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Next up: Deciding how long to stay in Morocco and fitting it all in

Next up: Deciding how long to stay in Morocco and fitting it all in

This is the last part of a two-part installment where I discuss the most important questions in planning a trip to Morocco. I outline these Morocco travel considerations here and also offer a few resources to help plan your trip to Morocco.

In Part I we talk about planning a trip to the desert and deciding which dunes to visit -- either Erg Chebbi near Merzouga or the more ambitious journey to Erg Chigaga outside of M'hamid al Ghizlane.

Kantara Tours takes clients on an overnight camel trek to luxury camp in Erg Chebbi dunes outside of Merzouga, Morocco

Once you decide which dunes to visit, it's important to figure out how long you plan to stay in Morocco.

If you're planning to visit the desert, an ideal amount of time to visit Morocco for the first time is anywhere from 12 days to two weeks. If you have less than seven days and you want to visit the desert, it's still possible. Just keep in mind, you may be a bit more rushed and you may be spending more time in the car than you had anticipated. Which isn’t a terrible prospect either, because the countryside is stunning, the views are breathtaking, and the change in environment is surprising.
 
If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, one way to maximize your time in country is to consider flying into one location and flying out of a different one. For instance, arrive in Marrakech, visit Erg Chebbi dunes, and either fly out of Fes or Ouarzazate. Splitting up your ticket between arrival and departure city often has little impact on the cost of your airfare. Further, it allows you to take advantage of all your time in Morocco to continue to discover new places without the need to backtrack.
Moroccan brass lamps outside of Arfoud hotel near Morocco's Sahara desert on Kantara Tours custom tour

If you fly out of Ouarzazate, you should know that it’s a small regional airport and you will most likely change planes in Casablanca or Marrakech. This is an ideal departure airport for travelers who want to visit either Erg Chebbi or Erg Chigaga. Fes, on the other hand, has an international airport, allowing folks to travel directly to their international destinations.

Kantara Tours visits Fes' palace on guided tour of the old medina learning about Morocco's history

Once these questions are answered you can get back to the fun task of filling in the rest of the itinerary. If you're looking for inspiration, check out my top suggestions of places to visit. If you're still at a loss and would like more support in designing your itinerary, check out our custom tours options.

Visiting Marrakech's Jmaa el Fna square, as seen from nearby restaurant terrace, on Kantara Tours Signature 12-day tour throughout Morocco

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First thing's first: riding camels in the Sahara desert in Morocco

First thing's first: riding camels in the Sahara desert in Morocco

This is Part I of a two-part blog post that looks into the most important considerations when planning a trip to Morocco. I outline these Morocco travel considerations here and also offer a few resources to help plan your trip to Morocco.

In this installment, I want to talk specifically about the question of whether to visit the desert or not. If you do want to go to the desert, this will take the most time, and it will be important to plan the rest of your trip around it.

Kantara Tours camel trek to luxury camp in Erg Chebbi dunes outside of Merzouga

In addition to deciding DESERT or NO DESERT, you will also have to decide which desert.

There are two desert dunes that you can visit. Erg Chebbi is just outside of Merzouga or Erg Chigaga is a few hours south of Zagora.

ERG CHEBBI - MERZOUGA

Erg Chebbi is the more popular and well-known option. Travelers usually visit the dunes here on their way from Marrakech to Fes or on a quick Marrakech-and-back round trip tour. At these dunes, it’s easy to ride a camel into the desert, and spend the night in a luxury camp on the edge of the dune. Almost all the luxury camps offer en-suite toilets in each traveler’s tent. The tents that I usually stay in are kitted out with comfortable beds and bedding, lighting run by generators, and a door that shuts firmly against the elements. Other camps up the ante and provide travelers with en suite toilet and shower. Thanks to Morocco's investment in its tourism infrastructure, it’s not uncommon to find full bars of cell service at most of these camps. To visit these dunes, owners of the desert camp recommend arriving an hour and a half before sunset. That way you can pack a small backpack, hop on your camel, and plod out into the desert with enough time to catch the sunset from the top of a dune in the Sahara.
 
Custom Kantara Tours client staring out over Erg Chebbi dunes near Merzouga in east of Morocco

Visiting the dunes outside of Merzouga offer travelers more options:
  • You can stay overnight in the desert in one of these luxury camps;
  • You could ride camels both into and out of the desert. Or you could ride camels into the desert and return by 4x4 to Merzouga. Most of my clients prefer the latter option as one long camel ride is quite enough.
  • If you don't want to sleep in the desert, you can take a camel ride into the desert to catch the sunset and then return to your hotel to sleep. There are plenty of great hotel options in local towns on the edge of the desert such as Merzouga, Rissani, and Erfoud (sometimes spelled Arfoud).

Milky way in night sky at luxury desert camp in Erg Chebbi outside of Merzouga with Kantara Tours

ERG CHIGAGA - M'HAMID AL GHIZLANE

In contrast, the Erg Chigaga dunes, outside of M’hamid el Ghizlane, are much more remote and hard to access. After arriving in M’hamid el Ghizlane, travelers will jump in a 4x4 where they drive 2.5 hours to the desert camps. Once you arrive at the camp, you can relax, walk around, drink mint tea, or try your hand at sand-boarding. Just before sunset you'll jump on the camels and take a trek to the base of Erg Chigaga, the highest dune.
 
Kantara Tours camel trek to luxury camp next to Erg Chigaga outside of M'hamid al Ghizlane in Morocco

If you want to visit Erg Chigaga, it makes the most sense to travel round-trip from Marrakech. I would also encourage you to arrive in M’hamid el Ghizlane early enough in the day. Once in M'hamid el Ghizlane, keep in mind that you'll still have another 2+ hour 4x4 ride to the desert camp and an hour-long camel ride before sunset.
 
Because of its more remote location, there are not as many tourists in Erg Chigaga, and odds are there will be very few other people in your desert camp.
 

GETTING THERE AND BACK

With both Erg Chebbi outside of Merzouga and Erg Chigaga outside of M’hamid al Ghizlane, there are plenty of small towns to visit along the way. That's a post for another time.
 
Kantara Tours on the Route of 1000 Kasbahs stopping along the way en route to desert camel trek in Erg Chigaga

Even though you can visit the desert, ride camels and return to Marrakech in only four days, I wouldn't recommend it. I will always encourage you to take your time in driving out to the desert and back-- there are so many wonderful things to see along the way! More on that later.
In the meantime, once you've decided if you're going to the desert and which dunes you're going to visit, it's important to nail down how much time you're planning to spend in country. Click here to read Part II of this installment, which talks about the ideal trip length to visit the desert and do everything else you want to do in Morocco.
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Planning a trip to Morocco? Consider these 2 things first

Planning a trip to Morocco? Consider these 2 things first

How in the world do you see everything you want to see when visiting Morocco for the first time?

If I’m catching you at the beginning of your travel planning to Morocco, that’s great! We have more flexibility to play.

Morocco is a country of incredible contrasts and rich, vibrant moments. It’s natural that we would want to take advantage of our time in Morocco and experience everything. From delectable food to mesmerizing music. From the urban cities to the dusty Sahara. From exquisite craftsmanship to breathtaking architecture.
 

But how do we fit it all in?

When folks reach out to ask for advice about upcoming trips to Morocco, there are two things I want to know first:

  1. How important is it to you to visit the Sahara desert and ride camels? Read more about how to choose which Moroccan dunes to visit and logistics of getting there and back.
  2. How much time are you planning to be in Morocco and have you bought your tickets yet? Read more about how long you should visit Morocco and how to take advantage of limited travel time in order to see as much as possible.

Sunset and camel ride in the Sahara Desert on Kantara Tours 12 day trip throughout Morocco

And then beyond that, the trip is up to you and your interests…

Once you decide how long you’ll be in Morocco, if you’re going to the desert or not, and which dunes you plan to visit, the rest usually falls into place. Morocco is many things to many people. There are those that visit and only stay in Marrakech. Others seek out beach and surf adventures all along the coast. Others prefer hiking in the mountains. And there are those that want to learn about Morocco’s complex diaspora of Arab tribes, Amazigh indigenous people, and legacy of Jewish Moroccans.

Traveling through the High Atlas Mountains with Kantara Tours' 12 day Signature Tour throughout Morocco

This is the fun part where you get to decide what's most important to you.

Here are some additional resources for you as you plan your trip to Morocco:

 

Fes Riad with moorish Moroccan architecture on Kantara Tours visit during 12 day tour of Morocco

Looking for more help as you plan your trip to Morocco?

If the idea of narrowing down all the options in Morocco is overwhelming to you, I’m happy to help you plan your trip! I offer a couple different solutions for travelers. Options include:
  • CONSULT ONLY: One hour phone consultation with Alia
  • ITINERARY: A custom-designed itinerary based on your timing, locations you want to visit, and travel schedule.
  • ITINERARY, DRIVER: We’ll put together a custom-itinerary for you, book your hotels, and hire a trusted, reliable driver for you and your fellow travelers.
  • ITINERARY, DRIVER, GUIDE: This is the same as the previous one, except I’ll join your tour as a guide and fixer.

For more information about custom tours, visit our website, or reach out to inquire about custom tour options and rates.

Finally, if you're interested in joining one of our regularly scheduled tours that run throughout the year, we'd love to have you. 

  • SIGNATURE KANTARA TOUR: Join an existing 12-day Kantara Tour. These tours are designed for 9-15 people and run periodically throughout the year. Visit Kantara Tours website for more information about our Signature Tour.
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Empty streets in Marrakech during Morocco's Covid-19 lockdown

Empty streets in Marrakech during Morocco's Covid-19 lockdown

Anyone who has visited Marrakch's iconic Jemaa el Fna square knows that it is can be an overwhelming cacophony of sights, sounds, and smellsUnder normal circumstances, vendors of all ilk press together to hawk their wares to tourists at all hours of the day and night.

This is in direct contrast to the Marrakech of the Covid era. A friend sent me this time-lapse video taken in Marrakech's medina. The video starts in the Rahba Kedima square, winds through the eerily empty souks, and eventually spills out into a vacant and ghostly Jemaa el Fna square, framed in the background by the Koutoubia mosque

Clearly these are not normal times. Morocco sprung into action on March 18th, in response to the growing worldwide pandemic. At first, the country asked its people to voluntarily restrict movement as a way to slow the spread of the virus. At that point, Morocco had 49 confirmed cases of Covid-19, two fatalities, and one full recovery.

Then, on March 19th, the government declared a State of Emergency. The lockdown was no longer voluntary; it was now enforceable by state police. 

Empty streets in Morocco as a result of the Covid-19 Coronavirus lockdown and government imposed State of Emergency that went into effect on March 19th, 2020

Within two days, Morocco began closing international airports. This came much to the surprise of tourists who missed the memo that Morocco was now closed for businessA small window of time remained for travelers to leave Morocco on a handful of very expensive, chartered, one-way flights.

And then the country closed down.

Two months later, the borders remain closed; the best estimate of when they'll reopen is the end of May. For now, we sit and wait and dream about filling those streets once more. Until we meet again.

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Documentary short of ultramarathoner Aziza Raji

Documentary short of ultramarathoner Aziza Raji

Going into the seventh week of quarantine lockdown amidst this global Coronavirus pandemic, I'm grateful to see those inspiring stories that transport me from my home in Los Angeles to other parts of the world. 

Aziza Raji is an ultramarathoner from the Valley of Roses in Morocco. Located near Ouarzazate, most travelers en route to the desert will pass through this region. I know this region well from my many years of traveling solo through Morocco on buying trips, and now with clients, on Kantara Tours

This short documentary directed by Ryan Goff and Matt Pycroft is a poetic exploration of the life of a young female Moroccan athlete set against a stunning backdrop of the High Atlas mountains. Aziza holds the illustrious designation of having two top-10 finishes in the Marathon des Sables, a six-day race that crosses through the hear of the Moroccan Sahara. I could go on and on, but the film speaks for itself! 

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Smithsonian Journeys Lectures on Morocco

Smithsonian Journeys Lectures on Morocco
In response to requests to share my Smithsonian Journeys Morocco lectures, I've posted them here for your enjoyment. Where possible, I included the citation so curious readers can follow up and read the larger article behind the particular story, image, or infographic. Continue reading

Traveling with the Smithsonian in Morocco

Traveling with the Smithsonian in Morocco

Last month I had the honor of joining a Smithsonian Journeys trip as their Morocco expert. We spent 12 days traveling through Morocco on a route that I have traveled countless times before.

It's the same route that I've taken for years through the Middle and High Atlas mountains on Kantara buying trips, visiting artisans along the way. This time I returned with a tour director who has spent the last 38 years leading trips in Morocco. 

Needless to say, we covered a lot of ground-- geographically, as well as in terms of content matter. 

Here are some of the highlights of the trip.

We visited the potters in Fes and learned about the zellij tile work.

I got recruited to help with the tea ceremony...

We visited ancient Roman ruins, dating back to 2nd century BCE...

And visited the more recently abandoned Kasbahs along the Route des Mille Kasbahs.

After a full day exploring Rissani and learning about its significance as the site of the medieval caravan trading village Sijilmassa and the birthplace of the current Alaouite dynasty, we headed out to the desert for a sunrise camel trek.

And we stayed in some pretty incredible places.

With impeccable design taste...

And sunrises to wake up for.

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Morocco Travel Tips - Overview

Morocco Travel Tips - Overview

Moroccan house Telouet

I often get asked about my recommendations for places to visit in Morocco. It's an incredible country with quite a lot to offer, offering visitors the opportunity to design their vacations depending on their specific interests and time constraints.

For those on a budget, Morocco can be visited on the cheap, backpacking from one place to another and traveling by public transportation between cities and the countryside.

For those looking for a more luxurious experience, there are riad hotels in most cities that offer a quiet reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the medina streets outside.

For intrepid travelers looking for thrills and adventure, there's world-class surfing all along the coast, long treks up Mount Toubkal, the second-highest mountain in Africa, rock climbing in the Todra gorges as seen in the Free Solo documentary about Alex Honnold, motorcycle tours through the Atlas Mountains, and desert camel excursions to top it all off.

The type of vacation you end up choosing in Morocco is often a factor of how much time you'll be in the country, along with your decision of whether or not to visit the edge of the Sahara for a desert trip.

After ten+ years of living in and traveling through Morocco, the following are my top ten list of sites to see, which includes a mix of big cities and smaller towns, with pictures and more explanations to follow:

1. Rabat
2. Fes
3. Marrakech

 

Smaller towns:

 

Historical sites:
6. Telouet

 

Off the beaten path:
10. The desert (Zagora or Merzouga)

 

Kantara visits many of these locations on both buying trips and with clients as part of Kantara Tours. Read more about Kantara Tours offerings here -- we have everything from our out of the box 12-day tour to custom travel itineraries.

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Morocco Travel Tips - Imperial Cities | Rabat, Fes, Marrakech

Morocco Travel Tips - Imperial Cities | Rabat, Fes, Marrakech

I. Rabat

Rabat is the capital of Morocco and the fourth largest city in Morocco. Because it is not often on the top of tourists' lists, Rabat's medina is fairly calm and pleasant to wander around, without the urgency or aggressiveness from vendors that you might get in other cities. There is a long shoe souk that leads up to the Rue de Consuls where you can find most of the other souvenirs and crafts that you might find in other cities, from rugs to Tuareg silver to wood and metal work. 

Rabat

While in Rabat, make sure to visit Chellah, an enclosed park that is the site of the ancient city of Rabat, featuring both Roman and Arabic architectural ruins. You can explore the ruins on your own or hire a guide at the main gate to walk you through.

Kasbah des Oudayas

Kasbah des Oudayas is another favorite-- it's a fortressed neighborhood along Rabat's coast with the same white and blue walls that can be seen in other coastal cities like Essaouira.

Rabat residential neighborhood

While this is a residential neighborhood, there are also plenty of things for visitors to do, including stopping for mint tea at the cafe, wandering through the gardens, and visiting the art galleries within the Kasbah walls.

Rabat

While at the Kasbah, you can take a short walk down to the Bouregreg river which separates Rabat from its sister city, Salé, and have drinks or food at Le Dhow, a cafe/restaurant/bar on a boat.

Le Dhow Cafe on boat

Museums in Rabat that are worth checking out include the Villa des Arts and the recently opened Mohamed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

An old favorite place for live music was at La Cabane Bambou, also known as Yacout, which offers live Congolese music every night, from 8pm until late in Rabat's Hassan neighborhood.

II. Fes

The old medina of Fes is a UNESCO world heritage site, in part because of its complex maze of tiny streets weaving their way past tiled fountains, stately madrassas, and ornate mosques. It's easy to get lost in the medina, but that's also part of the charm. In Fes, as in Marrakech, be wary of "false guides," who offer to show you the way. There are many entrances to the Fes medina but my favorite is from Bab Bou J'loud, or the Blue Gate, at the top of the medina. From here, the old city slopes downwards towards the leather tanneries and the Karaouine Mosque and Seffarine Place.

Fes

Near Bab Bou J'loud, you can visit the Batha Museum, the Bouania mosque, which is an old school and mosque, or get a bite to eat at Cafe Clock. Café Clock offers quite a bit of programming with great cultural shows featuring music and art, cooking classes, etc.

Fes

III. Marrakech

The city of Marrakech offers insight into the history of rural to urban migration in Morocco as well as the Western retelling of the Moroccan aesthetic. Most Moroccans who live here can trace their family history to the rural Atlas mountains  and speak some of the Amazigh languages. The medina is worth a visit, but it can be overwhelming at times. In Marrakech, vendors are seasoned professionals who drive a hard bargain, speak multiple languages, and are accustomed to dealing with tourists from all over the world. If communication is your main goal, you will certainly find those that speak your language-- from English, to Mandarin, to Catalan. If you are seeking out authentic connection, it may be a bit harder in this environment.

Marrkech

The places that I like to visit in Marrakech include the following: 

Jmaa el Fnaa

An outdoor market that pops up every night in Marrakech's main square, rain or shine, and is filled with hot food stands, jugglers, story-tellers, snake-charmers, henna artists, dried fruit vendors, the orange juice guys who are right next to the snail guys, gnawa musicians, and so much more. My favorite stand are the stands with the large copper pots located at the front of the market where they serve hot ginger-spiced tea and a traditional Moroccan spiced desert called sfouf.

 

Jmaa el Fnaa

Jardins Majorelle 

This is an impressive 12-acre landscaped garden amidst an Art Deco villa that was once owned by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. With its sophisticated design, these gardens offer a welcome break from the hot and bustling Marrakech street life. Ensconced within royal blue garden walls is a perfect balance of Moroccan design and European influence.

 

Jardins Majorelle

 

Bab el Khemis 

This is a lesser known souk that functions as a mixture between a flea market and spot for antique thrifting. It's a short drive from the Jmaa el Fnaa and is not touristy at all; it features about 20 shops max with some real treasures inside. By wandering into the medina from Souk el Khemis, you'll come to various section of Marrakech's medina that specialize in different things-- there's the bed frame section, or the area where they make the cushions for the Moroccan sofas; there's the antique salesman with old wooden carved doors next to the kitchenware section.

 

Bab el Khemis

 

 

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Morocco Travel Tips - Coastal Cities | Essaouira, El Jadida, Tangier, Asilah

Morocco Travel Tips - Coastal Cities | Essaouira, El Jadida, Tangier, Asilah

Essaouira

Essaouira is a coastal town three hours from Marrakech. Visitors can travel there via direct busses with Supratours or CTM or more adventurous travelers can take a cheaper and somewhat speedier grand taxi. Read more about traveling via grand taxis here. Essaouira is known for its traditional gnawa music scene and the sound of gnawa's Afro-Moroccan reggae style music often provides a backdrop to strolls through the white- and blue-walled medina streets. The city hosts an annual gnawa festival in June of every year that is attended by tourists and Moroccans alike who come to listen to local and world renowned musicians.

Essaouira

Jimi Hendrix was very taken by Essaouira and there are famous, yet erroneous, claims that  he wrote "Castles Made of Sand" after being inspired by the sight of an old Portuguese castle that has succumbed to the ocean sands in the shallows off of Essaouira's beaches. Not true, but the castle is an interesting reminder of all the colonial influences that ruled over Morocco.

Essaouira

Not far from the ramparts and the beaches is Essaouira's functioning shipyard where fisherman display the catches of the day and boat builders are hard at work building and repairing massive, sea-faring boats.

From Essaouira, you might continue your journeys further south to the pristine beaches of Sidi Ifni, which is a small Amazigh coastal town with breathtaking landscapes and top notch surf.

Sidi Ifni

 

El Jadida

Tiny little Portuguese fortress town south of Casablanca, which makes for a great day trip if you have the time. One of the main sites to see is a cistern built in the 1500s that was featured in Orson Welles' Othello.

Tangiers

A complex city, known for its historic place in Western literary cannon from the likes of William Burroughs and Paul Bowles, Tangiers also happens to be the border city between Morocco and Spain, or more broadly, between all of Africa and Europe, with a mere 9 miles separating the two countries. Most Moroccans in the north speak Spanish as their second language. Because of its proximity to Spain, drinking and tapas culture is a bit more accepted. If your travels take you through Tangier, get mint tea and besara soup at Hafa Cafe. Go to the Kasbah and the museum of the Kasbah. Check out the excellently curated Ligation Museum. Go to the Cinemetheque in the heart of town to catch a movie or to get a sense of the cultural undercurrents; the Cinemetheque is a great Moroccan-run space that is transforming that part of downtown Tangiers.

Asilah

Between Tangiers and Rabat is the coastal town of Asilah that is known for its beaches. There may be better beaches along the Mediterranean coast or south of Essaouira near Sidi Ifni, but I always liked going to Asilah because of its proximity to Rabat.

Asilah
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