We are on the latter half of this recap, folks! I hope you’ve all enjoyed my journal entries thus far.
Out of all 15 days of this tour through Morocco, those mentioned in this post are the most dear to me. I think you’ll understand why.
Day 9 – Ait Benhaddou
It took us longer than it should have to pick up on it. But in every city large enough for taxis, the cabs were different colors.
For instance, in Rabat they are royal blue and in Meknes they are a pretty aqua. On this day, when we drove through the rose valley for lunch on our way to Ouarzazate, the taxi cars were pink.
Moha had told us the driving for this day would be minimal and the stop we were going to make in the rose valley would be the best place to buy authentic rose products (naturally).
I’m not much of a souvenir person. But if it’s something useful that I can get cheaper than back home, I’m game.
But I was actually excited for our final destination. When I saw the name in the tour brochure I hadn’t the slightest idea about it. However, once I saw the pictures I knew.
Both Ouarzazate and Ait BenHaddou are considered the film capitals of Morocco. The ancient fortress of the latter has been the set to movies such as Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Lawrence of Arabia, and many more.
I love seeing the very places I’ve visited showcased on other travel accounts then saying “I’ve been there!” So this was one of those things, I guess.
We had the option of touring the Atlas studio to see the scene sets. But majority voted no as Moha told us they were outdated. Instead we headed straight to our stay for that night.
After we arrived and found our way through the labyrinth of a home, Carmen and I ended up at the top terrace lounging in the sun. It was nice to just kick back for a bit and not have to be anywhere but there.
- Bought a pack of 5 pure rose oil rollers for about $20. I only regret not getting more!
- Lacsen is a softy. He bought a wreath of rose petals made by children on the side of the road and hung it on his rear view mirror.
- Tried my first and probably last avocado smoothie.
- The host of our hotel has earned himself the nickname “Action” because he has been an extra in more than 20 films. He demonstrated his acting skills with a show on how to cook couscous.
- We took a walk just before sunset into the citadel and had to cross a small river to get to the gate. Moha told us the royal history as we wound our way up each level. It was SO WINDY up at the top of Ait Benhaddou’s tallest spot. I could honestly lean against the gusts while they held me upright!
- We met a young artist who uses herbs like saffron and indigo flowers to make his watercolor inks. He then holds the faint paintings over a flame briefly for the colors to emerge bolder. This also gave off an aroma that reminded me of roasting marshmallows. I definitely bought one!
- Once back at the hotel, I lingered as long as possible on the rooftop terrace watching the sunset send shadows upon the layers of the fortress. I was barefoot and balancing on the ledges. Yet I couldn’t have felt more at peace. When that sun went down, though, the howling wind was a chilly one.
- However, a few of us did brave the cold because we’re girls and we wanted chocolate. So Moha took us to every shop under the stars until we found some.
Day 10 – Aroumd
WARNING: If you notoriously suffer from motion sickness, you will want to grab the front seat and aim all the air vents toward yourself while on this journey. Or take an anti-nausea pill. Whatever.
The road up through the Tichka pass is not for the faint of heart, or stomach in this case.
However, it is a breathtaking one. With such contrasting colors of green grass and cacti to purple and yellow wildflowers against red dirt and snow-capped peaks, I was almost able to forget about focusing on my breathing. Almost.
I felt the need to keep reminding myself all day that I was actually in Morocco. This destination was especially surprising–I was simply unprepared for such beautiful mountain sights in northern Africa.
This area of the High Atlas mountain range is a popular destination for hikers near and far who travel to tackle Mt. Toubkal, especially since it’s only a couple of hours from Marrakech.
At the village of Imlil, we downsized and stowed our main baggage in a hotel safe room and set off to the town of Aroumd where our guesthouse, called a gite, awaited us. Some decided to take mules but after the drive my feet were ready to be on solid ground.
The minute we walked in and I introduced myself to the children, who could obviously speak better English than anyone else in the home, I gained instant friends.
Little Shayma–wild, curly hair and green eyes–was thrilled to go with me, the twins, and Salim on our walk to enjoy the mountain air and explore the town.
In fact, she invited two more of the kids to tag along. There wasn’t more than a few seconds where my hands were not being tightly gripped by smaller hands the entire walk.
- I didn’t get motion sick, so that’s a plus.
- With their limited English, the children resorted to calling out our names in sing-song fashion. But at the end of our walk both girls looked up at me and genuinely said “I love you!” Later that night, Moha told me it is not common for people of their culture to say such words of endearment. I wondered if this had a lot to do with the influence of other English speakers traveling through so often, but I couldn’t help but feel special anyway.
- Salim had bought all of the kids a piece of candy during our walk, but when we were almost home one of the girls holding my hand motioned for us to stop as she went up to another small shop. At first I thought she wanted more candy for herself, but then I saw her hand over a few coins of her own. Then she handed out a piece of candy to each of us adults (yes, it’s OK, you can cry). #TheFeels
- Dinner that evening was comforting. Our rooms down the rugged stone steps were cozy and warm from the fireplace. We told stories and jokes through the window of our room to the open area, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed so hard.
Days 11 & 12 – Essaouira
If there is anything I would have changed about our itinerary, I wish dearly we could have had an extra day up there in the mountains. I just felt so…at home. There may be fourteen people living there, and they may not be that well off despite their best efforts to provide and survive. But I liked it just fine.
While I was eating breakfast, Shayma came into the room and threw her arms around my neck behind me, giving me a kiss on the cheek before running off to school. That was the last time I saw her.
Yes, the days up ’til then had been full of natural beauty and adventure. But spending time with those kids is what really filled my heart to its brim.
Turned out that Shayma’s father was our hiking guide that morning up into Toubkal National Park to see a famous shrine. He had not been present the night before because he came home late from a full day of hiking.
“She told me she loves you,” he said once he learned my name. I almost literally heard the seams of my heart begin stretching.
We hiked steadily for about 2 hours. After seeing the shrine, we stopped in a little cafe for tea before heading back down for lunch.
Back on the road, we discovered how strictly Moroccan law takes wearing seat belts. Lacsen had to sweet talk his way out of a ticket when one of the super observant guards at a security checkpoint noticed one of us did not have our belt fastened.
We stopped at a local co-op of women to watch their process of producing 100% argan oil and other products. I sampled the argan nut butter and honey but just ended up buying the pure oil for cosmetic purposes.
Only a couple hours later, I saw the haze in the distance and knew. We were moments away from the coast.
Alas, it was there in Essaouira that we officially, and sadly, parted ways with Lacsen before entering the old medina in search of our hotel.
- When we got a picture with our guide that morning he said, “yes! picture with my sisters from other misters!”
- Just an FYI, if you ever visit these parts and see goats in the trees, don’t bother stopping. This is a big tourist trick. Yes, sometimes goats are desperate enough to climb up and eat the fruit, but more than likely they were put up there to attract attention.
- Also, argan oil is not made out of the seeds found in goat poop. Trust me on this.
- We learned Morocco actually has the largest solar energy facility in the world. It’s right out there smack in the middle of the desert. Go figure.
- I loved the desert; I loved the mountains. But there’s just something about being near the ocean that makes me feel at ease. We felt the new vibe instantly–artsy, eclectic, laid back–it, and the people, were everything a coastal town should be.
- Fish was on the menu for the night. And the night after. I very maturely drank a virgin mojito while listening to the sounds of browsing tourists in the street below and watching the gnaoua dancer next to our table.
Breakfast was absolute chaos. Way too many guests for one dining room. I felt so bad for the cooks and women trying to serve us. But I really just wanted my terrible coffee, and thank goodness I got it.
We started the day with a city tour to get an understanding of the town’s history and layout.
Basically, the Portuguese had control of this area for years, which is why so much of the architecture is heavily influenced by them.
I happen to be about 1/4 Portuguese, so I definitely felt the call of my people here. Or something.
Truly though, this city is gorgeous, and not just for the scenic views of the Atlantic.
After the tour, the giddy free-spirit in me took solo flight for the rest of the day.
I took off straight to the beach to watch the kite surfers. I got some curious looks from the local guys playing sand soccer, and also had to deny the offers to ride a horse or a camel on the beach multiple times. After while though, it was apparent my short legs were no match for the wind.
Once back inside the old medina (and probably looking very bedraggled), I took my time down each corridor looking at all the shops. The owners were friendly and engaging, but not pushy at all.
But I didn’t buy anything that day, except for a box of delicious looking treats that ended up not being so delicious after all. But they were pretty. I ate lunch while shivering in a shaded alley and then immediately found a cafe with outdoor seating in the sun.
That night the few of us who always were down to be social ended up going out to dinner together and staying out ’til the wee hours of the next morning talking tirelessly of deep topics, once again.
- Essaouira actually means “well-designed” so it makes sense why every door and alleyway acts as a muse to any artist here. I was in the most colorful heaven I’ve ever imagined, and not just in this town.
- There was a blind man wandering the streets with his cane, but instead of begging, he was selling little packages of facial tissues for a few coins. I never opened the package, but I’ll always keep it as a reminder.
- The waiter at the coffee shop told me sincerely, “I like your kind of beauty, it is…very great” when I was getting up to leave. Sorta kinda made my day, even if I didn’t exactly know what he meant.