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Morocco in a Month (Part 1/6) - Marrakesh and the High Atlas

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

This trip took place in September 2006. Most of what I wrote is still accurate. Morocco is a safe country to visit, with only the disputed Western Sahara region really being off-limits for tourists. Prices will have of course changed since then, but the prices I quote here probably won't be too wildly different. Morocco remains a fantastic budget holiday destination, perfect for adventurous travel. My plan was to see the best of Morocco in one month, from the classic cities of Marrakesh, Fez and Meknes, to the Atlantic coastline, Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert - and plenty else in between. This series of blogs has been edited from several emails bashed out in various internet cafes (remember them?) during the trip.

Passport Disaster

I'd planned my trip to Morocco in fine detail and had been reading up about it for weeks. It was to be my first trip to the African continent - like many travellers who spread their wings bit by bit, the north African country seemed to me to possess the perfect combination of exoticism and proximity. Reassuring closeness was good since I am no big fan of flying. But my first attempt at getting to Morocco had been a bit of a disaster anyway. We had arrived at Gatwick Airport and that worst nightmare of all travellers befell me: I'd left my passport at home. That sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach you get when you know you've done this and you are definitely going to miss your flight is hard to describe. A mixture of disbelief at your own stupidity mixed with overwhelming disappointment and anxiety. I was incredibly fortunate that Easyjet agreed to swap my ticket for one the next day without penalty. The $200 flight would have been upsetting to lose, to say the least. I went back to Guildford, where I was staying with my cousin, feeling very foolish indeed. Next day, feeling a little bit like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, I woke up at an ungodly 3.30am on Saturday with the tune 'Marrakesh Express' locked into my head. I was so paranoid about missing my flight that I set three different alarms, but ironically I woke up before they had a chance to go off and was ready to leave about an hour before I needed to be. I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare and my passport firmly zipped in my backpack along with wallet and tickets, and went through the rigmarole that flight security is these days - not before a three hour wait for departure.

Marrakesh - Maze of activity

The flight went smoothly, and there were some fine views over the English Channel and Bay of Biscay, and we arrived about midday in a balmy but slightly overcast Marrakesh. Morocco is an hour behind the UK, and therefore two behind Spain - which gives the east pretty early sunrises and sunsets. My first impressions of the place were that it looked quite smart, not too much rubbish lying around although there is clearly plenty of poverty, with beggars on every street corner. The other thing you notice straight away is that all the houses are built with red clay, uniformly. Either that or they are all painted the same red clay colour. We took a bus to the centre and found a decent place to stay after a bit of looking. Unsurprisingly, most inns were full as it was still high season: I had to sleep on a roof terrace for the first night for a bargain $5. The thing you notice when you get to central Marrakesh, or Jemaa el Fnaa, the Medina as it is known, is the massive square, which have warrens of totally labrynthine streets going off in every direction, crammed full of market stalls selling every imaginable item you could imagine, from crafts and metalware to herbs and spices to lizards, falcons and even snakes. The main items are obviously clothes, leatherware, shoes, sandals, belts, bags, foodstuffs and spices. You can't walk ten metres without someone offering to guide you through the 'souk' as the market area is known, or be offered a cup of sugary mint tea and a chance to buy a carpet. An old hand at this hard sell technique from Turkey, I thought I would be ready for all this, but they really are very persistent and you end up buying little knick-knacks just to get rid of the pesky traders sometimes.

Compact city

The main sights in Marrakesh are all quite walkable but it can take you a couple of hours to find something on foot because there are no decent maps for the city and even if there were, they would be unusable because of the swarms of people, heat and sheer volume of streets winding in every direction, combined with the fact that there are very few street names anywhere except in Arabic. It is exhilarating and maddening in equal measure, and a challenge to the most coordinated traveller. You end up just using landmarks to navigate your way round. One of the undoubted highlights about Morocco is the food; it is absolutely delicious, and very cheap. On the first night I went to an incredibly sumptuous restaurant which was dripping from ceiling to floor with guilded artwork and beautiful ornate architecture, and was served one plate after another of the most mouth-watering dishes served from tagines, clay pots in which they are carefully prepared. The entire two hour experience came to no more than $15 and I felt like royalty when I left, having spent virtually the whole time there alone.

For breakfast, I went to the main square and three glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice for $1 each; two pancakes for $1 and two cups of tea for 20 cents each. Morocco is without doubt a budget traveller's treat, and one of the finest treats in the country is its food. The main square gets absolutely packed with people in the evenings, crowding around simple wooden tables and benches to dine on very cheap delicious fayre cooked on the spot. On the second night, I got a streaming plate of succulent lamb and hot bread to scoop it up, and was surrounded mainly by locals, not tourists. This is definitely a nation where people eat out and like to be seen. For a Monday night, it was incredibly busy. However, a word of warning: Moroccan food gave me a lot of stomach issues so be careful where and what you eat. I later found out that the ice put in the orange juice was straight out of the tap - which may have been the source of all my ills as I had a lot of that juice.

To the High Atlas

Morocco isn't quite a dry country, figuratively speaking, but it might as well be. The few bars which are open are exclusively male preserves and the beer is sold in 240ml bottles for about 16 Dirhams - around a dollar - hardly the stuff of hedonistic nights out. It was over a few stubby bottles of Stork however that we eventually negotiated the price with a couple of guys named Ali and Abdul, (they were drinking glasses of sweet mint tea) of 1200 Dirhams - about $120 each - for the trip to the mountains, leaving first thing Tuesday morning. This represented reasonable value. We had checked out the competition in Marrakech and they offered similar trips at similar prices, but we were just more won over by Ali's selling technique.

He didn't exactly say much, but what he said sounded good. We would see traditional Berber villages, eat authentic Moroccan Tagine and Couscous and sleep on the terraces of Berber houses under the stars, where no backpackers had gone before..or something like that. It sounded just what we were looking for. The thing that probably swung it was that we would be accompanied by mules for the whole journey - the poor sods would be lugging our baggage there and back as well as us if we so desired. That meant a lot when confronted by the idea of sweating up mountains that peak at 4000 metres in a region a stone's throw from the Sahara. I woke on Tuesday morning registering a severe sweat, moderate abdominal pains and an urge to go to the toilet very quickly. Which I did. Fantastic - diarrhea. I noticed my watch was telling me the time was twenty to seven, but by now it must have been half eight. I shook it a bit then realised the battery must have gone. Great. Why do these things always happen at the worst times? Irritated somewhat by my inability to tell the time other than looking at the sun (my phone was also broken), we left the oasis that our hotel was for the dusty streets of Marrakesh to meet Ali.

When we arrived at the appointed spot we met our fellow travellers - a Dutch couple called Kitty and Jorge, and an English guy called Noah who was travelling with a Polish girl called Aneta. A couple of 'Grands Taxis', big Mercedes which are routinely used in Morocco to cram in as many as six passengers, took us up to our starting point, Setti Fatma, two hours distant and about 500 metres higher than Marrakesh (which itself stands at an altitudinous 590 metres). We stopped half way for a few glasses of mint tea and a spot of breakfast, some Moroccan bread with honey and cheese. The bread is really nice - a bit like wholemeal stottie bread. We got a great view of the mountains as we were eating. They rose out of the mist and plains quite abruptly, and we could just about make out the peak of Toubkal (Morocco's highest peak), snow-capped for nine months of the year but not now. We arrived at base around 11am and disembarked, with a few bottles of Flag and Stork beer we had procured on the way for evening entertainment. The mules looked miserable from the start, and they had every right to be. Lugging several kilos of crap up and down a mountain every day isn't my idea of fun. I just had to carry a small rucksack containing camera, money, guidebook, water and sweater, so I was more than alright though.

Flagging from the start

The day started out hot, and it was gradually getting hotter. However, the first leg of the walk wasn't too taxing, and we made it to the lunch spot a few kilometres down the valley having hardly broken sweat. A gorgeous valley had narrowed into some rapid falls with a welcoming looking pool at the bottom, which we all gladly took advantage of. We splashed around happily for a while, took pictures then relaxed over a delicious Tagine which had been prepared for us, contemplating the ferocious looking ascent ahead of us. 'Are the mules supposed to climb THAT?' I asked incredulously. I had serious doubts I could make it up myself in this heat. However, after another hour or so we had ascended several hundred feet and were all sweating profusely and marvelling at some jaw-dropping views. We continued our ascent for an hour or so, after which it levelled out a bit. I was suffering though. Clearly the stomach problem had not gone away. I had gone to the back of the group, after a promising early burst after lunch which saw me at the front for ten minutes. Flagging badly, I realised I needed to relieve myself and had to deal with the ignominy of dropping my pants outdoors. I let the group put some space between itself and me then let nature take its course. I'll spare you the grizzly details but let's just say it was unpleasant. I had to make up time to catch up, and the ground had started ascending again dramatically. I spent an hour on my own; I couldn't believe the group hadn't waited. When I finally caught the back-markers, we were still only half way to our destination, and I was absolutely knackered. I guzzled down some warm water and took a couple more pills.

Isolated beauty

The landscape turned from spartan, dry and rocky to a more soft clay with a reddish hue which was picked out nicely by the late afternoon sunshine. I started to appreciate things a bit more as the path levelled out once more and we came to a village. As we made our way through the closely packed houses and narrow pathways between them, kids ran up to us with outstretched hands, begging for sweets, money and gifts in French and Berber Arabic; the local dialect. I gave them the few sweets I had, took some pictures of the little blighters and marvelled at how anyone could live in such extreme isolation and poverty. Their houses had no electricity or gas. and weren't connected to a water supply. This really was rural Africa and how millions of people obviously live, but they seemed happy, they weren't starving and they had clothes; it certainly isn't the Africa of Bob Geldof - Morocco is a relatively wealthy country, and the poor don't have it as bad as they do elsewhere. Also, our guide told us, Moroccans are very selfless people, and think of themselves as a big community, generally looking out for each other and helping the needy. A world away from our individualistic society. They would view our tendency to send our elderly to old peoples' homes with disbelief, for example. We finally made it to our destination at dusk, just as sun was setting we made our final, painful steps up to our village - very similar to the one we had already visited, just a collection of red clay huts - and collectively flopped down onto the rooftop terrace. I was more exhausted than I could remember being for a long time. the heat and illness had really taken it out of me and I was almost faint.

Warm welcome

We were welcomed warmly by the householders and brought endless cups of steaming mint tea, orange juice and bread with honey. I was unfortunately unable to eat until later though. As the sun went down and the stars appeared, bright in the clear sky, I just lay; unable to move but quite happy to be indolent for a while. I finally got up and went down to the tiny 'hammam' (turkish bath) for a wash. We had to walk down some stone steps into the yard and then through a tiny door fit for a dwarf into a darkened room the size of a cupboard lit by a couple of candles. Inside were two buckets: one for hot water and one for cold water. There was also a brush to scrub yourself with. And that's pretty much it. The water was heated by wood from outside, and it was boiling; certainly hot enough to create a head of steam. It was one of the nicest washes I have ever had. I must have spent over an hour in there, and I may even have drifted into a pleasant sleep for a while. When I finally left my skin was wrinkling. I shivered back upstairs with the aid of a candle and joined the group for more tea and a few sucks on a shisha water pipe - something becoming more and more common in trendy Turkish and Moroccan bars in Britain. We polished off the day with a delicious vegetarian Couscous dish. It was deliciously seasoned with herbs ands spices, and contained aubergine, pumpkin, courgettes, carrots, lentils, carrots, beans and potatoes. I drifted off to sleep an hour later - helped along, no doubt, by a healthy dose of hashish (or 'kif' as the Moroccans call it) that Ali had kindly sold us at a knock down price. While marijuana is theoretically illegal in Morocco, it is freely available, very cheap, and, in practice, very easy to buy. You just have to be a bit discreet about it. I smoked more than I had ever done in my life in Morocco - which kind of made up for the lack of beer. And yes, the quality of it was good.

Into the swing of it

The next day I woke with the cockerel at 5am after a fitful night's sleep; the hard floor and brick-like pillow were highly disagreeable to sleep on, and it wasn't only me who thought so. It wasn't a happy bunch of campers who set out bleary-eyed after breakfast that day, so I thought the best plan was just to press on and get a few k's under the belt - which it turned out was a good plan, as it wasn't too hot at that stage of the day and the going was quite easy. The scenery was again stunning and it was a crystal clear day with pleasant cooling breeze. It really was incredible, and the path followed the contours of the mountain for about three hours before we started descending into a wide green gorge. We paused at the bottom of this for lunch, where we were again allowed to splash around in the river to cool off.

The afternoon was a breeze; a stroll down the valley to our night's accommodation, which we reached soon after 4pm. Not nearly so tired as the previous day on arrival, the whole group were in a much better mood, especially on spying some nice comfortable mattresses on which to sleep. The afternoon and evening were spent exploring the little village, which was slightly better equipped than the previous one - this house had electricity and running water, though by no means all the houses did. The kids of the village were again amusing and irritating by turns, constantly begging for sweets etc in return for a few photographs of them. Some of them ran away as I was trying to take pictures - 'photographs are for Allah', Mohammed our guide explained to us. Others were fascinated by the technology of my digital camera, collapsing in fits of giggles as they looked at images of themselves I had taken seconds before. charmingly removed from modern society, or left behind in another world? Our evening meal, a chicken tagine, was again delicious, and was followed by the remaining beers and a few smokes. I produced my radio, and the first two songs on the barely tuned station were by Sting and Mark Knoppfler - a canny reminder of home even out in the Moroccan wilderness.

Back to base

We set off back for base the next day at 9am after a slightly better sleep - though swarms of flies appeared with the sunrise and pestered me till I left, which was annoying, not to mention sleep-depriving. We back-tracked to Seti Fatma, pausing for lunch at the pool we stopped at on the first day, and the group all agreed it had been a great trip, money well-spent. We had bonded pretty well, there had been no arguments or disagreements, and the guides had been great. The real stars of the show though were the mules - who had done a great job. One of the poor bastards even carried me for a while, though it was visibly wheezing and looking sorry for itself. A strong wind blew up as we were having lunch, and a storm was on its way, so we hurried back and got to Seti Fatma around three. Two taxis were waiting; Noah and Aneta went back to Marrakesh and the rest of us were bound for Agadir, by the coast, ostensibly a four hour drive away. Anyway, we had negotiated a 680 Dirham fee for it - just over a $15 each - which was a great price. We eventually arrived in Agadir sometime after 10pm, after a fraught and nerve-wracking trip through the hills; narrowly missing several head-on crashes and blameless cyclists, our driver was clearly a total liability. He also avoided one of the most beautiful routes in Morocco (the Tizi n'Tichka pass) though it was more direct, probably to save on petrol - it would have involved a lot of climbing. Oh well. Next time. The Atlas, I am certain, have plenty more to offer.

Village woman with sheep, Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Sheepish: older villagers in this region are often camera-shy


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This blog is part of a series. To see the next part, on Coastal Morocco, including Agadir and Essaouria, go here:

Part 2/6: Coastal Morocco

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