5 days in Morocco: Marrakech and the Sahara Desert
Why did I choose Morocco and specifically Marrakech and the Sahara Desert?
There a handful of countries I want to visit in Africa and Morocco was one of them. When I was young, I use to draw the Moroccan flag all the time because it’s a green star on red – it was easy, but fun to draw for a kid. I guess you could say that the country was stuck on my mind since young. Also, I’ve have always wanted to visit the Sahara Desert after I learned about it in school. Because I live in NYC, the easiest country for me to get to the desert would be Morocco as it’s the closest from the east coast.
A Story from Morocco
I usually don’t have this section on my trip itinerary posts, but Morocco left a strong imprint on me. During my second night there (on my way to the Sahara Desert), I took the coldest shower of my entire life. It was chilly at night and there was no water heater or heater in this rural area. Dustin and I bundled up in all the clothing we had and fleece blankets provided by our hostel – we were still freaking cold and it was hard to sleep because we couldn’t stop shivering. The next morning (very early) I looked outside my window and I saw children trying to walk up a steep and rocky path that look slightly dangerous. I would hope they were going to school, but I wasn’t sure as there wasn’t much around us. If there was a school, it likely didn’t provide the best education many of us get. At the end of my trip, Mustapha, our tour guide, told us he wished he wish he could travel like us and reminded us we were fortunate to be able to do so.
Easy, since everyone I met spoke English (and very well). French and Arabic are the main languages.
Moroccan Dirham (MAD)
EGCELLENT Tip: You can only exchange to and from your currency in Morocco and I suggest doing it at the airport after you land and before you depart.
Click here to check the currency exchange
My Travel Time
Late November (US Thanksgiving)
The weather in Morocco is perfect at this time. It’s not too hot and feels like autumn weather on the east coast. I do suggest bringing layers on the way to/from the Sahara Desert, heaters aren’t available so it can get a bit chilly. On our way back from the Sahara Desert to Marrakech with our tour group, it actually snowed quite heavily when we were at the top of the Atlas Mountains.
Click here to check the weather
Click here to check when the sun rises and sets
My Flight Details
Airline: TAP Portugal; JFK-LIS, LIS-RAK (round trip with a stopover in Lisbon, Portugal)
EGCELLENT Tip: TAP Portugal offers the “Portugal Stopover”; they allow you to stop over in Lisbon or Porto for up to 5 nights with no extra fee before you head off to your final destination. The flight price would be same as if you didn’t have a few nights stopover in Portugal. I suggest taking advantage of the offer so you can see another city on the way to your destination!
Flight prices vary depending on the time of the year. My flight price to Marrakech from New York City was around 600-700 USD and I booked 3-4 months in advance.
Airport to/from city: We took a taxi to our hotel. In Marrakech, everyone haggles with tourists on the price (taxi, shops, etc); be careful not to get swindled. They do not have meters in their taxi so you’ll have to negotiate the rate before you get in. On our way back to the airport, our hotel manager helped us grab a taxi and we paid around 70 MAD (7 USD), which is a decent price. We also saw the hotel manager put 10 MAD in his pocket and giving the taxi driver 60 MAD. On our way from the airport to our hotel was the most frustrating part since we had just gotten off the plane; I believe we paid twice as much as we should have. We tried negotiating, but all taxi drivers were saying they had a flat rate for the night. We had to haggle every single taxi ride in Marrakech; it was just part of the trip and we had to adapt.
My Hotel Details
To experience both the Medina (‘old city’) and ‘new city’ of Marrakech, we stayed one night in the ‘new city’ and a couple nights in the Medina in a riad, a traditional Moroccan house/palace with an interior garden/courtyard.
Hotel Les Trois Palmiers Marrakech
We stayed here our first night; it was around 50 USD. We arrived in Marrakech at night and were going to leave early the next morning with a tour group to go to the Sahara Desert. We didn’t really get the chance to enjoy this hotel; we just slept there and left, which is why we didn’t pick a hotel that was too expensive. It was close to a mall and nice restaurants. Hotel Les Trois Palmiers is in the Marrakech’s ‘new city, which is a newer, more modern part of Marrakech.
After coming back from the Sahara Desert, we stayed in a riad for a couple of nights before heading back home. It was around 100 USD a night. The hotel prices are slightly cheaper than other countries as is everything else in Morocco. Our room was huge and it was actually one of the most spacious places I’ve stayed at while traveling. There was a lot of culture in it as well since it’s a traditional palace. Riad Slitine was in a hidden area; we had to walk through some dark alleys to get there, but there were signs pointing us in the general direction when we were nearby. We weren’t sure if we were in the right place as the riad is so well hidden and the entry way is just a old wooden door (there are no windows). I would’ve never guessed how amazing the inside was by looking at the outside. There’s a dipping pool inside and breakfast is included. They serve great orange juice and Moroccan mint tea; breakfast is honestly a fun treat and a great way to start the day at Riad Slitine. If you can’t tell, we loved staying there.
My Marrakech & Sahara Desert Trip Itinerary
We arrived at night and dropped our stuff at the hotel. We walked to a shopping mall to buy a few snacks for our trip to the Sahara Desert. After that, we walked to Grand Cafe de la Poste for dinner. It was a French restaurant and the food was delicious. We wanted to stuff ourselves with good food before we headed off to desert. The price of the restaurant is on the expensive side for restaurants in Morocco, but compared to NYC, the price was average. We had salmon and whole wheat pasta – yum!
~6 hrs of driving (well, being in a mini bus)
We were heading off on our 3 day/2 night trip to Merzouga (Sahara Desert). The hardest part about planning our trip in Morocco was the Sahara Desert portion. There are so many different types of tours that to go different parts of the desert, through different paths and there are so many different tour groups (shared and private). Obviously, the private tours are going to be more expensive, but there is more flexibility in terms of what days you would like to go on and you would have more control on the timing of each activity. Shared tours are sometimes tough because the people on the tour could affect your trip and the pace of the tour is less controllable. However, the shared tour is a lot cheaper, especially the one we chose. The price was great. When we first contacted our tour company, they told us it would be 120 Euros, however, since we had a packed tour group (with 28 Brazilians coming from the same university), they dropped the price to 100 Euros. On site now, our tour price currently states to be 150 Euro. Breakfast, dinner, and hotels/camps are included. There are a lot of different tours offered (with different lengths), but we knew we wanted to go deeper into the Sahara Desert than a 2 day/1 night tour. We chose to go to Erg Chebbi instead of Erg Chigaga because we wanted to see higher dunes; Erg Chigaga is larger, but the dunes are lower. Erg Chigaga is a little harder to get to, but filled with fewer people. Our tour guide had to make several adjustments to when we saw certain sights on our trip because we had 30 people, which means it took longer to get people together when we made pit stops.
For this tour, we chose to go with Moroccan Nature Trail. Don’t worry if you have a big suitcase with you; there’s space in the mini bus for it.
During our tour to the Sahara Desert, we always stopped for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our tour guide took us to restaurants with traditional Moroccan food. For lunch, we could choose what to order as it’s not included in the tour price, while breakfast and dinner were chosen for us. If you’re vegetarian, you can tell the tour company ahead of time as there are several vegetarian options throughout the trip. On this trip, you’ll be eating mainly tajine (contains potatoes, veggies, and meat if wanted), quinoa, bread, and meat pies.
We were picked up early in the morning (~6 am) from our hotel and met with the rest of our group.
Ait Ben Haddou: A “Ksar’, a large group of kasbahs (homes) built close together behind the fortified walls of a city. Ait Ben Haddou is built out of clay. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Morocco and a lot of movies have been shot here (The Mummy, Gladiator, Prince of Persia). I had never seen a place like this!
Tizi n’Tichka: Stunning winding roads in the Atlas Mountains. Our tour driver might be one of the best drivers I’ve ever met; he drove through the Atlas Mountains, getting us to all our destinations safely. The roads are not that wide and are constantly winding up and down. At a certain point, our driver had to drive through snowy mountains!
Fortress in Ouarzazate: By the time we got here, the sun was setting. We were at the fortress for around 10-20 minutes.
The hotel is in the middle of nowhere and the water from the shower was super cold! It can get super cold depending on the season you’re visiting so dress appropriately!
~4 hrs of driving (still sitting in a mini bus with an awesome driver)
Dades Gorge/’Rocky Mountains’ (as our tour guide called it): A series of gorges carved out by the Dades river. The ‘Rocky Mountains’ had an interesting rock formation so stopped here for 20 minutes.
Todgha Gorge: Limestone river canyons in the eastern part of the High Atlas Mountains; it was beautiful and during the time we went, there was some clear water flowing through it.
Merzouga/Erg Chebbi Dunes: Before we entered the desert, we went in a shop to buy head scarfs. We stopped by a hotel to drop off our luggage and pack a small bag for one night in the desert. We rode our camels off into the sunset for around 1.5 hrs until we got to our camp site, where we met a lot of other shared tour groups. At the camp desert, there were two toilet rooms (obviously no plumbing in the desert), a sink, and several tents with sandy mattresses and heavy blankets. At the camp, there was a common room for dinner. Make sure to run up and down the sand dunes even though it’s dark. It could get a little windy, so be careful of what feels like a mini sandstorm when you’re on the dunes at night. On a clear night, you’ll be able to see thousands of stars.
~8-9 hrs of driving (I was driving this time! Just kidding)
We woke up before the sun came out to ride back to the hotel holding our luggage. As you’re riding the camel, you’ll be able to watch the sunrise. Feel free to ask to get off your camel to run around in the dunes. Once we got to the hotel, we were able to shower (had to take turns with our tour group since we only had 4 rooms with showers) and eat breakfast. We were off to back to Marrakech. It started snowing in the Atlas Mountains and it was the first time most of our 28 Brazilian friends on our tour group had ever seen snow, so we all got off the bus to enjoy the snowy Atlas Mountains. We arrived later than planned (around 8-9pm). Dinner is not included on the last day. Dustin and I checked into our riad and then headed out to Pepe Nero for dinner, which has Italian and Moroccan food. Our tajine fix was at it’s maximum, so we had some salmon and pasta. Like many nice places in the Medina, we had to walk through several dark alleys to reach just a wooden door, but when you get inside, it’s incredibly beautiful with a dipping pool and the walls are decorated with Moroccan tiles.
~1-2 hrs of walking and 2 cab rides
Breakfast is included in Riad Slitine and it is served next to the dipping pool by the lovely people running the riad. There are tons of orange trees in Morocco, which is why you’ll see oranges/orange juice sold everywhere – orange juice was served every day with breakfast. There’s bread, pastries, egg omelets, yogurt, and mint tea available. We decided to load up on breakfast so we could skip lunch and enjoy the day exploring Marrakech without having to take a lunch break.
Jemaa el-Fna: Large square and market place filled with small merchants, hawkers, and entertainers. You can buy street food, lamps, bowls, bags, scarfs, snacks, carpets, and a lot of other cool items.
Majorelle Garden: We took a taxi from Jemaa el-Fna to the garden; like always, we had to haggle with our taxi driver and got the ride for 40 MAD (almost positive we got swindled on this ride). A garden with a lot of different types of plants and fountains; buildings were painted in bold and bright colors.
Koutoubia Mosque: We took a taxi from Majorelle Garden to Koutoubia and haggled again, but this time we paid 25 MAD and had an unhappy taxi driver. When the taxi driver isn’t happy, he probably didn’t get the price he wanted us to pay for the ride. When we got to the mosque, we didn’t get to go in (I’m not sure if we’re even allowed to since two tourists in front of us were stopped from entering), but the mosque is beautiful from the outside. This is largest mosque in Marrakech. There were tons of pigeons and orange trees in the courtyard!
Bahia Palace: A palace with intricately designed rooms, courtyards, and gardens.
Bab Agnaou: One of the nineteen gates of Marrakech that was built in the Almohad dynasty (12th century).
At night, we walked back to Jemaa el-Fna because we wanted to experience the night atmosphere. We stopped in Le Grand Balcon du Cafe Glacier for a mint tea and to enjoy the view of Jemaa el-Fna from above. After that, we went back to Pepe Nero again for dinner since we loved it so much the first night. We got dessert this time!