It’s vibrant, stinky and beautiful. Its captivating and frustrating in equal measure. It’s also got a hell of a lot more to offer than souks and sand. For most, the mental image of Morocco is really an image of Marrakech, but the temperature and the people get a lot more pleasant outside of the biggest city. Here are my favourite spots from a one month driving tour around the land of mint tea, tagines and terrifying driving.
A hippies paradise, chilled out Essaouira definitely isn’t the tourist-free zone it once was, but if you like sea breezes and taking it so slow you’re barely moving, it’s the place for you. The hub of Essaouira is it’s seaside medina, and if you’ve been staying in a comparative firepit like Marrakech for a while a good slap to the face with a fishy gust of wind will do you no end of good. GOT fans can walk in the footsteps of the Mother of Dragons at the old ramparts, or you could spend your days bartering at the 1001 market stores. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that you don’t get verbally abused if you choose not to buy anything, and you may even find yourself purchasing a charming watercolour from a local artist who claims to know Cat Stevens (there really are a lot of hippies there). Those with a car can take a 20 minute drive out of town to check out south-west Morocco’s famous tree climbing goats, which are just as comical as they sound.
*side note – Essaouira has tried to market itself to the surfing crowd, and while the wind makes it a good spot for kitesurfers, those who like their water more blue than beige might be disappointed. Head to Taghazout if you want to hang 10.
In a country that’s often so hot it feels like your vital organs could melt out of any given orifice at any second, it’s a relief to find somewhere you can spend the whole day in the water and enjoy it. Morocco has countless beaches, but very few of them benefit from being clean enough to swim in without worrying you’re going to get tangled in fishing wire like an unfortunate seagull from a Greenpeace ad. Paradise Valley is a 20 minute drive from the small surf town of Taghazout, and it lives up to its name. Turquoise waters, private lagoons and cliff jumping spots to cater for all levels of insanity. There are multiple ways of getting there – some hostels in the area can take you out for the day, you can get a taxi where the drivers waits while you take a dip, although the best option is driving yourself. Pack a picnic and between the shuttle loads it’s likely you’ll have the place all to your little old self. Like the beaches, it’s not pristine, and if you come from a place where simply leaving an entire tagine at a waterhole isn’t commonplace, you might find it a little frustrating. The solution is to always take your own rubbish out, and if you can manage it, a bag of some other people’s rubbish too. Be the change you want to see and so on. Some people only do a day trip to Paradise Valley from a far away city, but I’d recommend booking a night in Taghazout to really make the most of it. It’s a tiny, colourful village where the water isn’t beige and the waves are surfable. Adventurekeys Hostel does a cracking breakfast and dinner, and does surf + yoga packages if you really want to zen the heck out.
Tizi n Test Pass
If you’ve been to Morocco and didn’t get hopelessly lost, did you really go? This rule applies to both the sprawling medinas and the roads throughout the country which do not correspond all that well with the easy-peasy instructions provided by Google maps. The Tizi n Test pass was the road we found ourselves on while lost on the way to Marrakech, and I don’t regret a second. The pass is a glittering example of Morocco’s highly unenthusiastic approach to health and safety. Overloaded trucks teeter along the edge of a 50 metre drop, the road is walled in some parts, in others it crumbled away some millenia ago and at certain corners the construction of life-preserving barriers was clearly just going to be too much hassle. Compete for road space with herds of goats that scamper to scale up the cliff face (watch your head, they might start a mini avalanche), and stop for tea at one of the cafés that looks like it’s balancing on the edge of the universe. If you have a crippling fear of heights, don’t worry, all that bile in your throat will disappear when you reach the next lookout. The view really is that good.
Ok, the water is brown, and the sign says no swimming, but that’s probably just the dirt at the bottom and since when does anyone in Morocco read signs. Multi-levelled and glorious, Cascade d’Ouzoud, or Ouzoud Falls to tourists, is quite the sight. It’s a short walk down a mud track to get there (don’t pay a guide to take you or park in a paid car park, you don’t need to) and it’s likely you’ll meet a few cheeky macaques (tail-less monkeys) on the way. Once at the bottom take a moment to enjoy the thundering rush of water before jumping in yourself. You can swim behind the falls, or pay a guy on a boat to take you if you really don’t like muddy water. Then sit back and watch the locals fling themselves from the highest point. Unlike Paradise Valley, the climb up to the jumping spots is extremely slippery, and probably only worth doing if you have toes like a macaque. Get there before midday and it’s likely you’ll be the only tourists there. The falls are pretty amazing from every angle, so it’s worth walking up and down the stairs to get that perfect ‘gram.
Another ‘thank god we got lost’ spot if you’re silly enough to drive through it is the Atlas Mountains. It’s a famous hiking destination, but if you’ve got limited time, or you’re just lazy, driving guarantees the highest number of jaw drops per hour. Crawl your way down gravel roads lined with mud houses. Wave like royalty as the kids in off-the-map Berber villages trail behind you on their donkeys. It’s not often you feel truly alone in Morocco, but sitting on the peaks of the multicoloured mountaintops that stretch for miles in each direction may well have you feeling you’re the only person left on earth. That is until a friendly local appears out of nowhere offering tea. Due to the state of the roads it is very unwise to do this drive in anything other than a 4WD, we did in a Fiat Punto and only just made it out alive.
If you ask a Moroccan about their favourite place to visit in the country, most will say Chefchaouen. Turquoise-tinged and visually stunning, Chefchaouen also has a refreshingly relaxed vibe most probably due by the enormous amount of weed grown in the region. If you’re there for a couple of days, spend the first wandering around the bright blue medina and snapping to your hearts content, then head up to the Spanish mosque on the mountainside to watch the sun go down. On day 2 head to Cascade d’Ackchour. Depending on the season, you might not see a waterfall, but there’ll still be crystal clear pools to take a dip in. Taxi vans regularly make the trip from the centre of Chefchaouen to the falls and if you’re lucky your driver will swing by the vast fields of marijuana the Rif Valley is famous for. There’s so much of it you could grab a handful as a souvenir, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Erg Chebbi Desert
It’s a cliche, but a camel trek in the Sahara really is a must do. Watching the sun reflect off dunes the size of a small town while your camel farts and grunts it’s way to the next camp is truly surreal. If you can, do a 2 night trek with some sandboarding thrown in. As previously mentioned, health and safety requirements don’t appear to exist in Morocco, so your guide will have no qualms about shoving you down the side of a 100 foot dune on a pair of old skis. You’re guaranteed to remember the experience because a) it’s really fun and b) you’ll be picking sand out of your scalp for approximately the rest of your life. By night sit under the stars and share bad jokes with your guide. Moroccan men love their hash, so if your guide has bought their own stash for the trip (highly likely), it’s bound to be a memorable night.