The Sahara, desert of seemingly endless vastness, ocean of sand, invites you to spend romantic nights under the most impressive starry sky, only a stone’s throw from Marrakech. But is this really what an excursion to the desert is like?
Most people believe so and put an excursion to the desert on their bucket list when travelling to Marrakesh. However, the truth looks a bit different, unfortunately, since getting from Marrakesh to the two big dune areas Erg Chebbi and Erg Chegaga will take you about 8-10 hours by car. Doing this non-stop is exhausting, even though the tour across the High Atlas and the fertile valleys of Draa and Dades which are lined with thousands of palm trees is definitely a visual feast with beautiful panoramic views.
(map: Google Maps, photos: Travelguide Marrakech, Wikimedia)
Sand dunes, dromedaries, Berber tents, starry skies and campfires
You will find uncountable travel agencies offering shorter and longer tours to the desert. If you have only little time and still want to go to the dunes, you may choose a short overnight (sleep in a Berber tent) trip in two days. This means leaving Marrakesh very early in the morning, a short break at Unesco World Cultural Heritage site Ait Benhaddou and reaching your camp in the dunes in the early evening. After a short night you will return to Marrakesh. It is more worthwile to go on a longer trip which also allows you to see some more sights on the way, like, for example, impressive Todra Gorge or Kasbah Taourirt near Ouarzazate.
In Morocco, there are two popular dune areas: “Erg Chebbi” near Merzouga in the southeast of Erfoud and “Erg Chegaga” near M’hamid south of Zagora. Yet before you reach these extensive seas of dunes you need to cross the similarily extensive hamada, a largely barren, rocky plateau, via an unpaved road. The question of which of the two dune areas is the most beautiful is a difficult one. Some love Erg Chegaga for its remoteness which may give you a more authentic Sahara-feeling, others prefer Erg Chebbi, especially, if you can stay overnight in a hotel close to the dunes in Merzouga. Driving to Erg Chegaga also gives you the opportunity to see the valleys of Dades and Draa River. For travellers with only very little time, there finally is a third option: Agafay desert, close to Marrakech. Read more
Backpackers will not be immune to Marrakech’s magic. Even though the city is relatively expensive in comparison to the rest of the country, you will be able to have a great time on a small budget there. How this works, you will find out with the following tips on low-budget holidays in Marrakech.
Marrakech can roughly be divided into three areas: the gardens, the ville nouvelle (new town) and the historic centre, the so-called medina. While the ville nouvelle is characterised by broad avenues lined with modern buildings with glass fronts, the atmosphere in the narrow, maze-like lanes around the central square Jamaa el Fna (“assembly of the dead“) is much more oriental and traditional. So if you want to come close to the orient, this is your place to be!
Cheap Hotels for Backpackers
Most low-budget-accomodation can be found in the medina. Usually, it will be simple, small hotels in different conditions. The rooms in most budget hotels do not include private bathrooms — you will usually share the facilities with the other guests on the same floor. Showers may have to be paid extra. Many of those hotels are located in magnificent town houses or riads which are decorated in a much richer way than the outside may pretend. Often, you will find little paradises behind the red brickearth walls and almost all hotels have a roof terrace from which you can listen to the muezzins’ polyphonic calls to prayer.
Roof terrace of Hotel “Essaouira” Read more
Staying in hostels, you get to know people easily, go easy on your budget and can use kitchen facilities to cook for yourself. In Marrakech, some very nice backpacker places opened, which, calling themselves Waka Waka, Kif Kif or Young and Happy, partly cling to the legendary Hippie trail.
If you want to spend as little money as possible and are looking for social contacts, you will sooner or later end up in a lively hostel full of backpackers. There is hardly a better place to get to know people — no matter if you are travelling on your own or in a small group. In Marrakech’s medina there are by now eight of those hostels, providing different types of private rooms and dorms as well as lounges and roof terraces, each of them looking more comfy than the other.
(photo: Hostel Riad Dia)
Staying in a dorm of a hostel can, depending on its size, be a noisy experience. To be on the safe side, you should have ear plugs and headphones ready. A little padlock may be useful, too, especially if the hostel provides lockers. At night, a torch can be helpful. Most hostels provide a kitchen for guests to use. Free WiFi is a standard in all places and mostly, the hostels’ staff speaks or at least understands English. Read more
Marrakech is a perfect base for day trips beyond the suqs of the medina. Experience the various Moroccan landscapes in the lush and fertile Ourika-Valley, the Portuguese-style coastal town of Essaouira, the Toubkal National Park or at the Ouzoud Waterfalls — Morocco presents itself in many different shapes and breathtaking beauty.
On the road (photo: Travelguide Marrakech)
Daytrips and longer excursions can be booked via the many travel agencies and tour operators that you’ll find in Marrakech’s medina. However, if you are not in need of supplies and an off-road vehicle or 4×4 to go to the Sahara, a lot of daytrips can be organised without renting a car by simply using public transport.
- Ourika Valley
- Imlil and Toubkal National Park
- Ouzoud Falls and the Imi-n-Ifri Formation
- Trip to Essaouira
- Ouarzazate and Aït Benhaddou
- Desert tours and excursions to the Sahara
1. Ourika Valley
Not even an hour from Marrakech, you will find Ourika Valley. This fertile valley is supplied with water by a river fed by springs in the High Atlas. A popular day trip destination is the little village of Setti Fatma, the last settlement that can be reached by car on this side of the mountains. From here, you can start little hikes in the Atlas — the short walk to the waterfalls of Setti Fatma is a classic.
The Ourika Valley (photo: Travelguide Marrakech)
If you want the real authentic Marrakech experience, the accommodation of your choice should be a riad in the historic medina. There are by now more than 1200 guest houses, one more beautiful than the other. In this article, the most highly rated riads are presented.
Riads are generously-sized town houses, whose plain ochre outside walls hide a tastefully decorated interior. The heart of these often sumptuously renovated town houses is a splendid patio, which is usually decorated with complex ornamentation, water basins and a lot of plants. Around this roofless courtyard the guest rooms are arranged. On the roofs of most riads, you will also find a terrace with sitting areas. Some riads not only offer to cook for their guests, but have their own cooking courses on offer. Others even have their own on-site hammams.
(Palais Riad Lamrani)
The 10 best riads in the medina of Marrakech
The Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts announces a new exhibition. From January 30th you can see works of Mourir Fatmi at Badi Palace.
Darkening Process, by contemporary artist Mounir Fatmi is based upon the idea of the Other; towards literature, Art History, figures and scientific experiments. The first project The Journey into Shame includes the bodies of work The Darkening Process and As a Black Man honoring John Howard Griffin, the white American writer and journalist, born in 1920, known for his fight against racial discrimination and best known for his book Black like Me. In 1959, he moved to the southern United States to undergo medical treatment combined with ultraviolet rays in order to blacken his skin — effectively transforming him into a “black” man. Griffin has gone through the ultimate experience of the Other to change his own skin to understand the life of a whole community.
Mounir Fatmi & Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
Amal Women’s Training Center is not only a social showcase but also an excellent restaurant. Although people say that too many cooks spoil the broth, cooking courses for small groups are offered there. Here is a field report by a passionate amateur cook.
A while ago, the brilliant restaurant at Amal Women’s Training Center was already recommended here on this blog. Behind the project there is a non-profit organization seeking to support socially disadvantaged women in developing their professional careers and helping them find jobs to earn their livings. These women work together with 15 employees and 12 volunteers and get gastronomic training including Moroccan and international cuisine, service, French language courses focussing on tourism as well as practical training in riads and restaurants.
In Amal Center, cooking courses in which you can learn how to prepare couscous, tagine or pastilla, are offered six days a week. These courses are held – according to your needs – in either Arabic, French, English or Spanish and cost DH 200 per person. Book your course online — better early than late — , enter your desired date and language and choose from a list of eight different dishes what is going to land on your plate at the end of your course. You will get an e-mail-confirmation with a very good description on how to find the rather hidden Amal Center in the new town of Marrakech. Read more
There are many ways to get from Marrakech’s Menara Airport into the city centre. Apart from shuttle bus services and taxis you can by now book convenient airport transfers easily online. Here’s a field report on Getyourguide.
A four-hour-flight (depending on where you start) can be rather strenuous and it may not be to everybody’s taste to either bargain appropriate taxi fares for a ride into town with sometimes rather pushy taxi drivers immediately after landing or to take a public shuttle bus not knowing where to get off exactly. The bus may be the cheapest option, yet if you travel with a group of four or more, this price advantage vanishes. In December 2015 I travelled with four fellow travellers and gave private airport transfer offers a chance.
Private airport transfer in modern minibus including WLAN (photo: Travelguide Marrakech)
Getyourguide: Easy booking process and good service
Different transport companies offer private airport transfers from Menara to Marrakech’s city centre via Getyourguide’s booking platform. Their rates only differ slightly and resemble those of the Grand Taxis. We booked about 20 hours prior to our expected arrival time in a very quick and uncomplicated booking process on Getyourguide. Read more
Amal Women’s Training Center is a social showcase and a brilliant restaurant at the same time. Run by a on-profit organization, education and training of underprivileged women is promoted here. On-site restaurant Amal is an insider tip of Marrakesh’s European expats for not only having a great meal for little money but also for attending cooking classes.
Social Project: Promoting and Training disadvantaged women
The Amal Women’s Training Center in Marrakesh’s new town was founded in 2012 by Nora Fitzgerald. Born American, she grew up in Morocco and is acquainted with the living conditions of Moroccan women who, due to divorce, loss of their husbands, forced marriages or being single mums, are confronted with a lot of difficulties. The centre has 15 employees and 12 volunteers who support women entering the restaurant business. On the trainees’ schedule there is, for example, Morrocan and international cuisine, service, French language courses focussing on tourism and practical training in riads and restaurants.
(Foto: Rystheguy via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Amal: Restaurant with surprises
Amal’s Moroccan Restaurant is a real insider tip and some euphoric recommendations on TripAdvisor promise quite a lot. The restaurant opens daily for lunchtime, from 12 a.m. to 4 p.m. and offers a menu which is quite different from most restaurants of the same price range. Read more
Morocco is a real photographer’s paradise with its special light, the bright colours and the unique motifs you find there. Yet, before you start putting the fascination of this country into pictures, you should be aware of a few things.
Photography and Religion: Aniconism in Islam
Islam, as well as Judaism, proscribes of pictures of humans and animals. Even though this proscription cannot be directly drawn from the Quran or the hadith, Islamic jurists have established legal conceptions which are rather traditionally than religiously founded and regulate the depiction of living beings in different ways. Thus, the interpretation of aniconism reaches from fundamental rejection (no living being may be depicted) to limited approval (living beings may be depicted as long as they are not idolised religiously). While it lead to an overwhelming importance of calligraphic and ornamental patterns in Islamic art, aniconism does not seem to play a major role today.
Yet, you should keep in mind that some Muslims still respect aniconism. So, in doubt it is better to ask for permission before snapping, especially in more remote and more religiously influenced places in Morocco. Read more