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Morocco

culture travel Jun 21, 2022
Morocco! A country renowned for its magnificently colorful culture with brilliantly bright spices, dramatic lantern lighting, and impeccably detailed mosaic tiling. And it turns out... a pretty pumping surf scene as well. To read all about the surf portion, CLICK HERE.
 
While I normally prefer traveling by myself, my surf buddy, Dave, suggested a trip to Morocco and was very excited to experience the surf scene there (as well as the longest right wave in Africa), and I was excited to have a friend who wanted to visit a far away land to both surf AND experience the culture. We rounded up his best friend and my surf coach, Joe, and together embarked on a stellar trip to a far away land for 2 weeks. It would be my first time in #Africa!
 
 
MARRAKECH
We landed in Marrakech and had resolved to spend our first two nights there to overcome the jet lag and attempt to recover from the full day and a half of travel it took to get there.
 
 
THE RIAD
I booked us at the most delightful #Riad inside the “Old City” section of town known as the Medina. A Riad is a term used for a family’s home that was converted into a hotel... but like a really really big family’s home. Complete with indoor sitting pool and rooftop deck. The name of the place is Riad Les Terrasses de Jemaa Elfna & Spa and if you’d like to stay in the Medina, I’d highly recommend this place! At the time of booking, after tax, it was about $88 USD per night (https://www.hotels.com/ho1950126912/riad-les-terrasses-de-jemaa-elfna-spa-marrakech-morocco/?display=description). Not only is it gorgeous and the rooms cozy (they had their flaws, but were overall great for the value), but it had a rooftop terrace with a restaurant and hookah sitting area as well as a traditional hammam which is a Moroccan bath house type experience. After spending over 24 hours in travel, I really enjoy first landing at accommodations where I can eat dinner on site (their food was absolutely incredible here!) and also schedule a massage to help acclimate me and shake off the stress I’ve accumulated in order to be here, on vacation.
 
 
 
 
The traditional Hammam was quite an interesting experience... It’s a well insulated room that one could most easily compare to a sauna if the walls and seating were made of stone and tile. But unlike a sauna, the heat stems from the hot water that fills a basin. A woman joined me, who I would later learn was also my masseuse for my deep tissue massage after. To my surprise, I sat there fully naked, and her fully clothed, as she poured hot water over me and began to wash and scrub me from head to toe. She rinsed me with the delightfully warm water in between each section and the room did indeed fill with steam and warmth. I felt a bit like a queen as she cleansed me. I can see how the water is scarce in Africa and this is a sufficient and enjoyable way to bathe. She then dressed me a towel robe and whisked me off to my hour-long massage. While I wouldn’t count on her to fix any lingering issues, her pressure was enough to get the stress off my soul and relax me.
 
 
THE MEDINA
The oldest parts of Marrakech from ancient times are known as the Medina and have been preserved a bit by a huge wall surrounding it. Most of its streets are undriveable and taxis will drop you at its outer limits. Arriving on our first day and being dropped on the outskirts to navigate our way to the middle with all our luggage was a bit overwhelming on bricked streets with every vendor shouting at us and a swarm of people hounding us the second we stopped to pull out a map to try and navigate our way. It has it’s charm though as long as your refusal game in strong. Most people who approach you are dying to help you.... in return for cash. It was few and far between that a Good Samaritan actually took pity on us and pointed us in the right direction out of the goodness of his heart.
 
 
The main square is enveloped with fruits, drinks, food, henna, and snake charming vendors. We were advices by the lovely staff at our Riad to avoid eating at any of the vendors in this area and never let the henna people grab your hand unless you’re ready to throw down on receiving it. And I’ll admit, this was actually challenging. The many alleyways of this part of the city have so much charm it’s unbelievable. With ornate doors, homes mixed against proper shops, a random donkey pulling his work, and a never ending barrage of people trying to sell you things. Bring your best bargaining game here or really to any part of Morocco. They have mastered the art of the sell here and will gawk at your low ball offers, seemingly insulted, and be happy to counter and do their best to sob story you into why you should pay them a higher price. I wouldn’t call bargaining my strong suit, and I always seemed to pay a few dollars more for things than my travel buddies.
 
The biggest and most notable market in the country is in Marrakech. A market in Morocco is known as a souk. We went off in search of it on our first day, but it turns out Friday is a very religious day for the country and most people spend the day in prayer instead of selling in the souk. But once we did arrive at it, it was rather endless and impressive! Everyone will invite you into their shops. Everyone will invite you to make a deal. And everyone will try to corner you into sitting down for Moroccan mint tea so they can peacock their goods for you. You’ll find leather workers, basket weavers, wood and bone carvers, “pharmacies” or what we’d know better as apothecaries, clothing, candies and Berber rugs everywhere.
 
Our favorite apothecary was a newer shop run by a lovely guy named Abdul who spoke great English. We easily spent a few hours with him and bought into a wide variety of things from perfumes, post shaving blocks, sniffing concoctions for asthma and congestion, muscle balms, lip balms, and more. I’d highly recommend giving him a visit and you contact him on Instagram for directions at @aaserno.
 
 
 
 
Our favorite restaurant in the Medina is named Le Marrakchi and can easily be identified in the main square by the red lights illuminating the top of the building. The swanky entrance with outdoor tasseled lamps and a mysterious posted doorman alongside a red carpet-like entrance is just the precursor to the beauty inside. We followed a lantern-lit stairwell upstairs to find mosaicked walls, velvet patterned chairs, and beautiful chandeliers with a view of the Medina below. We didn’t eat a single thing here that wasn’t absolutely incredible. Their Moroccan salad spread was the largest we saw on our entire trip and the most flavorful. One will quickly discover a love for orange blossom flavored vegetables, tagine cooked chicken and lamb, and couscous couscous couscous.
 
 
 
  
THE NEW CITY
Overall, we were a bit overwhelmed with the Medina straight out the gates of arriving in Morocco. While the Riad inside it was an absolute must-see and we got better at navigating our way and figured out how to be solicited less, staying in the “New City” or the parts outside of the walls that resonate much more with modern culture would be our choice in the future. The New City serves and sells alcohol and has far fewer beggars.
 
One our last night before departing, we stayed a great apartment building turned hotel in a nice part of town for about $60 USD per night. It was nice to have a kitchen option and a decent amount of space to repack my suitcase and figure out how to get all of my purchased belongings home. The hotel is called Appart Hotel Amina Resort & Spa (https://www.hotels.com/ho1099938432/appart-hotel-amina-resort-spa-marrakech-morocco/?display=description).
 
TAGHAZOUT
Taghazout is known as a small fishing village about 45 minutes north of Agadir, the closest city. But it’s become renowned in the surf community for great waves. The town is fairly small and very walkable. We arrived at the beginning of March and found the climate to be much like that of Southern California. The air was dry and mid 70s Fahrenheit during the day and upper 50s at the dead of night. The ocean was delightful shades of blue with warmer water temps than we have in California at the same time of year. Usually the water was around 63-65 degrees every day.
 
 
Sunset over Anchor Point. Taghazout, Morocco.
 
 
THE SAHARA DESERT
Riding a camel in the Sahara Desert at sunset should be on everyone’s bucket list. And we got to do just that on this trip! I booked us on a 3 day, 2 night private tour to Merzouga for the best sand dunes Morocco has to offer. Our tour driver was absolutely lovely and made plenty of stops along the way for pictures and learning a few more things about Morocco and specifically native Berber culture that were highly informative and beautiful. He also took note of my desire to buy a few crystals native to Morocco and took us to a local miner where I was able to buy vanandite, onyx, and selenite at stellar prices. I even found some selenite at on the ground at one of our stops!
 
Ultimately we arrived at the sand dunes of Merzouga where a guide was waiting to load us onto camels and trek us farther into the desert to our camp. Our camels were tied up in a row and we slowly wandered as the sun was setting in the distance. Brilliant hues of orange and gold danced on the dunes and faded into a blood orange more familiar with desert sunsets. It was almost too surreal to soak in.
 
 
 
                          
 
We ended at our camp in Erg Cheebi which was beautifully lit with giant Moroccan lamps casting perfectly ornate shadows along the carpeted walkways that lead us to our greeting of mint tea.
 
We had opted in for the luxury camp upgrade (making our total a whopping $280 per person for the entire tour) and it was nothing shy of absolute glamping bliss. Our “tent” was by far the biggest triple bed accommodation we’d had so far with an elegant bathroom amongst the tent sidings. We even had a front porch setup which we utilized for toasting to the end of our journey and smoking the lash of our hash out of a camel bone pipe.
 
After dinner, we gathered around the campfire to join in song and dance lead by the guides who came together to share their drum beats and song with us. It was so freeing and healing! Afterwards, we lay there till we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore... staring at the thousands of stars that emerged and watch the Milky Way rotate over our heads.
 
 
 
 
 In the morning, we woke up for sunrise and watch the sun poke its bright head over the mountains of Algeria. The entire tour is an absolute must when visiting. Check it out here: https://www.marrakech-desert-trips.com/tours/marrakech-desert-tours-3-days/ 
 
 
 
THE FOOD
The food in Morocco is absolutely delightful! Their use of seasonings and cooking strategies will definitely impress. There’s a few staples you won’t be able to escape... or want to for that matter.
 
MINT TEA
It would be absolutely impossible for you to leave Morocco without having had mint tea. It is a showing of welcome to an establishment or home. When you arrive at a riad, the first thing you will do is have mint tea. At a rest stop, they will be ready to pour you mint tea. While shopping, a shop keeper will try to entice you with mint tea so you can sit and chat with them a while... which usually leads to you buying something. You can get yours sweetened or unsweetened. And it’s rather good both ways.
 
MOROCCAN SALAD
Moroccan salad is the precursor to every meal. It consists most often of several small dishes that you eat from containing tomatoes, cucumbers, a potato salad, beets, eggplant, pumpkin with orange blossom oil, carrots with orange blossom oil, and other delightful things depending on how large the spread is. The pumpkin and carrots were my favorite...because OMG who knew you needed so much orange blossom flavor in your life???
 
 
 
 
TAGINE
Tagine cooking is the greatest thing that’s happened to my food pallets in recent times.Named after the device used to cook the food, a tagine is a clay pot with a hole at the top to allow for steam to be released. You put the entire thing in or on a heat source and allow it to cook its contents to perfection. Usually offered as chicken, lamb or meat, or simply vegetables. My favorite was the lamb tagine with sweet prunes and raisins! They also provide a lot of bread with every meal... ideal for scooping up the last of the sauces and getting them into your mouth. But as a non-bread eater, I loved putting couscous in mine for the same effect.
 
 
 
COUSCOUS
Couscous is offered a variety of ways at almost every establishment. It’s also served up with vegetables allowing vegetarian eaters a fairly easy time in the country.
 
 
A FEMALE IN MOROCCO
As a female traveling in an Arabic land, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I brought a scar to use as a hijab, the head dressing for women in Morocco, and was delighted to never have to wear it. I would have been happy to if any of our trusted local advisors turned friends had encouraged me to do so, but it turns out Morocco has truly progressed with its treatment of women. Or at least foreigners. While I didn’t pack anything of a sexy nature, I did have quite a few tank tops I had hoped to wear given the warm temperatures during the day. I asked around from the staff at our various accommodations if I should cover my shoulders or wear long sleeves because of my arm tattoos and they were all insistent that I should dress however I like. Indeed, most foreigners I could spot were dressed however they pleased... from strappy dresses to short shorts to tank tops and the like. In Taghazout, I walked the beaches in bikinis and watched many other women lay out by the pool to tan somewhat scantily clad.
 
While I never got to enter a mosque, it is my understanding that you may still be asked to cover bare shoulders or even your head to enter... but if you didn’t have a scarf handy, I’m sure there’d be at least a few locals nearby dying to sell you one for the appropriate price of $10-$20.
I was also previously concerned about visiting and Arabic country as a woman. But I can’t recount a single instance where I was met with disrespect due to my gender. Having now experienced Morocco and met several females traveling by themselves, I’d say this is absolutely a country one could travel solo as a female.
 
 
THE CULTURE
As with all cultures, there’s great people and less desirable ones. But when you find the many great people of Morocco, they are truly fantastic. Their sense of humor stands out to me the most. They are predominantly playful and excited to build a relationship with you and share a laugh. A rest stop clerk pulled a magic trick on me, making my large cash coin disappear and reappear as he jokingly said I was 5 dirham short of my total. A receptionist we’d seen for days at our hotel pulled a very serious face and told us they didn’t have rooms for us upon our return one afternoon... until we both started laughing and she handed us our room key. My predominant experience is that most Moroccan people are kind, inquisitive, helpful, and happy to have you in their country. The number of languages they speak is also rather impressive. The national languages are French and Arabic and many people also speak Spanish, English, and perhaps a native Berber language.
 
 
BERBER RUGS
Berber rugs are hailed internationally as some of the finest rugs in the world. All I knew about them before going to Morocco was that they are made by women and I had looked at purchasing one for my living room about a year prior and couldn’t find what I was looking for in my price range. We stopped at a Berber village on our desert tour where we got to meet a few representatives of a cooperative of 38 women who make Berber rugs. To my delight, I learned from a woman named Fatima how to actually spin wool! I’d kinda always wondered how it went from a shaving to a usable material. We were also educated about the different types of rugs they create which fall into primary categories like maps, caravan rugs, wedding gifts, and story rugs. Their process is extensive and usually takes 2-5 months to complete a rug from start to finish. I ended up buying two rugs while in Morocco... one of the intricate story rugs for my meditation room, and a smaller rug to travel with, ironically of the caravan style, that I can take with me anywhere to meditate on.
 
 
 
 
BRIBES
Dave was the only driver of our rental car and he got a speeding ticket one of our first few days with the car. He was only going 9km over the speed limit... but the police politely pulled him out of the car and wrote him up.. and as it turned out, “It had to be paid on the spot” to a whopping tune of 150 dirham which is about $15. We were intrigued by the experience and later asked one of the hotel staff if we could have or should have bribed our way out of a ticket. She informed us that bribes are welcomed in Morocco and the going rate is about 50 dirham... or $5!
 
 
COVID TRAVEL
I’ve been traveling throughout the pandemic, and this was by far the most challenging trip. Maybe because airlines have “ironed out” their system... or maybe because I had to traverse a few different countries and try to figure out their unique requirements. Having decided about 10 months prior that we would travel to Morocco in February of 2022, we were relieved when Morocco finally lifted their travel ban at the beginning of the month. But in an ever evolving landscape of changing requirements, we had fun hiccups like learning that while we could fly into Morocco from Portugal, we could not return from Morocco to Portugal... though during our 2 weeks there that would also change. It paid off being fully vaccinated as many countries instilled 270 day restrictions on entry for having received your last dose or a booster. Because we weren’t flying one airline the entire time, we ended up having to plan a stop over in Madrid for the night upon our return so we could get a rapid COVID test within one calendar day of our flight to return to the USA... regardless of vaccination status.