Morocco is a popular destination for those living in London, both for its proximity and the affordability of flights, and many head over on a long weekend to enjoy a few days in Marrakech. After spending a few evenings reading and researching, though, we quickly decided that a long weekend would not do so we took a week’s leave and made plans to visit the south of the country for 10 days. (Note that South Africans need a visa to visit and I’ve included some information at the bottom of this blog).
We began in Marrakech which is a city to explore on foot so ignore the expensive yellow taxis, and their hassling drivers. The beautiful 12-acre Jardine Majorelle botanical gardens, an oasis of serenity in this chaotic city, were well worth a visit while we also enjoyed wandering through the Bahia Palace with its beautiful interior designs.
The city’s iconic Jemaa el Fna really comes alive at night when delicious food stalls share the square with the many snake-charmers and curio sellers and there is no shortage of options for dinner. Our two favourites, both budget and taste wise, were the potato, egg and cream cheese pita sandwiches and the soup.
Given the number of tourists visiting the city, there is an overwhelming choice of accommodation and we were very happy with our Air BnB Riad located ‘just off’ the main square run by Karima and Carlos. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in the streets and alleys around the square, though, and it’s a maze of a city.
In addition to Marrakech, our hike in the Atlas Mountains up Jebel Toubkal and a lovely few days in the coastal city of Essaouira with it’s wonderful souq and fantastic fish market at the end of the beach, we rented a car and drove some 460km across the country to the Sahara, where we planned to spend a night under the stars.
We decided against the many tours offering trips from Marrakech as we wanted to have the freedom to take our time and explore a few sights along the way. It was easy renting the car and don’t be put off by the driving – it’s a little chaotic but if you’ve driven before you’ll be just fine.
(Note that Essaouira is WINDY – too windy to lie on the beach so if you would like to relax around water, be sure your accommodation has a pool!).
Day One – Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou
We had no idea what awaited as we left Marrakech with beautiful scenery and windy mountain roads offering spectacular driving. Once out of the city, it was nice and easy driving on generally well maintained open roads.
After heading over the Tizi-n-Tinififft pass (1,700 m) we chose the scenic route and made our way towards Telouet where we enjoyed a late lunch and visited the el Glaoui Kasbah. Though it may be crumbling, the interior remains beautiful and we were so glad we stopped to check it out.
We continued along ever windy roads through the fantastic Draa Valley, passing a number of tiny villages that seemed to be built into the rock, and spent the night in Aït Benhaddou. Here we we stayed at a lovely BnB overlooking the ancient kasbah and I can happily recommend Ebrahim’s Air BnB listing.
Day Two – Ait Ben Haddou to M’Hamid and then into the desert
We were off bright and early in the morning as we had a long way to M’Hamid, the town in which we were being picked up for our ‘desert safari’ tour. The driving was not as beautiful as the first day though we did enjoy a delicious lunch in Zagora, which a few hundred years ago was a thriving town that greeted the convoy of caravans and weary travellers arriving after a 52 day camel trek across the unrelenting Sahara Desert from Timbuktu in Mali. (The caravans were carrying various good, including sadly people, and from here everything would be shipped to Europe).
We planned to visit the Erg Chigaga dunes, the country’s largest, and because they are 60kms into the desert, one needs a 4×4 to visit. Arriving in an empty M’Hamid, we were very pleased to have booked our tour with Desert Bivouac from home!
Though we expected it to be quiet given we were visiting just as tours were beginning again after the summer, it was a little eerie driving into the desert with no-one else on our tour. A hectic sand-storm only added to our unease but once the wind finally abated and we found our camp, however, we relaxed and really took in where we were.
Our accommodation for the night was a beautiful traditional Berber tent and we had great fun exploring some of the dunes. First up was a camel safari and I always love seeing camels – just the way they look, their sounds and smell. More fun, though, was running and rolling down the sand dunes with Catherine performing some impressive cartwheels! With a full moon, we enjoyed our delicious dinner under fewer stars than we had hoped for but nevertheless, it was a very special experience spending the night here .
Day Three – M’Hamid to Ourzazete
We were back in M’Hamid by noon with the plan to spend that night in Ourzazete, an unremarkable city but one that would break up our journey home. As we drove up over one of the many rises along the way, we saw this field of green that seemed to stretch on forever. We pulled up at the viewing point and realised while reading the LP that we were looking at Africa’s second-largest palm forest- an oasis of green in an otherwise barren, brown and rocky landscape. We had somehow missed this on the way through and were so chuffed to have not done the same heading back.
While in Ourzazete, if budget permits and you’re after a wonderful dinner in a beautiful and unusual setting, head to La Kasbah des sables. It feels more like an art gallery than a restaurant with beautiful paintings and traditional clothing adorning the walls and we had a divine three course meal with a (local) beer and a bottle of wine for US$50 each.
Day Four – Ourzazete to Marrakech
We stuck to the main roads as we made our way back and were in Marrakech just in time to drop the car and catch our bus to Essaouira. After four days of driving, we were looking forward to doing very little, eating olives and relaxing round the pool!
Flights – Easyjet offers direct flights to a number of Moroccan cities, the cheapest most times being Marrakech.
Accommodation – we went with Air BnB, refer within the blog for recommendations