Sahara Desert

I may have fallen in love with the intricate mosaic tiles and luxurious riads of Marrakech, but the birthday boy’s favorite part of our trip was most definitely our three-day trek into the Sahara. I organized this trek with Viaggiare in Marocco, a small tour company I found online after painstaking research. For about $530, our package included private transportation with a guide named Mohamed, one night at a hotel, one night in a desert camp, two camel rides, and all of our breakfasts and dinners throughout the trip.

Mohamed met us at our riad at 8 am, and we began our long journey to the southeast edge of Morocco. Mohamed is of Berber descent and can speak six languages, which he picked up all on his own. (Meanwhile, I’ve studied Russian, Mandarin, and Spanish in school and am fluent in absolutely none of them). Since he was slightly better at Spanish than English, Anthony practiced his broken Spanish to communicate while I took intermittent naps in the backseat. Mohamed was an incredibly skilled driver, whizzing us up mountains, through crowded village streets, and around exasperatingly slow drivers (at one point, he expertly passed five cars and a huge truck while driving along a cliff!). I’m a firm believer that only those who can drive stick shift — i.e., those who actually drive, not just passively fumble along with automatic transmission — should be allowed to own cars. I think the world would be a much safer and more efficient place.

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Ready for a road trip!
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One of the crazy roads we drove up

We were stunned by the wide range of landscapes in Morocco, from snowy mountains to palm tree plantations to staggering gorges. Mohamed considerately pulled over whenever we wanted to take photos. One of the most impressive things we saw was Aït Benhaddou, a fortified village located on the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. Crammed within defensive walls is a clay brick kasbah. While most residents now live on the other side of the river in the newer part of town (just like in Marrakech!), many still work in the old town, which caters to tourists. I wonder if they’re confused by Western foreigners, obsessed with the old architecture and lifestyles that they just recently escaped. Aït Benhaddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been the setting of various films and TV shows such as The Mummy, Gladiator, Kundun, and Game of Thrones. Mohamed led us up to the very top of the kasbah, offering a panoramic view of the medina and new town. After we took an embarrassing amount of photos, he took us to a secret restaurant inside someone’s home, where we had a chicken tagine and a tray of fresh fruit on the rooftop offering another magnificent view of Aït Benhaddou.

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Ait Benhaddou
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View from the top

During our drive, we noticed that schools seemed to be letting kids out throughout the day. Mohamed explained that since there are not enough teachers or classrooms, students either attend school in the morning or in the afternoon, and switch times halfway through the year. It might seem confusing but it actually makes more sense than the American school schedule, which consistently punishes anyone who isn’t a morning person or struggles to get to school that early.

We also noticed an Arabic phrase written on the hillsides of almost every town — “Allah, al Watan, al Malik”. It means god, country, and king, which are the three pillars of the Kingdom of Morocco. Mohamed explained the differences between the Moroccan flag and the Berber flag, both of which we saw repeatedly. The Moroccan flag is red with a green five-pointed star to signify the five orders of Islam. Meanwhile, the Berber flag is composed of horizontal bands of blue, green, and yellow, with a large letter in the center. The blue represents the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, the two bodies of water that surround Morocco; the green represents the land and green mountains; and the yellow represents the sands of the Sahara Desert. The letter means “free man,” which is what the Berbers call themselves, and its red color is the color of resistance. The Berber flag might be my new favorite!

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the Berber flag

We spent our first night in the Dades Valley, at Hotel Babylon Dades. It’s built into a cliff! We had a lovely room with a view of the mountains from our balcony. Breakfast and dinner were served in the dining hall downstairs, and after dinner we were entertained by live music, as Berber musicians sang and drummed for the rest of the night.

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We learned a lot about Berbers on our trek into the desert. For example, the majority of Moroccans are actually Berbers, not Arabs. Most Berbers live in North Africa, especially in Morocco, Libya, and Algeria. Originally a nonreligious society, Berbers were conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century and were converted to Islam. After independence from France in the 20th century, North Africa established Arabic as its official language; most Berbers haven’t been able to use their own language in public until very recently, when some private schools started teaching Berber. The Berber experience is sadly reminiscent of those which so many indigenous populations face.

The next morning, Mohamed collected us and we continued our journey, stopping by the impressive Todra Gorge with its huge vertical rock walls, a rug shop at which we bought a couple of turbans for our camel ride, and a fossil excavation site. Apparently the Sahara Desert used to be underwater (and near the Gulf of Mexico!), which explains why Morocco is filled with fossils of fish and other prehistoric creatures. Berbers used to be nomadic, moving across the African continent freely, but since borders now restrict their movement, many of them are stuck in one place and go into the tourism industry, make rugs, or dig up fossils.

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Todra Gorge is popular with rock climbers
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Learning about handmade Berber rugs
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Ready with our turbans!
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One of the incredible fossils found from a time when Morocco was still underwater

Finally, we made it to Merzouga, a village just 30 miles from the Algerian border and where we were introduced to our camels. We got onto each of our camels one by one and were led by two Berbers into Erg Chebbi, a part of the Sahara known for its stunning sand dunes. This is why we came to Morocco! If you’re only going to ride a camel once in your life, Erg Chebbi is where to do it. We rode our camels into the increasingly quiet desert for about an hour. It looked like every movie you’ve seen of a desert. We took a break to climb up a high dune to watch the sun set, transforming the golden-yellow slopes into a rose-colored dreamscape. Anthony was able to take some cool Metal Earth shots of his Star Wars droids since Erg Chebbi happened to be the perfect setting for Tatooine and Jakku.

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Caravan of camels

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Eventually we arrived at our camp, which was nicer than I was expecting! It was a whole complex of Berber tents, some for sleeping (with real beds and even an overhead light!), a large one for dining, and three small ones for private toilets. Paths were lined with beautiful Berber rugs, and there was a large fire pit surrounded by chairs, which is where we’d end the night drumming and dancing with the Berbers.

One of the wonderful things about camping in Erg Chebbi is that if you want to see a breathtaking amount of stars – definitely the most I’ve ever seen – all you have to do is walk a few seconds to the next dune to completely isolate yourself from everything. And when you’re ready to return, just walk back from your “private” sand dune and find the campfire. I think this campsite has ruined me from camping anywhere else for the rest my life!

Our bed was covered with thick Berber blankets that kept us nice and toasty overnight. When we woke up at 5:30 am, it was still pitch black and near freezing outside. We slowly rode our camels back to Merzouga as the sun rose. It was incredible.

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Riding back into town at dawn
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Saying good-bye to our camels and Berber guide

Mohamed met us back at a hotel just across the street from where we said good-bye to our camels and Berber friends. We fueled up with a quick breakfast before our long nine-hour drive, taking a slightly different route back to our riad.

Marrakech was impressive enough, but to fully understand Morocco you need to get out of the city and experience the indigenous Moroccan culture. We learned so much just by speaking to Mohamed and encountering different Berbers along our journey. This desert trek was easily one of the biggest adventures of my life. More importantly, this has been Anthony’s best birthday so far. (Success! Clearly, everyone should spend their 30th birthday in Morocco.)

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Do some research and figure out which desert is most suitable for you. I highly recommend Erg Chebbi. There are other deserts, such as Zagora (which is more of a rock desert), but these won’t have the epic sand dunes that were really the highlight of our desert trek. To tell you the truth, without those sand dunes you might as well be riding camels in Arizona. Erg Chebbi is also a great place to go sandboarding, thanks to the dunes again. Erg Chigaga is another option, which beats Erg Chebbi in terms of size (great for those who want to feel completely secluded!), but is much harder to reach.
  2. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when trying to choose a tour company. Even my usual technique of sifting through TripAdvisor reviews was exhausting. In the end, I narrowed it down to a handful that met my requirements and went with whichever one responded to my email first. Make a list of your requirements (e.g., number of days, which desert, sites to see, activities to include, price) and just go with the first company that can accommodate you. They’re probably all pretty good.
  3. What to bring into the desert? Bottled water (for drinking and brushing your teeth), tissue (in case there’s no toilet paper), pajamas, warm clothing, a turban (you’ll most likely purchase this on your way to the desert), some coins to tip your Berber guide, toothpaste and toothbrush, sunglasses, and a portable battery pack (there are no outlets, so make sure you can charge your electronics).
  4. Wear pants when riding a camel. It doesn’t matter how many photos you’ve seen of models wearing stylish dresses while standing near a camel. Trust me — they didn’t actually ride that camel. You’ll want to wear pants because your legs are going to be very open and it’s possible the camels might have fleas (though I didn’t see any on ours). Feel free to bring your purse or backpack because camels can easily carry those.
  5. Travel, travel, travel. One thing that Mohamed taught us particularly struck me — he hasn’t left the country because it’s relatively difficult for Moroccans to travel; without a visa, Moroccans can only visit 56 countries, which is roughly a third of the countries that Americans can visit. I sometimes forget how privileged I am as a U.S. citizen, and the more I travel, the more I realize that it is my duty to travel. In other words, if you’re not at least attempting to travel to new countries every year, you are being a bad American.

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Marrakech

Last week, I surprised my husband with a trip to Morocco for his 30th birthday. Morocco has been on my bucket list for a long time (if you have any interest in design, you’ll understand), and riding camels through the Sahara seemed like something Anthony would enjoy. Plus, since his birthday’s in February, I figured this would be the perfect time to warm up in a desert — less than seven weeks after we had gone snowmobiling in Iceland!

We spent about half of our trip in Marrakech, a stunning terracotta-colored city that consists of a medina (old walled city) surrounded by more modern neighborhoods where the locals actually live. After we landed at Marrakech’s glitzy airport, we exchanged money and looked for our driver outside. Eventually we spotted a man holding a tiny sign that read “Dar Jaguar,” the name of our riad. A quick 15-minute drive took us to the edge of the medina, where another man greeted us, placed our luggage in a large rolling cart, and led us through narrow winding alleys to our riad. We never would have found our riad without him!

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Marrakech Menara Airport
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Turn right after the moped for the entrance of our riad

In Marrakech, you should stay in a riad, a traditional Moroccan home in which rooms face an inner courtyard with either a fountain or a pool. Dar Jaguar is a gorgeous, intimate riad owned by a British fashion designer. While most Moroccans prefer to live in the newer parts of town, Europeans (especially the French elite) have bought up a fair amount of real estate in the medina and converted old buildings into stunning riads for tourists. We were upgraded to the largest room in the riad, which was an impeccably decorated suite that included a four-poster bed, fireplace, copper bath tub, small balcony, and more space than our entire Brooklyn apartment.

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Each morning, we had breakfast in our courtyard (or in an adjacent dining room if it was chilly that morning), and each breakfast was served by two sweet Moroccans who ran Dar Jaguar. One morning, we went grocery shopping in the souk (a traditional Berber market) with our riad chef, took an afternoon cooking lesson with her, and ate our cooked food for dinner later that night. Marrakech has the largest souk in Morocco, where you can find all sorts of unique Moroccan goods, from rugs to ceramics to spices. The souk was chaotic and overwhelming — and we’re New Yorkers! Imagine bikes and carts whipping through the alleyways, carrying fresh bread for the day; cats slinking by, hoping for scraps of food; vendors beckoning tourists into their shops; and beggars sitting on the street with their children. Walking through the souk takes agility as you’ll be constantly trying to dodge the motorbikes that plow through at top speed. Haggling is an essential part of shopping in the souk. After some hesitation, I was actually able to haggle down to a third of the original price for one rug, and a few dirhams less for a customized leather purse and a magnet.

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Breakfast in our riad’s courtyard
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Altering my new leather purse in the souk
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Two of the dishes we cooked with our riad chef: fish tagine and vegetable tagine

We visited a few landmarks around Marrakech, such as Ben Youssef Madrasa, Musée de Marrakech, Dar Si Said, Bahia Palace, Jardin Majorelle, and Koutoubia Mosque. Ben Youssef Madrasa, a former theological college, was my favorite site. It was constructed by a Saadian sultan and is one of the most stunning structures I’ve ever seen, with ornate carvings in cedar wood, and lots of zellij (Islamic mosaic tile art) in beautiful geometric patterns. Most of these sites are either free or very cheap and located right in the medina. Jardin Majorelle, famous for being Yves Saint Laurent’s home, is the only site located in the new town and costs a bit more to enter.

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Ben Youssef Madrasa

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Musee de Marrakech
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Dar Si Said
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Bahia Palace
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The color of Jardin Majorelle was inspired by French workmen’s coats, and you can purchase the paint at the museum gift shop

Most of our meals alternated between three-course dinners in riads (some of the most talented chefs in the city are actually the ones who work in riads) and cheap meals from food stalls. For meals in riads, it’s good to book in advance because there’s limited seating. I recommend Dar Cherifa, a romantic restaurant located in one of the oldest riads in Marrakech. However, my favorite meal of the trip was a lucky find in Mechoui Alley, a small alley in the medina full of meat stalls. A man led us up two flights of stairs for a view of the rooftops below, and without offering a menu (the best meals are always from places without menus!), ordered us a tray of succulent roasted lamb. The lamb fell right off the bones just with our hands, and it was served with salt and turmeric to sprinkle on, as well as two rolls of bread.

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Lamb from Mechoui Alley
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A romantic dinner at Dar Cherifa

The main square, Djemaa el-Fna, was once used for public beheadings and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It later attracted tradesmen and musicians, and now you can find tourists from all over the world. During the daytime, it feels like Times Square so we tended to avoid it, but at night it transforms into a lovely night market. Food stalls are set up, where you can get cheap dinners such as fried seafood or grilled kebabs. It reminded me of Singapore’s wonderful hawker centers. While you’re dining on the square, you’ll see men pushing around carts of tea and cookies, as well as women selling napkins for you to clean your hands after the meal.

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Kebabs from a food stall, which had fresh ingredients displayed in front of the stall. When you order, the chef will hand select each ingredient from the display and grill them on skewers right in front of you

We spent one day on a quick excursion to the coastal town of Essaouira. Our driver picked us up in the square and made a couple of stops during our three-hour journey. We pulled over to see a bunch of goats high up in a tree! Apparently these goats can climb up argan trees to eat the fruit and leaves. They then poop out the indigestible seeds, which are collected, filtered, and transformed into the coveted argan oil that we put on our skin and in our food. The collecting and filtering is done by hand by all-female co-ops across the country.

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Essaouira, also known by its Portuguese name of Mogador, is a major port city with a fascinating history. Roman artifacts were found here from the 3rd century. In the 16th century, the Portuguese controlled many of its town, while Spain, England, the Netherlands, and France also made attempts to conquer the city. The present city of Essaouira was built during the 18th century when Mohammed III aimed to reorient his kingdom toward the Atlantic. He chose Essaouira because it was the closest harbor to Marrakech, and its trade route brought goods all the way from sub-Saharan Africa, through the desert and over the Atlas mountains. Thanks to trade, the city is fairly diverse, with Jews handcrafting ornate silver jewelry, Arabs constructing gorgeous wooden furniture, and Berbers specializing in spices.

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Felt very European
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Grilled seafood is a must in Essaouira
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Recognize this place from Game of Thrones?

Essaouirans take a lot of pride in their city, and during our tour, our guide repeatedly asked us, “It’s not like Marrakech, is it?” It wasn’t. In fact, Essaouira reminded me of southern Italy – think Amalfi without the steep hills. But after a few hours in Essaouira, we were ready to return to Marrakech, where it felt a little less like Europe-lite and a little more like the Africa I had fallen in love with.

Soon it was time four our three-day desert trek into the Sahara. Stay tuned!

Tips for future travelers:

  1. How should you dress? While you might see some embarrassing tourists in shorts and skimpy tops, be a decent person and respect Morocco’s culture. Always bring a shawl, and wear pants or long skirts to cover your legs. It can get pretty chilly at night, so you’ll want an extra layer anyway. The streets are cobblestone and can get dirty (the souk consists of produce markets and food stalls, after all!), so sneakers are recommended. Even as someone who can walk hours in heels, I wore sneakers almost the entire time we were in Marrakech.
  2. Save enough room in your luggage for souvenirs. We almost never go shopping while abroad (we prefer to relive our memories through photos), but we ended up buying our most souvenirs ever in Morocco. You definitely won’t want to leave without some leather goods, rugs, tagines, lamps, spices, and argan oil.
  3. Morocco has a closed currency, which made me nervous since I usually like to enter the country with some currency on hand. However, exchanging money was simple. Before you exit the airport, there’s a large currency exchange in the center of the arrivals terminal, and in the medina there are dozens of ATMs surrounding Djemaa el-Fna. Once in Marrakech, always have cash on you (especially smaller bills and coins) because pretty much everywhere is cash only.
  4. Stay in a riad in the medina. A riad is the best way to experience Marrakech to the fullest, and inside the medina is where most of your time will be spent. Our riad was just a few minutes from the Djemaa el-Fna, so we were able to walk back to our riad whenever we wanted to, and it was convenient for all our drivers, who pick up passengers in the square. To get to your riad from the airport, have the riad staff organize a driver to pick you up. Riads are often hidden behind unassuming doors, and there’s no way we would have found ours without a guide.
  5. Brush up on your French. Besides Arabic and Berber, most Moroccans speak French. At all the museums, captions were either in Arabic or French — not English. When we had an issue with our water heater at our riad, the only staff available that night couldn’t speak much English; Anthony and I definitely regretted learning Spanish instead of French in school.
  6. Tip everyone, from your guide to your masseuse to your waiter. Moroccans survive on these tips! Before you go, you might want to print out a list of who to tip and how much to tip, as we had to look these up multiple times.
  7. Find a rooftop for lunch. I recommend the top floor of Café des Éspices, which has a relaxing view of a colorful square and very good hot chocolate.
  8. At meals, be wary of anything you didn’t specifically order. When we were at one food stall, we received a dish of tomato dipping sauce for our bread and a plate of sweets after dinner. We assumed these were complimentary, but at the end of our meal they charged us for each item. The meal was still cheap, but if you don’t want any surprise charges, make sure to tell them when you don’t want certain dish.
  9. If you’ve never been to a Muslim country before, prepare yourself for those infamous Islamic prayer calls. Adhan occurs five times a day and won’t usually affect you — except the one that occurs at 4:00 am. Every morning, we woke up at 4 due to the prayer call, which is recited by a muezzin from a microphone in Koutoubia Mosque. Speakers are mounted up high in the mosque’s minarets, and even though our riad was quite far from it, we heard everything loud and clear. Fortunately, we eventually got used to it and were able to fall back asleep right away.
  10. Like Venice, getting lost in the medina of Marrakech is part of the experience. However, if you have to be somewhere specific, try to take a screenshot of the route when you have WiFi. Don’t be afraid to ask Moroccans for directions. Everyone we met genuinely wanted to help us – and they didn’t demand a tip after, like our guide book had warned!
  11. While Moroccans are fine drinking the tap water, most tourists can’t handle it and should drink bottled water instead. We kept a huge bottle in our bathroom for brushing our teeth, and I usually carried a small bottle in my purse so we wouldn’t have to purchase a new one at every meal.
  12. What to eat? For breakfasts, you can look forward to fresh orange juice (there are oranges everywhere in this city), crepes, chocolate croissants, and fruits. For other meals, you’ll most likely have a tagine (a traditional Berber stew made of succulent meats and vegetables cooked in a conical clay pot — also called a tagine — to allow the steam to rise, condense, and drip back down to the stew). You can’t come to Morocco without having at least one lamb tagine. Almost every meal will include bread, which I think is one of Morocco’s most underrated food items – their bread is fantastic! The bread is typically made from durum wheat semolina, and bakeries pumping out fresh bread can be found all over Morocco. Moroccan food is full of wonderful spices like saffron, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, paprika, sesame, coriander, cloves, fennel, anise, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, and oregano. A good souvenir to take back home with you is “ras el hanout,” which is a mixture of 27 Moroccan spices – though, many locals like to call this “the spice for women who can’t cook.” Since this is a Muslim country, there will be no pork and very little alcohol. You’ll drink a lot of Moroccan tea, which is green tea mixed with mint and sugar. The tea pots have long, curved spouts, which allows the tea to be poured evenly into tiny glasses from up high.
  13. This is a developing country, so just get over the fact that your riad might have limited hot water, weak WiFi, and toilets that can’t handle toilet paper. You’re not in a Marriott in the middle of Pennsylvania. Remember why you travel.

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