Two Weeks in Morocco
“So…what’s in Morocco?”
This was the question I asked myself a few weeks ago when I landed in the Moroccan city of Marrakech with zero plans and little to no expectations (my favorite way to travel). The Marrakech medina was eerily quiet when I arrived in the dead of night but by morning, its tiny maze-like alleyways filled with tourists, shopkeepers, touts, snake charmers, monkeys, chickens, scooters and even the occasional hover board.
It was only March, but the afternoon sun was blazing in Jamaa el Fna, the Big Square that lay at the entrance to the medina. I looked over to find my new, paler friends from my hostel bathing in sunscreen, presumably to avoid turning one of the 50 shades of pink that color Marrakech’s bright pastel walls. As we navigated through the labyrinth of passageways, I could smell a blend of cinnamon, ginger, saffron, and cumin in the air, the trademark spices of what would become my favorite destination of all in Morocco: the food! Not only is the cuisine itself delicious, but the tajines in which they are cooked look more like clay sculptures created by an artist than simple cooking pots.
Amid the chaos, I felt as though we had wandered into the streets of Aladdin, complete with merchants selling genie lamps and street urchins pilfering food from the market. But the peddlers and paupers I passed by in Marrakech were not destined to become Sultans like Aladdin. Reality may mirror a fairy-tale world, but fairy-tale endings are almost never realized. Marrakech is a vibrant city, but it is one marked by poverty and an uncomfortable disparity between rich and poor, tourist and tout. And so, unsurprisingly, hassling and haggling are part of the experience here. Many locals interacted with me simply because they hoped to lure me into their shop or expected payment for leading me somewhere, even if I didn’t want them to. And so the hustle and bustle of Marrakech was entertaining, but also quite exhausting.
Climbing Mount Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains
I stayed in Marrakech one more night before deciding to escape the heat and the incessant noise and activity. I hopped in a louage — a 7-person shared taxi-van — and traveled 2 hours south to Imlil, a tranquil village in the heart of the Atlas Mountains.
I had heard about Mount Toubkal from a German girl in Marrakech and since then, I was consumed by the idea that I should climb it (and also motivated to work off the amazing food I had consumed). At 4,167 meters, Toubkal is the highest point in all of North Africa but the ascent is non-technical so any idiot with legs (like me!) could theoretically reach the peak. The first day involved a brisk 4–5 hour hike to the refuge, where we would sleep before beginning our ascent at 6AM.
The mountain hut at the base camp was full but I learned that many of the hikers had no intention of climbing Toubkal — they had hiked only to the refuge. I felt a slight pang of jealousy as my downsized group began climbing against the wind in the early morning twilight, plodding through the thick snow with our crampons, some carrying ice axes for security. Climbing at this time of year in winter conditions is more difficult, but it actually came in handy for me since I had forgotten to bring water and I was instead eating snow to quench my thirst. Oops.
Along the way, I saw a few people in our group turn back due to altitude sickness. Again, I felt a slight pang of jealousy. As Mark Twain once said, ‘An adventure is something that, while it is happening, you wish it weren’t.” After 3 hard, icy hours — during which I reminded myself to never do this again — I finally reached the summit!
Road Tripping in a Van to the South
The types of travelers I find in different countries varies greatly and my experience in a country is inevitably shaped by the ones I meet. Because of its affordability and accessibility, Morocco attracts the entire spectrum of travelers from package tourists to long-term backpackers and expats — and even people driving and living in their very own camper vans.
While I was climbing Mt. Toubkal, I met a British engineer, Tom, who had bought and customized his own van and driven it all the way from Scotland through Spain. He then had it shipped it over on a boat into Morocco where he and his brother were now road tripping. Like the magic tents of the wizarding world in Harry Potter, the unremarkable exterior of the van was just an illusion. Inside, there was a bed, a stove, a sink, camping gear, and intricately carved desk drawers designed to hold spices, silverware and even wine glasses.
I hitched a ride with Tom and his brother to the south and into the high-Atlas where the landscape changed dramatically and the Berber tribes still reign. Isolated in the highlands, the Berber people resisted the influence of North Africa’s Arab, French and Roman conquerors. The drive through this region was a glimpse into the complex history of Morocco and the Maghreb as well as a reminder that the religion of Islam and the Arabic language are not native to these lands.
In the dry, arid gorges of this region, the roads became more treacherous and drought and hunger more apparent. Life here could not be easy for its inhabitants, I thought. The following day, we arrived in Ouarzazate (pronounced waz-ah-zat), the city nicknamed ‘the Door to the Desert’ because it serves as a gateway to the Sahara. As such, it is also a popular filming location for the likes of Games of Thrones and many Hollywood movies.
Journey to Tangier
After briefly exploring the south, I journeyed to the northernmost point in Morocco: Tangier, a white city with white, sandy beaches, complete with camels tanning on its shores.
As I dined on spiced escargot surrounded by the Andalusian architecture in the Tangier medina, the sounds of French, Arabic, Spanish and English words mingled in the air. Tangier — separated from Spain by a mere 20 miles of water — was difficult to define. The city felt like a strange and eclectic mix of North African, French, Spanish, and Portuguese influences, a vibrant melting pot of sorts. In a way, so was all of Morocco, I thought, as I reflected on my overland journey from south to north.
Like the medley of spices that blend together to create Morocco’s distinctive cuisine, the country itself is a unique mixture of the cultures, languages, landscapes and people that inhabit it’s kingdom. In just two weeks, I saw the Atlantic coastline, the Saharan desert and climbed a snowy Atlas Mountain peak — I visited characteristic Pink, Blue & White cities — I met Berber tribesmen, Muslims, Jews, polygamists, expats, backpackers, and tourists from all over the world — I stayed in 5-star hotels and $5 dorm hostels — I sat next to women wearing hi-jabs inside restaurants with belly-dancers — I dodged scooters and touts in noisy medinas and sipped sweet mint tea in quiet villages — I was hassled by locals but befriended and helped by so many more — and yes, I even saw goats climbing argon trees.
So if I had to answer the question, What is in Morocco?, my answer would now be: A little bit of everything!
- Recommend this post if you think others should read it!
- Read my post on my travels in Tunisia here and if you’re interested in why I quit my job to travel you can read my thoughts here