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.

Mules in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco