International Photo Credit: Lucy Lau

The Backpacker’s Guide to Navigating Morocco

Here’s how to explore the finest facets of the North African jewel in just over one week.

Morocco popped onto my travel radar in 2014, when, 20 minutes deep into a casual Skyscanner sesh during an 8:30 a.m. lecture at the University of Amsterdam—standard, appropriate behaviour for a study-abroad pupil, thank you very much—I spotted flights to Marrakech for as cheap as €50. I didn’t end up making it to the North African nation during this time, though, in retrospect, this may have been for the better. That’s because, in the years since, I’ve become much more acquainted with Morocco beyond its tourist-packed core of Marrakech—thanks in large part to an increase in accessible travel resources and Instagram’s improved geotag function—and realized there’s a lot more of the country I’d like to see in one go.

So when I committed to a round-trip flight to Casablanca for the end of December, I set out to craft a comprehensive itinerary that would take me from that modern locale, to the spiritual centre of Fez and bathed-in-blue passages of Chefchaouen, to the manic Marrakech, laidback Essaouira and rolling dunes of Erg Chebbi—and back to Casablanca in time for my 12-hour flight home (layover and delays notwithstanding, R.I.P. me) 10 days later. And, now, dear adventurous reader, I’m sharing the fruits of my findings with you in the chance that you’ve also placed Morocco high on your to-visit list and, after enduring a marathon flight from the West Coast, won’t be satisfied with a few days lost in the winding medina of a single city.

The route mapped out here was planned from hours poring over travel guides, blog posts and TripAdvisor forums, plus tips from generous friends and colleagues who have travelled to Morocco. It’s an ambitious (and budget-friendly) tour, to be sure, covering a lot of ground—six cities, to be exact—in a little over a week, but can be adapted according to your own time constraints and needs. (Though feel free to steal it as is—my trip went mostly without a hitch.)

 

Day 1 and 2: Fez

Assuming you’ve followed my lead and nabbed a round-trip flight to Casablanca, the road doesn’t stop after landing. From Mohammed V International Airport, catch a train on Morocco’s national railway, ONCF, to Casablanca’s city centre, where you’ll transfer to another train that will take you to the imperial town of Fez. (Don’t worry: you’ll explore Casablanca before hopping on your plane home.)

The journey is approximately four-and-a-half hours; opt for a first-class train ticket to ensure a seat. Once you’ve arrived in Fez, settle into your riad (a small hotel with a garden or courtyard in the middle—I liked the Riad Lune et Soleil) for a power nap, then hit the pavement discovering Fez’s storied medina, a mind-boggling maze of more than 1,000 streets filled with restaurants, food vendors and shopkeepers shilling everything from hand-knotted rugs and laser-cut coasters to clothing, bags and babouches. Bartering is encouraged, as is a visit to the Chouara Tannery, the largest tannery in a culture-crammed city known for its exceptional leather goods.

 

Day 3 and 4: Chefchaouen

Board a bus with CTM—one of two major bus companies that operate in Morocco—to Chefchaouen, a pretty, picturesque town in the Rif Mountains that’s earned the moniker Blue Pearl City thanks to the vibrant shades of azure, cerulean and periwinkle that coat its weathered walls and alleyways. (Even the cabs here are drenched in powder-blue hues.)

The journey from Fez is approximately four hours. Must-dos include wandering Chefchaouen’s beautiful blue cobblestoned lanes, digging into the region’s famed goat cheese and maybe scoring some hashish—though not necessarily in that order. (Fun fact: the town is known as the cannabis capital of Morocco.) From Fez, you can also get to Chefchaouen by renting a car (confident driving skills are required, as aggressive tailgating is a thing), sharing a grand taxi with five other travellers or hiring a private grand taxi.

 

Day 5: Merzouga

During the afternoon on day four (your second day in Chefchaouen), board a CTM bus back to Fez so that you arrive by 8 p.m. An overnight Supratours bus—Morocco’s other major bus company—travels from Fez to Merzouga daily, and you’ll want a seat if you’re interested in spending an evening in the desert. (Of course, if you’ve chosen to drive a rental during your time in Morocco, you can depart for the village at your own leisure.)

The journey via Supratours is approximately nine hours, which isn’t too bad if you knock out. (Pro tip: pack Melatonin.) The bus arrives in Merzouga, a small town situated near the Algerian border that serves as a gateway to Erg Chebbi, at around 6 a.m. Ideally, a host from the desert camp you’ve booked (like this one!) will pick you up and lead you to a riad where you can eat and freshen up before making the trek—by camel—to your desert campsite later in the afternoon.

Though Erg Chebbi is technically not part of the Sahara, the stillness offered by the spectacular burnt-orange dunes is Mother Nature at her most majestic. Soak in the serenity of being surrounded by nothing but an endless mass of impossibly smooth, undulating sand; experience a post-sunset glow that saturates the sky in a surreal cotton-candy gradient of pink, blue and lilac; and enjoy a night so clear and streaked with constellations that you’ll lose count of the number of shooting stars you see.

 

Day 6, 7 and 8: Marrakech

A Supratours bus leaves from Merzouga to Marrakech at 8:45 a.m. daily, though catching it may mean missing sunrise in the desert. Other transportation options here include a sharing a grand taxi part way and then taking a bus from a town closer to Marrakech or hitching a ride with a fellow desert-goer who’s equipped with a vehicle and also happens to be headed east. Again, if you’re driving yourself, you can travel at your own pace. Alternately, you could just spend another night in Erg Chebbi if you refuse to leave without witnessing dusk among the dunes.

The drive to Marrakech is 12 hours. The bus makes several rest stops; kick back and enjoy the rugged views of the Dadès Gorges and High Atlas. If you’re driving—and here’s where this mode of transport wins—you can make stops at sites such as Aït Benhaddou, an ighrem and UNESCO World Heritage Site that you may recognize from Game of Thrones, on your way to the Red City.

Three days in Marrakech should be just enough to cross off every item on your sightseeing list—Bahia Palace, the Musée Yves Saint Laurent and ridiculously chaotic Jemaa el-Fnaa included—while also offering you some time to master your bartering skills at the souk, hit up the city’s coolest design spots and perhaps experience a hammam. Your body will thank you after all the kilometres you’ve clocked.

 

Day 9: Essaouira

After three days in frenetic Marrakech—the place is an absolute assault on the senses, though in the best way possible—you may be itching for a little vacay from your trip. Enter Essaouira, a small coastal town with a chillaxed, artsy-boho vibe that’s only three hours from Marrakech.

Take a Supratours bus from Marrakech Station, which will drop you off just outside the windswept fortress walls that surround Essaouira’s medina. Spend the day perusing the impressive selection of handmade ceramic bowls, pots and plates at the souk; pop by the Sidi Mohammed ben Abdellah Museum, a riad turned gallery that houses a number of artifacts and instruments that tell the history of the region; and explore the port and fish market where you can chow down on the day’s catch.

Take a stroll along la plage before dark, then head to Taros for a rooftop nightcap or take in an evening of gyspy jazz at a local café.

 

Day 10: Casablanca

From Essaouira, take a CTM bus to Casablanca or a Supratours bus back to Marrakech, where you can hop on a train to Casablanca. The trip is approximately six-and-a-half hours. If you schedule it right, you’ll arrive with sufficient time to roam the city’s medina before hitting Hassan II Mosque—the largest mosque in Africa and the fifth largest in the world—at golden hour, when a dreamlike shine is cast upon the sprawling structure’s grand doors, columns and gorgeously tiled surfaces.

The following day, catch a train or cab to Mohammed V International to begin your journey home.

 

Transportation tips: Tickets for Morocco’s ONCF railway can be purchased upon arrival at a train station. There is a small dirham difference between first-class and second-class cars; first-class offers you slightly more legroom and a reserved seat, which is handy for busier routes and peak times when second class may fill up quickly.

CTM and Supratours buses depart and arrive at their own branded stations. These stations are also where you can purchase your tickets up to the day of. Tickets are subject to availability, so, if you’re able to, buy your tickets in one go to ensure you secure your desired dates, times and routes.

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