Tag Archives: Marrakesh

Global Scavenger Hunt Leg 8 Challenge Brings Us Through Morocco

Marrakech, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Bill Chalmers, the “ringmaster” of the Global Scavenger Hunt, launches us our biggest, most ambitious and difficult leg of the trip, a par 6,in which our challenge is to get from Marrakech through four countries – Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal with scavenges in each to win points – in five days, meeting at 11:30 am in Porto, Portugal, when we will fly out to New York, our final destination of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour, and the final and decisive leg of the competition to be crowned “World’s Best Traveler”.

We have arrived at the Savoy Le Grand (a massive resort-style hotel with multiple pools, sandwiched between a major modern mall and a casino, about half-mile from the gate to the Old City) at midnight local time, about 2 am for us having come from Athens. Bill recognizes the need for a break so essentially gives us the morning off, so we can meet at 11:30 in the lobby to launch us on the challenge he has termed “our final exam.”

Bill allows certain rule changes for this part of the competition: the four teams that are in contention can team up in one  country,  can rent a car but only once and only in one country, can use cell phones and GPS but they are still not allowed to fly between points. There are loads of “bonus” opportunities and “experiences” among the 100 or so scavenges – there are extra points for booking an AirBnB accommodation and for booking a hotel on one of the nights for $50 or less (we have a $200 allowance per team for the three nights we have to book for ourselves).

I am not competing so have the advantage of being able to get advice from the concierge, use hotels.com. It takes from noon to about 5:30 pm to work out an outline of how we will cover the distance – set up the first train ticket from Marrakech to Fes, book hotels in Fes and Gibraltar. Margo, my teammate, decides to spend an extra day in Porto, Portugal, but I set my sights on Seville, and organize a hotel there, so we will travel together from Marrakech to Fes to Gibraltar and then travel independently until Porto.

There are some 131 scavenges in this leg (a challenge is to figure which ones to do for points and logistics), including mandatories like #51 (Within the bowels of Fes el-Bali, visit the Baab Bou Jeloud gate; the gates of Karaouine Mosque, explain the door for sacrifices, learn something about University of Al-Karaouline; ; either/or enjoy a beverage in the Jardins de la Marche Verte or atop Nejarine Museum and explain Nejarine Square; obtain from within the market a stylish zellj; locate the Chouwara Tannery for a rooftop photo (what are some of the materials used in the process you see, explain); Locate six of the over 800 registered crafts in Fes el-Bali; Visit the Dar ai-Magana, explain; In the courtyard of Fondouk Kaat Smen, there are three purveyors – sample four types of Nafis Hicham’s products. This is worth 400 points.

Also mandatory, #63: Enter Gibraltar and obtain either a passport stamp or some other 100% iron-clad proof (other than photos) that you did enter the country (300 points)

It is also mandatory to complete at least one scavenge in all four primary countries: Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal.

For a bonus: stay in hotel below 50E Tuesday (apr 30)

Bonus in Morocco: either camp out in the desert one night or stay in traditional riad

In Morocco, venture to Atlas Mountains (Day Four) to visit Berber villages, Ait Souka/Kasbah Dutoubkal, or Aghmat/Oureka.

Bonus: in Morocco visit the blue city of Chefchaouen

In Morocco visit Volubilis to see something old & Roman; visit nearby sacred village Moulay Idriss

By 5:30 pm, I am frustrated and angry not actually seeing Marrakech, and still haven’t figured out how to get from Tangier to Gibraltar or Gibraltar to Seville (answer: you have to get out of Gibraltar to the town in Spain, so I leave that for when I get to the hotel in Gibraltar), so drop everything so we go into the Old City.

We walk to the famous Koutoubia grand mosque that so dominates the city.  As soon as we enter the massive square, there is a cacophony of sounds, a blur of motion. And activity – snake charmers, Berbers, musicians (who demand money for photo even if you only look at them).

Fruit stands, stalls where cooking fish, meats, kebabs, vegetables, just about everything and anything anyone would want.

Before it gets too dark, we make our way through the souks to find the Jewish Quarter and the synagogue.

We weave through – asking people who point us in a direction – a fellow leaves his stall to to lead us down narrow alleyway.

From there, we go to the Jewish cemetery which should have been closed, but the man lets us in.

Synagogue, Marrakech, founded in 1492 after Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in the Inquisition. Some 80 congregants still worship here. There is an excellent exhibit and video. We meet a family whose brother still worships here. (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.
The Jewish Cemetery, Marrakech (c) Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

Margo hails a taxi to head back, and I walk back through the markets to the square. I find a stall to have dinner – seated on a bench with others.

Next morning, we catch the 6 am train to Fes – 6 ½ hours – a beautiful ride.

We are in a first-class compartment that seats six people very comfortably. During the course of the trip, people come and go. A stop or two away from Fes, two fellows come in to the compartment and we have a pleasant conversation that ends with the one fellow saying he knows a guide for us to hire. Sure enough, by the time we get off the train, the guide has arrived.

We make our way to the Riad el Yacout (the guide has obtained a taxi as well).

The Riad (guesthouse) is absolutely enchanting – it was the home of a professor at the famous university (founded in 859 AD by a woman) in the Medina, and had remained in the family until 2000, when her father bought it and spent five years restoring it as a guesthouse (it is actually three houses that have been linked, with a pool; and there are plans to build a third floor and add a rooftop pool). The mosaics, decoration, furnishings are exquisite – all the rooms set around the most magnificent interior courtyard. (Riad is a home that inward facing, meant to maximize family interactions.)

The riad owner strongly advises hiring an approved guide from the tourism office, and a driver – we only have the afternoon and evening here to see Fez, and have been told that you absolutely need a guide to go through the Medina – the largest, with some 11,000 alleyways with no addresses.

The price seems fair and we only have the afternoon, and it proves a great way to see Fez in such a brief time.

Two other teams come after (they went on a balloon ride in Marrakech, one of the scavenes before catching the train to Fes), and hired the same guide we were introduced to by a guy on the train (turns out the second guy on the train was his son, who I spot while walking in the Medina – what are the chances? Actually it is a scam – the fellows get on the train a stop or two before Fes, find a seat in the first-class compartment and begin the grift). If you are keeping count, altogether three of our Global Scavenger Hunt teams all had either met the guide (us), used the guide or the son. And everybody was happy.

We set out with our guide, Hamid,  and to hear him tell it (and this is before he makes the connection between “New York,” Jews – rendered refugees by the Spanish Inquisition which expelled them in 1492 from Spain and Portugal- were invited by the King to settle in Fes in order to develop the city, and settle the nomadic Berbers. He gave them land adjacent to the palace and promised protection – to show appreciation, the Jewish community create ornate brass doors for the palace with the Star of David surrounded by the Islamic star.

He tells us that this community continued even into World War II, when he gave Jews citizenship and protected them from the Nazis. He takes us into the Medina, starting with the Jewish Quarter, and leads me to the synagogue, which dates from the 1500s. From the roof you can see the Jewish cemetery.

During the course of the afternoon, we see weavers, embroiderers, carpet makers, the tannery (all of us follow pretty much the same itinerary). Since we have a driver, we also go to a mosaic factory.

We have a fantastic dinner at the riad – chicken tagine and chicken couscous – the food and the atmosphere cannot be beat.

Still have to get from Morocco to Gibraltar to Seville to Porto by Friday on this Par 6 leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt.

Zoe and Rainey Littlepage, Lawyers Without Borders, who are the leading team, published a brilliant  blog documenting how they fulfilled dozens of the scavenges:  https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019-from-minurets-in-morocco-to.html  

Also see www.globalscavengerhunt.comhttp://www.globalscavengerhunt.com

4 Days in Morocco: Desert Adventure from Marrakesh to the Sahara

Sandboarding from the mountain-like dune in the Sahara © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Dave E. Leiberman & Laini Miranda

Travel Features Syndicate,  goingplacesfarandnear.com

Everything about a trip from Marrakesh to the Sahara is epic. We didn’t know if we would drive ourselves or hire a tour, so from finding the right desert guide, then traveling the 8+ hours through roads filled with switchbacks and harrowing drivers, to the climactic landscape of red-hot sand dunes reaching literally as far as your eyes could follow, this was an adventure we could never have anticipated.

There are several ways to do this trip. You can book a trip online through Tripadvisor, Getyourguide, Viator, or any of the other aggregator sites with real reviews. The average price we found was around $250/person. Or, you can wait until you arrive in the country and try to haggle a better deal through your riad/guesthouse, or any of the endless storefronts advertising excursions to the desert.

With four days or more, you will be able to experience more of the desert landscape and not feel quite as rushed. Since we knew we wanted to spend a night in Aït Benhaddou, we made our own way there by bus and had our riad host arrange our desert excursion from that point.

Our main advice is to budget at least 4 days. Anything less and you won’t really experience the heart of the Moroccan Sahara. All standard 3-day desert tours offer the same basic itinerary:

Day 1: Leave Marrakech early AM, arrive in Aït Benhaddou in time for lunch, quick tour of the Kasbah then back on the bus, pass through Ourzazate for a brief visit, then overnight at a hotel or riad in Dades Valley. Day 2: Full day drive to Merzouga, stopping in the old town of Tinghir (a guided tour will probably take you to a berber carpet showroom). Arrive in Merzouga just before sunset, Berber guides will escort you on camels into the desert sand dunes, have dinner in the camp, sleep overnight in a tent or on a wool blanket on the sand. Day 3: Leave just before dawn to return to Merzouga where you’ll meet your driver for the 9 hour ride back to Marrakech. Some trips will give you a little more time in the morning to experience the dunes in the daylight for an extra fee. Absolutely do this if you have the offer.

Tzikinitza: On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Here is what we did, what we learned, and tips that we wished we’d had before we went…

Day 1 – Aït Benhaddou

This fortified ancient village, currently home to only five families, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, and other epic dramas. We took the CTM bus from Marrakesh to the village of Wade Melah, where the host of our riad met us to drive us to the old town of Aït Benhaddou. No one knows exactly how old the town is, but they estimate that it dates back at least 500 years, and looks much older. It was once a hub of Jewish and Berber people who lived harmoniously in the town. In fact, if you stay in the Riad Dar El Haja, you will be staying in the former home of the old village’s Rabbi and his family, which we were told is one of only two guesthouses in the Kasbah. Today this riad features several well-appointed rooms with comfortable beds, ensuite bathrooms with hot water, 2 terraces to enjoy dinner or breakfast al fresco, and an original natural cave that makes a magical setting for a tagine dinner cooked on premise (breakfast is included in the stay, 3-course dinner was about 13 Euros/person).

Ait Ben Haddou at dawn, looking just as it did over a dozen centuries ago. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ait Ben Haddou has been the set of Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Getting There:

Luxury: In Marrakesh you can find several private taxis or tour companies that will take you directly to Aït Benhaddou. We were quoted prices between 1500-4000 MAD (1000 MAD equals $104), haggling mandatory.

Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Budget: Take the CMT bus from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate (100 MAD), then a taxi to Aït Benhaddou (~90 MAD). Or you can try to convince your bus driver to drop you off in Wade Melah as we did, to meet someone from your riad willing to pick you up.

Adventure: Rent a car in Marrakesh. You can drop the car off in Ouarzazate if you decide to join a tour to the desert, or go rogue and try it all on your own. The road from Marrakesh to ABH is insane with about 2 hours of tight switchbacks as you pass the Tizi n’Tichka, but if you’re a (very) comfortable stick driver it seemed like it would be a lot of fun to drive, IN THE DAYLIGHT. The roads between Tinghir and Merzouga are more harrowing and we were happy we opted for the tour.

Our tips:

  • Stay the night: Most tour buses arrive at the Kasbah around noon and leave around 3 or 4, so spending the night before means you have the old town virtually to yourselves in the morning, and you can see the Kasbah before the stalls open for the day.
  • Break up the drive to the desert: Make Aït Benhaddou a one-night stop on a longer desert tour to break up your first or last day of the 8+ hour drive (more on this below).      
  • Catch the sunrise: Most tourists seemed to hike to the top of the Kasbah for the sunrise. For an even wilder 360-degree view, walk out of the Kasbah toward the big hill at the base of the east part of the town (right next to the famous filming spot of Gladiator and Game of Thrones), and watch the sunrise to the east with a movie-perfect view of the Kasbah to your west.
  • Lunch away from the main bus pick-up area: Most people meeting their tour groups seemed to be directed to the main large hotel/restaurant complex, which all had long waits and apparently mediocre food. We had an excellent lunch of lamb and prune tagine and Merguez sausage at Riad Maktoub, just down the road. This is also a highly-rated riad, if you decide to stay across the river from the Kasbah.

Day 2

Rashid, our riad host, referred us to a 3-day small group tour with Nature Dream, that we were able to join in Aït Benhaddou (they had started in Marrakesh at 7am that same morning, arrived at noon for lunch and had 2 hours to tour the Kasbah before getting back on the bus). We joined 4 other young travelers in an old van and drove to Boumalne Dades, an area of dramatic mountains and breathtaking views at every turn.

Our Tips:

  • If you do go with a tour, ask ahead of time about your accommodations. Once we entered Boumalne Dades we saw many cool-looking riads with incredible views. The one arranged by our tour company was not one of these, although it ended up being all we needed for a quick night’s sleep with the typical chicken and vegetable tagine dinner.
  • If you drive here on your own, make sure you arrive before sunset because the views are really worth seeing in sunlight.

Day 3

Our private dinner cave in Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We left our riad at 8 am and drove to Tinghir, where we met a lovely guide named Rachid. He showed us around the Kasbah and informed us about its history as a Jewish and Berber community until 1948 when the Jewish people left for Israel or larger Moroccan cities. Now the Kasbah is mostly abandoned, inhabited by nomads helped by those in the village who give them jobs in the farms and share their food. There are now only about 15 families living in the Kasbah, with close to 1 million people occupying the greater city of Tinghir.

Pouring “Berber whiskey” (honey mint tea), a Moroccan ritual for welcoming guests© Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

While in the Kasbah we were taken to a home of several families that specialized in Berber rugs. We were given the classic “Berber Whiskey” (mint tea), and learned about traditional rug-making, from the way the wool is cleaned and spun, to the pigments used to tint it, and the meanings beyond different typical Berber rug designs.

Rachid then took us to Todra Gorge, and then to a nice lunch spot nearby. We would recommend contacting Rachid even if you do not do a tour, as he was one of the sweeter, more gentle people we encountered in our 3 days, and his English is excellent (Spanish is even better). He lives in the greater village of Tinghir and often takes groups hiking and climbing in Todra Gorge, and if you have a few days he’ll take you to visit the nomadic families living deeper in the caves.  (Rachid Haddi: +212629460239 whatsapp).

Our tip:

  • The range for rugs in each of the small villages we visited fluctuated from 6000MAD (1000 MAD equals $104) down to 2000MAD for a 4 x 6 ft rug. The general rule of thumb seemed to be to suggest at most 1/3 of the first asking price, and walk away until they meet you close to your price.

Day 3 Continued:

After lunch we left Rachid and continued to Merzouga. We had learned from Rachid that wet season is August to October, and we definitely experienced this first hand during this part of the drive. There are 3 roads to Tinghir. We took the most direct route in the middle, which passes through many small towns on little maintained roads. Because of recent storms, many roads were completely flooded and may have been unpassable in standard cars. Even with a driver from the Sahara with 20+ years experience driving tour groups, we were still worried we wouldn’t make it several times and on one occasion our driver was harassed by a swarm of 20+ teenage boys trying to get 50 MAD for them to push his car across the road with the motor off. We saw a rental car with foreigners turn around at this point and I guess attempt a different way. We don’t have experience with the north and south routes, but by the look of the map they seemed like bigger roads if slightly less direct.

The sun was setting as we set out on our 7 km  camel trek through the Sahara to our desert camp, much of it in the dark © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Finally around sunset we arrived at a riad in Merzouga, where we waited for our camels with about 30 other travelers who had been dropped off from similar tours. About half hour later, all of us were escorted on camels through the dunes of Merzouga to our camp in the middle of it all. We were surprised to be on the camels for an hour and a half (7 km)! Once at the camp we were assigned beds in 4 or 5 person tents, and had the expected chicken tagine dinner. The camp itself was very bare-bones, with no sheets or pillowcases, just one wool blanket on top of a mattress and another for warmth in the night. We found the tents to be quite stuffy at night, and sleeping under the stars was in all ways the better alternative. The stars at night were spectacular. The air was crisp and cool, but not freezing, and if not for the scratchy wool blankets, it would have been a pretty magical night’s sleep.

Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Desert camps:

            Luxury: We were quoted prices for a private driver for just the 2 of us, “stopping anywhere we wanted to”, with 3 days and 2 nights (1 in the desert), with luxury accommodations for 4000MAD/person (1000 MAD equals $104). We got this driver down to 3000 MAD for more budget accommodations and private driver. Luxury accommodations seemed to have beautiful glamping-style beds with sheets in large private tents.

            Standard: Just about every 3 day/2 night tour seems to spend one night at a hotel or riad in the Dades Valley (Boumalne Dades), stop on day 2 at Todra Gorge followed by a sunset camel ride out to the desert, camp overnight, and drive 8hr 30min back to Marrakech on day 3, leaving the camp just after sunrise. These tours all include 2 night accommodations and breakfast and dinner, with lunch spots determined by the driver and paid individually by the travelers. Standard tours ranged from 1250 – 2500 MAD/person.

            Budget: Since we joined a tour in Aït Benhaddou, we paid 900 MAD/person in a 6-person van and budget accommodations. Right as we arrived at the camp, our camp hosts told us we had the option to ride the camels back to Merzouga at 4:30am (before sunrise!), or be driven in their SUV over the dunes after sunset for 10 Euro/person. Of course opt for the latter or else you’ll miss the most spectacular time in the dunes. Or better yet, opt for a tour that has the van-ride back their default and doesn’t try to charge you for it.

Our desert camp in the Erg Chebbi Dunes of the Sahara Desert © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our tips:

  • BYO Sheets: If you do go on a standard tour, this is a MUST: bring a cocoon travel sheet or sleep-sack. We were really jealous of our tour friends who had heard this tip before-hand and enjoyed a full night’s sleep.
  • Don’t bring food unless it’s sealed in an air-tight container. We saw a mouse in our tent earlier in the evening and woke up to see the plastic bag of our trail mix nibbled into, and one of our thin linen sweaters destroyed (still can’t imagine what was appetizing about that!).
  • Head-wrap: Bring a thin scarf for the night and morning as it can get quite chilly and is nice to wrap around your head if sleeping out under the stars (you can pick this up for 30-40 MAD at every single stop along the way, or at any stall in any medina. Beware that the really cheap ones will bleed and stain your other clothes in the laundry). It also looks cool wrapped as a turban as you’re riding your camel.
  • Sandboarding: If you’re comfortable on a snowboard and want the exercise (and amazing photos), rent a snowboard from Merzouga town before heading into the desert. Our camp hosts rented one to Dave for 200 MAD and brought it out in their truck while we rode the camels. Of course there are no ski lifts so you’ll have to trek up the highest dune with it yourself in order to get the best ride down.

Day 4

Watching the sun rise over Algeria from a sand dune ridge in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After catching the sunrise over Algeria and sandboarding a bit, we took the SUVs back to the riad where we were given the classic breakfast of Moroccan pancakes and bread with jams and honey, and had a chance to wash up in their WCs before the long haul back to Marrakesh. They don’t supply towels, but if you bring your own you can even have a shower. The last day is a full driving day, stopping every 2-3 hours for our driver to have a coffee and take a quick break. As with most of the stops we had lunch at a random place on the route where other drivers brought their tours. Expect about 100 MAD/person for an app, entree, and dessert at each of the lunch spots (a la carte is not offered, but can be an option if you ask nicely).

View of our desert camp from atop a dune ridge © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrived back in Marrakesh around 8:30pm, just enough time to settle at the riad where we had a relaxing dinner, and a much needed shower.

Our lodging tips:

  • Riad Al Nour: In the Marrakesh medina, Youssef and Younes will take great care of you while staying at their riad. They know the best street food spots and will even run out to pick something up for you if you want a relaxing dinner in their courtyard after your long trip back from the desert. The riad is gorgeous, beds are big and comfortable, showers are hot, and AC works! Book directly with the riad to avoid booking fees.
  • Riad Dar El Haja: One of the few riads in Aït Benhaddou, enjoy a hot shower, big comfortable bed, great food, and epic location, on the actual set of Game of Thrones!
Our host at Riad Ait Ali in Dades Valley © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com


On the harrowing drive through the switchbacks of the Tizi n’Tichka Mountain pass in the High Atlas Mountains, en route from Marrakech to Ait Ben Haddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Breakfast served on the rooftop of Riad Dar El Haia, once a rabbi’s home, in the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A village on the way from Ait Benhaddou to Ourzazate © Laini Miranda/goingplacesfarandnear.com
 
Trekking by camel through the Sahara to our desert camp © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Nighttime in the Sahara © Dave E. Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

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