Morocco: Marrakesh and the Sahara

Last month, December 2019, we had the opportunity to go to Morocco for a week. We arrived in Marrakesh after a long stopover in Madrid. Morocco has been a place we have been wanting to go to for quite some time and finally we had an opportunity to squeeze in the trip over Christmas break! We spent 6 amazing days in Morocco between Marrakesh and the Sahara, and would love to share our experience here with you.

Day 1: Arrival / Explore Marrakesh

We arrived at our Riad, Riad Sabah, in Marrakesh at around 2 am so the first thing we did was go to bed. While a bit hard to find, we eventually did and it was such a cute place to stay, we highly recommend! The lady who greeted us at this late hour was named Fatima and she was so sweet, gracious and accommodating, even despite our late arrival. In the morning, the Riad had breakfast for us. The food was delicious, consisting of various types of bread, jam, butter, fresh squeezed orange juice, yogurt and the Moroccan staple, Mint Tea, which is absolutely amazing! While the breakfast isn’t traditional like what we’re used to here at home (sorry guys, no cereal or bagels), we did enjoy it and very much looked forward to breakfast everyday in this cozy riad.

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After breakfast we were anxious to start exploring the city! Immediately exiting our Riad, we were thrown into the souks. What a different world the streets are at night than during the day! Since we stayed right in the middle of the souks and they shut down around 10 pm, it was empty trying to find the riad. Conversely, souks by day are a very different experience! The souks are basically a maze of shops selling everything you can think of – from clothing, furniture, rugs, dishware and art, to spices, seeds, nuts, fruits, olives, etc. The energy and colors here are truly amazing and it excited us at every turn, with new smells, sights, sounds and tastes at every corner!

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To get to Jemaa El Fna, the main square and the heart of Marrakesh, we had to walk through the souks. During the day Jemaa El Fna is lined with juice vendors, snake charmers, musicians and henna ladies. Be vigilant – the vendors can be aggressive! We recommend to just politely decline and keep walking if you are not interested in something. If you would like to get henna, we recommend going to a spa, or a hammam where the price is fixed, as we have been told the henna ladies in Jemaa El Fna could charge very high prices. Also ensure if you do partake, to agree to a price beforehand with the person who is doing the actual service. Getting it at a spa is more reputable and safer as well in our opinion, than just getting it done by a random person on the street, as you don’t always know what they are putting in the inks. (We were able to book henna as well as a hammam right from the convenience of our riad!)

We continued walking through the square and arrived at the Koutobia Mosque. This is probably the most famous mosque in Marrakesh. The outside of the mosque is breathtaking, but unfortunately the exterior is all that you will be able to see as a tourist, unless you are Muslim, as the inside of the mosque is open specifically only for prayer. Prayer time is interesting in Marrakesh. Five times a day a call to prayer blares through the city. People stop what they are doing and head to the mosques. It’s pretty cool to see!

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Because we could not go inside, we went to a nearby park to relax for a bit and admire it from the outside. From the park, we then made our way to Ben Yousef Madrasa. Unfortunately it was a bit of a disappointment for us because it was closed for construction. Also here we nearly fell prey to the tannery scam. After noticing the Madrasa was closed, we were approached by a friendly man appearing to try and give us directions. While talking to us he mentioned that there was a local tannery that was only available once a month just around the corner. Normally we are very astute when it comes to this type of scam, but a lapse in judgement on our part led us to saying ‘ok lets check it out since we are already here’ and went with the man. After 10 minutes of following him, we realized we were not only just going ‘around the corner’. At that point we checked google maps and realized he was taking us to the tanneries at the edge of town that we actually already had plans to visit the next day. We stopped following the guy and scolded him for lying to us, and even after all of that he had the nerve to ask for money! We refused and just kept going. After going out of our way we headed back to the souks for a very late lunch.

The lunch spot we picked was a place we saw on various travel shows, called Chez Lamine Hadj Mustafa. This place made lamb in underground pits. We had never had lamb this juicy or delicious. It was as if it just simply melted in our mouths! The lamb was served on paper with salt as well as some Moroccan tea. The food was delicious and the price was reasonable. The men cooking the lamb also had great sense of humors and let us take a bunch of pictures, one of which the chef posed for us pretending to cut into a lamb. We came here twice during our stay and in hindsight probably could have eaten here all day everyday and not gotten sick of it. 🙂

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After lunch, we went back to the Riad to rest up before dinner. Here, the housekeeper offered us more Moroccan tea and we accepted (warning, it’s highly ADDICTING!). After resting up, we decided to go out and see Marrakesh at night, so we headed to Jemaa El Fna. On our way, we saw someone selling harira soup in the souk alleyways. Sam was particularly excited to have some again after not having any in years, since his now-deceased stepmother used to make it for him as a kid and it was his favorite soup ever! Unfortunately the soup there was not as good as he remembered, just decent but not great. (However we had harira a few more times during our visit and were able to find a fantastic place in the square that served it – the way Sam remembered it). The vibe in the Square at night was much more lively than it was during the day. It seems once the souks close down, everyone flocks to the Square. Upon sundown, Jemaa El Fna fills up with hundreds of food vendors, people playing music, belly dancers, and swarms of locals and tourists alike, wanting a piece of the action. Jemaa El-Fna for us was only ok, a bit too crowded and overwhelming for our tastes, but definitely worth checking it out at night, as the experience is far different than during the day. A word of warning here is to not go in and look at the food stalls if you do not plan on eating. Upon simply just walking around just to see what it was all about, we were immediately swarmed by food vendor after food vendor shoving menus in our faces. It really was quite overwhelming and not at all pleasant. After that happened, we stayed clear of the center area where the food vendors were and just walked the perimeter of the stalls where the shops were – much better! We hung out in the Square for a while and then also people-watched at the Koutobia mosque while snacking on some seeds. Some kids were skateboarding around and a lot of people were just hanging out, but the Koutobia area was not as crowded as the Square. It was a nice place go to get away from the craziness of Jemaa El-fna. Like we said, worth seeing, but definitely not our favorite place in Marrakesh. We attribute it to sort of the ‘Times Square’ of Marrakesh. If you’re familiar with our home city, NYC, then you know what this kind of place is all about.

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Day 2: Explore Marrakesh … Tanneries, Bab Aganou, Palaces & a relaxing Hammam

On the second day we woke up kind of late and again were treated to breakfast and tea at our Riad. We asked the housekeeper if she could book our hammam appointment and she did, for 4:30pm that day. After breakfast, we headed out towards the Bab Debagh tanneries. The tanneries were a decent walk away from our Riad, so it took about 30 – 40 minutes for us to get there. Using Google Maps was a great and reliable way to get around the city by foot. When we got to the area, we saw a sign that said ‘terrace, free entry.’ Again, probably too good to be true, but we felt adventurous. We walked up the stairs all the way up to the terrace and the views of the tanneries did not disappoint. Also being up high and indoors, we were not as subjected to the smell, which we heard was horrible. The terrace belonged to a leather shop so after we were ready to leave we were asked by the shop owner to take a look at his store. We had no intention on buying anything but we obliged and took a look anyway. The shop owner was very nice and if we wanted leather products we would have bought something (we just don’t like leather). Again be weary of people trying to “guide you” – although they say free, it most definitely is not. Most of the people in Marrakesh were great, but there are a lot of people trying to get money out of tourists for doing absolutely nothing. Don’t let this ruin your impression of Marrakesh, it’s great, really, just something to be mindful of as you go about your visit.

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After the tanneries we made our way back to the same lunch spot as the day before, Chez Lamine Hadj Mustapha. The food was even better the second day! More melty lamby goodness that we just couldn’t get enough of! After our satisfying lunch we made our way to see one of the few famous gates to the Medina (walled city). The name of the gate was Bab Aganou. The door, or gate was very cool, definitely recommend a visit to any of the famous gates.

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Next we made our way to El Badii Palace. El Badii Palace is an ancient city of ruins. The palace entrance fee is 70 Dirham (approx. 7 USD). The palace grounds were beautiful and  definitely worth the visit.

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The next stop of the day was El Bahia Palace. Contrary to El Badii Palace, this palace was much newer looking, colorful and quite big, but both palaces were beautiful.

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At this point, we had to make our way to the our hammam appointment. We did our bath at Mains de Fins hammam. The hammam is quite an experience – they offer traditional hammam bath, massages, as well as even henna. We opted for just a traditional couples hammam experience. Basically what is done is you are bathed by a bather with black soap and scrubbed vigorously. The bather will be a woman, as men cannot see women topless who are not their wives. Couples will be in the bath together, and you will be given a pair of underwear to put on while getting your bath.  The scrubbing caused heaps of dead skin to be removed from our bodies. For the 150 dirham each that we paid, we both thoroughly enjoyed this experience and our skin felt so smooth afterward! Jackie also decided to get henna, which cost 50 dirham. We definitely recommend going to a hammam bath if you are in Morocco.

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(Sorry no pics of the hammam. Our stuff was in a locker and we were all wet, so we could not bring the camera into the bath with us).

After the hammam and super hungry, we grabbed dinner at a place called Tajin Darna right in Jemaa El-Fna. We were able to sit on the rooftop overlooking the square which was a very nice view, as the sun was starting to set. We ordered Harira soup again, and a tajine of chicken and vegetables. The harira here was amazing and much more to the liking of how Sam remembered it. The tajine was also incredible, as well as the mint tea. We enjoyed our dinner here as well as the view, that we ended up coming here again the following night.

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Day 3: Explore Marrakesh … Majorelle Gardens … last day in Marrakesh

On day 3 and our final full day in Marrakesh, we decided to explore the Majorelle Gardins, the Berber Museum, and the Yves St. Laurent Museum. The Majorelle Gardens were in a upscale part of Marrakesh, but a bit of walk from our riad. We bought the full package which included all three places mentioned above for 180 dirham a piece. All three places were great, but not being much for museums, we probably would have been just as happy only seeing the garden. The garden itself was by far our favorite part, we could have spent hours there, and we did. The berber museum was actually located within the garden grounds. The Yves St. Lauren museum was a bit down the street.

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After visiting the garden we had lunch at a local outdoor cafe down the street from the garden called Pause Gourmane. The food here was delicious. We opted for a tajine with lamb, peas, and artichokes.

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After lunch we went to the Yves St. Laurent Museum. As mentioned, it was ok, but not the highlight of the day. They had a bunch of different outfits created by Yves St. Laurent that were housed in display cases within the museum.

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We concluded the day with dinner again at Tajin Darna. Can’t remember what we had, but it was likely delicious!

We had some tea again back at the riad and then passed out for the night, as we had to be up early to meet the guide for tour to the Sahara.

Day 4: Day 1 of Marrakesh to Merzouga – Saharan Desert Safari

At 7 am on this day, we met the guide and fellow tour mates at the meeting point to start our Sahara Desert Tour!

We booked our tour through Ando Travel. Everything was well-organized and pleasant. The driver’s name was Obama. He spoke very good English and was a very nice guy with a thorough knowledge of what we were seeing. We booked our tour through getyourguide.com. They emailed us the day before with the meeting point place and time. If your riad is within the souks, it will be a central location within Jemaa El-fna, as the tourist vans can’t get through the narrow alleyways of the souks. Make sure you check your spam folder of your email though, as that’s where ours ended up. We didn’t end up checking the spam and gave Ando a call in the late afternoon to confirm the meeting point details, to which they said to check the spam box and we did and sure enough there it was – luckily they picked up the phone! Otherwise that was the only snag with the trip, and we had a great time!

While the trip was great, the drive is very long! It’s about an 8 hour drive from Marrakesh to the camp where we stayed and the van makes stops along the way for the bathroom, lunch and to see other sites included with the tour like Ait Ben Haddou & Todes Gorges, along with some others.

Obama also pulled over at a great location that allowed us to see and get some pictures of the beautiful Atlas Mountains.

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Our first stop of the day was Ait Bin Haddou. This is a fortified ancient Berber village that is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 4 families currently living within the city walls and within the city you can find about a half dozen kasbahs. There have been several movies filmed here as well, including ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’, ‘Prince Of Persia’ and ‘Gladiator’ to name a few. We also purchased scarves here for our camel ride at 100 dirham each. The scarves are recommend to shield yourself from the strong desert winds while riding on the camels. There is a specific way in which these are to be tied and we were treated to a lesson how to do it. There are also plenty of people at the ride site who can tie it for you.

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After Ait Ben Haddou, we stopped at Ouzarzate. Dubbed ‘the little Hollywood of Morocco’, like Ait Ben Haddou, movies are filmed here as well. We stopped at Atlas Studios, and while we didn’t pay to go inside the studios nor did we have the time, it was cool to see from the outside and learn about all the movies filmed on the grounds.

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After a long day on the bus, we finally arrived at the hotel for the night, Hotel Bougafer in Tinghir. This is the hotel they bring all the tour groups to, so dinner is in a big room with a lot of people altogether. The food was decent. This hotel wasn’t so great but the wifi was strong however and they have an awesome outdoor pool, but it was too cold to swim.

Day 5: Day 2 of Marrakesh to Merzouga Saharan Desert Safari

The next day was breakfast in the big room and then while still in Tinghir, we explored local village and visited a Moroccan rug cooperative. We got invited into a Berber home, which admittedly was a rug shop, but they gave us tea and we actually did manage to buy a beautiful rug at a very great price. They were not pushy to buy here which was nice and the man and his wife were lovely people. The rugs are made by the women in the village and this rug shop has rugs designed by all different women from the village not just her, so each rug is very different and unique. We purchased a runner for $300 USD which now dons the hallway of our home. The original price they wanted was $1,000 but thanks to Sam’s awesome haggling skills, we got it for 1/3rd the price. Definitely haggle, you can get amazing deals if you do and it’s widely done throughout the country, it’s almost encouraged.

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The next stop of the day was Todes Gorges. This is beautiful gorges wth a river running through it. Some points of the gorge get up to 400 meters in height. While very pretty to see, it’s a common stop for most, if not all, of the tour vans so it can get pretty crowded.

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This was our last stop of the day before the highly anticipated Sahara Desert camel ride!

We arrived to the Sahara entrance point around 4 pm where we met our camels and rode to the site where’d we be spending the night. After having read some mixed reviews online and seeing some that we weren’t a huge fan of, we decided to upgrade to the luxury camp option. We were so glad we did this because we were much further into the desert than the standard camp, we got to ride the camels longer and the accommodations were amazing with warm bedding and hot showers. The only thing we didn’t like at this camp was the food. We are not sure if the food would have been better at the standard camp, but talking to our tour mates who stayed there, they said it was good. Riding camels allowed us to be in the Sahara just as the sun was setting and was by far one of the most beautiful things we have seen in all our travels. After dinner, we spent some time by the fire where we were entertained by the wonderful staff at the camp who sang, banged on drums, danced and told stories. The other guests at this camp were really nice and we even met another couple who is also from NY.

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One thing to know about the camps: with the Standard camp option, you cannot bring a big bag or any kind of wheelie suitcase because it cannot fit on the camel. We knew we wanted to do the luxury option, so we took our big bags with us, but anyone only wanting to do the standard option, bring a small daypack and either leave your big luggage at your riad or in the van. You will not be able to take everything with you. The luxury camp is different because they take your bags to the camp on 4×4’s. Something to keep in mind when booking your desert camp experience.

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The next morning was breakfast, back on the camels to catch sunrise and then a long ride back to Marrakesh.

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Day 6: Day 3 of Marrakesh to Merzouga Saharan Desert Safari

This was our last day in Morocco and we were a bit sad to see it end. The drive was long this way because there weren’t a lot of stops to break up the monotony other than a few bathroom stops and a lunch stop. We got back to Marrakesh around 8 pm where we did some last minute souvenir shopping and had our final sips of Riad Sabah’s Mint tea. Fatima knew we liked the tea so much, she even offered to pick up some of it in the marketplace for us to take home and showed Sam how to make it.

Thanks for reading our Morocco blog. We only had a week in Morocco so we could only pick one city and the Sahara tour. We would love to come back and see more of what this amazing country has to offer.

Have you been to Morocco? If so, we would love to learn about what you recommend for us to see and do.

We’re off to China, Cambodia and India next month so look for a blog on that soon!

Until then, Saif Travels!

 

6 thoughts on “Morocco: Marrakesh and the Sahara

  1. such amazing place, and your photos are incredible, you made here a great report for your blog, thanks for sharing!! really want to visit Morocco someday 🙂 cheers from Portugal, PedroL

    Like

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