Morocco is where Europe and Africa meet – both literally and figuratively. The influence of Spanish and French culture can be heard in the discussions on the streets with French a common second language to Arabic and Spanish heard often in cities like Chefchaouen.
Add the beauty of the Mediterranean, the Sahara Desert, and the sprawling Atlas Mountains that divide the country’s north from the south and you get one of the most beautiful environmental contrasts anywhere in the world.
Start your trip in Marrakech, where deals on Moroccan carpets, samples of olives, and spices can be found in the Jemaa El Fna, the famed square and market where capitalism knows no bounds. From there, ride into the desert and see Ait Ben Haddou – a desert fortress that’s been in many great movies such as “Gladiator.”
Make sure to arrange a camel tour into the desert where you’ll spend the night under the stars, and then awake early to see the sun rising on the Sahara. Continue north to Fes where the Medina (the old town) is even more impressive than that in Marrakech. If time permits, find yourself in Chefchaouen, a small town known for blue painted homes visible for miles.
Marrakech: Negotiation is king
When you arrive in Marrakech, the first rule is “everything is negotiable.” From the taxis to the markets, haggling is simply a way of life in this town. As you arrive on the breathtaking Jemaa El Fna, take in the beauty of the square and the local architecture before you start wandering down the long corridors of the Medina – the market where deals on everything are waiting to be had. Do not miss Lamb Alley – a place with some of the most flavorful and moist meat, served with fresh bread and a bowl of salt.
The Desert: A Gateway to a Land of Beauty Think back to the scene in Gladiator when Russell Crowe’s character Maximus is fighting other gladiators in the ring. That scene was shot at Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site that thankfully has been preserved well enough for you to explore.
As you proceed onwards to Dades Gorge, prepare to gasp at the vibrant colors of the rock as you wind through narrow canyons. You should end your tour at Erg Chebbi, where a young man on foot will guide you and your camel to a desert camp. Spend the night eating a typical Moroccan meal consisting of chicken tagine, steamed vegetables, and classic Moroccan tea.
And when you awake early, worry not. Your groggy, coffee-less self will manage to get going because soon you’ll be seeing the golden-orange hues of sun as they illuminate the Sahara. A sight not to be missed on any Moroccan tour.
Festivals in Morocco
Morocco hosts many unique festivals. Attending one of these festivals is a great way to experience Moroccan culture to its fullest.
Some top Morocco Festivals to attend include:
1. Timitar Music Festival - Taking place during the summer, this is the pinnacle North African music experience. Attended by upwards of 500,000 people each year, the festival is especially unique for showcasing and highlighting the Amazigh culture. Both contemporary and traditional artists are featured during the Timitar Music Festival.
2. Fes Festival - To take in some ancient and fascinating traditional Moroccan music, the Fes Festival cannot be missed. It features entrancing music and dance and is a wonderful introduction to Moroccan culture. This festival began in 1994, and continues to grow in popularity for visitors and local alike.
3. Gnaoua World Music Festival - Held in Essaouira during the summer, the Gnaoua music festival is a meeting place for musical artists from around the world, as well as a great place to hear the unique traditional sounds of Gnaoua.
4. Imilchil Marriage Festival - This unique celebration takes place in the small town of Imilchil. A local legend with striking similarities to “Romeo and Juliet” began this holiday. It is said that two young lovers from different tribes fell in love but were forbidden to be together. They perished by crying themselves to death. Today the Imilchil Marriage Festival is a way for young eligible people from different tribes to meet each other, with their families blessings.
5. Tan-Tan Moussem - For an off the beaten track experience, this annual fair brings together over 30 tribes from the Southern parts of Morocco for a day of fun events, dancing, food, and discourse. Held every December, it is not frequently attended by tourists, so for the adventurous traveler, this should be on your Morocco list.
6. Festival of Roses - Morocco is an extremely warm climate, so the seasons for abundant plant life are brief but spectacular. Held every Spring in the “Valley of the Roses”, this festival is a frequent inclusion on Morocco tours.
Food in Morocco
Moroccan food is eclectic, combining classic North African flavors with European influences. While fairly healthy, Moroccan cooking can be quite heavy; lamb is found in several dishes like hearty stews. Spices that are commonly used include cumin, saffron, turmeric, ground ginger, paprika, cardamom, and cinnamon.
Typically you eat with your hands in Morocco, which is entirely socially acceptable. Though, be careful that you don’t use your left hand as this is considered bad luck! Bread is commonly used in place of a utensil for ferrying food from place to mouth.
Morocco is a true foodie destination - even if you don’t consider yourself a foodie, you may well become one after sampling these classic Moroccan dishes:
1. Tagine - Tagine is far and away one of the most popular meals in Morocco. Named for the clay pots it is cooked in, Tagine is a staple of Moroccan cuisine. Every household has a different twist on the basics, making it a dish with a lot of personality and variation. At its core, Tagine is a thick stew featuring big chunks of lamb, beef, or chicken.
2. Couscous - Another dish that is quintessentially Moroccan, light and fluffy couscous can be found almost anywhere you eat in Morocco. It is commonly added to stews and salads or served mixed with fresh vegetables.
3. Bastilla - This savory pie traditionally was made with pigeon, and you can still find this variation, but today it is more commonly found with chicken. Similar in nature to a pot pie, Bastilla involves a flaky crust.
4. Mint Tea - A delectable and addicting concoction, Moroccan mint tea is served everywhere and is a national drink of sorts in Morocco. It might taste a bit sugary for those who’s palates are more sensitive to sweeter tastes, but you should definitely try it anyway.
5. Sardines - Not a lot of fried food finds its way into Moroccan cuisine, but sardines are one exception. Though they are served a number of different ways, one particularly delicious iteration in Morocco is stuffed and deep fried. You will probably find this dish served as street food in Morocco’s markets.
Travel in Morocco: What to Wear & Safety
Morocco is a Muslim country, and women and particular are advised to cover up. By dressing conservatively, you will be allowed to enter the country's beautiful mosques, and you will avoid more unwanted attention (women traveling to Morocco should expect some level of catcalling -- especially if traveling without a man in their group).
It is also advised to bring a scarf. With a scarf, you can cover your head, neck, shoulders, and hair if a mosque requires it. Also remember when packing -- you want to cover up, but it will also be hot! Breathable materials like linen, rayon, and blended cotton will be your best friend.
A good safety tip is to avoid marijuana while in Morocco. Although the substance is widespread (and grown in the mountains), it is illegal to smoke, and the trouble of getting caught with it is best avoided.
On a similar note, you should avoid eating majoun, a type of fudge made with cannabis that may be offered to you. Even eating a small piece of the sweet can have extreme effects, and leave a visitor disoriented and incapacitated.
In regards to safety, Morocco is a relatively safe country. When out in crowded squares, be mindful of your belongings, as just like any other city there is some chance of pickpocketing. Also be aware that there are many "unofficial guides," usually found around the outskirts of the medina.
Be aware that while these guides may try to gauge you price-wise at the end of your trip, they can still be reliable ways of getting around and finding off-the-beaten-path parts of the city. Weigh the pros and cons before engaging in a relationship with an unofficial guide.
In the end, a trip to Morocco can definitely be a safe and family friendly experience!
Morocco evokes so many senses at once that sensory overload will set in within your first day. From the smell of spices and street food in the medina to the brown colors of the clay in the walls of local buildings, prepare for a sumptuous experience for the soul.
Despite language barriers, the country welcomes tourists with a warm heart, a rich history, and a cup of tea. Let Stride help you soak it all up – especially the tea. It’s fantastic.
In Combination with Spain
One of the bonuses of traveling to Morocco is that it is only a hop, skip, and a jump from Spain. A visitor can take a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar and arrive in the other country in less than an hour. Because of this, it's well worth it to consider taking a day trip to Spain -- or vice versa!