Planning a visit to Morocco can be intimidating for anyone. Luckily for me, my friend who is practically a local was the chief architect of our adventures. We opted for a road trip with stops at various attractions between Marrakesh, Ouarzazate and Skoura in a private SUV with our driver and guide, Edouane. Specifically, we did not want to be the tourists that just check off boxes on an itinerary. We wanted to experience each place to the fullest and we accomplished that with our agenda.
Day 1: Marrakesh to Skoura
This was our longest driving day as it took over 5 hours at 30-40 miles per hour to our final destination over rocks, dirt paths and up and down windy mountain “roads”. This was not a car ride for folks with motion sickness, like myself. It was rough going and I was extremely happy when we finally arrived at Ouarzazate for a late lunch and a break from the car.
Along the way, we discovered a village nestled in the Atlas Mountains and watched an elderly woman carried foraged vegetables for her goats. This put me to shame as I usually take an elevator for 3 floors while this grandma trekked up a narrow path to her dwelling. The views from the car ride varied by the size of the rocks and random trees dotted along the road with small villages popping up in the arid environment; a far cry from the bustling Marrakesh. Discovering yellow cactus flowers sprouting randomly along the side of the road and sporadic fields of poppies made for an interesting juxtaposition between desert and life.
As the daily tropical rain started to pour in the early afternoon, we made it to Restaurant La Kasbah for a late lunch of delicious tagine, couscous and other traditional Moroccan dishes. Edoune picked this restaurant for us and it was surprisingly very good. I hesitated when I saw many foreigners in the restaurant as this had shades of a tourist trap. The cozy dining room filled with rugs and pillows beckoned us for nap; unfortunately, we still had a long drive from Ouarzazate to Skoura. As the image of old town Ouarzazate disappeared from the rear view mirror, we proceeded to the desert. First stop along the way was a cooperative that specializes in handmade linens and other textiles to support the local economy. It was educational to learn about the traditional embroidery techniques and to see the rainbow colors represented in the various offerings. We were not pressured to buy anything and the coop allowed us plenty of time to sift through numerous products. Eventually my friend selected some reasonably priced scarves for souvenirs.
Next we stopped at Fint Oasis for a 1-hour tour of the garden that miraculously cropped up in a dry and isolated area that was filled with lush palm groves, animals and village life. This area is composed of four traditional villages where donkeys still roam the streets freely. Interestingly, a number of Hollywood films including Babel, Prince of Persia and Kingdom of Heaven were shot in this area. Edouane had arranged for another local guide to walk us around the oasis. Lucky for us, the guide also invited our group into his small house. The joy of a baby goat poking his head beneath the door from one room to say hi and then his children playing around in the next room were eye opening. The gentleman was very proud to show his home to us and we felt privileged to be there.
As the sun started to set, we left for our hotel, Chez Talouet, situated on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere with sweeping views of the desert. There was something quite magical being the only few guests at this small inn. We had the inn to ourselves and ate dinner al fresco while the sun sets over the Moroccan desert. Life is good.
Day 2: Soul Cycle did not prepare me for biking in Skoura.
We started our day with a traditional Moroccan feast for breakfast that carried us over for our 11-mile bike ride around the palm groves and oasis of Skoura and Kasbah Ameridil. A traditional breakfast dish was Baghrir, pancakes made from semolina flour and accompanied by various jams and nut spreads. My favorite was the Msemen, a thin pan fried crepe that was crunchy and chewy at the same time topped with a drizzle of honey. It was so delicious!
Next we met our Skoura guide, Ismel, for the day. We were equipped with old but functional mountain bikes and proceeded to bike along the back roads to Kasbah Ameridil. My first hour was rough going. The “flat and easy” paths were filled with rocks and craters and they were also windy and narrow. It was very different from biking at Soul Cycle or on a boardwalk at a typical beach town. Even though I was precariously balanced on my bike, I challenged myself to get over my fear and ended up having a blast. I did fall off my bike a few times or walked my bike over sections that I found too difficult. In the end, I was rewarded with sweeping views of Kasbah Ameridil along the way.
Once we arrived at the Kasbah Ameridil, Ismel took us on a guided tour filled with history and interesting facts about the architecture and technology that filled the well preserved 17th century fortress. Ismel noted that this fortress also appears on Morocco’s 50-dirham note. After 2 hours at the kasbah with never ending views of the surrounding palmerie, we biked toward the groves along narrow paths to admire the variety of vegetation that the villagers grow to feed their family. It made me appreciate the luxury of supermarkets back in the city. As the afternoon black clouds rolled in, we rushed toward Ismel’s house to escape the downpour and to eat a late lunch. As it was Ramadan and many eateries were closed, we were delighted to have Ismel’s mom cook lamb tagine, Moroccan salad and cake for us. The best food is always mom’s home cooking!
After biking another 2 miles back to the town center, we dropped off our bikes and went back to our inn to rest. As the sun set over the desert, I could not help but appreciated how insignificant I am when compared to the vastness of this land.
Day 3: Val de Roses, Dade Gorge and Kasbah Telout
After another feast for breakfast, we made our way back to Marrakesh. The first stop was through a region called Val de Roses where all the roses are grown in Morocco. Most of roses are exported internationally. We stopped by another cooperative to do a short tour on rose oil extraction. Everything smelled wonderful, although, I do think this was a tourist trap. After, we drove up the Atlas Mountains to get a gorgeous view of the Dade Gorge. The weather had other ideas as it got progressively rainy, windy and cold. In the end, we stayed in the car while we had our friend run out in his shorts in 50 degrees F to take a picture.
After a brief stop for lunch, we headed to another remote area in the Atlas Mountains to visit Kasbah Telout, an 18th century fortress. This had to be my favorite stop of the road trip. Kasbah Telout is hard to get to without an SUV, thus most tours will pass by this gem. The intricate tiles were still intact while the hallways were in danger of crumbling down as we explored the fortress. More importantly, we were able to take our time to examine the murals without much disruption that was typical in Marrakesh. Our site guide was also mute so we attempted to understand him through hand gestures – another unforgettable moment on this trip.
As we made our way back to Marrakesh, I pondered on the contrast between the more affluent city dwellers and the very simple desert farmers. These folks live with their definition of comfort and their simple happiness. I appreciated that they can be content with so little, especially in our materialistic and over complicated world. Of all the places I visited in Morocco so far, this portion was my favorite and not to be missed.