took 10 hours in a cramped car in 100+ degree weather. While traveling has been a huge blessing, there are countless examples of the difficulties of traveling long term that most people do not see. These moments definitely make you appreciate some of the luxuries we are used to back home but also how dynamic and amazing traveling really is. Things never go absolutely according to plan and many of the ideas and images you had in your head are totally different in person and that’s ok, it is part of the experience!
After the long drive we get out of the cars to a scene of about 30 camels and sand dunes in the distance. We all put on our “camel-riding outfits”, took a few pictures and headed out. I won’t pretend that camels are particularly comfortable to ride but it was an amazing experience none the less. The camel ride lasted about an hour and a half as we chased the sunset in the distance. We went over, around and through many sand dunes and after only a few minutes we were surrounded by a sea of sand. My camel happened to be very sociable and would try to surpass the camel in front of him. During these times, my friend Kevin in front of me, would pet my camel and they seemed to be becoming quick friends. That was until Kevin decided to feed my camel a pretzel stick which my camel happened to not like. After this, my camel and Kevin weren’t too good of friends anymore but at least we were almost to our destination. The camel ride was something I really enjoyed checking off my bucket list and it was how I imagined. Nothing but sand and sun around you, riding off into the sunset, just you and the camels.
Our destination was our camp for the night which consisted of 15 tents in a circle with a little shaded hang-out area in the middle. As soon as we put our stuff down, we climbed the tallest sand dune we could find and took some really cool pictures. It was nice just hanging out with the group on top of a sand dune in the middle of the Sahara. After the long car ride, we all just wanted to relax and take in the view. After dinner, a bonfire and drum circle we headed out to see the stars. It was pitch black at this point and we found a nice dune and all laid down under the stars. The stars were beautiful and certainly better than the ones I am used to back home. It was really cool sitting out in the sand in the pitch black just chatting and looking up into the sky. After an hour or so, it was time for bed which was the moment we were all regretting. It was extremely hot in the tents and no one slept very well. I luckily at least managed to get a little bit of sleep where as others switched off between their tents and sleeping outside trying to find some comfort from the heat.
The next morning we woke up and hit the road. We had a 5-6 hour drive back towards Marrakesh to a little town where we would spend the night. We drove for a few hours, ate lunch and then hopped on some ATVs. We rode ATVs around this ancient village in the middle of nowhere. Halfway through we got off and the guide walked us through the village. Movies and TV shows such as The Gladiator and Game of Thrones have been filmed here and not too far from where we rode ATVs was the “Hollywood of Morocco” where many desert-inspired movies have been filmed. It was cool walking around the ancient city and seeing pictures of the movie scenes that were captured there. After the ATVs, we headed back to our hotel for the night. We were all expecting a pretty shabby hotel without AC or any amenities. We were pleasantly surprised to find a little oasis in the desert in the form of our hotel. It had a pool, a delicious dinner buffet, extremely nice showers (which we all needed) and most importantly AC! It was a crazy day of opposites as we woke up in the most simple of tents in the desert and fell asleep in luxurious hotel rooms. It was much needed after lots of travel and the commotion of the city the previous days to be able to hang out, relax and recharge.
The next day we had another 4-6 hour drive before we got back to Marrakesh. We checked into our new riad, nice but with no pool this time, and hit the markets for some last minute souvenirs. After a nice dinner with all 30 of us (some didn’t come to the desert part of the trip) we called it a night, hopped on a flight the next morning and were back in Portugal by mid-afternoon.
The Morocco trip was an amazing experience. It was the most “complex” logistically of my side trips but also the most rewarding. It was amazing spending time in a country so different than the ones I have been traveling through in Europe. I’m so glad I got to spend 3 nights in Marrakesh and really experience the bustling city and market. I’m also very appreciative of my time in the desert and speaking to our tour guides about their lives and experiences. It is so easy to take our lives, especially the trip I’m on, for granted so it is also nice to connect with some locals and really get to learn more about their day to day life. I will always remember the many colors and smells of the Moroccan markets and my night in the desert. I feel like the group of us that went got closer by our shared experiences in the car rides, market haggling and stare gazing in the desert. It is trips like this that make me really appreciate the community of people that I am lucky enough to travel with. Traveling really is a team sport and my Moroccan experience wouldn’t have been the same without the 20-30 people I got to share the ride with!