Obscura Day 2017! Join our global celebration of exploration and discovery.
May 6

Morocco

Music and Medinas of Morocco

Spend eight days and seven nights across sprawling terrain where mountains meet sand dunes and past meets present. In this mosaic country at the nexus of the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, at least seven languages are spoken. But the word you'll hear the most is Marhaba—in Arabic, a word of welcome.

On your journey to Morocco with Atlas Obscura, you will traverse the complex and colorful contours of that nexus. You’ll get lost in the narrow streets of the old medina in Fes, thick with the smell of spices and freshly tanned leather, and wander the still-intact mosaics of an ancient Roman town. You’ll explore the market square of Marrakech—as busy today as it was in the 11th century—as the dissonant chorus of Alahullakbar rolls over the city at sunset. You'll even have the chance to reenact iconic scenes at a sprawling movie set dropped in the desert.

Surrounded by other eager and inquisitive travelers, taste sweet mint tea, eat steaming tajines, take in expanses of windblown sand dunes, and be welcomed by the country's best guides, artisans, intellectuals, and chefs. This trip is limited to 25 travelers. The itinerary includes:

  • Ancient markets: Get lost in some of the oldest medinas in the world. 
  • Earthly wonders: From its beautiful ocean border to the vast Sahara Desert, from the reach of the High Atlas Mountains to the depths of Todra Gorge, Morocco’s topography will keep your eyes opened wide.
  • Homestay hospitality: Stay in charming, quaint riads (guesthouses) and interact with locals each night over delicious home-cooked meals.
  • Bedouin astronomy: Ride camels into dramatic landscapes and spend the night under clear, deep skies learning about the constellations. 

Note on the weather

June in Morocco is generally quite lovely, with some variation in climate across the different regions. The average temperatures in Marrakech at this time of year are in the mid 70s, and the latter part of the trip (if you choose to stay for the Gnaoua music festival) is in Essaouira, a lovely city on the ocean that is known for its breezes. It is less humid in the desert; the air is dry and the humidity fairly low (below 32 percent) three out of every four days. We'll keep our desert trekking limited to sunset and sunrise to avoid the hottest parts of the day.

Of course, weather anywhere is unpredictable, and it’s not uncommon for temperatures to unpredictably spike in Morocco if there's a heatwave. We'll definitely have options to stay out of the sun during peak heat, and we'll make sure that everyone stays comfortable. 

Itinerary
Day 1
Start in Casablanca and End in a Hammam
  • Upon arrival at the Casablanca airport, we’ll jump right into our journey at one of the largest religious structures in the world, the Hassan II Mosque, a stunning architectural marvel built on the edge of the Atlantic that features the globe’s most massive minaret.
  • We'll then depart for Rabat (a 1.5-hour drive) to discover a display of Moroccan architecture that spans thousands of years and maintains an authentic and often consistent style. There, in Morocco’s capital, we'll take a quick spin of around the courtyard (Mechouar) of the Royal Palace, the ruins of Chellah, the Mohammed V Mausoleum, and the Hassan Tower.
  • After Rabat, and with the help of a little energy boost from Moroccan mint tea and cookies, we'll take on our second leg of the day. We'll stop partway on the two-hour drive to Meknes in a smaller town along the the route for a nice, relaxed lunch (and inevitably, more mint tea).
  • We'll arrive in Meknes by early evening and get settled in our guesthouse (riad). Then, we'll soak off the stress of our journey at a local bathhouse, or hammam. Hammam culture is an ancient and integral part of Moroccan life, and we'll learn why water is considered sacred. In a part of the world where family and community are the cornerstone of society, the hammam is deeply rooted in everyday communal life—a setting where people go to socialize, gossip, do business, and even arrange marriages.
  • Afterwards, feeling tingly, woozy, and intensely clean, we'll enjoy a traditional Moroccan meal at our riad and a discussion about life in the country before a long and deep night's sleep.

Note: We have chosen to fly into Casablanca thanks to the newly introduced direct flights from New York City and Washington, D.C. offered by Air Morocco. We recognize that travelers will likely be tired on this first day, but we hope that time on the bus will offer opportunity for rest, and that the evening visit to the hammam will help soothe all the stiffness and soreness from travel.

Day 2
Ancient Customs and Ancient Ruins
  • Enjoy a relaxed morning in Meknes. Sleep in after the long day, and arrange your bags for the evening's journey onward to Fes.
  • After a big breakfast in our Riad, we’ll take a walking tour of Meknes, one of the four imperial cities of Morocco. We’ll see the beautiful architectural sites of El Hdim Square, the medina and the city walls, and the imposing and lavish Bab El Mansour gate—the entrance to the old city.
  • Afterwards, we'll take a late lunch in the city (more mint tea, anyone?), and then depart by bus to explore Volubilis, an ancient Roman town built and occupied since the 3rd century BC, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You'll be able to wander around the abandoned ruins, still dotted with colorful mosaics and glimpses into neighborhood life so many centuries ago. Atop many of the columns, you'll spot black and white storks carefully guarding their nests.
  • After walking these Roman roads, we'll visit Moulay Idriss, a holy town of narrow, winding walkways that was founded in 789. Climbing higher along the tiny alleyways of this community built on hill, we'll watch sunset over the surrounding countryside, stretching green and gold into the distance.
  • Once we've bid the sun farewell, we'll continue to Fes, the oldest city in Morocco and one of the world’s true treasures. We'll stop for dinner along the one-hour drive and have the chance to catch up over everything we've explored that day.
  • Once in Fes, we'll be welcomed by local families and have the chance to discuss why people from all over the globe come to visit their city. More mint tea inevitably awaits you before you head to bed for some well-deserved sleep.
Day 3
Lost in the Medina
  • After breakfast at our riad, we'll begin to explore one of the most magical medinas on earth.
  • We’ll start at the Royal Palace Gate, wandering through the alleys and small streets with our local guide, who will give us an overview of the expansive maze.
  • Enter the old city, Fes el-Bali, which is also the world’s largest car-free zone (it’s hard to navigate an SUV around 9,400 tiny alleyways). The lofty Blue Gate, known as the Grande Porte Bab Boujeloud, marks the entrance to the inner medina of Fes. If you look back over your shoulder, you'll notice the other side is actually green.
  • The most magical part of the Fes medina is getting lost within it. We'll make sure everyone knows how to ask for directions back to the Grande Porte, set a time to reconvene, and then let everyone go ahead and get properly lost before you eventually find your way back. You'll encounter markets, mosques, crafts, foods, teas, and countless other discoveries along the way.
  •  Afterwards, we'll meet with a local preservation NGO and have the chance to discuss their evolving projects in Fes over a relaxed lunch.
  • We will then head over to Al Qaraouine University, the oldest known university in the world, which also has the world’s oldest working library. We'll learn about the ways its administration and student body have shifted outward and inward over time
  • We’ll continue on towards the world-renowned outdoor leather tanneries, most of which have been operational since the 11th century.
  • Together, we'll visit local tile makers to watch their ancient, traditional art, before trying it on our own.
  • Experience a wonderful panorama view over the old city from the hilltop of the Merenid Tombs, the crumbling ruins of Moroccan royalty, quietly gazing out over a modernizing landscape.
  • Tonight, take a personalized cooking class inside a local home. Our teachers will provide us with a delicious dinner—edible homework that will hopefully inspire us with the right set of skills and spices to recreate Moroccan cuisine back in our own homes.
Day 4
Life in the Sands
  • After breakfast, we’ll begin to make our way to Merzouga, where we will spend the night dusting off our astronomy under the desert stars.
  • Our first stop is Ifrane, often referred to as the “Switzerland of Morocco” in its bizarre design as a small alpine village.  
  • Stop in the cedar forests of Azrou before arriving for lunch in Midelt, a beautiful town halfway to the desert. Over lunch, we’ll meet a group of students at the town's local university and have the chance to talk with them about the Moroccan education system.
  • Drive along the meandering Ziz River and stop to admire the oasis of the Ziz Gorges.
  • We'll arrive at Merzouga, an odd village next to the largest natural underground body of water in Morocco. It serves as a last oasis before entry into the desert.
  • Once we arrive among the dunes, we’ll swap our wheels for dromedaries, and ride our camels into the Sahara at sunset.
  • Dine tonight in a Berber camp. Over fresh-cooked food, we’ll learn traditional music within a community that has survived in the sands for centuries and learn where the term "Berber" originates.
  • Sleep snuggled between Saharan dunes and under some of the most spectacular and mesmerizing displays of stars. You can choose to sleep inside the semi-permanent tents or right out directly under the stars.
Day 5
Topography and Cinematography
  • Catch sunrise over the Erg Chebbi: glowing, brilliant orange dunes that rise as high as 150 meters.
  • Journey to see the lush valleys of Tourong and Tinjdad as we ride switchbacks through the roads of the Dades Gorge.
  • We'll munch our lunch on the road as we weave through the valleys.
  • Take in the massive canyon walls of the Todra Gorge, considered one of the most spectacular canyons in the world, as we continue on through the Atlas Mountains before arriving in the city of Ouarzazate.
  • On the outskirts of Ouarzazate, a private guide will give us a whirlwind tour of Atlas Studios, the “Hollywood of Morocco,” home to the towering and dramatic sets of Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven, Babel, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, The Mummy, Star Wars, and even Game of Thrones. In a single afternoon, poke your head in and out of ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, and the Middle Ages. Extra points if you bring costumes.
  • That evening, we'll enjoy dinner in Ouarzazate, where we'll spend the night.
Day 6
Abandonment and Decay in the Dunes
  • Head out of town to visit Ait Benhaddou, a majestic and mostly abandoned ancient city. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a striking example of southern Moroccan architecture, and the city summit offers a 360-degree panorama over the surrounding landscape.
  • We'll visit with some of the eight families that still live here, last holdouts in this majestic former caravan way station.
  • We'll have lunch in the adjacent town, offering terrace views out over Ait Benhaddou.
  • From here, we'll set off through the High Atlas Mountains and stop to see Kasbah Telouet, a decaying fortress tucked within in a traditional Berber village.
  • Arrive in Marrakech as sunset glints off the city’s orange trees. Here, home will be one of the oldest riads in the middle of the medina. Tonight, converse with a regional scholar to learn more about the religion and politics of the Arab Muslim world.
Day 7
Mystics of Marrakech
  • Today, we'll explore the wonders of Marrakech, including guided tours of the Palace of Bahia and the Koutoubia Mosque.
  • We'll visit the 14th-century Ben Youssef Medersa, an Islamic School whose exceptional stucco work and exquisite zellij tiles provide some of the most vibrant art and architecture in the city.   
  • Wander the alleys and small corners of the Medina. It's not as easy to get lost here as it is in Fes, but it's still worth a try. We will also speak with some local handicraft entrepreneurs in their workshops—and you might have a chance to get your hands dirty.  
  • After a locally sourced lunch, head to the New Town of Morocco and take part in a caretaker’s tour of the large Jewish Cemetery, Miara Cemetery, which dates back to the 16th century and is still in use by the local Jewish population.
  • Catch a glimpse of the New Town Tree Sculptures, carved directly into the eucalyptus trees by a local artist.
  • On our last evening all together, we'll take a sunset stroll in the Gardens of Majorelle, a 12-acre botanical garden designed by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1930s.
  • After our stroll, we'll settle in for a proper celebratory feast.
  • After dinner, meet the snake charmers, magicians, and local artisans that populate the stunning Jamaa El Fna Square in the center of the city.
Day 8
Optional Add-On: Gnaoua Music Festival
  • Enjoy a leisurely breakfast and go for a short wander and last spin around the medina before we head west. Those not continuing on to the music festival will depart for Casablanca from here.
  • Those taking the extension will depart for the sea to enjoy one of the most celebrated and unique music events in the world, the Gnaoua Festival on the shores of Essaouira. Rooted in traditional North African culture, Gnaoua welcomes a diverse and eclectic selection of contemporary jazz, pop, rock, and soul.
  • Enjoy two nights and two days in this coastal city that comes alive with art markets, spontaneous street performances, artist dialogues, and some of the funkiest concerts in the current music scene. Reflecting African identity at its fullest, Gnaoua is a carnival like no other, with festival-goers dancing around Essaouira's charming squares and labyrinthine streets in a dazzling celebration of times past, present, and future.
  • This extra time will include some individual exploration along with group activities. The extension is an additional $799, which includes all meals, activities, and accommodations in addition to your festival passes. 
Day 9
Departure
  • Travel from either Marrakech or Essaouira for the Casablanca airport, where you'll depart for your home destinations.
The Fine Print

This Atlas Obscura trip to Morocco is conducted in partnership with Insider Expeditions, a travel company with extensive experience designing and leading trips to Morocco and elsewhere. Please email us at journeys@atlasobscura.com with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment.

NOTE

Itineraries and pricing are subject to change. This particular tour has been designed with specific events in mind, and schedules and availabilities may change in coming months. If any activity or person that is advertised is missed or not available, it will be replaced with an activity or person of equal interest and value.  A final itinerary and briefing packet will be ready two weeks before the trip.

PAYMENT

You will be charged a non-refundable $250 deposit to hold your space. The final payment of $2,999 (or $3,798 if taking the extension) will be due on May 15, 2017. All reservations will be final after this date and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to the Terms & Conditions. For travelers wishing to have single accommodations during the trip, an additional $399 will be included in the final payment (or $518 with the extension).

Travelers are responsible for:

  • Transportation and flights to and from Casablanca. (Atlas Obscura will be offering optional group flight blocks leaving from New York City and DC airports.)
  • Baggage charges.
  • Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings.