A Few Words About Morocco Tours Moroccan highlights are neither few nor far between. Every street leads to a mesmerizing labyrinth of vibrant merchants, every breeze carries a fresh bouquet of exotic spice, and every highway connects a breezy seaside with snow-dusted mountains and ever-shifting desert dunes.
Situated at the crossroads of the world's greatest trade routes, goods continue to pour into Morocco from Europe, Asia and Africa and the spoken language is a beautiful mesh of Spanish, French, Arabic, Berber, and an unfathomable array of foreign phrases uttered ever so fervently by street merchants eager to sell their prized argan oil, fresh dates and exquisite birads (teapots). Morocco tours provide a sensory adventure unique from any other, thus attracting visitors from the three adjacent continents and beyond.
The journey to Morocco from Europe lasts barely 30 minutes. Ferries depart from Tarifa, a port city on Spain's southern tip that has been dubbed the epicenter of European windsurfing, and speed across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangiers. Passengers disembark in the port of what was once the world's most coveted seedy hideout, perceiving the mysterious lingering presence of diverse ancient and modern empirical powers. Tangier's breezy alleyways and terrace cafes impart a nostalgia that's hard to leave. An extra day provides the opportunity to visit Les Grottes d’Hercule, a pair of caverns west of Tangier where Hercules is said to have dozed as he traversed the Mediterranean coast.
For those who seek yet more picturesque tranquility, Chefchaouen provides a cool, quiet haven just a short trip southeast from Tangier. On par with the archetypical Moroccan city, Chefchaouen boasts its own quaint medina (old town), kasbah (mud-brick citadel) and souks. However, uniqueness is expressed through the numerous blue walls which have earned Chefchaouen designation as Morocco's "blue city." While the environment is indeed visually reminiscent of its Indian counterpart (Jodhpur, the world's more famed blue city), magnitude and bustle are of no comparison. In fact, the alpine ambiance is likened to a sleepy Greek island village complete with a melodious waterfall that serves as the trailhead for hikes into foothills of the Rif Mountains.
Travelers with more urban tolerance can venture farther south to Fez, whose medina ranks among the oldest, largest, and best preserved medieval cities in the world. Inside the walls of Fes el-Bali (the old city), mules and handcarts shuffle spices and an array of leather goods across the planet’s largest car-free urban zone. Fez is known for its tannery quarter, which looks (and smells) exactly the same way it has for centuries. Tours of leather processing are widely available, as are customized artisan satchels, slippers and anything else imaginable that can be made from a tanned hide.
Transoceanic travelers who land in Casablanca should take the afternoon to visit the Hassan II mosque (the largest in Africa), discover how couscous really ought to taste, and head up to coast to take in the view from the postcard-worthy Kasbah of the Oudaias in Rabat. Although Rabat (Morocco’s capital) is not a popular tourist destination, the city's kasbah, medina, and royal mausoleum make it an interesting and worthwhile addition to any Morocco tour. As of yet, the stunning royal palace may be admired from afar but the interior cannot be visited since it still serves as Morocco's political headquarters.
Visitors who deplane in Marrakesh end up spending more time than planned meandering through the maze of souks that sell everything from spices and sheesha to cotton tapestries and wool jellabahs (traditional hooded robes). As dusk approaches, the steam of simmering tagine (clay pot stew) and harira (lentil soup) create an ethereal haze above folk-singing gypsies and snake charmers in Jeema El Fna, the largest plaza in Africa. Apart from hypnotizing street life, Marrakesh has enough monuments, museums and gardens to keep anyone busy for days.
Eventually, guests of Marrakesh who want to take it down a notch venture east to the coast, where they find solace upon the ancient seawalls of Essaouira. The port city's numerous cafes beckon several pauses daily to sip sweet mint tea and unabashedly sample more than a few bastella (spicy-sweet pastry with almonds and likely pigeon!). Alizée trade winds set the stage for windsurfing and kitesurfing, and the medina, beach, and nearby forests enable serene strolls of all sorts through gorgeous scenery and gracious Berber towns. If you’re still out and about when the evening breeze picks up, buy a locally-handmade kaftan (traditional Moroccan robe) to wrap up in style like a native.
Sleeping in Morocco Hotels are quite abundant in the modern zones of any large Moroccan city, but staying in a medina will bring more charm, authenticity, and personalization. Look for a riad (converted antique house or palace with an interior terraced garden; the verdant courtyard often includes a plunge pool to cool off during summer) or a dar (smaller, less opulent version of a riad).
The medinas of Marrakesh, Essaouira, and Fes have the most reputable and spectacularly decorated riads. These intimate guesthouses are often owned and ran by a local family; expect an atmosphere that evokes a bed and breakfast or a tidy inn.
Breakfast is typically served on a patio or roof terrace and, if you're lucky, will include traditional bissara (thick breakfast soup of pea and olive). During summer months, many riads rent spaces on the roof where guests can sleep quite economically on a mattress beneath the stars.
Keep in mind that riads and dars vary significantly in price and amenities, so be thorough and specific when asking about what's included. The most foolproof option is to choose a Morocco tour inclusive of reliable accommodation; otherwise, ask for recommendations to guarantee an enjoyable, hassle-free sleeping situation.
Down to the Sahara: over High Atlas Mountains, through Southeast Morocco From just about any big city in Morocco, desert excursions are available in all shapes and sizes. It’s easy to pre-book Morocco tours with desert components and organize every detail before you arrive. On the other hand, you can save a bit of money by waiting to organize a tour on the ground directly through a Moroccan outfitter.
Hurried travelers can book a one-night tour to the city of Zagora (half a day by car from Marrakesh) and visit small dunes that are less impressive than their more remote counterparts. However, a truly fulfilling Sahara experience requires at least three days and, because half the time is spent in transit, most expeditions also encompass an array of culture en route to the actual desert. Prepare for slow, steady travel and pack light clothing with full coverage for sun protection and to evade inadvertent disrespect in modest rural towns.
Those with more spontaneity may choose to arrange public transportation to a desert access city. From each of these embarkation cities (see details below), it's possible to organize a last-minute day or overnight tour to the wondrous ergs (seas of shifting dunes whose sand has traveled west from Algeria). The benefits of a DIY-approach are not so much financial as experiential: travelers with open itineraries get to choose their stops along the way and have more opportunity to befriend locals, who often invite tourists into their homes for tea and lunch. That being said, transportation in Morocco can be unreliable and small towns don't have a wide range of facilities, so be prepared both mentally and physically for unforeseen inconveniences.
From either Marrakesh or Fez, the first leg of the journey goes up and over the High Atlas Mountains toward the southeastern border by Algeria. Many tours include stopovers at a few villages along the way, and for the DIY travelers it's also advisable to choose a few rest spots to break up the road and take the opportunity to discover new segments of Morocco's inexhaustible contrast.
If you set out from Marrakesh, you'll pass the UNESCO World Heritage site Ait Benhaddou. The mud-brick city in the High Atlas Mountains has been used as a backdrop in scenes of Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia. Whether the setting seems familiar or not, you’ll welcome the abandoned shaded alleyways that offer much-needed, tout-free refreshment.
Just past Ait Benhaddou is Ouarzazate , known as the "capital of the South." Although it does have a medina and kasbah, the rest of the urban center isn't necessarily marvelous. Nonetheless, Ouarzazate's central location and variety of amenities make it an excellent place to base yourself if you’re interested in visiting some of the magnificent kasbahs that lie just outside the city. Furthermore, the city’s resident Berbers craft the best carpets in all of Morocco. Artisans will offer fresh mint tea as you watch them nimbly weave, and they’ll invite you to browse through endless seas of hanging woven artworks.
Also in Ouarzazate are numerous desert tour operators eager to take you by 4x4 or camel for any number of days to explore the vast Erg Chigaga. These dunes are the largest and most difficult to access, thus receiving less tourism and featuring genuine isolated desert communities. If you'd like to get closer to the Erg Chigaga before booking a tour, continue past Ouarzazate to the smaller city of M'Hamid for a less urban environment. There are plenty of desert tours readily available in M’Hamid, so don’t feel obligated to book something in a bigger city ahead of time.
Desert tours from Fez go through Imouzzer du Kandar, an alpine village with buildings made of stone rather than the expected Moroccan mud bricks. A waterfall creates a cool oasis and cedar trees filter the harsh sun. The local handicraft market takes place on Mondays, but any day is a great one to snack on harcha and meloui bread treats (reputedly the best in the country).
Long after Imouzzer, the road from Fez passes Errachidia and then Rissani, two cities with lots of accommodation and tours to the Erg Chebbi. The Erg Chebbi are smaller than the Erg Chigaga, but it's much easier and faster to reach them. In fact, if you travel a bit further south and stay in the small city of Merzouga, you'll be able to step right off the street into the dunes!
No matter where you go or whether you wander on foot, camel or 4x4, make sure to stop at a Berber camp for some unforgettable hospitable refreshment, look for the lustrous Milky Way at night, and wake up to see an ethereal sunrise. And, sports enthusiasts should inquire about the burgeoning Moroccan sandsport industry and sail the dunes by skis or board!
Todgha Gorge Almost exactly halfway between Ouarzazate and Errachidia, on the edge of the eastern High Atlas Mountains, are a series of wadi (limestone river canyons) carved by the rivers Todgha and Dades. The sheer sandstone cliffs change color and reach heights of 400m (over 1300 feet) in places, inspiring awe in even the most seasoned explorer and attracting accomplished climbers and photographers.
From the city of Tinerhir (also spelled Tinghir), a newly paved road enables car exploration of the
most captivating part of the wadi, the Todgha Gorge (also referred to as the Todra Gorge). There is a hotel at the canyon's entrance, and beyond are the small villages of Ait Hani and Tamtatouchte.
The most dramatic part of the gorge is a narrow slot canyon that would send a claustrophobe into panic, but those without fear find the hike breathtakingly exhilarating. The walls are considered world-class rock climbing and are currently experiencing an explosion in bolted routes (rated French grade 5+ to 8).
Many Morocco tours include a visit to the Todgha Gorge en route to the desert or another city, or simply as a day trip from Marrakesh. Bear in mind that during the dry season (March to October), the sand floor is bone dry but the rainy season (November to February) brings intense flooding.
South of Marrakesh: Western High Atlas Mountains Just an hour south from Marrakesh, the R203 highway intercepts the western part of the High Atlas Mountains and the scenery transforms. Snow-capped peaks regally define the horizon and forested valleys harbor blooming trees and melodious songbirds.
East of the main highway lies the Imlil Valley whose largest village, Imlil, is the launching pad for all sorts of mountain treks. The village itself is a great place to spend a day listening to the rush of a vivacious river and exploring trails through fruit and nut groves around the valley.
In Imlil, various outfitters organize treks on foot, mountain bike, horse, or camel for any number of days. Scenic routes connect valleys and villages with quaint lodging, while more rigorous expeditions usually overnight in rudimentary refuges or hostels. Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in northern Africa (4167 m), is a big attraction and experienced climbers arrive to Imlil with aspirations to summit. A Toubkal climb usually takes three days, but a day hike around the base is a fantastic alternative.
West of the highway is Amizmiz, a smaller town with a great market on Tuesdays and dozens of cheap, tasty snacks. The draw to Amizmiz are the hills behind it, which are full of tiny Berber villages. You can hike up to a community and find a place to stay overnight for a real dose of mountain village life, or arrange a multi-day trek with an adventure agency in town. Trekkers usually sleep and take meals in local families' homes, which is a wonderful way to support the communities (in this area, the absence of running water and electricity is not uncommon). Village residents are always incredibly generous and kind; this outstanding hospitality is sure to become a highlight of any Morocco trip.
The Ourika Valley is north of Imlil and has hillside villages similar to those around Amizmiz. The local argan oil cooperative benefits divorced and unemployed women in the valley; the organization is run entirely by females and produces phenomenal cooking oil, dips, cosmetics, and soaps. Day trips to the Ourika Valley depart from Marrakesh and usually involve stops at several villages where argan products and other souvenirs are widely available.
Moroccan Spas No visit to Morocco is complete without a visit to a hammam (steam bath). In many tourist centers of larger cities, luxury versions of the traditional baths attract weary travelers and celebrities alike who seek an all-inclusive spa pampering. For a warranted price, these opulent baths offer complete rejuvenation in a blissful atmosphere amidst other foreign visitors.
However, if you can set modesty aside for an afternoon, a visit to a popular hammam is perhaps the quintessential Moroccan experience. Oftentimes these essentials-only bath houses share a wall with a bakery to share heating costs and locals spend hours inside gossiping as they await the next batch of fresh bread. Men and women are always separated, but once inside there is little room for modesty. Leave your inhibitions at the door and prepare for the deep steam exfoliation of a lifetime!
While large hammams are easy to find, such as the Hammam Dar el-Bacha in Marrakesh, smaller ones may be denoted by just a simply tiled doorway. If you haven’t booked a Morocco tour that includes a hammam visit, ask a local for explicit directions and which supplies to bring along (you may need to buy your own soap and scrubbing mitt beforehand).
Moroccan Wine Although alcohol consumption is anything but encouraged in modern-day Morocco, the marked French winemaking legacy thrives in the advantageous Mediterranean climate and fertile plains. In fact, Morocco is the second-largest wine producing country of the Arab world (Algeria is the largest).
The city of Meknes, also known as the "Versailles of Morocco," is the hub of Moroccan winemaking and its proximity to Fez (only a 50 minute train ride) creates the possibility for a day trip or overnight escape from the big city. Meknes is actually on par with Fez in terms of ancient splendor, but the lack of a developed tourist center means lots of pristine historical monuments without much hustle from guides and vendors.
Les Celliers de Meknes' Château Roslane is located just beyond the city and offers tours of grape processing with tastings in its beautiful gardens. For sale here are the label's Premier Cru wines as well as fair-trade versions that benefit the local community.
Domaine de la Zouina, also just outside of Meknes, is comprised of vineyards and olive groves whose Volubilia label won "best olive oil in the world" in 2006. The colonial villa creates an idyllic setting to sample what has been called the best wine in country.
Roman Ruins in Morocco A private car and guide can take you from Meknes through the countryside to Volubilis, the ruins of what was once one of Rome's most remote cities. Your guide will relay the comprehensive history of Volubilis, which is layered with Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Jews, Christians, Greeks, and Berbers.
In 1997, the ancient city was proclaimed UNESCO World Heritage. Visitors can freely roam what's left of the streets, villas, forum, House of Orpheus and Capitoline temple. Volubilis is particularly famous for its basilica (one of the finest in Africa), triumphal arch of Emperor Caracalla, and numerous immaculate floor mosaics.