My girlfriend and I spent a week in Morocco as part of a larger European vacation. We had an amazing experience there, but I feel compelled to write a candid recap of what I would gladly repeat and what I would urge to do differently next time. I find travel books to be overly optimistic and unopinionated, so I hope my account of traveling will better set expectations.
We added Morocco to our itinerary due to our desire for a more exotic segment of the trip as well as its close proximity to Spain. After skimming through a Lonely Planet on the subject, I became most interested in seeing Erg Chegaga. This section of the Sahara Desert in the eastern part of the country near the Algerian border is mostly conveniently accessed from Marrakech, so we flew in and out of there.
We stayed at a guesthouse in the the Medina called Riad Chorfa. We were quite pleased with our hospitality, but we found the Medina itself to be vastly overrated. The Medina is a large medieval neighborhood of twisting alleys filled with souks selling goods Lonely Planet describes as “ranging from exotic spices to potions to cure any ailment”. The book hypes these souks as one of the primary destinations in town, but we couldn’t leave them soon enough.
For every store selling spices or potions, there were ten selling knockoff Lional Messi jerseys. Combined with obnoxiously hustling shopkeepers and loud smelly motorcycles aggressively whizzing past you makes this a far from medieval experience l’ve had elsewhere. Other travelers mentioned that the neighboring city of Fez is a more tranquil and picturesque city center, but we didn’t have time to visit on this week long adventure.
There are redeeming parts of Marrakech. While its exterior architecture is nondescript, its interior architecture can be stunning. The lush courtyard gardens, organically vaulted ceilings and ornately framed windows and doors further encouraged us to escape the chaos of the public. We enjoyed our excursions to the Saadian Tombs and Jardin Majorelle.
While Marrakech wasn’t worth the trip on its own, our visit to Erg Chegaga pushed our Morocco segment into epic territory. We booked a private 4-day, 3-night tour to Erg Chegaga through Sahara Services. At $500/person including lodging, meals and private transportation from Marrakech, this was an excellent deal.
Most of the first day was spent driving from Marrakech to the Sahara Services lodge at the edge of the desert in M’Hamid, which they dramatically called “the edge of civilization.” It’s not a far distance as the crow flies, but you have to cross the Atlas mountains over an 8,000 foot pass. Our friendly guide Abdul picked us up at our hotel in a ~2003 Toyota Landcruiser. The drive was incredibly scenic and the auto-tune Arabic music added even more ambiance.
During the drive, we stopped at a couple of kasbahs. The first one in Zagora was large, but lacked ambience being in the middle of the city. It felt a little like the tourist trap. The second kasbah we visited was the polar opposite. This underground kasbah was built in 900AD and life for its 300 residents hasn’t changed much since then. It was very poor, somewhat depressing, but worth seeing. I was a little disappointed we weren’t taken to Ait Benadou as mentioned in our itinerary, but I should have confirmed that our actual itinerary would be as advertised.
The afternoon of the second day, we began a camel trek from the lodge in M’Hamid into the “small desert”. The temperature had fallen from around 110F to 90F and there were clear skies and a gentle breeze. Our camel guide also named Abdul commented that this was perfect weather, although that would change.
As the sun went down after two hours of easy riding, a dark cloud sprinkled with lightning emerged from the North. As the cloud approached us, we were curious why it seemed to extend all the way to the ground. Minutes later we were devoured by a sandstorm. It was difficult to open our eyes with grains of sand swirling around us, but when we did we could only see about 20 feet in front of us. Then a lightning strike would illuminate both the ground and air an indistinguishable shade of orange.
Five minutes later rain began pouring down. Our camels started to squeal and Abdul was yelling. We saw shelter! Abdul got the camels to settle down and told us to run inside without our bags. We ducked into the rug-lined shelter gasping for breath and were greeted by cats and some friendly cooks. After some dry clothes, warm food and camera cleaning we were feeling quite relieved but exhilarated.
The next day we woke up to clear skies and cats playing in the sand dunes. Kaitlin posed in barre3 postures, and Abdul shared with us what he knew about yoga – “you hold a pose for 1 to 2 hours….and then? You cry.” Sore in the bottom and thirsty for exercise, we walked the camels back with Abdul instead of riding them.
Later that day, the other Abdul drove us into the “big desert”. Drifting a Landcruiser in the sand looked pretty fun and is something I would like to try myself someday. We arrived at the Sahara Services camp at Erg Chegaga a little before 8pm with a gargantuan 300m high sand dune looming before us.
We immediately began a climb to the top. The sand had cooled enough that we could hike barefoot, but the sleep sheers were physically challenging. The scenery could only be described as otherworldly. Surrounded by a maze of wind sculpted dunes. No animals or vegetation. Nothing to hear but the wind. It was like we were on the moon.
We arrived at the summit and my jaw fell. It was the most incredible view I had ever seen. Infinite mounds of rolling dunes. The sun simultaneously piercing through the clouds while setting over the mountains hundreds of miles away. 75 degrees with a light breeze. Not a sign of life to be seen other than the woman I love and the two Moroccan kids smoking hash next to us. It was a perfect moment I’ll never forget and one that made the entire trip worthwhile.
The food was fine, although nothing worth writing home about (whoops). The produce was very fresh as Morocco has a very diverse agricultural industry. The salads and fruit juices were superb. Kaitlin, who is mostly vegetarian, was able to get by pretty easily. However, there wasn’t a lot of variety of local cuisine, frequently resulting in a binary decision between the bland entrees of tangine and couscous. As a serious breakfast person who eats eggs every day, I was disappointed by the (often stale) sweet bread I was served everywhere I went. I would excuse all of this if the food came at 2nd or 3rd world prices, but Morocco charges 1st world prices for borderline 2nd world quality.
This was the first Arabic country I visited and I wasn’t sure what to expect for cultural norms, especially regarding the role of women. Kaitlin is an extremely outgoing person who loves connecting with people, but other travelers advised her not to make eye contact with local men let alone converse with them. Kaitlin promptly disregarded this advice upon arrival, but was never penalized for it. Everyone seemed happy to connect with both of us and discuss any subject ranging from Obama to Hicham El Guerrouj.