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Morocco – 3 Day Tour to Atlas Mountains and Sahara
Escaping the somewhat manic atmosphere of Marrakech, we went on a 3 day tour with ‘Tafraout Voyage’, booking through Marrakech Travel Services. We haggled the price down to 800 Dirhams for myself and 600 Dirhams each for the girls.
Several trips are on offer, we chose the 3 day tour as it included riding camels into the Sahara Desert and sleeping out in Berber tents. This is a popular choice and proved to be an exciting adventure for the kids, aged 9 and 12 years.
We were collected from our hotel at 7am to join the rest of a happy band of travellers on a mini bus and headed out through the city towards the famed High Atlas Mountains. Covered in snow with the most stunning blue sky, the Atlas Mountains were a welcome sight after being in the city.
The passengers were an eclectic group from all continents of our world – Brazil, Denmark, Japan, Canada, Argentina, Spain, Mexico, China, Korea and us Australians. For a group of 17 peeps, this was a surprising number of nationalities and created such a great atmosphere. This was the first experience of small bus touring for my daughters and they were treated to the best group of people one could hope for!
Muhammad, our driver was a great character, always with a smile and full of enthusiasm.
Day 1 Stopping at the top of the Atlas Mountains, we all piled out of the little bus and were chuffed to be crunching on snow whilst taking multiple photos of the mountains stretching out before us and valleys below. How lucky are we to be able to take photos these days without the worry of running out of film! The girls made a quick snowman… and we were off again.
The ancient Kasbah of Ait ben Haddou was our next stop and lunch break. ‘Kasbah’ can take on a few meanings it seems, but it is basically the place in most villages where the ruling king or sheik used to live. Built to offer a high vantage point where unwanted visitors could easily be spotted. They look like mud castles, with walls made of layered dirt and stone.
Numerous movies were made here, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator with Russel Crowe… making it a popular place to have a squizz at. It would have been good to have had plenty more time here and not feel rushed, but it was interesting all the same.
Ait ben Haddou was our first experience of being made aware of the little perks that tour companies may inflict – we were told the entry to the Kasbah is 30 Dirhams, plus a tip for the local guide who was at the bus when we stopped – a few passengers questioned this as the money looked more like it may be going to the guide, we did not see an entry gate, apart from a small sign on the way out.
Entering the Kasbah, we walked along the river a short way to some stepping-stones, made from concrete, and were besieged by young boys wanting to take the hand of the tourists to help them negotiate the simple steps across the river. Even though I had no bother to cross alone, I accepted the lad’s hand and then paid him a few coins – this of course is the reason for the help. Fair enough, gives them a small income. The lad tried to ask for Euros, but just had to be content with what amounted to maybe 50 cents!
This is a gorgeous old city and an enjoyable experience. We stopped by an artist shop who had some great photos of movies that have been made here and also showed a technique of drawing by means of painting on paper using tea, sugar, water and saffron for colour, this was then slowly heated over a flame to produce the image.
We were led to a particular cafe for lunch, quite a costly one, but ‘escaped’ to a hotel/cafe opposite and had a delicious pizza for a reasonable cost instead.
Our awesome driver, Muhammad, stopped at many spots along the way to let us out for a stretch and to take gorgeous photos of the some spectacular scenes across to villages and through an area known as the Valley of Roses.
The first overnight stop was a really pleasant surprise, it was a sweet little hotel in the village of Dades. Rooms were en suite, heating on and a delicious dinner of chicken tangine, a sweet bread and dessert of fruit and cream. We even had Wi-Fi, which is of course good and bad… the temptation to sit around on ‘devices’ rather than chatter is often too great!
Breakfast and then an early start back towards the Gorge area of Dades. A superb spot that did not quite allow enough time to explore, but worth the visit all the same.
Another stop in a local village and a ‘free’ local Berber guide who took us around the village and into a family owned carpet business where we were given sweet mint tea, poured in the usual dramatic way with the silver teapot suspended mid-air.
They were quick to say tat this was as a courtesy to show us the way the carpets were made and that we were under no pressure to buy. Always an awkward situation really as it is plain they want sales and the ‘free guide’ will get some sort of commission. But, is this so bad? It becomes a sticky when one is curious about how much these carpets might cost as then the salesman emerged! Prices were quoted as Euros –
Always insist on having a price in the local currency where ever you might be! Know what it is worth in your own currency and be cautious.
A hilarious stop at a local turban seller was next. Our guide showed Amy how to wrap a turban, using a scarf I was given as a gift from friends when they were in Japan!
Almost all the passengers ended up buying one each and so looked the part later that day when waltzing off into the sunset on our camels!
Camels and the Western Sahara Desert!
The camel ride into the dunes of Merzouga seemed to be the most anticipated part of the trip for a number of us and there was much hilarity at the mounting of each camel and then when they stood up!
We rode for about an hour or so over dunes and stopped to climb a larger dune to watch the sunset. A beautiful experience on a clear evening, before re-mounting and finishing the ride at the Berber camp.
I must confess, I had half expected our bus would be just beyond the camp. It would have been sad if it were, happily though we had no vehicle there. Everyone carried small backpacks on the ride for our overnight stay.
We loved the Berber tents, thick rugs hung on the walls and equally thick blankets to keep us warm. The whole lot of us trekked to the top of a massive dune behind the camp to star gaze. Lights could be seen from the nearby town, ok, we were not exactly remote – but it certainly felt like it.
Dinner was in a main tent, preceded by delicious mint tea of course. Chicken tangine, warm bread and sweet mandarins… Drumming started up around the fire outside and the evening was complete with some local music and laughter.
Waking before sunrise on day 3, we boarded our camels and returned to the village, watching the sunrise along the way. Breakfast and off ‘home’ to Marrakech. 10 hours or so, following the way we had come, minus the detour to gorges, Kasbahs and carpet sellers.
Taking Children on this tour was absolutely fine and the girls had the best experience possible for their first ‘backpacker’ type trip. The guides were fun, the other passengers simply the best group and the itinerary was well thought out.
Being taken to see carpets made by Berber families – Know your currency value when converted to Dirham – always ask for price in Dirham and not Euros unless you use Euros at home. Keeps it simple. If you do want to buy, take someone with you for support and if feeling pushed to buy…walk away.
Lunch stops – lunch is not included on the tour and we were taken to specific places, presumably there is a kick back to the guides for this. Do not feel obliged to eat at these more expensive places, let the driver know of your intentions and wander a little along the road to seek other options or even ask the driver to take you to a place that is cheaper or has more options.
2 Day tours that include camel riding do not go into this desert area as it is some distance away, the three-day tour or even four-day tours are much better value as far as experiences go.
Enjoy your travels, wherever you go!