The Perfect Week: Action plans for the trips of your life
Instead of spending this past New Year's Eve jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with a mob of sloshed revelers, Jim Condo and his wife, Diane Silver, both Phoenix attorneys, opted for something a bit roomier—the Sahara.
"We were sitting under a beautiful starlit sky, listening to Berber music miles and miles from civilization," Condo recalls. "It was one of those lifetime experiences you'll just never forget."
During their trek across Morocco on a Mountain Travel Sobek trip, Condo discovered the twin lures of this primal landscape: "the physical challenge of the backcountry and the culture's incredible diversity."
Just eight miles (thirteen kilometers) from continental Europe, the kingdom of Morocco is a universe away. An outpost for intrepid wanderers long before it caught on with 1960s globe-trotters, this slice of North Africa is one of the world's original adventure destinations and remains a paragon of exotica.
Life here is tuned to the age-old rhythms of Islamic culture, which can be intimidating to Westerners elsewhere in the world. But tourism is Morocco's fastest growing industry, and the government keeps a watchful eye: It's against the law for anyone to offer guide services unless he is licensed by the state, and a Ministry of Tourism police force cracks down hard on pushy vendors (though you'll never be tout free in a place where haggling is the national pastime).
In Morocco, which is roughly the size of California, a rail system runs through all the marquee towns, and at around $30, an overnight ride on the Marrakech Express from Tangier is a serious bargain. Communal taxis ply the countryside, and major car-rental agencies have operations in the larger cities. Driving, though, can be something of a challenge at times—mule carts are everywhere, stoplights are scarce, and mopeds serve as the family car. Still, the roads are surprisingly good, and in a single trip you can explore time-warped cities, roam high mountain trails, windsurf the coast, and trek through the most famous desert in the world.
A big draw on its own, Marrakech is also the prime launchpad for outback jaunts. Within its trademark pink ramparts, casinos and nightclubs coexist with snake charmers and belly dancers. Beyond the walls, roads climb into the rugged Atlas Mountains, where 12,000-plus-foot (3,658-plus-meter) peaks draw climbers, hikers, and mountaineers in the warmer months and skiers from February to April. An hour's drive southeast lies the Saharan gateway of Ouarzazate. And three hours west, you can cool down on the coast in the windsurfing hub of Essaouira.
But the action isn't limited to wildland's edge. Wander the souks of Marrakech, or squeeze through the twisting alleyways in the medina (old city) of Fès. With its coppersmiths, candlemakers, and overloaded mules, it's like a Class V maze of the Middle Ages' greatest hits—a sight virtually unchanged for centuries.
What Paul Bowles said of 1970s Tangier remains true of Morocco today: "It's changed less than the rest of the world." Funky, affordable, always unpredictable, the country serves up a millennium in the span of a single week.
Pick two or three options, and you've got a trip.
Souk Up the Atmosphere
The soul of Morocco is the medina, or old city, and Fès el-Bali is the granddaddy of them all. With more than 186 miles (299 kilometers) of tangled lanes, it's the largest in the Arab world and stands as the cultural, intellectual, spiritual, and—no doubt—handicraft capital of the country. Slip within its giant crenellated walls and wander through a chaotic warren of souks, where at every blind turn is a mound of spice bags or a guy in a hooded jellaba coming at you with a goat around his neck. This is as close as it gets to shopping in A.D. 1376. The hard sell is standard, but grooving to the riffs of roving Gnaoua musicians or watching blacksmiths hammer away are haggle-free diversions.
Base Camp: The three-star Hotel Batha ($50; www.hotelclub.com) has an English-speaking staff and a great location near the inner sanctum of Fès el-Bali.
Trek the Dunes
Few points on the atlas rival the adventure cred of the world's largest sandbox, which spans 3.5 million scorched square miles. And you can't call it a trip until you've explored Morocco's slice of the Sahara on the back of a lurching dromedary—those aptly named "ships of the desert"—in the tracks of ancient trade caravans. You'll have plenty of time to contemplate infinity while gazing at the 360-degree horizon or gawking at the crush of stars wheeling overhead at night. You can easily book two-day camel treks at any of the numerous government-sanctioned travel agencies in Marrakech. Arrange longer expeditions with outfitters such as Mountain Travel Sobek, which hosts a two-week trip that includes a four-day camel caravan with a trailing 4x4 support vehicle ($3,490; www.mtsobek.com/mts/moc).
Base Camp: The German-owned Kasbah Hotel Porte au Sahara ($25; www.hotel-sahara.com) gets you in desert mode. Overlooking choice dunes some 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of Zagora, with air-conditioning and terrace views of the Sahara, it's an ideal springboard for camel and four-wheeled roams and for exploring the local casbahs.
Hike the High Atlas
Any mountain trail here is sure to pass through Berber country. These indigenous Moroccans were pushed into the hills by Arab invasions centuries ago and have since perfected the art of living vertically in villages that cling to the cliffsides. Ambitious hoofers can take on North Africa's highest peak, 13,670-foot (4,167-meter) Jebel Toubkal, on a two-day walk-up. Bring lots of water and get acclimated: Rugged and remote, this isn't the place for altitude sickness. The closest trailhead is out of Imlil, south of Marrakech, on the road to Agadir.
Base Camp: Run by Berber outfitter Adrar Aventure, the spartan Hotel Etoile du Toubkal ($24; www.morocco-travel-adventure.com), in Imlil, has nine rooms, communal showers, and ice axes to go. Launch your ascent from here and you're bound to pick up another willing expedition member or two.
Windsurf the Casbah
The steady whip of northeastern trade winds has turned Essaouira—about 150 miles (241 kilometers) west of Marrakech—into North Africa's sailboarding hub.
A longtime magnet for off-the-grid travelers and local artists, the city has become a word-of-mouth favorite for its uncrowded Atlantic beaches, laid-back vibe, and World Heritage siteworthy architecture. You can rent a sailboard or kiteboard ($150 for three days), or take a six-hour kitesurfing clinic ($206) at Club Mistral and Skyriders Center (www.club-mistral.com). Then dry off and prowl the ruins of an 18th-century palace half buried along the shore south of town—the inspiration for Jimi Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand."
Base Camp: Founded by resident windsurfer Ahmed el Mahboul, cozy Les Matins Bleus ($28; www.les-matins-bleus.com) is a six-room, two-suite hotel in the historic Essaouira medina, at the very heart of the action and only a block from the beach.
See Morocco the right way.
WHEN TO GO: Morocco can be a furnace in the summertime, particularly in the south desert, and snow caps the mountains during winter. The best times to visit are spring and fall. Avoid the desert altogether from June to September.
GETTING AROUND: The sure bet for long hauls is rail, which hits all the major stops— Casablanca, Tangier, and Fès—on the way to Marrakech. From there rental cars or buses can get you to the mountains, deserts, or coast.
WHAT TO BRING: In this francophone former colony, a French phrase book will expedite your travels. To keep Atlas grime and Saharan grit at bay, moist towelettes and eyedrops are worth more than their weight in dirham.
3. Go Guided
Choose a trip that suits you, and let the pros do the rest.
THE MULTISPORT SPREE: Ditch the broiling sands for roiling rapids—Morocco has great white-water action in the High Atlas. Local outfitter Adrar Aventure will have you paddling the spirited N'Fis River on one leg of a nine-day escapade ($3,500; www.morocco-travel-adventure.com) that includes climbing Atlas crags, hiking to remote Berber villages, and camel-trekking to the country's premier surf spot, Anchor Point, on the coast north of Agadir.
THE FAMILY AFFAIR: On this six-day Backroads jaunt ($3,998; www.backroads.com), you and the brood (ages nine and up is recommended) will kick things off with snake charmers and tagine feasts in Marrakech, shift to pedal power in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains (pictured above), and partake of Berber hospitality, breaking bread with locals over glasses of piping hot mint tea. The trip includes biking and camel-riding on the beach in Essaouira.
THE SAMPLER PLATE: On Wilderness Travel's 15-day sojourn ($3,995; www.wildernesstravel.com), you can trek the twisted rock slabs of Dadès Gorge among oases and mint casbahs, scramble up the sand mountain of Erg Chebbi (one of the highest dunes in Morocco), hike the Atlas, and caravan into the desert. The ramble also fits in a side trip to Essaouira, plus medina mayhem in Fès and Marrakech.
THE HONEYMOONERS: Founded by an anthropologist from UCLA, Explore Africa runs custom trips through Morocco that roll out the royal treatment.
An 11-day journey ($3,225; www.exploreafrica.net) hits antiquity's highlights in Casablanca, Fès, and Marrakech. Lodging ranges from fully restored grand casbahs to five-star tents pitched deep in the desert.
Subscribe now to begin your year of Adventure with our exciting Alive expedition coverage. Then explore wildest California, get lost in the Paris catacombs, and spend seven incredible days in Morocco.
Order today and save!