Ouarzazate: The Door of the Desert

It was so wonderful to see a nice big bed and a warm shower waiting for us when we returned from our camel ride in the morning. Our night in the desert tent had been a bit rough; the sandstorm and the hard bed made it difficult to fall asleep. We were sleep deprived and tired and although I really wanted to take another nap, we had a tight schedule to follow. Shortly after breakfast, we were off again. We were nearing the last leg of our Morocco journey as we headed West toward Marrakech.

Merzouga to Ouarzazate to Marrakech (over two days)

Merzouga to Ouarzazate to Marrakech (over two days)

When people think about the Sahara Desert, they often think of golden sand dunes as far as the eye can see. In actuality, sand dunes make up a small (<20%) of the desert; the rest of the desert is comprised of the type of scenery you’d see in Arizona or New Mexico.

Our driver, Jalil, overlooking the desert landscape

Our driver, Jalil, overlooking the desert landscape

We trusted Jalil to pick the most interesting route to our destination for that evening, near the desert city of Ouarzazate. On the way, we checked out a weekly countryside market that sold everything from olives to sheep to binoculars.

Countryside market transaction in action

Countryside market transaction in action

Locals shopping at the weekly market

Locals shopping at the weekly market

Along the road in this part of the country, we saw many entrepreneurial individuals selling minerals and fossils. Instead of buying them, Jalil took us to a spot where we could find our own fossils. I had a hard time finding any but Jalil was a pro.

Next, we visited Todra Gorge, a deep canyon that has been featured in many films that Henry and I have never heard of. It somehow reminded me of a kitschy tourist attraction in China.

Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge

The buildings in the desert are primarily painted red like the earth while the buildings in Northern Morocco (along the sea) are generally white.

Desert civilization in Skoura oasis

Desert civilization in Skoura oasis

Sometimes I wondered how desperate the early people must have been to live in such a barren, harsh environment where summer heat of 120 degrees Fahrenheit is common. The desert villages tend to be far apart and sometimes you can go for miles without seeing a house. Inevitably, however, there would always be a few individuals hiking the distance between these villages. Every so often, they’d turn around and hold out their hand to hitchhike. We learned that Moroccan culture is very giving and hitchhiking is actually quite acceptable there. Also, there are countryside buses that pass along major roads at random, unscheduled times. If you happen to be walking along the road at that time, they will stop to pick you up. There’s also the concept of a Grand Taxi, which is an old Mercedes sedan that is essentially a long-distance minibus whose fare is sold by the seat. They will jam up to 7 people going the same general direction and prices are negotiated up front. This is contrasted with Petit Taxis, which are more similar to the taxis we’re familiar with in the west. Petit Taxis are usually private, smaller (only up to 4 people including the driver), have a meter which may or may not be used, and can only travel within the limits of the city in which it is licensed.

We spent that evening in the desert at a wonderful kasbah style hotel called Ait Ben Hada in Skoura, an oasis about 20 minutes east of Ouarzazate. We called last minute and got a fantastic deal; €45 including room and board. The hotel is set up to be able to accommodate tour groups but it was rather empty when we were there. As soon as we settled in, we were offered hot mint tea in the beautifully decorated dining room. After checking out the sunset from the rooftop, we returned to the dining room for a dinner of two huge tagines (the best we had in Morocco) and other delicacies. We were so full yet we stuffed ourselves because we didn’t want to waste the yummy food. We slept early that night and the bed was incredibly comfortable. The next morning, we were greeted by a huge breakfast of a variety of homemade Moroccan breads. I loved the hospitality at this little gem and I was sad to have to go.

Henry, Jalil, and me in front of our hotel, Ait Ben Hada

Henry, Jalil, and me in front of our hotel, Ait Ben Hada

Looking out to the dining room/kitchen building of our hotel, Ait Ben Hada

Looking out to the dining room/kitchen building of our hotel, Ait Ben Hada

At this point, we were on our last day with Jalil (although we had two more days left in Marrakech without him). To be honest, I was getting tired of the desert. Our day was filled with visiting kasbahs and doing some last-minute shopping. I really had never heard of a kasbah before but apparently it’s famous because of a song called “Rock the Casbah.” The definition of a kasbah is a fortified home of a local warlord and back in the day there were many warlords. The kasbahs were historically built with mud and straw (kind of like an adobe) and had to be redone every few years due to the significant wear from the harsh environment.

First, we visited Kasbah Amridil, which is still operated by the descendants of the original warlord. Unfortunately, cousins from the same family are disputing claim to the kasbah and two cousins each operate a portion of the kasbah. The road leading up to the kasbah suddenly splits into two and each fork ends in the “Main Entrance.” We went to the more restored of the two parts and took an entertaining private guided tour of the kasbah.

The "Main Entrance" of Kasbah Amridil

The “Main Entrance” of Kasbah Amridil

The biggest of the kasbahs we visited is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ait Ben Haddou. It’s a huge maze-like complex and has been in movies such as Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia. We hiked up to the top and took in the surrounding views.

Impressive UNESCO World Heritage site, Ait Ben Haddou

Impressive UNESCO World Heritage site, Ait Ben Haddou

Inside Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou

Inside Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou

My favorite thing about this area is their unique art of saffron painting. The saffron “paint” is initially invisible to the naked eye when applied on paper. Once the painting is heated over an open flame, the paint gradually darkens and the picture appears. It reminded me of the fancy Crayola Changeables and Overwriters markers I collected in elementary school. It was very cool to see local artists make magic and we must have bought 10 of these special paintings.

That afternoon, I announced my desire to buy Moroccan pottery. We ended up stopping at a wholesaler along the road to pick out some very lovely handmade designs. It was far more affordable to buy pottery from the wholesaler than from shops in Marrakech.

About an hour before reaching Marrakech, we were pulled over along the road because Jalil was speeding. We had a decent understanding of Morrocan law enforcement by this point and it kind of entertaining to see bribery in action. Instead of getting an 800dh speeding ticket, good negotiation tactics allowed the violation to be settled for a mere 100dh ($12 USD), directly into the pocket of the officer.

Just before arriving in the city center of Marrakech, we also stopped by Carrefour, a French hypermarket, to purchase some argan oil as gifts. Although there are many argan oil cooperatives along our drive, it’s hard to guarantee the integrity of the product in small mom-and-pop shops. We were advised that Carrefour was the safest place to go and had the most competitive price.

Colorful spice aisle in a Moroccan supermarket (not Carrefour but Marjane)

Colorful spice aisle in a Moroccan supermarket (not Carrefour but Marjane)

By the time I was done shopping, it was late in the afternoon. Jalil dropped us off in the medina, as close to our riad in Marrakech as possible. I was kind of sad and a little scared to continue on without Jalil. Would we be able to get by without him considering our lack of French and Arabic skills?

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