Marrakech: Modern Morocco

After separating with Jalil, we still had two days in Morocco. Without a set itinerary for those two days, we slept in, relaxed, and took our time. There were only a couple of things we really wanted to do. One was to try a hammam, a communal Moroccan spa. I had read about the process online but the procedure still sounded intimidating and way more complex than the Korean spas I’ve visited in Koreatown, Los Angeles. We ended up going to a hammam for foreigners. The experience included sitting in the steam room, being scrubbed and washed by an attendant, and enjoying a nice naked massage. I’m not sure how much Henry enjoyed it on the men’s side; all I know is that I had a good time. The facilities could have been better but the experience was relaxing.

Beautiful Bahia Palace

Beautiful Bahia Palace

Bahia Palace Detail

Bahia Palace Detail

We only did a tiny bit of true sightseeing in Marrakech. I know tour books have a long list of must-sees but we had already seen so many similar attractions in other cities and we just wanted to wander the souks instead. The most interesting part of Marrakech for us was the Jemaa El-Fna Square. The square is bustling with people at all hours. During the day, there are snake-charmers, monkey tamers, henna tattoo ladies, and other sketchy characters.

Place Jemaa El Fna being transformed into a night food market

Place Jemaa El Fna being transformed into a night food market

In the evening, the square transforms into a huge food market popular with both locals and tourists. Many of the stalls sell similar types of food and I had a hard time picking which one to try. One of the stalls’ touts proclaimed “If you eat here, I guarantee you will not get diarrhea.” We walked by him a few times and he said the same line each time we passed him. On our last go-around, we told him we had already eaten, to which he responded with a curse that we would have diarrhea that evening. Luckily, I felt fine but Henry may have fallen under his spell.

Henry wanted to eat escargot

Henry wanted to eat escargot

Food Stall 32 - Hassan

Excellent Food Stall 32 – Hassan

Shopping in Morocco is a lot like shopping in China. There are no set prices and you have to bargain for everything. But as a tourist unsure of local prices, it’s a daunting task to tackle. I was looking for a teapot in the souks and when I approached one shop and asked the shopowner the price of his teapot, he responded “How much do you want to pay?” I really had no idea what to say.

Shops open at night. Bargain hard!

Shops open at night. Bargain hard!

Marrakech felt much more cosmopolitan and modern than the other Moroccan cities we had visited. It has a reputation of being the Las Vegas of Morocco and is full of clubs, bars and lounges. We’re lame and couldn’t stay up late enough to partake in the nightlife.

During our 8 day trip, we covered all of the major sights in Morocco that we had wanted to see. It was a great cultural experience to be in a Muslim country with no pork (our favorite type of meat), a lot of bread (if you’re on a low-carb diet, you will really struggle in Morocco), conservative clothing (everyone wore long sleeve shirts and long pants; I can only imagine how uncomfortable it can get in the summer), and interesting customs (bargaining, corruption, slower pace of life). I’m glad we ended up hiring a driver to make this trip happen. It would have been much more difficult to try to visit so many places in such a short period of time had we been relying on public transportation and Grand Taxis.

Our route in Morocco

Our route in Morocco

Inside Ait Ben Haddou

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?

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 accommodation 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.