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Exploring Morocco – The Merzouga Desert, Marrakech & Essaouira

New adventures, new backpacks!

Morocco is an amazing country and is known as the cradle of human life. Recently, archaeologists in Morocco have discovered remains of homo sapiens that are estimated to be around 315,000 years old far surpassing the previous oldest human remains ever found in Ethiopia. We weren’t able to see the archaeological site but thought it was a really cool fact. Our trip to Morocco was a small portion of our 1 year trip around the world.

Day 1 ; Arriving in Africa

Our journey started with our arrival in Marrakech. One interesting thing about this city is that the taxis are very cheap. This is the first time we have seen this in any country that the cost for two people to take the bus somewhere is almost equivalent to the price of taking a taxi to the same destination. Many taxi drivers like most around the world will try to rip off tourists. When you’re taking a cab here as well as anywhere else, make sure the cab driver starts the meter. The food here is also very cheap and delicious.

Another interesting thing is that 5 times a day a loudspeaker from a nearby mosque comes on to indicate a call to prayer. Being as we will be traveling through many predominantly muslim countries, I decided to read up a little bit on the religion. Other than sharing the same origin of christianity, they also have same basic beliefs slightly modified. Their customs and traditions however are very much different.

Day 2-4 ; Three Day Trek Across The Merzouga Desert

The journey to and through the Merzouga Desert has really been something special. On our quest around the world we have seen some truly amazing things but this one might just be my new favourite so far.

Atlas Mountains

The first day we spent driving through the Atlas Mountains. It was a long drive following winding roads through the mountain pass. Along the way we stopped for some photos at some really nice viewpoints overlooking the lush valleys below and in contrast with the mountains above with sparse arid vegetation.

The crazy roads of the Tizi n’Tichka mountain pass.

The second viewpoint stop was at Tizi n’Tichka. It’s a cool area in the mountain pass known as the gateway to the Sahara Desert.

Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou

Our first major stop was the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou. It is an ancient village which was once a huge centre for merchants with the buildings still made up of primitive building architecture including unrefined branches and a mixture of clay and straw. There are 5 families that still inhabit the village and manage its upkeep. The site is famous for being the set of many movies over the years including Prince of Persia, Gladiator and most recently the Game of Thrones. In the Game of Thrones it is the city of Yunkai or the yellow city in which Denarius Targarian the “Mother of Dragons” adds another title to her name as the “Breaker of Chains.” Here we also purchased some scarves and learned how to tie them for the desert trek.

Kasbah Taourirt

We also checked out the Kasbah Taourirt. From there it was a short drive to the hotel where we were treated with an authentic Moroccan dish called Tajine.

Tinghir

Second day we visited a village called Tinghir where we were invited in to one of the family homes for some traditional sweet tea and got to learn a little bit about the Berber Muslim culture. Here we also had the opportunity to check out Mosquee Ikelane. Normally tourists aren’t allowed to enter a mosque but this one in particular has been converted into a monument so tourists could go inside and have a look around. What is particularly interesting about this village is that here Jews and Muslims co-exist in harmony unlike their Israeli counterparts.

Todgha Gorge

After a couple more viewpoint stops we made it to the Todgha Gorge. It’s a giant gorge with steep red rock walls. It’s like our Red Rock Canyon except much deeper and longer. Unfortunately our tour gave us limited time here otherwise I would have liked to try climbing the gorge as the service is offered there.

Say hi to our camel trekking crew!

Next we headed to the desert. We reached our camels and were off. It was a fun ride with amazing views. We have experienced many mountains, forests, beaches, caves and jungles but the desert landscape is something I have only seen in movies and for me was particularly extraordinary.

Just us and the camels.

We arrived at our desert camp in time to climb the highest sand dune in the area to take some great photos as the sun set across the desert. This is the part in the story where we almost perished. In Morocco it is customary to eat dinner very late, like 8:30-9:30pm late. So we were starving by the time the meal was prepared. The guides made some light jokes about Ramadan (an Islamic holiday which involves fasting) which wasn’t taken so lightly by some of the hungry guests. But eventually we did eat. We had some more Tajine with an appetizer and ate in traditional Berber fashion which involves everybody eating off of one collective plate.

Camping out in the desert.

We slept in the bivouac which is a traditional Berber nomadic tent which I found to be quite nice.

The third day we woke up to see the sunrise on camel back on our way out of the desert, a perfect end to a fantastic adventure.

Spectacular view from the highest dune in the Merzouga.

Overall it was an excellent, culturally immersive experience. One of best things about traveling and doing group excursions is that you get the chance to meet different great people with different backgrounds from all over the globe that share your passion. It’s great to be able to exchange stories, share tips and ideas and learn about other cultures. This group was particularly diverse including an El Salvadorian couple from Miami, a Malaysian from Berlin, a couple Latvians, a few Koreans, an Australian, a French, a Chinese and a couple Quebecois (French Canadians).

Meeting friends.

Day 5 ; The Hammam Experience

Rest and relaxation with a side of awkwardness.

Today was a day of rest and relaxation, because we haven’t had enough of that already, haha! I guess I’ll start by explaining what a hammam is. A hammam is a Turkish bath which is a ritual cleansing as well as a social gathering in traditional Islamic culture. It is a place where the locals come together to sweat, get scrubbed and socialize. Traditional hammams are segregated by gender, but some newer/luxury hammams can accommodate couples and/or families who wish to experience a hammam together. Hammams vary greatly in what services they offer. There is the public hammam which the locals use where you pay a minimal fee but you need to bring a friend to do the scrubbing or washing for you. On the other end of the sprectrum you also have the ultra luxury hammams which provide private rooms and attendants to perform the scrubbing and washing for you as well as applying different oils. You can also choose a package that comes with a massage afterwards.

We decided to go with a mid-range couple package including a massage and this is what it entails. The first step is you get completely nude and enter the sauna. After sweating for a while, an attendant comes in and washes you with soap and oil. Then you sit there for a while longer until the attendant comes back, gives you a rinse and scrubs your entire body with an exfoliating kessa glove. It’s kind of rough and hurts a little but it also feels good. The next step the attendant comes back following another rinse, shampoos your hair and gives you a mud mask. The last step of the hammam the attendant comes back rinses you again and lathers you an oil mixture. It’s kind of weird having a complete stranger wash you but you get used to it after a couple rinses. After that we got lathered up again in oil and got an hour long massage. The final step of the entire process is to cap off the experience with a traditional mint tea. It was a very relaxing, refreshing and slightly awkward experience that we both thoroughly enjoyed and would definitely recommend trying it at least once. The price for a similar experience ranges from $40-$110 CAD per person.

Day 6 ; The Tree Goats

Tree goats

Today we visited the city of Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. The medina of Essaouira including its harbour is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it has historically been one of the main ports and trading hubs that connects Europe and Africa. Some of the wall that once surrounded the fortified town is still standing today. But in my opinion the coolest thing that we saw today was on the drive to the city. A very peculiar road side attraction right along the main highway. Goats in trees!!! We’re not joking, this photo is not photoshopped. Apparently goats can’t resist the sweet fruit and leaves from the top of argan trees. I knew they could climb mountains but this was something else. Traditionally people would go through the goat poop to collect the indigestible argan seeds which is used to make the luxurious argan oil. Due to the high demand for the oil people have moved on to more efficient ways of extracting the oil from the seeds. It is now done manually by an assembly line of local women. It’s a grueling lengthy process as there are 3 shells that you need to break through to get to the tiny seed. Then they have to grind the seeds into paste. The paste is then kneaded to work out the oil. You need one kilo of tiny seeds to yield one small bottle of oil.

Essaouira

After checking out the tree goats and argan oil facility we made it to Essaouira. We started the day by getting some tasty seafood fresh off the boats and proceeded to check out the rest of the harbour and the old city. On our way to the beach we saw a lot of kite surfers out on the water. Apparently it’s a big thing there.

Day 7 ; Madness in Marrakech

Snake charmer in Jemaa el-Fnaa.

Today we went exploring downtown Marrakech. The main square in the city centre called Jemaa el Fna is busy both night and day full of variety of vendors and entertainers. You have to be vigilant at all times while navigating around the square because of the many small vehicles and donkeys pulling carts zigzagging through the crowds. The people here can spot tourists from a mile away as we were badgered by the vendors and entertainers constantly. One entertainer in particular was trying to rip us off quite persistently to the point that I actually got mad at the guy. Other than that it was an interesting experience. It’s a bit of a culture shock to the senses from the music being played by the snake charmers to the aroma coming from the wide variety of colourful spices.

Koutoubia Mosque

Just outside of the square we visited the Koutoubia Mosque. It was built in the 12th century and is the largest mosque in Marrakech. For any tourists hoping to catch a glimpse from inside a mosque, sorry to disappoint you but non-Muslims are not permitted entrance into any mosque.

Day 8 ; Surfing in Essaouira

Surfing in Essaouira.

Surfing is very popular in Essaouria and a great place for beginners to learn. It was my first time trying it today and I had a blast. It was a lot more work than I anticipated but it was really fun and a really good arm workout. As many of you know I’m more of a DIY guy so instead of taking lessons I decided to Youtube some lessons the night before. This method doesn’t always work for me but today it did. I followed the instructions on the video, got the feel for the waves and even got a a few times with one pretty decent ride. I can now understand the appeal of surfing, when you time a wave just right, you can feel the raw power of ocean right beneath your feet as it takes you away.

On a sadder note while attempting a photo shoot on the beach a wind gust came up and blew over our tripod wrecking our camera lens. This is the reason we only have one picture today.

In conclusion, we had a wonderful time, saw some amazing sights, tried many new things and had some very interesting culturally immersive experiences.

Boardinghappiness

We are Ryan & Jireh. We love to travel and share our experiences. We are currently on a 1 year trip around the world visiting 28 countries. For more info on our travels, travel tips, savings tips and more, check out our website boardinghappiness.net.

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