Morocco had always been a country I was curious about. It’s blend of North African and Arabic influences gave it this air of mystique that drew me in. Plus, you know, I like couscous. So I had high expectations when I decided to pop over from Spain and explore the country for 3 weeks.
Now to be honest, there were aspects of Morocco that I didn’t care for, incessant touts for one. Some of the cities, like Casablanca and Tangiers, just didn’t feel all that welcoming or entertaining to me.
Despite that, I really did have a wonderful time overall exploring this fascinating country. I had no real idea how charming some of the country’s medinas would be, nor the incredibly diverse landscapes that we would traverse. From deserts, to mountains, to forests, to lush oasis valleys – Morocco has it all. Also, any fears of safety were totally unfounded, with Morocco being one of the most safe and stable countries in the region.
With all that in mind, here are my top 5 things to do in Morocco from my visit there.
5. Walking across a film set to reach Ait Benhaddou
I’m quite an unabashed film and TV buff. As such, I love coming across locations that have been used as real or fictional settings. I went hunting for the Campo San Barnaba Temple used as a library in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when I was in Venice. I geeked out in Iceland and Dubrovnik when I came across sites used for the epic Game of Thrones. All of that meant that I was pretty stoked to be heading to Ait Benhaddou, a small fortified town near the country’s movie capital of Ouarzazate.
While the name of Ait Benhaddou may not be familiar, this impressive ancient town has been captured on film plenty of times. From the aforementioned Game of Thrones, to Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and a favourite of mine The Mummy. If you watched the recent, whimsical show of Galavant, you’d recognise it from the big battle at the end of the last season.
After arriving at our modest guesthouse owned by a local stuntman named “Mr. Action”, we made our way across the dry riverbed to the Ksar (fortified town). Before we were able to enter though, we had to wait for a local Moroccan film crew to finish a take for a small domestic film. Once they were done, we quickly walked across their set, past stuntmen in military uniforms hanging around in a jeep. From there we had no issues and were able to walk into the ksar and slowly work our way up to the top of the hill above town. The ksar is now almost completely abandoned, with only a few families living within this UNESCO heritage-listed site.
Nowadays, this centuries old historical site is basically a permanent filmset, which seems a little bit crazy to me. Hell, they even built an entire arena for Gladiator just outside of the town walls. And yet, despite all this I was pretty excited to see this remarkable sight that had lent its image to so many fictional moments.
4. Getting lost in the endless Medina of Fez
When it comes to a trip to Morocco, a trip to a Medina (old town) and the Souks (markets) has to be on the cards. For that, there’s nowhere quite like Fez. Now Marrakesh may be the more common choice for tourists, but I don’t think it matches up to the sheer history, scale and labyrinthine nature of the Fez Medina.
Our tour guide for our journey into the medina said that to become a tour guide there you really need to have been born in Fez. It didn’t take long for me to believe him, as he led us into the ancient, urban maze. The old medina of Fez – rather than the new medina (yes, which technically means the “new old town”) – dates back to the 700s AD. This giant sprawling urban area is so close-knit, that much of the old medina dates back centuries and has warranted it being granted world heritage-listing by UNESCO. One particularly noteworthy sight within the medina is the University of Al Quaraouiyine, considered by UNESCO to be the oldest running University in the world.
Now because this huge maze is joined together by a web of narrow pedestrian streets, no cars can get to many of the busy market areas. Naturally this means pack animals like donkeys are favoured for lugging goods up and down the medina. It was because of this that we learned one of my favourite Arabic words, “Balak!” which roughly means “Look out!”. When you heard someone shouting “Balak” you knew to get out of the way because donkeys were coming through.
If you are looking for the fully fledged medina experience, complete with souks, mosques and donkeys, Fez would be my pick.
3. Exploring the Blue city of Chefchaouen
Now for a slightly different medina experience, with the city of Chefchaouen and it’s famously vibrant medina. I’ve already shared in photos my experience wandering through this visual masterpiece, but I’ll try to do so in words here. Situated in the north of Morocco and among the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen is the kind of place where you see photos of it and instantly want to go and see it for yourself. I was actually a little skeptical that it couldn’t possibly be as blue as I had thought, thinking photos must have been edited or that it was just a few particular alleyways.
Nope. It’s the real deal (I think I should be applauded for avoiding the cataclysmically lame pun of “true blue”). Throughout the city’s medina, streets and houses are painted in an almost single shade of blue and it’s really quite the sight. Wandering through the medina is a delight but also almost a little alien, because you never usually walk somewhere so heavily dominated in one colour. If it weren’t for the fact that the city is on a steep hillside, it would be incredibly easy to get lost and never find your way out again. I did struggle to get my bearings on first arrival and ended up getting some help from a local carpet merchant to find my accommodation. Note, even if you have climb further up the medina, staying at the back of town does mean you have some spectacular views.
Aside from exploring the medina, there is a small Kasbah to see, as well as a waterfall just out of town where you can watch locals doing washing. There’s also the option to go hiking up into the mountains that sit just above the city, which I unfortunately didn’t have time for. But truthfully, a visit to Chefchaouen is mostly just about seeing a city of blue and taking lots of photos, which isn’t such a bad thing.
2. Surrounded by fog in the High Atlas Mountains
When I booked my tour through Morocco, there were certain places I knew I wanted see: Marrakesh, Fez, the Sahara, the Coast and lastly the Atlas Mountains. Now for most of our journey through Morocco, we had either seen or driven through parts of the Atlas Mountains. It wasn’t until we arrived at the little village of Imlil in the High Atlas Mountains that we got the chance to actually spend the night there. We weren’t going to be staying in Imlil, rather the even smaller village of Aroumd which sat up the valley from Imlil. However, our minivan couldn’t make it up there so it was up to us to make our way there on foot. Our walk up the valley took an hour or so, but was gentle and pretty easy. At the top of the valley peeking out from behind some cloud was Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in all of North Africa. Next time I visit Morocco, I definitely want to come and do the 2 day hike that takes you from Imlil to the Summit and back.
That night we stayed in a very basic home, playing cards as it rained heavily outside and grew colder. The next morning we were up early because we had a long drive to the coast, plus we still had to walk back to our minivan in Imlil. While we could hear the pitter patter of raindrops, looking out the window showed us nothing. Making our way to the roof, we were met with some of the densest fog I have ever seen, the valley below us a sea of cloud. At that point, there were only a few breaks in the cloud and they were of the mountains above us.
As we made our way for Imlil, the fog stuck with us for about half the way, eventually rolling further down the valley. An already spectacular valley dressed up in its autumn colours was transformed by the blanketing fog. The rest of the way down, I couldn’t help but stop every 5/10 metres and admire the view. It might not seem like a big deal, but it was that moment exploring the Atlas Mountains with that kind of atmosphere when it struck me, that Morocco’s biggest asset is its wonderfully diverse and picturesque natural scenery. Morocco – come for the medina, stay for the nature.
1. Barefoot in the Sahara Desert
The Sahara Desert sometimes seems like a mythical place. When you hear its name, it conjures up all these romantic and magical images in your head. I was particularly excited for my tour to venture out of the way to allow a night out amongst the sand and the stars.
As we passed the last major town of Merzouga, the landscape turned into a vast lifeless waste and I was actually hit with a small pang of anxiety at the thought of being stuck out there. Turning off the highway onto a sort-of-there dirt road, the wind picked up and we were glad we were inside the minivan. We eventually reached a small outpost, the giant sand dunes of the Sahara close by. From here we were to ride into the desert on camel-back for an hour, which I now know is too long for comfort.
Once we reached our camp for the night, by a small patch of grass the sun was beginning to set. Intent on making the most of the daylight, we kicked off our shoes and valiantly attempted to climb the nearby dune. Rather than be sensible and follow the ridge, we took the foolhardy approach of trying to directly stagger up the dune’s face. This took some time. Plus many, many stops. My companions reached the summit long before I did, but I used photo breaks to mask my exhaustion.
After dark we sat down for a meal and musical performance from our friendly minders. Post dinner, we chatted on the small cushions and carpets that made up the common area among the tents. After talk had died down, a few of us went for a wander out into the dunes, barefoot and torch-in-hand. Sadly the cloud cover meant there weren’t many stars to see, but still wandering around the desert at night was a once in a lifetime experience. All there was sand, wind and the occasional tree. While I may not be a particularly spiritual person, I definitely felt a sense of awe and calm in that moment.
Due to the proximity with the Algerian border and the tense diplomatic relations, lookouts were posted among the dunes and our wandering ended when we came across one of their torch signals. It was probably for the best as had we gone any further, we would have gotten lost in all likelihood and being lost in the Sahara is not something I’m keen to experience. But wandering barefoot around the dunes of the Sahara Desert, from a small camp of tents and carpets, after a camel ride from the edge of civilisation – that was definitely something worth experiencing.
Have you ever visited Morocco? What were your favourite experiences? Please share in the comments below.
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