Trip Report – A Week In Morocco: Marrakech, Essaouira, and the Atlas Mountains

In November I visited Morocco for the first time (if you don’t count previous layovers in the Casablanca airport!).   It was one of my favorite trips in all of 2018 and I already have plans to return.  I’ve also sent many clients to Morocco,  including honeymooners, and I definitely thought it was a very romantic, adventurous location after I visited it for myself.

What about language?

I do speak French, and I used local Arab greetings when shopping (please note Moroccans are very proud of their Berber culture and at least 3 different people made sure to bring up that they are distinct from Arabs, however we were assured that for basic greetings, Arabic is perfectly acceptable and everyone uses Salaam Alaikum for greetings and Shukran for thank you.)   I do think knowing the basics in French will help travelers enormously,  and I think my positive experience was definitely influenced by not having major communications problems, but the tourism industry is strong enough that as long as you are respectful and open,  English speakers will do fine in the cities.   (Once we got into rural areas there was barely any French, it was all Berber.)

However,  I’ve asked other non-French speakers and they agreed that they had a great time in the major cities,  and that having a guide or a small group tour does help immensely (you’re also supporting the local economy by doing so).   Please don’t let lack of French/Arabic/Berber prevent you from visiting this beautiful country!

Day 1 – arrival

We got into Marrakesh late and had quite a long delay in customs.  Here’s my first insider tip (and I plan to do this for my clients moving forward) – there are priority services you can purchase ahead of time that will whisk you to the front of the line at customs and passport control.  It’s worth it – we waited over 2 hours just to get through passport control, and I wish I had known about the priority services ahead of time!  Once we found out about it,  we ended up getting the priority services for our departure and it was extremely efficient and we even had our own private security line at passport control.

Our hotel arranged a driver to pick us up at the airport, which I recommend since they will know where the hotel is located exactly – I didn’t want our first night to be spent lost in the winding backstreets during a dark and rainy night!   The driver got as close as possible to the front door and then called the hotel who came and escorted us the rest of the way- there are lot of places like these in Marrakesh where cars just can’t go any further so it’s wise to read reviews ahead of time to see if your hotel is easy to find or if you should ask them to send someone to meet you the first day.

Our hotel – or riad, as these traditional buildings are called – was just delightful.  In the summer, I’m sure that pool is absolutely refreshing in the midday sun.   Riads are designed around a courtyard and a water feature,  and rooms often open up directly onto the courtyard.   Our hotel was named Riad Alili and it was perfect.

We had arranged for dinner ahead of time (many riads will offer this service – I recommend it for your first night if you think you’ll be too tired to go out and explore) and even though we were extremely delayed,  a feast was waiting for us.   After serving us the traditional welcome mint tea, the night manager Reddah lit a fire for us in the dining room and brought us a 3 course meal of soup,  chicken tangine, and the most fantastic pomegranate-based desert ever.   Even though it was almost 10pm, sitting next to this wonderful fire,  with the flavorful meal, surrounded by beautiful architecture,  made us feel like we had started our trip off right!

We were here for 3 nights and I should add our last night we chose to eat dinner at the riad again – we just loved the service and the intimacy of sitting in the various living quarters, often near a fireplace.

 

Day 2 – Photography and Exploring

 

We woke up excited for our breakfast – and were not disappointed!  You can tell the staff in the morning where you’d like to eat and our first morning we ate outside by the pool (by the second day we admitted it was a little chillier than we were expecting and moved to the living room to relax!).  A full breakfast is included with Riad Alili and each morning we were served fruits, yogurts, breads, omelets, Moroccan pancakes, fresh orange juice…  Hearing the birds chirping and listening to the sounds of the city waking up while surrounded by this beautiful riad was a wonderful way to start the day.

On our first full day in Marrakesh I had arranged to do a half-day photography tour with VM Photography.  (I can post a separate blog post but in the meantime,  many of my photos taken on this day are on my Instagram page!)   It was an absolutely fantastic way to explore residential neighborhoods in one of the most photogenic countries I’ve ever visited.  It’s not a walking-tour per se,  as you are not necessarily near any tourist sites,  but it is a wonderful morning spend in the streets “where ordinary people live” and being able to photograph the real Marrakesh.

Here are some of the photos I took during this morning workshop:

Later today we went to the Secret Garden (yes, it’s actually called that).  It was a lovely, quiet peaceful spot.  It’s small, but seems very removed from the hustle and bustle of the city.  It’s a historical palace that only recently reopened to the public.  I recommend paying the extra couple of dollars to climb the tower there.  There’s a café where we sat for a bit and had mint tea and just enjoyed the peacefulness.

(Note:  there are lots of other wonderful places to visit in Marrakesh such as the Majorelle Gardens and the Saadian Tombs but we were being very cognizant of not trying to cram in too much – we’ll just have to return and finish the traditional sightseeing later!)

We also stopped at a market eatery for lunch which involved pointing to a fresh fish and having it grilled to order (then finding out that we still had a whole second half to eat when they brought it to our table just as we were slowing down) and to Jemaa El-Fna, the vibrant town square with street vendors, monkey handlers, and snake charmers (no photos – people will expect tips and we were also trying not to attract the attention of pickpockets).

Jemaa El-Fna is extremely lively and it also is a great evening location, there are restaurants with balconies overlooking the square or you can do a With Locals tour like this one that takes you around the various market vendors and gives you insight into the city.

I will say that this could feel overwhelming if it is your very first introduction to an African market and if you want to ease into it,  go in the morning when it’s still waking up or go right before nightfall so you feel comfortable walking around.

I was definitely planning on coming back here during the night to sample the street food but I think this was the night we fell asleep early from jetlag so we never ended up returning.

Special note about the square: If you’re an animal lover, the monkeys on chains and the cobras with snake charmers may be upsetting.   Don’t make eye contact with their handlers (in case they think you want a photo holding the animals) and just go a little deeper into the square, the animal handlers are mostly around the periphery.  Do also be a little bit more on alert here, crowds always attract pickpockets.   Many people may try to talk to you because culturally it’s appropriate for a restaurant owner to approach you with their menu and ask if you want to try their food.  Just smile politely and say no,  and keep walking – they are not meaning to be harassing and they do mean well.

Embrace getting lost…

I have Google Fi as my phone carrier and having free international roaming was invaluable as I was able to use the walking directions on Google Maps to find our way out of the medina (market).  I loved the medina because it reminded me of the great markets in West Africa where I used to shop,  but I can understand why some people might be uncomfortable if you’ve never experience the twisty, turning alleys and have never gotten lost in a foreign country before.   If you don’t have Google Maps,  you’ll inevitably feel a little lost,  but just slow down,  take a deep breath, keep a sharp lookout for landmarks (you’ll quickly find yourself saying “we turn left at the butcher”…) and just accept that you’ll find your way out eventually (or if someone guides you out, give them a small tip).   Part of the fun is just exploring and embracing the vastness of the medina.

Day 3- Cooking Class!

Today we had one of our favorite experiences so far… A day with Souk Cuisine’s cooking classes!  This was one of the highlights of my trip.  It was all day (about 10am – 3pm) but didn’t feel long at all,  and was one of my favorite activities in all of my travels.  I highly recommend this activity!

 

Day 4 – On to Essaouira

Today we took a bus to Essaouira, “the windy city”, 3 hours from Marrakech on the Atlantic coast. It’s a gorgeous little beach town with bright doors and fortified ramparts you can walk on. Many films, such as Kingdom of Heaven and Game of Thrones, were filmed here. We were just able to spend one night before going up to the mountains, but I wanted to see Essaouira and also Mr TravelObservations loves the ocean so I wanted to be sure to add it in.

If you want to know how we took the bus from Marrakech to Essaouira,  I’ve written a blog post on this exact topic here.

I have to say the bus was extremely comfortable and very easy to take.  It was safe and enjoyable and the road was in excellent condition between Marrakesh and Essaouira.

Our hotel offered to send what they called a “luggage mover” to meet us at the bus stop.  To our surprise this turned out to be a man with a wheelbarrow who put our luggage (and some other passengers’) into his barrow and took off at a brisk pace to lead us to the hotel.  The hotel had told us ahead of time what the cost would be (30d) but we weren’t sure whether to pay the man or the hotel,  but in the end we paid the man and this was the correct thing to do. You might want to clarify with the hotel ahead of time.  I believe these types of porters do regularly wait at the bus stops and you can negotiate them yourself, but it was nice knowing the hotel had already pre-bartered the cost.     Much of Essaouira is actually car-free,  so be prepared to either walk to your hotel with your suitcases or to negotiate with these wheelbarrow porters.

This is the “luggage mover” the hotel sent!

Our riad in Essaouira, called Riad Baladin, was absolutely adorable.  We were on the third floor (not recommended if you have problems with stairs!) where ours was the only room so it felt completely private.  There were multiple hidden terraces and unique rooms, and our room had a gas fireplace which came in handy this evening as the rain made it quite damp and chilly.

Once you get your bearings you realize that the town is very small and it is easy to wander around and retrace your steps and just enjoy exploring. There are many restaurants and small shops near Riad Baladin and it was a very hospitable riad – for example, we checked out early but left our luggage there as we were taking a tour and then returning in the afternoon; they gave us a spare key to get back in and offered us the use of a private shower even though we vacated our room. I am glad we stayed in this lovely little riad full of character.

Today was quite rainy, but we did get a chance to walk around the harbor and see the fisherman bringing in their boats.   We got caught in a very strong downpour at one point, and spent a couple hours in a beautiful café having tea and snacks.   Later, we were told by the hotel architect that we happened to be visiting during one of the rainiest weeks in recent history, so we didn’t feel quite as foolish for being ill-equipped for dealing with the weather.

Essaouira does have a bit of a “hippy” vibe and Jim Morrison comes up a lot. However,  if you stay at a wonderful hotel like Riad Baladin they will give you plenty of inside tips and knowledge to experience the local culture.    This was our first small town since leaving Marrakesh and it was a wonderful contrast of sleepy little tourist town with the hustle and bustle of the busy city.

After spending the night in Essaouira, I’m not sure how people do it in a day trip!  It was raining when we arrived and if we had had to leave that same evening we would have barely seen any of the town.  I suppose if you have no other choice you could do the roundtrip 6 hour bus ride,  and I know many tour companies do offer a day trip to Essaouira,  but I myself really enjoyed spending one night here and just relaxing.   I’d recommend 1-2 nights here for your trip if you are the type that likes beach towns and photographic opportunities.  There are some foodie tours and I believe even some more cooking classes you can take.   There isn’t a lot of “tourist” stuff to do after the first day or so I wouldn’t spend a whole week here unless you truly just want a beach vacation, and even then be aware that it is known as The Windy City for a reason and it’s more for surfing, not swimming.

 

Day 5 – Horse Back Riding in Essaouira!

We had a wonderful morning with Zouina Cheval, an excursions company who picked us up and took us about 15 minutes outside the town. Mr TravelObservations got his wish to ride a camel, and I rode an incredible Arabian stallion named Salim.

The guides were surprised that in the USA we don’t normally ride stallions except for racing or breeding. The Arab horse was one of the strongest and most spirited horses I have ever ridden and you could definitely see why the Bedouins have prized their horses for centuries and will spend days trekking across the mountains and forests.

It was a lovely experience and I’m so glad I got to do this! The same company offers overnight horse trekking and I wouldn’t have any hesitation in recommending them.

Afterwards we had lunch and in the early afternoon our driver picked us up for a three hour drive to our new hotel, Kasbah Angour.   I arranged the driver ahead of time with a company called Med Taxi Essaouira.    They communicated with WhatsApp the day of the transfer but do be aware it’s likely that companies like this will send a “luggage mover”, again, the men with wheelbarrows that I mentioned the previous day, to collect you from the pedestrian area.  We walked right past the wheelbarrow man and he waited for twenty minutes cause we were expecting a more official-looking taxi man to come to the hotel door,  and then the hotel owner went outside and spoke to the porter and found out he was supposed to lead us to the taxi.  So just be aware of this type of situation and be flexible.   Since we had paid the previous porter 30dh,  that’s what I tipped this porter today.

Upon arrival to Kasbah Angour, we were personally greeted by the owner who gave us a tour.  The hotel is just stunning – it looks old but is actually newly built, in the traditional style.   Tons of tiny details like heated floors in the bathrooms!  There are lots of terraces and sitting areas to just enjoy the scenery and relax. My honeymooners also spent a couple nights here and l loved it too.    It was the perfect oasis of culture, beauty, and access to the Berber countryside.

Day 6

We spent this day as a free day – initially we had planned on doing some hiking but woke up to rain and decided to just enjoy the delightful amenities at the hotel.   We read books by the fire, drank copious amounts of mint tea, explored the grounds,  and also went for a short walk in the afternoon in the area – we stayed on the main road as it was quite muddy but I can see how you could really have a wonderful day hiking if it was drier.   We saw shepherds minding their flocks and beautiful streams with argan trees.  We met some other hotel guests and they raved about the hikes with the local guides that the hotel had organized – the guide even brought a donkey for the children to ride when they got tired of walking.   I do recommend using the hotel’s local guides as most people in this area will only speak Berber.

Kasbah Angour feels very remote but is very luxurious and is the perfect antidote if you’re feeling rushed – if it had been warmer I would have loved to just enjoy the pool as well!  I will definitely continue to recommend it to all my clients.   I like its location as you’re really only an hour from Marrakesh airport as well, so it’s not inconvenient to get to.  If you really like country stays you could even use this as a base and go into Marrakesh just for the day (they will arrange a driver to take you and wait to bring you back).

Day 7 – exploring the Atlas Mountains

Our last full day in the Atlas Mountains we used a driver from the hotel for an excursion to the Tinmal Mosque and to Imlil (and stopped in Asni as it was market day).  The hotel has a list of these types of excursions for which it can provide drivers,  and although the drive to Tinmal was pricer than the others I was very excited about this opportunity to explore the mountains even more deeply.    It was a very unique experience – if you don’t have the opportunity to spend the night in the Atlas Mountains you can still do this type of excursion from Marrakesh so I do recommend considering it.

The city of Tin Mal was established by Ibn Tumart, the founder and mahdi (spiritual leader) of the Almohads, around 1124, and was the cultural and religious center of the empire until the city’s destruction by the rival Merinid dynasty in the 1270s. All that was spared, apart from a few fragments of wall, was the monumental mosque constructed in 1156 in honor of Ibn Tumart, according to official Almohad doctrine.

The mosque was abandoned for many years, but partially restored in the 1990s. It is one of the very few mosques in Morocco that non Muslims are allowed to enter.

Kasbah Angour packed us a picnic lunch as well, and we could have bought more snacks in Asni as it was market day.  The driver showed us the market (this part was a bit random, we were left to walk around the market on our own but honestly since I used to go to African markets in my Peace Corps days it wasn’t anything “shocking” or “surprising”, and I think Mr TravelObservations was also wondering what we were doing here since we weren’t buying anything) and we also sat at a restaurant and ate our picnic lunch and people-watched.  Asni was interesting – and it also turns out it’s the same town The Duke and Duchess of Sussex visited on their Royal Tour of Morocco a few months later so that was cool – but unless you have a guide with you for the market portion or want to barter in French/Berber for some of the items I’m not sure if it’s really a highlight for most people.

After our stop in Asni we headed up a mountain pass to Imlil.   Imlil sits at the base of the highest peak in North Africa in Mount Toubkal National Park. As the last stop on the tarmac road, it has become the heart of Moroccan mountain tourism as this is where many visitors pick up mules and guides to lead them up into the mountains.  We had a small stop here,  but the hotel could have also arranged a full-day trip here if you wanted to focus on Imlil,   we had just wanted to add on the Tinmal Mosque so that didn’t allow that much time for Imlil.   The mountains were extraordinarily beautiful and you could hire mules for trekking or go on guided hikes.

Day 8  – Departure  (with an overnight layover in Paris!)

Goodbye Morocco! I’ll be back for sure!  The hospitality, deep culture, incredible history, gorgeous architecture, delicious food, and absolute stunning scenery made for a wonderful trip.

 

Do you want to visit Morocco? 

I’ve shared this post as a useful guide if you’re considering your own trip to Morocco,  but if you like additional help planning your trip,  be sure to contact me. I am a certified travel agent and if you’re interested in a guided group tour I can let you know which guided tour packages I recommend and/or which ones fit your travel style — or I can build a customized itinerary from scratch just like this one in the blog post. There’s no extra fees for my services if you book the trip through me,  so it’s a win-win situation to let me take the stress of travel-planning off your shoulders!