Travel in Morocco: Marrakech and the Sahara Desert

Salaam Aleikum and welcome to the second half of my Moroccan journey! 😀 🇲🇦

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Salaam Aleikum means “peace be upon you” in Arabic. 📷: Sahara Desert

My bus arrived in Marrakech at 6 AM. 🚌 I decided to wait until daylight before making my way to the hostel. I could have taken a taxi, but I was so sick of sitting on the bus that I really wanted to stretch my legs. Anyway, as I walked there, I was initially impressed by the wide, spacious boulevards here lined with palm trees.DSC_2316The buildings in Marrakech are painted a light rose color, giving it the nickname, the “Pink City.” 💕DSC_2317

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Sally is more of a city girl 😉 🐪
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local telephone ad ☎

I walked about 40 minutes through the new district until I reached the main square near the towering Koutoubia Mosque. 🕌DSC_2021The Jamaa el Fna square here is a massive open-air complex. To use the word chaotic here would be an understatement. I decided to make a short video of the square to give you a better idea of what I mean. 😱

People were charming snakes, monkeys were dancing on ropes, and old women were doing henna tattoos on unsuspecting passersby. 🐍 🐵DSC_2308DSC_2025As I weaved through all the people, I tried to make a beeline for the street of my hostel. DSC_2018DSC_2013DSC_2027Of course I got lost going there since the Google maps address wasn’t accurate, but a nice waiter at a French cafe nearby gave me directions in French using exaggerated hand gestures. Finally, after an hour of wandering, I found the narrow alleyway to my hostel.DSC_2299My accommodation here was called Riad Marrakech Rouge. They had free WiFi, complimentary breakfast, dorm beds, and they organized excursions.DSC_2297
Cost: 6 Euros per night

When I first arrived, they greeted me with coffee and a full complimentary breakfast of pita, a fried crepe, pound cake, fresh cheese, orange marmalade and hard boiled eggs.UntitledWhile eating I started chatting with some Americans that were studying in Milan, Italy, and were here on holiday. We decided to venture out together and go sightseeing in the city.
Our first stop was the Bahia Palace, Bahia meaning “brilliance”, and it was easily one of the most gorgeous buildings I had seen in Morocco. DSC_2002DSC_2000This 19th century building was originally intended for the sultan and his mistresses.DSC_1990The complex spans 20 acres, and is a mix of spacious courtyards decorated with tiles and mosaics, and concubine dwellings decorated with intricate wood carvings and colorful stained glass.DSC_1996I was really in awe of all the intricate details. ❤DSC_1982DSC_1965As well, there were lush gardens, decorated with marble fountains, that were teeming with plant life, like orange, cyprus and jasmine trees. The smells from the garden were especially divine!DSC_2004DSC_1972From there we walked through the Medina of Marrakech.DSC_2303

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traditional Berber outfit

Compared to Fez, this medina was much smaller, but motorbikes were allowed in the narrow streets, which made it seem more chaotic. The salesman here also really made me chuckle. He said, “These bags are 100%, genuine fakes! Dolce and Banana!” Hah! 😂DSC_1963DSC_2302

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gorgeous clay pottery

I also spotted some different street food here, like these pastries called ‘bastilla’, which are filled with chicken, almonds, and prunes, then sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. DSC_2300As well, there were these flaky pastries, filled with either meat, veggies, or seafood. DSC_2008After wandering awhile, we decided to sit down at a restaurant called, Amal Cafe. This cooperative helps to empower women by teaching them culinary skills and arranging job placements across the city. The cafe also offers cooking courses. For lunch we tried a veggie tagine with couscous, and a flaky pastry filled with chicken and served with a slaw-type salad. UntitledTagine spices are very complex, and can include cumin, coriander, cardamon, chile, turmeric, and ginger. This veggie dish had potato, carrot, zucchini, roasted tomato, chickpeas and couscous. 🤤
UntitledAfter we spent the evening chatting on the hostel’s rooftop terrace before I headed to bed. The next morning I awoke at 6 AM to prepare for my 3 day/ 2 night desert tour, booked through my hostel.

3 Day / 2 Night Sahara Desert Tour

DSC_2224After another traditional Moroccan breakfast, I went with some Ukrainians and British travelers from my hostel to meet the van for our tour. Of course, it was a total cluster trying to organize so many people, and we ended up waiting almost an hour before we loaded into our van, but eventually we got on our way. 🙂
Our tour driver only spoke French, but he was very jolly. He always had a glass cup on tea in his console. He always made stops for the toilet, photos, cigarettes, water, and just about anything that we needed. He also stopped many times in the towns to say hello to the friends that he knew. I just wish I hadn’t sat right behind him and couldn’t see his driving, as swerved around to pass cars, sometimes while going around the corner of a mountain, or while passing a car that was already passing another car! I felt like my nervous aunt as I gripped the edge of the window and exhaled loudly in relief when we survived. Hah! Oh yeah, and since our driver didn’t speak English, one French traveler translated everything for us, then I had to translate for a Spanish couple as well. Talk about a game of telephone! 😛
Anyway, we made several scenic stops as we drove through the High Atlas Mountains from Marrakech to Ouarzazate.DSC_2034 It was incredible to see such a diverse landscape, with snow-capped mountains, flat desert, and tropical palm trees all in the same area.DSC_2033DSC_2030At many times we could see Arabic words written in rocks along the mountain. Our driver told us that this stood for the three things you should be willing to die for: God, country, and king.UntitledAnyway, our first major stop of the day was Ait Beinhaddu, an 11th century mud-brick city that was used by travelers on the caravan route.DSC_2057DSC_2049This ksar, or “fortified village” is now a UNESCO world heritage site.DSC_2068DSC_2037DSC_2071DSC_2067DSC_2058

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locals washing clothes in the river

It is also the backdrop for many Hollywood films, including The Mummy and Gladiator.DSC_2060Fun fact: Due to unstable political situations in Egypt, many Egyptians movies were actually filmed in Morocco, and we even drove by the Hollywood studios here.
UntitledWhile touring Ait Beinhaddu, we walked through these ancient city streets where vendors now sell rugs, scarves and paintings.DSC_2046DSC_2043DSC_2061

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These structures have really stood the test of time!

DSC_2065 My favorite art piece here was burnt by using a magnifying glass held under the strong rays of the sun. ☀DSC_2066Anyway, when we finally hopped back in the van I started chatting with the guy next to me from Ukraine. I learned how he had fled to Poland before the Ukrainian war. We chatted about how he can’t visit his parents now, since they live in the Ukranian war zone now. His parents have the option to leave for other parts of Ukraine, but they don’t want to end up in shabby, refugee housing, and already know the people in their community. They would prefer to risk it and stay in the war zone. He ended by saying how happy he was that he left for Poland when he did. He now has a stable job with Google and the freedom to travel around Europe. After three more hours of driving, near sunset, we made a scenic stop to take in the mountain scenery.DSC_2128DSC_2127The rocks here looked to me like a melted candle, and apparently the shape is supposed to resemble a monkey paw if you look close enough. 🤔🐒DSC_2081DSC_2080After sunset we arrived at our accommodation near the Dades Gorge. I ended up sharing a room with two Brazilian girls that were living and working in Germany.DSC_2129The one girl was pregnant, and such a hoot to talk with. She hadn’t traveled much before, and said she was definitely being too nice to the market sellers in Marrakech. She ended up getting a henna tattoo on her hand without agreeing to it, and somehow let a man put a monkey on her shoulder. Hah! 🐒 She said she was too polite to say no. The funny thing was that the henna tattoo included her name written out in Arabic, so when she walked around in the market afterwards, the locals kept calling out her name, because they saw it on her hand! 🤣DSC_2084For dinner, we started out with a traditional tomato and lentil soup called ‘harira’, served with these cool wooden spoons.DSC_2085We also had a chicken tagine, which was artfully prepared with root veggies, olives, prunes, chicken and a thick sauce, great for dipping your pita. For dessert they also offered oranges and bananas sprinkled with cinnamon.DSC_2086In the morning we had a typical breakfast before departing for the Sahara Desert in Merzouga.DSC_2091Our first stop of the day was to Tinghir, a traditional Berber village. DSC_2121Here we walked through alfalfa plantations and our guide talked to us about the agricultural importance of this area. DSC_2093DSC_2103Overall, I was shocked at how much greenery I still saw in the desert. We past streams of water, palm trees, cherry blossoms, and you could still see the snow-capped mountains in the backdrop.DSC_2096DSC_2099DSC_2102We also walked through the city’s historic Jewish quarter. Apparently, before the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1940s, the Jews and Berbers existed here in peace. After tension rose, about 98% of the Jews fled the country.DSC_2120DSC_2118DSC_2125DSC_2126Then we stopped to learn about how Berber rugs are made by using either camel hair or sheep’s wool, and natural dyes. Very beautiful!UntitledWhile visiting, we took tea with the family, and one of the Ukrainians in our group even bought a small rug for 90 euro. DSC_2109DSC_2108DSC_2106From there we went to the Todra Gorge, where we walked along the pristine river and took in the natural scenery.DSC_2142DSC_2138DSC_2133What a GORGE-ous gorge! 😉DSC_2146unnamed (1)Afterwards we stopped for lunch, where I tried some kebab chips. When in Morocco! 😀 UntitledFrom there we made a three-hour drive to Merzouga, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Throughout the ride, it was incredible to watch the landscape as it changed from dark, sandy gravel to cascading orange dunes.DSC_2153DSC_2217When we arrived at the desert, we grabbed only what we would need for one evening, and left the rest of our belongings in the van. Our driver then left us with the  local Berbers and would return for us in the morning. DSC_2159DSC_2157From there we mounted camels and began a 45-minute trek to our overnight Berber camp.DSC_2164My camel was quite small, and my cushion was put together using plywood, which really hurt my bum, so I was glad the ride was short. Hah! 😛UntitledDSC_2174During the ride I was surprised to see how bushy the desert landscape appeared. DSC_2168unnamedThere were oodles of plants and yellow cacti sprouting in our path.DSC_2166DSC_2165Now there are over 200 camps set up in the Sahara Desert, and it appeared that we were given the worst. Hah! For this reason, I probably wouldn’t recommend the tour that I booked. Our camp looked more like a shanty town. It was so awful, it was laughable. I couldn’t even take a photo, so here is one of the nicer camps.DSC_2170 We didn’t have a shower, toilet or even running water. When we arrived our Moroccan guide didn’t introduce himself. He was very angry and made us feel like an inconvenience. He said he was annoyed and tired. He tried to shove six of us in one tent. Each tent had six shabby blankets, smelling of cat pee, and no real door. A few of the couples had paid 80 Euro extra for a private room, and the guy started yelling at them, telling them that it was overbooked and there was nothing he could do. He was quite crazy, so we decided to leave it alone and talk with the tour company later when we returned. I was so lucky to be with such an awesome group of people that made the experience actually fun despite the conditions. For this reason, I would recommend find another tour company and asking to see pictures of the camp beforehand. I would also recommend booking after arrival, because it appears the price of the tour can be negotiated as well. The average 3-day tour price is between 80-100 USD, including breakfast, dinner, transportation, and accommodation.
Anyway, we were still in bliss to be surrounded by such a beautiful landscape, so we decided to walk to the top of the dunes to watch the sunset. DSC_2205The Sahara Desert is the world’s largest hot desert. DSC_2190DSC_2215Historically, this desert was part of the caravan route, and many travelers rode camels across this sandy abyss to trade their goods and spices.

Fun fact: Camels have wide, soft feet, which makes it easy for them to walk on the sand. They can also go about 15 days without food! 😮DSC_2223Many types of mammals and reptiles live in the desert, but all I found was this harmless beetle. 🤣DSC_2184While waiting for the sunset, we took turns racing each other across the dunes. 😛DSC_2183DSC_2229Afterwards, we asked about dinner, but weren’t sure if or when that was going to happen considering the state of affairs thus far. As such, we snacked on oranges and cookies we brought with us, while one of the Spaniards played a drum, and the girls played Brazilian music and danced in the moonlight. As the hours past, it neared 10 PM. We saw a jeep emerge over one of the dunes and joked that it was the Pizza Hut delivery man with the pie we had ordered. Hah! 🍕unnamed (2)We also pretended like we were Peter Pan from Hook. Maybe if we believed there was real food, it would actually come true. 🤣maxresdefault (1)Finally, our dinner was served at 10:30 PM. DSC_2237DSC_2235They gave each us a sad soup that nobody ate, and one tagine per six people, which had potatoes, carrots, and one piece of chicken. We also had no chairs or plates of our own. Everyone barbarically sat on their knees and ate out of the same tagine dish with their fork, like they hadn’t eaten in days. Hah! 🤣 🍴DSC_2240Not so surprisingly, the cats even turned their noses to our food. They obviously have higher standards than we do! 🤣DSC_2241Afterwards, we were given a fire where the Ukranians brought out some Polish vodka to share. We also ended up visiting a nearby camp where we saw that they had a shower, toilet, nice sofa in their room, and a proper bed. 😮 We talked with them about their lovely experience so far. For dinner, they sat at a proper dinner table with their own plates, and had a delicious 3-course meal, including water and dessert. It just goes to show, the experience could have been different for us, but at least, in a few years, I’ll look back at this and laugh. 😁 As well, it was more about the people I was with, and for that, I had a truly memorable experience. 😀DSC_2202Anyway, the next morning we all awoke at 5:30 AM to ride our camels back for the sunrise.DSC_2285My camel was growling and drooling, and definitely not a morning person! Hah! 🤣 🐪 DSC_2284DSC_2295This last day we drove from the Sahara Desert back to Marrakech. The drive took eight hours, with stops for coffee, lunch, and toilet breaks. I chose to do this tour starting and ending in Marrakech, but for an additional fee, you can start or end in Fez.

Overall, the experience was undoubtedly one-of-a-kind. I’ll never regret the beautiful scenery I saw, the incredible people I met, or the abdominal pain I felt from laughing so hard. It’s really not where you go, but the people you meet along the way. unnamed (3)
After arriving back in Marrakech, I spent one more night at the same hostel before my flight the next day.
While waiting for my flight, I spent that Sunday afternoon at the Menara Gardens, conveniently located near the airport. The mood there was very fun and family-friendly. Groups had picnics set up in the grass, and kids played soccer on the large, concrete boulevard. DSC_2322
DSC_2321Sightseeing side note: The Majorelle Gardens here are apparently the most popular gardens here due to the fact that Yves Saint Laurent owns them. That being said I found the Menara Gardens to be lovely as well, since they were less touristy and completely free. 💰

From there I walked to the airport, which took 45 minutes. ✈ I wouldn’t recommend this unless you have light luggage, but since I had only a small backpack, I found it to a be a leisurely walk along a safe and secure sidewalk. DSC_2323

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Marrakech international airport

Anyway, that wraps up my Moroccan adventure. I’m back in Barcelona now to finish up the school semester. 🇪🇸 That being said, in only two weeks I’ll be starting another exciting travel adventure! Woo-hoo! 🙌 Stay tuned for the travel itinerary! Until then! Take care and safe travels!

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