Morocco – The gateway to Africa

20 12 2017

To be honest, Morocco was not on my top list of countries to visit. My misperceived painting of Africa is sight of animals roaming (safari), Sahara desert, African tribes, ulu (Singlish for remote) towns and poor hygiene conditions popped in my head. However, since I was already going to Spain and Portugal, my initial thought was that I should just crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and get the African continent checked off the continents that I visited. This is the first time I set foot in Africa and I was glad I mustered the courage to venture to this country.

Morocco is really awesome. The landscape, architecture, food and people/culture are something that I have never seen or experience before.

Marrakech

I have chose to stay in the riad in the old town instead of the new town to get the “real experience” of Morroco. As the car drove into the medina, I was feeling rather overwhelmed with the crowded, noisy and chaotic scene. As the alleyways are too narrow for cars to pass through, we alighted at along the main street and walked through narrow alleyways to our riad. For first timer to this city (like me), navigating around the medina is like trying to get out of a maze, a rather daunting experience. Don’t worry, after a while you will get a hang of it and start recognizing your way 🙂

Some must see sights in this city is the beautiful garden of Yves Saint Laurent called Majorelle Gardens, Bahia Palace, the souks and Jamaa El-Fnaa. Many guides recommend the Saadian tombs but I must say I can’t help but compare it to the magnificent Chinese emperor tombs that I have visited. Well, I guess I should not but I just can’t help it… pardon me.

Atlas mountain

Just out of Marrakech lays the Altas mountain. Actually, the Atlas mountain (or mountains to be exact) are in fact three ranges, with the Middle Atlas in the north, the High Atlas near Marrakech and the anti-Atlas in the south. The Ourika valley, Ourigane, Imil and Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in Morocco standing at 4167 meter are nice sites around the High Atlas not to be missed. Do drop by the Berber villages in the mountain area too. You could even pick up some nice argan oil along the way.

Before heading back to Marrakech, why not do a desert safari on the AV? I really enjoyed it though I ended up with sand all over my clothes lol.

Driving across Atlas Mountain

The drive from Marrakech to Ait Brnhouddou takes more than 4 hours one way across the High Atlas mountain, along the famous Tizi-n-Tichka pass. The first part of the drive out of Marrakech along river Ouled Zad is a rather arid landscape. The drive then takes one up the slope of the Atlas mountain, through small villages and olive groves until the first pass, Tiz Imguer at 1470 meter. I will suggest stopping at the nearby test station for a quick drink/bite, toilet break and of course take some interesting photos of the eroded coloured red rock wall below the pass and the surrounding view.

After which, the road ascend all the way to the Tizi-n-Tichka pass, with the landscape changing to more and more barren but majestic along the way. I was lucky that it snowed while driving through the pass so the scenery is amazing with snow capped mountain! Too bad I couldn’t stop to take photos 😦

The scenery on the other side of the mountain is quite different and the landscape slowly changed to a pre-Sahara dessert landscape. I would say that even though the drive is long and toting, it is quite an interesting and scenic drive. If you didn’t have time to see the Atlas mountain, this could be your opportunity to catch a glimpse of it, though the mountain itself is really worth at least a day or even more.

Ait Benhouddou

Ait Benhouddou was an ancient fortified city (ksar) built by the Berber people along the trade route between the Sahara and Marrakech and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is interesting to climb up the fortress, navigating through the maze of narrow and crenelated towers. I would say it is certainty worth all the hassle to make this long trip to see this site. Many movies were filmed here including the Game of Thrones so don’t feel surprised if you find the place looking familiar 🙂

Tips:

⁃ You can change to the local currency at the airport. The money changer would advise you to change some cash and credit some cash into a debit card. Do that as it is easier than carrying tons of cash. However, it is wise to say put 30% of the cash into the card as many small shops, the markets, entrance fees, drivers and guides do not accept card payment.

⁃ If you are travelling in a group of 3 or more, it will be cheaper to get a driver to take you around instead of joining day tours. It will also give you mor flexibility of what to see and where to stop for photos.

⁃ The Altas mountain and the valleys are very beautiful and worth a visit. You can stop by berber houses and see argan oil making too along the way.

⁃ Be warn that the drive to Ouzazarte and Ait Benhouddou is around 4 hours one way along windy mountain roads. So if you are planning a day trip, note that you will be spending 8 hours on the road.

⁃ For the best photo shoot of Ait Benhaddou, take it across the dry river bed of Oued Ounila.

⁃ Head to one of the kasbahs to see how the rich used to live back in the old days though I can’t imagine how the small dark rooms with uneven floors and tiny windows can be considered luxurious back then. Well time has changed indeed…

⁃ From Ait Benhaddou, Ouarzazate is a short drive away and renowned as the Moroccan Hollywood.

⁃ If you want to go into the Sahara desert, it is another good 3.5 to 6 hours drive from Ait Benhaddou or Ouarzazate depending which part of Sahara you are intending to visit (Zagora or Merzouga). From there, you need to ride a camel into the desert camp so make sure that you are well attired for it.

Food:

⁃ Highly recommend Cafe Kif-Kif in Marrakech, located opposite the mosque at the Souk. Serves really yummy Moroccan food at really cheap prices (~€6.50 for a main course) with a good terrace view.

⁃ Cafe Kasbah opposite the Saurian Tombs is super nice too. It is slightly more expensive than Cafe Tik-Tik but still cheap (~€10 euro for a main course).

⁃ If you are into fine dining with a nice Arabian ambience, head to La Maison Arabe. The price is not too expensive (~€40 per person excluding wine). They serve both Moroccan and International cuisine. The Moroccan cuisine tastes good but more of a fusion type hence the “Moroccan taste” is much lighter. So if you find the typical Moroccan cuisine too rich, this restaurant may suit your taste.

⁃ For food with a view, ask your guide to bring you to the restaurant by Lake Lalla, 40 minutes drive from Marrakech. Estimated price per person is €15 euros comprises of salad, main course and fruits.

Accommodation

I stayed in a riad (Riad d’Clefs Orient) which is the traditional local houses converted into hotels/air bnb in the Medina area. Each riad different decorations depending on the owners. The riad that I stayed in is beautiful and the owner (who are French staying in Morocco) is so helpful. I will strongly recommend that you book your stay in a riad for the Moroccan experience. The riad comes with breakfast and they could also prepare dinner of you like. But as the riad is made of stone walls, it can be cold at night during the winter months but you can always request for additional heater.

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