In October of 2018, I had the chance to discover Morocco on a two-week trip that started in the city of Marrakesh. As far as first impressions go, Morocco made a great one! On our very first afternoon in Marrakesh, we had checked in for a night in a beautiful riad, gotten lost and found ourselves in the Medina, seen the Koutoubia mosque and drank our first mint tea before watching the sunset over the city from our very own rooftop patio. So far so good!
What to do
Marrakesh has a lot to offer so here are a few must see during your trip:
The Marrakesh Medina is where you will find markets, shops and restaurants. Even if you're not into shopping, visiting the Medina is an experience. It's busy, colorful, the smell of different types of spices blends with the smell of rose water, olives, leather and other unidentifiable smells. People are welcoming you from every side hoping you'll visit their shop. The alleys are narrow and seem to turn and twist in no discernible pattern. Honestly, it is hard to describe and you can't possibly understand until you see it for yourself.
Jemaa El Fna square
Jemaa El Fna is the biggest market place in all of Marrakesh. Not only are there fruits and vegetables to buy, like any market place, but you'll find snake charmers, fire breathers, artists, fortune tellers and henna tattoo artists. It especially comes alive at night when locals come to the square from all corners of Marrakesh.
The Koutoubia Mosque was probably the only landmark that I knew of before we started doing research and making reservations for our trip as it inspired the Morocco pavilion in Epcot, in Walt Disney World. From the side where we entered the Jemaa El Fna square, we could see the mosque on the other side. The tallest building around and decorated with ceramics, arabesques and geometric patterns, it seems to captivate you the moment you lay eyes on it. Surrounding the mosque, there are also beautiful gardens where you can sit in the middle of the flowers and bushes to get a few minutes of shade and silence if you need a breather from walking in the busy Medina all day.
The Bahia Palace is probably my favorite place in the whole city. Even though it was pretty crowded with tourists when we visited, we could still take our time to explore the palace, take plenty of pictures and enjoy its relaxing atmosphere. The palace consists of multiple richly decorated rooms, fountains, interior gardens, stained windows, high wood ceilings painted in floral patterns, zellij motifs and courtyards full of orange and palm trees. It is definitely worth the few Dirhams it costs to enter.
The Badii Palace is only a few streets away from the Bahia Palace, but while its counterpart is still richly decorated and well preserved, this one was striped of most of its decorations and left in ruins. It was built by the Almohad Dynasty in the 12th and 13th century, but after its fall, the materials were used to build a new palace in the new capital city of Meknes. It is now used as an exhibition space for the Almoravid Minbar and offers a great view over the city.
The Majorelle Gardens were created by Jacques Majorelle in 1923 and restored in 1980 by Yves St-Laurent and Pierre Bergé. It is now part of a non-profit organization and features multiple art museums and the Berber museum. The gardens in themselves are a sight to see, with their fountains, a collection of cacti and exotic plants and trees. It is definitely one of the most beautiful sights in Marrakesh, but it was so crowded when we visited, even though we were there when it opened in the morning that what should have been a casual stroll was actually chaos.
Where to sleep
I definitely recommend sleeping in a riad in or close to the Medina! Depending on your budget, you are sure to find something that will work for you and still be incredibly beautiful and comfortable. We stayed in two different riads during our stay, one when we first arrived in Morocco and another a few days later when we came back from the Sahara and both were great. The first was a little bit out of the way, but still a walking distance from the Medina and the second was a hostel in the middle of the Medina. The only difference between the regular riad and the hostel being that we had a private room in the first and a shared dorm in the second. Both had pools, a rooftop patio and a close proximity to everything we wanted to see in Marrakesh. I think staying in a regular hotel would be disappointing as you would lose all of the charm of small riads.
How to get around
The first thing to know is that it doesn't matter if you have a great sense of direction, a map or even Google Maps with you, it's almost guaranteed that you will get lost at least once in the Medina. The important part is that you have the address where you want to go so you can ask someone if needed. In the Medina, there are no cars as the roads are more like narrow alleys in between buildings. Most places to visit are close together and easy to reach by foot. Outside of the Medina, there are taxi cabs almost everywhere so you can just walk up to them and ask for a ride. Always agree on a price before getting in!!! No matter what you wear or how you act, we all look like tourists and, if you don't agree on a price before hand, you can't negotiate once you get to your destination. They will charge you more than they should and there are no meters in mosts cabs.
If you are lost, first try not to look lost. Second, don't follow someone offering to give you directions. Most of the time, they will bring you to their shop or restaurant and have no intention of bringing you to your desired destination. Go up to someone and ask for directions, you are more likely to get an honest answer. Otherwise, I found that walking around until we found a landmark that could locate us on a map was the best way to go. Trust your instincts!
I personally loved Marrakesh! Except for Chefchaouen, it was probably my favorite city in Morocco. Not only was there a lot to see, but I felt safe, the food was delicious and it wasn't crazy expensive.
The only thing that bothered me was not being able to trust the locals. They would knowingly give us bad directions or lie to us about landmarks being closed to bring us to their shop or restaurant. Everyone that we met was very nice and charismatic and we had great conversations with them, but we always had to be careful who we trusted and to follow our guts especially when looking for a place in particular.
I hope you get the chance to visit this amazing city at least once in your life. It has so much culture, beauty and life and deserves at least a few days of exploring and discovering.
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I know a lot of people are afraid of thunderstorms, and it's a logical fear: thunderstorms can be destructive and dangerous. But personally, I love thunderstorms, always have! I don't know if it comes from the fact that my parents used to bring us outside, under the little roof in front of our front porch, and look at the lightning or count the seconds before the thunder, or from the fact that I used to be a lifeguard and used to get paid to hang around with my friends when the pool was closed for a storm, but either way, I still get as excited as a little kid on Christmas morning every time I see a storm coming in. My favorite thunderstorm ever, though, is the one that struck will my friend Gabrielle and I were in Chefchaouen.
"HOME IS NOT WHERE YOU ARE FROM
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When we started planning our trip to Morocco, my friend said to me: We need more nature and more hiking on this trip. Well, the highest mountain in North Africa is luckily located in Morocco. Since there were expeditions of a few days combined with stays in the Sahara, we jumped at the occasion. Let me tell you we had no idea what we were getting into, but I'm glad we did it. As John Green wrote in Paper Towns: "If we don't die, this is gonna be one hell of a story". Well, here is the story!
To start, let me tell you a little bit more about the tour we had booked. We purchased a five days, four nights expedition out of Marrakech with a group from two to twelve people. Since there were already two of us, we knew for sure the expedition would not be cancelled even though we were visiting in October, during low season. We were to spend two days on the Toubkal, two days in the gorges on the way to the Sahara, one night in the desert in Merzouga and then one day on the road back to Marrakech. We had seen some longer treks up the Toubkal during our research, but since we had a limited time in Morocco, we decided on the shorter hike that would still take us to the top. We ended up being the only ones in our group. Although there were other people on the mountain, we were by ourselves with a guide and chef/person that leads the mule up the mountain.
The day of our departure for the Atlas, I woke up to see my friend had an eye infection. Her eye was barely opening and bright red. Not the best way to start a two day trekking journey up the highest peak in North Africa, but she decided she still wanted to go and would just put some cold water on it and wait after the hike to see if she needed medical attention. So a driver came to pick us up at the riad where we were staying in Marrakech and drove us to the small village of Imlil, about au hour away from Marrakech. In Imlil, we were greeted by Jamal, the owner of the company we booked the tour with, who explained the road up the mountain and the different steps of our journey. He introduced us to Mohamed, our guide, and Abdou, the chef. After the traditional mint tea, we were grabbing our backpacks and starting our ascension to the top of Toubkal.
On the first day, we were to climb 11 km to the Base Camp, also called "Les Mouflons", at 3207m of altitude, where we would spend the night. At first, it was a walk in the park. We were slowly going up and the view on the mountains and the little villages was beautiful. We stoped after about an hour and a half to take a sip of water and enjoy the view. After about three hours, we stoped for lunch at a little hut where we ate on the balcony in the sun. There was a Tajine of course, but also different cheeses, some traditional bread, vegetables and fruits. Everything was delicious and we had to stop ourselves from eating too much.
After lunch, we still had a way to go to get to base camp and, honestly, I was getting tired. We kept going up on a rocky path and I guess the altitude was starting to get to me as every step felt so hard. From the moment we first saw the camp, which is a huge building built out of rocks, it felt like it took a whole hour to get there. But we finally made it and were able to talk to other hikers and sit down to relax with a nice cup of mint tea before dinner. I was so tired that I was barely able to eat some fruit and some bread that night. The moment the sun set, I was ready to go to bed!
Unfortunately, I didn't have a restful night. With the time difference between Canada and Morocco (this was our second night in Morocco after landing the day before) I had trouble falling asleep. It was also pretty cold in the camp and the beds were giant structures that went the whole way along the wall, which meant we were sleeping in the same bed as a dozen strangers. Nothing to help you get a good night of sleep.
I had barely fallen asleep when Mohamed came to wake us up at 2 AM. We wanted to make it to the summit for the sunrise, which meant a very early morning start. Luckily for me, even after no sleep at all, I felt energized after the delicious breakfast.
When we stepped out the door, we were gobsmacked by the view. First, it had snowed during the evening and everything was covered by a thin blanket of white dust. Being from Canada, that's not what impressed us though. There were absolutely no clouds and no light pollution and we could see the stars. Now, I know what you are thinking: young lady, you can see the stars from anywhere on a clear day, what's the big deal? Here is my answer: you have never seen the stars like this! There were thousands of them and we could see them so clearly! Being so high up in the mountains, it felt like we were surrounded by stars. I can't even describe it correctly, but even in National Parks I had never seen a view like this one and I haven't seen anything like it since. I wish I had a good picture, but we didn't think to take one and, even then, it would never do it justice.
We started making our way to the summit, across rivers and over boulders. My friend was having some difficulties with the altitude, but compared to the day before, I felt absolutely fine. Now, there is one thing I was not expecting. We had been told that it would be about 0 degrees Celsius on top of Toubkal and we had expected it to be a little colder until the sun came up. We both had a coat (although not a Canadian winter coat), long pants, gloves and a hat and it was fine at the beginning, but after a while, the wind came up and it had to be at least negative 15 degrees. At least! It was freezing! And let me repeat, we are from Quebec City, the temperature can go down to negative forty in January and I am still alive to talk about it. We are used to cold weather. This was whatever comes after cold! But we had made it this far, so we pushed through and kept going. On the way up, you reach a point where you have to wear crampons over your boots as it is snowy and icy and slippery. You have to watch your step and, every step you make, you slip down halfway. After hiking for hours, we finally reached a plateau where we could see the sunrise. I would love to say, at that moment, that the whole struggle felt worth it, but to be honest, I couldn't feel anything. I was completely frozen and, although the view was absolutely, ridiculously, beautiful, I couldn't appreciate it at the time. My friend was a few minutes behind me and when she made it up to where I had stoped to watch the sun rise over the horizon, I could see on her face that she thought the same thing. But we weren't on the summit quite yet. We had about half an hour left of climbing to reach it, so we started walking again.
I have no idea how long we kept walking. All I remember was seeing the summit and seeing clouds rolling in and knowing that even if we reached the top we wouldn't be able to see it. I remember thinking that with the wind, it was getting dangerous. And my friend and I looked at each other and we both knew that this was it. One kilometer to the summit and that was it. We were going back down. Reaching the summit didn't matter anymore. We were exhausted, we were cold, we had seen the sunrise and this was over.
Now over a year later, I still don't regret it. Reaching the summit wouldn't have given us anything more than what we had at that moment. It wouldn't have made us prouder of ourselves. We wouldn't have had a better view or a bigger sens of accomplishment. To this day, I still consider that we made it. But we also made it back down safe and sound and with all of our limbs which is really what matters here.
Deciding to turn back down is one thing, but it doesn't magically transport you to the base of the mountain. It doesn't erase the cold or the tiredness. We still had to walk all the way back down the mountain.
The walk back to camp is another thing that is blurry in my mind. I remember being so cold that I almost ran down the mountain. I remember stoping for a break because I felt nauseous and sitting down until our guide came up to me and said I had altitude sickness and we had to keep going down, this was the only way to feel better. Apparently going up too fast is not a good idea, but going down too fast isn't much better. Then I remember walking into the refuge and asking if we can take a nap because I felt like crap. I think we slept for maybe an hour, but I felt better afterwards and was able to eat a light lunch.
After lunch we slowly made our way down back to Imlil and every step we made I felt more and more like myself. The nausea disappeared, the tiredness was more tolerable, I felt lighter and overall way better. Altitude is no joke!
The last two or three kilometers though, were very hard. My knees were hurting and we were both tired and just wanted to get there and get some rest, but we did make it. We were welcomed at Jamal's house with mint tea that had never tasted so delicious. We had a feast for dinner and had our own room for the night where I got the best sleep of my life.
My friend did end up having to go to the doctor for her eye infection that had not disappeared and was actually getting worse and both of my knees ended up swelling pretty badly. One of them I could not bend for about five days. But, even after everything we went through, I still believe it was worth it. We got to talk to our guide ant learn so much about the berber culture and life in the Atlas. We saw some gorgeous views and in the end, we had fun!
After living through this adventure, would I climb the Toubkal again? I don't think I would do this again. Once was enough. Was it worth it? Definitely! You never know how you are going to react to being challenged like this and I am proud of myself for going all this way and making it so far. Do I want to hike another mountain after this one? Of course! I would love to hike to Machu Picchu and I would love to try to Kilimanjaro, but next time, I will bring clothes for any weather, even if it is supposed to be warm. Next time, I will plan it in advance and actually train for it. Next time, I will know what to expect. Let's do this!
I recently visited Morocco on a two-week trip around the country. After much deliberation and help from my friend, we have selected the top 5 most beautiful places that you absolutely have to see on your trip to Morocco.
The Sand dunes of merzouga
I think the Sahara desert is on everyone's bucket list and probably one of the reasons most people visit Morocco. What you probably didn't know is that although part of the Sahara is very close to Marrakesh, the part that you see in movies and have dreamed of visiting is about an 8-hour drive away. The sand dunes of Merzouga are the highest in Morocco, some can reach up to 150 meters. The beautiful golden sand and immense dunes are completely worth the detour. Many companies offer guided tours to Merzouga and you can book last minute in Marrakesh or Fes. I recommend booking a private tour so you can stop along the way and really see the beauty of Morocco.
The medina in chefchaouen
The city of Chefchaouen is quickly becoming a favorite for tourists from around the globe and it's easy to see why. The blue painted walls of the medina really sets it appart from other cities in Morocco and even though legions of tourist swarm the city every day, it is easy to find a quiet spot. We spent a whole day wandering around the small alleys and finding streets more beautiful each turn. The hike to the Spanish mosque is a must if you want to get a good panoramic view of the city.
the bahia palace in marrakech
The Bahia Palace is an ancient palace form the 19th century. The walls, flours and celling are decorated with ceramics and sculptures that transform the estate into a wonderful piece of art. There are also multiple fountains and interior gardens to explore. The ensemble makes for a nice representation of islamic art and deserves to be explored in details. The entrance costs about 10 CA$ and is well worth it.
Ait ben haddou
Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site preserved for it's history and beauty. The village made out of clay was prosper because of it's perfect location along the caravan routes. Four families still live in traditional Kasbahs in the village that is now mostly used as a movie set.
The Dades gorges
The Dades Gorges are truly in the middle of nowhere, but the high walls of the gorge and the clear water of the river made it a spot that I definitely recommend hitting while on the way to Merzouga. You will pass plenty of beautiful oasis along the valley on the way to the gorge and get a chance to see what life really looks like for Moroccans.
I was astounded by the natural beauty of Morocco as I had mostly seen pictures of it's cities before my trip. Now that I've seen it with my own eyes, I can say I loved the little villages and wilderness more than the big cities. Did one of these Moroccan beauties find a place on your bucket list?
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Morocco is a country that should be on everybody's bucket list, but it is very different in many ways from what we are used to in America. To make sure you are ready for all eventualities, here is a list of everything you should know before traveling to the Western Kingdom.
Never agree to the first price
No matter where you go in Morocco, haggling is part of their traditions and it is considered rude if you just accept the first price.
Ignoring the people on the street won't make them leave you alone
No matter where you are in Morocco, the minute you step on the street, someone will be calling after you. They want to sell you something, they want you to come into their shop, they need money for food, they want your phone number, etc. If you tell them one word, they act as if you agreed to hear their whole life story and talk to them for a few hours or to see every single article in their shop. If you act like you didn't hear them, they'll just call after you louder until you can barely even see them anymore. And if you answer back, they get mad. I found that saying hello and walking away works best in most cases. Just be prepared to be bothered every minute of every day.
You will get lost
Getting lost in every single medina is part of the moroccan experience. Honestly, I am pretty good with a map and have a good sense of directions and we still got lost every single time. My best tip would be to leave early for everything. Embrace the fact that you are lost and take it as an opportunity to wander down less traveled roads. We managed to find our way back every time without asking for directions. If you have data, Google Maps works great, and if you are completely lost, don't get directions from someone offering them as they might make you take the long way through their store or restaurant. Ask someone yourself!
Morocco is safe for tourists, but still be careful
We never felt like we were in any danger in any of the places we visited. We sometimes felt uncomfortable with the people we met, but never like anything bad could happen. You should still be careful and let someone at home know your itinerary and where you are going to be staying.
Make sure you have money on you
There are very few places in Morocco where they accept credit or debit cards. You will find lots of ATMs in big cities, but none in small villages. I recommend always carrying about 1000 dirhams on you in case you need anything and can't find an ATM. Now, if you need to withdraw money, you can't withdraw more than 2000 dirhams at a time and, about 2 out of 3 ATMs did not work or did not accept our cards. Good luck!
The water might make you sick, but mostly because it tastes DISGUSTING
At first, we were very careful and only drinking purified water or drinking from bottles. In the end, we were drinking tap water without any concern. Unless you have a sensitive stomach, tap water will not make you sick, but it does taste pretty bad.
Don't let anyone give you anything unless you are ready to pay for it
Directions, jeep rides, camels made out of leaves, you name it. People will offer to give you anything and everything in Morocco... and then ask you to pay for it. My recommendations is to never accept anything or to ask the price before you even come close to it.
Bring toilet paper
Always carry a roll of toilet paper with you. Some places will have some available to use, but most places don't. It's always good to be prepared!
Expect huge meals
The food in Morocco is delicious and very healthy, but be prepared for huge meals. It feels like it never stops coming! At first there is a soup, then a salad (which is the size of a whole meal in itself), then the tagine (a traditional meal of veggies, meat, fish or eggs cooked in a clay pot), then dessert.
Buy bus or train tickets a day in advance
To make sure you will have a spot on the train/bus you need to take to your next destination, try to buy the ticket at least a day in advance. It usually is fine to buy them the day of, but there are not an unlimited amount of trips available.
Is Morocco a country you wish to see?
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