My first impressions of Morocco were ones of amazement, which surprised me because with all that’s going on in the world I’ll admit I was a little uneasy to go there, which is why for this trip I abandoned my usual solo travel regime and did a Geckos tour. Fortunately I came to my senses very quickly after seeing the hospitality and, most importantly, safety of this very different and beautiful country.
Upon arrival I brought a SIM card and the man in the shop happily set everything up for me because nothing was in English. Then as I waited outside the airport for my transfer, I got chatting to the woman beside me and almost instantly she invited me to come and stay at her house in Ifrane. On the way into Casablanca I saw nearly every cliche African scene. Kids playing soccer in a dirt patch? Check. Abandoned buildings? Check. Ridiculously friendly hospitality? Double check.
And apart from being partially strip-searched by a security guard at the airport due to a “singlet with hidden pocket that had my cash in it” misunderstanding, my time in Morocco was (almost) incident-free.
I had chosen an 11 day tour that started in Casablanca and ended in Marrakesh. After I arrived at the hotel I was introduced to my roomie, Maddy. She’s 20 and the only Englishwoman on the tour. She was super lovely, spoke a little bit of French and loved her shopping. Both glad to have a companion, we set off to explore a bit and ended up at a couple of markets where Madeline did her best buy all of the bags/sunglasses/art.
The only other downside I had in Morocco was on that first day at the markets. Now I appreciate things are done differently there, I get the haggling, and people coming up and suggesting their stalls, and that’s totally fine. What I don’t like are people continuously following me around and ignoring me when I say I’m not interested. Mostly people were quite friendly and took the hint, but I got quite shaken up after I got annoyed and rather firmly (yet politely) told a guy who followed us for ages “no thank you, goodbye” only to have him scream at me that I was a racist bitch. On the plus side I understood everything he said, which means my French is better than I thought it was, but what I really should’ve done was just ignore him.
After all that we headed back to the hotel to meet up with the tour group. There were 10 of us and our guide Mohamed. As I predicted, of that ten most are Aussies (7 girls, 1 guy), one Londoner and one New Yorker (both girls). Everyone was super lovely and most were 28 or older, which made me feel right at home.
Then after the meeting we all went out for dinner and I had some Moroccan tea and a spicy chicken patissa, which Mo said was a pie, but it was more like shredded chicken wrapped in spring roll pastry and made really flat like a pancake. It was delicious.
The hotel wasn’t the Ritz but it was liveable. I didn’t really sleep very well though, but that meant I heard the 5.30am call to prayer, which was really beautiful. After waking up super early, we got ready, had some breakfast and then went to the Hassan II Mosque. We did a tour (it’s absolutely stunning), all with our headscarves donned.
After the mosque we grabbed some lunch from a supermarket and caught the train to Meknes, then got a taxi to Moulay Idriss, a holy city in the mountains. I guess the closest comparison can be Greece – winding passages, with bright multicoloured houses and unique doors everywhere, all the way up the mountain. It was so beautiful there, it really left Casablanca for dead.
We did a walking tour with a local guide, made friends with the local cats, bought some Moroccan sweets and took lots of photos of doors. One of the definite benefits to travelling in a tour was being able to have something in my photos that as a solo traveller I usually didn’t have, and that was people. I know it sounds silly but it makes so much of a difference.
We stayed at a really nice riad where they cooked us dinner and we got to see a couscous making demonstration. Dinner was delicious as well, and I even got to test some of my German on a retired couple the next table over. It was a bit of a disaster, but I tried!
From Moulay Idriss we had a quick stop at the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, and then explored another ancient city, Meknes, and where we tried camel burgers for lunch. The markets there were fantastic labyrinths of stalls and if I hadn’t been with our guide I definitely would’ve gotten lost (and would probably still be there). From Meknes we went to Fes, home of more labyrinth markets, the famous leather dye pits and one of the oldest universities in the world. I found Fes to be very cosmopolitan and relaxed compared to Casablanca, and I much preferred it.
From Fes we drove south to Midelt, a tiny village that was in the middle of nowhere and that only seemed to have one hotel. We went on a loooong walk and the terrain was stunning, from the snow-capped mountains in the distance, to the red gorges and almost alien like rocky landscapes. We had a delicious dinner, and spent the night relaxing and playing cards.
The next day was what I had been looking forward to for the whole trip: riding camels to the Sahara desert and camping under the stars. After what felt like years of driving, we finally arrived at Merzouga to drop off our things and wait for the sun to go down a little so it wasn’t too hot. We played around in the dunes for a little bit while we waited, then made sure our Lawrence of Arabia style headscarves were on properly before we finally got to get on our camels and head towards our camp for the night.
My camel, who I dubbed ‘Bruce’ was a lovely, albeit rather smelly creature and I loved every minute of the ride. It’s really tough to describe just how beautiful everything is in the desert, especially as the sun is going down and lights up the dunes.
I have never felt so unfit as I did that afternoon. We climbed a deceptively high dune, which turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I think I had about 20 breaks trying to climb up the damn thing, being laughed at by the tour guide and the actual fit people in our group who powered up it in about 5 minutes. But when we finally got to the top just in time to watch the sun set, the view alone was worth every second of exhaustion. (Which was good because I managed to severely dehydrate myself and spent the night throwing up, which put a bit of a dampener on what was otherwise a great day). Drink lots of water people!!!
The next morning we rode our camel buddies back to civilisation and had a very welcome shower, before heading to our next stop: Todra Gorge. It was a gorgeous little oasis of green in the middle of the desert, and as I wasn’t feeling brilliant, it was a welcome relief to lie by the pool in the shade and relax.
We headed to Ait Benhaddou next, a UNESCO world heritage site that just does not look real! It’s used a lot as a movie set and was used in Game of Thrones, The Jewel of the Nile, The Mummy, Gladiator and tonnes more. Plus we basically had the place to ourselves, which was even better. That night the girls got some disastrous henna and we played the Moroccan version of snap, which resulted in several episodes of truth or dare.
Finally we made our way to Marrakesh via the Atlas Mountains, stopping to watch people make argan oil and to spike one of the tour group member’s coffee with salt (one of the aforementioned dares), even getting the waiter in on the joke. We went on a quick tour of the medina when we got to Marrakesh and spent the night exploring and shopping. The next day we were left to our own devices and explored the beautiful Majorelle Garden and wandered around the city. Then we all got together for a final dinner, and then by 7am the next day I was gone.
One of the things I think I liked the most about being on a tour in Morocco was that there was no pressure at all to go out and get completely smashed, which is usually the default attitude for people on tours (well tours aimed at under 35’s anyway). It was nice at the rare times that alcohol was available just to have a glass of wine or two, but it always stayed fairly tame. As I’m quite a boring person when it comes to partying, I enjoyed it immensely. Besides there’s nothing worse than sitting hungover on a bus for five hours, especially in the heat.
So to sum up it was definitely a very interesting experience. I loved the history and the quirkiness of the people, and just how different things are only 3 hours from London. My favourite parts were away from the big cities – the Sahara, Midelt and Moulay Idriss – places that haven’t been overwhelmed with tourists and tacky knick knacks. I’d love to go back and explore more of the smaller cities, especially the blue city Chefchaouen and get the ferry from Tangiers to Spain.
Too many places to go!