On our first trip to Morocco, we only saw Marrakesh and Casablanca. I left feeling like we needed to see more of this intriguing country which sits at the edge of Europe. Well, it took us ten years but eventually we rebooked for a trip in February 2023. We planned an itinerary with Gorgeous Morocco Tours to take us to corners that we just wouldn’t have if we had stuck to public transport. Read on to find out what we got up on with our very own private tour.
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Our trip was hosted by Gorgeous Morocco but all opinions are our own.
Day One – Heading South
Walking out to the car park from our hotel in Fez we spotted a silver Toyota Land Cruiser with a man waiting expectantly.
“That must be our ride”
We met our driver Ahmed and hopped straight in, ready for the long day ahead. Fez to Merzouga is a whopping 500km, which would be an all-day drive.
Our First Stop – Ifran
Ifran 1700 km up into the Atlas Mountains, has an international university as the weather is milder than in the rest of the country. The natural aircon allowed students to focus without being a hot and sweaty mess. It has gained the nickname “the Switzerland of Morocco”. We hopped out of the car into the chilly air and had a quick look around the main square. There was a large tour group that was rather hogging the famous lion statue and then one of them actually climbed on it. (It was just like home). The lion represents the lions that used to roam these mountains many years ago. Across the road was a park with a layer of compacted snow. We wandered over to have a look but our slightly inadequate cold weather gear mean that our hands and feet were very quick to turn painful.
We decided to pop into Hotel Charmonix for a quick coffee. It was sweet and hot, just what the doctor ordered. Karl didn’t get any breakfast before we left as we departed before the riad served it. We enquired at the bar as to whether they sold croissants or anything and there was a lot of head wagging and shouting back and forth to other staff. This all seemed pretty negative so we had written the idea off. Just as I finished my coffee,, a plate appeared with a flaky fried flatbread, sesame toast and two slices of loaf cake. We ate most of it and bagged the cake for later. I am glad we did as we were charged handsomely for the plate.
Down the road, just a few minutes drive away, we arrived at a famous stop, Azrou Junction, to see the barbary apes. These aren’t actually apes, the name just comes from their lack of tails. They are from the macaque family and are very cute. It was nice to have the chance to see them but sad that they are so used to humans, begging for food. One group of men arrived with a blaring boombox and began to chase the monkeys. I was disgusted at their behaviour and made moves to get back in the car. We left quickly and were soon back in beautiful snowy landscapes that were positively Alpine.
Lunch in Midelt(ish)
We continued on for a couple of hours and then stopped for lunch. I had found a place that was well recommended and didn’t cater to the large tour groups passing by but it was in the town Midelt itself. Ahmed wanted to go to the place that Gorgeous Morocco always uses so we decided to drive by both and then choose. The car pulled up to the large roadside restaurant first (still a long way from the town) and there was a coach outside. As we entered we saw a huge group of Chinese tourists happily tucking in. I wasn’t sure about staying and when I saw the price I was more put off. It was about a third more expensive than it should have been. Mr Fluskey seemed happy with it and Ahmed was content so I agreed to stay.
Karl ordered an omelette which arrived with an array of side dishes. He said it OK but not amazing. To save some pennies and because the strop had dampened my appetite I ordered chips. They were cold and soggy. The olives were fine but I made a mental note to push for what we wanted in the days to come.
A Long Drive
The car passed through fields of snow with hills covered in white rising above into the blue sky. Ahmed asked if we wanted to stop and have some photos with the snowy landscape. Yes! Good plan! I hopped out of the car and stepped onto the snow, only to sink up to the thighs almost instantly. I bent over double, laughing in shock and delight. Mr Fluakey was in so much shock that he didn’t film it but he did manage to get one quick photo.
It seemed like we turned a corner and suddenly the snow were gone, the trees shrunk into little shrubs and the snow was a distant memory. It can’t have been more than a ten minute drive and we were in a rocky world of ridges and boulders. We wound through the hills as I listened to some of my favourite podcasts and Mr Fluskey slept. Time slipped by as the car ate the road ahead.
Filled with water from the Atlas Mountains Hassan Ad-dakhil caught my attention from a long way off (or as far as someone with visual impairment can manage). It was nice to see water after such a long stint in the dry and barren hills. We stopped for a quick snap but the wind was starting to chill us down and we quickly hopped back into the warmth of the car.
Arriving at the Desert
Once more the scenery shifted and the hills dropped away, replaced by distant sand dunes. We were approaching our destination of Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara desert. We were booked to stay one night here before exploring the desert the next day with Ahmed. He took us to our small guesthouse and we parted ways until day two rolled around.
Day Two – Erg Chebbi and The Sahara
After a lovely bit of breakfast, we heard the engine coming down the road and rushed to finish getting ready. We needn’t have rushed as our host and Ahmed were happy to share a cup of tea before we left. Ahmed was raised in the next village north of Merzouga and he had planned a day exploring Erg Chebbi and the surrounding area.
We began by driving around Erg Chebbi and the dunes. I was wondering about how the desert was so well defined when other places experience sand creep so badly. These dunes don’t move as there is water in the sand about one metre down. There were lakes here many years ago and this residual moisture keeps them static as a dune can be.
Stop One – Nomadic Camp
Our first stop of the day was on a large, flat area of sand that was well-compacted. Dark tents dotted the area and we appeared to pick one at random. We got out and Ahmed greeted the two cute children that dash4ed up to greet him. This nomad camp was a typical Berber settlement with a collection of tent dwellings for a kitchen, a bread oven, sleeping quarters and another tent for a communal space/living room. There are around 25,000 nomadic people in Morocco, known as Berber or Amazigh, who move where weather, animals or crops dictate throughout the year. This community is spread across much of North Africa.
We had a little look around and then took a seat in the living room where we were given some tea strong with herbs and a little bowl with some irresistible nibbles. It was so interesting to see how the nomadic people of Morocco live, I felt a bit rude as they didn’t join us for tea but the mum was given a little money so I guess it is easy extra income. We asked Ahmed and he visits a different family on each trip. This means the wealth is spread around little.
Stop Two – Abandoned Village
Nearby we arrived at an old French colonial village called M’ifis. It was built to serve the huge mine here (our next stop) as the French were interested in obtaining mineral wealth from this area. When they left in the 1950s, they just left the village behind, with just a few Berbers to work the mine. However, without the machinery the French had owned, it became impossible to work and they too abandoned the village. The buildings were all made of mud and so without regular upkeep, these were reduced to half walls and doorways. There are a couple of military houses and a mosque that still had some residents. It was cool to have a wander around but the level of rubbish that lay around the place was heartbreaking.
Stop Three – Mine
Rising above us on one side was a big hill and this was our next stop. The M’ifis mine is famous for producing delightfully sparkly, pink quartz crystals on one hand and deep black kohl on the other (the black mineral that is turned into eyeliner). As we climbed the hill, I was a little confused that I couldn’t see a giant mine entrance but as we reached the top, it was casually mentioned that the crevice to our side was INCREDIBLY deep. Suddenly, my knees were a little more wobbly. It was easier to stay away from this edge and enjoy the wider view.
Stop Four – Khemlia Village
After descending past the cleaning tanks, we drove through the sand to Khemlia village.
(We saw a camel!)
The population of this small settlement were brought across the desert from Sudan and Mali as slaves. These days, the residents make their living performing the wonderful Gnawa music that is unlike much of the other Arabic-influenced music you may hear in Morocco. We were the only people in the performance area and I felt wildly awkward for a while but then they let me have a go on the metal maracas and it was really fun joining in. When some other tourists came in, we made our exits with lots of thank yous and a tip.
Stop Five – The Camel House
With that, the usual desert tour was over but as Ahmed was local to the area, he took us to see where he lived, Hassilabied. We saw the spring that feeds the town with water that comes from the desert dunes. This allows an oasis-style allotment which looks like a palmeraie Every family in the town has a small plot here to grow plants, fruit or vegetables. The water that passes through all the time is directed to a different section at allotted hours. Everyone knows the roster and it seems like everyone is happy to take turns.
(We saw a frog!)
We head to The Camel House, the guesthouse that Gorgeous Morocco works with in the warmer months. Ahmed’s wife had kindly made us a Berber pizza for lunch. Madfouna is a circular flat bread stuffed with carrot, onion and spices. We enjoyed the chance to soak up the sun. In January, Morocco can be rather chilly and especially in the evenings so we preserved every ray!
We chilled out for an hour or two before hopping back into the car and to the edge of the desert for our next adventure.
Stop Six – The Camel Stop
Ahmed Dropped us at the camel stop by Yasmina Hotel and we transferred over to the camel guides taking us over the dunes to our desert camp. Staying in a luxury camp in the desert should be on everyone’s bucket list. It is a really unique experience and if you can take a camel to reach the camp, even better.
We have written a whole review of our Sahara Sky Luxury Desert Camp experience and you can check it out here.
Day Three – Heading West
We met up with Ahmed as he coordinated a perfect pickup. He and Mabarack from Sahara Sky were on the phone together and both drove to the same spot in real time. We jumped back into the Toyota and we got straight on the road. Originally I had wanted to see Rissani’s beautiful gate but we had decided to do a hike in Todra Gorge which meant we wouldn’t have time. Instead, we drove back through Erfoud and headed in the direction of Todra.
There was a quick stop to see a spot that is normally a spot for growing crops and getting well water. It was dry at this particular time of year but we still got to see the foot-powered well. Mr Fluskey had a go and it was much easier than cranking a handle. Humans are clever, aren’t they?!
The Todra Gorge Hike
It was another two hours or so up to the spot that we wanted to hike from and by the time we reached the car park, the sun was warm and pleasant. I had read a blog post that said it was an easy to medium hike would take around 3 to 3.5 hours.
“OK, we can handle that”, we thought to ourselves.
Well, the first bit was a set of stairs and with an easy enough ascent ahead of us we cheerily waved goodbye to Ahmed. The path very quickly became tougher and with a few wrong turns, we were almost immediately behind schedule…according to that blog.
We huffed and puffed our way up for an hour until it was time to sit and have our sandwiches (of course this was bread and laughing cow cheese that we had smuggled away from the breakfast table). I decided to look at the large rock above us and discovered that we were mere steps from the top of the ridge. I should have known, it is always around 100m before we reach somewhere that Mr Fluskeydecides we are going the wrong way or will never make it.
The rest of the walk was much easier but time seemed to be racing by in huge chunks, leaving us further and further behind our projected hike time. We walked through a nomad village up in the rocks (seems like an awfully tricky place to pitch up), down a long stony hill and then to a long ridge that made its way down to town. We grabbed a cold drink and then raced through the gorge and back to the car.
Clearly, we had bitten off more than we could chew!
Exhausted and with filthy feet, we bundled into the back of the car and Karl quickly proceeded to zonk out. We both napped for the next hour or so as we drove through the lengthening shadows towards Dades Valley.
Dades Valley and Skoura
We passed along the road with a lovely view of Dades Valley before driving to the oasis of Skoura.
The sun was nearly totally gone when we arrived. The guesthouse I had booked (a cheap and cheerful choice) was in the oasis rather than the main town area. It was down the road from one of the most luxurious accommodations in Morocco and it had some nice garden photos on the net. The guesthouse was down a winding bumpy track and I was worried that the car wouldn’t fit but luckily, it squeezed through and we found it. It was quite a cold house but at £11 I guess I couldn’t expect any less. They made us a nice hot chicken and green olive tagine for dinner which helped warm us up and Ahmed stayed too which made the morning much easier.
Day Four – Heading North
We were up bright and early, trying to face the morning chill. Brisk action was the best idea and so we were all ready to set off at 08:30.
We drove past Kasbah Almeiadi but it seemed they were filming something big as there was a line of TV trucks outside. The Kasbah is a strikingly beautiful fortress. So gorgeous in fact that it used to be on the 50 dirham note. We were sad not to be able to see inside but I don’t think the crew would have appreciated two tourists wandering into their shot.
If you don’t have “Rock the Kasbah” in your head right now, you are doing something wrong.
We got deeper into the heart of Morocco’s Hollywood (Morrywood?) with a stop at Atlas Studios and the attached Oscar Hotel. There is a surprisingly large film business in Morocco and Atlas Studios is actually the largest studio in the world! It houses huge sets like Luxor, Egypt, some large pieces from Gladiator, Disney’s live-action Aladdin and The Mummy. They have also had TV productions including Prison Break and Game of Thrones (I swear, those actors had such a cool tour of the world for that show). Sadly, we weren’t able to take a tour but we poked our noses through the gates and saw some sets and huge props. It would be great to return one day and stay at this cool hotel too.
Just 20 minutes further north we arrived at Ben Aithaddou. Ben Aithaddou is a fortified village or ksar. It has been here since the 11th century and was a popular stop for caravans to stop before or after they traversed the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh. The ksar is built up on a hill and overlooks the Ounila river. To enter, traders (and now tourists) need to pass through the gate in the wall and pay a little fee. The village has been maintained and restored as it is a UNESCO world heritage site. Plus, once again, the film industry loves it. We stood in one large area that you might recognise from Gladiator. (We need to rewatch it so we can fan girl a tiny bit). It has also appeared in Lawrence of Arabia, The Living Daylights and Prince of Persia.
We walked over from the modern town where most residents now live and hopped across the river…literally. There is a big bridge but we used the stepping stones. Ahmed had a little hack we entered the village from a different area, avoiding the rest of the tourists. There were some boards showing the films made here and we perused them before heading up the hill to the granary. The view from the top f the hill was 360 and very impressive. We could see the film studios in one direction and in the distance, the snowy top of the Atlas mountains.
The High Atlas
Leaving the flat lands below, we prepared for the long drive north, up and over the mountains. Again, Mr Fluskey went straight to sleep but I was so excited about the snow that I was just sat, face plasered to the window for the whole drive up. The road had a lot of construction and we could see where they were cutting some of the most extreme corners to make the journey a little straighter and easier. It was a slow drive and I am interested to see how fast the trip would be when it is all finished.
At the top of the Atlas we stopped for some photos. It was so, so cold but I loved the snow, cut through with black rock. we managed about five minutes out of the car before we had to jump back into the heating.
On the way back down we had the chance to stop for lunch. There was clearly too much breakfast as we weren’t that hungry. We opted for one portion of chips to share and, unlike the awful chips one day one, these were perfect. I mean, the french had to leave one good thing behind right? There was also another photo stop where we could see over the twisting road as it snaked across the landscape. It was really fun to stand and watch the cars as they appeared and disappeared around the bends.
As the last two hours of the trip passed by, Ahmed got in touch with Riad Star. He let them know our time of arrival and to check where we needed to go. The road flattened out and all of a sudden we were on the busy streets of Marrakesh. We got out of the car, ensuring we gathered everything before saying our goodbyes to Ahmed.
Final Thoughts on Exploring Morocco with Gorgeous Morocco
Exploring Morocco with Ahmed was a brilliant experience. We were so busy in the day so being able to sit back and enjoy the changing views from the car (or to sleep in Mr Fluskey’s case) was a real treat. Ahmed was a great driver and showed us some cool things we would never have known about. We loved learning about his life in the desert. It took half a day to realise we could just suggest the things we wanted and he would re-jiggle the itinerary to fit as much in as possible.
Even as fans of trains and buses, there is no way we would have seen so much without the private tour. The quality of driving was top notch and the car was big and comfortable (just ask the sleeping Mr Fluskey). We would not hesitate to recommend Gorgeous Morocco Tours and its excellent service so if you are visiting Morocco, look them up!