Day 1: Marrakesh
We arrived at our riad (hotel) where we were greeted with tea and bread.
We then started our day at the Majorelle Gardens. This garden was created over the course of forty years by French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962). The park is one of the top attractions of Marrakesh; it has many shady paths meandering between tall trees and passed exotic plants. There are water features, streams and pools of water lilies and lotus flowers.
At the entrance there is a beautiful fountain, other features of the garden include a cacti garden, a blue square fountain, the Café Bousafsaf, exotic plant garden, Yves Saint Laurent Memorial, a bamboo garden, pavilion and a collection of buildings including Boutique Majorelle, Galerie Love and the Berber Museum and bookshop.
After the gardens, we headed to see Koutoubia Mosque. Marrakesh’s largest mosque is located near Djemaa el-Fna square. It is considered one of the most beautiful and proportioned mosques in existance. The mosque was named Koutoub which means “book” as a book market once stood not far from the mosque.
We then walked around Djema el-Fna which is the central square and market place in Marrakesh’s Medina quarter. Back in 1050 it was the site of public executions (hence the name which means assembly of death) but today it is a hive of activity 24/7. This huge square is a bustle of activity with color, aromas, sounds and ever changing scenes. During the day the large square is frequented by snake charmers, men with Barbary apes, medicine men, water vendors, tooth pullers and vendors. But the square really comes to life when the sun goes down. Stalls are set up across the square with strings of lights adding to the atmosphere. In addition to the stalls there are storytellers, the Hoopla and halqa street theatre, water sellers, side-show attractions, fortune tellers, horse drawn carriages, henna tattoo painters, musicians, acrobats and entertainers. You will also find your fair share of pickpockets, scam artists and beggars. As the evening progresses the market turns into a large open-air restaurant with stalls serving up grilled meat and other delicacies. Impressive buildings surround the square including hotels, gardens, cafes and on one side by the souk, a traditional North African market.
If you want to feel the heart beat of Marrakesh then visit one of the markets or souks especially those in the Old City (Medina). Just go to the central Square (el-Fnaa) and walk into the side streets to reach the markets. The markets are an attack on the senses with aromas, sounds, music, bright colors and plenty of people-watching opportunities. Here you can see fresh produce piled high, nuts, figs, dried fruit, spices, halva, olives, carpets, clothing, household goods, toys, candy, baked goods, brass ware, leather items, accessories, and the list could go on. This is the place to haggle over prices and find authentic and unique souvenirs. Of course it goes without saying that there are pickpockets who take advantage of the hustle and bustle of the crowds.
Many of the markets focus on one type of goods like the Carpet souk where you can see a variety of rugs and carpets including Berber carpets. At the Slipper Market you can find …slippers – row after row of colorful traditional Moroccan slippers (babouches) in leather, cloth and embroidery. The Metal ware Souk is where you’ll find lanterns and metal ornaments made from a range of different types of metal. The Spice Souk is the most colorful of the markets. The spices are displayed in huge sacks or in towering pyramids. There is also a Silk Souk, Crystal Souk, the tannery and other designated souks but really they all just flow one into the other. In all there are about 3,000 stalls. Just remember to hang on to your bag; bargain hard and learn to say no.
After lunch, we went to Medresa Ben Youssef which was an Islamic college constructed during the Almoravid era (14th century). The building ceased to function as an Islamic college in 1960 and underwent extensive refurbishing before being opened to the public in 1982. The Medresa is known for its beautiful ceramic tiles, carved plaster work, and typical 15th century design. It is possible to explore the dormitory cells.
Next we headed to the Bahia Palace and gardens. The palace has a harem with a large courtyard featuring a central basin and rooms around the courtyard that open up to the central area. There are pavilions, walled gardens and buildings. The oldest part of the palace is Dar Si Moussa with a courtyard, central garden, fountains and many varieties of trees. There are decorative rooms with ceramic tiles covering the walls. One of the greatest parts of the newer section of the palace is the marble courtyard measuring 30 meters by 50 meters. It is divided into quadrants by white marble pathways with colorful tiles and glazed earthenware in a checkerboard pattern and fountains where the paths meet. The palace is still used by the royal family and is sometimes closed when the royals are using the palace.
Our next stop was the El Badi Palace. It has not survived in its entirety but it is still possible to see the ruined remains. The palace was commissioned by Saadian ruler Ahmad al-Mansur in the 16 th century. The palace complex once had more than 350 rooms, courtyards, walled gardens, fountains and a pool. The palace was unfortunately destroyed by Moulay Ismail but there is still plenty to see including the sunken gardens, dungeon prison cells, subterranean passages and the main hall with 50 columns. The palace ruins are used for festivals and special events including weekend dance parties.
Close to the palace is the Kasbah Mosque (El Mansouria) which is located in the old fortified city. It is easy to confuse the Kasbah Mosque with the Koutoubia Mosque because of the similarity between their square minarets. Like other mosques non-Muslims cannot visit inside the building.
Day 2: Atlas Mountains
We took a shared 3 day desert tour from Marrakech to Merzouga that started early in the morning. We departed from Marrakech around 7:30 AM to Ait Ben Haddou through Tizi Ntichka and passed through the high Atlas Mountains. Many stops were be made along the way. One was a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Kasbah Ait Ben Haddou, which was also served as a set for various Hollywood blockbusters. We continue to Ouazazate and Kasbah Taourirte before lunch. In the afternoon, we drove to Tinghir via the valley of the roses before we reached our hotel located in Tinghir. We had dinner at the hotel.
Day 3: Sahara Desert
After breakfast at the hotel in Tinghir, our journey begun with a drive along the road of 1001 Kasbah to Ouasis of Tinghir, where we took a small detour on a small road driving along the river to todra canyons. After some time at leisure to enjoy the immensity of the huge cliffs, we had lunch at a local café. We then continued early in the afternoon to Rissani, famous for its date market, and being a starting point of the ancient trading caravans crossing the sahara desert to Tomboctou. After a couple quick stops, we continued to Merzouga by driving through some rocky desert landscape. Upon arrival at the edge of Erg Chebbi dunes, we met our local guides and rode camels through the amazing color-changing sand dunes with the sunset in the horizon as a backdrop. We took a break to climb the sand dunes and watch the sun completely set before continuing to our Sahara Desert camp, nestled in the middle of nowhere just before darkness.
After some time to admire the sand dunes and the surrounding landscapes, we had a Moroccan dinner served under the stars next to a camp fire. Late at night, we enjoyed berber music with the local hosts playing drums.
Day 4 : Sahara to Marrakech
After an early breakfast and a camel ride back to the main road, we met our driver and drove to Ouarzazte for lunch. We then continued our drive in the afternoon to Marrakech through the high atlas mountains. Our shared 3 day desert tour ended in Marrakech around 7:00 PM.
Day 5: Depart
We used our last day to explore the main square again. We considered going to the tanneries but decided to shop, eat, and relax before leaving instead.
- We booked our Shared 3 Day Sahara Desert Tour from Marrakech to Merzouga on Get Your Guide. https://www.getyourguide.com/marrakech-l208/3-days-sahara-merzouga-erg-chebbi-t56040/?partner=true
- Dress modestly by covering your shoulders and knees out of respect for their culture.
- Be patient with the vendors (“beggars”). Continue to say “No Thank You” and keep moving. They will attempt to force souvenirs on you and then ask for money. If you aren’t expecting this, you will get annoyed quickly.
- Bring warm clothes for the desert since it gets cold at night. They provide heavy blankets but you will still get a little chilly.
- Pack lightly on the desert tour. You are able to leave stuff in the van before the overnight, but I wouldn’t trust it completely. We each brought a small backpack that we could wear on the camel ride.
- Bring protection for nice cameras in the desert. Everything will get super sandy!
- Bargain, bargain, bargain with the vendors! Their first price they quote you is usually 70% more than they are willing to accept.
- If you are considering getting henna tattoos, do your research beforehand. I was talked out of it after I looked into it mostly due to my sensitive skin and the materials they use.
- Avoid the snake charmers and monkeys if you are not willing to pay. They will ask you for money just to take a picture or watch.