Trip Report: Two Weeks in Morocco

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Oct 29th, 2011, 03:00 PM
  #1
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Trip Report: Two Weeks in Morocco

We had an ambitious itinerary: Casablanca -> Rabat -> Chefchaouen -> Fez (side trips to Mekenes and Volubilis) -> Erg Chebbi -> Todra & Dades Gorges -> Marrakech -> Essaouira -> Casablanca. I would repeat or recommend most of this whirlwind journey, but only to those prepared for long days of driving. In the end, the only change I'd make personally would be one fewer days in Marrakech and several days longer in the High Atlas.

Highlights:
- Old Medina in Fez. Spent two days wandering the "streets" of the medieval city. It is huge, ancient, exotic, friendly, gentle, odiferous, labyrinthine, and genuine. If it weren't for the modern products (think Nike) being sold in the souks, it would be easy to imagine this city exactly the same a thousand years ago.

- Erg Chebbi by moonlight. Serendipity on our side, we inadvertently arrived in Merzouga at sunset and watched the dunes go from khaki to rust to star-backed silhouettes. The nearly-full moon would be an obstacle to star gazing later, but please imagine the beauty of the desert landscape, the utter tranquility (and relative coolness) of the night, and the syncopated plodding of the camels. The three of us (I, my wife, and the camel guide) were the only humans in the desert.

- Walking in the High Atlas. There appear to be no corners of the mountains or desert that the Berber nomads have not explored and cultivated. The high altitude (10,000ft / 3000m) was delightfully cool. The peaks are older and not as jagged as the Alps, but any mountain lover would appreciate their grandeur. Next trip, I would love to spend more time exploring, perhaps staying with the nomads, perhaps visit in the winter when there is snow.

I will stop there for risk of my “highlights” turning into a litany of everything we did and saw. Every bit of Morocco is spectacular: food, music, people, mountains, desert, ocean…

Disappointment: Jemaa el-Fna, Marrakech. The medina isn’t as interesting as Fez, and the town isn’t as cosmopolitan as Rabat. This souk at night was the only place in the entire two weeks where I felt targeted as an ATM. It never felt dangerous or dodgy, but it was absolutely impossible to enjoy due to the incessant pushy vendors, like trying to enjoy an afternoon by a lake while the mosquitos are swarming.

Plug for Mark Willenbrock (www.madaboutmorocco.com). We hired Mark to be our guide-interpreter-driver-fixer for the entire two weeks, and it was an excellent decision. Mark is a British ex-pat who has made Fez his home. His home is, in fact, a lovely riad (technicaly a dar) and his beautiful, Berber wife is a spectacular cook. He is fluent in French and Moroccan Arabic, and his English is passable. Our itinerary would not have been possible without (or rather it would have been miserable) without Mark’s air-conditioned 4x4, which saw something like 3000km on our journey alone. His business contacts, knowledge of the mountains and desert, and expertise in selecting inexpensive 5-star riads were incomparable assets. My suggestion (and one I hope to follow myself next time): arrive in Morocco with a sense of adventure, but without an itinerary, and let Mark take it from there. But insist on going hiking in the High Atlas with Mohammad (he’ll know who you mean).
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Oct 30th, 2011, 01:44 AM
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Supernice report great detail brings back fond memories.

Private upscale driver/guide can be a GREAT way to go.

IF you have the dough.

Thanks for posting.
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Oct 31st, 2011, 05:13 AM
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I love this report! It brings back all the reasons we are planning our Third Trip (in 3 years) to Morocco. Can't wait - all of our plans are made easier by using Mark Willenbrock as our driver-guide-interpreter too! This year we will have the joy of travelling with our friends from South America (We are from California). It will be fun to show them all the places and people we find so dear to our hearts. Mark makes the trip easy on the traveller - and knows how to defer to what his clients want to see and do!
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Nov 1st, 2011, 12:25 PM
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John, your trip report is very helpful in my trip planning.

I cannot decide if I should include Chefchaouen, which could add a day or two and many miles to our itinerary.

In retrospect, was Chefchaouen a good start to your trip and was it a memorable destination?

Can you share the name of the riad where you stayed in Chefchaouen?

Thanks for your help.
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Nov 2nd, 2011, 09:15 AM
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Surely if Mark is British, his English is better than "passable"?!
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Nov 2nd, 2011, 06:33 PM
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@Kavey - Mark and I had a lot of fun with the differences between his British English and my American Engilsh.

@marthag - Casa Perleta http://www.casaperleta.com/
The media of Chef is beautiful and quiet. Far more tame than that of Fez, which made it an excellent introduction to the medieval cities. It would be difficult to become permanently lost in Chef, while one may never find one's way home in Fez. Chef is also not too hot, which can be pursuasive at some times of the year. That said, I think one night was plenty for us.

@quovadis & cquinn819 - Thank you for your comments. This was the first time I've had an opportunity (or felt the need) to hire a private guide. I was suprised by how affordable it could be. I would also consider using a guide for just part of the trip - like getting into the Sahara and the mountains - where it would be logistically very difficult to use public transportation.
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Nov 2nd, 2011, 06:42 PM
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I must also recommend Richard Lawson for Moroccan logistics and guide services (http://www.yallahmorocco.com/). Richard worked with us at the outset, did much of the initial groundwork on our itinerary, and then when we discovered he was already booked during our visit, he made arrangements for Mark to handle our trip.
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Nov 3rd, 2011, 08:37 AM
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I did wonder if "passable" was a humourous reference to American/ Proper English but couldn't tell for sure from the report!

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Nov 28th, 2011, 06:19 PM
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Wonderful report, John. I'll be in Rabat, Fez and Casa for work for two weeks and want to spend the weekend between exploring a bit. I've been to Marrakech, Fez and Meknes and frequently travel to Rabat and Casa. Went on the route des roses through the oases about 20 years ago but not since. What do you or other readers recommend for a Sat-Sun relaxing weekend? I'll be alone or with another female colleague
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Jun 5th, 2012, 05:20 PM
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Another recommendation for Mad About Morocco (madaboutmorocco.com) run by Mark Willenbrock. Just returned from a 4-day 4-night guided tour in Morocco. My wife and I were extremely happy and satisfied with our tour and tour guides which were all organized by Mark. With exception to lunches and general shopping expenses, everything from the point of pick-up to drop-off was inclusive of the total tour price. The total cost was very, very reasonable and well worth the money for the personalized experience and attention. We were more than happy to offer our remaining dirhams and euros as tips to the tour guides and porters along the way…they certainly earn it for all of the services, attention and knowledge they provide along the way!!

Here's an overview of the itinerary we had customized for us based on our inbound/outbound plans:

Day 1 - Crossed the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry from Tarifa, Spain, to the old port in front of the Tanger medina. As promised, our driver, Idris, met us outside the customs exit are the Tanger port. We sent Mark a photo of us, so the driver knew exactly who we were, and greeted with a warm reception which quickly put us at ease. Shortly after, we hopped in the air conditioned 4x4 SUV, and took a quick tour of Tanger; drank our first of many Moroccan mint teas; checked out the coastline and caves near Tanger.

After Tanger, we drove across the Rif Mountains to Fes. We enjoyed a lunch in Chefchaouen - which is a quaint mountain town very representative of Morocco. By evening we reached Fes, and stayed in Mark's family Riad, Dar Rbab. It's a 300 year old building, but was renovated to include an en-suite bathroom/shower, air conditioning, double and twin beds.

Day 2 - Had a full day to explore the historic and amazing Fes medina. Our local Fes guide, Karim, met us for a coffee and breakfast at the riad in the morning, and took care of us throughout the day wandering through the medina and, later in the afternoon, taking a drive around other areas of Fes. Karim was wonderful, very knowledgable and helped us avoid getting too harassed by persistent vendors. Be prepared for a little sensory overload by the end of the day…Fes is filled with all sorts of things to experience firsthand.

Day 3 - After another night in the Dar Rbab riad, we left Fes and climbed into the Middle Atlas. After a few hours of driving, we stopped at a Barbary ape colony in the cedar forests and observed the monkeys for a bit.

Through the afternoon we followed the Ziz Gorge out into the Sahara, heading out to a luxury bivouac at the foot of the dunes. Bedouin tents hide comfortable accommodations with proper double beds. Surprisingly, the bivouac includes electricity, running water, very clean western wc's, a uniformed wait/cook staff and a stocked bar!! If you only have a couple of days in Morocco and want a desert experience, you should definitely consider spending your money and time here!!

Day 4 - We were gently woken by a porter early to find camels waiting at the edge of the camp. He took us into the dunes to watch the sun and shade dance along the dunes as the sun rose. Such a peaceful and serene moment.

As a special request that I had, our tour guide went out of his way to organize a quick bit of sand skiing in the high dunes of the desert. I was so excited and pleased by there ability to fulfill this special request that required them to pull a few favors from a local desert hotel that had skis.

If staying in the bivouac seems too rustic for you, I would recommend staying in the various auberges (private hotels) that are near the edge of the desert. They seem quite nice and accommodating.

Wrapping up the day was a rather long drive from the desert back to Marrakech, which wound us through the High Atlas mountains passed the highest point in Morocco. Since we got in late to Marrakech, we unfortunately didn't have time or energy to explore the vibrant medina.

Our tour included a final night's stay at Riad Suliman, which is central to Marrakech.

Day 5 (morning) - On our final morning, Mark had picked us up from Riad Sulliman to spend about an hour with us driving through Marrakech prior to dropping us off at the Marrakech airport for a morning flight to Spain.


If you're tempted to sign up for a tour like this, there are a couple of things to keep in mind -
1. Be prepared for long and scenic car rides. We covered a lot of Morocco spanning from the northern Mediterranean coast through the Rif/Atlas mountains and out to the Sahara and back. Our guide/driver was very patient and safe.
2. Accomodations are rustic but are clean, safe and equipped with western-style WCs and showers.
3. Eat safe. We unfortunately didn't follow our travel advise and ate something (likely raw vegetables in salad) that upset our stomaches and digestive tracts, which made our days and drives a bit uncomfortable.
4. After most side tours of local Moroccan industries (e.g., leather making, tile work, rug weaving, fabrics, fossils, argon oils), you are lead to a store for the obligatory offer to buy trinkets and touristy keepsakes. This was fine, since we knew it provided money for local economies, but after a while of the same sales tactic, we became pretty passive about not wanting to buy anything we'd have to jam in our already packed luggage.
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Jun 6th, 2012, 10:35 AM
  #11
 
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JOHN...FUNKY....QUICK QUESTION....

I am in the process of sending my 20% deposit to Mark. Wells Fargo ( my personal account ) is charging a $30 wire fee for each transaction. How did you pay for your trip with Mark?

Thank You,
Maxine
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May 29th, 2014, 12:56 PM
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Just returned from a 10 day trip in Morocco, guided by Mark Willenbrock (www.madaboutmorocco.com). It was a great experience - exciting, fascinating, surely memorable.

Mark is an excellent guide. His knowledge of Morocco, his familiarity with local customs, his understanding of the Moroccan culture were a great resource and made our trip an exceptional one.

But beyond all, we were taken a back by his care. He went out of his way to assist us and make us comfortable. Our luggage didn't arrive with us, so he activated his team to find where our suitcases were and then drove 10 hours to fetch them for us, Meanwhile, he got us an alternative guide for the day.

On our way back home, we realized that we had forgot our wallet at our hotel, he immediately called the hotel and then drove there, trying to retrieve our wallet.

And as we were all suffering from our stomachs , he cared and supplied us with local medications.

Our long journeys in his air-conditioned 4x4, were comfortable and pleasant due to his great driving. He has great sense of humor and is always pleasant and accommodating. He is fluent not only in English, he speaks French and Moroccan Arabic.
Though originally British, he's been living in Morocco for the past 15 years. married to a Moroccan woman and they run a beautiful Riad in Fez.

He always recommended first rate Riads and restaurants, but our best meal in Morocco was the one we ate at his Riad in Fez. A fantastic meal.
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