First of all I would like to thank all of the people who posted info on this forum. Whenever we start to plan a trip we go to the Trip Advisor Forums first. We gained a wealth of background info on Morocco travel to start our planning. Based on this research we decided that we wanted to design a trip that would include many of the diverse landscapes and environments of Morocco but wouldn't spread us out over the whole country. We chose a route that started in Marrakech, headed east to the Dades Gorge and Valley, Ourzazate, continued on to the desert at Merzouga, explored the High Atlas Mountains, had a few days at the seaside city of Essaouira, and ended back at Marrakech.
We found a large tour company (16 or less per group) that accomplished this and were pretty close to booking the tour when we attended a party and met a man who had recently traveled to Morocco and used Around Morocco Tours. He had nothing but positive things to say about Lahcen and this small family company. We had seen several good reviews of this company on the forums but we figured a private tour would be much more expensive than this group tour. But when we got home and looked at the AMT website we were pleasantly surprised. It looked like we could do our itinerary for about the same price as the group tour. In addition to our geographical requirements, we also had some other "must haves" for our trip - opportunity to do nature hikes, visits with locals, and, since I'm a chef - cooking school and lots of culinary experiences. So we started emailing Lahcen and soon our dream trip became a reality. He gave us a great price and lots of personal service during the planning of the trip.
We went in mid May (2013) and the weather was nearly perfect. Very comfortable during the day and a bit chilly at night. Except in the mountains, it was chilly in the daytime and cold at night. The desert areas were hot, of course, but the temperatures were usually in the high 80's to low 90's during the day so not too bad.
At first we were a little disappointed that Lahcen would not be able to guide us personally, but his nephew, Omar, proved to be a wonderful guide. He is a fun, easy-going guy who loves all kinds of old American music. We would be driving through the Dades Gorges or some little dusty desert village listening to the tunes of Tom Jones, Celine Dion, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, and many more. Kind of messes with your mind at first, but soon it just feels right. I did have to draw the line at the Lionel Ritchie album though, and had to tell him to turn it off. :-) He also introduced us to some great African music like the Mali Blues and some modern Moroccan music, the Touareg Blues. Omar speaks perfect English, knows his Moroccan history, culture, cuisine, and politics and was able to answer our questions in great detail. He is a smoker (he's trying to quit) which actually turned out to be a good thing. He never smoked around us or in the car so we had to stop every hour or so for a smoke break. We saw some pretty interesting things at these roadside stops and we loved every minute of it.
Omar is a Berber and as we reached the desert he mentioned that he hadn't seen his family in a while. I said we should all go see them. He seemed genuinely touched that we wanted to meet his family. So, unannounced, we dropped in on his mother and sisters. They were all so nice and welcoming to us. We were treated like royalty and served mint tea and snacks. His two sisters painted henna on my hands and arms and with all that lovely artwork, I did feel like a queen. None of his family speaks English but we had a terrific time laughing and gesturing at each other. This was an authentic experience we would never had with the group tour. It was one of the highlights of our trip.
Another highlight was a visit to a nomadic Berber family. We drove our Toyota 4-wheel drive over the desert to several small tents where Omar has friends. Again the genuine hospitality of the Moroccan culture was shown by the way this family welcomed us. The grandmother made mint tea for us on a small propane burner and we shared the tea in a tent that she had made from camel hair. My boyfriend brought some small rubber balls for the children and he played catch with a little guy about 2 yrs. old. In another tent there was a new baby, only a few days old, swaddled in colorful cloths. Several young women were there having what I would call a baby shower for the new mom and baby. We sat together and oohed and aahed over this tiny sleeping Berber child.
We will never forget the camel trek into the desert. When we were supposed to leave there was a terrible sand storm going on outside. They delayed our departure for an hour and we really expected it to be canceled due to the high winds, but our camel man came, wrapped turbans around our heads and off we went. I will say it was a terrifying 3 hours for me. The wind was so strong it nearly blew me off my camel. The sand stung our eyes and a few times we just had to squeeze our eyes shut and hang on for dear life. We finally reached our tents in the Sahara and our camel man made a delicious tagine for us. The wind howled all night long and it was nearly impossible to sleep. But the next morning, the sunrise made up for all the discomfort from the day before. It was glorious looking out over the freshly swept Sahara. One of the best sunrises I have ever experienced. I can't tell you how many pictures I took that morning. The camel ride back to the hotel was so much more enjoyable. A very memorable experience all round.
I would say the part of the trip I liked the least happened up in the mountains. We had reservations at a beautiful mountain resort way up in the High Atlas mountains called Kasbah du Toubkal. Jeb Toubkal is the second highest mountain in Africa; the only mountain higher is Mount Kilimanjaro. We were really looking forward to the mountains and they did not disappoint. We saw majestic peaks covered with snow and valleys so green you would swear they were fake. We stopped in the fairytale quaint little mountain village called Imlil. Omar started loading our luggage onto a donkey and said we would walk to our hotel. He didn't mention it was a very steep, very rocky, very long climb. After about half an hour of strenuous climbing, we were only about halfway up. Another 15 minutes later, I was exhausted, out of breath, and sweating profusely. Omar said, "Oh, did you want to ride the donkey?" Haha! We were rewarded with a gorgeous mountaintop hotel with great panoramic views and a two-story huge suite.
Essouira is another storybook village by the sea. The souks there were smaller but less touristy and I saw many things there I had not seen elsewhere in Morocco. I attended a well-run cooking school there called L'Atelier Madada and would recommend it to anyone wishing to learn a few good Moroccan dishes.
Omar knew I was a chef and he went out of his way to make this foodie very happy. We ate tagines (stews), couscous, brochettes, pastille (a chicken, egg, and almond pie), hairira (soup), pastries, and Berber pizza. He took us to a food court type of place where we bought our meat at a meat market, took it to a man who seasoned it and grilled it over charcoal, and bought bread, melons, and drinks from another vendor. While our food was being prepared, my boyfriend and Omar got a shoeshine from a little boy who appeared at our table. There were no other tourists at this restaurant and it was a great meal. He also took us outside of Marrakech to a truck stop that had this most amazing bread. He said no one else makes this bread and I wanted you to have some. I am truly thankful for Omar's thoughtfulness. Again, this would have never happened on a group tour.
All of the places we stayed at were very well run and clean. One standout was the Ksar Anika in Marrakech. It is a lovely oasis in the middle of the very hectic and bustling city. I can’t say enough good things about the staff, especially Magda, the manager, who took me to a dentist early on the first day of our trip for an emergency root canal. She stayed with me the whole time, translating and offering comfort. I thought for sure our trip was going to be ruined but because of her care and thoughtfulness, I was on the mend quickly and on the road as planned.
All in all, it was a fantastic trip, much more than we ever expected. Omar and Lahcen let us dictate what we wanted to see and Omar was always taking us places off the beaten path to see interesting things - fossil hunting, argan oil co-ops, hidden lakes, movie sets in the desert, and a cool little restaurant in the desert that served Berber pizza, one of the best dishes we had. He knew I loved the amazing Moroccan melons and stopped at a little fruit vendor in the middle of nowhere and bought us melons. We ate those melons on the side of the road, letting the juice drip down our elbows. It was the best melon I've ever eaten.
Throughout the trip Omar was always looking out for us, trying to make sure we had memorable experiences. He is very proud of his country and his Berber heritage. The more we got to know each other, the better he was able to take us to places he knew we would appreciate. I can honestly say he became a good friend.
Everywhere we went, with or without Omar, we felt safe. The Moroccan people are very welcoming to Westerners and the only negative reactions we got were when we would take a picture of someone who didn't want their picture taken. This was a hard lesson for me to learn since I love to take pictures of people. I had to learn to be stealthy so as not to offend anyone. The Moroccans are a very diverse people with many different races and cultures but everyone seems to get along just fine. They are tolerant of the differences of their people and also of the people who visit them. This was our first visit to a Muslim country and we found them to be very open and willing to tell us about their beliefs and traditions.
As far as the more practical side: What to take?
Lots of media cards for your camera. There are no bad pictures there.
A cheap GSM phone. Buy a sim card for it when you get there.
A two-prong adapter plug - European style.
Casual, modest, comfortable clothing. The women appear in all variations of head cover, face cover, no cover, jellabas, etc. but none of them dress provocatively. Upper arms are usually covered. Many Moroccan young women dress in Western style clothing in the larger cities but they are very modest at all times. Ignorant tourists in shorts and tank tops stick out like a sore thumb. Even at the beach go for conservative, modest dress. Guys, too, although this usually isn't a problem.
Very comfortable walking shoes.
Take a light jacket or sweater if you are going to the mountains.
Small, lightweight gifts for children you meet along the way. We took small pens with cartoon characters on them, small rubber balls painted like a globe, and lots of small sheets of stickers.
A long scarf that you can wrap around your head like a turban or use if the night is chilly.
Gifts for your guides and people you meet. We took t-shirts from our hometown Nashville and CD's of country music for our guides and bracelets that my boyfriend had made for the girls.
A flashlight for the camel trek.
A small, lightweight day pack for carrying around essentials and for the camel trek.
A big, but lightweight, shopping bag that folds up into a tiny package. This is great for shopping at the souks all day.
Sunglasses and sunscreen for the desert
A good amount of money. Prices in Morocco are similar to prices here in the States as far as restaurants go. Breakfast was usually included in the hotel stay. Lunches were generally around $10-$15 per person and dinners were around $15-20 per person. Also, the shopping is amazing and you will want to take it all home with you, so make sure you have plenty of funds to get what you want. Most places take Visa and MasterCard.
Above all - Take yourself to Morocco.
If we can be of any help to you, please feel free to post a question. This seems like a long post but there is so much more to tell if you're interested.