North Africa’s most inviting and exciting country is also one of its most misunderstood.
We believe that if everyone knew what Morocco was really like, Morocco would be utterly incapable of handling the number of international visitors it gets every year.
Of course, we’re biased, here at Rug & Rock Adventures, as it’s the location of all our most popular adventure tours. We know how magical it is – but we wouldn’t blame you for doubting our motives for singing its praises. Absolutely fair enough.
So, forget our opinion – and take a look for yourself.
Here are 10 ways Morocco will absolutely blow your mind.
1. It’s utterly thrilling to get there
There are, broadly speaking, two ways to get to Morocco – the easy way, and the way that makes you feel like a proper explorer (RAAAR).
You can guess the easy way – it involves climbing into a long steel tube and sitting down for a few hours while it propels itself through the air using Science. If you do this, be sure to get a window seat, so you can see how incredibly dramatic Morocco looks from the air:
For all our Morocco adventure tours, we use Marrakech as our flying-in point (here’s our guide on doing that, including where to grab the cheapest flights).
But in terms of the sheer experience of travel, nothing beats the old way of arriving from Europe – by crossing the Strait of Gibralter, using one of the daily ferries that run from Algeciras to Tangier.
The Strait is only 8.9 miles wide- and Africa is right there, in front of you, growing nearer every minute, as to your left the imposing silhouette of the Rock of Gibralter disappears into the haze and the coastline of Europe blurs in your wake.
It’s one of the most impressively romantic ways to cross between continents – and it does funny things to your breathing, every single time.
2. Morocco is colossal
In terms of getting your head round the size of it, Morocco‘s biggest problem is what it’s part of.
If you go to Google Maps and pull up Africa, Morocco is little more than a fleck of land stuck to Africa’s top left corner. It looks inconsequential, an afterthought, a pretender to the title of “African country”. Algeria, Libya, Egypt? C’mon, those are real countries. Morocco looks like the runt of the litter.
Thing is, you probably didn’t scroll the map´upwards – or you would have seen how much you had to zoom in to find “big” countries like Spain, France and Germany.
The continent of Africa is on a scale that turns Northern Europe into a postage stamp. Lay Morocco upon Europe, and it’d stretch from Gibralter across the whole of Spain and deep into France.
In fact, the distance from London to the edge of Morocco is LESS than the entire length of Morocco and the Western Sahara combined. By European terms, it’s vast.
In some ways, you can say there is no comparison to be made.
Oh, and Morocco’s total area is half a million square km.
That sounds a lot until you learn the whole of the Sahara desert is almost ten times larger.
(You can read more about that here.)
3. Morocco is really big on mountains
When Morocco goes high, it goes really high.
At 4,167 metres, Mount Toubkal is the highest mountain in Morocco – and in the whole of North Africa. Stand on its summit, and as far as you can see in every direction, the whole landscape is underneath your feet.
It’s also remarkably accessible.
We run a tour to the summit of Toubkal (that’s out picture, above) – and while it’s certainly not a cakewalk, it requires no previous mountaineering experience if you use the right guides.
4. Morocco is so much more than mountains and desert
So yes, the mountains are jaw-dropping. And of course you already know about the desert.
End of story? Oh hell no.
This is the Morocco the rest of the world knows, and that’s actually a problem. Not because it’s wrong – but because you frequently get views like this:
If you’d never think of pairing the word “forest” with “Morocco” in your mind, you’ve clearly never been to the Middle Atlas – the second great range of mountains you encounter as you head south into the heart of the country.
These limestone mountains stretch for 350km – but banish thoughts of dry, dusty peaks and barren plateaus.
The cedar forests of the Middle Atlas stretch far and wide. These aren’t man-made plantations, grown for commercial purposes. They’re natural, and they’ve been here for many, many lifetimes. Some of them are a whopping 800 years old.
The semi-nomadic shepherds of the Middle Atlas have been around for even longer, and this is their landscape. Their herds, granaries and farmlands pay testament to the richness of the flora and fauna of this part of Morocco – and every region has its own flavour of biodiversity.
Take the Cèdre Gouraud Forest, home to a colony of cheeky, curious Barbary macaques – the same species that famously clings to the rock of Gibraltar, delighting millions of tourists a year.
We get a kick from taking people to the Middle Atlas because they have no idea about the trees, about the forests, about how incredibly green it all is.
And then, when they arrive, we ask them to jump in the water.
Did we mention there’s water? There’s so much water.
Did you know that some of Africa’s most beautiful waterfalls are found in the Middle Atlas?
(You probably didn’t. But that’s okay. Most people have absolutely no idea.)
In 2014, TripAdvisor awarded the waterfalls of Ouzoud (150km northeast of Marrakesh) a well-deserved Certificate Of Excellence.
When you wind your way through the shaded olive tree grove at the base of the falls and stand, looking upwards as millions of gallons of clear mountain water roar down in front of you – you’ll see exactly why TripAdvisor did that.
Or maybe you’d prefer the plunging falls at the Berber village of Zaouia d’Ifrane:
Figuratively and literally, the Middle Atlas is a landscape defined by its falling water (also known as cascades).
(Warning: you may be hit with an uncontrollable urge to buy a plane ticket.)
And when water’s not falling, it’s bursting out of the ground.
At 555km long, the Oum Er-Rbia is the country’s second-largest river…
And its source is here, in the rocks of the Middle Atlas:
If you prefer calmer water, take to the high plateaus of the Aguelmane Azigza National Park:
It’s a landscapes of plains, lakes and nomadic shepherds that has been dubbed the “Moroccan Mongolia”.
So that’s the other Morocco. Now you know. (Tell your friends.)
5. Morocco is delightfully obsessed with tea
It’s not long after dawn on your trans-Saharan caravan adventure, and you’re still half-asleep. Around you the desert is warming up again (it can get cold at night), and the smells of breakfast being prepared are wafting over the camp.
Not far away, the mighty Erg Chegaga climbs into the sky, shockingly orange against the infinite blue overhead. You remember something you learned yesterday, about iron, which is why the sand is red? And all that iron in windblown Saharan sand is why the Atlantic is fertile?
Something like that. Whatever. Who cares? Not you – you’re too sleepy. You rub grit from the corner of your eyes. It’s the start of a long, exciting day of climbing and you just. can’t. wake. UP.
Time for a really strong cup of tea, then.
No – not one of those. They don’t do those in Morocco (except in the most touristy places, obviously).
What you’re after is one of these:
Moroccan mint tea – also known as Mahgrebi mint tea, and in Spain, Moorish tea – will be your constant companion in North Africa.
If your idea of tea is a teabag, hot water and a splash of milk, Moroccan mint tea will look…a bit herbal. Kinda fancy. You’ll assume it’s what North African hipsters would order in their local Starbucks.
In fact, everyone drinks it here. Sometimes litres of it a day.
It’s what Moroccans think of when you say “tea”.
The traditional Moroccan tea service is a truly spectacular thing.
Firstly, the glasses. They don’t serve Moroccan mint tea in mugs or bone china (not normally, anyway). It always comes in a glass, topped with a scrunch of spearmint leaves.
A word on sugar: if you don’t have a sweet tooth, you may have to work a little harder than everyone else. Always make a point of asking to add your own sugar – or you’ll be forced to drink something that tastes like minty syrup.
Also, try to watch it being poured. It’s an elaborate affair, involving liquid cascading from a great height and a delightfully frothy-bubbly sound as it collects in the glass. You may assume they’re showing off.
They’re not. This is normal.
Next, the teapot, or berrad. Your first instinct may be to rub the sides to see if a genie pops out – but don’t do that, because the hot metal will burn your fingers.
Most families have more than one tea service – the everyday one for your morning cuppa, and the fancy one that only comes out for special occasions.
Mint tea, however, basically comes out at any time and for any reason whatsoever. It’ll be there when you meet new people. It’ll be there when you say you’re thirsty. It’ll be there whenever a fire is made, at every meal, and it’ll be there at unusual times of the day and night when someone has the munchies and fancies a brew…
And hopefully there’s a cup or two of it somewhere near you right now, as you stand here amidst the sunlit dunes, desperately trying to wake up.
Best go look for it, then.
6. Morocco is the cradle of humanity
Researchers have redated a long-overlooked skull from a cave called Jebel Irhoud to a startling 300,000 years ago, and unearthed new fossils and stone tools. The result is the oldest well-dated evidence of Homo sapiens, pushing back the appearance of our kind by 100,000 years.
“This stuff is a time and a half older than anything else put forward as H. sapiens,” says paleoanthropologist John Fleagle of the State University of New York in Stony Brook.
– “World’s oldest Homo Sapiens fossils found in Morocco” – Ann Gibbons, Science
7. Morocco is home to THIS canyon
Hey! We’re just leaving on a trip to Todra Gorge, our favourite rock climbing destination in Morocco…and we thought you’d like to see it for yourself.
Are you up for that?
This is Tinghir, a city of 40,000 people on the south slope of the High Atlas mountains. It’s a delicious 26 degrees Celsius today (perfect conditions – it gets a lot hotter in the high summer) and those palm trees stretch across your view because they’re fed by an oasis that runs for about 30 miles end to end.
On another day, we’d suggest you go exploring and enjoy the company of the oh-so-hospitable Berber (or Amazighen) people who live here…
But we’re heading for those mountains.
What everyone calls “Todra Gorge” (this isn’t it – don’t worry, we’ll get there) is midway along a great, wide cleft scoured out of the surrounding limestone by the Todra River.
Imagine the time it took for that river you can see all the way down there to carve out this canyon system – although it was presumably a lot fiercer than this 10,000 years ago when the Moroccan climate was less desert-like.
However you look at it, this is astonishingly old terrain.
People have lived here for more years, decades, centuries that anyone can remember.
And in some ways, absolutely nothing has changed. You’ll still see locals herding donkeys and goats through here – and you’ll still be approached by people with something to sell.
(The hotels, however, are brand new – and a sign of Todra’s rising popularity.)
Ah – we’re almost here. There’s a 600-metre-long section where the cliff walls squeeze together and rise higher and higher – and that’s our destination today.
Okay. Take a deep breath. This is where it gets crazysauce.
The walls of Todra Gorge aren’t very far from each other. In places, barely ten metres separate them.
They do, however, rise up to 160 metres above the floor of the gorge, almost vertically in places.
That’s why your jaw is on the floor right now.
Hey, it’s ok – that happens to us all. Todra never loses that power, even for those of us who have been coming here for years.
There have been people climbing here since the 1960s – and it’s taken a while for the world to realise what an incredible place this is for rock-climbing. But now, the word is definitely out.
There are more than 150 climbing routes here, rated French Grade 5 to 8 (don’t worry, we’ll explain what that means when we start preparing you for your first climb).
We’ll let you catch your breath, and admire the view for a minute.
That’s Paroi du Levant over there, the “sunrise wall”. That’s the first route ever climbed, over on Arete Nord. That’s Plage Mansour Left, popular because it’s nice and sunny for most of the day (unless it’s the middle of summer and all you want is shade, in which case, we’d recommend the nicely shadowed Aiguille du Gue)
Coming along? We’ll wait for you.
8. Morocco is a choose-your-own adventure in food
There are two ways to eat in Morocco: cautious and all-out.
If you decide to be cautious, stick to reputable-looking restaurants. This is wise if you have a medical condition – and, you know, it’s a bit boring.
The other option is to try anything that looks edible. And in Marrakech that means going to the Jemaa el-Fna (below) when it’s at its busiest, and checking out the amazing street food options.
Eating out in Morocco is generally very affordable (£15 should comfortably cover breakfast, lunch and dinner).
Our food tip: tagines are a safe bet – they’re so hot during cooking that anything dodgy is burned out of them.
9. Morocco is home to the most exciting city in North Africa
Right now, Marrakech is remarkably welcoming for tourists. In terms of personal safety, it’s widely regarded as safer than most European cities.
The main reasons are twofold. The first is the warm, friendly people – and the second is the Tourist Brigade Police Force, which sends its officers out in plain clothes to look for tourist-related crime. If you’re ever in doubt, you can visit the Tourist Police headquarters on Rue Sidi Mimoun, or ring +212 693-276207 – but you’re unlikely to have a reason to do so.
Nevertheless, you should remain as vigilant against theft as in any major city. The real challenge for visitors – which is less a security issue and more of an annoyance – is the presence of scam artists and touts that are very slow to take No for an answer.
However, if you learn the rules of the Moroccan Taxi Driver’s Code – (which also generally applies in most cases where something’s being sold to tourists), and you keep a healthy scepticism towards unsolicited acts of generosity from shopkeepers, you’ll feel entirely at ease.
First order of business: where to stay?
Since Marrakech opened its doors wide to international visitors, the hotel industry has boomed and you’ll find plenty of swanky modern new buildings offering a room for the night. However, if you’re after something a bit special, we suggest you skip them and aim for a riad instead.
A riad is a traditional Moroccan townhouse, build around a courtyard. Most rooms in a riad face inwards, so when you open up first thing in the morning, you’re met with morning sunshine streaming down the middle of the building, setting the courtyard aglow. Since this courtyard is usually covered in greenery (“riad” means “garden”), it’s a sight that will lift your spirits, no matter how bad your let-lag is…
According to Trip Advisor, Marrakech’s top hotel (beating more than 500 others) is a riad – the Riad Dar Oulhoum.
Exploring the miles and miles of chaotic, colourful souks, or open-air marketplaces, is the most famous thing to do in Marrakech – and for good reason.
We could give you a detailed guide to the best spots – but it might be be obsolete by the time we publish it. The stalls and shops shift like the dunes of the Sahara, and your best bet is to go exploring and find out what’s there that particular day. Throw yourself into the scrum, let the crowd take you, and then find out where you are at the end of it.
(That said, we recommend being wary of hustlers – and grabbing a good paper map, so you can ask for directions and have someone point out where you are.)
The most attractive way to get ferried around is in a Caleche, a traditional horse-drawn carriage. You’ll find a lot of them at the Jemaa el-Fna. Expect to pay between Dh100 and Dh200 for an hour’s journey for one carriage (not per person) – and, as always, agree on the price with the driver before you set off.
And then of course there are the taxis. See above for our thoughts on those.
If you wander the souks for long enough, you’ll buy something. Something will catch your eye, or you’ll be artfully persuaded into taking something home…basically, however it happens, it’s going to happen.
For this reason, you need to know how to haggle. There are haggle-free shops in Marrakech, but they’re the vast minority. Having a rudimentary knowledge of the unspoken rules of haggling will save you a good chunk of money (and avoid that disheartening, shameful feeling when you realise you’ve allowed yourself to be massively overcharged).
Here’s a really great introduction to haggling and bargaining in Marrakech’s souks, courtesy of Wander Wisdom.
(And remember – anything you buy, you have to carry it back home. Sorry, oversized tagine pots.)
One of the most famous sights of Marrakech is the tannery area, consisting of hundreds of open concrete vats where animal hides are processed into leather. This industry is as old as the city (a little under a thousand years) – and, quite frankly, smells like it.
It’s a spectacular sight, with each vat using different-coloured dyes – but with some of the substances used for tanning being blood, lime and pigeon-poop, an atmosphere of a very different kind is the result. Fascinating, but amazingly smelly. If you’re there with a guide, you may be given a sprig of mint to hold under your nose. If not, bring your own.
If you’re feeling a little soiled after taking in the tannery, take a bath. No, the other kind – the public steam room called a hammam, similar to a Turkish bath. Moroccans typically go once a week.
Here’s travel writer Flora Baker’s experience of using a women-only Moroccan hammam – complete with challenged English sensibilities and feelings about privacy.
So that’s Marrakech.
(Except of course it isn’t. That’s just the merest hint of a taste of it.)
10. Morocco is full of Vikings, mummies and super-spies
This whole post is written to entice you to see Morocco for the first time. But really, you have seen it. You’ve seen it more times that you’ll ever know.
Usually, you see it when watching a film or TV show, and suddenly you say:
“Holy #@!#, where is THAT? It’s gorgeous. Is that computer graphics or something?
Morocco’s scenery is so gobsmackingly dramatic that it’s frequently used in moving pictures that aim to be equally gobsmackingly dramatic.
Jason Bourne was here. So was James Bond (a number of times). This is where Brendan Fraser fought The Mummy. This is where General Maximus fought as a gladiator, and where Tom Cruise went on his latest impossible mission.
It popped up in the background of the first two seasons of Game Of Thrones – and it’s where a young Indiana Jones got his start in the world.
Most recently, it’s where scenes were shot for the current season of Vikings.
(Vikings. In Morocco. I mean, how off-course can you get? But no – it seems they really were there, albeit very briefly.)
However, looking at Morocco on a 2D screen is an agonisingly poor substitute for the real thing. It’s one thing to admire Westeros from afar, and another thing entirely to actually go there.
We definitely recommend the latter.
If you’re ready to be overwhelmed by this incredible country in the best way imagineable, we’d love to help. For the past decade, we’ve been running adventure tours in every corner 0f the country.
But however you get there, do get there, one of these days. It’ll be so worth it.
Images: NASA/Wikimedia Commons; NASA/Wikimedia Commons; NASA/Wikimedia Commons; muriel_vd; ActiveSteve; Gilbert Sopakuwa; Fr Maxim Massalitin; Souflane M; Rob Stoeltje; Carlos ZGZ; Flavio Eiro, Thomas Muluck, mohamed hachimi, mohamed hachimi, Martin & Kathy Dady; hellykelly; Matthew Harrigan; Marcus Vickars; robc3; Charlotte Nordahl; Rosino