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Before I went to Morocco, I had no idea what a hammam was, let alone whether I should try a hammam for men in Marrakech.

What is a Hammam for Men

I confess I may have thought of a Muslim harem when someone first mentioned the word “hammam.” A harem is the part of the household dedicated to women, while a hammam is a Moroccan spa. Although women can partake in a hammam, they were actually designed for men.

As I arrived in Marrakech, I quickly got the impression that they were all for women. All over the city were luxury spas offering top-notch pampering. One famous establishment in town advertised their basic hammam for 250 Moroccan dirhams ($26) and had other packages for as much as 450 dirhams $47, depending on how many scrubs and massages you wanted with your hammam.

Hammam Mouassine Packages

Apparently, there are two very different types of hammams. Simply put, one is for tourists and the other is for locals. The tourist ones are more like a spa where you have someone else washing you, scrubbing you and perhaps giving you a massage. The local version is almost the opposite.

An authentic hammam is just a bathhouse for the locals to clean off the dirt and grime invariably accumulated after traveling through the desert. Usually the locals bring their own soap, but the hammam can provide it too. The biggest difference is the price. While tourist hammams charge $20-$50, the locals only have to pay 10 dirhams ($1) to use the hammam.

As a trained massage therapist, I love to experience different massages and spas around the world. But I didn’t want to go over budget in Morocco, especially when I had several locals telling me how cheap a real hammam was.

So I set out to find an authentic hammam for men in Marrakech. I was actually given a recommendation from my tour guide on my Marrakech walking tour. When I followed up on it, I found the location to be an acceptable suggestion.

Getting an (Almost) Authentic Hammam in Marrakech

A couple days before it was time to leave Morocco, I made my way to Hammam Mouassine, no small task when you have to navigate through the rat warren of streets that comprise the Marrakech Medina. Hammam Mouassine was established in 1562, and is a hammam just for men. It’s certainly not luxury in any sense of the word. In fact, a casual glance of the exterior might even put you off from wanting to visit at all.

I went in, still not really having any idea of what to expect. Inside was a small reception area with some towels and cubbies for storing your stuff. The manager showed me the menu. Their basic hammam package was 150 dirhams ($16), and there were a few different massages and scrubs to choose from. I wanted to try the Moroccan massage package for 300, but I hadn’t brought enough money with me. I pulled out what I had and asked if I could get a special deal. The manager barely hesitated before he accepted my money and directed me to the changing room.

One thing I had heard about the hammams is that you’re fully naked. I’d even had some blogger friends tell me stories of rather uncomfortable experiences about fully stripping in front of strangers. Thankfully it turned out that this was not always the case. In the fancier spas, they usually have private rooms for each person, although you still have the masseur or masseuse observing you in your birthday suit.

Thankfully, I was given a pair of shorts to wear. My clothes and sandals went into a basket which I was told would be returned to me later (I was a little concerned that my passport was in the pocket of my shorts, but nothing was taken). After donning my trunks, I was led into the first room of the hammam.

While the outside of the hammam is unassuming, the interior is even more so. It looks like it hasn’t been renovated since its construction in 1562. The bare, nondescript shower rooms have undressed stone walls and concrete stained with an ancient patina on the floor.

Hammam Mouassine Bath Room

I was directed to sit on a thin yoga-style mat on the ground. A few minutes later, a local came in. He filled up a couple buckets from one of the taps lining the wall, and then slowly poured one over me. The water was hot, but not scalding. He then used a thick soap to wash my entire body (well, not quite everything; he thankfully avoided the shorts). I had my eyes closed against all the suds that were running out of my hair, so I didn’t get to see what kind of soap it was. It felt slimy.

This was followed by more buckets of water to wash away all the soap. Next was the scrub. Some sort of clay or exfoliating substance (I still had my eyes closed) was ruthlessly rubbed all over my skin. It was certainly a rough treatment, but I knew it was getting rid of all the dead skin and I had no problem with it. However, the last action was a final bucket of water dumped over my head. I don’t mind water thrown at my head, but that one was ice cold! A couple more buckets of cold water were poured over me to get rid of the scrub and I was directed into the next room.

There are only two rooms (that I saw) at the Hammam Mouassine. The second is apparently the steam room, which also has water faucets around the room for filling up more buckets. But my cleaning was over. I was directed to lay down on another mat, which I did for several minutes. Then another man came in and gave me what was apparently a Moroccan massage.

Hammam Mouassine Shower Room

It was amazing. I can only describe it as a combination of a deep-tissue sports massage and the assisted yoga stretching of a Thai massage. For several minutes (I really lost time with that one), he pounded and twisted all the tension out of my body. By the end, although a little unsteady, I was completely relaxed.

The best part of the experience was how professional every member of the staff were. Despite all the horror stories I had heard, I was never made to feel uncomfortable, either with nudity or in any of the actions of my…umm…manservants – or whatever the right term should be. Obviously the decor is nothing impressive, but the experience was amazing and something I would very much enjoy doing again.

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Further Reading

Headed to Morocco? Here are my other articles about my first 12-day adventure in the country.

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

Morocco is one of those countries that’s inherently cheap, but it’s also easy to go broke there. During the 12 days of my first visit to Morocco, I resisted countless scams, fell victim to a couple of them, and generally learned how to get by on a minimal budget. Here are my tips for traveling to Marrakech on a budget.

Please note that credit cards are very rarely accepted in Morocco, and ATMs can be scarce. Make sure you withdraw some money from an ATM at the airport when you arrive. Don’t use money exchangers – that’s never a good idea anywhere.

Accommodations

Tripadvisor lists over 2000 places to stay in Marrakech, ranging from as little as $5 a night to well over $1000. As usual, the quality varies just as widely as the price. The resorts definitely aren’t backpacker budget-friendly, but they are idyllic paradises if you do happen to be able to afford them. Many of them are all-inclusive and you’ll get royally pampered. Then again, some of the cheaper hostels are actually quite nice.

Hostels

The first thing to know is that Marrakech doesn’t disclose the full price of their hostels right away on booking websites. The hostels are listed for as cheap as $5 a night, but you have to read the fine print to see that the city tax is not included. That comes out to another $3 per person per night. While that’s not a lot, just make sure that you plan for the extra expense if you’re on a really tight budget. Most places will be expecting you to pay the city tax in cash when you leave.

For my first five days, I stayed at the Dream Kasbah – one of the cheapest options in town. There’s hardly anything good I can say about them. I waited half an hour for their 24-hour reception to open up for me when they knew I was arriving late, and another 45 minutes to get change after paying for my room. The breakfast was served so late I never had a chance to eat it, the rooms were noisy, busy and dirty with minimal security, the location was far from the main attractions in town, and I had to walk 15 minutes just to visit an ATM to pay for my room. Simply put, you get what you pay for.

My second hostel was the complete opposite. Located just a couple minutes from the main square of Marrakech, Bed Square is a newer hostel with only a couple dozen beds (including private rooms). For about $14 a night, you get a huge, uber-comfortable, sturdy bed in a 6-bed dorm with comfortable bedding and pillows, and a curtain that completely blocks out the light. The whole hostel is beautifully decorated, and the staff is so friendly and helpful. Breakfast in the morning is up on the terrace (or downstairs if it’s raining) and the staff serves you at your seat! I’ve certainly never had that at a hostel before.

Another great example of a hostel is Equity Point, which has won Hostelworld’s award for best hostel in Morocco, not to mention third best in Africa! They have hundreds of beds available, a beautiful swimming pool with their name in it, a massive rooftop terrace and bar where you can get all kinds of meals, a business lounge, laundry room, etc. I’d happily stay there the next time I’m in Marrakech, although I did like the smaller feel of Bed Square. Rooms are as little as $10 a night, plus city tax.

Riads

A slightly more expensive option for accommodations in Marrakech is Riads. What’s a Riad? Think luxury guesthouse. These are located throughout the Medina (walled old town) and are usually built into ancient homes. They almost always have a functioning indoor swimming pool which also helps to keep the premises cool in the summer. While I didn’t stay in any, I visited a couple and found them opulent, to say the least. They serve fancy, homemade meals, have rooftop terraces with great views of the city, and one even had separate internet connections in each of its rooms!

Riad Karmella

Riads aren’t the most budget options, but neither are they as much as most of the resorts. You can find a good Riad for as little as $20 a night, and most include a delicious local breakfast. The difficulty with the Riads is finding them. Google Maps only shows perhaps 10% of the streets in the Medina. The rest are small alleyways which comprise the ultimate labyrinth. The specific location of the Riads isn’t accurate on Google Maps either, and you might wander around for several minutes before you find the right door. Finally, some of the doors are barely marked. The beautiful Riad Star which I visited was simply marked with a single star on the door at the end of a long, dark, winding alleyway. Luckily, many of the Riad managers will come to meet you in the main square to show you the way.

Hotels and Resorts

First of all, there aren’t any resorts in the Medina. Some are just to the west of the old town, while others are in the palm tree-filled Palmeraie region to the northeast of town. As mentioned before, many of these are all-inclusive. They start at around $50 a night and go up to well over $1000. If you have the budget for it, the higher-end resorts offer quite a luxurious experience.

I had a chance to visit the Mandarin Oriental Resort and Spa and saw one of their pool villas. The self-contained villa includes a large private swimming pool and jacuzzi surrounded by a kitchen, lounge room, master bedroom, massive bathroom with hot tub and sauna, dining room, and even a separate house with a double bedroom and bathroom for the kids! But that’s nearly $1000 a night.

Mandarin Oriental Marrakech Villa Bedroom

Transportation

Getting around Marrakech can be a very difficult challenge and just might be where you end up spending the most money while you’re in town! Public buses don’t always show up on Google Maps, taxis very rarely follow the law and use the meter honestly, and walking around the Medina can get you lost in a heartbeat. Here are some tricks to keep yourself oriented and save money.

Buses

Outside of the Medina, I would always recommend using the city buses…if you can find the right one. They cost a paltry 4 dirham, which is about $0.42. There’s a good network of them around the city. Bus 19 from the airport (which is only about 15 minutes from the Medina) costs 30 dirhams. Some of the buses do show up on Google Maps. For the rest, you can use the interactive map here.

Several locals tried to dissuade me from taking the buses. They told me the buses would be overcrowded and wouldn’t take me to where I wanted to go. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Google Maps told me that there were four buses from the main square to the train station. I jumped on the first to arrive. There were only two other people on the bus. Sure, it looked like a 1960’s relic, but it got me to where I needed to go when a taxi would have charged me twenty times the price or more.

Marrakech Bus

Taxis

Speaking of taxis, that’s the next option, although I can’t call it a budget option. If you look at the official city websites, they will tell you that there are two taxis available: Petit Taxis and Grand Taxis, both yellow. Legally, they are supposed to use the meter, which would probably cost about $1-5 for a 15-minute trip. In my 12 days in Marrakech, I didn’t succeed in getting a single taxi to agree to use the meter!

I have a confession. I actually only used one taxi in all the time I was in Marrakech. A couple times I helped a friend get a taxi, and I talked to several to see how much they would charge me. The one I did take was back from the Movenpick Hotel to the city center, and we got a deal of 100 dirhams ($10.50) for 8 people. On the other hand, I heard several stories of friends getting charged as much as 350 dirhams ($37) for the 15-minute ride from the airport.

The biggest tip I can give for getting a taxi in Marrakech is to avoid picking one up at the Medina or airport. Walk a couple streets away from either and there should be a higher chance of finding a taxi that will agree to use the meter, or at least give you a price which isn’t ridiculous. Marrakech isn’t like Rabat, where you can actually get taxis (the white one) for 5 dirhams per ride.

Walking

The best way to get around Marrakech is simply by walking. Unless you’re staying in a resort far from the city center, there are few places that you’ll need to get to that aren’t in walking distance. Even the airport and bus station are less than an hour’s walk from the city center, although I know that’s a bit much for most people.

When it comes to getting around the Medina, walking really is the only option. Taxis can’t navigate the small streets. Motorcycles can, but unless you have a friend who will give you a ride, you’re not likely to find a motorcycle taxi service. Navigating through the endless maze of the Medina is a challenge, especially if you’re trying to find a particular store or Riad. While not everyone seems to have your best interest at heart, I actually got a lot of help from the locals who gave me directions. Don’t be afraid to ask, but keep your Google Maps handy, if only to verify which direction you’re walking.

Marrakech Medina Street

Some of the Riads I visited had more detailed maps than Google Maps provided. They still didn’t show nearly all the small streets and alleyways of the Medina, but they do help. See if you can get your hands on one, especially if you plan to explore the Medina in depth.

Rental Car

Renting a car might also be a budget option (especially compared to the price of some of the tours in Morocco). It’s not something I looked into personally when I was there, but if this is something you’d prefer, check out this guide for driving in Morocco.

Food

Years ago, my sister brought me to a Moroccan restaurant in Portland, Oregon, ironically called Marrakesh. It was one of my favorite restaurants in the US, and thus I fell in love with Moroccan cuisine. It’s rare that a country’s cuisine tastes better outside its place of origin. Moroccan food is no exception. By the end of my stay there, I felt like an absolute glutton.

Street Food

Within the Medina, there are dozens of street vendors selling pastries, kebabs, soups and such. I sampled several items, although many times I had no idea what it was I ate! On my first night, I had a couple of triangular savory pastries I thought were samosas, but they tasted fishy (like fish, not questionable). I think I got two of them for 12 dirhams ($1.30). Another time, a tour guide purchased a bowl of soup for me from a vendor. I was told it was harira, but it didn’t look like any of the photos I’d seen of the traditional chickpea soup. It tasted like hummus submerged in argon oil. Served with a fresh loaf of bread, it was delicious.

Marrakech Street Food

I’m certainly no expert on the street food of Marrakech. I definitely recommend trying it, but perhaps grab a local to show you around and direct you to which meals to try. However you choose, it will be your cheapest option for eating.

Cafes

My favorite food in Marrakech was at the plethora of small cafes around the city. The food they offered was usually of surprisingly good quality, and a full meal could often be purchased for only $3-4.  As usual, the cafes are more expensive closer to the main square or the more “touristy” they look. Head for the smaller streets to find better and cheaper options.

My “go-to” cafe for the latter half of my visit to Marrakech was Roti D’or, just around the corner from my Bed Square hostel. It’s a family-run shop offering a handful of different options. The menu is separated into different cuisines – local, Latin, oriental and burgers, all with a local twist. Over the course of a week, I tried the chicken chawarma wrap (twice), the quesadilla, and the double burger. It was often hard to find a seat at a table…always a good indicator. The ingredients tasted fresh, the flavor was wonderful and the portions were large – all served with a side of skinny fries.

There’s another cafe I found with a fellow blogger, almost by accident. Within the warren of streets north of the main square is a veritable hole in the wall called Naima Couscous. As you might have guessed, they serve couscous. Chicken couscous to be specific, and that’s all! It’s three elderly ladies who prepare and serve the meal as an endless chain while they’re open. The meal started off with the usual mint tea, although theirs was anything but usual. After all the too sweet or too bitter teas I’d had in Morocco, it was almost a shock to find one that was just right. The bowl of couscous and vegetables was enough for four people. We barely made it through half of it before we capitulated. After a couple more cups of tea, one of the ladies brought us dessert – a choice of baklava pieces she had in the fridge. The price was a little high – 200 dirhams – but that would have been fine if split four or five ways.

Restaurants

This probably doesn’t fit your lifestyle as a backpacker, but if you’re looking for something a bit fancier, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from. They’re not going to be kind to your wallet, but the experience will probably be unforgettable if you find a good one. Here are a couple that I had the pleasure to eat at while in Marrakech.

My first indulgence was at Restaurant Dar Zellij. Located one mile north of the main square, this hidden gem serves some fantastic dishes. The Trablin International Summit welcome dinner was held there. It wasn’t dinner, strictly speaking. Instead, a constant stream of waiters brought dish after dish around the gathering. I honestly didn’t know what half the dishes were, but all of them were special. Morocco really does love their spices, and Dar Zellij used them to the full. Throughout the dinner, we had several different entertainment shows. I didn’t know the names of half the dances, and I was surprised there wasn’t a belly dance (I guess that’s only in American-Moroccan restaurants) but we did get to watch women balancing candle trays on their heads while dancing. At the end of the evening, we were brought into a separate room where they had an epic dessert display. Morocco certainly knows how to make sweets!

Then there was the Mes’Lalla restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Resort. I was invited to have a meal at Mes’Lalla after missing the Trablin speakers’ dinner there (I was still on my African desert safari). The restaurant is beautifully decorated with Berber styles everywhere, while books and ancient artifacts line the walls. My first course was a cream of celery soup, garnished with smoked salmon. This was followed by a selection of six different Moroccan salads, (Peppers Taktouka, M’charmel carrots marinated with Atlas spices, M’aslaa tomato with Saffron from Taliouine, Seasoned eggplant Zaalouk, Beetroot and Granny Smith apple, Cherry tomato and pickled onion with cumin). The main course was lamb tajine with prunes and caramelized almonds. That was as good as it sounds. Finally I had dessert: almond mhancha, a Moroccan almond pastry coiled like a snake and topped with ice cream and an orange blossom. If that’s not decadent, I don’t know what is. Honestly, I don’t even know how I made it through all that food, except that it was so good I would never have been able to stop myself.

Activities

Marrakech is a city absolutely full of attractions. It’s also full of tourists. Perhaps too much so. Personally, I would recommend getting out of Marrakech to see one of the other cities – Rabat, Tangier, Fez or Casablanca. Then there’s Chefchaouen – the blue city. A trip to Merzouga for an African desert safari is an absolute must if you’re visiting Morocco. Unfortunately, all those locations are several hours away from Marrakech and not feasible as a day trip. So if you just have a day or two to explore the city, here are some of the highlights.

The Medina

In northern Africa, the walled old town of a city is called the Medina. Also, the fortress (usually within the Medina) is called the Kasbah. The Medina in Marrakech dates back nearly 1000 years, Walking around the endless maze of streets, you certainly get the feeling that the place is ancient. Crumbled ruins are everywhere, with slightly more modern ruins piled on top of them. Hardly anything in the Medina could be referred to as “modern,” at least until you walk into one of the Riads or fancy restaurants.

The highlight of the Medina is the souk, or market. While it might seem like one continuous market, there are actually dozens of souks, although I have no idea how to tell where one ends and the next one begins. Many have different items they focus on, such as the dyeing souk, the metalsmith souk and the jewelry souk. The rest seem to feature the same general wares and spices.

One of my favorite shops within the Medina was the Herboriste la Sagesse, an herbalist shop a few minutes north of the main square. They have a list of certificates from the government showing that they are a genuine herbalist, and the number of herbs and oils they have available is staggering. The clerk gave a full indoctrination of Moroccan herbs to fellow bloggers and me. Two that were most interesting to me were eucalyptus crystals which could be liquefied in hot water and sniffed to completely open the sinuses, and nigella (black seed) which is the miracle herb of Morocco. I ended up purchasing both, although I’m still researching nigella to ensure it doesn’t have any harmful or drug-related properties.

One thing to keep in mind is limiting your photography. Many places will get upset if you take photos of their wares or artwork (which isn’t unusual). If you take photos of any of the workers, whether it’s the dyers, the metalsmiths or the ladies grinding nuts for argan oil, you’ll be expected to tip them and they can get quite nasty if you don’t.

The Secret Garden

One of the more impressive attractions within the Medina is the Secret Garden, Dating back to the 1600s, this garden is a hidden gem, and really does seem out of place in Marrakech. The gardens were renovated in the past century and now offer a beautiful respite from the hecticness of the Medina. Tickets to the gardens are 50 dirhams ($5.25), but I’d recommend paying an additional 30 dirhams to climb the tower over the gardens for the best photos.

Bahia Palace

Bahia Palace is a rather new addition to Marrakech. Built in the 19th century, it was one of the more beautiful palaces in Morocco. The Grand Vizier of Marrakesh, Si Ahmed ben Musa (Bou-Ahmed) built the palace for his four wives and twenty-four concubines, not to mention all the children. As such, he wanted a bit of privacy and built the palace with numerous doors which prevented anyone from being able to see in.

Entrance to the palace is 70 dirhams. The website says it’s only 10, but that’s only for the locals. You can give yourself a self-guided tour, or go in as part of a guided tour. I would recommend the guided tour as there are no information panels and you’d miss all the history and stories behind the beautiful architecture and artwork.

Saadiens Tombs in the Kasbah

This is actually the one key attraction in Marrakech I didn’t make it into. It was part of my walking tour, but there was a confusion about the entry costs to the different attractions and we ended up skipping this one. I only bring it up as it was important enough to be one of the three attractions on our walking tour. I’ll be sure to visit the next time I’m in Marrakech. Tickets are 70 dirhams (again, 10 for locals).

Marrakech Kasbah

Essaouira

Essaouira is actually a coastal town about three hours away from Marrakech, but it’s accessible as a one-day excursion. I would say Essaouira is the perfect counterpoint to Marrakech. While beautiful and old, it doesn’t have the over-crowded Medina, the crazy souks or the mass-tourism feel. It’s also the location for a key Game of Thrones scene, and Jimi Hendricks made it his home. The tours are as little as $25 (which just covers the van to and from Essaouira), which I’d consider a great deal. Essaouira is a must if you’re visiting Marrakech.

Essaouira Boats

Read my full article on A Day Trip to the Coastal Town of Essaouira, Morocco.

Summary

There a ton more I could say about Marrakech, but to keep this from becoming a full-length e-book, I will publish the rest of the information as separate articles. There are a couple key points which I will expound upon in those articles, such as how safe Marrakech is, some of the fantastic meals to try, tricks for navigating through the souks and how to avoid the scams (perhaps a little in contrast to how safe it is).

In a nutshell, I really liked Marrakech, but I didn’t love it. It was a little too crowded, too touristy, too scammy and too dirty. I preferred other Moroccan towns I visited (what little I saw of them), and I found Morocco as a whole to be completely enchanting…mainly due to that incredible African desert safari. I certainly can’t wait to get back to Morocco and explore all the other cities I missed, eat some more of the delicious food and hopefully have a repeat of the desert safari.

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Further Reading

Headed to Morocco? Here are my other articles about my first 12-day adventure in the country.

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

Cover Photo Credit: Luis Martin Castell

Of all the excursions available from Marrakech in Morocco, I’d recommend the African desert safari above all others. You probably think of lions and giraffes when I mention an African desert safari. Those are popular…in the southern part of Africa. The Sahara is in the north. What can you do in a giant desert? For starters, have the best day of your life.

Traveling to the Merzouga Luxury Desert Camps

As part of my Trablin International Summit in Marrakech, I was selected to be part of an African Desert Safari. I didn’t have much time to research exactly what it entailed. As such, I was in for a wonderful surprise and endless fun.

I had the pleasure of traveling with a group of other bloggers, including Gloria of TheBlogAbroad.com, Megan of MeganSnedden.com, another Megan of BohemianTrails.com, Kevin and Kelly of TheAwkwardTourist.com, Instagrammers WesMaja, and Sandra, not to mention Trablin’s video team and the photographer Luis. Together, we formed one hell of an awesome tribe and ended up hanging together through much of the conference.

African Desert Safari Group

At the outset, we knew we had quite a bit of driving to get out to the desert, but I don’t think any of us really understood just how long it would take. We met in the big square of Marrakech at 7 a.m. where a van was ready to pick us up. It’s a 10-hour drive to Merzouga from Marrakech, but neither the driver no any of us wanted to go flat out. We made several stops along the way at various cafes, gas stations and shops for toilet breaks, as well as a restaurant for lunch. The first shop they took us to had a large variety of foodstuffs and sweets at great prices. I stocked up on a full bag of goodies that I could snack on throughout the whole trip.

African Desert Safari Snacks

The lunch spot we were brought to had a fairly limited menu and wasn’t that cheap ($10 for a meal), but the location was nice. We ate on a rooftop terrace looking out into the Atlas mountains. With one of the Megans, I split a meal of a mushroom omelet and kafte tajine. I was to get very familiar with both dishes throughout my stay in Morocco, along with all the rest of the delicious food in the Moroccan cuisine.

African Desert Safari Lunch

With all our stops, we tacked on another three hours onto our trip. By the time we arrived at the camp, it was long past sunset. We were shown our respective tents (each with only two or three beds), dropped off our bags and made our way to the dinner tent for our first meal in the desert.

Glamping in the Desert

I’m kinda glad I didn’t do my research before the tour. The unknown led to the camp being all the more special. There are many camps around Merzouga. Our was the Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp, one of the first to be set up. They have two camps, ours and a smaller one for more private groups. We had 14 sleeping tents, plus a large dining tent. Most of the tents were arranged around a large fire pit…which we sadly missed out on as it was raining with strong winds each night we were at the camp.

African Desert Safari Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp

The sleeping tents were a wonder. Made with thick canvas, they kept us warm and dry; it got down near freezing at nights as we were there in November. The tents were also equipped with air conditioners for the summer. The beds were deep and soft with thick pillows. I slept like a baby…when I was actually in bed; I spent most of the night either working or hoping to get a glimpse of the Milky Way between the clouds.

African Desert Safari Bedroom

Within the tent and separated by a thick curtain was a full bathroom – a modern toilet (instead of a squat toilet), sink and shower. The camp had hot water, but it rotated between the tents on a timer…which I didn’t learn until the last day. My first shower was deliciously hot; I braved freezing water in my subsequent showers. I’ve heard other desert camps provide accommodations similar to the nomadic desert life – a small tent with half a dozen people sleeping on rugs and an outhouse available.

African Desert Safari Bathroom

The dining tent was quite large.  There were enough seats available for everyone in the camp to eat together at the same time. Breakfast for us was served around 9 am and consisted of pastries, various jams, and omelets in tajine bowls. Coffee and fresh juices (orange and strawberry) were brought for anyone who wanted them. Lunch was several different Moroccan salads (none of which have lettuce), kafte (Moroccan meatball) tajine and chicken skewers, served around 2 p.m. after we got back from our 4×4 ride around the desert.

Dinner was even more elaborate. On the first night, we had a vegetable soup, something like butternut (probably not that). This was followed with a couple different types of pasta, and beef and vegetable tajines. It was easy to tell how fresh the ingredients were. I used to eat at a Moroccan restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Since that time, I considered Moroccan food as one of my favorite cuisines, but I now know that that restaurant had nothing on real Moroccan dishes, especially those prepared out in the desert! Following our dinners, we had musical performances by the staff. On the second day, it was the chef himself who led everyone in a series of African songs.

Sunrise on the Sand Dunes

Sunrise was scheduled for 7:45. Even though I didn’t get to sleep until around 3, I had my alarm set for 7 a.m. Emerging from my tent, I saw a group already on one of the sand dunes. I set out to join them, not realizing how deceptively far they were, nor how hard running across the sand dunes would be. It was actually another group that had been staying at the camps, and they’d gotten up early for a camel ride out to the highest dune in the area. It took me nearly 15 minutes of running to make it up to them.

Sadly, our entire journey was plagued with overcast skies. Sunrise was no different. I set up the tripod to get a timelapse of the sunrise, focusing on the pink glow on the horizon. A few minutes later, the glow disappeared and the guide led the other ladies back to their camels. That was it! Twenty minutes compressed into a few seconds just shows the pink glow on the horizon and the clouds moving by. At least the view from the dune was beautiful. I’ve seen photos of the sunrise and it can be really stunning, but unfortunately the weather in Morocco in November is hit or miss.

A 4×4 Excursion to the Berbers and a Lake

Soon after we finished breakfast, we were all ushered to a group of 4x4s waiting to take us on a tour of the desert. Gloria, Kevin, Kelly and I lucked out with a driver who seemed to think he was in a race. He constantly tried to pass up the other 4x4s, cutting them off more than once and going dangerously fast across the sands. In a nutshell, it was an absolute blast and we couldn’t laugh hard enough.

Our first stop was a rocky lookout in the hills with the Algerian border clearly visible. A few nomads were selling trinkets, but I hadn’t brought any money with me. I actually had even more fun taking photos of the other bloggers taking photos (which I’m rather famous for doing). Luis was particularly interesting, posing with his foot for me.

African Desert Safari View

Our next stop was a deserted Berber settlement and a newer camp where a family lived. I asked our driver how old the settlement was, as the buildings were completely dilapidated and half blown away. I figured they’d been there for a couple centuries, so I was rather surprised when he said about twenty years!

African Desert Safari Settlement Ruins

The Berber camp nearby quite possibly had been set up just for us. There were a few tents, one for cooking, another for general tasks, a third with a row of beds and a bigger tent where the mother held a newborn child. A young girl, perhaps 5 years old, played about the camp. When she saw me, she ran straight over and jumped on my back, laughing as I gave her a ride for a few minutes. After I put her down, we were all invited to a tea with her dad. I only wish the tour had told us we would have these excursions so I could have brought some money to tip the family.

Finally, we went to visit a huge seasonal lake. It’s shallow and only forms in the fall and winter months. It doesn’t even show up on Google Maps satellite imagery. Our 4x4s brought us to the edge of the lake for some photos. I didn’t hesitate to take my shoes and socks off so I could walk out into the water. No vegetation or mud underfoot – it really was just a temporary lake on the desert sands.

Camels for Sunset and a Magic Carpet Ride

We had a few hours between lunch and our next activity. I probably should have taken a nap, but I ended up going with several of the others to get photos in the dunes with the camels that had been brought near the camp. This is when I discovered that at some point, my Samsung S8 phone updated with Super Slo-Mo mode for the camera. I had a lot of fun with this, getting videos of throwing sand up in the air and jumping about. In a nutshell, we were like kids out there. Perhaps the best video I saw was Wes slowly walking into the frame looking at his phone with a camel in tow.

Around 5 p.m., we all gathered for our sunset ride. We were each assigned a camel and helped on. You have to mount a camel when it’s sitting, and it can be a bit unnerving for some when the camel stands up beneath you. We didn’t go far with the camels (maybe 20 minutes) before we dismounted and then climbed to the top of a tall dune. Some of the girls were struggling with the climb. Sandra was the luckiest, as I gave her the piggyback ride to the top…even though my legs hated me for it.

Selfie on the African Desert Safari

Sadly, the clouds continued to prevent us from getting good photos. The scenery was beautiful. but it wasn’t a sunset. Instead, we spent some time on the dune just having fun. I got a bit silly when I asked them to make a video of me as I threw myself off the top of the sand dune and tumbled down to the bottom. I had no idea how much the sand would hurt! Later on, the camp attendants created a crazy fun activity for us. Using one of the blankets that a blogger had brought, they created a magic carpet ride down the side of the sand dune! Now if that’s not your quintessential African desert safari activity, I don’t know what is.

African Desert Safari Magic Carpet Ride

The Milky Way Behind the Clouds

After our wonderful dinner which included the musical performance led by the camp chef, some of us went out to get photos of the Milky Way. Or at least that was our plan. The clouds were still about, and it was raining off an on too. I had no delusions that I’d be able to get any decent long-exposure photos of the starscape with my Samsung S8, but I tried anyway. Nada. Some of the other bloggers did get some nice shots when some of the stars peeked out between the clouds.

If it hadn’t been cloudy, the Milky Way would have been stunning. There’s no light pollution for hundreds of miles around, and the air is very dry which makes it even more clear. Sadly, we were told that both the day before we arrived and the day after we left had clear night skies. C’est la vie. I’ll just have to take another desert safari someday in one of the nine African deserts someday.

Visiting Yunkai City from Game of Thrones

All too soon, our safari was over and we were on our 10-hour bus ride back toward Marrakech…which ended up being 14 hours due to our stops. A couple of them were for the toilet, but around 3 p.m. we stopped at Aït Benhaddou.

Although I could have sworn the location must have been built in antiquity, Aït Benhaddou doesn’t date back more than a couple hundred years. As mentioned earlier, houses made from clay, hay and water don’t last a long time. Even buildings in this village must be maintained for appearance sake, as they have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. While the location is really interesting, it’s the movies which make it even more famous. To date, 20 have been filmed here including The Mummy, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven and Prince of Persia. You might also recognize it as the Yunkai City in Game of Thrones.

Aït Benhaddou

Booking with Merzouga Luxury Desert Camps

The Merzouga Luxury Desert Camps offer several different packages, depending on your budget and choice of activities. There are also separate tours leaving from Marrakech, but these don’t include the price of the camps. They’re just transportation out to Merzouga, and then you have to book your camp separately (which is an option).

Click here to book your African Desert Safari with Merzouga Luxury Desert Camps

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Further Reading

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

Photo Credit for all photos of me: Luis Martin Castell

When I booked a tour to Essaouira in Morocco, I’m ashamed to say that I actually knew nothing about it or if there was anything special. Well, let me tell you there certainly is lots to see there.

Morocco is my 47th country, but actually my first country in Africa! After a long adventure flying into Rabat and getting a bus down to Marrakech, I was ready to start my first tour with the Trablin International Summit. Well, maybe I wasn’t fully ready since I didn’t get to bed until after 5 a.m. and the tour guide was at the hostel at 8 a.m. to pick me up. Luckily it was a three-hour ride to Essaouira and I was able to nap a bit on the bus.

The Road to Essaouira

When I say a bit, I mean a very wee bit. It’s hard to sleep when you’re experiencing a new country (and continent) for the first time, taking in the landscape and different architecture. Our first stop was about an hour outside of Marrakech. It was a roadside cafe where we could get some food and coffee, since most of us hadn’t had breakfast, and use the toilet. I went with a fresh-pressed orange juice and some bread and butter. Not much of a meal, but I was still too groggy to really eat anything.

An hour later, I awoke to the sound of other bloggers exclaiming in surprise at something on the side of the road. I quickly found what the excitement was about. On the side of the road was a large argan tree full of goats. Yep, the Argan tree is a staple of the Moroccan goat’s diet. They spent several hours of their day up in the trees eating the fruit and Argan nuts. I honestly thought the goatherders lifted the goats into the tree. Nope, they climb up themselves. However, the goatherders are there to collect money for your photographs, so bring some change with you. 10-20 Moroccan dirhams ($1-2) is acceptable. They’ll also try to put a baby goat in your arms, which I thought was adorable, but they’ll want more money for that.

Argon Tree with Goats

Our last stop on the road to Essaouira was an argan oil facility. As we entered, there was a row of elderly women working at cracking open the Argan shells and grinding the nuts using hand-operated grinders. There are now processing plants with machinery doing this work, but you’ll still see these ladies all over the country operating their grinders. After some photos of the ladies, we were given a tour of the facility and all the different products they create from the Argan tree. Not only do they get the oil (both cooking and cosmetic), argan paste (think peanut butter) and fuel lumps from the nuts, they also harvest argan honey from the flowers. I would have loved to get some of the cosmetic oil or soaps, but my budget is tight and my baggage even tighter.

The History of Essaouira

Essaouira is a town on the Moroccan coast about two and a half hours west from Marrakech, four and a half hours southwest of Casablanca and north of Taghazout. With a population of just under 80,000, it’s a beautiful town to visit. Unlike Marrakech, it’s mostly unaffected by mass tourism, or so it seemed on my trip in November.

The origin of Essaouira dates back into prehistoric times. Carthaginian traders set up a market there in the 6th century BC. It’s been controlled by several countries and empires over the years, including the Romans, Portuguese and French. The Jewish community was also very large in Essaouira, at one point comprising 40% of the total population.

The name Essaouira refers to the fortress wall surrounding the town, which is the town’s most prominent feature. A Medina is the walled Old Town in a North African city, but Essaouira has long since outgrown its Medina and now there’s a large new town spreading inland from the coast. It’s definitely the Medina where you’ll want to explore.

Essaouira Medina Wall

Exploring the Essaouira Medina

Our tour arrived at the edge of Essaouira’s Medina a little after noon. Expecting our tour to be an actual tour, we were all a little surprised when the driver had us get off the van and told us he would meet us back at the van at 5 p.m. It seems the tour only includes transportation, and the rest of the exploration was up to us. I was more than happy with that, turning town the locals who offered to give us a private tour of the town for $10 per person.

Our first spectacle was a large demonstration or protest that was going on in the main square. I asked a few of the cops and military men in the square what was happening, but their English wasn’t good and all I gathered was that it was some kind of peaceful protest regarding human rights. It was mostly in French, so we soon moved on and started to explore the souks.

Essaouira Protest

A souk, for those who don’t know, is an Arabian market, similar to a bazaar. Unlike the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul which is a sprawling complex of shops within one venue, the souks in Morocco are endless alleyways filled shops and stands selling everything imaginable. Clothes, spices and artwork were most prominent. I was particularly impressed by the artwork and different sculptures, many of which were made from recycled motorcycle and bicycle chains.

We were all pretty hungry, and it wasn’t long before I led the group down a side alley in search of a local place to eat. We found one quickly. It wasn’t particularly clean and stray cats were everywhere (one jumped onto the lap of a fellow blogger) but the food was cheap and the place was full of locals, which is always a good sign for authentic cuisine. As this was my first real meal in Morocco, I went for one of my favorites – lamb couscous. There wasn’t as much lamb as I would have liked, but the food was delicious. More than once, I’d eaten at a Moroccan restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Ever since, I’ve dreamed of having the real stuff in Morocco. The restaurant in Portland had been really good, but our hole-in-the-wall cafe in Essaouira was better.

Essaouira Lamb Couscous

From there, we went our separate ways to explore the town. I branched off toward the new town to see the difference. It was startling! Ancient narrow alleys and buildings gave way to modern streets and architecture. It didn’t appeal to me, so I looped back toward the harbor and fortress walls.

The harbor is full of beautiful blue fishing boats. Larger vessels have been hauled out of the water and are displayed like museum pieces. Beneath the vessels are fishermen selling fresh fish and eels from their (hopefully) day’s catch. I followed the harbor around to the end of the breakwater and then jumped over the wall to where the water was crashing against the rocks, sending huge waves over the wall. There are several small islands a little way out to sea, protecting the harbor from the even rougher surf. On one of the islands was an (assumingly) ancient fortress. I was starting to wish I had a guide to actually tell me what I was looking at, how old things were and what to see next.

Essaouira Harbor

With little more than an hour left to explore, I went back into the Medina, intending to get as deep as I could. Within a few minutes, I ran into Luis, the official photographer of the Trablin event. We’d worked with each other at the Iceland conference, and he knew I was quite adept for finding good photo locations. As we continued to explore, the streets got less busy and the shops were fewer and more unique. One was an art workshop with an awesome sign created from different tools within the shop. Luis found a tailor that would make him custom suits for $20. And I found an alley beautifully decorated with blue paint, similar to the blue-painted town of Chefchaouen. I’ll have to get out to that place someday for sure!

Toward the back of the town, we found a hotel with a rooftop terrace. I walked right in, said hello to the desk clerk and climbed the stairs up to the terrace. From there, we had a great view of the town and the surrounding sea. We couldn’t actually see down into the narrow streets, but we got an idea of how the town was laid out, and we were transfixed by the waves breaking against the little islets.

From there, we found the far point of the wall where a fortification was built out toward the sea. We walked along the ramparts, getting photos of the dozens of cannons lining the wall. It was a beautiful, warm day and we were starting to lose track of time. By the time we had taken our fill of photos, it was nearly 5 p.m. and we had to hustle back to the van.

Booking with Time Out Marrakech Tours

Our tour (or rather transportation) was provided by Time Out Marrakech Tours. Tickets are $33 per person, which doesn’t include anything but the transport. Unless you eat at a fancy restaurant, pay for a guide and buy a bunch of souvenirs, you can get by on about $10 for the day. If you do want to get fancier, $30 will be more realistic.

Click here to book your tour of Essaouira

Four and a half hours of exploration was enough, although I would have been just as happy spending a couple days there, sleeping at one of the gorgeous hotels. After all, this is where Orson Welles filmed his movie, Othello. Other greats like Winston Churchill and Jimi Hendrik also spent time walking through the alleys of Essaouira, taking in the fresh sea breeze and admiring the artwork and architecture of this ancient village. Oh, and this was also the filming location for Astapor in Game of Thrones! I didn’t actually realize that while I was there.

If you’re planning to stay longer in Essaouira and need accommodations, consider booking through Booking.comAgoda or Airbnb and give me a small commission in the process.

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Further Reading

Headed to Morocco? Here are my other articles about my first 12-day adventure in the country.

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.

I figured I’d tell my story about getting into Morocco, my first country in Africa. Perhaps it’s not the best guide, but it gives an idea of what to expect, how cheap it can be, what to avoid and a few tips.

Finding a Plane Ticket to Morocco

If you have unlimited funds to throw around, you can probably buy your ticket from wherever you are to Marrakech or whichever city you want to visit in Morocco. That’s not the case for me. Utilizing my steps for finding cheap flights, I searched Skyscanner to find what the cheapest flights were from anywhere in the UK to anywhere in Morocco in the month of November and then narrowed down the dates for the Trablin conference I was planning to attend. The conference was in Marrakech from November 10th to the 17th. I ended up finding a round-trip flight from London to Rabat with Ryanair for $68, plus another $15 under the new cabin baggage fees.

Budget airlines are a great way to travel around Europe, but they’re finding ways to not be so budget friendly. For one thing, baggage restrictions keep getting tighter. Ryanair used to allow two free cabin bags, one that would fit into the overhead and the other under the seat in front of you. As of November 1st, 2018, they’re charging $7.50 for the overhead baggage (my Osprey Farpoint 40 is about as big as you can take). The free carry-on for under the seat must be the size of a small backpack or handbag. Basically, it sucks! With the paid baggage, you get priority check-in, which means the priority line is now several times longer than non-priority! Um…

Getting from Rabat to Marrakech

After I booked my plane ticket, I started looking at how I would get from Rabat to Marrakech. Talk about doing things in the wrong sequence! After a bit of searching, I found ONCF, the website for all the trains in Morocco. Unfortunately, the last train from Rabat to Marrakech was leaving at 8 p.m., about the same time my flight was scheduled to arrive. The next train was at 5:15 in the morning, which would get me into Marrakech after my first tour started.

Finding long-distance buses on Google Maps doesn’t really work. It took me some time, but I finally found the website Lagare.ma which listed all the buses. They were leaving every few minutes, so I didn’t really have anything to worry about. They were also cheap, about $8-10 each.

Arriving in Morocco

Unsurprising for Ryanair, my flight was delayed and arrived in Rabat half an hour later than scheduled. I had napped on the flight and must have missed the announcement to fill out to the entry card, so I was sent back to do this when I made it to the immigration window, adding another few minutes to my schedule. Anyone coming in from the US or UK definitely has to fill out the card, which is at the beginning of the immigration queue.

Rabat Airport

Once in the lobby of the airport, I did one of the first two actions to take in a new country. I went straight to the ATM to withdraw some cash. I had already checked XE.com to find the exchange rates (Morocco is about 10 Moroccan MAD to $1.05 currently). It’s always good to take out just enough for the whole trip, as ATMs around the world charge per transaction, although my Schwab Debit Card refunds this charge every month. The second action I should have done was purchase a SIM card, but I didn’t see any stands in the airport and I wanted to get into town and on my bus as soon as possible.

Rule #1 for saving money at an airport – ignore the taxis and find the local transport. Wiki Travel has a page for every city in the world, and it usually gives the cheapest way from the airport into town. In Rabat, this was a bus for 20 MAD ($2.10). It left a few minutes after I got outside, and 20 minutes later I was in the center of town.

The airport bus dropped me off outside the train station, which would have been perfect if there had been a train I could take. I even went to check at the station to see if there was one, but it clearly said the next train to Marrakech was at 5:15 the following morning. I asked the ticket manager where the bus station was, and he directed me on the map, saying I would need a taxi to get there as the bus station is almost outside of town.

I went outside to get my taxi and was immediately quoted 50 MAD (Moroccan dirham). I knew this was a ridiculous price for a 10-minute trip but only managed to haggle it down to 40. I probably could have walked a couple streets from the train station and gotten a better fare, but it was really starting to get late and I wanted at least a little sleep.

As soon as I arrived at the bus station, I was accosted by several men trying to sell me a bus ticket. I was expecting this and walked through them to the ticket counters. I recognize one company, CTM, but their windows were closed. Only one window was labeled for Marrakech, and I got a bus ticket there for 80 MAD, which I knew from the Lagare website was one of the cheaper options.

Oops! In Morocco, as with nearly everywhere else, cheap means cheap. My bus was absolutely packed and had no amenities – no toilet, air conditioning, WiFi or anything else. But that wasn’t what really sucked. What should have been a 2.5 hour trip to Marrakech ended up taking nearly 6 hours! The bus stopped several times along the way, and sometimes for half an hour at a time. At one point, I saw the luxury CTM bus pass us by, clearly labeled with the full range of amenities. I could have cried.

Arriving in Marrakech

At 3 a.m., I awoke as we pulled into a bus depot. It was nearly abandoned, but the guy in the seat next to me said it was Marrakech as he got off the bus. I disembarked and immediately started to get worried. There was nothing around. Not only were there no taxis waiting, there weren’t any buildings to be seen either. It seemed I was still out in the desert somewhere. I was really starting to regret not getting my SIM card.

After a few minutes of wandering around trying to figure out what to do, the bus driver found me and pointed at the bus, saying Marrakech. Seemed we still had one more stop. Thank god! Ten minutes later, we pulled into a bus station near the center of town. A passenger on the bus miraculously knew where my hostel was and was able to get a cab for me. Another 30 MAD and I was brought the last two miles to the entrance of the Kasbah. From there, it was a short walk through deserted alleyways to the Dream Kasbah Hostel.

Marrakech Kasbah at Night

I arrived at the front door at 3:30 a.m., glad I had received an email that I could check in at any time. I had specifically picked a hostel with a 24-hour reception…or so they said. For the next half an hour, I stood in the alley knocking at the door and pressing the buzzer until the receptionist groggily let me in. He took my passport (despite my feeble attempts to argue) and brought me to an empty bed, saying I could check in in the morning. I set my alarm for 7:30 to be ready for my tour at 8.

Less than three hours later, the receptionist was shaking me awake, saying the tour driver was waiting for me. What?! As it turns out, 2018 is the first year that Morocco isn’t observing daylight saving time, but Google and Android didn’t get the memo. My phone hadn’t automatically updated the time, and everything that had happened the previous night had really been an hour later. That meant I had actually gone to bed at 5:10 in the morning, and my 7:30 alarm wouldn’t go off until 8:30. Sixty seconds later, I had changed my shirt, grabbed my bag, collected my passport from the receptionist and run out the door for my tour to Essaouira.

Summary

All told, I spent 170 MAD (about $18) getting from Rabat to my hostel in Marrakech. That’s a lot less than I would have paid for a flight directly to Marrakech, and I’ve been told a taxi from the airport in Marrakech can be as much as $15 if you fall for a scam. I did get some sleep on the plane and the bus, plus a couple cat naps on the way out to Essaouira. Stressful? A little. Worth it? Hell yes! Morocco is my first country in Africa, and so far I’m absolutely loving it! Stay tuned for my story about Essaouira with Time Out Marrakech Tours, which I’ll try to get written while enjoying an  amazing luxury desert safari.

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Further Reading

Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.