Morocco: Two Days in Heaven, One Week in Hell

Morocco: Two Days in Heaven, One Week in Hell

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Ok, hell may be an exaggeration but whenever anyone asks us what’s the worse experience that we’ve had during our trip, our experience in Fes immediately comes to mind.  We heard a lot of great things about Morocco and we were excited to explore the country. Many people think of Casablanca and Marrakesh when they think of visiting Morocco. Outside those larger cities are many smaller, bustling towns, large parts of the Sahara Desert, and extravagant riads. Morocco also is known for its early Islamic architecture, long, inviting beaches, and a variety of spices, sold both in markets and as part of an array of colorful dishes at restaurants. Arabic is the official language, but you'll also hear French, Spanish, Berber and various dialects. We mostly heard French and Arabic. With all that being said, Morocco wasn’t all sunshine and daisies for us.

We had a 7:30 AM flight from Istanbul to Casablanca. The trip included a 6 hour layover in Paris and we arrived in Casablanca at 5 PM. We then took a 2 hour train ride to Rabat. After all that traveling we just ate dinner and went to bed.

Door around the Kasbah of the Udayas

The next day we walked around the medina and to the Kasbah of the Udayas and to Hassan Tower. There were some really colorful streets and houses next to the Kasbah and it was a short walk to the tower. Hassan Tower is the minaret of an incomplete mosque. Begun in 1195, the tower was intended to be the largest minaret in the world along with the mosque, also intended to be the world's largest. In 1199, Sultan Yacub al-Mansour died and construction on the mosque stopped. Also located on the grounds is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. The mausoleum contains the tombs of the Moroccan king and his two sons, late King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. The building was completed in 1971 and is considered a masterpiece of modern Alaouite dynasty architecture. It boasts a white silhouette, topped by a typical green tiled roof, green being the color of Islam. Inside, a reader of the Koran is often present, having his assigned seat next to the tomb. The entire area was pretty empty so we basically had the place to ourselves for a good 30-45 minutes. As we were leaving we saw some tour buses arriving so it was good timing. I would advise arriving early though to avoid the heat and because the way the light hits the Tower is really nice in the morning. Both the Kasbah area and Hassan Tower were really beautiful and started our trip off on the right foot. After visiting these spots we checked out of our Airbnb and walked to train station.

Left: Mausoleum of Mohammed V; Center: Guards at entrance; Right: Hassan Tower

Nice view, but worth a death threat?

We took the 11:12 AM train to Fes (or Fez) which lasted about 3 hours (125 MAD pp for 1st Class). Outside the train station, we booked our Supratour bus tickets for Merzouga in two days (180 MAD pp). The trip started to turn when we took a taxi to the Blue Gate. We negotiated a 20 mad ride but when we got there, the driver refused to give us the correct change from the 50 mad I gave him so it was 30 mad instead. It was a short walk to our place, Riad Rocco, within the medina. We navigated through the motorcycles and the shopkeepers in the medina to the riad. When we got there, the host was very nice and welcomed with mint tea and lots of info about the medina, Fes, and some of the sites. We put our bags in the room and walked around medina. Around the medina, we spotted a few beautiful mosques and places of worship and then made our way towards the famous Chouara Tannery. Lots of people on the street wanted to show us where the tannery was and give us a tour of the medina but we politely declined. Since it was Friday, the tannery was closed and there were no workers and some of the shops were closed. We read that it was free to walk up to the terrace overlooking the tannery but on our way up a guy followed us offering a tour/explanation.  When we declined, he got really mad and yelled at us. He told us to get out immediately and when we left the entrance he yelled out “Maybe someone will come and KILL YOU!!” A bit of an overreaction in my opinion, but we quickly left and walked back to riad.  We relaxed in the room for a bit to wash off that bad experience and later walked to dinner in the medina.  Both places we wanted to eat at were closed so ate at a touristy place near the Blue Gate called Cafe Leglali. It actually was pretty good and was quite a lot of food for the price. Afterwards, we just went back to the riad.

Blue Gate of Fes Medina

The next day, we had breakfast at the riad and checked out. Since our train wasn’t until 6 PM, we left our luggage with riad and walked around the city.  We first went up a hill to Bjord Nord which had a nice view of the medina. Next, we walked down to the Palace and Synagogue.  It was getting hot out so we went to lunch at Chez Hakim and then went back to the riad.  The host of our Riad was really nice and offered us coffee and tea while we waited. We stayed in lobby until 5pm and then took taxi to the bus station to wait for the Supratours bus. While we were waiting we bought some pizza at the station and then boarded the 20:30 overnight bus to Merzouga to start our 2 day camel trek tour.  The bus seats were very uncomfortable and made many stops so it was tough to get some sleep. We were happy to leave Fes though. While shopkeepers in medinas throughout Morocco aggressively sell their merchandise, we found the stores in medina were much more aggressive with physically touching you and shoving items in your face and chest. We may have had a different experience if we stayed outside the medina and only came in as part of a tour but the constant hassle of the vendors made our time in Fez uncomfortable, even without the death threat. Nevertheless, the whole experience left a bitter taste in our mouths.

Our rides for two days: Betty (left) and Scooby Doo (right)

We arrived in Merzouga at 6:40 AM and Omar from CamelTrekking.com met us at the bus station. He drove us to Hotel Nomad Palace where they gave us a room. There was no Wi-Fi so we napped, showered, and got ready for our trek. The hotel was actually really nice and we were pretty much the only ones there. We ordered lunch at the hotel restaurant because we weren't near anything but it cost us 220 MAD which is more than we expected. The tour guide came and got us at 4:00 PM and we got on our camels, Scooby Doo and Betty. We rode for 30 mins before stopping to sandboard. We played for 20 mins and then continued. The sun was setting so the view was gorgeous. We reached kasbah of nomad family just after dark and the temperature started to drop rapidly. We rested and wrapped ourselves in blankets while our guide made dinner of salad, bread, and a beef tagine with vegetables. It was a lot of food and very delicious. After we ate dinner, we had tea at the fire pit and watched the stars. There were no other lights around so the stars were extra bright and gorgeous. The house didn’t have any bathroom facilities so we had to wander out in the dark to use the bathroom and brush our teeth. It was getting really cold so we went to bed in a private enclosure of the house.

Diem about to go shred some gnar

Jam session by the fire

The next day, our guide woke us to see the sunrise. It was beautiful seeing the sun come up over the dunes and the sky and sand had a beautiful color that we couldn’t really capture in the photos. We ate breakfast at the kasbah and then rode for an hour to an oasis for a break.  Yesterday’s camel ride was a bit rougher than we expected. Camels are taller than horses so you get jostled a bit more. Our butts were still really sore so the second day’s ride was uncomfortable. At the oasis, we had some tea and rested for a bit. We then went sandboarding at the nearby dunes but it wasn’t quite what I picturing. The board didn’t have clasps to strap in so be basically just used it as a sled. See this video of our first attempt, which was a little bit of a fail.  Back at the oasis, we had a lunch of salad, bread, and an egg tagine. Then we continued on our camel trek for another 1.5 hours to a Berber camp. This camp actually was pretty nice. The tents were all black on the outside but the interior had a mattress and a decorative  wall fabric. After we arrived, we napped and rested until dinner. We had warm rice & vegetables and chicken tajine for dinner. After dinner the different guides performed a couple of songs around a fire pit.  The Ukrainians at the camp started singing some Ukrainian songs and dancing around the fire, which was pretty fun to watch. We went to bed around 10 PM and had to get up early the next day at to make it back to the hotel to catch our bus.

Left: Berber campsite; Right: Resting up in the tent before the festivities

The next day we started trek back to hotel at 4:30 AM and it was still really dark out.  Once we got back, we showered and grabbed boiled eggs to go and our Guide Omar drove us to the bus stop. Our bus to Ouarzazate left at 8 AM and we didn’t arrive until 3:30 PM. We tried to find a grand taxi to Ait Ben Haddou.  We read that you could share a grand taxi from Ouarzazate for around 15MAD pp but we had a hard time finding a taxi. We were visiting in the down season so we ended up paying 100 MAD to take a private taxi.  Once we arrived in Ait Ben Haddou, we checked into hotel.  The room was really cold and didn’t have Wi-Fi so we stayed in lobby, ordered dinner from the hotel and went to bed.

Before the climb, we made it to the top

The next day, we woke up at 7:30 AM and had breakfast downstairs. The fortress town of Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been prominently featured in the movies Gladiator, The Mummy, Prince of Persia, and parts of Game of Thrones. We walked around the town up to the top tower overlooking the town and nearby river.  The walk was very quick and easy but it started raining when we got to the top so we went back to room. We asked the hotel for grand taxi and they quoted 100 MAD. It was raining now so we took the offer.  When we arrived at the CTM bus station and the guy that accompanied us from the hotel demanded 50 MAD extra.  We refused and went inside to buy our bus ticket and he eventually left us alone.  Our bus to Marrakesh left at 12:15 PM and we arrived around 5pm. We grabbed a taxi from the bus station to our place, Riad Dar M'Chicha, in the medina for 50 MAD.  After we checked in, we grabbed dinner at Kui-Zin nearby and went back to the riad for the night.

Inside the Palace, beautiful colors

The following day, we slept in and went for lunch at Atay Café. We walked through medina to Palais de la Bahia. Walking through the median of Marrakesh is not fun. Most of the medina is covered with awnings which helps keep it cool but also traps the smoke from the constant stream of motorcycles that whiz by. It can get pretty hard to breathe and you get pretty tired of avoiding the calls from shops and "tour guides" along the way. The palace entrance fee was 10 MAD pp so we bought it and explored inside.  Palais de la Bahia has a lot of pretty doorways, colorful walls, green plants, and an exhibit of photographs of nice places around Morocco.  We walked the entire palace and took a bunch of pictures and left.  Afterwards, we walked towards the Palais de la Badi but it didn't look like something opened to the public so we left.  Diem didn’t feel that great so we decided to head to the Balcon Cafe overlooking the Jemaa El-Fina plaza for a bathroom break and drinks.  We had to pay 5 MAD for the bathroom and 20 MAD each for a 7up and coffee.  The view wasn't that great because half of the medina was under construction so there weren't nearly as many stalls or people walking around.  We did see some monkey trainers and snake charmers which is what you expect to see in a Marrakesh medina.  We rested for a bit while people watching and then decided to head back to the hotel.  For dinner, we went back to Zui Kin since they took credit cards and we were running out of cash.

Jemaa El-Fina plaza

Olive Garden, not a bad escape from the city

On our last full day, I went for a morning run around the Olive Garden of Marrakesh and another park that had a nice view of mountains surrounding the city. It's not easy running in a lot of parts of Marrakesh but once you get outside the medina and central area, there are pretty clear sidewalks. It was a cold and rainy day and we were ready to leave Morocco. We decided to take it easy and rest at the riad.

The next day we took a taxi at 6 AM to the airport.  We only had 74 MAD left but the taxi guys said there is a tariff of 100 MAD. It started raining so we didn't want to be stranded so we eventually talked them into taking us anyways for the amount we had.  Marrakech airport is small so check-in/security was a breeze.  We boarded the Royal Air Maroc with plenty of open seats and it took 30 mins to get to Casablanca for our layover.  We grabbed burgers at the Casablanca airport food court and boarded our last leg to Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands.

Examples of vibrant Moroccan food

Looking back at our time in Morocco, the bad memories outweigh the good. If you go, I would recommend staying outside the medinas to avoid the hassle of the shopkeepers that can get a little overwhelming. Morocco definitely has some beautiful architecture and lovely parts of the cities. The food was also pretty good but it didn’t settle well with Diem. The camel trek through the Sahara is definitely worth the bruised backside. At the time of this writing, I still feel that Morocco has been the most disappointing place we’ve visited. Nevertheless, I consider ourselves lucky because it really wasn’t all that bad. However, in comparison to the amazing experiences we’ve had everywhere else, Morocco is at the bottom of the list of places we’ve visited.

See the full gallery of our time in Morocco here: Best of Morocco.

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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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