Having traveled all around Europe the past weeks, it was time to mix it up and go somewhere different for a change. Morocco had always been one of those places on my list and while it’s certainly a place that has been discovered, it was still different enough from everything I’ve seen to make me want to go. Plus if a warm destination and an excuse to cross off being in Africa from the list, this can certainly be it. Marrakech is one of the biggest and most important cities in Morocco as it serves as an important economic and tourist hub. Like Thailand did some 30 years ago, the Moroccan King, Mohammed VI, strongly advocated Tourism to help boost its economy and you can clearly see the impact of this as the contrast between Medina, the “old town” and the huge streets outside of the Medina that have new luxury hotels built all over. It’s an incredibly popular destination for the French since Morocco was colonized by the French in the early part of the 20th century. The people learn Arabic and French growing up so it certainly helps to know a little French when visiting as English is only spoken by the young and is not so good even amongst them. Having learned French all throughout my childhood, whatever French I could still manager to remember, I used it during the trip and it made life a lot easier.
City Facts – Marrakech
|Languages Spoken||Arabic, French|
|My Trip Dates||April 19-22, 2013|
|J-Walk Friendly?||Yes, if you dare.|
|Airport Transport||9 (10 being easiest)|
|Time Zone||GMT – 1|
Upon Arrival and Getting Around
Landing in Marrakech, you will walk from the plane to the terminal and immediately feel the great dry heat of the desert and it feels amazing. You must fill out a landing card before going through customs but they do not have any pens so I’d highly recommend to complete one of these before you land. Going through customs, at least when I landed around 8pm was disorganized, packed, and an all around disaster because it seemed that every other flight landed at that time. My advice is to go to one of the lines on the edges since most people will innately flock towards the middle. When you finally make it through customs, the airport is pretty small so it’s easy to find the exit. However, before you do, I’d highly recommend taking some cash from the ATMs in the terminal as your transport options will only take cash.
There are a few transportation options to the city centre
- Take the No. 19 shuttle bus to the city, this bus leaves every half hour and will literally just take you to whatever hotel you’re staying at if you tell the driver. Ends in the main Jemaa El Fna Square – 30 Dirhams
- Walk – Free
- Cab to the city – 100 Dirhams
The airport is EXTREMELY close to the city center. At only 3 miles from the city center, it is incredibly easy to get to the city center. I wish all airports would be like this so you’d never have to think about the arduous task of getting to the airport. If you’re packing light, you can legit walk to the city center in about 1 hour. Otherwise, the cabs are so cheap, taking 10 minutes, and costing 100-150 dirhams for a ride to the city (12-18$). Make sure to settle on a rate before you get in the cab however as they might try and screw you. Also if you speak French, it is less likely they will try and do so.
Once in the city, you’ll be taking taxis if you don’t feel like walking because they’re very cheap, readily available and because the buses are always crammed. A ride from our hotel to the Medina was 30 dirhams which is like $3.50. Again make sure to negotiate the rate before you get in and once you get an idea of how much a ride should cost from your hotel to wherever, use that as a reference to negotiate any rates going forward. Cabs at night will cost more however.
Our Hotel – Le Meridien N’fis
Because I was traveling with my girlfriend, it was clearly a no brainer to book a hotel vs hostel. There are plenty of hotels in Marrakech but it all depends on where you want to stay. The contrast between the old city and the new is drastic. If you decide to stay in the old city, you will be close to all the action which when looking back on it, we saw plenty of really nice hotels in the old city for reasonable prices and we’d probably stay in that area instead. Instead, my friend has the hookup at all starwood hotels so we booked the Meridien at a huge discount using the starfriend rate of 100$ a night. Normally, this place would be well over $200.
The hotel is situated on Mohammed VI Road which is a newly built street meant to showcase what will soon be the new part of the Marrakech with its large western style malls and fancy 5* hotels. The street is very wide and has a median large enough walk down with great views of the mountains. There’s absolutely nothing to do in this area and is about a 30 minute walk to the Medina (but cabs are very cheap). Although it was extremely nice and quiet, my girlfriend and I are the type of travelers that don’t care for comfort and luxury unless it’s a beach vacation, but rather being close to the action. Most of the people that stayed here were families, older tour groups, and all around amateurs. If you fall into the wanting to be close to everything category, I’d recommend staying in the Medina, otherwise there are many hotels on the Mohammed VI street.
Taking in the Sights
There are so many things to see and do while in Marrakech and we did as much as we could. We decided to take a 2 day/1 night trip to the desert which only left us with one full day to see the city. If I lived in a perfect world, I would say 2 full days would be the ideal amount in Marrakech while 3-4 days in the desert is ideal. Marrakech is clearly divided into two different cities, the old city called Medina, and the new city, called Gueliz. In terms of sightseeing and doing anything touristy, you will be in the Medina. Only if you booked a newer hotel in Gueliz will you ever find yourself in the new city. Otherwise, although the new city is very modern, clean and safe, there is nothing to see so I wouldn’t bother venturing out of the Medina unless you are bored. The city of Marrakech is quite small so you will be fine walking everywhere. The weather when we visited in late April was a very hot 37 C/100F during the day, but it would cool down to about 20C/70F at night. The climate here is dry as it is in the desert so even at 100F, it is very hot but you don’t sweat and feel sticky and when the sun goes down, it is just absolutely perfect. The locals told me the weather that we experienced is considered their favorite, but when summer does come, it can get close to 50C/120F during the day.
Jemaa El Fna (Place of the Dead)
This is probably the important thing to see in Marrakech. It’s a humongous open square that houses street vendors selling everything from orange juice, cobra charmers, and delicious kebabs. You will 100% find yourself here at some point during your stay in Marrakech. It is unavoidable. All the other famous sights are connected via alleyways that funnels into this large square. We came here after seeing a few other sights and we came during the day and at night. I’d highly recommend coming here during the night time, about 6-10 pm because that’s when all the vendors come out. During the day time, there are only stands selling orange juice, cobra charmers, henna painters, and other random hecklers. At night, there are all sorts of delicious foods ranging from kebabs and sausages cooked on an open grill, escargot, sheep’s head, chocolate cakes, tea, and more. The only reason I’d recommend coming here during the day is so you’ll have something to compare to when you return at night and marvel at the transformation that took place. We ate at about 3 different kebab places here just for dinner, and in between each place, we’d have a glass of their delicious fresh squeezed orange juices that cost just 4 dirhams (50 cents). Each stand will have a number on it and I’d highly recommend stand 32 and probably the ones adjacent to it. We had some amazing kebabs (just stick with lamb for best taste) and it was all very cheap, for about 10$ for two. I think I alone consumed almost a dozen sticks of kebabs.
Another thing I’d highly recommend is going to any number of the restaurants around the Square that have rooftop terraces and grabbing a drink during sunset. You can have a great view of the square and the city before heading down when the sun sets completely to gorge on kebabs. Unfortunately being an Islamic state and their conservatism towards alcohol, most of these restaurants don’t serve any alcohol but mint tea is delicious and a perfect alternative.
The Souks are traditional North African street markets and Marrakech has arguably the most famous one. Located right adjacent to Jemaa El Fna, you can literally find anything and everything in these markets. We walked around this place for hours and had absolutely no idea where we were going but that was part of the fun. You can easily spend half your day here and feel like you’ve barely seen anything. There are maps of the souk that I was not able to get a hold of but if you can find one of these, it would make navigating the souks much more possible. The souks are divided into different sections, each specializing in different products ranging from spices and herbs, to shoes, to blacksmith products. You’ll be heckled over and over again especially if you start looking at something for more than like 3 seconds. Make use of your peripheral vision and learn to move on. The best time to visit the Souks is in the early morning before 8am or in the early evening, 5-6pm. If you do decide to buy something, ALWAYS bargain because these guys all price their products higher than what they want to sell for because they know people will try to bargain.
With the hustle and bustle of the souks of the Medina, and the afternoon heat reaching ridiculous temperatures, at least part of your day in Marrakech should be devoted to total inactivity. A good place to get a cool and peaceful break is in one of the many gardens in the city. The main gardens in Marrakech are the Agdal and Menara, stretching through many acres of orchards and olive groves with an immense pool of water. Getting here is worth the trip and just a 15 minute cab ride from the city. Visiting both these gardens are probably unnecessary but if you have the time why not?
The Menara Gardens are one of the most photographed places in Morocco. It is also a popular place among locals for picnics. The best time to come is late afternoon when most of the tourists have left. More a working farm than a garden, the Menara was laid out in the 12th century by the Almohads. Around 30,000 olive trees are set around a magnificent reflecting pool, filled with fish that leap above the surface to the surprise of passing walkers. The well-kept picnic pavilion, the menzeh, was built much later in 1869. The first-floor open balcony offers a wonderful view over the pool and the mountains beyond.
The Agdal Gardens is located just south of the Royal Palace and Mellah. If you walk out here, it is around 3 kilometres from Jemaa el Fna. This is a confusingly large expanse, over 400 hectares and 3 kilometres in extent, surrounded by walls with gates at its corners. It includes a half a dozen small irrigation pools as well as large pools at its heart. This extensive watering system irrigates apricot, lemon, fig and pomegranate orchards and olive groves. The main series of pools at the heart of the Agdal include Sahraj el Hanna, flanked by a summer pavilion used by sultans for picnics and boating trips. From its roof, you can enjoy a panoramic view over the garden, Koutoubia and the Atlas.
This is the biggest and grandest mosque in Marrakech. 5 times a day, this mosque leads the city in prayer and the prayers can be heard from half a mile away. The building itself is huge and can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. I wouldn’t spend more than a half hour here because well? You can’t actually go inside the place unless your Muslim. However, there is a lot of history surrounding this mosque so hiring a private walking guide wouldn’t be a bad idea if you want to learn about the history. The surrounding area of the mosque is beautiful and certainly makes it worth a visit with a photo or two.
Prior to visiting this city, the only experience I’ve had with Moroccan food is at a restaurant called Cafe Mogador in NYC. The common misconception most people make about Moroccan food, and pretty much all foods originating from the Middle East, is that they all eat Hummus. I can assure you that Moroccan’s probably don’t even know what hummus is, let alone serve it as a part of the cuisine. Nevertheless, all Middle Eastern/North African/Mediterranean restaurants abroad serve Hummus because they know their customers will like it which means it is a big money maker. Hummus is in fact, primarily part of Lebanese, Israeli, and Palestinian cuisine. Hummus aside, Moroccan food is still amazingly delicious without the hummus. Being at the crossroads of many civilizations, the cuisine of Morocco is a mélange of Arab, Berber, Moorish, French, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean African, Iberian, and Jewish influences. Moroccan cooking is enhanced with fruits, dried and fresh apricots, dates, figs, raisins to name a few. Commonly used spices include cumin, cinnamon, tumeric, paprika and saffron. Food is traditionally served with bread, cous cous and in a Tajine, which is just meat/vegetables cooked with spices in a clay pot. These clay pots always come to your table simmering and smell amazing. You will undoubtedly be having a lot of Tajines during your stay here. From my experience, unless you’re with a local that can take you to the right spots, it is better to spend a little more on food here so you get better ingredients. This doesn’t mean 5* prices; I’m talking the difference between 5$ and 10$. Kebabs are primarily considered street food that I never saw at any restaurants and is readily available at the Jemaa El Fna Square during night. Prices are very cheap for kebabs which makes me laugh considering how much we actually pay for kebabs at a nice restaurant in NYC.
2 Day, 1 Night Camel Ride Desert Trek
Probably the highlight of our trip, we wanted to take a trip to the desert as it was close. With the limited time that we had, we could only squeeze in the 2 day, 1 night tour. There are tours that range from 1 full day to two weeks depending on how adventurous and how much time you have. There are many many different companies that offer this exact tour and each one charges a different price. The tour consists of driving out to the desert, taking a camel trek with some of the local people, camping out in the desert, and driving back the next day. It took my girlfriend and I hours of research and contacting different companies to know what was up. Hopefully, Google indexes this post and this will help some poor soul in the future looking to do the same tour.
We booked our tour through GoMoco.net for a total cost of 60 Euros a person which is very reasonable as this includes all transportation, dinner (not lunch), and a tent in the desert. The website looks a little unprofessional but we had no problems booking with it. The actual company that does the tour is called Ando Tours so I think gomoco is secondary site used to book through. Prior to discovering this website, I had been to so many sites like Marrakech Expedition 4×4, Authentic Tours Marrakech, Moroccan Views, Aspects of Morocco, and more with each company charging anywhere from 100 Euros to 200 Euros. Many of these tours are private tours which didn’t appeal to us as much as we didn’t want to drive 8 hours with a stranger. Because this trip is only 2 days, and most of the time is spent driving, you do not actually get into the real Sahara with the huge dunes. You must do the 3 day/2 night trip to Merzouga to see that. You’ll still see desert on this trip but the dunes will be small and you’ll still see vegetation along the way.
In 2 days, you will travel from Marrakech to Zagora, about 400 km to the east, and Zagora is only the beginning of the Sahara. Most of the trip is just driving to Zagora. Along the way, you will pass through mountains with trees, mountains with just rock, valleys with palm trees, and deserts making it one of the most scenic 8 hour rides I’ve been on in awhile. You’ll pass through some Berber towns, one particular which was used to film The Gladiator and end in Zagora, where you’ll meet some local Tuareg that will lead you on a camel tour 2 hours into the desert where they’ve set up a camp for you for the night. They’ll feed you dinner here and give you a tent to sleep in (or you can sleep outside and admire the skies like we did). If you do decide to do a private tour, don’t worry, your guide will not be sleeping in the same tent as you. Instead, you’ll be dropped off with the locals along with every other tour group, private and groups, where you will all be together in the same campsite for the night (about 30 people in total). In the morning, you’ll take a camel ride back to town and be on your way back to Marrakech while making a few more stops along the way. I’ll write out a summary by the hour of how the trip went for anyone interested.
7:00am – A driver on behalf of the tour group picks us up from our hotel and we are taken by a private van to the meet up near Jemaa El Fna. The driver is friendly and speaks only French but he will only be your driver from your hotel/riad to the meet up point.
7:30-8:00am – Arrive at the meet up point and pay the rest of what we owe the tour group in cash (You only pay a small deposit of the full amount when you book online). We are then transferred to a van that sits 16 people and it’s packed full. Time to make conversation with these people because they will be your companions for the next 36 hours.
10:00am – After driving for two hours to the East of Marrakech, you will be high up in the mountains. We made a pitstop here to take in the views and buy water. It would be highly recommended to buy plenty of snacks before this trip as the options are limited far away from the city. You should also bring a bottle or two of water but there will be many places to get water along the way.
12:00pm – 2:00pm -Driving another two hours, we are high up in the mountains now and will make your first stop at Ait Benhaddou, where we’re shown around the town by a Berber guide. He will take you to the old part of town where they built the setting for The Gladiator, where Maximus gets sold into slavery. We then have lunch at a restaurant chosen by the tour group and this food was mediocre at best.
2:00pm -6:00pm – Drive over the mountains and into the desert where we see huge forests of palm trees and small dunes. I didn’t think palm trees grew in that magnitude in the desert but they do. Eventually, you will reach the desert town of Zagora where you’ll be camped out for the night. Along the way you’ll make a few more stops for vantage points and pictures but when they tell you that it’ll be the last stop before you go into the desert, make sure you load up on water, a plastic bag, and the traditional headscarf if you want one. They are cheap at 50 dirhams so might as well pick one up. If you think the locals find it offensive for you to wear these veils, they thought it was quite funny when I put mine on so don’t worry. Plus it’s money for them.
6:00pm – 8:00pm – Arrive at the camel meetup post. There was a large herd of camels and Tuareg guides waiting for you and your group. Once we all got on, the guides guided the camels and we enjoyed the beautiful sunset, headed into the desert and eventually arrived at our campsite.
8pm – Midnight – Once we disembarked, we were at a campsite where we joined other tour groups since the camp can sleep 40. We had dinner here which was mediocre again, and then spent the rest of the night around a campfire listening to them play music and just talking with other people. We met some very cool people here and ended up talking well past midnight before finally going to bed. We decided to pull our mattresses out of the tent (which is encouraged) to sleep under the stars. The weather in the desert will get colder at night but not much, it was still a solid 20C/70F and plenty warm enough to sleep outside. There are also no scorpions, snakes or spiders at this desert so you were fine. I’d highly recommend an eye mask and ear plugs if you have them. There’s also quite the amazing makeshift bathroom tent here for anyone concerned.
6:00am – Depending on if you slept outside or not, you may or may not be waking up earlier than this as the sun rises before 6. We took in the early sun, and breakfast was served around 6:30am. Once we finished breakfast, we got back on your camels and rode back to meet up with the driver.
8:00am-12:00pm – Drive back towards Marrakech stopping along the way scenic points
12:00pm – 1:00pm – Stop in Ouarzazate, a desert town famous for being the “Hollywood” of Morocco. The city has a museum which you get to check out that has props for all the movies filmed here including Laurence of Arabia, The Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, The Mummy, Black Hawk Down, Hidalgo, etc. Museum wasn’t that interesting but you have no choice if you go on these group tours. If you chartered a private tour, you would be able to customize your stops however you’d like.
2pm – Lunch stop at a random restaurant in the mountains. Food was terrible, expensive for Moroccan standards, and super touristy. I think the tour groups just have deals with random restaurants along the route telling them that they’ll bring them loads of tourists with money for something in exchange.
5:30pm – After speaking to the driver (in French, he spoke no English), I told him no more stops please and just get us home. We arrived back in Marrakech just past 5pm and so concludes our visit to the desert.
The three days I had in Marrakech was a great getaway from the pace of the big city life. Morocco was my first country in Africa as well as my first Islamic country albeit Morocco is probably the most relaxed of all them in terms of tolerance to things like alcohol, showing affection in public, and female rights. Visiting Marrakech, you could tell the city/country has gone through a recent but serious makeover in their attitudes to tourism as Morocco is now the undisputed king of tourism in the region. With cheap flights on Easyjet, and no need for visas, it really makes this place easy to visit. Everyone we met was very nice to us but we did hear some questionable stories from other travelers so make sure to just have your wits about you especially if you’re in the old town late at night. With the limited of time that we had, we saw enough to give us a little flavor but if we lived in the perfect world, I’d allot 3 days/2 nights to Marrakech and at minimum 3 days/2 nights for a desert trip.