In December 2017, I travelled to Morocco with my family and a few friends. This was my first trip to the African continent. To say we were excited would be an understatement. I have always dreamed of going to the Sahara Desert. Morocco has become increasingly popular as a tourist destination… and Lonely Planet definitely makes the place look spectacular.
With some research and recommendations, we decided to visit main cities such as: Fez, Marrakech, and Essaouira. We also decided to travel through the Atlas Mountain range – the highest mountain range in North Africa, and camp in the Sahara Desert. Two weeks of exploring ancient lands and sipping mint tea!
Fez… and the Medina
This was my first stop in Morocco, and one of my favourite cities we visited while on the trip. Fez is a UNESCO-recognized cultural haven – a central point for religion, culture, and language historically, but also in present day. As you enter the Fez Medina (Medina is a word referring to an ancient wall enclosed city) it feels like you are stepping back in time to Fez’s peak in the 13th and 14th centuries. Medinas are bowl-shaped, and as you enter through the main gate and pass the surrounding walls, you enter what appears to be a market maze. Spices, animals, bread, fresh produce, mosques, lamps, sweets, tea, clothes, scarves, handmade rugs… you name it – this is where the locals spend much of their day and gather necessities. I spent hours walking through the Medina, and this is where I got an introductory sense of what Moroccan culture was like. The Medina streets are quite narrow, and thankfully it’s a pedestrian (or donkey cart) only zone. Just be aware you will most likely get lost. However, what I have learned from my travels is that getting lost is part of the adventure and fun. My advice: if you want to exit, go in the upwards direction… you’ll get to a surrounding wall and exiting gate.
A must see in Fez are the Fez leather tanneries – they are the oldest in the world, having been in use since the 11th century. There are spots in the Medina that have a great view of the tanneries, most of them are leather stores and draw you in to buy their products using the attraction. Fact: the surrounding areas of the tanneries smell quite foul, and most stores and their guides will provide you with fresh mint leaves to sniff, but honestly the smell still somehow makes its way through. I wish I could tell you that you will get used to the smell, but you won’t! Definitely not for the faint of heart, but you just have to do it. It was one of my most memorable times in Morocco. The leather stores beside the main tannery will have a guide explaining the process and history free of charge, in hopes you will buy one of their purses or belts.
Marrakech is certainly busier and much livelier than Fez in many ways. It is definitely a great city to visit in Morocco, and there are some tasty eats and good places to buy Moroccan souvenirs. While in Marrakech my sister and I got henna done at one of the local henna cafes in the Medina. In the main square, there are people advertising henna art services, but I would highly recommend getting henna done at a reputable and designated store. My family, friends and I rented out most of a riad as our accommodation in Marrakech. Riads are beautiful, large and spacious Moroccan style homes – containing an open roof and inner courtyard. Renting a room in a riad is a common and very affordable accommodation in Morocco.
It’s a coastal stop! Essaouira had a vibe completely different than the inner-city hustle and bustle of Fez and Marrakech. It has more of a chill vibe, a backpackers’ haven, totally relaxed. The walls of many areas are a shade of blue – and these blue accents continue as you travel through different parts of Essaouira. The main section where restaurants and cafes are found are also home to a bar or two, which wasn’t a common encounter throughout my travels in Morocco. Remember that Morocco is technically a “dry” country, meaning that alcohol is not permitted. However, there seemed to be plenty of wine and beer at the Riads. Beside these cafes, excellent local musicians would play and sing. The view of the city wall from the shore is a stunning site as well. Essaouira is a beach town and because it is located along the ocean it makes perfect sense to try the delicious fresh seafood caught daily by the locals. There is a fish market right along the harbour, where you can choose your fish, shrimp, crab, or eel, and they cook it right in front of you. It was incredible. You can haggle over the price of the seafood as well, and everything is a fresh morning catch…so fresh, in fact, it may still be twitching in the display stand.
From the desert, we drove to the Atlas Mountains – North Africa’s highest mountain range. The views were spectacular! As we were driving through the high Atlas Mountains, the roads were incredibly narrow, and the drop off was steep – and no…there aren’t any guard rails! There were several sites within the Atlas Mountain region that were worth visiting. The Todgha gorge in the high atlas is a limestone canyon carved out by two major rivers passing through. There are also many stores and locals on the side of the cliff roads selling fossils and natural geodes, as the region is rich with many minerals. It is magnificent. Definitely worth a hike with guides.