HOWTO: Plan a trip to Morocco

Sand dunes near Merzouga
Image via Wikipedia

A few months ago my wife and I went to Morocco for a week and it turned out to be a most amazing and memorable trip. However, planning for the trip was not easy. Sure, there are plenty of resources online but there is too much and too noisy information out there. It was a struggle separating the wheat from the chaff, and having to plan the trip online or over the phone made it all the more cumbersome. I hope to share some of our learnings from the trip in this HOWTO.

Getting Around

The best way to travel within Morocco is via train. The railway network connects all the major cities and the trains are modern, clean and generally run on time. Trains are rarely crowded so you need not purchase tickets in advance, just get them at the ticket counter when you get to the train station. You can go to the OCNF website for prices and schedules.

The other option is to take the buses. We didn’t get a chance to try out the buses so I can’t really comment on this. What I can tell you though, is that the Moroccan government (the King, rather) has done a good job when it comes to roads. Where there are roads, they are very well maintained, even if it is a single lane “highway” — no pot holes, appropriate signs, well maintained edges on the hilly roads etc. And most places you’d want to go do have plenty of roads. Here’s another way to look at this: to get an “off road” experience in Morocco, you do have to get off the road.

We ended up renting a car with a driver/guide for a few days. This turned out to be the best thing we did — we drove through two of the Atlas mountain ranges, through valleys and gorges, through villages and kasbahs. I would highly recommend checking out the Moroccan country side in a car. The landscapes are fantastic and the people are very warm and friendly.

One of the challenges is to figure out which tour operator to book your car and driver through. After much research, we ended up choosing Dunes Line. Most of our interaction was with Said (pronounced Sayid), who was also our driver and guide. He’s an extremely perceptive and fastidious young man, and speaks English very well. They were highly professional and quick in responding to emails. Best of all, their rates are highly competitive and their services are top notch.

Said drove us around for 4 days, starting in Fes and ending in Marrakech, going via Merzouga and Ouarzazate. He found the most amazing accommodations for us and was invaluable in helping us find good food (given that we’re vegetarians). Dunes Line is largely a family run business. We drove through Said’s home town during the tour and he invited us into his house to meet his family — such wonderful people they were — and to have tea with them. I would highly recommend Dunes Line to anyone who is considering a road trip in Morocco. BTW, if you look up Dunes Line, you may come across one negative review on TripAdvisor forums. Please disregard that review; I’ve discussed it with Said at length and there’s really not much to it.

If money is not an issue, do check out Journey Beyond Travel too. Personally I’d still prefer Dunes Line because they are as local as you can get.

Eat

Morocco is well known as a food haven and I was told  that holds true for vegetarian food as well. Being the foodies we are, we were naturally looking forward to all the culinary delights that Morocco had to offer. For the first two days of our trip we got mediocre food. But thanks to some luck and excellent advice from friendly locals, it got better each day after that.

Here’s one suggestion: you’ll obviously see a lot of Tagine and Couscous dishes in Morocco and you should certainly try them out. But I’d strongly urge you to look beyond those two, especially if you are a vegetarian. We loved the Moroccan salads and soups. At one of our road side pit stops, we were served a dish of steamed vermicelli with cooked spicy lentils — yummy! In Marrakech, we were lucky enough to get a home cooked meal that had a traditional preparation called Trid (surprisingly Google doesn’t turn up much on this dish). It is one of those dishes that you won’t find in restaurants and I just loved it! Both in Merzouga and Ouarzazate, our hosts were kind enough to customize the meals to our tastes and were extremely accommodating when we told them that we didn’t want to eat any more couscous or tagine.

I’ve listed the places where we stayed at in Merzouga, Ouarzazate and Marrakech in the next section — they all served us excellent food and I’d heartily recommend all of them. We wanted to dine at a nice Moroccan restaurant in Marrakech and absolutely loved the ambiance, food and belly dancing in Le Tanjia. If you are looking for some California-style offbeat vegetarian food in Marrakech, please do check out Earth Cafe.

Sleep

Finding good places to stay isn’t that much of a science. You can do all the research you want, but nothing beats recommendations from trusted sources. I was quite skeptical going into Morocco, but thankfully we got lucky almost everywhere we stayed. Rather than bore with the details of our research, let me just list the places we stayed at. I’ve listed some resources to do your own research in the next section.

  • Casablanca: We stayed at Hotel Maamoura. Casablanca is not that interesting so we stayed here for just one night. The Hotel is clean and the staff helpful, it is located close to the train station and ATMs. But otherwise unremarkable — don’t expect too much.
  • Fes: Dar Melody is owned by a lovely French couple (Lawrence and Bernard). They are great hosts and very sweet, though our lack of French did make communication a bit challenging (yet always interesting) :)
  • Merzouga: Hotel Nomad Palace. The cook there is a generous chap who made amazing meals for us every single time. Their camel guy, Hakim, is one of the funniest guys you’d ever meet. And it’s located very close to the sand dunes.
  • Ouarzazate: They say, the people of the desert are friendlier than those in the city. We found generous hosts wherever we went, especially so in Merzouga and Ouarzazate. In this Hollywood town of Morocco, we stayed at Dar Barabara. The highlights: a custom meal prepared by the owner/chef himself and a local band playing inches from us in the restaurant.
  • Marrakech: We had a wonderful time at Riad Menzeh. Bernard gave wonderful suggestions about Marrakech, and also arranged the home-cooked meal that I mentioned earlier.

Resources