Morocco Travel Tips 2010
I want to share some of my insights about the my recent trip to Morocco.
Royal Air Maroc – We flew the Royal Air Maroc flight that is nonstop from JFK to Casablanca. It departs daily at around 8:00 pm. It is at Terminal 1. On board entertainment consisted of unwatchable TV shows on small ceiling mounted monitors. Food and service was as bad as any other airline. They gave you a little goodie bags with socks and an eye mask. They left on time and arrived on time. You arrive Casablanca around 8:00 am the next day after a 7-hour flight. It takes a little longer coming back – depart Casablanca at around 12:30 pm and arrive at JFK around 5:00 pm. There is a 4-hour time difference between NY and Casablanca during daylight savings time (5 hours otherwise).
There are several other flights and ways you can get to Morocco from the United States, but Royal Air Maroc is the only non-stop method of flight, and the least expensive. During the recent Iceland volcano flight cancelation disaster, Royal Air Maroc was one of the only airlines still doing trans-Atlantic flights.
Arrival – You arrive at Terminal 2 in Casablanca (you depart from Terminal 3). When you first arrive off the plane, you walk down stairs on the tarmac and are taken by bus to the main building. Going through customs and passport control is easy and well marked, with signs in Arabic, French and English. The wait for the luggage is long. Stepping out into the main airport terminal after you have your luggage, many people holding up name signs will meet you, just like at any airport. There is a nice coffee shop to purchase espresso and croissants right near where you come out into the terminal. Airport is clean, bright, modern and looks like any mid-sized US airport, say Omaha or Green Bay. Everything is clearly marked in Arabic, English and French.
Bathrooms – Two kinds of bathrooms in Morocco – western style with the toilet seat and what they call “the hole”. The hole is essentially a ceramic square with a hole near the rear part and two raised footpads near the front. I was usually able to find a western style toilet anywhere I traveled in Morocco. Most have toilet paper, although it doesn’t hurt to keep some tissues in your pocket for emergencies. A couple times there was an attendant handing out paper and expecting to get a 5 dh tip, but this was not as predominant as in Egypt.
Tummy problems – Morocco is a clean country, the food is wonderful, but foreigners should drink bottled water. We had a slightly upset stomach for a couple of days, but nothing major – maybe just getting used to all of the different spices that they use in cooking.
Weather – I went in late spring and I had beautiful weather. They had quite a rainy season this year, with lots of flooding, so I am glad I did not go earlier. We only had one hot day in Marrakech (40 degrees C which is about 106 degrees F), but I was told it was unseasonably hot and temperatures went back to normal the next day. The best times to travel are the spring and fall, with winters being cold and rainy and summer being unbearably hot.
What to Bring
Cloths - Here is a list of suggested things to wear and bring with you to Morocco. I am very fair skinned, and so my list is geared towards maximum sun protection. First, travel light and comfortable. You don’t need many fancy cloths because you will mostly be outside, climbing around in the mountains or desert. The large cities of Casablanca, Fez and Marrakech have old medina sections, with uneven surfaces, so wear comfortable shoes. For a 2 week trip, I brought along 2 pairs of cotton Capri pants, 2 pairs of jeans and 6 silk/cotton tops, a light sweater, a light raincoat, a pair of black dress pants and a skirt. Along with sleepwear, underwear, socks, and a swimsuit, I had all I needed. As Morocco is a Muslim country, I tried to have tops that covered my chest and shoulders and a longer skirt, out of respect for their culture. There was only one time (in Marrakech) that I felt underdressed and would have liked to have a fancier outfit along.
My husband brought along similar things, 2 pair khaki pants (no one wears shorts in Morocco except tourists and Germans who wear them with black socks – although you may want to bring a pair of shorts if you want to do some mountain hiking in hot weather), 2 pairs of jeans, a couple of polo’s and a few long sleeve safari type and dress shirts. One of the best things he brought was a khaki colored travel vest that had lots of pockets everywhere – it was a great because you could stash your wallet, passports, camera, tissues, hand sanitizer, phone, etc. in the pockets (we chose LL Beans outdoor travel vest and it was perfect). He also brought a light jacket, a sweater and the usual underwear, socks and swimsuit.
Shoes – I brought a comfortable pair of sturdy sandals for the plane, a comfortable pair of hiking shoes and a comfortable pair of walking shoes. My husband brought a pair of walking shoes and a pair of hiking boots. One thing that surprised me is that our Berber guide suggested going barefoot in the desert instead of wearing shoes. This worked better on the sand, and I was surprised that it did not burn my feet.
Sun Gear – You do want to bring a hat if you are sensitive to the sun. I brought a straw hat and my husband brought a brimmed hat. We also brought sunscreen.
Other Stuff –Make sure you bring enough camera memory (twice what you think you need because Morocco is an unbelievable place to take photos) and extra batteries and/or a charger. You may also bring small gifts to hand out to children you meet in rural areas - something as simple as a pen will bring a smile to their face.
Language – The official language of Morocco is Arabic. All of the signs are written in both Arabic and French (former colonizer of Morocco). The majority of the population is Berber, which has 3 different languages, corresponding to different geographic areas:
• Tariflyt – North of Fez in the Rif Mountain and Tangier area
• Tazhachahit – spoken in the south (south of Marrakech)
• Tamazight – spoken in High Atlas Mountain, Mid Atlas Mountain and desert areas. This is also the generic name of Berber language.
This makes for a very confusing method of communication among the inhabitants of Morocco. While some individuals may speak all of the languages, in the remote mountain and desert areas, they may only speak their own local dialect. Even though Arabic is the official language, a large part of the population does not speak either Arabic or French. English is not that widely spoken except in tourist areas by young people with jobs in the tourist industry. Most Moroccans assume that all foreigners speak French, and will be think you quite stupid if you do not. Interestingly, if you speak English, the Moroccans cannot differentiate between a British, Australian or American accent, so they will assume you are British.
Guidebooks – I took along a Fodor’s and used Trip Advisor for hotel suggestions.
Tour Groups –I decided to arrange my own trip without a tour group. My husband has an aversion to groups, where he feels the slowest person controls the trip for everyone else. We also like to travel first class on a budget, and he wanted to make sure we were in nice places and got good deals. I decided to make all of the travel plans and reservations myself. During our travels, we saw many tour groups in large buses. They seemed to be a bit older than us, more women than men and seemed to be having a great time. Although they were going to many of the same places as us, but we were happy we were not in a big group. If you like to travel with a group or tour, than take this route.
Guide/Driver - We had to decide if we wanted to go alone and rent a car or hire a guide/driver. After much research online, I decided to hire a guide/driver. I had three factors influence this decision:
• Renting a car is expensive in Morocco – The best price we found for a weeks rental (with drop fee) for a small, compact car was $1500! As we planned on exploring the mountain and desert area also, a 4-wheel drive vehicle would be better, but they were outrageously expensive to rent.
• Language – we speak absolutely no French or Arabic, so we would have a hard time with the road signs.
• Cultural experience – as we do not speak the language, or know about the culture, we thought having a local guide would enhance our experience.
As it turned out, we feel we made the correct decision in hiring a guide (who was also our driver). We came across several accidents and were glad we were not driving.
Selecting a Guide - I did lots of research on Trip Advisor and Fodor’s online. I find these sites and forums the most useful in planning a trip. I narrowed it down to several guides/drivers/independent tour companies that had good recommendations. There are several things to consider when making this decision – which will be the most important choice you make when planning your trip:
• Independent local Morocco guide verses a large international tour company –
Many large, international tour companies, such as A & K, Destinations & Adventures International or Kensington Tours have an independent tour option. The advantage of these tours are that they are often ultra first-class luxury tours, stay in the very best hotels, use wonderful local guides and let you set your own itinerary. They are also reputable, established companies that take credit card payments, so little or no risk is involved. The disadvantage is that the price is high, they usually have a limited choice in pre-selected accommodations and you don’t really know just who will be your guide, and that guide may change over the course of your itinerary.
The other option is to hire a local, independent guide in Morocco. The advantage of this is that you know who your guide will be, they may have suggestions and connections at smaller riads and hotels, the price is much better (because you are cutting out the middle man) and they will be able to personalize the trip and experience (often taking you to their own homes for an authentic cultural experience). The disadvantage is that you have to do lots of research on your own to find them, you have to make payment arrangements on your own (usually a wire transfer to a foreign bank account), and they may not be reliable or deliver what was promised (such as English speaking skills or nice car).
• Ethnic Background of Guide - In Morocco, there are basically 3 different population groups: Arab (19% of population), Berber (80% of population) and Christians/Jews (1% of population). The Arabs live only in the metropolitan areas of the large cities. The Berbers, of which there are 3 different groups, live in the rest of the country, including cities, mountains and desert. Because of language differences (see Language section), it is important to consider the ethnic background of your guide. If your trip will mainly consist of staying in Fez and Marrakech, than you will want an Arab guide. You can probably just hire one when you get there for the day through your riad or hotel. If you plan on traveling around the country, to the mountains, valleys and desert, than you should hire a Berber guide. While in the cities, the Berber guide will probably subcontract and hire a local Arab city guide for you, as the tourist industry is very tightly regulated in Morocco, and vice versa.
In the end, we weighed the pros and cons of each scenario. We were able to hire our own, local guide – Lahcen Boujouija - directly for about the same price it would have cost us to just rent a car on our own.
Morocco Guide – Our guide, Lahcen Boujouija, was absolutely wonderful and made our trip something special. He spoke 9 languages fluently (Arabic, French, 2 types of Berber, English, 2 types of Spanish, Italian and German). When I say fluent, I mean completely fluent…. he had been a linguistics major in college. Many in Morocco say they speak English, but it is just a rudimentary version, difficult to understand and hard to have any kind of in-depth conversation with. Lahcen spoke perfect English, was very good company, easy to get along with and had an impeccably clean and comfortable 4 wheel drive SUV with leather interior and a great sound system. He shared his love of Mali music with us and we came back home with a bunch of great CD’s.
Lahcen had a love for his country and wanted to share its history and beauty with us. He considers himself a “cultural guide” because he wanted us to understand the culture of his country and of its people. Unlike Egypt, Morocco has no big “must see” monuments. To enjoy Morocco, one must enjoy learning about the culture of the Moroccans and partaking in exploring their ancient medinas – which is like being transported back in time a thousand years. Lahcen is a Berber from the desert area of Merzouga. He welcomed us into his home at the edge of the desert and introduced us to his wonderful family.
Lahcen also has a fossil business and travels to the US every year to participate in the big international Gem show in Tucson, Arizona. Because of this, he has established a bank account in Tucson, so this greatly simplified the process of paying him. We simply did a wire transfer to his US bank account – no foreign transaction fees or exchange fees. It could not have been easier. Because of his fossil business, he ships a crate of rocks to the US every year. He offered to add any large items we wanted to purchase in Morocco to his shipment. We did not buy much while in Morocco, but if I planned on doing some major shopping, this would have saved me a lot of money in shipping fees. Another thing I liked about Lahcen is that he did not push shopping on us and only suggested places if we specifically asked to look at stuff.
When I first contacted him, I had already worked out my itinerary for the trip, and had selected riads that I wanted to stay in. He was extremely knowledgeable, flexible and accommodating at designing the trip to conform to my requirements. We did not want the straight cookie-cutter trip to Morocco…we wanted our own adventure. Lahcen took us, not only to the imperial cities, but off-road and to the backcountry where we were often the only foreigners. The trip was an adventure - from watching a meteor flame over our heads in the Sahara to driving over dry riverbeds in the mountains - we had a unique and profound experience. Lahcen was not afraid to explore new places and go the extra step to make for a memorable and exciting trip. While in the mountains, I was glad he had a 4-wheel drive vehicle!
Our financial arrangement was that he would take care of everything – airport pickup, guiding, driving, hotels, city guides, many meals and small expenses. We would pay him a set amount for the trip, of which a 30% deposit was to be paid in advance. This arrangement worked out perfectly and was very easy for us, as we did not have to be continually paying for hotels and things during our trip. The banks charge you a high fee to get money out of ATM’s in a foreign currency (about $15 per $500 for just the bank fee). Lahcen paid for everything and saved us the hassle of constantly dealing with money. Considering the special care we received from Lahcen, the fabulous riads we stayed at, and the exotic cultural experiences and adventures we had, our trip to Morocco was a bargain at any price. Because we booked with Lahcen, that price was very reasonable.
At the end of our trip (in Marrakech), I had planned on saying goodbye to the guide and making due on our own for the last couple of days. Lahcen, even though our official trip had ended, stayed around for an extra couple of days to be of assistance if we needed anything or if we needed to drive anywhere. He did not charge us and did this because he wanted to make sure we were completely taken care of while we were in his country…he felt a responsibility to make sure our trip was perfect from start to finish. We went to Morocco as a stranger and left the country knowing that we had made a lifelong friend in Lahcen.
Lahcen has a business called Around Morocco Tours and his web site is http://www.aroundmorocco.com/contents.htm
I strongly recommend him and you can contact me if you have any questions or concerns at [email protected]
Money – There are ATM’s all over Morocco and we had not problems with them. They usually limited us to withdrawing about 4,000dh per transaction (about $500). Make sure you call all of your credit card companies, and your bankcard center, prior to departure for Morocco. Official local currency is the dirham (dh or MAD). Exchange rate is about 8.4 dh = 1 US $/ 1 dh = 12 cents. Preferred foreign currency is the Euro, which is the rate that most vendors will negotiate in and hotels set their rates to. In negotiating with vendors, we found it best to let them think we were British, rather than American, because they want higher prices from Americans because they think we are all rich
Technical Stuff – Morocco has one of the best cellular telephone coverage systems of any country. You can talk on your cell phone in the desert or on a mountaintop…almost 100% coverage. If you want to bring your iPhone, there is no reduced international rate plan advantage for Morocco, so you’ll be paying about $5 per minute. With that said, there is free Wi-Fi coverage in all of the hotels and riads we stayed at, so you won’t be out of touch. Many riads give you a cell phone to use while you are staying there, in case you become lost or have problems. As for power, the plugs are the 2 small round ones, like in France, so bring an adapter.
Hotels – In Morocco, there are many styles of accommodations, but most beautiful and unique are the riads. A cross between a hotel and a B&B, the riads are usually located in the medinas (old walled part of the city), in historic former palaces or luxury homes. They have windowless walls on the outside and, upon entering, you are lead to a wonderful open center courtyard filled with gardens and fountains. The public rooms are generally on the ground floor and the guest rooms are on the 2nd and 3rd floor, with a rooftop patio for guests (sometimes a pool!). The riads were wonderful, the best part of visiting Morocco. Outside the walls of the riad, there are the hot, busy, noisy and dusty streets of the medina. Inside is a cool, quiet, peaceful, beautiful world where the only noise is that of birds and fountains. They usually have a small restaurant for guests and ask you in advance if you will be eating there and what you would like them to make you. Breakfast is usually served on the rooftop terrace, and is included in the price. Some of the best meals we had in Morocco were at our riads. To get to the riad, which is usually located in the medina where car traffic is not allowed, we would park near an entrance and have a cart guy wheel our baggage to the riad on a pushcart. These cart guys are hanging around every entrance and know the way through the maze of the medina. We found the riads to be a wonderful place to stay, usually with only about 8 – 10 rooms. The riads we stayed at on our visit were:
• Riad Kalaa – Rabat
• Riad Laaroussa – Fez
• Riad Zolah - Marrakech
Taxis – We did not use taxis on our visit because we had a driver, but they are abundant in every city. There are two kinds of taxis in Morocco – Grand Taxis and Petit Taxis. The Grand Taxis are generally painted white, have no meter, hold up to 6 people and travel between cities. Negotiate the price before you get into the taxi because the driver will start negotiating at about three times the proper fare. The driver will try to fill and squeeze in as many passengers as he can, so if you don’t want to wait around, or if you want more room, negotiate to hire the entire taxi. You can also hire the car for the day – going rate is about 250 dh for a half-day rental. Fare for a 20-mile trip is about 10 dh each. Petit Taxis are only local, hold 3 passengers, are abundant and are all painted a distinctive color for each city (Rabat – blue, Fez – red, Marrakech – yellow, etc). Ask driver to start meter or you will be overcharged.
Security – I felt very safe in Morocco, although I was traveling with a guide and my husband. I do not know how it would be for women traveling alone. In Egypt, we often saw armed guards around tourist sites and foreigners were not allowed to venture out on their own from established sites without an armed escort. This was not the case at all in Morocco. Tourists could travel anywhere, with a group, a guide or on their own. Everyone in Morocco seems to be watching out for the other. We had strangers tell us the air in a tire was low or that we forgot something. While the security checked, double-checked and then triple-checked you when flying out at the airport, they were not any more irritating than the TSA is here. I would feel quite comfortable traveling alone in any part of Morocco. Our guide told us that the King of Morocco had just announced a special protection for foreign tourists. Fines were doubled and jail sentences given for anyone who harmed or hassled a foreign tourist. We found everyone in Morocco extremely polite, helpful and concerned that we were having a good experience. Use the same caution and common sense that you would in any large city - avoid dark places at night, keep your passport and valuables safe and use caution when approached by strangers.
Tipping and Vendors – Tipping in restaurants is about the same as here, 10% – 15% of bill. Tips for city guides are around 400-500 dh ($55) for a day. A 5 dh tip for bathroom attendants is what they expect. Vendors are very persistent and experienced, but more gracious than in Egypt – they don’t follow you if you politely decline. Expect to negotiate for price, probably paying about half (or a little less) than what the original offer is. They love to sell you more than one item and will discount accordingly. Don’t feel shy or ashamed to haggle – they enjoy it and it is part of the game. I often would slip the salesman a small tip after the deal is made, and this always brought smiles no matter how prolonged the negotiation was. Morocco is a country that has a wide variety of unique goods, and it is one of the most fun places to shop that I have ever been to. Enjoy yourself in the colorful souks (markets).
Food – We found the Moroccan food wonderful. The main dish is called a tagine, named after the distinctive conical ceramic pot that it is cooked in. Moroccans eat tagine for lunch and dinner every day it seems. Tagines vary, but are basically a meat stew with chicken, turkey, lamb or beef, flavored with cumin and spices. The most common tagine also has vegetables, but could also feature dried apricots and prunes. Tagines can be served with couscous - a small grain. All meals are accompanied by bread, often several varieties. They have a flatbread and Khobz – a raised Moroccan bread, along with French style bread.
One of the best parts of any Moroccan meal is the salad. The Moroccan salad is usually a molded serving of chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers. Better yet is their mixed salad, which is an assortment of 5 – 9 small tagine dishes filled with cucumbers, carrots, lentils, beets, eggplant, potatoes, rice, cabbage or whatever specialty they have. These mixed salads were my favorite part of the meal. There is also a thick lentil soup called Harsha
They also have a delicious dish called Pastilla, which are flaky filo dough layers with either pigeon or chicken and ground almonds and cinnamon. This dish was wonderfully sweet and could almost be a dessert. For lunch, I would often order grilled kebabs – beef, kefta (minced meat), lamb or chicken - served with rice or fries. For dessert, we were most often served fresh fruit, such as oranges and banana slices sprinkled with cinnamon, or a mixed chopped fruit bowl with yogurt. They also have some good pastries, such as Kaab el ghzal (gazelle’s horns).
For breakfast, you are always served fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee and an assortment of breads and jams. Sometimes you are given a hard-boiled egg and fresh fruit and yogurt.
Tea & Wine – Morocco has a new wine industry, based near the imperial city of Meknes. The wines I tasted from that region were very good and inexpensive. The most common drink in Morocco is the Moroccan tea – which is mint tea with sugar. While we don’t use sugar in our tea at home, in Morocco, the sugar made the mint tea more delicious. They mix it up several times and then pour it into glass tumblers from a high distance. Moroccans also drink a lot of coffee and espresso.
Driving in Morocco – We decided to hire a driver and not rent our own car, but I did do a lot of traveling and have these observations. The roads in Morocco are generally very good and I would have no hesitation with driving there. They drive on the right side of the road, so it is easy in that respect. Modern style expressways connect the major cities of Marrakech, Casablanca, Rabat and Fez. I believe these are toll ways with center Oasis-style gas stations along the way. There are many round-abouts at intersections rather than lights. In the cities, traffic is intense and the lines marking lanes on the roads are looked at as more of a suggestion than as a definite boundary. Motorcycles are numerous and do not obey any traffic laws or conventions. They weave in and out of traffic, go through intersection, travel the wrong way and enter restricted non-traffic areas. The police seem to ignore this. Roads in the outlying parts of the country are generally good, and road construction is an ongoing process in the mountains. All roads are marked in Arabic and French. To a foreigner, the rules and methods seem a bit chaotic, but it seems to work for them with a minimum number of accidents. Except in the large cities, all of the drivers are male – women seldom processing a driver’s license.
Parking in Morocco is extremely efficient and well run. Every single strip of street parking, every single parking lot, every available parking area - has an attendant. He is usually wearing a bright vest and monitors all parking in his area. He will guide and direct you into a spot. I believe they are paid a small salary by the government, but you are expected to tip them when you leave. They not only help you park, but also watch your car and will also wash it for you it you ask. This system works extremely well and we never had trouble finding a parking place anywhere in Morocco, no matter how crowded the area.
In Fez, the medina is closed to all traffic – except the motorcycles that are there but should not be. They use donkeys in the small, hilly maze of streets and alleys. In Marrakech, the streets in the medina are wider, and some car traffic is allowed. They are also plagued with motorcycles.
One of the most interesting phenomenon we experienced were the police roadblocks. According to our guide, the police are not a well-educated or well-paid bunch of people. They seem to get their jobs through connections rather than competence. To make up for this lack of salary, local police establish roadblocks in remote areas. They are targeting truck drivers and Moroccan travelers – not tourists. They shake down the drivers for money (about 100 dh bribe) to let them pass, otherwise they closely scrutinize the travel papers and mechanical condition of the vehicle. These roadblocks are situated in remote, out of the way locations. They do not want to deal with tourists, and do not want close scrutiny by tourists, so one look at my blond hair was enough to get immediately waved through all roadblocks. The police turned their backs on our car because they definitely did not want us taking any photos of them. This happened throughout our journey, always in out-of-the-way remote areas. Truck drivers have to carry lots of cash for these bribes to travel any distance in Morocco.
Political Situation – Morocco is a monarchy, one of only 3 in the world (also Saudi Arabia and Bahrain). Unlike England’s constitutional monarchy, the King in Morocco has absolute power. The current King Mohammed VI is young, energetic and well liked by the people. He has a wife with a degree in computer engineering and two children. Photos of him skiing and jet-skiing can be found of him all over the country. He is very concerned for the safety of tourists and has enacted laws to protect visitors to the kingdom. He has made a big effort to beautify the country, with an abundance of new parks and public areas planted with gardens and fountains. He is the young, energetic and technically savvy leader that the country needs to bring Morocco into the 21st century. King Mohammed VI has been concerned about women’s rights, poverty and corruption, creating jobs and improving the lives of his people. The population of Morocco is young (70% of the population is under the age of 30). Most of the women do not work and almost all wear a covering on their head and a long robe. There are children everywhere, and they are universally adored. The population seems healthy, well fed and very family orientated. There seems to be quite a lot of unemployment throughout the country, with cafes and streets filled with young men hanging out during working hours. The schools are co-ed and children attend school half-days. There are several universities in the urban areas.
My Itinerary – I did a two-week trip to Morocco, and here is my itinerary and the places I stayed. Many people also visit Essaouira, a beachside city, but I decided to spend the time near Mt Toubkal instead because I live on the beach in Florida.
Day 1 – Arrive Casablanca. Overnight in Rabat.
Riad Kalaa http://riadkalaa.com/en/index.html
Day 2 – Tour Volubis and Meknes. Arrive Fez.
Riad Laaroussa http://www.riad-laaroussa.com/en/
Day 3 – Tour Fez.
Day 4 – Drive to Midelt.
Day 5 – Drive to Merzouga.
Riad Nezha. http://www.riadnezha.com/ang/hebergement-merzouga-maroc.php3
Day 6 – Sahara desert camp by camel
Berber tent under the stars
Day 7 – Dades Valley.
Xaluca Dades http://www.xaluca.com/en/hotel/dades/
Day 8 - Ouarzazat.
Dar Chamaa http://www.darchamaa.com/en/index_en.html
Day 9 - Imlil.
Kasbah de Toubkal http://www.kasbahdutoubkal.com/home.html
Day 10 – Imlil.
Kasbah de Toubkal
Day 11 – Marrakech.
Riad Zolah http://www.riadzolah.com/
Day 12 – Marrakech.
Day 13 – Marrakech.
Day 14 – depart Casablanca
Desert Visit - One of the iconic images of Morocco is that of riding a camel in the Sahara. We did just that and I suggest that everyone try to make a desert experience part of their Morocco adventure. Our guide drove us from Fez to the desert area around Merzouga called Erg Chebbi. This is one of the two major Sahara desert tourist areas in Morocco (the other being Erg Chigaga near M'hamid).
The general drill is that you arrive into Merzouga and stay at a local hotel (we stayed at Riad Nezha which was very nice). The next morning you explore the sights in the area with your guide and then embark on your camel in the afternoon after lunch.
For the Sahara portion of the trip, we had a different guide that took care of us. It is about a 30-minute ride to the berber desert camp and you can go on a longer ride if you desire. Once there, we had fun exploring the dunes and even saw a desert salamander, which burrows into the sand with its pointed nose like you would dive into water. The dunes are beautiful, with a fine almost powdery graininess and embossed with undulating patterns of ridges. Watching the sunset from on top of a dune, we were amazed by the spectacular hues of purple, rose and gold that lit up the sky. After sunset, the sky is filled with billions of stars, their brightness tempered by the moon. I was lucky to see a meteor streak across the sky right in front of me - so large it seemed I could reach out and touch it.
Back at camp, there is a ring of 10 low, black camel wool tents supported inside by a tall piece of wood in the center. For sleeping there are a couple of raised wooden pallets supporting a thin mattress and narrow sleeping bag type bedding. A lantern sitting on the sand lights the interior with a faint glow. The bathroom is in a tent a short distance away and consists of a wooden pallet supporting a porcelain commode with a bucket of water and laddle nearby. There is no plumbing, the toilet draining into the sand under the tent and water from the bucket used to flush. This was very efficient, clean and comfortable.
There was one other couple at the camp, and we joined them for dinner inside a large tent outside the sleeping tent circle. We had a dinner of delicious tagine (which was brought out from the village in a 4x4 - not cooked on the spot). I would have enjoyed a bonfire after dinner, but as there was none, we spent a little time viewing the stars and then retired to the tent. I had been warned that it can get cold in the desert at night, but it was a very pleasant temperature and we had thick blankets on our beds. In the morning, I had several sand flea bites on my legs, but overall I had a comfortable night.
Very early, as the sun came up, our guide woke us to enjoy the sight of the sun rising over the dunes...amazing. I think the most surprising thing about our desert experience was that cell phone service in Morocco also covers the desert! We then rode back into town and returned to our hotel room (all of our stuff still in our room). After a shower and nice breakfast on the roof of the hotel, we met up with our guide and were on our way.
The guide we had for the desert part of the trip was named Ahmed Kojjot and he was incredible. He was born and raised as a desert nomad and seemed to know every dune. He also knew I was very afraid of my camel ride, and took extra care to make sure I was comfortable and happy. We spoke with another couple back at the hotel that had just returned from a week outing in the open desert with him. Their goal was to go off on their own, to the deep desert, away from any traces of civilization. They said his knowledge and survival skills were incredible. Ahmed worked with my guide Lahcen, but also does his own camel and 4x4 tours of the Sahara. You can contact him at [email protected]
Summary – We found Morocco to be one of the most interesting and fun places we have ever visited. The people were very friendly and seemed to like Americans. Most of the tourists we encountered were French or British because it is a very short journey for them to travel to such an exotic locale. Morocco is a very safe and inexpensive place to travel, with a wealth of cultural sights to explore. Enjoy your journey. Christine
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Morocco Travel Tips 2010