TANGIER TO ESSOUIRA
Tangier to Essouira is a journey that balances on the line between comfortable and courageous. An adventure that takes little planning, but a lot of faith in people and the systems that drive a country.
Morocco, a destination among a handful of places at the top of most travelers to-do list. It's a country that remains just close enough to Europe to feel comfortable, but still allows for ones imagination to go wild with the idea of exotic markets, elegant islamic patterns, and seemingly endless desert.
And while Morocco has managed to remain wild, it's surprisingly easy to navigate. Granted, all usual precautions should be taken - Morocco is truly a plan-as-you-go journey that should remain flexible and fun for as long as possible.
SO IT BEGINS
With only a small backpack and no plan whatsoever, I caught the first taxi I saw from the airport to the old town Tangier - Morocco's primary port city; known for its gangs, smuggling, and sleuthing spies. Let's just say the city doesn't have the best reputation and I wasn't so keen on hanging around too long when so much to see was ahead of me.
After getting a little lost in a maze of streets, an intuitive boy turned a corner and offered me some help with finding a decent hostel - for a price of course. 1 Euro later I arrived at the large wooden doors of the "Melting Pot Hostel" and found an easy check-in, a comfortable bunk, and an assortment of backpackers from all over the world, whom would later become long-term travel partners during my time in Morocco.
But before heading off on my month of adventures, a little planning needed to take place. Specifically I had to pick a route. The main reason I chose Morocco as my destination was to see the expanse of desert in the east, and not just any desert - the Sahara. When choosing a route, I leaned heavily towards ending up in Merzouga which influenced the rest of the trip.
The route I took is pretty classic in terms of Moroccan backpacking and you'll see plenty of people doing the same, or reverse-route. The entire journey can be done via the local bus system, but I chose to hitch with other travelers any chance I could to lessen the time on the road a bit.
Supratours! Remember it. This is the primary bus company throughout all of Morocco. No need to book far in advance, but it's advisable to budget a day or two in order to get the ticket you want. In places such as Merzouga, buses may not run daily, and even if they do, a missed-bus will set you back 24 hours. Be sure to check local ticket offices when you arrive, and plan your exit accordingly. Don't be surprised when ticket offices are closed for the mid-afternoon siesta - they'll open up again soon.
The famous blue city! Chefchaouen is exactly how you would imagine it, incredibly blue. If photo taking is your main draw to Morocco, this is the place to be. However cliche it all may be, Chef is a gorgeous puzzle of blue buildings towering up the hill. That being said, aside from it's obvious appeal, I found little interest in Chef and wouldn't recommend staying for more than a day or two. Unless of course you plan on exploring the hillsides and trekking the forests. Chef is a must-see stop, but a quickie. Locals, while kind as usual, are a bit tired of tourists and will see you as the commodity that you are.
Fes is a city with a pulse. Not for the faint of heart, vegans, or those who hate getting dirty. Fes is a place to explore with an open mind and shoes you can destroy. Expect a strong scent of meat, lye, and natural chemicals (bird shit) as the city is also a functioning leather tannery. While grimey, Fes has heart and shows it. People are welcoming, streets are narrow, and street food is plentiful. I recommend staying at least two days to really delve deep into all the nooks and crannies of Fes. And be sure to grab a handful of mint for under your nose as you go.
Azrou, the town of mountain monkeys, alpine villas, and lush forest. Not quite what you expect from Morocco, the desert paradise. In my opinion Azrou is best explored with friends in a rental car so you can spend as much time with the Barbary Macaques as you please. Having our own vehicle also allows for added benefits like stopping at a mans home to try some fresh milk straight from the camel. It's surprisingly salty and warm - drink at your own risk. I recommend only spending an afternoon driving the country roads to Azrou, and I don't think it's necessary to stay the night. Fes provides a convenient location to start from, and cars can be easily rented from the airport.
SAHARA. Don't skip Merzouga... why else are you in Morocco really? The town is desolate and ill-equipped for anything other than exploring the dunes in the evenings after snoozing the hot day away. Truly the best kind of middle-of-nowhere that I've been and for anyone who loves nature, this is the place to be. If climbing the 150m tall Erg Chebbi dune isn't your cup of mint tea, there are plenty of camel and quad tours available for a good price. Be prepared that if the rains come in, you may wake up to your hostel magically transformed into water-front property. Flash floods may delay your trip and can be dangerous if not prepared. Be sure to check the forecast before heading east.
One night in Tinghir is all you need, especially when Todra Gorge is flooded out and inaccessible. and while small, this town has some character worth seeing. Resting in the foothills of the Atlas mountains, Tinghir is a nice change of pace after dusting off all the sand of Merzouga. Quite a lush oasis greets you, along with a community that promotes working women, literacy, and education as a whole. Spend an afternoon walking the city and be open to getting pulled into the odd workshop or two.
While Ouazazate and Ait Benhaddou is a must see, it's a large glorified tourist attraction that isn't so interesting for people looking for authenticity. However, if you decide to stay in the tiny village of Tabount, roughly 8km from Ouarazazate, you will experience a whole new side of Morocco. Arriving on a holiday, and being the only tourist in town, I was immediately invited to a dance party by locals. The party was hard to miss, as it involved forming a large band and running through the narrow mud streets as a wave of music and laughing. Women removed head scarves, kids made fireworks out of steel wool, and everyone had the best time. One night should be enough, but if you connect with the locals, I'd recommend two.
The cultural center of Morocco Marrakesh is often most travelers jumping-off point. I chose to save it for the end as more of a transit city between my time in Essouira and flying home. Marrakesh is lovely, but after a month of busy markets, it can all become a little repetitive. That being said, there is something special about Marrakesh and it deserves a day or two to settle in. It's less cramped and dirty than Fes, but maintains the business that I've come to love about Morocco. Beyond all else, Marrakesh is a perfect spot for last minute gifts, flea market photos, and getting a little lost.
My final and favourite stop in in all of Morocco, and the city that deserves more time than most. This beach town has charm like no other - between a port full of blue fishing boats, salty sea-side tidal pools, and markets with a unique flare - Essouira is the most relaxing corner of Morocco. After a month of hostels I decided to get an Airbnb while in Essouira and I couldn't have been happier. 5 nights of living locally in an apartment to call my own was such a necessary break - and getting to know my neighbours and witness their daily lives was an added treat. Don't come to Essouira expecting amazing beach time though, there is still a very real problem managing trash and the beaches suffer for it. Come with an open mind and get ready to unwind.