I was sitting on the rocks on the edge of the Moroccan coastal city of Essaouira just waiting for the nightly show – another stunning sunset. The only thing missing from this blissful picture was an ice cold beer. But Morocco is a Muslim country and finding alcohol proved to be difficult at times. Glancing behind me, I noticed a cookie salesman carrying his tray of cookies in one arm leaving one hand free for his ice cold beer! “Cookies?” he asked. “No. Beer please!” I shot back, joking with him. Magically, he pulled another out of the folds of his robe and handed it to me. “Wow! What service! Can you get me some more?” I asked. He was quite a character…
One of my favorite things about travel is interacting with the local people, like the Traveling Cookie Salesman, and really getting an insight into the culture. On our recent exploration of southern Morocco, my friend Laura and I met lots of colorful characters who added a dash of spice to our adventure.
We had arrived in Marrakech with no real plan, just some very vague ideas of exploring the Sahara Desert and then winging it along a southerly route to end up in the coastal city of Essaouira.
Here are a few tips on creating your own southern Morocco tour and a glimpse of the characters we met on our adventure.
Located along the popular route from Marrakech to the Sahara Desert, Ouarzazate typically is little more than a rest stop for most travelers. Returning from our 3-day Sahara Desert tour, Laura and I decided to spend some time exploring this area before heading along the southern route to the coast, so we asked our van driver to “just drop us off somewhere.” Instead of just tossing us out, he actually stopped and found a local shopkeeper who offered to take us to a riad (hotel) he knew.
Character: Aziz the shopkeeper
We dumped our bags into the trunk of his battered old car and drove off with Aziz, this random shopkeeper, silently praying he wasn’t an ax murderer. (He wasn’t.) He drove across a long bridge, up a dark, narrow street, and stopped in front of a riad that proved to be nothing more than a prison cell with really nice carpets. (Ugh.)
Seeing the disappointment on our long faces, he offered another option and brought us to the stunning Le Tichka Ouarzazate. At just a few dirhams more than the prison, it was paradise! We checked in, showered off the Sahara dirt and grime and set out to explore Ouarzazate.
Things to do: Just across the street from the shopping area (where we met Aziz) is Taourirt Kasbah. This is a partially restored 19th-century palace, once used to house powerful chiefs. There usually are guides lurking near the entrance, ready to offer their services. It’s worth paying a few Dirhams to understand the full history of the place.
After touring the kasbah, we wandered the narrow alleys surrounding it and stumbled upon the old Jewish quarter. Some of the old buildings have been restored and now house small art shops run by very friendly nomads from Western Sahara.
The city is also famous for their connection to Hollywood, with quite a few big movies (Gladiator) and TV shows (Game of Thrones) filmed in the area. Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO heritage site, is located just outside the city and is well worth a half-day trip.
Another quick escape from the city is the beautiful Flint Oasis. (We tried to barter with a taxi driver to take us there but failed miserably. He wanted 900 Dirhams ($90 USD) for a half-day trip!)
Recommended hotel: Le Tichka Ouarzazate – This hotel offers a little luxury after roughing it in the Sahara desert – a huge pool, a bar serving ice-cold beer, and a wonderful breakfast spread.
Getting away: The bus station is just a 10-minute walk from the hotel. The ride from Ouarzazate to Taroudant offers stunning views of the Atlas Mountains and takes about 5 hours (Moroccan time). Bus fare is 115 dirhams ($11.50 USD).
Taroudant is a very traditional Moroccan market town and is surrounded by huge ramparts (walls). Arriving in the village of Taroudant, we immediately noticed the stunning gigantic bougainvillea lining the walls of the city. This traditional village is a popular day trip for people staying at the generic luxury resorts in nearby Agadir, just an hour away.
Characters: Nice Guy, Motor Mouth
The bus dropped us off just outside one of the gates to the old city and, with our riad name and address in hand, we set out on a hike through the narrow maze of streets. Immediately, Nice Guy approached us. Sensing we would NEVER find our hotel, he walked us through the maze and all the way to the door of the riad.
He spoke little English and wouldn’t accept any tip for his kindness (that’s why we named him “Nice Guy”). As we said goodbye, he muttered something about his friend with a taxi, but that was as close as he got to trying to sell us anything. He was just a really nice guy!
After checking into the lovely Dar Fatima Riad, Laura and I set out to conquer the maze of the traditional souk area. Very soon we were approached by another (seemingly) nice guy who offered tips and advice on navigating this very confusing city. “Wow, the people here are SO nice!” we commented as he swept us away on an impromptu tour.
He took us through the spice market, the vegetable market, the Jewish quarter, the old donkey barn, the local shopping area….talking NON-STOP!
As hard as we tried, we just couldn’t ditch this guy! (Maybe we’re just too damn nice?) He was like a blood-sucker stuck in between our toes! His incessant talking gave me a headache!
It was well past dinner time and I was starving so we reluctantly agreed to stop at the cafe he suggested. I tried to enjoy my chicken tagine while listening to his blah blah blah life story – he’s unemployed and lives with his mother, he’s on his third wife after his second wife died. It was absolutely endless!
After dinner, finally, he wandered off!
(Obviously, “Motor Mouth” was a well-deserved nickname! We spotted him in the market the following day and ran the other way!)
Things to do: Let yourself get lost in the maze of the souk area! The main square has a variety of cafes perfect for people-watching, especially in the evenings when the whole town seems to gather there. Order a mint tea and just soak up the vibe of this traditional Moroccan town.
Recommended hotel: Dar Fatima – This beautifully decorated traditional riad is located along a quiet lane very close to the souk and offers great breakfasts!
Getting away: Getting to our next stop, Essaouira, wasn’t easy. We needed to go through Agadir, and since there is only one bus departing for Agadir daily, we chose to take a shared taxi to catch the bus out of Agadir. A shared taxi to Agadir is 35 Dirhams per person ($3.50USD) while a private taxi to Agadir is 300 Dirhams. The taxi drops off at the main taxi stand in Agadir where you need to catch another taxi (“Petit Taxi”) to the bus station. Regular bus service from Agadir to Essaouira costs 75 Dirhams ($7.50USD) and takes 3 1/2 hours.
Characters: Shop Keeper, Cookie Salesman
After the scenic bus ride along the coast from Agadir, we arrived at the gates of the walled city of Essaouira, a UNESCO heritage city, and found our way to Riad Jemalha Mogador. We had pre-booked this riad and soon after check in, I KNEW there was no way I could stay in the tiny, windowless, prison cell for 6 days!
That evening at dinner we started chatting with our waiter, asking for recommendations on affordable riads. He made some calls, and moments later his buddy, “Shop Keeper” was at our table offering to show us some options. We followed him to the end of the lane, through a blue door and up a dark staircase, climbing 5 steep flights of stairs.
Finally, emerging through the door at the top – HEAVEN! A patio with a sea view!
The following morning we checked out of the prison cell and into our sea view slice of heaven! I spent the next 5 days completely mesmerized by the view, the smell of the sea, and the sound of waves crashing on the rocks just below us. The sunsets from the patio were stunning, but a few nights I wandered down to the rocks near the edge of town for a slightly different camera angle.
That’s when I met “Cookie Salesman”! He opened his extra beer with his teeth, handed it to me and I took a long sip of a lukewarm Stork beer. “I can go get some more!” he graciously offered. I handed him a 100 Dirham note and he ran off while I watched his cookie tray. Returning a few minutes later, he handed me another beer – but no change (duh – what was I thinking?).
Then he ran off with his fresh stash of cold beer to share with his friends gathered on the beach.
That one beer cost me $10USD – but it was worth it!
Things to do: My friend Laura flew out of Essaouira after 2 days so I spent the next 5 days wandering the city alone and absolutely loved it! I went for walks on the long stretch of almost deserted beach, watched the kitesurfers and windsurfers, camels and horses occasionally strolling by carrying tourists.
The shopping in this town is amazing, especially for Moroccan argan oil which is produced locally. The cafes along the main plaza are great for sipping mint tea while people-watching. I could definitely go back to Essaouira and stay for a while!
Recommended hotel: Maghnia Riad – We stumbled upon this little gem with stunning sea views and an affordable price ($25 USD per night for a large loft studio apartment). Contact the owner directly but be aware, he does not speak Engish (French or Arabic).
Telephone: 212 (0) 52 47 55 18 Email: email@example.com
Getting away: Buses depart from Essaouira to Marrakech frequently and cost 70 Dirhams ($7 USD) for the 3-hour ride.
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