Road trip through Morocco

Morocco was the most epic and stressful, poorly planned (due to inexperience), and magical country we’ve been to yet. With only 6 days we spent most of it driving but the countryside was stunning – we saw everything from fields to rolling hills and from desert sands to snowy mountains.

Day 1-2: Tangier to Chefchaouen to Fes

Arriving in Tangier Ibn Battuta Airport
Arriving in Tangier Ibn Battuta Airport

We started our adventure in Tangier, where we landed early evening, butterflies in our stomachs as we crossed the tarmac and entered the airport building. We’d finally hit our first truly foreign (for us) country. Upon arrival, we filled out forms and snaked our way through the passport control line, using their free wifi to let our folks know we landed safely. We then picked up luggage, went through security and ran into the first bit of trouble.

As we put our bags through the scanners, they flagged our camera backpacks and had us open them, asking if we had drones. We did not, as we had specifically mailed it back home while we were in Spain. They insistently ask about drones though, and as they peered at all of our camera gear they asked about our jobs (technically unemployed!), convinced we were journalists. They particularly seemed concerned about our Zoom H1N mic, we explained that we were artists and that we take photos and make music and videos. Eventually after every single security person on duty gave an opinion, they allowed us through.

Relieved, we headed to the rental car kiosks. We reserved in advance online through Avis, which had the best deal we could find for an automatic car (most cars in Morocco are manual). The Avis guy was very friendly but they have this super sketch policy that if you don’t buy full coverage for $106 they hold a $2500 deposit until you return the car! Insane. We felt like either choice was somehow a scam and they say such an ludicrous deposit number just to scare you into buying more coverage. Since the reservation we originally made came with partial coverage and our Chase Sapphire card includes rental coverage, we opted for the deposit and kept an eye on our card statement. In the end we never saw the deposit on our card statement so we’re not really sure what happened with that.

Unfortunately with our late arrival time, we had to start our road trip in the dark.

We wound up with a tiny Hyundai with barely enough trunk space for our two luggages and that really struggled to accelerate and along the mountainous roads, but we wouldn’t have made it to our first stop if the car was any bigger. After taking the obligatory rental car photos (in the dark with one phone as a flashlight) we plugged in the address for Hotel Continental on both Maps.Me and Google Maps and Carl started the car. The moment we took to the road, we were in for a shock: lane lines appeared to be optional! Like a drunken waltz, cars would slide from lane to lane at various speeds while other cars would race by, whipping around the slower cars nonchalantly. That had us giggling nervously until we reached our destination and found just an empty blocked off parking lot.

Lanes are optional: car drives between two lanes
Lanes are optional: car drives between two lanes

We could see the hotel sitting upon the hill, but no apparent entrance from the lot, and as we began to pull in, the people standing around that started to approach us. In the dark we were a little apprehensive, so we backtracked and circled around for another 10 minutes; constantly looking between the Google maps, the parking lot and the hotel clearly visible but with no access point. Panic started to brew so finally we reentered the lot and rolled down the window to ask one of the guys how to get to the hotel. We received unclear directions in French that began with driving up a narrow unlit street, and though it seemed questionable we had nothing else to go on, so up we went.

After the first turn, we couldn’t figure out where to go next, so we asked a young man walking up the street and he very willingly showed us the way to the hotel. He walked us down that street, guided us as we slowly inched between two very close buildings, then up a slight hill where we finally saw an actual sign for our hotel, and some ways past the sign we found its gate. We entered the hotel parking lot with the greatest sigh of relief. The attendant there greeted us and took our luggage and led us into the hotel. Check in went smoothly despite our lateness, so we gratefully settled into our room and knocked out.

A moment to mention that at this point, there were two occasions where tipping was probably expected from us, but we couldn’t find an ATM while at the airport so we didn’t have any cash, luckily it worked out that there was no real pressure on us to tip during these two encounters. We highly recommend getting cash, specifically small change, before setting foot outside the airport because it’s awfully uncomfortable to not have anything on hand.

Sunrise, Continental Hotel, Tangier, Morocco
Sunrise, Continental Hotel, Tangier, Morocco

The next morning a glorious sunrise greeted us, promising a beautiful day. Right after breakfast, we took a quick gander through their shop, where we met Jimmy, either the shop owner or also the hotel owner – it was a little unclear. He eagerly showed us his celebrity memorabilia from the golden years of the hotel, and chatted amicably, offering us a discount in the shop as we were guests. Unfortunately we were not visiting Morocco to shop and still without cash, so we thanked him and left for a nearby square to find an ATM. The problem with ATMs is that they’ll always give you the largest bills possible, so we ended up tipping the attendant quite generously when he helped us drive the car all the way down the hill after check out.

Our next stop was the famous blue city Chefchaouen, which was just shy of 2.5 hours away. We drove through picturesque expanses of dirt fields and brush that turned to rolling green hills against a brilliant azure sky. We reached Chefchaouen just before noon. We had planned to park in the suggested Madrid hotel parking lot, but the street to said hotel looked really small, so we simply pulled over on the main road, Avenue Hassan II, instead. There was a nearby cart and though we initially tried to avoid the man, he approached us and demanded 1 EUR for the parking, we said that we don’t have euros, so he says, ok 10 MAD. Even though it was obviously just a main street that he had no real jurisdiction, we didn’t want to argue since we were leaving the car for a while, so we paid the guy and he waved us up a set of nearby stairs.

Chefchaouen, Morocco
Chefchaouen, Morocco

As we ascended deeper into Chef, the streets narrowed and the occasional blue building started to appear. After about 15 minutes of walking, we spotted the telltale rainbow of carpets letting us know we were headed in the right direction. It was still quiet here at the edges, only the occasional person passed us by. As the afternoon sun shined down we wandered through the stall lined streets, their clothes and leather goods spilling out. When we passed by and peered in, shopkeepers would glance up but we were mostly left to ourselves.

Chefchaouen, Morocco
Chefchaouen, Morocco

Winding our way through the street we were suddenly engulfed in periwinkles, ceruleans, and teals. Doors, walls and even the paths were painted in blues. Each turn we took felt like an Instagram photo, and we were almost overwhelmed until finally we reached an open square, a main hub for touristy shops and restaurants. We walked quickly through it, men calling out and inviting us into the restaurants, one eager to practice his English, “ok, later alligator” he responds when we decline his offer. We laugh, agreeing amongst ourselves we’d go back to him if we couldn’t find a better spot.

Chefchaouen, Morocco
Chefchaouen, Morocco

Even with our offline Google map, we inevitably lost our way. We started to get hungry, and despite our trekking efforts, it was a real challenge to tell if a restaurant was touristy or not, as most everything we passed was. We eventually gave up and stopped at a Restaurant El Kasbah, which was definitely priced for tourists (30 MAD per tagine) but at least didn’t bother with American food. We order tagines and fantas, glad to fill our bellies but disappointed by the complete lack of flavor in the tagines.

After refueling, we wandered around a little more until we spotted something vaguely familiar and we were be able to backtrack to our starting point. Our rental car sat on the main street waiting for us and the guardian cart guy waved farewell when we drove away.

Tagine, restaurant El kasbah, Chefchaouen, Morocco
Tagine, restaurant El kasbah, Chefchaouen, Morocco

From Chef we drove to Fes and our first stay in a riad, Riad Al Pacha. The drive was almost reminiscent of New Zealand; mountainous, hilly and green. The highway was quiet and easy; we worked our way through our Spotify playlists and watched the landscape unfold.

Road trip through Morocco
Road trip through Morocco

The peace did not last when yet again, we arrived in darkness and both Google and Maps.Me have failed us. Our destination pointed us just beyond a sketchy parking lot behind a large building again with no visible entrance. This was also frustrating because the Hotels.com listing said the riad had valet parking and this was obviously not the case, since the riad entrance didn’t seem accessible without first parking our car. As we drove into the lot, our headlights passed over a row of men lined with empty wheelbarrows, all staring at us.

Anxiety beset us again as another man wearing a yellow reflective vest waved at us and directed us into a parking spot, asking how many nights we are here. We tell him we’re here for Riad Al Pacha just for one night, to which he scribbles something onto a small slip of paper, hands it to us and asks us for 30 MAD, simultaneously calling a wheelbarrow guy. The wheelbarrow guy loads our luggage into the wheelbarrow and takes us through the lot and into an alley, the opposite direction that Google had directed us. As he quickly leads us through the narrow streets, I try to discreetly prepare my small change. When we get to the riad, I hand the wheelbarrow guy 10 MAD, which I thought was enough (based on what I had read online), but he demands 20! A little shocked, I tell him I don’t have anymore and he angrily storms away.

What frustrates me the most about the tipping culture in Morocco is the surprise factor; it’s like finding out the price after the fact. Especially if they’re going to ask for more than you give them, it should just be called a cost rather than a tip as it no longer seems optional. With clearer expectations on both sides, I think everyone would be much happier.

Luckily the sour taste in my mouth quickly subsides as we are warmly welcomed into the riad. They invite us to first rest and have some tea before they show us to our rooms. We sit with heavy sighs, exhausted from the day and wanting nothing more than to shower and sleep. While we wait for the tea, we debate our dinner plans, wary of going out into the city. We admire the ornate alcove with its intricate patterns like endless lace wrapping the walls, almost clashing with the silk brocade cushions.

Riad Al Pacha, Fes, Morocco
Riad Al Pacha, Fes, Morocco

Our first taste of mint tea arrives with the attendant, a young man maybe not even in his twenties yet, who gently sets down the tea tray and proceeds to elegantly pour the tea; cup held low and pot held high – later we learn this is a sign of respect. We watch the hot tea streaming down as the steam swirls up. The piping hot and definitely sweetened mint tea (not unbearably sweet as we’ve been warned, though it does turn out that they use a lot of sugar) begins to soothe us from the inside and we are appeased by this lovely bit of hospitality.

We inquire about their dinner service and are told that it is a 3 course dinner of “salad, tagine and fruit” for 150 MAD a person. Though it seems pricey, we opt to stay in for the night given our fatigue and early morning. We confirmed a dinner time and then headed up to our room.

After washing up and taking a quick peek at the rooftop access (beautiful but completely dark), we headed back down to the lobby for dinner. A male performer is softly playing an oud and a small bird flies into the lantern right above our table; as he flutters his wings, the light flickers like candlelight.

Dinner meal, Riad Al Pacha, Fes, Morocco
Dinner meal, Riad Al Pacha, Fes, Morocco

Fortunately, the meal turned out much nicer than he’d described. The first course is a beautifully presented salad sampler: a fried cauliflower over shredded lettuce, some sort of tomato based olive tapaneda, and a shot glass of cucumber salad. The main course is a chicken tagine: the moment he lifts the tagine cover, the spicy steam promises us a much better time than our lunch in Chef. A whole chicken thigh (hooray for dark meat!) with carrots and olives instantly makes us salivate. By the time we reach dessert, the performer is singing as well, and another couple has started dinner on the other side of the courtyard. The final course is a slightly dry cake topped with a chocolate jello like layer and a raspberry compote sauce. Of our trip so far, this was the best meal, and definitely worth its price tag despite it being on the higher end for Morocco.

Dinner meal, Riad Al Pacha, Fes, Morocco
Dinner meal, Riad Al Pacha, Fes, Morocco

Day 3-4: Fes to Merzouga, Overnight Desert Camp

The next morning we left before breakfast, but luckily they were very accommodating and packed a breakfast for us. We crept out of the riad in darkness and made our way back to the dreaded parking lot, dragging our roller luggage as quietly as possible. As we pull out of the lot a different man approaches us, so we tentatively hand over the slip of paper we were given last night. Satisfied, the man waves us forward and we head out to the main road, beginning our next long day of driving, estimated to take about 7 or so hours.

Road trip through Morocco
Road trip through Morocco

As we drive the sun rises slowly, the dawn colors more vibrant here than anywhere else we’ve been. After about an hour we pass through small towns, a few of them with modern European styled buildings or tree lined neighborhoods, like Imouzzer Kandar. I’d love to stop over in one of those towns on our next trip. On our way we pass many hitchhikers, locals mostly and even kids. It’s fascinating that this practice seems so common and that there seems to be that amount of trust – hitchhiking is no longer common back at home. We stop for gas, water and snacks at a Ifran station.

Road trip through Morocco
Road trip through Morocco

Don’t trust Maps.Me in Morocco

You would think we’d have learned now that our map apps weren’t the most reliable, but here is when we learned doubly not to trust the directions from Maps.Me at all while in Morocco. The route it gave us was shorter than Google and it turns out that’s because it knew of a gravel road that cut through the mountain. Apparently Maps.Me knows of the dirt roads and trails, while Google doesn’t (or ignores them), so we were taken down a route that was not made for regular cars, especially our mild Hyundai, and by the time we got to the edge of a paved road and an uphill gravel path, we realized we needed to get back to the main road and follow Google’s directions instead.

When using these apps, make sure the road they suggest is a highway and not just any road – it cost us an extra hour to backtrack! We later figured out that the short cut would have spit you out right at the parking lot by the monkeys in forest of Azrou, but we would never have made it up the hill. We did catch sight of a few monkeys and plenty of tourists as we passed through, but we didn’t have the time to stop.

Road trip through Morocco
Road trip through Morocco

Despite the stresses of navigating and driving within the cities, our road trip through Morocco is really quite spectacular. We’d drive through an arid hilly area and round a corner to a mountainous region where snow is visibly sloping down its peaks, on through the forests similar to Tahoe and then back to arid empty fields that remind us of Arizona, where the red dirt complements the hazy lavender mountains. Surprisingly, we’ve noticed quite a number of older white men driving RVs going past us throughout our trip.

Road trip through Morocco
Road trip through Morocco

We stop for lunch in Errachidia, at grill restaurant called Zerda, which was mentioned by another blogger. The place does seems geared towards tourists, but we saw a couple locals as well; perhaps this place is mostly for locals to bring rotisserie chicken back home, but it’s fine. It’s quite easy to find, it’s off the main road and there is a large outdoor terrace with the two rotisserie grills by the wall. The chicken is dry, but the smoothies are made with fresh fruit and the bread is served still warm and very fluffy inside.

restaurant grillades zerda, Errachidia, Morocco
quarter chicken plate, restaurant grillades zerda, Errachidia, Morocco

Our Incredible Stay at Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace

We approach the meeting point for our desert stay, driving down the N13, surrounded by desert sands, squinting at the small signs indicating accommodations off the main road. We finally find the sign that says “Kasbah Le Berger” which points us to the left, but as we gaze across the small sand dunes, we can’t tell which building in the distance it is indicating. After driving in a not so straight line towards the larger building, we find another sign that leads us to the guesthouse. We drive into the compound and park the car in a gravel lot and head into the building. As we enter, I trip over the doorstep, but luckily no one is there to witness. We wait a few moments when a man comes in from the courtyard and greets us warmly and offers tea. After a bit of pleasant small talk and finishing the tea, our driver Salem arrives and takes us across the sand in a dusty jeep and the typical scarf wrapped around his neck. He puts on an energetic song that (in my limited exposure) reminds me of bhangra, slowing down when he notices us taking photos as we admire the dunes. The air is warm as it rushes in through the windows and we realize the scarf is probably handy for blocking the sand particles, which are very fine and picks up easily here.

Ali & Sara's Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco
Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco

Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace is a beautiful camp covered with colorful carpets, unlike the surrounding ones with white plastic tents. We are immediately welcomed by the camp manager Yassine, who shows us around the camp and we are again offered tea. Our luck in Morocco picks up as we are the only guests at the camp for the night, which really gives us such personalized attention from the staff. We are allowed to settle a bit before our sunset camel ride, which Yassine prepares us for with brilliantly colored djellabas (robes) and corresponding turbans. He wraps the turbans upon us almost tenderly and readies us for the camel ride. We walk to the far end of the camp and meet Hmad, the camel driver, who helps us clamber onto the camels, instructing us to “hold on, lean back, lean back” as the camels surge back onto their feet. He shuffles easily across the sand, walking our camels to a nearby peak to catch the end of the sunset, offering to take many, many photos for us.

Ali & Sara's Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco
Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco

Hmad knows many languages, as typical of the nomadic Berbers, so with a mix of French and English we attempt conversation. He tries to teach us how to say sand in northern Berber but we can barely make the sounds. He laughs and smiles with us though, and again we are overwhelmed at how many other cultures are multilingual. As we sit on the silky soft sand, the camels snort and chew loudly behind us and one of them keeps smacking his tongue about. A couple of tourists pass by, amused by the behavior and asks their guide about it, to which he replies that camels do that when they “want a lady friend”. Though the truth of that is unlikely, everyone enjoys the joke and we wish our fellow travelers well. We noticed that they were only wearing shorts and must have been quite cold, which made us realize what a thoughtful touch it was for our camp to provide the robes.

Ali & Sara's Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco
Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco

We return to camp and are invited to relax before dinner, but shortly after sitting outside of our tent, Yassine returns and says that Sara had passed on our request to learn about the food preparation and so we were invited to join them in the kitchen to make dinner together. We head to the cooking tent and Yassine and another staff member (unfortunately I forgot his name) proceed to walk us through the various dishes we will prepare that evening, which included soup, baked cauliflower, beef tagine, and fried eggplant. Yassine even explains about the Couscoussier and shows us how to make Moroccan mint tea. The secret is brewing the strong loose leaf green tea from China first and then placing fresh mint leaves into the pot towards the end. The sweetener, typically sugar, is added via sugar cubes in a cup; pouring the tea into the cup, dissolving the sugar, tasting, and then pouring it back into the pot. We discovered that quite a bit of sugar is needed to balance out the strength of the tea.

Ali & Sara's Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco
Cooking our dinner, Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco

While dinner finished cooked, we stood under the blanket of stars and Yassine pointed out the planets; Mars is red, Venus stays lit the longest and even Pluto is visible tonight. We chatted comfortably about the differences in Moroccan and American cultures; how we admire the village mindset rather than the individualistic perspective back home. We were then treated to some Moroccan red wine with lovely fruit notes, after which we were seated in the dining tent and served the dinner, course by course. There was a cheese and jam and olive and bread plate and the vegetable and chicken soup. Carl was bitten by a mosquito sometime between that and the eggplant and cauliflower dishes (so lucky that I wasn’t!). Finally the beef tagine is served, but we’re already so full. We could barely touch the fruit that came for dessert, afterwards we waddled back to our tent.

Ali & Sara's Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco
Starry Night in the Desert, Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco

Unable to sit after dinner, we grab our cameras and attempt some astrophotography. We trudge up the dune and take some long exposures while the guys in the camp stoke up a fire. We’re invited to join them as they gather some drums and begin to play and sing. After a few songs Yassine asks us if we want to try drumming, Carl is recording, so I nervously take over a drum. Yassine shows me how to hold the drum between my legs, how the drum must be lifted off the ground for it to play, and demonstrates a simple pattern. I slowly join him in the pattern, and when I can play it satisfactorily, Yassine begins to play another part. Sadly I can’t hold the rhythm as the other guys begin to dance around the fire I get distracted and lose the beat. Yassine quickly comes back to the original pattern and allows me to rejoin. After the song I feel flushed and mildly accomplished, but I eagerly relinquish the drum and allow the guys to continue playing, gaining momentum and passion. They sing loudly and it’s marvelous. The fire dances bright orange, its flickers catch in their eyes. The smoke slowly weaves up into the darkness and we wrap up the night.

The stars are still shining the next morning when we get up for our sunrise camel ride. Again we are dressed for the cold, turbans are wrapped around our head and we meet Hmad at the edge of camp. With another “hold on, please, hold on” our camels are up and off, as we follow Hmad across the unidentifiable dunes. It is quite cold, the metal handle of the harness is difficult to hold with the bare hand. Slowly the black turns to blue and dawn begins to rise beyond the horizon. This morning Hmad is wearing a red retro athletic jacket that contrasts sharply with his beige robe, reminding me again about the meeting of cultures. The desert is quiet except for the sounds of the camel and the whispers of sand shifting from their steps. We return to the top of a dune in time to sit and watch the sun come up over the horizon. It’s almost romantic, despite the rhythmic chewing and moans from the camels. Hmad teases me, as I take endless photos, “click, click”, he mimics my shutter.

Breakfast, Ali & Sara's Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco
Breakfast: berber omelette, Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco

We return to camp and breakfast is ready for us upon a table in the center of camp. There is french toast, a Berber omelette, orange juice and our now favorite mint tea. We lament the end of our time here as we eat, feeling as if we were at the edges of waking from a luxurious dream. After breakfast we pack up and ready ourselves to return, quickly requesting a group photo and though we are interrupting their work, they oblige.

Ali & Sara's Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco
The wonderful staff at Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace, Merzouga, Morocco

The hospitality we experienced at Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace was unrivaled and Yassine was the most incredible host. And while we never got to meet Sara, it certainly felt like we were given great attention from her: knowing she looked at our blog and honored our emailed requests about the camel rides and the cooking lessons. We left with such reluctance, but we will surely make our way back soon and eagerly recommend them for anyone traveling to Morocco.

Day 5-6: Merzouga to Marakkech

After getting dropped back at our car at the Kasbah Le Berger, we started our last but longest drive yet, an estimated 9 hours of driving. We make steady progress towards Ouarzazate, a common stopping point on our way. The terrain is mostly red rock and mountains, not nearly as diverse or scenic as the northern part of Morocco. We don’t reach Ouarzazate until almost 4pm, where we stop for a late lunch and cash. Most of the restaurants along the main street seem highly touristy, but we still have a long drive so we try to find a place with quick food to take away.

A Cafe Restaurant Royal advertised sandwiches on their menu so we peek inside but when we ask about sandwiches for take away the server offers the menu and says only the skewers and pizzas are for take away, so we settle on some skewers. Unfortunately it takes quite some time and there are so many smokers inside of the restaurant, that we start to feel cranky. As soon as our food is ready we get back in the car and drive, picking at the food with my hands and feeding Carl as we try to make up for the time.

Avoid driving in Marrakech

Marrakech is crazy! An adventurer’s challenge, maybe dream, but it was quite an adjustment after the calm of Merzouga. The drive from Ouarzazate to Marrakech turned out to be a nightmare as the N9 was all mountain road and almost completely under construction. It was unbelievably stressful for Carl to drive those roads in our powerless Hyundai, in the dark of night and trying to make our rental car drop-off time, which we didn’t make of course.

Once in the city, there were so many cars, bikes and motorbikes that it was alarming to drive. We had trouble with Google as it directed us to the Airport via closed roads and when we finally got into the Marrakech airport, we wound up circling around and around looking for the rental car return area. They had no signs – apparently you just park in the middle paid parking lot. We drove around and asked people, airport workers, and finally a security guard, but no one could provide explicit instructions.

Eventually we were told to park in one of the lots, but after entering and pulling a ticket to enter the lot, we couldn’t tell if there was a designated area to park and there didn’t seem to be anyone to ask. So we parked the car, leaving the luggage in the trunk and took only our backpacks into the airport, where we had to go through some security (which again stopped us on account of our cameras). We then located the Avis kiosk, where a guy was waiting for us to check in. We asked him about the lot and he confirmed that you just left the car there and asked for the parking ticket. We told him we had left our luggage since we didn’t realize that was the protocol, so he walked out with us to the car so we retrieved our luggage and all went back to the airport to meet our shuttle driver, who luckily had not left without us despite how late we were.

It was too stressful of a day, and Carl and I sat in silence in the shuttle van, the adrenaline dump tingle numbing us, just grateful that someone else was now handling the driving. At the edge of a main street we were dropped off to meet the manager, Aziz, who led us all the way into the riad, Riad Le Pavillon Oriental, without which we would have struggled for sure. That’s a main recommendation as we walk away from Morocco, is to arrange for someone from your stay to come meet you outside the city, as there are never enough signs and Google and Maps.Me cannot be trusted.

Adventures of Marrakech

Le Pavillion Oriental, Marrakech, Morocco
Le Pavillion Oriental, Marrakech, Morocco

Compared to the rest of Morocco, we found that Marrakech was not as hospitable. Certainly they offered us some tea at the riad, but then we got sidetracked by paperwork and never got our tea. Elsewhere people took our luggage right away and offered tea and had us relax, never hurrying us, always serving and pouring the tea for us. Here there was not quite the same warmth and there was definitely more of the bustle of city life. After a long night’s sleep, we spent the next day wandering through the infamous Marrakech souks, which turned out fun but very chaotic. We certainly lost track of where we were multiple times, and the moment that we stopped and pulled out our phones to look at a map, we were approached. We had young school kids speaking to us in perfect French and English, asking if we were lost, but we politely declined their help.

Wandering for a couple hours we finally reached an area that had food. We were tempted to try a stall along the path but the seating was along narrow and cramped bar tops, so we continued to walk along until we spotted a restaurant that boasted a high TripAdvisor rating, which in retrospect maybe shouldn’t have been what we stopped at. Well, it wasn’t that amazing but it wasn’t the worst, the chicken tagine was dry even though it was dark meat, but the covered rooftop terrace eating was quite a lovely escape. Most the restaurants do have rooftop seating though, so it’s not a rare thing, though we did notice that all the locals stayed in the second floor or down at ground level of this restaurant.

After lunch we wander around the souk a little longer and I pick up a leather wallet with multiple pockets so I can separate all of our international currencies during the trip. In the Marrakech souks you will definitely be called at and they are much more aggressive in selling you something. Especially the moment you touch something, they will latch on to you so quickly! Everyone will promise you the best price, specifically “not tourist price” and then proceed to show you how great their products are. You can totally haggle within the market stalls, a good place to start is asking for their price and then countering with somewhere close to half their price, or just above it, and work your way to a middle ground. If you buy more than one thing, that’s always better bargaining power. If you don’t have small change, then ask first if they have change, but if they don’t just start to walk away and they’ll likely figure out a way to get you the change.

Marrakech, Morocco
Marrakech, Morocco

Throughout the marketplace, we are bombarded with the ethnicity question, “hola, sir, madam, hello, China? Korea? Thailand-er? Vietnam?” we giggle to ourselves as we walk. It seems that Filipinos have not yet made their way here, so no one can guess what Carl is.
As we walk past yet another stall with strange clay objects and unidentified tools, the guy stops us and begins to rapidly demonstrate what each object is. “These are Moroccan beauty products, all natural,” he says, he grabs what appears to be a bell-shaped piece of clay, swipes at it with a finger and shows us the red smear, “lipstick”, he declares excitedly. “Here, this pencil, women lick it and rub it on their eyes”, he mimics drawing over his eyes: kohl pencils. “Here smell”, he grabs a cake of perfume, “you use for perfume or deodorant!”. Carl almost caves when we’re shown the mystical toothpick/seed tool combo. And already under his spell we unhesitatingly try the tea with menthol crystal that he offers, which we realize after the fact we should have probably been more cautious about. Luckily we survive the encounter.

Despite the bad rap, most the Moroccans we’ve encountered have been quite honest and very welcoming – everyone is always warning you about someone else who is going around doing bad things.

As evening approaches, we head back to the main square to check out the dinner market but wow the hawkers were super aggressive, instantly accosting Carl to show him the menu and tell him this or that, prefacing the bit with, “I’m very polite!”. The guy at stall 75 was actually pretty funny though he was quite physical, grabbing Carl to show him their various offerings, “lifetime guarantee no diarrhea!”. Some of those stalls were definitely offering some good looking cheap eats, but it was just too intense for us.

Marrakech, Morocco
Marrakech, Morocco

Overwhelmed we headed back to a quieter alley close to our riad to try a food stall we saw earlier in the day. A really nice lady is making these flatbread crepe things, something like a fajita sandwich. They were so tasty  Carl ordered another one to-go and finished it back at our room.

The next morning, we wake up again to the prayer calls just before sunrise and again later to shrill birds, but it is not a terrible thing. We have breakfast up on the roof once more: various types of breads with jams and honey and the delicious mint tea and orange juice. We do a little recording and editing in the riad, savoring the calm.

Breakfast, Le Pavillion Oriental, Marrakech, Morocco
Breakfast, Le Pavillion Oriental, Marrakech, Morocco

Toward noon, we head out to the souks again where we grab a mixed fruit drink and slowly make our way outside of the medina. We walk out to the gardens next to the Koutoubia Minaret, and then all the way out to the Cyber park. Strolling through the lush tranquil gardens it’s very difficult to reconcile the chaos in the souk or even within the Medina to the calm of the garden.

Cyber Park, Marrakech, Morocco
Cyber Park, Marrakech, Morocco

On our way back from the garden, we end up in a small side street and get approached by a guy who asks where if we’re looking for the souk. Of course it starts off innocently enough, we say we’re ok but he points out that we are headed the wrong way. He then provides some rapid directions and then quickly says, “I will take you”. He leads us through many small streets chatting, while we follow along and keep track on our maps. When he brought us just to the edge of the medina, he asks for “some small gift” for his help, I offer him 10 MAD, but he shakes his head, “no just some small gift, coins is nothing”. We tell him sorry that is all we have, we are leaving today and have no other cash, so he says fine and takes the coin. And with that we’ve completed our Moroccan experience: we’ve gotten lost, gotten helped, bargained, been called out to, felt overwhelmed, experienced tranquility, been hassled and shown great hospitality.

Marrakech, Morocco
Marrakech, Morocco

After that we decide to play it safe and return to the quieter food stall for lunch but their promised tagine is not ready so we just grab some Moroccan style egg rolls; fried triangles, with noodles and fish or vegetables in it. They turn out ok, crispy but the fish one was too fishy and spicy so it wasn’t a winner for me.

After lunch we head back to the riad to get ready for our airport drop off. Aziz walks us again from the riad to the main street corner where the same driver picks us up and delivers us to the airport. We go through the same security and get stopped another time for our electronics and questioned about drones, but eventually we are allowed through and we head over the lounge, hoping for food and some time to catch up on our editing.

Pearl Lounge in Marrakesh Menara Airport

Pearl Lounge in Marrakesh Menara Airport is pretty small and the food was so-so. Most of it was behind a counter so someone has to get it for you. There were 3 self-serve hot entrees but they had been sitting for while. We sampled some of their desserts and hunkered down to finish up some writing.

Final Verdict on Road tripping through Morocco

During our 6 days through Morocco, we (Carl) drove a total of 1414 km, just shy of 880 miles, which is not even twice the 500 mile drive from San Francisco to San Diego, but it takes forever-forever much longer. We had less than a week and it definitely wasn’t enough time. If we could do it again we would drive from Tangier to Merzouga, spend as much time as possible at Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace, and hire a driver from Merzouga to Marrakech. We loved the quiet calm of the desert and much prefer that over the chaotic souks and cities. If you want to do some shopping but prefer less aggression, we recommend Chefchaouen instead of Marrakech. Browse our photos for inspiration or read on for more logistical information or jump down to the details on all the places we stayed.

Photo Gallery

Logistics

General

Top Tips for Visiting Morocco:

  • The moment you arrive, get small change: you’ll need to use a money exchange not just an ATM. Once you leave the airport you’ll likely need to start tipping.
  • There is also typically a city tax for your stay, per night per person so it’s good to have change ready for that.
  • Everything will cost you something: you can ask and it will be given. If you look lost, people are very willing to help – but they’ll expect something in return.
  • Everything will take longer than you think: travel time, meals, etc.
  • Maps will not be enough: you will get lost. Check satellite view when looking for directions, try to arrive with plenty of daylight for searching out your destination, and keep in mind most riads will require walking through small streets or alleys.
  • If you’re traveling towards Marrakech, the N9 is no-joke mountainous and when we were there it was super muddy and under construction.
  • Watch out for steps and stairs. In riads and buildings there are always steps, even if it’s a short step, they’ll catch you by surprise!

Driving & Traveling through Morocco

We opted to rent a car and drive from Tangier to Marrakech as it was much cheaper. The drive from Tangier to Fes to Merzouga was quite beautiful in early December, with mild weather and a great diversity of terrain. Be careful of the trip between Merzouga to Marrakech though, the N9 mountain road was terrible and under construction, taking us twice as long as it should.

There were lots of police “check points” but we were never stopped at any of them. Do be careful of the speed traps though – they will surely get you. The tricky thing is that there aren’t very many speed limit signs, so you’ll just go to go by the rule of thumb of 60 km/h within urban areas and go slower if you’re not sure. We were pulled over for going 78 in a supposed 60 zone, though we hadn’t seen a single sign in miles. We were charged 150 MAD, cash, no receipt. The police man was super friendly though, he asked where we were from and offered us nuts to welcome us to Morocco. We learned that Moroccans really take care of each other; one way they do this is by signaling to oncoming traffic when there’s a speed trap. If you see a car flashing their lights at you, slow down – likely there’s a cop around the curve.

Renting with Avis

We reserved our rental car online with Avis. We got an automatic as neither of us were comfortable enough to driving stick, automatics are limited in Morocco, so make sure to reserve in advance. Beware of their super sketch policy that if you don’t buy full coverage for $106 (when we reserved only it included partial coverage and since our credit card provides coverage as well, we didn’t feel the need) they hold a $2500 deposit until you return the car! However, when we checked on the card later the deposit never seemed to make it to our card statement.

While we felt the Hyundai was super tiny (barely enough trunk space to fit our two luggages, we always had to take our backpacks with us) and struggled so hard to accelerate or go up hills, but we can’t imagine driving a bigger car into any of the cities. On the plus side, all the cars in the Avis lot seemed fairly new and not as rundown as we’d been warned. Still, we took photos of every ding as best we could before leaving the lot, which is a good idea since the car return to Marrakech was only a drop off and there was no formal inspection or records given to us.

Marrakesh Menara Airport Rental Car Drop-off

If you have a rental car drop-off in Marrakech airport, there are no informative signs or directions for what to do. We circled for almost an hour and asked a handful of people until finally one of the security guards said to park in a lot. So it turns out you drive into the airport and look for this middle parking lot. You will have to pull a ticket to enter, keep this ticket. Park anywhere in this lot and make your way into the airport. You will have to go through security to enter the airport. From there locate your rental kiosk and turn in the parking ticket with your keys.

Marrakech Airport rental car drop-off map, Google Maps
Marrakech Airport rental car drop-off map, Google Maps

Vaccinations: Routine Vaccinations

Mosquito problems: Carl was bitten in Merzouga, but I was somehow not! Our hosts did recommended bug spray but for other seasons, so it’s probably not normally a problem during the winter season

Problems for tattoos: None

Traveling as a woman: Take extra precautions. Traveling together as a couple, we never felt unsafe. Marrakech tended to be much more aggressive than the smaller cities like Chefchaouen or even in the desert out in Merzouga. The “salesmen” in the Marrakech souks would be pretty aggressive with Carl, touching him and such, but they never laid a hand on me.

budgeting

Currency: 1 MAD = 0.11 USD
The tipping culture in Morocco can be overwhelming and almost aggressive if you’re unaccustomed. Everyone will help you – with your bags, with parking, with directions – but they’ll be expecting a “tip” afterwards. One thing I didn’t quite like about this is that you’re not always sure what’s appropriate to tip, it would be better if there was a negotiated cost in the beginning.

Daily Budget

$100/person: This was for 6 evenings driving from Tangier to Marrakech with a one night glamping splurge at Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace. Morocco can either be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be!

Some typical costs

  • Avis 4 day car rental, different location drop off: $153.78
  • Half a tank of gas: around 150 MAD
  • Riad: $55-60/night
  • Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace: $265/night

Where to Stay in Morocco

Hotel Continental, 36 Rue Dar Baroud, Tangier 90000 Morocco, $$

The hotel is very old, once hosted many a celebrity, but the space is small. There is no elevator and lots of steps everywhere, so be careful. The internet is shoddy in the room but ok in the lobby.
Beware that Googling the address won’t get you up to hotel, which is on a hill. It’s best if you have a driver take you, as the portion from the parking lot to the actual hotel requires driving through some very narrow streets and does not show up via a map. You can also ask a local but be ready to tip them!

How to get to Hôtel Continental, Google Maps
How to get to Hôtel Continental, Google Maps

Riad Al Pacha, 7, Derb El Miter Ain Azliten, Talàa El Kbira, Fes, 30100 Morocco, $$

The riad is quite beautiful inside and the service was welcoming. They offer a 3 course dinner service which was on the expensive side for Morocco but was very tasty. WiFi was strong throughout the riad. The hotels.com listing claimed there was valet parking and a jetted bathtub but there was neither.
Beware that Googling the address will take you to a parking lot. The actual riad takes a bit of a walk from that lot. A guy will ask you for about 30 MAD/night for parking and another guy with a wheelbarrow will take your luggage for you and take you to the riad. We tipped him 10 MAD and he asked for more but we told him we don’t have any thing else and he left angrily.
We highly recommend the riad, but it might be better to arrange a pick up with the riad itself.

How to get to Riad Al Pacha, Google Maps
How to get to Riad Al Pacha, Google Maps

Ali & Sara’s Desert Palace, Erg Chebbi Dunes, Merdane, Merzouga, Morocco 52202, $$$

Amazing desert camp, the food was delicious and the attention we received was phenomenal. This was our favorite part of the trip and highly recommend more than one night if you can manage it.

Le Pavillon Oriental, 54, Derb Jdid, Riad Zitoun Lakdim, Marrakech 40000, $$

Another beautiful riad, we had arranged with them for an airport shuttle when we dropped off the

Resources that helped us plan our trip

alongdustyroads.com/posts/2017/7/26/morocco-road-trip-route-itinerary

solaristraveller.com/road-trip-fes-driving-merzouga

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