I came to Morocco to sleep in the desert. It’s been my dream for over two years. I booked myself 10 days in Morocco. Flying in and out of Marrakesh, I decided to spend all my time here expect with a few excursion. I realized that I managed to see Morocco from west to east in only my first four days. I saw its Atlantic coast by visiting Essaouira on my second day. And, I got to see its Algerian border through my desert trek. Sleeping in the desert is also part of my 25 before 25 bucket list - #9.
Day 1: Marrakesh
I flew into Marrakesh at night. I got to see the sunset from the plane. I’ll spare you the photos. We’ve all seen them, are all, like, really cool. Anyway, I checked in and I slept. The next day, my first actual day in Marrakesh, I had no plans. I roamed around the souks. I tried to enjoy myself despite being an idiot who got scammed at twice. But, so it goes. Marrakesh is not a gentle city. Everyone wants to sell you something. I quickly learned how to say no without the merchants pushing further. Basically, shake your head no and do not speak. If you even say “No thanks” they will start talking to you. They will even walk with you a little.
The souks are interesting. When you try to slow down to admire the shops and the alleys you quickly become the target for the merchants. So, it can be difficult to actually admire them. My general rule of thumb is not to buy anything on the first day. I did not listen to that rule so I got scammed. Twice. In Marrakesh, the rules of haggling go as following: never pay more than a 3rd and your first response should be 10% of what the merchant said. Do not feel bad about this. They quote obscene prices to everyone. There are plenty of people who just accept their ridiculous offers on the spot. They make good money of naive or timid tourists. It’s not disrespectful to respond with 10%, because it is, frankly, part of their culture to barter. If you happen to offend one with such a low ball offer move on to another shop. They are all selling the same things anyway.
I woke up early and got to see the merchants open up and set up their souks. Some were still closed at 9:30 am. A merchant saw me taking photos and chatted me up. He said there was a tannery nearby and I should check it out. He even walked me to it. I was in a great mood so I went and checked out the place. Ah yes, everyone in Morocco wants a tip from boys who will help you cross a simple wood planked bridge to anyone giving you directions. But this man didn’t. He said it’s free for me to walk into the tannery and take pictures. That part was true. I did not have to buy anything but it’s not like they did not try to sell me anything. It was already late in the afternoon so most of the dying has been done. But, the wool and the scarfs were drying on walls and from hung strings. The family that owned the shop seemed pleasant. They didn’t really seem to care if I was there or not but the man who showed me around did care if I ended up buying five scarfs at the end. I bought one. And overpaid. I don’t want to talk about it.
Later that day I walked around the Jewish quarter known as the Mellah. If you’re looking to buy spices, tea or any of Moroccan cosmetics I heard it’s much cheaper here. The merchants here seemed much friendlier but they still had the same motives. They would wave you into their shops and tell you all about the different things they are selling. If you don’t want to buy anything just excuse yourself. They are not that as aggressive in the Mallah.
I ended up chatting with one of the merchants. He told me all about the different soaps, oils, teas and what not. I found him to be a pleasant man. I ended up buying a small bag of skin and face scrub from him. He took a liking for me too because he offered me a bunch of free gifts like Moroccan lipstick, rosewater, pumice and a few other things. At one point he asked about my husband. I felt weird telling him that I’m not in fact married. I am still figuring it out as I go what the locals’ interpretation is of western women being single. So, I did not correct his assumption. Before I left, he wanted to give me a soap and a few of Moroccan toothpicks for my husband too! Thank you.
On my way back from the Mellah, I got waved over to a carpet shop. Now, I’d love to buy some but I am not only broke but don’t have a home to put one in. I told him I’m not buying one from him and he said that’s okay. I went in to have a look. I was curious to tour a shop with so many rugs and interested in taking photos of them too. It’s the same reason I went into the tannery in the morning. It turned out the guy walking me through his shop also lived in NY for a long time. Actually, about 30 minutes from where I lived on Long Island. What a small world, eh? He walked me through his giant, I mean giant, house. It was filled with rugs all over. There was not a single room filled with rugs. I even got to watch his mother weave one briefly.
Of course, they didn’t only sell rugs. They sold jewelry, furniture, and weapons. I did see a couple of rings I loved. I bought them breaking my rule again of not buying anything on the first day. But I did get to use my bartering skills this time! They offered me 1100MAD (about USD$110) for both rings. I told them 800. After a few back and forths, I stuck to my 800. We landed at 850. Now, I’m still not proud of this price because it’s more than a 3rd and I did not respond with the 10%. Lesson learned.
Day 2: Essaouira
On my second day, I was going on a tour to Essaouira! So many people recommended it to me that I was happy I was doing a day trip. The day started with me getting picked up on a motorbike from my riad. Cars can’t go into the narrow streets of the souks and their nearby surroundings. That was so much fun. The drive to Essaouira took about 3 hours. We did see the goats on the trees. I did not want to take a photo because I did not want to pay a “tip” for this. But I snuck one in anyway!
In all honesty, I do not understand the fuss about Essaouira. The food is more expensive than in the center of Marrakesh, the poverty is devastatingly awful, and besides a few shops, there is really nothing there. I had about 4 or so hours to kill walking around Essaouira. I tagged along with a couple from the UK. They were here for just a week holiday. We walked around the port and saw the fishermen at the end of their morning. It was an interesting way to see a town. There were tourists taking photos, including myself. There were fishermen cleaning their boats, weaving nets and selling fish. That was one thing I did look forward to trying here, a fish tagine. I heard not to try eating the fish in Marrakesh since it’s a land locked city. The locals allegedly don’t eat fish there.
Afterward, we walked around the center of the town where all the shops were. I did not care to buy anything. Not only have I already learned my lesson, I can’t really bring anything back with me. I’m going to be gone for another 5 months and my backpack won’t serve me well with a giant ceramic bowl in it. At the same time, I am not interested in shipping anything back. I assume it’s going to take forever and cost way too much.
We grabbed our lunch by the City Wall. It’s a fort wall decorated with 18th-century Spanish cannons. It was closed to the public at the time so we couldn’t walk around it. We grabbed lunch at a restaurant that overlooked the City Wall from its rooftop. I ended up getting the fish tagine after all. It was good. The fish was great. After we walked around some more.
I ended up leading us outside of the city center past the actual tall city walls. We were greeted with fallen buildings, dirt and poverty. It was uncomfortable to look at. I felt for these people. It’s not a way of life I’d wish on anyone. There is not much I can do about it at the moment. It’s heartbreaking really. I have it really easy and I understand that. I guess, after all, I am happy about having been to Essaouira because I saw what the outside looks like, what the tourists don’t see.
Day 3: Aït Ben Haddou
Okay. The moment I’ve been waiting for is here. I am starting my three-day tour of the desert. I booked it online for about $100. It included two dinners, two breakfasts, two nights stay. It did not include lunches or snack of any kind. It also didn’t include any tips or the “entrance fee” to the Aït Ben Haddou. The tour did include a lot of driving. I mean a lot.
We left Marrakesh at 9 am. I got to drive on the back of a motorbike again before it broke down halfway through. It was a small group that I loved. On the first day, it was me and two Italian women traveling together, Cinzia and Serena. And, of course, our driver Muhammed. The drive on the first day consisted of driving through the Atlas mountains and parts of Sahara towards Boumalne Dadès where we spend the first night.
One of our stops included Aït Ben Haddou. It’s a small and old Berber town that is used for shooting movies. It’s a really interesting sight to see. I mentioned the entrance fee because there is no entrance and if you come by yourself you don’t pay anything. We did have a guide, they could have called it the tour fee. That’s why many travelers, like myself, are skeptical of Morocco. So many things are false and lied about. For instance, my tour paid 20MAD while I met travelers who paid 40. And, like I said, I was also told that if you show up and to this yourself, you don’t pay anything. Besides that slight bitterness, I did enjoy seeing the village.
Our guide told us about the town’s culture. For instance, there are eight families still living in the old village. Their houses are made out of straw and mud and need to be rebuilt every two years. Mud doesn’t make for a sturdy building. There have been many movies filled at Aït Ben Haddou. However, everybody there sort of worships the Gladiator and Russell Crowe. He was extremely nice to the locals. He chatted everybody up. The guide couldn't say the same was true of other stars.
Of course, we were taken to a few shops on our tour. One of them included an artist who worked with indigo and tea. It’s an interesting process where they heat the paper after making the drawing. It brings the colours to life by staining the paper.
Driving through the Atlas mountains was fantastic. The mountains are beautiful and range in types. Some are dry and yellow, some are green and filled with crops. Some are deep orange. Some have goats eating bushes. Some are just plain cliffs. There are few high peaks that are even covered in snow.
At the end of the day, we pick up two other travelers. Stefania and Andrea were a young colour from Colombia. They were a great addition to our small group of 4. We continued on through the dry desert. We passed so many small villages through the whole three-day drive. We got to our hotel just in time for the sunset.
Day 4: Merzouga
Today we are going to the dunes in the desert! We woke up early in the morning, ate some breakfast and on our way we went! But not without a few stops, of course. The first one was a walk in a crop field where we saw a few of locals working. Then we walked around the part of the town with new construction happening. Again, with straw and mud bricks. I’m not sure if there was any significance to this place. The guide mostly spoke in Spanish to the Colombian couple who was in the very front.
That’s something I noticed right away. Out of all the places I’ve been, in Morocco the people speak so many languages. Both Berbers and Moroccans spoke English, Spanish, French and Italian to some extent. Some were fluent. I even heard one speak German. It’s really impressive. A few even knew random words in Polish, which mind you, doesn't happen often to be except “kurwa”. During my three day tour, I communicated more in Italian and bits of Spanish than in English.
The second stop was a carved out valley between two mountain cliffs. The driver dropped us off at the beginning and let us walk for about 300 meters where he was waiting for us. For once, this was a stop for our pure enjoyment. Of course, there was someone selling something but that’s because these merchants are everywhere. The cliffs were beautiful. There was a small stream going next to the road. It was a chilling but such a pleasant walk.
Eventually, we left the mountains and were heading closer and closer toward Merzouga where the camel trek took place. We could see the sand dunes miles away. We all kept on getting more and more excited. We arrived shortly before 4pm. We wasted no time. I liked my camel. His names escape me but he was a calm and friendly dude. I can’t say that for the camel behind me. He did not like to be touched. Okay, buddy. We rode them for about 40 minutes. We took a short break for photos and rode for another 10 minutes. That’s when our Berber guide, I’m going to call him Peter, stopped us and told us to get off. He said that to best see the sunset we needed to climb a small dune.
It was not easy. It took a few good minutes for me. I am not as fit as I thought I was. But it was so worth it. The sun was setting while the moon was shining on the opposite side. That’s when I realized I won't be able to see the Milky Way at night. The moon was a day away from being full and it was shining brighter than diamonds. While on the dune Peter pointed out that on the other side there is a plateau. It’s about 50 kilometers from us. And, that’s Algeria. I had no idea I was going to be this far inland. Or rather, so close to Algeria. I could see it! When I looked at a map of all the places I’ve been in Morocco it was more or less a straight line from it’s left Atlantic coast to its right border with Algeria. That’s pretty damn nifty.
After the sunset, we got back on the camels for another 20 or 30 minutes to our camps. It was made up of bout 6 tents, an outhouse, a common tent where we ate and a kitchen. We hung around for a few hours while the Berber guides make us food. Shortly after we arrived at the tents, one more group - made up of an Italian and Austrian buddies who met on the road - joined us. It was a small group and I loved it. I had my tent all to myself which had four single bed in it, each with a pillow and a blanket. It was cold but I decided I’m going to sleep outside since I can wrap myself in those four blankets from my tent.
After the dinner, which was naturally chicken tagine, we sat outside by a campfire. The Berbers brought out drums to play and sing by the fire. It was pretty fantastic. Towards the end of the campfire, they started telling us corny joked. It was hilarious mostly because of the way they told them. For example, how to put a camel into a fridge in three steps? We all made up all sorts of random things. The answer? Open the fridge, put the cable in, close the fridge. How do you put an elephant into the fridge in four steps? Open the fridge, take the camel out, put the elephant in, and close the fridge.
Peter asked us if we wanted to climb one of the dunes. We did. It was a big one. The one we climbed for the sunset was at least a 3rd in size. I climbed it maybe half way before I started feeling awful. My heart was racing. I stopped. I ended up climbing it ¾ of the way before I finally gave up. I decided I enjoyed the solitude. I knew what was on the otherwise, the town of Merzouga and a few others. They would be twinkling with small lights. I did not want to see it. I stopped to saw the desert from the above. It was mesmerizing and magical. I laid on the dune for some time and looked up at the stars. Earlier in the night we saw Venus and Mars. Now the whole place was lit by moonlight. It was excellent. It was peaceful. I heard the group chatting but only occasionally. It was dead silent. I was alone in the middle of the Sahara desert near Merzouga, Morocco. I have no words to describe it. I had maybe 15 or more minutes alone before everyone was coming down running and jumping like idiots. I joined them as they passed me.
When we got down to the camp everyone basically went to sleep. I declared I’m going to sleep outside. No one else wanted to join me. I was already wearing two pairs of pants, a t-shirt, two buttons down shirts, a light jacket and something like what a Snuggly should be. Under me, I had a rug, a thin foam mat, and a blanket. I was cocooned in two blankets and had one more over me just, in case. I was not going to let the cold stop me.
Some of us wanted to wake up early at 4am to see the night sky once the moon went down. I woke up and saw nothing interesting yet. It was too early. I woke up again at about 5am and I could a lot more start. Unfortunately the fun and beautiful part of the galaxy was below us on the opposite side of the earth. The Austrian guy, Mike, had a night sky app with him and that’s what we found out. I looked up for a little bit and enjoyed the view of the generously sprinkled stars and went back to sleep. I woke up just after the sunrise which was a little bit of a bummer. But that’s okay.
Shortly after me, everyone else got up. We rode the camels back to the car for about an hour. There we had a quick breakfast and we began out 11-hour drive back to Marrakesh. This time stopping only for food and bathroom breaks.
Sleeping in the desert was fantastic. I wish I could spend more time. I didn’t know how I’d like it so I only booked the tree day tour with a single night in the desert. I am so glad I did at least that and that I slept outside. With the amount I was wearing, I was not cold. Other said they were cold in their tents. Beats me. I cannot describe the feeling of being practically alone in the desert. Like most things, photos don’t do this justice. Sure it was a tour, sure we were an hour away from the town but it did not matter. It makes such an impact on me. I highly recommend the experience to everyone.
I am a freelance web designer who documents her travels with photos and words via Black Journal. Additionally, I work with small companies that want to re-brand their online businesses to create products that change lives of their customers all in the hopes of gaining more customers and retaining their current ones longer.