Morocco Budget Travel Part 1: Give Me My Tagine!

Planning a budget itinerary for a comprehensive travel across Morocco seemed like an easy task, given that the country is one of the more popular destinations among Western European tourists (especially since neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt are becoming less so). In fact, it didn’t take me much time to pinpoint the major sights as I shamelessly modelled my plan on one of the packaged tours offered by a travel agency I value. For additional information I consulted the UNESCO list available online, which, by the way, is an excellent resource for those of you interested in historical and cultural aspects of places included in the World Heritage list. I especially love watching their short videos – they give you a really good sense of what are the highlights of a given location.

What was a little more difficult to obtain from in front of my laptop was relevant transport information. Since most people visiting Morocco stick to big seaside resorts or go on organised tours, there is not much data (in English anyway) about the local bus system. So, first thing to get out of the way:  yes, there are other buses that are cheaper than Supratours or CTM.

Moreover, the prices quoted by many travelers for private transport (petit taxis) or group transport (grand taxis) were highly inaccurate. In reality, we managed to negotiate some of those to cost even 50% less. But more about successful negotiation techniques later.

Still, my best friend and I  were excited to embark on this journey on our own (without getting as much as one Lonely Planet guidebook). We are both pretty independent with regards to how much time and money we want to spend… and how many millions of photos we decide to take in a particular spot. So we need our space away from groups. Plus, traveling independently gives us more chances to interact with locals and that’s perhaps the most valuable experience you can get on your part in understanding a country.

Morocco was the first and only country we visited in North Africa (for me – the first one in Africa in general). I didn’t quite know what to expect and that’s why I tried to plan our trip so that it gives us a taste of everything the country has to offer. In my opinion, a good “cross-country” trip has to include both big cities as well as smaller villages. It has to include wonders of culture, history, and nature. Morocco has it all and I was thrilled to come up a two-week schedule that would cater to both my inner history-freak, my friends’ love for the outdoors and our common love for delicious local specialties as well as eye-catching, picturesque views.

Below I included the description of the route we took and our recommendations. I will not go into specific historical details on the major highlights – you have copious resources online such as wikitravel and the afore-mentioned UNESCO website. What will be of a huge value to you, though, are some additional hints I included. I guarantee you, those will save you A LOT of trouble, time and money – IF you want to see the country on your own. So… here it is. Morocco, part one. Let’s begin.

Marrakesh and Essaouira

My best friend and I arrived in Marrakesh on an early morning mid-May, on a flight straight from Barcelona (courtesy of Ryanair, booked in advance the flight was a mere 20 euro).

Morocco Budget Travel Hint 1: This one is obvious, but I can’t stress this enough. Never trust taxi drivers outside of big transport hubs (airports, bus stations, train stations). If you have to, look for a taxi outside of the hub or get Uber (if the service or its equivalents exist in the country). Better yet, find a public bus to the city centre. It will be 10x cheaper and you don’t risk being cheated.

We decided to step outside of the airport, hustled our way through the crowd of loud taxi drivers and walked around 500 m to the nearest bus stop. A couple words in my broken French, directed at an amused driver, were enough to confirm that the bus was, in fact, stopping at the main square in the city: Jamaa el Fna. From there, we made our way to the hostel.

A colorful street in Marrakesh seen on a budget travel across the country.
A colorful street in Marrakesh

We had booked our hostel in Marrakesh a couple of weeks in advance and thanks to marking it on Google Maps (and, well, thanks to my travel buddy’s excellent sense of orientation) we were able to find it pretty quickly.

Morocco Budget Travel Hint 2: Booking in advance is not necessary in LOW season. Prices quoted on hostelworld.com and booking.com are actually much higher than those dictated by market rules (and common sense) given the low demand. In dates between May – August your best bet is to just show up and negotiate the price in person!

Marrakesh itself has a lot to offer in terms of historical sights, beautiful design, and food. It is important to note that the major sights are located in the city’s Medina, but all the modern amenities (including the pretty nice bus station and McDonald’s) are located in the newer part of the city, which is accessible by bus or on foot.

A new part of Marrakesh seen on a budget travel across the country.
A new part of Marrakesh

We spent a total of three days in Marrakesh, two of which we devoted to getting oriented around our first ever North African/Arab town. We explored the Medina, searched around for our first tagine, and admired the insanely cool tricks that locals performed at Jamaa el Fna with snakes, fire, and whatever else.

The third day we decided to spend in a charming Essaouira, a coastal city located around 3 hours away by bus from Marrakesh, directly by the Atlantic Ocean. All of the fanatics of Game of Thrones probably recognize the city as Astapor. Just imagine the white-haired Khaleesi directing her troops to the city’s gates…

Source: gameofthrones.wikia.com
Source: gameofthrones.wikia.com

The highlights of Essaouira include beautiful white-blue Medina and the port area, where you can see hundreds of blue boats and many fishermen boasting their freshly caught sardines.

The view of the coastal town seen on a budget travel across the country.
The view of the coastal town

Essaouira is one of the cities featured in Vision 2020 – a government plan to grown the tourist industry in Morocco. Definitely for a reason – it has a huge potential. Essaouira has a seaside resort/small-town feel to it, but there is a lot left to develop in terms of (tourist) infrastructure. The bus station is an tiny, old building that barely caters to the needs of tourists. The port area itself is pretty neglected, although the presence of building cranes would suggest that steps are taken to make it more modern.

Love the indigo color of Essaouira's boats! Seen on a budget travel across the country.
Love the indigo color of Essaouira’s boats!

The High Atlas Mountains

From Marrakesh we took a bus directly to Ouarzazate, a town located in the area of High Atlas Mountains, famous for being a shooting location for many Hollywood movies. They even have their own film studios there! If you talk to the locals you will find out many of them actually featured in pretty big movies as extras, which I personally found pretty interesting.

Our main point of interest in the area was, however, Aït Benhaddou – a village located around 25 km outside of the city, accessible by a grand taxi or a petit taxi (but none of the big local buses).

Morocco Budget Travel Hint 3: Grand taxis are the shared vans that you can take to travel between smaller locations, not included in the general bus network. Always negotiate the price down and be aware, as a foreigner, you are surely getting overcharged for the service. Try to overhear what the locals are paying and use it to your advantage while bargaining for a deal.

Aït Benhaddou is a UNESCO location, frequently featured in movies (think Gladiator,The Mummy, Kingdom of Heaven) due to its splendid ancient city, which is a pretty unique example of earthen clay architecture.

Aït Benhaddou seen on a budget travel across the country.
My happiness in Aït Benhaddou

After spending the night at Aït Benhaddou, we made our way back to Ouarzazate, where we spent another day relaxing, and then headed towards Boumalne. A side note: it would be possible to go straight to Aït Benhaddou by getting off the bus from Marrakesh earlier (at the crossing) and catching a taxi from there to the town. An overnight stay at Ouarzazate is also not necessary, if you aren’t into exploring the movie industry. We, however, quite enjoyed hanging out in this small town and observing everyday life in the area quite different than Marrakesh.

The purpose of our visit to the region of Atlas Mountains was not only to look at places with an interesting historical context. We also wanted to experience the nature – and therefore picked Dades Valley and Todra Gorge as our next destinations.

Morocco Budget Travel Hint 4: It is possible to see both Dades Valley and Todra Gorge in one day. In order to do so, head first to Dades Valley early in the morning, hike up to the cascades and take a taxi to see the famous zig-zag. Come back to Boumalne and catch a bus to Tinghir (Merzouga route). Once in town, take a taxi to Todra and wander along the magnificent rocks. Come back to the city and board the next bus to Merzouga.

We actually spent a night at Tinghir – a city closest to Todra Gorge – after boarding the bus there straight from Boumalne.

Morocco Budget Travel Hint 5: The major bus lines all do the Marrakesh – Merzouga route. In order to commute between Marrakesh,Ouarzazate, Boumalne, Tinghir and Merzouga you need to catch the bus passing through at the right time. Go to the nearest bus station to ask for details (don’t necessarily trust random people met on the street).

Dades Valley is quite windy :) Seen on a budget travel across the country.
Dades Valley is quite windy 🙂

It is my personal opinion, but, if you have to choose only one of the two locations, I would strongly favour Dades Valley. Todra offers a wider range of activities such as rock climbing, but Dades is just a more pleasant hike, that gives you more independent choices as to what to see (nature? local villages?). You can walk around the small villages located in the valley perhaps make it on foot (or wave a grand taxi) to the famous zig-zag and have a tea with a spectacular view. I was also amazed by a variety of landforms we observed on our way. Especially the ‘Monkey fingers’ were something pretty unique, that I haven’t seen anywhere else! Todra Gorge, on the other hand, for me, was a quick walk in the canyon – that could be easily done in one or two hours.

From Tinghir we made our way to Merzouga, a city located at the edge of Sahara desert. Merzouga is one of the more popular entry points to the Sahara desert. It is definitely a place to go if you are thinking about an overnight stay at the desert in one of the tents. But what surprised me most about the town was its VERY SMALL size. Since I have been reading so much about camel treks and desert trips that take place there, I was expecting it to be as touristy as Marrakesh. How big was my surprise! Moreover, since we visited Morocco in the low season – Merzouga literally seemed like a ghost town. The feeling was accentuated by the fact that during the day, most of homes, shops and hostels were closed due to the heat and frequent sand storms. Prepare to get dirty!

We got off the bus from Tinghir in the late in the evening and walked around in pitch darkness, searching around for a place to stay. It wasn’t hard to find a decent lodging and negotiate the price down. Beware, however, that Merzouga, being a desert town, is a location favoured by cockroaches… Don’t be surprised if you stumble upon those little guys in your room (well, okay, I was surprised and screamed my lungs out… but got used to their presence after a while… ). I know this does not sound appealing, but this is desert life. I’d rather have you prepared for this.

Morocco Budget Travel Hint 6: Be careful when choosing guides offering you a trip to the desert. Some are better, some are worse (i.e. the amount of activities planned for you at the desert camping can vary significantly). Moreover, strongly reconsider doing more than 2 days and 1 night. You might end up sitting around in a plastic tent, in huge heat, doing nothing for a day. And yeah. There are NO bathrooms. So… no toilet, no water and no shower. Be sure to pack baby wipes and Purell.

Just like in the old days...seen on a budget travel across the country.
Just like in the old days…

Seeing at the Sahara desert was an unforgettable experience. The sheer beauty of sand dunes, admired from the top of the camel, is a view that can’t be replicated. It’s something that you have seen in photos or movies, but once you experience the vastness of the desert yourself, you can’t help but be impressed with Mother Nature’s clever creative powers.

Morocco Budget Travel Hint 7: If you are a fan of night photography, be prepared for some shooting after the sun goes down. The amount of light pollution is very small in the area.

From Merzouga, we boarded an overnight bus to Meknes, another one of the Imperial cities (and perhaps one of my favourites). This marked the 2nd half of our journey – but more about that in Morocco, part 2 (SOON).

Beautiful dunes of Erg Chebbi seen on a budget travel across the country.
Beautiful dunes of Erg Chebbi
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