March 25, 2017

Saharan Desert Safari Day 2 and 3

Todra Gorge to Erg Chebbi

We were down at the communal dining at 7 am and it was still dark out. While waiting for breakfast, we ventured on the terrace and the view was incredibly dramatic! We missed that last night. But as it was freezing, we headed back indoors. I could imagine that terrace full on summers though with a comfortable chill.

After breakfast, we were herded back to the coaster. Our driver is a stickler for schedule and we might have stressed him out a bit by being constantly the last ones to board. At least we were consistent.

After an hour or so of driving, we stopped at a roadside and a berber named Ali came to meet us. He will be our guide in the valleys of the thousand Kasbahs as we passed olives and dates plantations to reach the village of Tinghir.

In Tinghir, we visited a carpet seller where we got rolled out not only a red carpet marhaba (welcome) but all sorts of hand-woven colors. They were all exquisite but no one in our group was in a market for carpets. Guy wasn’t really pushy but after him serving us mint tea and laying out carpets after carpets of every size, design and color, it got awkward telling him we’re not buying after all. I was glad there were a good number of us to share the awkwardness with. If it was only me and Kim, I might have just swiped the card for the cheapest and smallest one. If you have plans of buying, they accept credit cards and can arrange shipping.

We wanted to buy scarves though for the Saharan tour and we knew it’s going to be more expensive at the desert. We bought a couple for just 50 dirhams each at a shop by the exit of Tinghir and the shopkeeper demonstrated how to wrap it on my head the Berber way. I liked it too much I never took it off anymore.

From Tinghir we boarded the bus back and proceeded to the canyons of Todra Gorge. It was very pleasant to stroll along the crystal clear river and it was just beautiful with the valley softly illuminated with the morning light.

My favorite though was lunch under the shade of olive trees set up by the rocky river. We had the freshest salads, bread, kofta and grilled chicken.

It was a long drive from there to Merzouga and I mostly napped on the way. When I woke up, the vast dunes loom on the horizon.

Before sun down we reached the desert and came face to face with the towering mounds of the Sahara. Camel ride in the Saharan desert at sunset sounds utterly romantic. In reality, my cute bum was sore! I was glad when after an hour and a half I saw our tents and we were told to get off our camels. The camel parking though was littered with poo and there’s no way avoiding stepping on them.

Our camel guides treated us to a folkloric entertainment post a chicken tajine dinner. Our only light came from the full moon and the bonfire. There were lots of dancing, singing and drum beating. When the embers died down and it got too cold, we slipped back into the tent and passed out immediately. That night we slept like nomads on a tent furnished with hand woven thick rugs and mattresses on the floor. It was bitter cold and was pretty basic with not even a toilet you just have to do it “behind the dunes”. But that was definitely one of the highlights of any Moroccan trip!

Saharan Safari Entertaiment

Catching the sunrise means getting dragged out of bed sometime at 4 AM but to watch it rise behind the dunes is magical.

3 day Morocco Saharan Safari

Breakfast and coffee awaits us at the town at the foot of the desert. Most members of our group were going back to Marrakech but we have teamed up with our favorite Canadian we adoringly nicknamed Mr. Fancy Pants and made arrangements to hire a private car to head to the city of Fez some 7-8 hours away.

February 6, 2017

Saharan Desert Safari Day 1

Enticed by the promise of fantastic views and a nomadic adventure, the second leg of our Morroco trip brought us to the Saharan desert.

The trip from Marrakech to Merzouga for the Erg Chebbi sand dunes entails a lot of driving and planning the logistics is quite tedious and complicated. We found that it’s better to join a multiday package tour to break it up and we’re happy that the transport and accommodations were safe, comfortable and clean. There were also lots of interesting stops and side trips along the way and a chance to walk around and stretch our legs. Those were some of our main concerns and we’re glad our worries were unfounded.

saharan safari morocco

The 3 days/2 nights package tour we booked with our riad was a convenient way to see more of the countryside. The drive was gorgeous as Morocco had such a contrasting varied landscapes.

We were picked up at Riad El Jadide at 730 AM and was brought to the square where we then transferred to our official bus tour. We were supposed to do a private tour with just the 2 of us but there was a mix up in our riad and it was too late to change the booking so we grudgingly joined the group.

The bus was a babel of languages with a merry mix of people from all over the world. Our group turned out fun and easy to get along with and we’ve met wonderful new friends. After exchanging emails and going on our separate ways after the Saharan Desert safari, we kept bumping into some of them at the other Moroccan cities and it was always wonderful to see a familiar face in a crowd.

Looking back that was a fortunate mishap as we thoroughly enjoyed it although we probably can’t say the same for our guides and driver. During, we might have been the most difficult participants – always asking for lunch before exploring, sitting out hikes and sites when it gets too hot or cheesy, looks for the exits ahead of the others and leaves on our own. I hope our tip made up for it ha ha! Joining a group tour also came out very economical.

So our tour itinerary went something like this:

DAY 1: Marrakech - Tizi n' Tichka - Ait Benhaddou - Gorge Dades

We departed Marrakech at 8 in the morning, 30 minutes behind schedule. The stunning views begin immediately as we made our way up the High Atlas Mountains. We stopped for coffee and snacks at some roadside shack before crossing the extremely steep and winding Tizi n’ Tichka pass. Boy was I glad I haven’t forgotten to pack a whole pad of anti-emetic pill!

Before lunchtime, we’ve reached the province of Ourzazate.  A guide (with a compulsory 25 MaD tip per person) joined us for a tour of the UNESCO World heritage site of Ait Benhaddou – a real fortified city. The Kasbah (fortress) was the slave trading city of Yunkai in that hit TV series Game of Thrones.

Lunch (not included in the tour) was at a shaded terrace. I had beef tajine while Kim had chicken. Dessert was a platter of fruit and fresh dates. I wasn’t expecting much from the food as the place was packed with tourists but it was actually one of the best meals we’ve had in the country. It was then 2 PM and we were so hangry we couldn't be bothered to take photos.

After a leisurely 2 hour lunch, we continued on with the drive to Dades Gorge stopping from time to time for coffee and tea, bathroom breaks or photos.

Before dark, we’ve reached Le Veaux Chateau Du Dades where we stayed at on a freezing cold night. Dinner was a bowl of chunky soup spiced heavily with cumin followed with couscous and chicken tajine plus the ubiquitous chewy bread of course. 

January 9, 2017

Marrakech Travelogue Part 3

We have booked our 3 days dessert safari leaving the day after so we had 1 more full day to spend in Marrakech.

We’ve already serendipitously toured the medina and has seen Ben Yousseff by ourselves the previous day, so we decided against a guide for the day. But if you go, and have limited time, a guide would be really helpful.

With nothing much on our agenda for the day, we asked our riad to arrange a taxi to bring us to Saadien Tomb. We were picked up by our driver right at the door. He parked just a couple blocks out and we could have easily found him but it was an appreciated thoughtful gesture and nice to start the day not worrying about getting lost.

Saadien tomb was sealed up for centuries until they were redicovered in a French aerial survey in 1917. The burial ground with 2 mausoleums and over 100 tombs scattered around the garden was well preserverved and has been restored to their former glory.

The Chamber of the 12 pillars mausoleum was spared no expense and was built from imported Italian Carrara marble with honeycomb muqarnas (decorative plasterwork) gilded with pure gold. This is the resting place of the Saadian sultan, princes and members of the royal household, including a few Jewish graves.

It is popular with stray cats and tourists for an entrance fee of 10 MaD. This is also where Kim got her first marriage proposal from a guide who speaks 7-8 languages. Declining the offer, we headed for brunch.

Brunch was a chicken tajine in Kasbah café just across the entrance of the tomb.

The weather is nice and chilly but sunny conducive for walking so we ambled down the avenue following some carriages transporting tourists and soon enough saw the minaret of Koutobia Mosque.

We knew then we were near the square and continued on for glasses of chilled freshly squeezed orange juice. So refreshing and cheap at just 4 dirhams a pop. We also always get extra half glasses if we oblige photo requests from the juice sellers. Shoot away then ha ha! As asians, we must really look so different from them to attract attention. To get less of the unwanted kind, I suggest that you dress properly with shoulders and knees covered. Morocco is still very traditional and a muslim country after all and it’s respectful to be well and decently dressed, well anywhere for that matter.

From the square we entered the souks again to explore more. I really wanted to see Souk de Epices or the Spice Market and I’m glad we did! It’s not too far away from the square really and it wasn’t difficult to find. We bought a few grams of menthol cystals and basically just got snap happy. There’s just too much to photograph.

To prepare for our dessert safari tour leaving in the morning, we proceeded to Carre Eden Mall in the new city to buy some supplies. A couple of local guys smiled at us and we smiled back. They then started weirdly following us around all over the mall and the groceries. That totally creeped us out and I was about ready to call the local police as we hightailed it out of there. As we wait for a cab, they passed us by but did nothing so maybe we weren’t really in any real danger. Still that was weird and made us be on guard and kept from being too friendly the rest of our trip.

Those kind of attention colored our Marrakech experience a bit but it wasn’t exactly horrible. And to be fair, we’ve met really friendly and kind locals who were generous with their time to help us out. 

November 30, 2016

Marrakech Travelogue Part 2

We woke up in the fog of jet lag and rain the next day just as the first call to prayer from the nearby mosque rang out. A place always has a distinct feel, smell and sound. Here, the sound is the Muslim call to prayer that rings out a few times in a day. It is melodic and powerful. I would always stop whatever I was doing to have a proper listen.

It was still dark after 7 am and no movement can be detected from downstairs but then we were getting in desperate need of coffee so we bundled for the 18 degrees chill and woke Isham, the reception on duty. We’ve noticed that Moroccans start their day quite late.

After a typical Moroccan breakfast spread of crepes, bread, cake, butter, jams, the most wonderful glasses of pure freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and mint tea, we asked for indoor sightseeing recommendations as the rain hasn’t let up. We were supposed to hire a guide for a day to bring us to the medina and other places of interest but because of the weather, we decided to postpone it another day.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle was decided and just as we were heading there in our raincoats, the skies began to clear. It would rain on and off on that day but there were moments when the sun broke out. It is just our luck that when it pours, we are always sheltered or could easily find one. It did not became an issue and didn’t hamper our leisurely sightseeing.

The blue garden in the middle of the red city is a nice introduction before diving into the chaos of frenzied Marrakech. Peaceful shady lanes and gurgling fountain lined with exotic plants and towering palm trees. In the center is a vibrantly painted art deco building with Moorish charms. It houses the Berber Museum. The garden is open everyday with an entrance fee of 70 MaD + 30 MaD for the museum. Although photography is not allowed inside the museum, the displays are worth springing the extra 30 dirhams for. After YSL’s death in 2008, his ashes were scattered there.

After a lunch of sandwich fromage, spicy beef couscous and glasses of chilled fresh orange juice at a roadside café outside Majorelle, we hailed a shared grand taxi to bring us to Ben Youssef Madrasa.

Founded in 14th century, the madrasa is a former Islamic college and the largest in all of Morocco. It closed down in 1960 and was refurbished and reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982.

Ben Youseff is in the midst of the souks (open air market place) in the medina and because of the narrow winding alleyways, it cannot be accessed by cars. The taxi dropped us of the outskirts with vague hand gestures to go right in. “Very easy. Go straight, turn right, straight, straight, right, left, very easy.” We were skeptic and might have stopped listening after the “turn right” part but what the hell, we dove right in.

The word labyrinth in describing the medinas could get overused, but it is just apt. One foot in, one turn and you are in a zigzagging maze.

We have terrible sense of direction to begin with so we’re prepared to embrace getting lost in the maze. And even if we happen to be good withs maps, medinas are the sorts that defies maps. Google and Waze got nothing on its twists and turns. That would have been frustrating anywhere else, but in the treasure filled souks, it is part of the fun. First day in and I was already wondering how many handmade Moroccan goodies can I fit in our suitcase.

After all that we’ve read about the shopkeepers and touts, I’m surprised they aren’t too persistent and if we politely decline and thank their offers of getting into their shops to “just look”, we get a “shukran” (thank you in Arabic) back.

You’ll read a lot of tips and tricks for visiting the medina, but this could be the best travel tip I can dish out. “No open toed shoes.” Donkey pulled carts. Donkeys. Donkey dungs.

And when you hear urgent warnings of “ba-lak, ba-lak” in the cramped alleys, move right away or risk the real possibility of getting squashed by donkeys, and or carts.

We kept getting waylaid with pretty handmade things but at one turn, in our aimless wander, we actually found Ben Youssef. We excitedly paid for the 20 MaD entry fee per person and marveled at the exquisite craftmanship and zellij mosaic tiles. We probably spent some 45 minutes to an hour there exploring the area and marveling at the intiricate .

We’ve walked off lunch by then and was getting hungry so we made our way out with the intent of finding the square – Djemaa El Fna. We followed the signs but the last one at the corner was scraped off. Several locals then pointed at several directions and one guy kept following us muttering “the square, the square”. We thanked him as we refused his directions and company but he stuck stubbornly to our side. This went on uncomfortably for a few blocks even when we pointedly ignored him that when a taxi passed by, we hurriedly got in it. That’s when he got kind of aggressive and slammed the cab door prompting a shouting match between him and the driver while we sat at the back a bit shocked. I was a bit shocked and on the verge of crying!

I know it is different for everyone and we weren’t really hurt but it got frustrating for me and disappointing how there seems to be a collective effort from a few to mislead tourists.

But that incident was soon forgotten as we got to the infamous Djemaa El Fna.

On the surface, the square is populated with a massive market, identical carts of freshly squeezed fruit juice vendors, veiled henna ladies who will grab your hand and paint on without warning, smoky food stalls, traditional water sellers and mobs of locals and tourists. We avoided the monkeys on leash and the snake charmers. It is a chaotic frenzy with so much going on! It is exciting and filled with interesting bits of culture. This is the Marrakech most people expect it to be, us included.

We sat there with cold drinks and pizza at one of the terraced restaurants content to watch and soak it all in until the lights changed.

click here for MARRAKECH PART 1

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