Morocco is a burst of colours. Its landscapes display extremities of geography. Sandy beaches. Medieval Cities. Lush green hills. Snowcapped mountains. Even, the Sahara. This gateway to Africa is a melting pot of cultures, lived by mostly Arabs and Berbers (an indigenous ethnic group of North Africa), with a hint of French and Spanish influence. Yet besides the extensively reported Arab Spring, much of Morocco’s beauty remains a secret. Here’s why you may consider discovering this hidden gem when you plan your next holiday:
Casablanca is the commercial heart of Morocco and also its largest city. Being a well-connected hub, it is usually the starting point where travellers fly in to explore the rest of Morocco. However, it’s worth to spend at least a day visiting King Hassan II Mosque and the Old Medina.
The Hassan II Mosque is the largest mosque in Africa (7th largest worldwide) and its minaret is the world’s tallest (210 metres). The spectacular mosque sitting on the North Atlantic coast is a sight to behold.
The majestic Hassan II Mosque by the sea
The magnificent mosque sits right next to the waterfront, where you can simply sit on the rocks and watch the locals go about their own lives.
Moroccan kids playing in the natural rock pool at the beach
Catch more local life at the Old Medina, just 15 min from Hassan II Mosque on foot. Though less spectacular than the bustling medinas of Fes or Marrakech, it’s still a great way to experience Casablanca’s streets (and grab a freshly squeezed orange juice at a street stall too).
Pleased with my refreshing drink
Meknes was an accidental site during my trip. We were actually on the way to Fes from Casablanca and since we couldn’t make out the train announcement, simply alighted at the next station after 3.5 hours (the estimated time needed) – only to realize we were in the wrong city.
It was a blessing in disguise. Meknes – albeit the lesser known imperial city – was friendlier and less touristy than Fes. We had a peaceful time walking through the old town and hopped onto a caleche (horse-drawn carriage) that brought us through the high walls of the old city.
Meknes city gate
Place el hedim, where locals hang around, play games and watch live performances (from magic tricks to cobra dances)
One of my most memorable moments at Meknes though, was when we stumbled upon a gorgeous 200-year old riad (guesthouse) tucked away in a narrow alley. The deceivingly small door opened up to a vast courtyard, complete with draping curtains and intricate moroccan designs its walls – even a rooftop terrace and pool!
The deceiving entrance of Riad d’Or
The gorgeous interior
Fes is completely unlike any other place I’ve seen on earth. Morocco’s oldest imperial city of Fes el-Bali is the Arab’s best-preserved and also the world’s largest urban area without motor vehicles. Once you step inside the ancient walled city, it’s like you’re thrown back in time. Ignite your senses with the surrounding sights, smells and sounds as you navigate through the maze of narrow cobbled streets, dodging incoming donkeys, pushcarts and touters with a surprise that springs up at each turn.
Handwoven silk scarves draped against the age-old city walls
Craftsman at work
Follow the bend of a lane and find yourself in a street of food stands, artisans at work, the entrance of a mosque or a small doorway that opens up to a courtyard
Panoramic view of the Old Medina of Fes from Merenid Tombs
The most spectacular thing to see in Fes is the tanneries. Morocco has been famous for its leather since medieval times and their ancient method of leather production remains unchanged today. Round pools of dyes spread out like a huge watercolour palette, where tanners dip their raw leather in, sometimes waist deep in dyes themselves.
View from a shophouse balcony
It is not a pleasant place to work in. While it’s a fascinating sight, the pungent smell is overbearing. The raw hides have been soaked in pigeon droppings (mixed with acids and cow urines) to soften the tough leather.
Softening the raw leather in pigeon droppings
A palette of water colours
Shaving off the leather
4. Middle Atlas
Drive out into the Middle Atlas from Fez/Marrakech to enjoy the vastness of this mountain range, frequently dotted with grazing cattle on either sides of the road.
Grazing sheep/goats/cows are a common sight
A lake of white flowers in the Middle Atlas
It is through the Middle Atlas that one can experience nature juxtaposing at its best, be it hot deserts against snowcapped mountains or oases of azure waters emerging from dry, barren land. As we drove eastwards, I watched in fascination as the landscape transformed dramatically, reducing from lush greenery to rocky desert and finally, the Sahara.
With the high atlas as a beautiful backdrop of the barren desert
Barrage Addakhil de Rachidia / Hassan Addakhil Dam
5. The Sahara
Almost 7 hours on the road from Meknes brings you to the dunes of Merzouga, a village on the edge of Erg Chebbi, Sahara. Ergs are large seas of dunes formed by wind-blown sand, our guide Ibrahim had explained, and it is easy to get lost inside with the ever-changing landform.
The endless sand dunes of Erg Chebbi
The dunes of Erg Chebbi can reach up to 150m and covers an area of 50 km from north to south and up to 5-10 kilometers from east to west lining the Algerian border.
It was one helleva sandy affair getting up there
We caught a glimpse of Berber life out in the wild desert by crossing (a small part of) the desert and spending a night in Berber tents.
Riding into the Sahara
Trying our hands at creating Berber folk music in the middle of the desert
When the lights went off, a young playful Berber boy had asked if I wanted to try “Berber ski”. Curious to find out what it was, we wandered off from our tents and climbed a dune. Turns out that Berber ski was simply having both ankles grabbed and dragged down the sandy slopes as the initial momentum continues to let you slide all the way down. I guess there’s always a first for everything.
My sand angel :)
6. High Atlas
The High Atlas is North Africa’s greatest mountain range. It is rich with indigenous Berber culture that lives in the various villages and kasbahs (fortified old city), spread across peaks and valleys. The locals travel mostly by foot between the villages. Along the way, we picked up three local women who were walking on the side of the road – quite a distance back to their homes – with their day’s loot in one hand and babies in another.
Kids of the Boutaghrane Village running after us just to give a high five
We dropped by the Jewish Mellah quarter of Tinghir, at the foot of the High Atlas. A walk through its narrow streets offers a peek into the locals getting on with their everyday life.
Shaving the wool of a live sheep on the narrow streets of the quarters
From the edge of the Sahara, we drove back to civilization through the beautiful mountain pass, Tizi n’Tichka that cuts through the High Atlas Mountains to connect to Marrakesh. Many famous sights line the path, including the dramatic Todgha Gorge and Ait Benhaddou, the UNESCO World Heritage site that has been the setting for several blockbusters.
Ait Benhaddou, city of Ouarzazate
The winding roads of Dades Gorge
The Todgha Gorge – cliff-sided canyons carved by the Dades and Todgha river through the mountains
7. Ouzoud Falls
At 110m high, Ouzoud Falls or Cascade d’Ouzoud is the highest waterfall in North Africa. The magnificent site is about 2 hours from Marrakech and can be done as a day trip.
We started from the top of the waterfall, slowly hiking towards the bottom and catching amazing views along the way. It’s possible to get up close to the thundering waters from below by hopping onto a wooden raft.
Looking up at the falls
An amazing view of the entire waterfall
Of course, no visit to Morocco is complete without Marrakech. Navigating the streets of the old medina is like an assault to all your senses. The path from our guesthouse to Place Jemaa el Fna was a stressful one. In the end, I had to convince myself that I was playing an Aladdin-styled computer game through ancient cobbled mazes of the walled city, where monsters come in the form of kids that attack you with “konichiwa” or “vous cherchez quoi?”. Each alley springs a new surprise. But we arrived at the square eventually, bustling life in the form of hawkers and street performers. We had won the game!
The congested rooftops of Marrakech’s dense medina
Spices, nuts and all things nice
Watching the sun set over satellite dishes from our riad’s rooftop
There you have it, 8 reasons why Morocco is sucha hidden gem (and also one of my favourite travel destinations in the world). If you’ve made it this far, thank you! Pardon the long post – there are just too many beautiful places and photos of this magical, colourful country that I need to do them justice. I hope it has inspired you to visit as well
An overview of our itinerary
A selfie with dad to sign off
This article was originally published on http://ladyexplorer.com/2015/03/01/best-places-to-visit-morocco/ and written by Pei Xun. Follow her adventures on Instagram @explorerwoo