Poopybutt and me taking our parting photo

Camel Trek in the Sahara

Early on in my trip planning process, I knew I wanted to ride a camel into the desert. The idea of riding camels and camping under the stars just sounded so romantic. I was really looking forward to this evening. Jalil had arranged our camel trek through Hotel Nomad Palace for €35 per person. We arrived at the hotel around 4:30, checked in and dropped off our luggage in our room (that we would not sleep in), changed, and went to the camel “parking” area behind the hotel. There was a large group of Brazilian travelers also riding camels that evening but they had gotten a head start over us.

The Brazilians on camels ahead of us

The Brazilians on camels ahead of us

Many camels in the camp that evening

Many camels in the camp that evening

Even though there were 40+ camels at the camp where we spent the night, the trek was private: just our camel guide, Henry, me, and our two camels. I’m sure our camels had names already but we decided to give them nicknames anyway. Mine was Poopybutt because he was great at multitasking and had many bowel movements during our one hour trek. Henry got to watch all of it come out as his camel was tied behind mine. Since Henry’s camel always tried to cut in front, we named him Speedy. Speedy and Poopybutt were very sweet camels (as far as my animal loving self can tell).

Me riding Poopybutt and Henry with Speedy

Me riding Poopybutt and Henry with Speedy

I do have to say that the whole idea of riding a camel was more exciting than actually riding one. African camels have one hump while Asian camels have two so we were essentially sitting very high, on top of the hump (there were homemade saddles). When camels walk, they shift their weight greatly from left to right so with each step, my body also shifted back and forth.

Camel riding fun

Camel riding fun

Algeria is in the background

Algeria is in the background

We had hoped to see the sunset but the sun was hiding behind many clouds that day. When we arrived at the camp, we were shown to our accommodations. Surprisingly, we had our own private tent with a bed and use of communal toilets (actual toilets, not port-a-potties).

Our tent was on the right

Our tent was on the right

Although the group that evening was mainly comprised of Brazilians, we did meet two other American couples. Since Americans tend to eat earlier than many other cultures, all the American couples were the first ones to arrive in the dining hall. We chatted about each of our travels in Morocco. One of the couples was completing a North-to-South itinerary similar to ours while the other couple’s trip was in the opposite direction. That couple had hired a private driver as well but their driver was constantly taking them to shops where he could earn commission and he kept pressuring this poor newlywed couple, on their honeymoon, to buy buy buy. We felt very lucky that we could trust our driver and he did not try to sell us overpriced trinkets.

Dinner was served buffet style and it featured several tagines and couscous. After a filling dinner, the staff of the camp played drums while the Brazilians danced late into the night. By midnight, I was sleepy and we headed back to our tent. There was a sandstorm that evening and even though Henry tried his best to seal the edges our tent’s door, some sand did get in. There’s nothing better than waking up with some sand in your mouth.

Party time (after dinner)

Party time (after dinner)

I don’t even know what time we were awakened but we brushed our teeth and got on Poopybutt and Speedy to head back to the hotel. The moon was still out and the sun had just come up. The soft morning breeze coupled with the warm sunlight felt amazing.

Our camel guide leading us

Our camel guide leading us

 

Morning shadows

Morning shadows

I’m really glad we did this camel trek and it was also very nice to have a hotel room to relax in when we got back. We showered, got ready and ate breakfast at the hotel before heading out for another full day. I wondered if Poopybutt and Speedy would get the next day off or if they had to carry other tourists back into the desert that evening.

Henry bonding with Speedy

Henry bonding with Speedy

From Fes to Merzouga: A Day of Changing Scenary

On Day 4 in Morocco, we awoke early to leave our great riad in Fes. It was time to head to Merzouga dunes. I was dreading this day because I knew we were going to be stuck in the car for many hours. We began the day in lush green Northern Morocco, drove through the Middle Atlas Mountains where snow is common, and ended in the hot and dry Sahara desert. It was certainly a day of a lot of contrast.

Fes to Merzouga

Fes to Merzouga

Snow in the back, dry desert in the foreground

Snow in the back, dry desert in the foreground

An oasis in the desert with palm trees along a river

An oasis in the desert with palm trees along a river

Random desert gas station

Random desert gas station

The highlight of the drive was the monkeys of the Middle Atlas mountains. These monkeys come from the same ancestors as the monkeys in Gibraltar but the Moroccan variety is wild. They do know that they are popular with people so they wait by the road for people to stop and give them food. They’re top notch beggars.

Monkeys hanging out by the side of the road

Monkeys hanging out by the side of the road

Hungry monkey eating Moroccan bread

Hungry monkey eating Moroccan bread

Monkey closeup

Monkey closeup

As awesome as the monkeys were, we had to keep moving so we could get to the sand dunes in time to ride camels into the sunset.

The medina at sunset

Fes: 9,000 streets in the medina

A medina is a walled section of the old town with many narrow alleys and streets. The largest medina in Morocco can be found in Fes and comprises of 9,000 streets. Clearly, there wasn’t good urban planning when the old town was built so the streets essentially form a giant maze. It may sound like fun but just wait until you’re lost in it and the local kids are taunting you.

Looking out at the medina

Looking out at the medina

View from the hill

View from the hill

Fes is a huge tourist draw due to its medina, tanneries, and glorious past as one of the ancient capitals of Morocco. We were quickly learning about the many rules in the Moroccan tourism industry. For example, our driver could only be a driver. He was technically not allowed to “guide” us inside any medinas. The local “touristic police,” as he called them, would give out-of-town drivers a hard time if they entered the medina with clients. The reason for this is because local cities want to give tourism jobs to their own. As a result, we had to hire a Fes guide to show us Fes medina. Only in small towns like Chefchaouen could our driver openly walk with us and show us around. Although our driver was excellent and didn’t take us “shopping” to earn commission, I can’t quite say the same about the guide we hired in Fes.

Poor donkeys are used to carry things into the medina

Poor donkeys are used to carry things into the medina

Cats everywhere and no mice

Cats everywhere and no mice

Our Fes guide arrived to our riad and led us down the narrows windy alleys. We paid him 300dh (~$40 USD) for a 3 hour tour of the medina. When it was time to see the tannery, he told us to follow him up some stairs. The stairs were narrow and steep and seemed like they would never end. When we finally emerged at the top, I realized we were in a leather shop. But to see the tannery from above, you have to go through a shop. We were handed some mint to put in front of our noses to mask the leather smell. After taking more than enough photos of the tannery, I was ready to head back downstairs. Not so fast! We were stopped by the shopkeeper, who insisted that we look at his leather goods. Henry was quick on his feet and told the shopkeeper that we’re vegan and it offends us to touch animal hide and we would never buy anything with animal product. I almost laughed because we’re really quite the carnivores but his strategy actually worked and we were let off easy.

Fes' famous tanneries

Fes’ famous tanneries

Tanneries

Tanneries

Henry tried the same tactic at the rug cooperative. He told those guys that he has really bad allergies and cannot use rugs at home. We quickly exited the rug shop. Come to think of it, our tour took less than 3 hours since we got through all of the shopping stops so fast.

On the eve of our departure, our driver took us to a hill where we could oversee the entire medina. We waited until sunset and heard the echoing calls to prayer from hundreds of mosques below. Prior to visiting Morocco, I thought everyone in the country prayed five times a day. According to our driver Jalil, only ~10% of Moroccans pray in the mosque that often. Many only go on Fridays. Other pray at home or at their work. You can also “make up” prayers; instead of praying five times a day, you can say all five prayers altogether at the end of the day. And there are many other Moroccans who just don’t pray at all.

Mosque tower

Mosque tower

Goats exploring the hill

Goats exploring the hill

Moroccan kids love to climb

Moroccan kids love to climb

At the end of the evening, we returned to our amazing hotel called Riad Laayoun. This was my favorite accommodations of the trip and the price was very reasonable. The owner, a French man named Jean-Claude, was charming and so were his employees. The place was just gorgeous.

Our amazing riad

Our amazing riad

One of the two courtyards in the riad

One of the two courtyards in the riad

View of the riad's courtyard from the 3rd floor

View of the riad’s courtyard from the 3rd floor

Wood details

Wood details

Our room. We had our own wing.

Our room. We had our own wing.

Tile detail work

Volubilis and Meknes: Historical Morocco

We move quickly when we travel so after having breakfast in lovely Chefchaouen, it was time to get moving again. On our second full day in Morocco, we headed for the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis and an old capital of Morocco, Meknes.

Chefchaouen to Volubilis to Meknes to Fes

Chefchaouen to Volubilis to Meknes to Fes

Volubilis lays in ruins today but from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD, it thrived under Roman rule. Today, it’s a major attraction along the tourist trail. We saw more big buses parked in the parking lot at Volubilis than anywhere else on our Morocco trip.

The ruins and me

The ruins and me

Remaining columns

Remaining columns

Volubilis's grandeur

Volubilis’s grandeur

Majestic ruins

Majestic ruins

After exploring Volubilis, we headed to Moulay Idriss, a holy town just a few miles away, for a lunch of delicious ground beef and Moroccan salad. I must have been too focused on eating that I forgot to take photos. My apologies.

With a full stomach, we drove to our next destination, Meknes. It felt like everyone was following us because the same tourists we had seen that morning in Volubilis were right next to us again in Meknes. I guess our itinerary wasn’t exactly creative.

Meknes is known for its beautiful gates and historical relics. My favorite stop in Meknes was the beautiful and serene Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail (a 17th century ruler of Morocco)

Beautiful details on ceiling

Beautiful details on ceiling

Fountain in the mausoleum

Fountain in the mausoleum

Interesting shape gate

Interesting shaped gate

Exterior of mausoleum

Exterior of mausoleum

Ancient stables

Ancient stables

We were on the road for many hours that day and we ended the evening in Fes, where we spent the next two nights.

Lovely blue walls

Chefchaouen: The Blue City

After Jalil picked us up from Tangier, we headed for a lovely drive along the Mediterranean coast. I had imagined Morocco as a dry desert but as it turns out, the northern half of the country is incredibly green and lush. Our destination for that day was Chefchaouen, a city known for its blue buildings.

Tangier to Chefchaouen route along the sea

Day 1 in Morocco: Tangier to Chefchaouen route along the sea

We arrived in the afternoon and headed straight for our accommodations at the quaint Casa Perleta. Our room was small but the B&B was nice compared to other options in town.  We walked around the town and were mesmerized by its beautiful colors.

Blue Alleys

Blue Alleys

IMG_3646

Very pretty

Very pretty

The women are in charge of the painting there and they must do it every couple of years to maintain the rich blue hue. First, they buy powdered paint from the “paint store.” Then, they mix it with used cooking oil to form a liquid and apply it to the walls. It’s not quite as precise as the colors you can get at The Home Depot but it seems to work for them.

The Paint Department

The Paint Department

The small city felt very relaxed. We ended up sitting at a cafe for four hours, just sipping mint tea and people watching. Surprisingly, I was able to sit that long without getting antsy.

There were lots of little souvenir shops in the medina but Jalil warned us about price gouging at those places. To be safe, we went to the Ensemble Artisanal, a government sponsored handicraft workshop/store that can be found in most tourist cities for fair prices and good quality work. There, Henry bought a djellaba, which he loves and wore almost everyday in Morocco.

Looking back at the city

Looking back at the city wearing his djellaba

Pretty lights in our hotel

Tangier: An International City

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone: we’re huge fans of Anthony Bourdain. About a year ago, we were watching an episode of Parts Unknown in Tangier and it made us so excited that we decided to visit Morocco.

Small streets and alleys everywhere

Small streets and alleys everywhere

Meat market

Meat market

Produce market

Produce market

It wasn’t until much later in our planning process that I realized Tangier doesn’t have a great reputation compared to other Moroccan cities. It’s often seen as a day-trip from Spain and it’s an area with relatively high crime rate and pushy “guides.” It’s also arguably the least Moroccan city of Morocco due to its prior international city status and its proximity to Spain.

One of many steep stairs in Morocco

One of many steep stairs in Morocco

We arrived by FRS Ferry from Tarifa and it was close to 11pm when the boat finally arrived at port. In the darkness, we were so thankful that our hotel, Dar 23, had sent someone to meet us at the port. We quickly settled into the hotel and went to sleep. In the morning, we saw our first crowded Moroccan skyline from the roof of our hotel.

Rooftop view

Rooftop view

Rooftop view

Rooftop view

We also enjoyed our first of many carb-heavy Moroccan breakfasts. I did get tired of bread by the end of our week in Morocco but I will always remember how amazing Moroccan orange juice tastes.

Moroccan orange juice is amazing

Moroccan orange juice is amazing

After breakfast, we took a quick stroll around Tangier and soon after, our driver/guide Jalil, came to pick us up. We spent the next 6 days with Jalil and we’re so happy we hired him. He speaks excellent English, is honest (which is surprisingly hard to find), and has a great attitude. Since we don’t speak French or Arabic, we would’ve been in big trouble getting around without his help.

The Rock

The Apes of Gibraltar

I’d love to join the Travelers’ Century Club one day and visiting obscure places like Gibraltar should help with that goal. This time though, we visited Gibraltar as a means of getting to Morocco. When I booked the trip last year, I used airline miles and I realized that getting to Northern Africa on miles is substantially more “expensive” than getting to Europe. And thus, we picked the point in Europe closest to Tangier as our flight’s destination.

Yummy airplane food and excellent service

Yummy airplane food and excellent service

Gibraltar is a British territory at the southern tip of Spain. Its people enjoy many of the benefits of being British and the locals despise any attempt of the Spanish to take over control. We only had a few hours to spend in this city and so we hired a private taxi for £55. The taxi company is a monopoly and even though the drivers all know the schedules of the 4 or so flights a day, they don’t seem to care too much about airport business. There was a long line of people looking for rides and only 5 taxis during our 15 minute wait.

The buildings in the back are in Spain. The road from Spain crosses the Gibraltar Airport runway. Traffic stops when planes land or depart.

The buildings in the back are in Spain. The road from Spain crosses the Gibraltar Airport runway. Traffic stops when planes land or depart.

What a beautiful backdrop

What a beautiful backdrop

Even though we had paid more than I wanted to for a two hour tour, our driver ended up being very interesting and taught us so much about the land, people, and culture. The Gibraltar peninsula is long and narrow and has been desirable for military reasons for hundreds of years. The Moors, Portuguese, Spanish, and British have all claimed the land over its history and the peninsula is filled with war-time relics.

A cannon in the tunnel

A cannon in the tunnel

The Great Siege Tunnel

The Great Siege Tunnel

When the driver said he was taking us to see St. Michael’s Cave, I was fairly uninterested. After all, I’ve seen plenty of caves lit up in different colors. However, this one was really different. The ingenious Gibraltarians have converted the cave into a concert venue. That’s a pretty cool use of the space, I’d have to say.

St. Michael's Cave - one of many caves I've seen but this one is used as a concert venue.

St. Michael’s Cave – one of many caves I’ve seen but this one is used as a concert venue.

Finally, it was time for the highlight of the Gibraltar trip, monkeys! Gibraltar’s monkeys were originally brought to the peninsula by the Moors (Morocco) hundreds of years ago. Today, they are a national treasure and there’s a full-time government employee whose job is to take care of the monkeys. They were fun and friendly and we couldn’t get enough of them.

Wally, the monkey, climbed into our taxi!

Wally, the monkey, climbed into our taxi!

What a wonderful life!

What a wonderful life!

A Family of Monkeys

A Family of Monkeys

Henry and the monkey

Henry and the monkey

Wally and me

Wally and me

We had a short and beautiful visit in Gibraltar and I honestly think we saw most of it in two hours. I would not recommend staying overnight because the restaurant options are limited and the hotels are older and not very nice. After our quick tour of Gibraltar, we walked across the border to Spain at La Linea and took a bus to Tarifa to catch our ferry to Tangier.

Beautiful blue ocean

Beautiful blue ocean