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G9 Travel Guide: 72 Hours in Morocco

September 6, 2012

North Africa has been a destination on our bucket list for some time now. Having spent time in southern Africa a couple years back, we were anxiously anticipating the contrasts and comparisons of what the north had to offer.

Aït Benhaddou

There are a lot of factors to consider when traveling to Morocco with your primary focus being photography. Each region is vastly different from others: Fez (aka Fes) is know for its large city/industrial feel, Marrakech for its famous souq (marketplace/bazaar) and medina, Essaouira for its European-influenced costal vibe, and Casablanca for — well let’s face it — the movie. We chose Marrakech, a central hub allowing access to the Atlas Mountains as well as being two hours from Essaouira.

We landed in the beautiful city of Marrakech, where we off-boarded the plane onto the tarmac and were instantly greeted with intensely hot Saharan air. The Marrakech airport is reminiscent of the older glory days of airline travel: just a simple beautiful two story building, no frills, only beautiful traditional Moroccan arches, domes, and stained glass.

  

Upon entering the city we passed double-decker trucks of cows, camels, HUGE resorts, and car traffic that seemed to dictate their own “rules of the road.”

There are rather overwhelming options for hotels. The larger and more inclusive hotels/resorts lie outside the medina, but for the true traveler and adventurer, we recommend checking out the riads (traditional Moroccan homes) which are nestled deep in the alleys of the medina. While sometimes you will find yourself wandering in circles to find your way back home, most riads offer boutique restaurants and a tranquil oasis from the all hustle and bustle of the medina streets.

For an intimate locale check out the Uovo Group, which operate the Riad Due, Riad 72, and Riad 12. Each of these riads have two to four beautifully laid-out rooms, a chef on staff, and the perfect dipping pool for when temperatures crest 100°F.

Riad Due

Marrakech can be completely overwhelming: the souq and medina are a maze of alleys and streets jammed with mopeds, tourists, and locals. PHOTOGRAPHER BEWARE: Locals ARE NOT camera-friendly. Even as much as taking pictures of the alleys will get people riled up. They will either yell at you or ask for money. Not fun and extremely frustrating.

Here is our list of MUST DO’s while in Morocco.

Explore Marrakech

Get out and walk (and don’t pull out a map). Explore. Test your spacial awareness (hint: you will get lost). Enter the souq and wander through its relentless congestion and miles of small shops that all seem to sell the same things.

The Souq

Eat Well

We chose a variety of restaurants to dine at: from authentic, to molecular gastronomy (yep, even in Morocco), to street food. Here’s a glimpse.

RIAD 72 – Private dining on the roof of the riad, perfect for the hazy sunset over the entire medina, the food was authentic and delicious. Carrot puree soup, tagine orange spiced chicken, tagine cooked lamb.

Maison MK – The proprietors of this establishment relocated to Marrakech after falling in love with the city during a photoshoot. Both are also full-time photographers. The decor of the hotel is modern and fun, with a giant rubber ducky bobbing in the pool. The executive chef was trained by the Gordon Ramsey and provides an interesting mix of molecular gastronomy using traditional Moroccan ingredients. We might have had the best lamb we’ve ever eaten there: slow cooked for eight hours, then shredded to perfection.

Maison MK

La Maison Arabe – If you want to learn a little more about Moroccan cuisine  and get your hands dirty, check out the cooking school led by Muhammad over at La Maison Arabe. You’ll learn the ins and outs of using a tagine, make fresh bread, and visit to a local spice shop. This is an experience well worth half-a-day.

La Maison d'Arabe - Cooking School

Street Food – If all else fails, or you’re on a tight budget, proceed to the Djamaa El Fna Square at night. The vendors are pushy but there are some tasty cheap eats there. Try booth #14 for some amazing fresh calamari and fried fish. Careful not to pet the monkeys or get roped into paying a belly dancer. CAMERAS HERE ARE ALSO NOT ADVISED.

Djamaa El Fna Square

Get out of the Marrakech and Explore

After a day in the medina, you’ll be more than ready to get out of the densely-packed city center and into fresh air. There are a multitude of options: head east to the Ourika Valley near the foot of the Atlas mountains, head west to Essaouira, or head far east to Zagora and the Sahara Desert. We chose to head east. The Ourika Valley is only a two-hour drive out of the city, but provides a drastic change in climate and environment.

Ourika Valley

On the way up, you can visit a working Berber house and enjoy freshly-made mint tea from the community Grandmother (for a fee, of course).

Further up the valley you can hike to waterfalls (for a fee).

Ourika #2 of 7 Falls

And also eat really well along the waterfall (for a nominal fee).

Tagines

If you are really ambitious and want to see more, you can hire a car to take you even further up and over the Atlas Mountains to Zagora and Ouarzazate (Moroccan Hollywood). On the way, you’ll get to see breathtaking views of some beautiful landscape.

Top of the Atlas Mountains

Along the way to Ouarzazate, you can take a little detour to Aït Benhaddou where Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator were filmed.

Kasbah Aït Benhaddou

Kasbah Aït Benhaddou

Overall, Morocco is a beautiful country. Be careful if you are a professional photographer or even an aspiring travel photographer. The locals are friendly as long as you don’t point your camera at them. Be prepared to spend a significant amount of money on food and alcohol. Negotiate for everything. There is a lot of history in this country, and traditions that Westerners are not familiar with.

We are already anticipating our next trip back, and the first thing on our to-do list is to get to Zagora and ride a camel into the Sahara desert (preferably with a sunset).

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