Day 1: Late Arrival in Casablanca
Day 2: Casablance to Chefchaoeun
Chefchaouen was built in between two rocky peaks in the Rif Mountains and is known for its blue Medina and Andalucían influence brought by the Muslim and Jewish refugees from the south of Spain many years ago. We arrived here after dark, but bookmarked a few hostels at the suggestion of Lonely Planet inside the Medina before we arrived. MAPS.ME told us to take a sharp right turn up into the Medina. I’m talking extremely sharp. 15 degree angle sharp. There was also what we thought was a street sign telling us not to enter (we later learned it meant no parking.) It was similar to a stop sign: a big red circle with a line through it. Both of those factors led us to keep driving. There was no way that we were making it up that way.
We kept driving looking for the next right turn into the medina. We took a less sharp right turn on a somewhat larger alley and when we slowed the car, a man immediately approached us and told us we couldn't drive down this road, then offered accommodation at his guest house. We were a little flustered but recently had a long talk about the need to keep our cool better under stressful situations where indecision caused tension between us, so we joined together in an extra effort to keep calm and take things one step at a time.
After ignoring him for a moment, we decided that there was no way we could drive into the medina. We knew his price was too high, but we weren’t in the mood to bargain yet, wasn’t that supposed to happen in the Medina’s stalls? Nope. Bargaining happens everywhere.
We also have a tendency to be pushed away rather than drawn in when people approach us with deals, so I politely told him no thank you. He didn’t speak English, but did speak Spanish, so we were at least able to communicate. Once he finally believed me that we weren’t interested in his guest house, he retired to attempting a weed sale with us, at which I could only laugh and politely decline. This was just the first of many salesmen who would approach us for hostels and more before we found a bed for the night.
We made our way back to the main road and found an elaborate route that would help us avoid windy one way alleys that we may or may not have been allowed to drive down. After a few botched attempts (further confused by the no parking signs), we made our way to the first inner loop surrounding the Medina and landed in front of one of the hostels that Lonely Planet suggested. Another man approached us and asked if we had accommodations and we said not yet, but wanted to see a few around here. He was a parking man, which essentially means he walks around his turf wearing a neon traffic vest and claims territory over a certain block, helping you park there and charging you for his services and space. We were accustomed to this by now and there was a perfect spot in front of a hostel down the street, so we obliged him and asked how much the room was. He said 200dh a night, which was slightly more than we wanted to pay, but it was late and we were tired so it was good enough. I made it inside though before the parking attendant did and the guy behind the counter told me 180dh. All around, it was a win.
We walked around the Medina for dinner that night for a small glimpse of the blue city in the mountains, which we would only truly be able to enjoy the next day in the morning sunlight. We twisted and turned and got a little lost before finding a trip advisor restaurant suggestion. Not a soul was in sight, but the food was tasty and we scarfed down the plum beef and spicy fish tagines.
Days 3 - 5: Chefchaouen to Fes
The next morning we woke up extra early and had the winding alley ways to ourselves. We aimlessly walked up and down the hilled houses and through tiny side streets. There really isn’t anything else to do here other than wander, which we didn’t mind at all. As the shops slowly opened up we got our first whiff of aroma overload from the soap and incense shops. The smells were strong. Though we had no idea what most of the scents’ labels said, many were familiar and some reminded us of expensive perfumes.
Before we left for our road trip down to Fes we stopped to get another two sandwiches from the place that we had second dinner last night (the tagines weren’t quite big enough and we were dangerously close to budget for the day so surprise, we found a sandwich shop). Fresh grilled sausage, egg, rice, mashed potatoes some kind of pickled radish, green olives, tomato, carrot, lettuce, and a generous helping of unmarked spicy sauce all on a foot long loaf of French bread. Yum.
The drive out was even more beautiful than the drive in. This time we could see down the hillside roads that were pitch black the night before and appreciate their beauty. After an hour and a half, the land turned bright green with lush grass and massive rolling fields that looked like they were farmed with modern equipment. There were also orchards of orange, pomegranate, and olive trees. At each orchard, there were locals picking the fruit and many selling their products along the road. Off in the distance the sun shone down though the slight haze and illuminated a hilltop village.
When you go to Fes, you go to the Medina. The Fes Medina (market) is one of the largest in Morocco. It dates back to 800 AD and it's one of the largest cities with no car areas in the world, boasting over 9000 alley ways. It's the kind of place we love. There were the obvious tourist shops packed with tourist trash, but many of the shops catered to locals. There were butcher shops with camel heads hanging out front just an alley away from people making copper pots and pans. Our main goal of wandering in the Medina was to get lost, and find hidden gems. We found an artist who showed us his gallery in a deserted looking alley, boasting about the work of his art students. You could really tell the different styles and signature looks of each student. We continued to get lost and would mosy by while we watched workers making their products. From carved marble featuring Islamic quotes, hand painted pottery, to custom furniture. There were whole sections full of cellphones, sunglasses/reading glasses, and the scarves the local women wear to name a few.
There were a couple of items we needed: new pashminas, sun glasses, dates, and as many local pastries as we could stomach. For the first two we were excited to bargain for and the second two excited to search for. We learned that most of the pashminas were imported from India, but we were happy to just search and bargain. Also we look fabulous in our new flashes of color (a scarf for color doesn't sound like much, but when you only have 2 shirts that are almost the same color, it's exciting). I (Jesse) also found some man bling. Emily wasn't sure about me wearing a copper bracelet at first (an item from a nomadic desert tribe (questionable if this is true but more fun if I believe it)). Now that I've worn it for a while, she agrees I look particularly good with it on.
The sweets we found were mostly different types of fried bread or thin pastries with honey. The glass front cases were filled with bees and the pastries so sweet we could only have 3 at a time!
We also witnessed the recession of a wedding on our way out. There was a big band playing music, a bunch of women chanting and people dressed in their best. Emily and I weren't sure what was happening, but she convinced me to stick around for a few minutes to see what was happening, and we were sure glad that we did.
Day 6: The Drive from Fes to Merzouga
After Fes, we drove south, out of the Rif Mountains and towards the Sahara desert. The proposed trip was only 6 hours on MAPS.ME (the world navigation app), but we knew it would be 10+ hours if we drove straight through. MAPS.ME’s timing is unreliable, and you learn to always leave extra time.
Normally when we drive such a long distance back home, we are all about efficiency – we stop as little as possible and get where we are going. This day was different though; it was all about the stops and the drive itself.
The first stop we read about on a number of blogs that detailed the drive from Fes to Merzouga was Ifrane, a little place that looked more like a Swiss university town or ski resort valley than a North African village, but Jesse had the name of this town mixed up with the next, so we ended up driving through it and didn’t realize until it was too late.
This ended up being a blessing in disguise though because we stopped in the next town, Azrou for coffee at a tiny place with Wi-Fi. After a man in the square approached us about a monkey tour, I googled what there was to see in this town and stumbled upon a blog about wild monkeys in a park on the outskirts of town. I couldn’t believe that something like this wasn’t on any of the Moroccan road trip itinerary posts from Pinterest. We had a little time since we missed the town before so after coffee we made our way to the national park at Cedre De Gouraud. We paid the 5dh, or 50 cents to park and were surprised that an entrance fee didn’t follow.
Almost immediately after setting foot into the forest two large monkeys approached us. Monkey spotting is was so hard for us until this point on our trip, but this forest was so populated with them that they were practically begging you to give them attention, or maybe just food, but I prefer to think they rather enjoyed my company.
We’ve seen monkeys in Costa Rica, Peru, and Argentina, but these monkeys were by far the most similar to humans in appearance than any others we have seen. They had complex hazel eyes, square jaw lines with teeth, little fingers that they would place on your knee if you got down low that showed their cuticles and dark hair nail beds. They would swarm you once you entered a new section of forest, then leave if you weren’t feeding them. Some were huge and rambunctious, some running to and fro monkeying around with the others, some cleaning each other’s butts and some trying to do more naughty things with their rear ends. We even caught one couple in the act on the ground before they got camera shy and jumped into the trees to continue their naughty fun in privacy.
Note: Without thinking we had some stale bread that we fed to the monkeys. We are not supposed to do this and in general don't approve of this type of behavior or tourism. After the fact we realized what we had done. We’re getting better about thinking about the environment and disrupting natural ecosystems as we travel, but shame on us, we did feed them bread.
We spent longer at the park than planned, then continued driving by perfectly round hills with polished patches of pine trees. It was something out of a fantasy novel. Jesse could see his novels hero's hiding out in the hilltop groves treetops, while shepherds herded their massive flocks around windy bends in the road.
Next we had our first Berber (the nomadic peoples of this section of the Sahara desert) style tagine in Zaida (tagine is the classic Moroccan dish served almost everywhere). A Berber tagine consists of a stew sauce, potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, and possibly other vegetables set up slanted in a circular pattern in a large ceramic bowl brought to a point in the middle that looks like a teepee of food, hiding delicious meat under the tent top, or just more vegetables depending on what you order.
After lunch we continued south and passed through many apple orchards which turned into a path along the Ziz River, damn, and valley into the desert.
Emily and I had missed the previous four sunsets, well maybe not missed them, but were driving or not sitting in one place just for the sake of watching the sunset. We really wanted to sit and enjoy a desert sunset, so we pulled over on the side of the road once it seemed like it was time to watch the sun dip below the horizon. We sat on a dirty concrete irrigation ditch while many locals passed by on foot and motorbike. One group of four boys about 13ish years old decided to join us. They spoke French and Arabic and after the customary request for money, which we denied, they settled down to watch us. Or annoy us. Like all middle school boys do at one point of another. The continually talked at us as the sun set and kept creeping closer. At one point they started playing music on their phone in hopes that it would make us budge and show frustration. We were relaxing with some slow jams, but if we wanted to stay and not be bothered, we would need to change our music strategy. A quick swipe on Spotify and Bassnectar bangers began. They backed off and stopped playing their music. We won.
After sunset, we continued to the last major city of our drive, Rissani, where there was reported to be stuffed Moroccan pizza. Emily and I were pumped to give it a shot, but a city at dusk meant men that surrounded the car soliciting services – we just spent an hour being bothered by middle school boys and weren’t in the mood, so we kept driving.
After 13 total hours on the road we arrived at one of the "Doorways to the Desert," Merzouga. Actually we technically never made it all the way to Merzouga. We read that it was very touristy and we were tired of people approaching the car, so per suggestion of another blogger we stopped just 2km before Merzouga in a small town. The raid this blogger stayed at was full, but I asked the owner if he had any other suggestions for where to stay. He was sitting with a bunch of friends outside and one of them said he would show us his guest house down the road. He told some young kid to give him the bike he was riding to show us his place, hopped on it, and we followed him away. He did eventually return the bike later that night, but he stole it like a boss.
Day 7: Sahara Desert
The next morning we headed out to a seasonal lake to laze the day away watching camels graze and do some serious bird and tourist watching with binoculars that our raid let us borrow. I (Jesse) initially had no interest in bird watching but with the binoculars I quickly wasted hours watching ducks and storks. I was really surprised how fun it was to spy on the birds.
Later that night we rode camels out into the desert. It was touristy, yes, but we are tourists after all, touring the world. We hopped on camels about two hours before sunset and our Berber herdsman guided us through an hour trek over sand dunes. Once we arrived at our tent, he went to cook dinner while we basically sprinted to the top of the highest dune to watch the sunset. Running uphill in sand is never fun nor easy, but was totally worth it.
For dinner, he brought out a huge plate of raw vegetables with an oil and vinegar sauce on it and a heaping plate of bread. I (Emily) was convinced that this was all we were getting for dinner because I didn’t know if he would be cooking or not, so we ate practically the entire thing in case this was dinner. Well, eventually, a large tagine come out. Oops. I didn’t want to go to bed hungry so I may have jumped the gun a little, but you can’t say no to tagine, so we kept eating. Stuffed to the point of bursting, we relaxed under a beautiful night sky, soaking in the stars until our eyes couldn’t stay open much longer.
We woke up early the next morning and made our way to the same spot for sunrise before hopping back on the camels and trekking our way back.
Day 8: Sahara Desert to Gorges du Todgha
After the desert we made our way to the Todgha gorge and valley. We crossed a tiny bridge that went over the fields and groves of date palm, then turned right and drove alongside it all the way to the top where we found our camp site for the night. The valley was small, but lush and ended in a huge gorge with shear rock face straight up on both sides as far as the eye could see. This was our first time camping since Patagonia and although the site was pretty basic, the red clay earth all around us was the perfect backdrop against the sun as it fell that evening and rose again the next morning.
Day 9: Gorges du Todgha to Some parking lot
The main reason we came to the Todgha valley was to hike. Before we arrived, our definition of hiking involved quick and frequent elevation changes, mountains, lakes, and isolation from the rest of civilization. Well, Morocco isn’t Patagonia and there weren’t any snow covered mountains in sight (though if in other seasons there are world class mountains to hike). Today would be more of a walk about than a hike, but we were itching to spend time out and about in the valley.
To get into the valley we had to make our way between and behind houses that were perched above and against the valley walls. After passing behind several layers of building, we found what looked like the regular brush of any unused space. There were no paths just some downed trees from what looked like the last flood and clumps of grass.
We worked our way down the river but quickly came to a portion too thick for us to cross and had to backtrack. Once we crossed the river we tried to stay close to it since it would eventually go the direction we were headed. I (Jesse) knew we needed to be on the other side of the river for most of our walk so when we came across a section of the river with some larger rocks evenly spaced we started across. I made it across easily, but bent to pick up a stone to make one of the last steps easier for Emily. A local appeared out of nowhere and told me no. I looked back at him and then at Emily who had made the crossing easily. He bowed his head at me, smiled and hiked up his traditional robe and serenely made his way across the river. Just 5 minutes later we ran out of path near the river and climbed a set of mud stairs built up the side to see two local men, a father and son, sitting and having a chat under a tree. They welcomed us both and spend a few minutes chatting with us and asking if we needed any directions. The interaction was pleasant and the men were not at all bothered by the fact that two strange foreigners were wandering through their crop fields.
At this point we really entered into the farming area. With plots of land divided by little raised hills that made each available inch useful. There were main irrigation channels that the water ran through and a little footpath on its built up banks. When a farmer needed to plant or water their field they would dig the side out of its surrounding embankment and flood their section. Some were full of onions, others big leafy plants, still some had date palms or pomegranate groves. As we walked each little field had its own feel with the main ditch winding its way through. We would pass full families working under the shade of the date palms or walk for 30 min without seeing a soul. The valley felt timeless, like this was how life had been lived for the last 1000 years and would continue to be lived long after I’ve passed.
The true highlight of the walk was when a pair of older men tilling a field with hoes stopped to take a break and invited us over for tea. One of their wives had brought them a snack: a whole pot of tea, msemen fresh from the griddle, and some type of homemade yogurt in a 2 liter recycled water bottle. The smiles on their faces were so bright when they called us over and poured us tea into their own cups and handed them over to us. They then split half of their msemen and through hand signals and waving communicated that the onions from the field they were tilling were used to make the msemen. They spoke French and Arabic or Berber so Emily and I couldn’t talk to them, but we mimed back and forth enjoying a beautiful afternoon snack with these strangers. After ten minutes the gentlemen stood up to get back to work. We parted with the same bright warm smiles and well wishes. The rest of our day and trip down the valley was brighter for their generosity and kindness.
Emily: What Jesse neglected to tell you is that we were pretty worn out from people waving us down in Morocco, they almost always just stuck their hand out to ask for money or tries to sell you something. When they waved us down at first, I was skeptical, but he had a good feeling about it. He later told me that as soon as we were waved down he was secretly saying, “yes, yes, yes, this is it,” hoping that some locals would invite us over during our time in the valley. Well he was right, they were just lovely strangers and I’m glad we didn’t ignore their waving hands.
After we finished our “hike” here we continued to the next valley, Gorges du Dates, which was supposed to be the more grand and picturesque of the two gorges. This valley and gorge were equally beautiful but on a slightly larger scale, however our interaction with the locals in Todgha definitely made it more meaningful. The sides of this gorge were unique in the way they were shaped and the villages along the way were much larger. We didn’t stop for the night, but enjoyed a relaxing scenic drive up to a high viewpoint that served delicious espresso with cinnamon (a trick I will bring back home and use with our espresso machine).
We took too long driving today since we spent so long in the valley before the drive to Ouarzazate, and dark caught us in the middle of the desert. We found a camping spot near a lake before Ouazazate which consisted of three abandoned buildings, a lot of rocky ground and a huge, unevenly paved parking lot. While the ground wasn’t the best it gave us a view of the lake from almost all directions since this spit of land extended into the lake. We decided to set up camp near a large tower. Inside was filled with rubbish, graffiti, burn marks, and unidentifiable pieces of who knows what, but the parking lot had a flat spot, and there weren’t any lights.
At this point the sky was pitch black and although the iOverlander app told us that the spot was a little farther, not even the cars’ headlights were helping us find the paths’ entrance. We set up camp in a dry night and slept for the first time without the rain fly, leaving our tent ceiling open to the dark night sky and bright stars. As we lay back watching the stars it amazed me how far we had come, that the idea having no set destination and just setting up a tent in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country didn’t give either Emily or myself pause. It was yet another beautiful sunset, sleep, and sunrise kind of day.
Day 10: Random parking lot to Ouzazate to Ozoud
Ouazazate was high on the list for of all the road trip blogs for Morocco that we found on Pinterest, but it was our least favorite and we ended up just driving through with quick stops instead of spending a night here. We moseyed through town and checked out the Flint Oasis, the supposed paradise of the Sahara, but it paled in comparison to the Todgha and Dades vallies.
We talked through the CLA Studios grounds where parts of Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, Hidalgo, and the Mummy were filmed. After the little museum, if you could even call it that, a set of offices with props set up, we drove 2 km out into the desert behind the studios to a full-fledged fake castle used in the filming of the third season of Game of Thrones! The rest of the studios was rubbish, but the GoT Castle made it worth the entrance fee.
The castle was made of paper mache and scaffolding. When you saw it from a distance it looked real, but as you rounded the sides you could see the scaffolding. It was quite the thing to behold. We spent an hour and a half exploring all of the small nooks and crannies, role playing characters from the TV series and at one point watching a group of local young men ride across a section of the desert on horses up the walls. I considered yelling challenges down at them since I was on the walls, but Emily forbade me from doing anything medieval.
Emily: Jesse was too busy bending the knee to do anything else.
We kept driving, intentionally going out of our way to drive along the Tizi n’Tichka road. If you look at a map, it’s a long 3 hour stretch of “highway” carved into the mountain side of the High Atlas Mountains. We stopped plenty of times to enjoy the landscape or sip on some espresso. The landscape actually reminded us quite a lot of a two day hike that we did in Bolivia. The road may have been long, but the drive was the point of the car trip. If you’re ever in Morocco, take the road less traveled and travel here.
Ozoud is a small town known for its waterfall and not much else. We originally planned to wild camp here, but the landscape wasn’t looking promising for this type of camping, so we settled on the Zebra campsite. It looked a little posh for our campsite taste, but proved to be an amazing experience.
Day 11 – 12: Ozoud
Our campsite had a little restaurant attached and served the most amazing coffee, so naturally Jesse and I (Emily) spent all morning drinking coffee and relaxing. By the most amazing coffee, I mean relatively speaking of course. In South America, all you can find is Nescafe instant coffee. Morocco was a step up, serving espresso made from an actual machine instead of stirring grounds with a spoon into steaming water, but the quantity of espresso was so tiny that it was finished in three to four sips. What’s the point of coffee if it’s gone that quickly? I guess you get your caffeine, yada yada, but this coffee was French press, and half the price of most of our three sip espressos.
During breakfast we made small talk with one European couple Renata and Fitzy. Last night they had welcomed us to the camping crew by sharing pieces of Swiss chocolate post dinner. It turns out that Renata built the campsite from scratch with her ex-boyfriend and lived in Morocco for the past twelve years. She was now probably in her late 50s and dating Fitzy, but she was back in her camper van for a week visiting her creation. She invited us for a walk that afternoon to see how the locals lived, simply because she liked to give tourists a feel for what life is really like here.
We immediately agreed and jumped on the chance to see a more rural lifestyle of local Morocco. We walked through the red clay hills out back from the campsite that were covered in green patches of plant life and made our way to a little hut where olive oil was made. This region is known in Morocco for its olives and people drive from all over to purchase them or the oil. Olive purchases are more frequent though because the oil is produced the old fashioned way here.
We walked into a hut with a huge pit of brown and black mush, a large stone wheel in the center with grooves carved along it's outside surface, and a harness contraption around the wheel attached to a donkey that walked in circles, smooshing the olives under the wheel in the first step to making oil. While we were there, people of all ages came to the hut; young boys brought small bags of olives they had picked and sold to the hut after they were weighed by an old school balance scale with iron weights, older gentleman come by with empty water bottles and waited for them to get filled with oil, and some people just stopped by to chat.
The second stop on our tour of local Ozoud was to the home of Renata’s first camp chef’s wife and three little boys. We entered a gate and stepped into a courtyard with a tea herb garden, and the women (I’m blanking on her name) showed us her home. In Morocco, homes often have a large sitting room next to the entrance with wall to wall built in benches adorned with lavish cushions and drapes, used for entertaining guests. She had two of these rooms, one on each side of the hallway at the front of the house. Each room could easily accommodate 10-15 people and was set up with tables on which tea and sweets would be served to guests. Since it was nice outside though, we made a circle outside with plastic chairs and wood stumps and all enjoyed, you guessed it, tea and sweet bread.
In the evening we walked to the waterfalls when the light is supposed to be the best of the day. To our surprise, there was a vibrant neon rainbow over the waterfall that was more vivid than any I’ve ever seen. You could see each of the classic rainbow colors: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and if you were lucky, red too.
At the top of the waterfall, there were monkeys just roaming free at the lookout point. Locals had bags full of food that they tried to sell handfuls of to tourists so that the monkeys would come close to them. It didn’t sit right with us. The monkeys were quite forward with you even if you didn’t have food, and these men feeding them weren’t helping. Jesse and I (Emily) tried to ignore them and say no thank you as much as possible, but even without their food, monkeys still came right up to us; one even tried to take the water bottle out of Jesse’s hands.
The next day we enjoyed relaxing, drinking coffee and eating fresh bread, walking around the waterfall, and lounging about town and the campsite.
Day 13 – 14: Marrakesh
By this point, we didn’t have any real objective for our days or desire to see anything specific. We spent our last two days walking around the medina, stopping for coffee, people watching, stopping for tea, but mostly eating msemen bread. We found one small stall that was constantly packed with locals on our first night, so of course we stopped for a snack. The female chef was stationed at an open griddle in the front outside corner of the stall and was making fresh msemen. We snagged a front row seat. When the waiter asked how we wanted our msemen, we weren’t sure how to respond. Stuffed with olives, oils, cheeses, honey, fruit, the list went on and on. GAME CHANGER.
I’m not sure what we chose that first time, but it was so good that the next day we went back three times. We are often creatures of habit when we travel, and although we know we should probably venture out and try multiple things, when we find a place we love, we hunker down and become repeat customers. We were fortunate enough to grab front row seats again and sat in wonder as the same women, no matter what time of day we were there, was still standing in the front with a smile on her face, making msemen. When we came back a second, and then third time that day, they couldn’t help but smile. Our last visit was a to-go order to have for breakfast the next morning with our bananas, jam, and Nutella. Okay, we also got some for lunch on the plane too that we ate with spreadable cheese and spice soaked olives that we picked up in the Medina.
Overall, we enjoyed our time in Morocco. The car had a lot to do with this though. We were able to pick up and go as we pleased and we had the freedom to move as quickly or as slowly as we wanted. There isn’t any one place there that we would go back to for an extended period of time, and 1-3 days was plenty of time to see everywhere we went. With such long distances between all the best that Morocco has to offer, a car was definitely a good decision. It was also our little security blanket as we transitioned out of South America and into the rest of the world. If we were uncomfortable or didn’t want to be somewhere anymore, we relied on no one except for ourselves and were able to easily pack up and move again.
While at first glance, the people seemed really happy in Morocco, I think that polite and welcoming are better words. People said hello to you and asked how you were or where you were from, but in most places, it was just a tactic to get you talking in the hopes of making a sale of some sort. The happiest moment we had was sharing tea with the date palm field men in the Todgha gorge. Despite the language barrier, it was a moment of being human, just sharing tea and bread and smiling as we sat in field under the sun.