With another paid week off school (are you keeping track?), my friend Katie and I headed south, out of our quaint little European comfort zone, to sunny Marrakech, Morocco.
I had zero idea of what to expect. Last time I visited Sahara Africa, it was to Egypt in June 2007. Although I enjoyed it, daily highs of 120 F (50 C) and throngs of tourists marred my view a bit. This time around, I wanted to travel to Morocco to have a change of pace from Europe, but not because I was particularly interested in the country itself. I heard from many people who either loved or hated Marrakech—there seemed to be no middle ground. I assumed it would be exactly like Cairo, and didn’t know if I could handle the overwhelmingly busy medina or the seemingly inauthentic push of goods targeted only at tourists’ pockets.
I may have been hesitant on the flight over, but Morocco had me entirely convinced by the end.
While we only saw the one city of Marrakech, we also traversed the southern part of the country and desert for three days in a van. Morocco has it all: beach, mountains, desert, oases, lively cities, sleepy villages, and a fascinating blend of Islamic, French, and Berber culture. It is not a flat stretch of desert wasteland, like I had once imagined (seriously Jenny, do some prior research!) but surprisingly full of towering gorges and lush green valleys.
Our first full day was spent in Marrakech, which won me over with its bustling energy that still retained a sense of authenticity. I never felt too hounded, and even though it’s evident that they want your money, I found the whole treatment of tourists to be surprisingly endearing. I don’t know if that makes sense. It just never felt like too much. Although we only had one full day and three nights in Marrakech (our desert tour took up the majority of the days), here’s what we managed to see:
You simply can’t go to Marrakech and skip the enormous maze of shops, selling everything from spices and herbal remedies to tea sets and lanterns. I rarely buy souvenirs other than postcards, but I dropped a chunk of euros—after some heavy bargaining, at that!—on a variety of goods I never knew I needed but simply had to have. The vendors are convincing, and while at times the endless back-and-forth haggling was waring, I overall enjoyed the jovial energy and the sort of game they seemed to make it.
Jemaa El-Fna Square.
This is the heart of the city, located right next to the souks. It’s full of snake charmers, vendors, and stalls selling the best fresh-squeezed orange juice for 40 cents. At night restaurants are assembled and there are instantly about 30 new stalls to eat at—take your pick, they all serve tagine, cous cous, and kebab.
A quiet little oasis of a botanical garden in a bustling city. It was designed by French artist Jaques Majorelle nearly a century ago, while Morocco was still a French colony. It reminded me of the Moroccan version of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. (Anyone? Anyone?) Nice to stroll around, and a visit to the cool shaded garden would be a must in summer months.
One of my favorite experiences was wondering a bit off the beaten track and discovering a more local marketplace, overflowing with fresh produce, live animals, and barbershops (random). I am too much of a hypochondriac, but Katie ordered an amazing bean stew lunch for 70 cents at a hole-in-the-wall stand (and I was the one who ended up getting sick on the trip, typical.)
And lastly, our hostel, Waka Waka, was a main part or our enjoyable stay. Despite cringe-worthy bathrooms and music blasting till 1 a.m., it was an amazing deal. Situated within the medina and a 5-minute walk from the square, the hostel included an elaborate Moroccan breakfast, endless mint tea, pastries, even a communal dinner of chicken, couscous and tagine one night. They also organized affordable excursions to the desert. All this, for five euros a night! (But DON’T forget flip-flops for the shower.)
I’m so glad I was able to make it down to Morocco. It’s only separated from Spain by a narrow straight, but it offered such a new take on culture and scenery, and reminded me that sometimes travel plans should stretch far beyond European capitals. Up soon: my time in the desert.
Have you ever traveled to Morocco? What were your impressions?