Marrakech to the Sahara….Morocco Road Trip (Part 1)

Our trips are planned according to when I can find the best deals and this trip was no exception.  Flying out of Basel can be much cheaper than Zurich, especially if I get a cheap train ticket ahead of time.  I managed to find a direct flight from Basel to Marrakech for less than $50.  The return was about twice that, but it came to Zurich and had free checked baggage, which was necessary after the shopping we did – more on that later.  I also booked most of our accommodation on Booking.com ahead of time.  I found the rates to be about the same or cheaper than booking in person, and without the hassle of wandering around looking for a room, which is nearly impossible in the medinas we stayed in.  I also booked the car from Hertz ahead of time, I got an incredible rate, and we even got an unnecessary upgrade.  The last thing I pre-arranged was our camel trek.  This was one of the things I was most excited for and wanted to be sure it went off without a hitch.  But for that I just emailed three companies with good reputations online and chose the one who gave me the best deal.  So, besides the flights, accommodation, car and camel trek, everything else was up in the air. More or less.

We took the earliest train from Zurich to Basel, which meant we had to walk to the train station because the trams were not yet running.  No big deal though because we travel light and each had just a backpack for the 15 minute downhill walk.  Luckily, security was light and we cruised through to our gate.  Any delay with the trains or airport could have meant a missed flight, we were cutting it that close.  Travel karma was on my side this time though, as unusual as that is for me.

We arrived in Marrakech and took the 2 Euro bus to the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa.  Don’t ask me to pronounce it, we heard it so many different ways.  From there we walked about 20 minutes through the medina to our riad.  A riad is a Moroccan house with a courtyard.  The outsides are nondescript but the insides can be very fancy.  Many have been turned into guesthouses.  Though we thought we knew where we were going, we still ended up a bit confused and were hustled by two guys who insisted on showing us the way and both getting paid, despite us declining their services.  Not a very nice way to start the day.  But we made it to the riad, dropped our bags and continued out into the medina.

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In the Medina
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Clay pots for cooking
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Mosque tower
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Souk

The medina was a maze and we ended up in dead ends frequently, but that’s the fun of not having a set schedule.  We found ourselves near the El-Badi palace right before closing and enjoyed the ruins of the late 1500s palace before heading back to the main square to check out the evening madness.

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El Badi Palace
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Marrakech street
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Insulators
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Street Art

The next morning, we went to the Ben Joussef Medersa trying to beat the crowds, which we managed for about 5 minutes.  A medersa, or madrasa (saw it both ways) is an educational facility, and in Morocco, often used for studying Islam.  We visited a number of these, and I found this one the most impressive, as you can wander into the little courtyards surrounded by tiny, dark dorm rooms, which were used for sleeping and studying.  There is an incredible amount of intricate woodwork, tilework and plasterwork, everywhere.

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Inside the Medersa Ben Joussef
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Inside the Medersa Ben Joussef
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Entrance to one of the dorm rooms
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Amazing tilework

From there, we continued to wander the medina for the rest of the day, stopping at El Bahia palace in the afternoon.

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Street art
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Bougainvilla
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Patient donkey
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More amazing tiles
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Patient dog

El Bahia Palace is only a little over 100 years old, but it has stunning tiles and courtyards.  The ceilings were really impressive as well, and it was a great way to get out of the heat for a bit.

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El Bahia Palace
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Stained glass in El Bahia

Unfortunately, about half of Jemaa El-Fnaa square was under construction, so we didn’t get the full feel of it.  However, there were plenty of snake charmers and monkey handlers to go around.  I avoided these like the plague, as the animals are mistreated and these exploits should not be encouraged.  We ate at one of the stalls (#1), but were weary from hearing about so many people being overcharged for things they didn’t want.  We found the food ok, not amazing, nothing to write home about, oh wait, doing that now.

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Jemaa el-Fnaa square
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Snake charmers in the square
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Pushing the monkeys on the tourists

And then the real adventure began!  We picked up our rental car, which was our first time renting a car in a foreign country.  We got upgraded from a mini size to an economy sized Fiat Punto, but not until we were standing in the lot and the Hertz guy realized they definitely didn’t have the car we booked.  We were a bit worried about renting a car, because 1) road conditions, 2) crazy drivers, 3) crashing, 4) not getting an automatic.  But really, none of those things turned out to be issues and you can read about our road trip tips here 15 Tips for a Morocco Road trip and our full itinerary here 12 Day Morocco Road Trip.

Morocco road trip with cities
Part 1 – Marrakesh to Hassilabied (Sahara)

We drove over the Atlas mountains, which was stunning and perfectly doable in a small car.  It is crazy to me for some reason to think of snow in Morocco, but sure enough, there was plenty up there.

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Crossing the Atlas mountains

Our first stop was Ait Ben Haddou, which is a ksar, or fortified village and a UNESCO site.  You might recognize it from Game of Thrones.

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Road to Ait Ben Haddou

The village is largely uninhabited, but there are some families still living in the old clay brick houses. The oldest part is from the 17th century.  We found it to be incredibly interesting, but VERY touristy.  For instance, it is free to enter, but if you happen to cross the river and don’t take the bridge, someone will try to hustle you for 10 Dh to see the inside of her house, saying that is the only way to enter the village.  So, we went back across the river and took the main bridge to avoid this character.

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Ait Ben Haddou
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River crossing to Ait Ben Haddou
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Ait Ben Haddou buildings
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Ait Ben Haddou details

At the top of the village is the old granary, which has excellent views, but staying vertical was nearly impossible due to the wind.

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Windy at the top of Ait Ben Haddou. That’s me, trying not to be knocked backwards, and succeeding for the most part.
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View from Ait Ben Haddou
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Amazing rock formations

While Ait Ben Haddou was interesting to see, it is very small and we spent a little over an hour there, before getting back in the car and working our way towards the Todra Gorge.

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On the road again to Todra Gorge
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Nearing Todra Gorge

With walls 160 meters (525 ft) tall and an opening slinking to 10 meters (33 ft) wide, the Todra Gorge is really a sight to see.  We arrived just before sunset, but the red of the canyon was still striking in the shade.  We opted to stay right next to the gorge, so that we could easily check it out again in the morning, in different light.  A request from my photographer, of course.  It is a popular place for climbers, but having no interest in dangling from little ropes over sharp rocks, we just used it as a stopover to the desert.

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Todra Gorge
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Todra Gorge
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Sheep on the roof
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Kids playing in abandoned car
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Todra Gorge
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Leaving Todra Gorge

The last stretch before the desert was probably the one with the most contrast.  We went from vertical walls of rock to mountains of sand, punctuated with palm tree oases in between.

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On the road again to the desert
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More rocks
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Straight and smooth
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One tree, and a hill
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First look at the dunes of the Sahara

We arrived in Hassilabied a bit early, as the roads were empty and smooth.  Hassilabied is near Merzouga, which is the more well-known town for seeing the dunes here.  I was hoping to visit the nearby lakes to see flamingos, but was informed that it hadn’t rained in two years, so well, there wasn’t any water, or flamingos.  So we went exploring and found a small palmery along the desert and not much else.

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Palmery near the dunes
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The Sahara

After a welcome tajine lunch, we suited up in our head scarves and were assigned camels.  Mine was named Jimmy Hendrix and proved to be a bit aloof, despite me bribing him with bread.

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Me and Jimmy Hendrix
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Our group
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Wells leading to the desert
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On our way

We rode about an hour and a half into the desert of Erg Chebbi, which features a dune about 150 meters tall (492 ft).

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Added two
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Me and Riki in the Sahara
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Scarab

We made it to our camp in the late afternoon and were pretty impressed with our accommodation, except that the light in our tent didn’t work very well.  There were a circle of lined tents to keep out the wind and sand, a round dining area and even a latrine.  Much fancier than I expected, though if we had paid an arm and leg more, we could have had a shower too, but that was a different camp.

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Our camp

We spent our downtime sandboarding, playing cards and wandering the dunes.

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Riki sandboarding
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Me sandboarding
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Line in the sand
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Desert cat, of course
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Sunset in the Sahara
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Wind lines

We felt one night in the desert wasn’t going to be enough, so opted for a two night stay.  This turned out perfect, as we were prepared for some downtime and needed a day off from driving.  Though riding in the car was significantly more comfortable than riding the camels.  We woke up at 6 to see the sunrise and then had a big breakfast before taking the camels further into the desert.  We left the camels and our guide at a base camp and climbed the tallest dune, so that we could see Algeria, which was only a few kilometers away.

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At the top of Erg Chebbi, with a view of Algeria

The border to Algeria is closed now, but you can still get a nice view.

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Riki showing off

We descended and had lunch at the other camp.  We stayed there all afternoon because it was quite hot.  Meanwhile, Jimmy Hendrix wandered off and it took our guide an hour to find him.  Finding a camel in the desert seems to involve standing on the tallest, nearest dune and waiting for the camel to come into sight.  Very high tech.  We jokingly told the guide they need to get GPS trackers for the camels.

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Sitting in the giant litter box
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Desert inhabitants
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Just two chairs
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Not much to do in the desert
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Sunset over the dunes
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Inside our camp

On the second morning, we once again got up for the sunrise, but it was cloudier.  We returned to town, showered, though the power was out, and had breakfast.

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Back to civilization during sunrise
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Cat whisker signs showing where water should be, but it hasn’t rained in two years

Next stop, north through the Ziz Valley to Midelt.

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