Meet Me In Morocco, Part 2: The Atlas Mountains & Sahara Desert

The prospect of escaping the bustling (and beautiful) city of Marrakech for a whirlwind two days visiting the mountains and the desert was an offer this girl just couldn't resist. And at only €50 a head, how could I say no? 

Picture this: traipsing around an ancient village, frolicking about some of the world's most picturesque mountains, and spending a night under the stars in a Berber campsite. Sounds glamorous, no? 

Little did we know that we would be spending most of our 36 hour trip on a mini bus, falling in and out of sleep, while Arabic music blasts through the speakers. Perhaps not the most comfortable of journeys, but, as they say, the juice is worth the squeeze. 

Before I move onto the details of our trip out of the city, I thought I'd talk a bit about how we ended up booking this excursion, for those of you looking to do the same in the future. There is no shortage of companies to book with for day trips outside of Marrakech. Whether you want to go to the Mountains, the Desert, or to Essaouira, a nearby beach town, you'll likely have people hounding you to hop on their minibus every time you walk through the Medina. 

But be cautious- know what you want, and how much you want to pay. We were lucky enough to have the hostel owner email us beforehand asking us if we wanted to book a tour. He provided us with all the information necessary- what was included, what we needed to pay for on our own. Booking through him, we were able to have it sorted before we arrived, and we knew we had a fair price. It wasn't with a specific tour company, but I'd recommend either booking through your hostel or a nearby hotel. 

Now, back to the action. Our 7 AM pick up time did not see us bright eyed and bushy tailed. After having spent a rather busy day in the city beforehand, we were eager to catch up on some sleep while on the bus. We hopped in a taxi which promptly dropped us off in a mini-bus packed street. We were shuffled along to (presumably) our mini bus, where we spent the first hour questioning whether we were on the correct tour. 

Pushing our worries aside in favor of a "go with the flow and see how it goes" attitude, we started our tour with a stop at the windy peaks of the Atlas Mountains. Not exactly what you'd expect from a trip to perpetually-sunny Morocco, but these mountains certainly gave the Pentlands a run for its money. We were promptly told to "make picture" and browse the roadside rock stand before hopping back on the bus. 

After another hour or so of driving with just a brief pause for mint tea and madeleines, we swerved down the winding mountainside roads, drove along the flat plains, and made our first big stop at Ait Benhaddou. Having been deemed a world UNESCO site since 1987, this place is pretty darn special. And not simply for its recognition from a multitude of films and tv shows (including Gladiator, Prince of Persia, and Game of Thrones), but for its unique status as both an important attraction, but as a site of distinctive Moroccan architecture. 

Far from being just a tourist site and film location devoid of any practical use, Ait Benhaddou is also home to four families who inhabit this historical village- a far cry from the more modern settlement across the river. Twists and turns abound as you explore this tangle of alleyways and dead ends. You can even watch artists at work, one of the most fascinating demonstrations led by a local man displaying how just a few natural colors and a little bit of heat can produce a bright watercolor picture.     

After a few photo ops, and a browse around the local shops, we were sheperded to a nearby hotel and restaurant. One of the downsides of going on a guided tour is that you have no say as to where you go for meals. While this particular restaurant had an opulent setting, suited to Western tastes, it didn't produce the most flavorful of tagines (the restaurants in central Marrakech took the cake on that front!). Even so, it was a much needed break from the walking, and bus-sitting, if you can believe it. 

Our chariot awaited after a fairly rushed meal, and we were back to business- that is, sleeping and occupying ourselves with the passing scenery. As the land flattened out even more alongside us, we knew that the main event was upon us. After nearly an eight hour journey, we were happy to be taking an alternative form of transportation. 

That's right: camels. 

These cute little big guys, humps draped in various woven blankets, were obviously pros at escorting tourists into the desert. While I can't say so much as to how ethically treated these fascinating creatures are, I'll put it at this: it's the done thing, and these guys looked in much better shape than the camels we saw on the roadsides between the airport and the city. 

We mounted our camels, and set off from the edge of the Sahara Desert to about a mile in from the edge of the Sahara Desert. Adventurous stuff, I know. We watched the sun set as we plodded along, and saw the sky light up with endless constellations- much better than the view you get in any city center. Once we saw a man with a flashing light, we knew we had made it to our campsite. 

The little white tents dotted around a central fire pit would be our home for the night. Once we picked out our tent, and dropped our backpacks, we made our way to the main tent to settle in for dinner. Decked out in traditional tapestries and rugs, low tables and cushy pillows, the dining room was a sight for sore eyes. 

As we waited for dinner to be served, and after a few cups of mint tea or "Berber whisky," we soon got to know our fellow campers. What was most fascinating about our group was that we all came from vastly different places and backgrounds- a Romanian couple, two women from Holland, a Turkish couple that live in Switzerland, and two Japanese students who live in Germany. Quite the international crowd, if you ask me. But despite our different cultures, we were all able to communicate with one another in English, sharing stories of our travels and cultural idiosyncrasies.  

A dinner of coriander soup, turkey tagine, and clementines filled up our stomachs after the long day of traveling. Afterwards, we retired to the fire pit outside to listen to some traditional Berber music (save, a very strange rendition of Waka Waka). After we were all sung-out, one of our hosts invited Ben and I back to the tent to help him with his English homework, seeing as we were the only native English speakers in the group. I thought it was heartwarming to have such a genuine and candid interaction with our host. 

A cold night in the tent was interrupted by the sounds of camels waking up, as well as a Berber drum. Not the best sounds to be awoken to at 6:30 AM, but it sure beats an iPhone alarm. We snacked on bread, honey and some very creamy butter for breakfast and sipped on mint tea before snapping our last few photos in the young morning light and rejoining our camels for the ride back to the bus. We thanked our hosts, grabbed our backpacks, and drove away from this once in a lifetime experience with tired eyes and new friends. 

A few naps, and a few more coffee stops, later and we were back in the city centre. Our dreamy escape had ended as quickly as it started, and we were back to navigating the streets of Marrakech in an instant. But despite the short-lived nature of our excursion, it was truly never to be forgotten- and I have the pictures to prove it ;) 

Make sure you check out the first part of our trip to Morocco (exploring Marrakech) in my last blog post!

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