SEE MORE PHOTOS: Moroccan photo gallery
Fact of the matter: two weeks isn't even close to enough to scratch the surface of a visit to Morocco. But I tried it anyway. Flying in and out of Casablanca, located on the central coast of the country, was an ample starting point to spend a week in the north and a week in the south. Had I thought the trip through more, I would have flown into Tangiers or Fes, and out of Marrakech or Agadir. The travel times and inconvenience of long-distance buses chewed away at many of the few days I had in the country. However, I still managed to navigate quite a bit of the country and found time to relax and enjoy along the way.
Our trip started with an overnight stay in Casablanca, which outside of the Hassan II Mosque, I didn't have too much of an interest in. Being the largest mosque in the country and the 13th largest in the world, as well as enterable to non-Muslims, it was worth the stop to walk around and marvel at the architecture and colors juxtaposed against the city skyline and coast.
Tip: Visit the Hassan II Mosque at sunrise to beat the crowds; also at dusk to watch the lights transform the area into a whole different scene.
The lack of hostels and affordable accommodation that didn't look too sketchy to chance had us in and out in less than 24 hours. We hopped on the train from Casa Voyageurs to Fes (4 hours) in the north central desert of Morocco.
Former capital of Morocco, and today functioning as the second largest city and intellectual capital of the country, Fes holds the oldest university in the world, the University of Al Quaraouiyine which was founded by a woman in fact. We spent two days exploring the old medina, considered one of the largest urban pedestrian zones in the world.
Tip: A guided walking tour of the old medina lets you explore workshops you wouldn't encounter walking on your own.
The highlight was a walking tour of such, which allowed us to see some of the local craftsman at work: jewelry, cloth, carpets, and a Berber pharmacy. We skipped out on the tannery due to the incredible stench coming down to the streets. I enjoyed the pharmacy in particular because it allowed us to see the traditional uses of native and herbal remedies in cosmetic and medicinal forms. There was some pressure to buy from the markets once we were given tours of such, which was how I ended up with a beautiful Moroccan carpet needing to be shipped home (though I'm off traveling for a year). No clue how I was talked into that. We also were introduced to the staple cuisine of the country, predominantly tajine (a vegetable/meat sizzler within a ceramic dish) and couscous, both of which are nicely seasoned and reasonably priced within the medina.
Chefchaouen (The Blue City)
Once we finished exploring Fes, it was decided that we would head four hours north to Chefchaouen, known commonly as "The Blue City" at the foothills of the Rif Mountains. Aptly named due to its blue-washed buildings throughout the old city, Chefchaouen (or Chaouen to locals) is a photographers dream. Now quite touristy with shops and restaurants lining the streets, the predominantly Jewish and Berber locals cater to the massive Moroccan and foreign tourists while still maintaining the cities charm. There are tons of hotels for every price range and lots to do in the area. We opted to take it easy for four days to mainly explore the town and relax on our hostel terrace.
Tip: Hike twenty minutes from the northeastern wall of the city to the Spanish Mosque for sunset.
We did take a short hike up to the Spanish Mosque for sunset one evening which yielded the most beautiful sunset over the mountains and spectacularly lit the blue city as the day transitioned into night. Other attractions in the area include tours of the hashish farms famous to the area as well as the waterfalls, Cascades d'Akchour, about an hour to the north of the city.
Tip: Buses and trains to/from Chefchaouen are in high demand and have to booked at least two days in advance during high season. Online ticketing is quite difficult to navigate with foreign cards, so go into any ONCF (train) or CTM (bus) stations to buy tickets in advance.
Once my wonderful travel partner Sarah had to depart after the first week, the desert was calling me, so I had to make the long haul from the Chefchaouen in the very north to Marrakech in the south. One can stop in Fes on the way to Merzouga, one of two entry towns to the Sahara, to simplify and avoid the 10 hour train from Chefchaouen directly to Marrakech.
Left with no better options, I took a morning bus all the way down and landed in the crazy city late afternoon and was quite overwhelmed coming in. Lost in the siouks (market stalls and streets) of the medina in Marrakech looking for my hostel, I did not have a great entry into the city. Once I navigated past the hecklers and masses in the medina, I found myself in a brilliant riad (Equity Point), fully clad with a pool and rooftop terrace overlooking the city. Close to Djemaa el-Fnaa, the central square of the medina for food and nightly entertainment, I did enjoy seeing a taste of what the city has to offer. I was quite burnt out by travel and the hecklers of Marrakech, so I did not stay too long.
Tip: Looking for a break from the bustle of Marrakech? Head to the second highest waterfall in Africa just two hours north.
I was fortunate to catch a ride to the Cascades d'Ouzoud about two hours north of Marrakech, and explored the second highest waterfall in Africa for the majority of a day. This day trip ended up being the highlight of my entire trip in Morocco in fact! The massive falls dwarfed us and we were able to climb around the cliffs and rocks and pools below to explore the area from every angle. We took a dip at the top of the falls because we were wary of the "No Swimming" signs in the populous lower section even despite the sweltering heat on that sunny September day. Had I had more time, I would have loved to camp in the many sites along either sides of the falls to experience it outside the normal tourist hours. Most people we ran into had never heard of the falls, so it was exceedingly nice to step off the tourist track even just for a day.
Merzouga (Sahara Desert)
Did somebody say desert? I have had endless visions of camels, sand dunes, and star-filled skies in the Sahara Desert in my dreams and imagination for years. It was the main draw that got me to book such last minute flights to the country in fact. Hopping off of a brutal 12-hour bus ride from busy Marrakech, I was immediately enticed by the slow-pace and calmness that desert heat can bring to an area. I found a hostel (Le Gout du Sahara) near to the street bordering the sand dunes that turned out to be my favorite of the whole stay. The owner, as well as the guests, embodied a communal vibe in which we all cooked most meals for each other and found ourselves spending an entire cloudy day painting the walls of the hostel and enjoying the chill vibes. I needed the downtime after such a hectic schedule touring Morocco for the past week and a half. Once the sky cleared up, we ventured to the dunes just a 30 minute walk from town and climbed the Big Dune (about 300 meters high) straight to the sky and ran up and down the dunes in the sweltering midday sun. We took an obligatory overnight trek into the dunes to Oasis Merzouga, a camp set up just a few kilometers (1.5 hours) into the dunes to eat yet more tajine and marvel at the Milky Way from the middle of the largest (hot) desert in the world.
Tip: If you aren't on a tight schedule, avoid booking the inclusive tours out of Marrakech so that you can spend more than just one night in the desert, it's well worth it. There are lots of worthy stops on the way too.
All in all, I quite enjoyed my quick tour of this unique country and would go back in a heartbeat to spend more time in the places I enjoyed as well as experience all of those I didn't have time to. Lots of talk with other travelers and friends has yielded the following as a "to do" list for Morocco round two: Imlil (two days to trek to Toubkal) in the Atlas Mountains, Taghazoute for a laid-back surf town, Tinghir Gorge, Aït-Benhaddou, and Essaouira in the south for wind-surfing. Looking forward to an imminent return to this incredible country.
See more photos in my Moroccan photo gallery.