Autumn of 2016, one of my best friends and I decided we wanted to go on an adventure and booked a one week trip to Morocco. We started out 3 nights in Marrakech, left for a camel ride into the heart of the Sahara, slept in a tent camp, did some pit stops in Ouarzazate and the Souss-Massa-Drâa region and ended up back in a hotel close to Marrakech for some chill-time by the pool. It took Morocco only one week to touch our hearts and leave a lasting impression we'll never forget. If, just like us, you want to get lost in Arabian magic, here are some things you don't want to miss out on.
Famous Moroccan mint tea
Honestly, when you are in Marrakesh, I'm not sure you'll be able to avoid trying tea anyway. We got tea offered everywhere we went. Showing use a first peak of their cultural hospitality. Now Moroccan tea can not be compared to the tea we (or at least I) drink in Belgium. We learned that there is a special brewing process way more extensive than putting a bag of tea leaves in hot water. It is brewed using a ceremonial preparation process, which you can read about here (as we didn't get to experience it ourselves). Taste-wise, they usually add a lot more sugar, making it quite sweet and comforting. The fact that it comes in beautifully colored tea glasses and a teapot that looks like the lamp from Aladdin is just another bonus. You'll find this tea in lots of places, but if you want to try it for free, some salesmen in the souks might offer it to you when entering their store. #salesmenoftheyear
Lose yourself in the souks of the old Medina
Even if you don't want to enjoy tea, wandering the souks in the Old Medina is a must do. The souks are a part of town with very narrow, covered streets filled with the most amazing stores. Prices are rarely fixed, which basically means: bargain your heart out. Neither of us had any idea how to do it at first, but you learn, fast. Our host at the riad informed us to:
"Never pay the price they first give you, pay max this price divided by 2 and at minimum the price divided by 5".
Following this rule-of-thumb helps you not to overpay. However, I believe you should just pay whatever it's worth to you. A good approach is still to define your max price before starting the bargain, most of the time you'll get there. #hagglingskillsF Then, even if you overpaid, you can both walk away happy. #winwin
Another piece of advice or cautionary warning we received as two "unaccompanied girls", was to wear a ring on our ring finger when walking in the medina. #pretendengagements It's still a male-dominant culture but they respect a married woman. Ultimately we forgot about this and only got approached once by some young boy probably trying to impress his friends. #alphamales We didn't feel uncomfortable at any time. We did however adapt our clothes, just to show some respect. No naked shoulders and if we could avoid it, knees as well. In the newer parts of the city, you don't need to take this into account as much.
Get a henna tattoo on Jemaa el-Fnaa
Getting a henna tattoo is a very cliché thing to do on holiday, which only elevated its importance on my must-do-list. Luckily coming from the souks we didn't have to go far to find lots of not-so-friendly women sitting on the Jemaa el-Fnaa square with their henna bottles. Even though it might seem like a cliché, it is cheap, fast and makes you feel elegant and in a sense culturally-enlightened? #naive
Besides these delightful henna-artists, the square has a lot of other stuff to offer. Visit it both during the day and in the evening, it's really not the same place. During the day it was mostly our only passage to the souks, thanks to the burning sun and some not-so-charming #snakecharmers and their cobras. At night it's full of life with dozens of places to eat, a lot of people and more agreeable temperatures.
See the carpet making process in Ouarzazate
After our first few days in Marrakesh we got on a tiny bus to the Ouarzazate region, dragging with us all the treasures we had bought in the souks. #teasets #cushions #lamps #kaftans #scarves #platters #etc The bus was headed to the Sahara for our night in the desert, but took a few pit stops along the region of Ouarzazate in a few small towns, one of them being used as part of the set of Game of Thrones and Gladiator.
In one of these little towns, we were invited to see the fabrication process of their famous carpets, which were all amazing. The carpets were all handmade making each carpet unique. All the different patterns have specific meanings and one carpet can take up weeks or months to make.
As soon as you arrive they offer you tea #ofcourse and show you the creation-process and different types of material they use. Unfortunately we weren't able to stuff any more things into our carry-ons. #nowholenewworldforus Even though we didn't end up with a carpet we got some valuable advice from the salesmen I'll never forget:
"Travelling might make you poor in the pockets, but rich in the heart"
Wise words to live by, if you ask me.
Go for a camel ride
Finally arriving at the Sahara, our carriages were awaiting. #arabianprincesses I'll tell you right now, I used to be quite scared of, well, animals in general. We never had pets at home, so I never really got used to their un-predictiveness. Surprisingly though, before we arrived I felt that this camel ride into the heart of the Sahara would become one of the highlights of our trip, taking away all of this fear. And ladies and gentlemen, it did not disappoint. Even though we had to sit in a small bus for almost two days just to get there, it was totally worth it.
Riding a camel isn't too hard, especially not since they were being led by a guide on foot going only 5 km/h. #camelracing It's the getting on and off part that needs a bit more skill. To my surprise as the expert on animals, camels don't bend their four legs at the same time. First the front, then the back, making it feel like they're trying to throw you off in slow motion. #holdtight Anyway, a few hours into the ride, that might even become your preferred scenario as your butt will surely start to ache from all the wobbling. #trainthosemuscles
The best thing about that camel ride however, wasn't the camels as such, but the complete experience. We arrived just in time for the sunset and the colors seemed to change by the minute. The steady pace of the camels and the lack of WiFi really made me feel at peace. And even though we were still on a "tourist attraction", I have never felt more free than I did at that place in that moment. #vrijheidblijheid
One night in the Sahara
Honestly, if you are doing point five and go for a camel ride at sunset, I'm pretty sure you won't get many other options than sleeping in the desert for the night. There aren't a lot of people around who'll take you back through the desert after dark. Even if it's not your intent to ride any animals, sleeping in the desert is a nice experience. For us, experienced campers that we were #pantsonfire, sleeping in tents was an adventure on its own.
Once we arrived at the camp, we got dinner and music lessons around the campfire and after that, those interested could still "hike" up a sand dune to see the moon over the desert. Loaded with #fomo, we joined. Unfortunately, it turned out to be one of those hikes where after each peak, a new and higher peak became visible only after having reached said previous peak. Good thing we were in great shape. #pantsonfireagain
My friend called it quits halfway into peak one. I was clearly loaded with a lot more FOMO as I followed my young tour guide a bit further up. To be completely fair, he was holding my shoes, and going down without them wasn't very appealing.
With burning lungs I ended up at the top with my tour guide only to realize the group had not followed.. which kicked in my worst-case-scenario-mindset for just a split second (or half hour or whatever time it took us to get back to camp). #Iwasgoingtogetkidnappedandsoldforcamels Luckily for me, I ended up back safely in my tent, which suddenly felt a lot more homey, thanks to my adrenaline levels as high as the peak I just climbed. Besides my near-death-experience, the views were absolutely worth it.
After our ride in the desert, the bus took us back to Marrakesh to a hotel with a pool for some relaxing. We booked a hammam and massage just to make sure we were truly relaxed.
In Belgium, a hamman is usually just a sauna with steam. Imagine our surprise when we arrived in Marrakech in a room without steam. My friend and I booked a hammam together, thinking we would sit in a steamed room for a while and then get our massages all steamed out. Unfortunately when we arrived, after following yet another strange man, who wasn't allowed to directly address us, into the heart of the Medina, the woman in charge mimed us to take off all of our clothes and take a seat in this hot-but-very-much-steam-less room. #newlevelsoffriendship We did as we were told and waited, naked, in a hot room, in the middle of Marrakesh. After some time another woman walked in and without started washing #baptising us with some kind of nicely smelling oily liquid. Once we were completely drenched, she left and we waited again, greasy and naked. A few minutes later she came back with a washcloth and starting scrubbing off the oil. Despite the weird situation, I have to admit I've never seen so much dead skin come off my body before. #bestscrubever Some good advice we learned the hard way:
"Get your henna tattoo after your scrub, there won't be much left otherwise."
After the scrub we had to wash ourselves off and go to our massages. Although we couldn't quite grasp what we just experienced, we both just felt so "renewed" and clean. The massages were perfectly relaxing and we received again some typical tea, which by then we came to enjoy a lot. This experience in general is both relaxing and refreshing and definitely a must do.
Try the tagine
Next to all of the above, Marrakech also has a thing for the culinary explorer. However I have to be quite short on this one as I got food poisoning three days into our trip, and ended up surviving on immodium and bread for almost the entire week. #donteatsalads Plus, I'll never be really the go to person if you want to try exotic food. #picky Still my friend loved it so much we even bought her a tagine for her birthday later that year. So if you're up for some local food, you'll definitely find a tagine dish to your liking.
Just like trying the tea, this is not really something you'll do by choice as you simply don't have any. Well-read as we were, we were finally ready to start our true vacation with a nice cold cocktail or a good glass of rosé. We hit the streets again looking for a cosy place to sit and eat, only to find the alcoholic-beverage-pages missing from every menu in town. #shocked Only then, we learned that in Muslim religion you're not allowed to drink alcohol in public places. We asked our riad for a place that would serve our desperate asses and they informed us that there might be one or two more touristic where we could go, but we never found them. It was only at the end of our trip we finally managed to get a hold of one bottle of wine #hiddentreasure, which at the moment we appreciated even more. #tournéeminerale Let's say Morocco is a good country for a cleanse.
Stay in a riad in the old Medina
Last but not least, if you decide to stay in Marrakech, book a riad close to the old medina. It will truly feel like a hidden gem in all of the brown streets. Unfortunately I can't recall the name of our riad. Mainly because we never got the riad that was mentioned in the booking confirmation (thanks to the fact that it didn't exist #africanstyle) and because I just suck at remembering names. Luckily the one that did exist was a beautifully decorated riad two streets from the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, which was perfect to discover the old medina. The riad was quite new and covered in mosaique which made it look absolutely stunning.
If you've read all the way to here, it seems you are ready to explore Morocco and all of its wonders. The only remaining advice I can give, especially if it's the first time you travel to a Muslim city or area, is to (1) dress appropriately and (2) close the windows at night or bring earplugs, as the call for prayer is quite loud and early; and woke us completely by surprise on the first night. However, don't let this stop you. I truly hope to go back one day.
Time to let go of all your worries, you're in Africa now! <3