Travel writer Valerie gives her tips on Morocco!
Last summer I spent three weeks volunteering and travelling around Morocco. It is rich in culture and offers diverse landscapes such as the beaches, mountains and the Sahara. Scouring the internet for volunteering organisations, I was keen to find one that was affordable, trustworthy, provided an environment to meet other volunteers and offered excursions to make exploring Morocco with the other volunteers easy. I soon came across “Riad 9 Volunteering” (R9V for short)- a student volunteering organisation providing a wealth of volunteering projects such as teaching English and feeding the locals for affordable student prices. As a student organisation, only students need apply which was a perfect way to meet people from the University of Birmingham and other universities across the UK and the EU, especially as I was travelling alone.
I participated in a range of volunteering projects but the one that stood out to me the most was the feeding project. A couple of hours before breakfast, a meal eaten after a 14 hour fast during Ramadan, I helped to prepare food with the other volunteers and the locals at a restaurant. We served the food at an outside seating area and at breakfast the Shofar sounded across Marrakech, giving us the signal to eat. Eating with the locals and participating in this cultural event was a truly rewarding and eye-opening experience.
Jemaa el-Fnaa, also known as the main square, is adjacent to the riad I was residing in and other hotels catering to tourists. During the day it is packed with outdoor markets, offering souvenirs and jewellery, and restaurants located in the Old City. The square is also filled with orange juice stalls with different sellers vying to catch the attention of tourists. As I was in Morocco during Ramadan, the square was quieter than usual during the day.By night, the entertainment increases and the square is crowded with street performers, music, henna artists and food stalls. I often saw stray cats taking cover from the scorching heat in the souks or simply sleeping in the middle of the streets. The souks features an array of small markets devoted to leather goods, jewellery, spices, argan oil and perfume.
This is all located in one place along winding streets and is to the north of the square. Although it is a compact area, it is challenging to navigate and is quite easy to get lost in during the first few visits. Only a 30 minute walk from Old Town is New Town, appealing to those after Western comforts. Although it’s a short walk from Old Town, I would recommend hailing a taxi as the 50 degree weather makes the walk quite unbearable. Popular western shops such as H&M, Zara and Starbucks can be found there as well as spas and various restaurants offering a myriad of cuisine.
Essaouira is a laid back seaside town three hours from Old Town. It’s perfect for a day trip to escape the mayhem of Marrakech. My fellow volunteers and I visited a restaurant along the coast before exploring the outdoor markets selling unique goods. Sports enthusiasts can take advantage of the cooler weather by participating in wind surfing along with various activities such as quad biking. My favourite thing was horse riding along the beach, a perfect way to see the Moroccan landscape.
The Sahara was a ten-hour drive from Old Town, giving us the opportunity to see numerous towns and spectacular mountain views along the way (making the long distance travel bearable!). Don’t bother taking a mini fan to get you through the sweltering heat, it just blows hot air! I would recommend hiring a van with air conditioning to make the heat more manageable. Following the long journey, we were welcomed by Berbers who provided camels for us to ride to the camps. As this lasted another forty-five minutes I would strongly recommend taking a lightweight scarf to protect your face and neck from the heat as the soaring temperatures reached highs of fifty degrees, along with sun screen of course. The journey came to an end when we reached the campsite where we settled for the evening, which was more luxurious than I had imagined. We were welcomed by more Berbers who served us food and mint tea, and provided entertainment. The following morning we had the opportunity to watch the sunrise after a short trek up the sand dunes.
The stunning waterfalls of Cascades d’Ouzoud are 150km northeast of Marrakech, surrounded by green valleys. The short walk to the falls is perfect for novice hikers as it is easy to navigate and isn’t too steep, so a guide is not necessary in my opinion. You can swim at the bottom of one of the smaller water falls but adrenaline seekers can cliff dive from a safe distance.
Morocco has a breathtaking mountainous scenery giving hiking enthusiasts the chance to challenge themselves with some of the highest peaks in Africa. We decided to climb Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa at 4,167m, spanning a total of two days. The first half of the hike lasts approximately five hours, depending on how many breaks you take. There are small shops along the first stretch of the mountain providing energy drinks and snacks. A large hostel and campsite is available at the halfway point, also providing dinner. At night I had the opportunity to see the stars, a rare experience as I come from London. The second half is steep and requires more care when hiking due to the high altitudes and wind. I strongly recommend using a Moroccan guide to lead the way up the mountain, to prevent groups from splitting and for safety precautions. As a tough mountain to conquer, I didn’t make it to the peak but from what I heard from a few of the other volunteers, it offered rewarding views.
Morocco has a wide selection of traditional cuisine to indulge in at very affordable prices. Most restaurants serve Tagine, a stew made with meat, fish or vegetables, available in many flavours – my favourite being the egg and meat tagine. Another traditional dish is Shawarma, a wrap filled with meat or chicken, vegetables and dressing usually served with fries. During the day, you will be able to find a few food stalls preparing flatbread with a tomato and onion filling. Moroccan mint tea is worlds apart from the well-known English staples. It is traditionally served in a small, handleless tea glass and has an acquired sweet taste. There is even a technique to serving it where it is essential to pour the tea from a high distance, in order to make a thin foam layer at the top of the glass.
There are several tips that I could offer were you to choose Morocco as your next destination. Learn basic French; French is one of the official languages in Morocco so it is useful to learn for communicating with the locals. When in Souks, give a firm response to sellers if you don’t want to purchase their goods. I experienced the most culture shock when exploring and shopping at the souks or indoor markets, as the owners are generally more insistent when trying to sell their goods to touriSts. Be willing to haggle; even if you don’t succeed, it doesn’t hurt to try. In terms of road safety, watch out for the motorcyclists along the narrow roads and streets. Stay hydrated, as the unforgiving climate will certainly drain your energy. Lastly, when I chose to visit Morocco it was during the entirety of Ramadan. Be aware that if you do the same, some shops in New Town and museums close early. Restaurants remain open during the day but I personally did not eat outside out of respect to the locals.