Morocco Part 2: Our Desert Adventure
This post covers our Moroccan tour. We travelled from Fes to Marrakech on this tour, stopping at several small towns along the way, and even spending a night at the Erg Chebbi desert camp.
What We Did
Day 124 (11/23/16): Today was a jam-packed day. After awaking super early to meet our tour guide, we hopped into his car and headed out of Fes. We stopped for breakfast on our way to the town of Ifrane, the Switzerland of Morocco. It was called such because it looks extremely European, considering it is where most of the wealthy French people lived when Morocco was a French colony. We only stopped briefly, as it was so cold, none of us could stand to be outside for long. Afterwards, we made a stop in the cedar forest of Azrou, where we fed the stray dogs and monkeys that congregated by the side off the road. From there, the landscape became insane. We traveled up into the Mid Atlas Mountains, which were absolutely covered in snow. This was completely unexpected for us. However, not being ones to shy away from fun, we pulled over by a lake in the mountains and had an impromptu snow-ball fight with our tour guide, Mbarik. Once our hands were frozen solid, we piled back into the car and headed back down the mountains. The weirdest thing was within twenty minutes of getting back into the car, we were driving through a landscape that shockingly resembled the Southwest of the United States (think Arizona and New Mexico). We came upon the equivalent of Morocco’s Grand Canyon, the Ziz Gorges, complete with palm trees growing along the river. We stopped at a couple more sites for pictures and lunch before we finally made it to the edge of the Sahara and the Erg Chebbi dunes. We decided to watch the sunset from the dunes, as our guide took the car off road up the red sand peaks. He got the car stuck for a second, so we all bailed out and raced up the dunes to snap some pictures, make sand angels, and generally just to goof off. We split a bottle of wine with our guide right out on the sand before piling back in the car and driving to the hotel. There, we settled in and got dinner before heading to bed.
Day 125 (11/24/16): Happy Thanksgiving! Today we slept in a bit, before joining back up with our guide to see a few sites around the area. We stopped for lunch, and then stopped to see the fossils of small creatures who lived in the desert millions of years ago when it was all part of the ocean. We also stopped to see the Gnawa and listen to their traditional music over a cup of tea. Afterwards, we purchased some beers (or “cans of happy” as our guide called them) before stopping in the middle of nowhere, where the black earth net the dunes, to have an impromptu dance party. We drank, posed for pictures, and blasted music across the flat, black, rocky plane. After we were all a bit tired, we headed back to the hotel and chilled by the pool until it was time to begin our camel-back trek into the dunes of the Sahara to the Berber camp site we would be staying at that evening. We mounted our camels (Justin riding Joe, Katie riding Fred, Adam riding Sir Edward, and me making up caboose on Chopsticks) and ventured out into the sand. We rode for about an hour before reaching the camp. Once there, we dropped off our small bags in our tents and headed for the large dining tent. We had a Thanksgiving feast of soup, bread, chicken tagine, pomegranates, and oranges. After dinner, we layered up and sat around the fire with the guides and other guests drinking, playing music, telling jokes and riddles, and singing. We eventually moved the party out into the blackness of the dunes, wrapped in blankets. We sat out there talking and looking up at the millions of stars for hours before calling it a night.
Day 126 (11/25/16): Today we woke up at 6 a.m. in order to watch the sun rise over the dunes. After sprinting/sliding down the dune we climbed to get a good view (which was a ton more fun than the walk up), we had a light breakfast and remounted our camels. We had another hour long early morning trek through the desert and back to the hotel, where we showered and readied ourselves to get on the road again. Our drive took us through the towns of Tineghir, Erfoud and Tinejdad before we stopped for lunch. Afterwards, we drove through the Todra Gorges, stopping several places for pictures and to take a quick walk through the canyon. We continued on to the Boumalne du dades, which included several rock formations that resembled either monkey fingers or phallic shapes depending on who you asked (I thought the latter, but I have a bit dirtier of a mind). We took a winding road up a canyon to get a better view before arriving to our hotel. After some welcome tea, we checked-in and headed down the road to check out a local restaurant called Restaurant Basilic. Although we were having dinner in the hotel later, the word “sandwich” painted on the outside had us sprinting to get there (we had eaten practically nothing but tagine or kebabs for a while). We each split a chicken sandwich, tea, bread, and homemade sweets, which all tasted incredible and was prepared by the nicest, most cheerful chef and owner ever, Hassan. Afterwards, we returned to the hotel, rested, and reconvened for dinner. The dinner at the hotel was actually very good and different from what we had been eating lately, which was a nice surprise. So, naturally, we stuffed ourselves some more and then promptly went upstairs and passed out for the night.
Day 127 (11/26/16): We left the hotel early for our long drive to Marrakech. We stopped for a tour of the kasbah of Taourirt, seen only by most westerners in the movie Hanna. It was really interesting learning about traditional and historical Moroccan construction methods, cooking, olive pressing, and general family life. We also got to see some super cool historical locks and keys made of wood (I know this doesn’t sound that exciting but I thought their method was totally ingenious). We then piled back in the car and drove to the city of Ouarzazate, home to the Atlas Film Studios. These studios were famous for their role in the production of The Mummy, Florence of Arabia, and Gladiator. We continued on briefly to the Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou (also seen in those films) for some pictures before stopping for lunch. After our meal, we made our way up into the High Atlas Mountains and through the Tizi N’tichka pass, with an altitude of over 7400 feet. We drove through a snow/thunder storm combo on the way down the mountain, complete with lightning. The rain continued as we made our way into old Marrakech and said goodbye to Mbarik. Our new host met us and took us to our apartment where we put our stuff down and headed promptly back out to the local KFC (a decision me and my stomach are GREATLY regretting now). Finally, we made our way back, caught up with loved ones, and got some shut eye.
What We Learned
- The camel rides in the Sahara are amazing totally awesome experiences, but they are a pain in the ass. Literally. Riding on that hump is rough, and the saddles are less comfortable than those you get on horses because of it. The ride out to the camp was not too bad, but getting back on the next day to ride out of the desert was interesting. It turned into an hour of creativity in camel-riding positions in order to avoid resting on areas that were already bruised. And my butt was sore for two days after. That being said, it was still 100% worth it and I would do it again in a heartbeat (and I will in Egypt). There is no better way to view the dunes, and the camels really are quite cute. I will miss my little Chopsticks.
- Moroccan cuisine is terrific, but there is not a ton of variety. When traveling here, be prepared to eat bread and tagine on a daily basis (and a lot of times more than once a day), especially if doing a tour. While it is good and can be varied in its ingredients, it does get monotonous after a while. We found ourselves actively seeking out any other dishes or cuisines at every opportunity, as it was often impossible to find anything besides traditional Moroccan. All that said, you can switch up tagine for kebabs sometimes (usually for slightly more money), and many of the places had spaghetti on the menu (which I found odd, and we found it sometimes to taste a little odd too). Also, the traditional soup was something I had at almost every meal but still looked forward to. We found several places we enjoyed, though, in every city, several of which were in fact traditional Moroccan. Our favorite places in each city is are as follows: Tangier – Sky 17 Café, Chefchauen – Café Sinibad, Fes – The Ruined Garden, Gorge du Dades – Restaurant Basilic, Marrakech – Café Restaurant Jad Jamal, Casablanca – O’lichi & Rick’s Cafe.
- The whole first day of our tour was incredible. The beauty and diversity if the landscape was rivaled by none of the places we had yet been, except maybe Iceland. Going from a sprawling city to a lush forest, to snowcapped mountains, to great red rock canyons and valleys, to the sand dunes of the Sahara all in one day was completely indescribable. Playing around on the sand dunes our first night in the Sahara was probably our favorite part of the day. It looks exactly like you picture in your head; fine red sand with waves in it from the wind. It was just waiting for us. We sprinted up the dunes, filling our shoes with sand. We made sand angels, watched the sun set, and raced each other around from one sandy peak to the other. We then returned to the car and passed around a bottle of wine, danced to the music from the radio, and talked with our new friend and guide, Mbarik. It was an awesome start to our tour.
- Seeing the stars out in the Sahara was one of my favorite parts of the past four months. I have never seen so many. Our location was so remote, and the sky was so dark and so clear that you could see the Milky Way. We even saw some shooting stars. The longer we were out there and our eyes adjusted, the more we could see. I felt so small in the moments out there compared to its size, and yet so in awe of its vastness an beauty. It was truly a magical sight that I hope never to forget.