Tours from Marrakech…a guide through Southern Morocco
Sitting on the rocks on the edge of the Moroccan coastal city of Essaouira, I was just waiting for the nightly show – another stunning Moroccan sunset. The only thing missing from this blissful picture is an ice cold beer in my hand. But Morocco is a Muslim country and finding alcohol proves to be difficult at times. Glancing behind me, I notice a cookie salesman carrying his tray of cookies in one arm leaving one hand free for his ice cold beer! “Cookies?” he asks. “No. Beer please!” I shoot back, joking with him. Magically, he pulls another beer of the folds of his robe and hands it to me. “Wow! What service! Can you get me some more?” I ask.
My friend Laura and I had arrived in Marrakech a week earlier with no real plan, just some very vague ideas of spending a night in the Sahara Desert and then taking the southern route. Our goal was to end up in the coastal city of Essaouira, which is where I met the Traveling Cookie Salesman. This is one of my favorite things about travel – interacting with the local people and really getting an insight into the culture.
Here are some helpful tips for creating one of your own Southern Morocco tours from Marrakech.
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 decide to spend some time exploring this area before heading along the southern route to the coast, so we ask our van driver to “just drop us off somewhere.” Instead of just tossing us out, he actually stops and finds a local shopkeeper who offers to take us to a riad (hotel) he knows.
Aziz the shopkeeper
We dump our bags into the trunk of his battered old car and drive off with Aziz, this random shopkeeper, silently praying he’s not an ax murderer. He drives across a long bridge, up a dark, narrow street, and stops in front of a riad that proves to be nothing more than a prison cell with really nice carpets. (Ugh.)
Seeing the disappointment on our long faces, he offers another option and brings us to the stunning Le Tichka Ouarzazate. At just a few dirhams more than the prison cell, it’s paradise! We check in, shower 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 wander the narrow alleys surrounding it and stumble 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!)
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.
The bus station is just a 10-minute walk from the hotel. The ride from Ouarzazate to Taroudant, our next stop, 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, ancient ramparts (walls). Arriving in the village of Taroudant, we immediately notice 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, located just an hour away.
The bus drops 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, “Mr. Nice Guy” approaches us. Sensing we will NEVER find our hotel, we follow him through the maze of small alleys and all the way to the door of the riad.
This kind stranger speaks little English and refuses to accept any tip for his kindness. As we say goodbye, he mutters something about his friend with a taxi, but that was as close as he gets selling us anything. He’s ust a really nice guy!
After checking into the lovely Dar Fatima Riad, we set out to conquer the maze of the traditional souk area. Another of my favorite adventures in Morocco – souk shopping! Very soon we’re approached by another nice guy who offers tips and advice on navigating this very confusing city. “Wow, the people here are SO nice!” we comment as he sweeps us away on an impromptu tour.
He takes 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 try, we just can’t escape this guy! He’s like a blood-sucker stuck in between our toes and his incessant talking gives me a headache!
It’s well past dinner time and I’m starving so we reluctantly agree to stop at the cafe he suggests. I pick at my chicken tagine while he recounts 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’s absolutely endless!
After dinner, finally, he wanders off!
Travel Tip: Beware of Street Guides anywhere in Morocco!
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.
Dar Fatima – This beautifully decorated traditional riad is located along a quiet lane very close to the souk and offers great breakfasts!
Getting to our next stop, Essaouira, wasn’t easy. We need to go through Agadir, and since there is only one bus departing for Agadir daily, we choose to take a shared taxi to Agadir and catch the bus out of there. 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 we 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.
After the scenic bus ride along the coast from Agadir, we arrive at the gates of the walled city of Essaouira, a UNESCO heritage city, and find our way to Riad Jemalha Mogador. We had booked this riad for 6 days and soon after check-in, I KNEW there was no way I could survive in the tiny, windowless, prison cell!
That evening at dinner we start chatting with our waiter, asking for recommendations on affordable riads. He makes a few calls, and moments later his buddy, “Shop Keeper” is at our table offering to show us some options. We follow 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!
Our slice of heaven!
Thankfully, we check out of the prison cell the following morning and move into our sea view slice of heaven! I spend 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 are stunning, but a few nights I wander down to the rocks near the edge of town for a slightly different camera angle.
That’s where I meet the “Cookie Salesman” with beer. He opens his extra beer with his teeth and hands it to me. I take a long sip of a lukewarm Stork beer. “I can go get some more!” he graciously offers. I hand him a 100 Dirham note and he runs off while I watch his cookie tray. Returning a few minutes later, he hands me another beer – but no change for my large bill.
Then he runs 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 so worth it!
Things to do
Sadly, my friend Laura flies out of Essaouira after two days. So, I spend the next 5 days wandering the city alone and find I absolutely love it! Sometimes I’d go for walks on the long stretch of almost deserted beach, watch the kitesurfers and windsurfers, camels and horses occasionally strolling by carrying tourists. I feel surprisingly safe as a woman traveling alone in this sometimes rugged country.
The shopping in this town is amazing, especially for Moroccan argan oil which is produced locally. Also, the cafes along the main plaza are great for sipping mint tea while people-watching. Someday I’d love to go back to Essaouira and stay for a while!
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 beware, he does not speak Engish (only French or Arabic).
Telephone: 212 (0) 52 47 55 18 Email: email@example.com
Buses depart from Essaouira to Marrakech frequently and cost 70 Dirhams ($7 USD) for the 3-hour ride.
Not comfortable with a self-guided tour? Here are some great tours from Marrakech or Essaouira!