Modern and medieval sit side by side in Morocco, and the contrast conspires to make the country every bit as foreign, dizzying, and dreamlike as you imagine. Traveling is not without its challenges, but with a sense of humor you'll quickly fall for the crossroads of North Africa.
Getting There:Royal Air Maroc flies from New York to Marrakech (about $1,000; royalairmaroc.com). British Airways typically costs more—around $2,300 from New York—but has flights from dozens of U.S. cities (ba.com).
Where to Stay:Marrakech is ground zero for riads (refurbished Moorish town houses), which are so much more comfortable than other lodging options. The hands-down favorite was Riad Farnatchi ($400; www.riadfarnatchi.com), run by a Canadian expat who can arrange just about anything. In Ouarzazate, the gateway to Aït Ben Haddou and Todra Gorge, Le Berbere Palace is a lesson in Moroccan opulence ($260; ouarzazate.com/leberberepalace). In Merzouga, the staging ground for camel treks, the Hotel Kanz Erremal is minimal but pleasant ($31, including breakfast; kanzerremal.com). In Essaouira try Riad Mimouna, which overlooks the beach, harbor, and town ($100; www.riad-mimouna.com).
Camels: Your one must-do in Morocco: Get to the village of Merzouga and arrange a 90-minute sunset camel ride through the 500-foot (152-meter) sand dunes of Erg Chebbis. The Hotel Kanz Erremal can plan a night at a tent camp ($60; kanzerremal.com).
Casbahs: There are more than a thousand crumbling casbahs—the walled, mud-brick forts famously rocked by the Clash—in the Atlas Mountains near Ouarzazate, but the most impressive collection by far is Aït Ben Haddou. The UNESCO World Heritage site easily ranks with Machu Picchu and other "life list" destinations. Plan to spend a day exploring its narrow, eerily deserted alleys.
Board Sports: The Atlantic coast is rich with beach breaks, rock reefs, and, in certain spots, heavy winds. The best known surfing is in the south around Agadir, but that's a large, touristy town. The more relaxed little port of Essaouira is a haven for wind- and kitesurfers. For paddle surfers, we found head-high sets at a beach just nine miles (fourteen kilometers) south of town. Club Mistral rents beater boards ($74 for three hours; email@example.com).
Getting Around: Within Marrakech, taxis are the way to go, but buses are the primary transport outside of town. Supra-Tours (www.supratours.ma) and CTM travel to most major destinations. Roads are passable in much of Morocco, and most U.S. rental car companies operate in-country; compacts run about $50 a day with a U.S. license. One caution: The police are notoriously difficult. To avoid hassles, consider a guide and a driver. Jamal Boularhbar is knowledgeable and multilingual ($78 a day; firstname.lastname@example.org); he often works with driver Marwane Ahmed (email@example.com), who seems to know everyone in Morocco.
Seven Day Morocco-Itinerary
Days 1 & 2: Marrakech and Aït Ben Haddou
There is a place in the center of the old city of Marrakech where the snake charmers gather, along with the storytellers, the meat sellers, the water pourers, and the con men. It is the Djemaa el-Fna, the "square of the dead," and at two parts Scheherazade, one part modern metropolis, it is the ideal introduction to the crossroads of North Africa. From there, wander through the labyrinth of cramped alleyways, carpet souks, and tea shops that have defined Marrakech for generations of travelers. When you tire of the vendors' polyglot pitches—and you will—escape three hours east across the Atlas Mountains to the mud-brick city of Aït Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The collection of fortress-like casbahs just outside Ouarzazate has made cameos in both Gladiator and The Mummy and sits like a city outside time.
Days 3 & 4: Todra Gorge and The Sahara Desert
Picture the Zion Narrows plunked down in North Africa and you've got Todra Gorge. Here, three hours east of Aït Ben Haddou, hulking limestone walls tighten to a few dozen yards. Climbers could spend weeks scaling the hundreds of bolted routes, while hikers should make the epic two-hour scramble to the top of the cliffs (ask for directions at the hotels near the gorge's mouth). From Todra, it's a four-hour drive to the settlement of Merzouga, where a plain of black rock gives way to the western Sahara. To venture into the desert, hire a camel and guide and arrange for a night at a tent camp. After dinner, while the campfire casts its shadows, pull the bedding from your tent, settle under the stars, and listen to the sand slide down the dunes.
Days 5 to 7: Essaouira and the Atlas Mountains
After the desert it only makes sense to head for water, so turn back to the Atlas Mountains and the Atlantic coast. At the 7,438-foot (2,267-meter) Tichka Pass, you'll wonder whether Moroccan road builders got paid by the curve. Take a break in nearby Telouet, where you can camp in the badlands outside of town or, if it's Thursday, mingle in the bustling village market. Then follow the road down—way down—to Essaouira, a fortified city at the ocean's edge. Between the winding, whitewashed walls you'll find a funky mix of fishermen, artists, backpackers, and a handful of ripping windsurfers. The laid-back town might also be the best place in all of Morocco to sit at dusk, sweet mint tea in hand, and watch the sun race home from Africa.
Subscribe now and save!