Morocco is a gateway to Africa, and a country of dizzying diversity. Here you’ll find epic mountain ranges, ancient cities, sweeping deserts and warm hospitality.
Enjoying Morocco starts with nothing more strenuous than its national pastime people-watching in a street cafe with a coffee or a mint tea. Use the opportunity to plan your next moves hiking up North Africa’s highest peak, learning to roll couscous, camel trekking in the desert, shopping in the souqs or getting lost in the medina. Between the activities, you can sleep in boutique riads, relax on panoramic terraces and grand squares, and mop up delicately flavoured tajines before sweating it all out in a restorative hamam.
Mountains & Desert
From Saharan dunes to the peaks of the High Atlas, Morocco could have been tailor-made for travellers. Lyrical landscapes carpet this slice of North Africa like the richly coloured and patterned rugs you’ll lust after in local cooperatives. The mountains not just the famous High Atlas but also the Rif and suntanned ranges leading to Saharan oases offer simple, breathtaking pleasures: night skies glistening in the thin air, and views over a fluffy cloudbank from the Tizi ‘n’Test pass. On lower ground, there are rugged coastlines, waterfalls and caves in forested hills, and the mighty desert.
Think of it as live-action channel-surfing: everywhere you look in the Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakesh’s main square, you’ll discover drama in progress. The hoopla and halqa (street theatre) has been non-stop here ever since this plaza was the site of public executions around AD 1050 hence its name, which means ‘assembly of the dead’.
By mid-morning the soundtrack of snake-charmer flutes has already begun, but the show doesn’t kick off until sunset when restaurants fire up their grills, cueing musicians to tune up their instruments.
An ancient breeding ground for scholars and artisans, imams and gourmands Fez is a supremely self-confident city with a historical and cultural lineage that beguiles visitors. And there is something intangibly raw about a place where 70,000 people still choose to live in the maelstrom of a medina so dark, dense and dilapidated that it remains the world’s largest car-free urban area. Donkeys cart goods down the warren of alleyways as they have done since medieval times, and ruinous pockets loom around every corner though a government drive to restore Fes el-Bali to its former glory is spurring changes.
Fez’ medina can seem like it’s in a state of perpetual pandemonium; some visitors fall instantly in love and others recoil in horror. But its charms are many. Seemingly blind alleys lead to squares with exquisite fountains and streets bursting with aromatic food stands, rooftops unveil a sea of minarets, and stooped doorways reveal the workshops of tireless artisans.
Welcome to North Africa’s highest mountain range, known by local Berbers as Idraren Draren (Mountains of Mountains), and a trekker’s paradise from spring through to autumn. The High Atlas runs diagonally across Morocco for almost 1000km, encircling Marrakesh to the south and east from the Atlantic Coast just north of Agadir to Khenifra in the northeast. Its saw toothed Jurassic peaks act as a weather barrier between the mild, Mediterranean climate to the north and the encroaching Sahara to the south.
In its highest reaches, snow falls regularly from September to May, allowing for winter sports in Oukaimeden, while year-round rivers flow northwards towards Marrakesh creating a network of fertile valleys the Zat, Ourika, Mizane and Ouirgane. Happiest of all are the secluded valleys of the central High Atlas, which include Zaouiat Ahansal, Ait Bougomez, Ait Bououli and Ait Blel.
In the High Atlas the main language is the Berber dialect of Tashelhit, with some pockets of Tamazight.
Chefchaouen’s medina is one of the loveliest in Morocco. Small and uncrowded, it’s easy to explore, with enough winding paths to keep you diverted, but compact enough that you’ll never get too lost. Most of the buildings are painted a blinding blue-white, giving them a clean, fresh look, while terracotta tiles add an Andalucian flavour.
The heart of the medina is the shady, cobbled Plaza Uta el-Hammam. The plaza is dominated by the red-hued walls of the kasbah and the adjacent Grande Mosquee. The kasbah contains a lovely garden, an ethnographic museum, and an art gallery.
Other Places Of Interest
In the days of cross-border tourism, Figuig (fig-eeg) was popular with travellers. Few people make it here now, which is a shame because it is one of Moroccoâ€™s best oasis towns: seven traditional desert villages amid 200,000 date palms fed by artesian wells. Once a historic way station for pilgrims travelling to Mecca, Figuig now sleeps, only waking for the autumn date harvest.
Figuig has an upper and lower town. The main road, Blvd Hassan II, runs through the upper (new) town, where there are ATMs, a post office and pleasant municipal gardens.
From Ouarzazate the N9 plunges southeast into the Draa Valley, formed by a narrow ribbon of water from the High Atlas that occasionally emerges triumphantly in lush oases particularly between Agdz and Zagora, a stretch of about 95km. The drive from Agdz to Zagora takes three to four hours, though the more scenic Circuits Touristiques route follows the piste through the oasis. Beyond that, a road takes you 96km further south to M’Hamid, a town 40km short of the Algerian border that marks the end of the road and the start of the desert proper.
Nestled in the gorgeous Ameln Valley, the village of Tafraoute is surrounded on all sides by red-granite mountains. Despite its unassuming appearance, the area is quite prosperous due to the hard-earned cash sent home by relatives working in the big cities or abroad. It is a pleasant and relaxed base for exploring the region