Colors of Morocco, the Western Kingdom
“So you’ve been to Morocco?” I asked my Airbnb host, Max, while visiting in Vienna.
“Yeah, we stayed for 30 days, and went everywhere we could go to. Lots of places had no tourists. We went surfing and climbed mountains…” Max went on, showing me the photos of the snowy Atlas mountains, the Zagora desert, the oceans by Essaouira, and more. I was shocked by the country’s geographic diversity.
“How can there be so many different types of landscapes at the same season in one country?” I asked, already excited.
“You see, this is the magic of Morocco,” he replied. “You can get a mix of climates and landscapes: from oceans to mountains and deserts. I highly recommend you to check it out!”
This conversation was in March. Two months later I stepped out onto the airport floor in Tangier: back again on the African continent, but this time on the very northwestern side.
Morocco, the gem of northwestern Africa and just a 45 minute boat ride from Gibraltar, has been an intriguing country for many. When I ask my friends about Morocco the answers are often mixed with both desire to “check it out” and fear for their safety while traveling in Islamic countries. If Morocco is truly unsafe and unwelcoming, what is it about the country that has attracted so many figures, from Anthony Bourdain to Yves Saint Laurent, to visit, settle down, and even fall in love? I couldn’t wait to find out about this “magical power” attracting visitors from around the world every year. To do just that I went on a ten-day journey from the northern ocean side to the southern Sahara desert.
Tangier — In planning this itinerary I wanted to include some non-touristy cities (aka: not Marrakesh and Casablanca) to obtain a perspective of authentic Morocco. I started my trip in Tangier and it did not disappoint. The city had an interesting balance of Moroccan culture and European influence. Bordering Spain by the Strait of Gibraltar, the city’s buildings were a mix of modern and ancient: its medina (old town) is 600 years old. Perhaps due to its strong European influence and its large expatriate population, Tangier gave me the impression that it’s an evolving city on its way to potentially becoming a port city of global importance in future years.
Cool spot: La Saveur de Poisson — recommended by Anthony Bourdain himself. The bistro opens at 7pm every night and has a fixed 5-course menu consisting of sea-to-table fish dishes for only $20. Other interesting fact: no alterations allowed (sorry, diet restriction eaters).
Chefchaouen — Deemed by media outlets as “the best well-kept secret” of Morocco, this Spanish-occupied town was not actually discovered until the 1900s. Commonly known as “the blue pearl,” the city is, in fact, painted blue. Rumor has it that the blue paint was a way for residents to get rid of mosquitoes and to cool off from the summer heat. Even though it’s uncertain if those rumors are true it definitely felt slightly more breathable walking through the winding streets of Chefchaouen than it did in the sauna-like heat of southern Morocco. Getting lost in Chefchaouen’s medina is a dream-come-true to many photographers, and, as an amateur photographer, I was able to snap beautiful pictures in some of the most surprising and remarkable places.
Cool spot: Casa Perleta — in Morocco, guest houses are called riads, and Casa Perleta is an adorable little riad in the center of the Chefchaouen medina. The rooftop has a great view of the town and their breakfast spread is simply delightful.
Marrakesh — Other than Casablanca, Marrakesh is probably the most visited city in Morocco. The red city attracts artists, designers, and entrepreneurs alike from all over the world, who create a vibrant yet cohesive city that puts Morocco’s creative side on display. I particularly enjoyed the more modern amenities offered in this tourist destination: I had my first taste of French-Moroccan cuisine, and also experienced my first credit card transaction here (the country is almost entirely cash only). Aside from the chic babouche and spice souks that one can easily find in any city’s medina, Marrakesh has its own flare to its shops: the goods range from the highest of quality to $10 handmade straw baskets that are a bargain for their quality and design.
Cool spot: Yves Saint Laurent Garden — the YSL Garden’s boutique is home to its designer’s original print babouches. Also NOMAD, and so many more!
Zagora Desert — Before the trip I’d longed to see the Sahara desert, as described in The Little Prince, with my own eyes. In reality, deserts are much further away from civilization than you’d think. I didn’t have much time in this trip and therefore only had one night inside the desert camp, but just driving took the majority of my time. Even so, experiencing some of the most extreme environments was important for me to gain a greater sense of appreciation of our world’s natural resources.
Tips on traveling to Morocco
Be aggressive when negotiating prices: Beautifully crafted souvenirs, lamps, babouches, plates, etc. can be found virtually anywhere inside medinas, but in Moroccan culture shop owners usually give you two or three times the actual price when you ask. I recommend asking for at most 50% of the price they tell you, then move up or down depending on your situation.
Safety: While Morocco is fairly safe for travelers, people tend to feel uneasy due to the overwhelming friendliness of locals. Yes, people (especially men) do follow tourists around in an attempt to reel them into hotels, restaurants, or guided tours in exchange for some tips, but the best way to deal with them is to firmly refuse and walk away. If you need directions it’s best to ask women and the elderly (as told by my desert tour guide).
Embrace stumbles: With its varying amenities across the country, you’ll likely find that things don’t always go according to plan. Even though I’d planned ahead for everything, I still experienced issues with train delays, tourist scams, and even food poisoning in the desert. However, each stumble becomes a part of a great story and a whole new learning experience. If my train hadn’t been delayed I would never have had the opportunity to meet someone who grew up in a medina and who now works at Google Paris, and learn from his experience about how the medina has changed over the years.
I’ve already made a promise to myself to come back. There are still countless places to explore and more people I’d love to meet. For those who are still hesitating, take no more time to think. This hidden gem will likely be swarmed with tourists very soon, and you don’t want to miss your chance for the experience of a lifetime
This article was published in the Fall 2017 issue, Hidden Gems.
About the writer
Cathy Zhang is from Nanjing, China and Vancouver, Canada. Her favorite city is Barcelona, Spain because its vibrant culture is represented across categories, from its food, wine, architecture, music, and people.
Guac is an award-winning travel publication run by an interdisciplinary group of students at Cornell University. We aim to inspire our readers to celebrate cultural diversity and view the world with an open mind through delivering unique stories from people around the world.
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