Morocco: Kids, Camels, Marrakech and More
Anniversary #25: My husband drew up a Golden Ticket for our family. You might remember the Golden Ticket hidden in a chocolate bar in Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie wins an opportunity to tour a magic place. We selected Morocco as our magic place. Not much chocolate there, but the sand and sunsets were golden and there was enough that was exotic, delightful, delicious, and fantastic to suit any child or adult.
Here’s what we started with:
* Two adults: Good-natured, receptive, willing to make tracks
* Two Girls: Willing to try new foods, make new friends, able to read quietly on long drives. The girls are 11 and 13.
* Light Luggage: Just duffels and backpacks
* A budget: one income, teacher’s salary
* Limited time and interest for researching things to death
* Rather wet-behind-the ears: We don’t have any frequent flier miles. None.
Fortunately, we started our journey by reading an excellent account of a trip to Morocco written by Christine Rayner, who should probably by recognized by King Mohamed VI for service to the country. There’s not much to add to her excellent and thorough overview, except some observations we can humbly offer based on our own itinerary and our experiences of traveling during Ramadan and traveling with children.
Our itinerary was as follows:
Day 1: Casablanca, Meknes, Volubilis, Fez
Day 2: Fez
Day 3: Fez, Azrou, Ifran, Ziz Valley, Merzouga
Day 4: Merzouga and Camel trek, overnight in desert
Day 5: Merzouga, Todra Gorges
Day 6: Dades Gorges, Rose Valley
Day 7: Tizi N’tichka Pass, Imlil
Day 8: Marrakech
Day 9: Marrakech, Casablanca
Nine days is a whirlwind magic carpet ride through the country. We covered a lot of ground and were definitely not able to do any area the justice it deserved. We traded longer travel days and shorter stays for the wide variety of things we could see.
Our magic carpet looked a lot like a 4x4 Land Rover and the magic behind it was definitely our awesome guide Mohamed, who immediately taught our daughters how to say “awesome” in his native Berber, as well as in Arabic. We got a lot of opportunities to practice. Mohamed was a great match for our family. He is a young, intelligent, mature individual who was a lot of fun, played a great variety of Arabic and Berber music on the CD player, and was an excellent ambassador for his country. He doted on our daughters and bought them small gifts: hats, fruit, fig jam, which was unquestionably above and beyond what we could have ever hoped for. More importantly, he was knowledgeable about everything we could think of to ask, and I’m sure we tested him. Most importantly, we felt secure and safe.
Since we were traveling with children, we thought it was important that most of our plans were dialed in and that we were traveling with a reputable outfit. When we arrived in Morocco and realized how navigable it is (even for folks like us who do not speak French or Arabic), we thought it might have been okay to go it alone. What we lack in experience, we sometimes try to compensate for with independence and a can-do approach. However, I am SO glad we decided to use a guide and driver, and I would highly recommend Mohamed who works with a company called Around Morocco. Absolutely trustworthy and dependable!
We were able to focus our new experiences and enjoy traveling without undue concern for logistics or constantly checking a guidebook. Also, there was more depth and breadth to our travels. Mohamed paid a lot of attention to details, such as calling ahead to the guesthouses to make sure everything was in order and helping with money exchanges even in rural areas. In some areas, we were the only tourists around.
We found most things do not have posted prices, so having Mohamed drive and make arrangements for our lodgings and some activities helped us with our budgeting. We did not intend to shop very much, but, naturally, we ended up getting some things. We felt the most pressure to purchase things in Fez. In retrospect, I would not have bought anything there but would have waited until later in the trip. Everything we saw in Fez was available elsewhere, and we were more knowledgeable a few days into the trip.
We knew there was a bargaining game that happens when making purchases, and I’m pretty sure we did not get good deals on some things. However, we did not set out to drive the hardest bargain we could. Our advice might be to buy things you like at a price you think is truly fair from vendors that you like. We didn’t mind paying a little extra to some folks—the average daily income in Morocco is less than $8 a day, and even on a budget, we could support a lot of venders. There is no need to feel hassled by individuals trying to sell things. Smiling “la shukran”—“no thank you” worked pretty well. Sometimes you had to say it a couple times.
When we visited workshops such as women’s cooperatives, we were offered hospitality and a tour, and there is some expectation of a purchase being made. We felt okay about doing this in most cases, with small items. We really enjoyed the times we could turn a business transaction into a conversation. This usually happened with impromptu stops. We traveled with a few photos of where we live, how we work, and pictures of the girls with their farm animals, which was a great connecting point. We all learned enough Berber and Arabic to say “hello” and “thank you” and a few pleasantries, which also helped us engage with people. Almost all the shopkeepers offered a small gift to the children. The girls really enjoyed the apothecaries where they were able to buy some pretty neat things, such as eucalyptus crystals, for very few dirham.
We brought some small gifts from home (small jars of apple butter from our farm, hair ribbons, gum, and stickers for kids and tin whistles for musically inclined) so we were able to reciprocate sometimes. This was really appreciated and made for some nice encounters. My husband and our older daughter play tin whistle, so we sometimes offered a tune. My younger daughter showed her drawings and ended up collecting Arabic signatures and small drawings from many people she met. I wish we had brought more things to share. I think kids would have loved colored sidewalk chalk. (We were not approached by kids asking for things and tried to be sensitive about how we shared what we had brought.)
One other thing…tipping is important, and we decided funds might be better spent on tips than on trinkets.
In spite of some long car rides, I can’t think of anything we would have wanted to give up. We found the landscape to be so different from the deciduous greens near our home that we were very happy to soak up all the scenery we could. We took a lot of breaks and some of the most enjoyable hours on the trip were the leg-stretchers we took along the roadsides, scrambling over rocks, running in the black desert near Merzouga, or stopping to feed apples to the Barbary apes.
The girls did fine with the longer days of travel. We live in a rural area and are used to long drives. They traveled unplugged—no electronic diversions--and Mohamed engaged all of us in conversation and kept some great Arab and Berber music going. The talking, joking, and sharing tales of families and cultures was a really important part of our trip, and we tried to be good ambassadors for our country.
We stayed in Riads and guesthouses, which are a spendier option than hotels or hostels but which was a special treat for our family since we usual camp or low-budget it. (Riad El Yacout in Fez was a favorite.) The quiet, tiled rooms, beautiful accommodations, excellent service and deep, cool swimming pools were uniquely Moroccan and an unexpected pleasure at the end of each exciting day. The girls were delighted with the exotic splendor, and we could see the calming influence the peaceful courtyards had. I’d recommend this for families looking for a truer Moroccan experience.
The highpoints of the itinerary were Fez, Marrakech, Imlil, and, the Erg Chebbi dunes where we spent the night in the desert. In August. In temperatures over 100°. You never forget a camel ride into the Sahara. It was so worth it.
Imlil was unique because we had to hike about a mile to get to our lodgings. We stayed at Kasbah du Toubkal, a restored Kasbah (military fortress), and there was no car access to it or the neighboring Berber villages. We loaded our bags onto a donkey and set off through the small town and up the shady winding dirt trail. We did some hiking there that evening and the following morning, and the call to prayers reverberated off all the hillsides from all the small community mosques. Truly holy, no matter your faith.
Speaking of faith, we traveled during Ramadan. We weren’t sure exactly how this might go, but it ended up being a very meaningful part of our experience, and I’m really glad we were able to witness something so integral to the Moroccan culture. The faithful were fasting and abstaining from drinking any kind of beverage from sunrise to sunset for the month of Ramadan. The pace was slower and we heard that some shops were closed (although we didn’t notice this). As tourists and non-Muslims, there was no expectation for us to forgo anything. Although 99% Islamic, Morocco is a very tolerant country. We tried to be sensitive to the culture by being discrete about eating and drinking in a few situations, but most of the time, it was business as usual.
Food was plentiful and excellent. We tried everything, were sensible but not fanatic about food safety, and had no trouble. Orange juice, fresh figs, and mint tea top the list. And tajines. And chicken pastillas. And this little flat fried bread…! The food in the souks was appealing, although shopping there is a little dizzying. “Break fast” during Ramadan was around 7:30 every evening and the food stalls and outdoor cafes became abuzz.
Witnessing the discipline of faithful Muslims during Ramadan was inspiring. We learned about the five pillars of their faith and recognized the common good in people around the world.
Our magical trip to Morocco was most golden in that respect. 1000 welcomes and 1000 thanks to our dear guide Mohamed, his professional and good uncle Lahcen of Around Morocco Tours, and the people of Morocco.
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Morocco: Kids, Camels, Marrakech and More
Morocco: Kids, Camels, Marrakech and More