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Posted by on Mar 30, 2015 | 0 comments

Booker’s Grand Tour of Morocco

Morocco is known for its diversity—of traditions, religions, landscapes, and more.

While most travelers are able to spend time in only one region of the country, I was determined to see it all during spring break.

At the end of a two-week binge on Moroccan culture and cuisine, I ended up covering nearly 2,000 miles, experiencing everything from small fishing villages on the southern coast to enormous riads in the middle of Marrakech.

My conclusion? Morocco is the ideal spring break destination for the curious traveler—and the perfect way for someone my age (16) to get an immersive introduction to the Arab world.

> The Coast:

After an eight-hour flight from New York to Casablanca, a lengthy layover, a second flight south, and a short drive north, my mother and I arrive in the coastal city of Aourir. I’m tired but take a dip in the ocean as the sun sets on Banana Beach, a surf break named for the region’s abundant plantations.

Essaouira's seaport has long been a hub for international trade, linking Morocco with Europe and the rest of the world. (Photograph by Tania Cypriano)

Essaouira’s seaport has long been a hub for international trade, linking Morocco with Europe and the rest of the world. (Photograph by Tania Cypriano)

One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Morocco was to scour its epic Atlantic coastline for waves, but a run of swell had ended right before our arrival. The lack of waves jeopardizes my stay in Aourir, until I meet local surfers Ali and Fahd, whose enthusiasm to show me their favorite spots convinces me to stick around.

My mother and I spend much of our trip driving up and down Morocco’s N1 (National Route 1), a coastal road with breathtaking views that runs from Dakhla to Tangier. It reminds me of Highway 1 in California, except for the sight of goats and argan trees marking the way.

An hour’s drive south of Aourir, we stop at a tiny village called Tifnit. Full of colorful mud houses and with no electricity, Tifnit is primarily used by fishermen from the countryside who lodge here before heading off on their boats in the early morning. I fall in love with the town’s simple ways and natural beauty. The cherry on top? Eating fresh grilled fish and crab on the porch of a house, taking in the beautiful blue water.

We find a lesson in contrasts in stately Essaouira. The Portuguese controlled the Moroccan coast in the 15th century, and the city retains its European roots. While old stone buildings and walls line Essaouira’s narrow streets, seagulls fill the sky of its bustling fishing port, where visitors and locals alike can be found enjoying the sights, smells, and sounds of life on the Atlantic. 

> The Mountains:

Within a four-day span I go from wearing a bathing suit on the beach to wearing long pants and a thick hoodie in the High Atlas. As we get closer and closer to the mighty range, I am shocked to notice snow on several peaks.

Booker and his hosts at Chez L’habitant Amzil enjoy a tagine, which is also the name of the earthenware vessel in which the food is prepared. (Photograph by Tania Cypriano)

Booker and his hosts at Chez l’Habitant Amzil enjoy a tagine, which is also the name of the earthenware vessel in which the food is prepared. (Photograph by Tania Cypriano)

Much of Morocco’s Berber population is concentrated around these mountains, and aspects of their traditional way of life become more obvious as we drive around. From the box-shaped mud houses to the clothes being sold on the street, it is almost like entering another country.

We take a break from the perpetually winding roads that snake through the High Atlas region to visit a friend of our driver, Amine, who has by now become a close friend of ours. This becomes one of my most memorable experiences in Morocco, as I am presented with an opportunity to go into a Berber village and spend time among its residents.

We stop to buy fresh goat meat and plenty of vegetables to cook in a clay pot called a tagine, and head over to a family homestay called Chez l’Habitant Amzil in the village of Tazentoute. While the food is cooking, I get to roam around, hang out with local kids, and even learn some words in Berber. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming, and when we finally eat, the meal is the best of our trip. 

> Marrakech:

Between the coast and the desert, we stop to spend time in Marrakech—one of the largest, oldest, and most culturally significant cities in Morocco.

The souks of Marrakech are   known for their frenetic energy and colorful characters. (Photograph by Tania Cypriano)

The souks of Marrakech are known for their frenetic energy and colorful characters. (Photograph by Tania Cypriano)

Entering the city, we pass modern neighborhoods filled with plazas, shopping centers, parks, and big buildings. The sight of Koutoubia Mosque and impossible-to-miss Jemaa el-Fna tells us that we’ve arrived in the ancient medina.

Marrakech’s main square and the gateway to its famous souk, Jemaa el-Fna is filled with characters, food stands (where I slurped up fresh escargot), snake charmers, monkeys, and much more. Every step I take, a different person approaches, offering me something new. Being in a place where so much is going on simultaneously is overwhelming, even for a kid who has grown up in New York City.

The plaza slowly draws me into the rest of the medina and to the largest traditional Berber market (souk) in Morocco. Whatever you want to buy, you have to bargain for, but no matter the prices, one thing seems certain: Leaving the medina empty-handed seems impossible. What did I buy? A 35mm camera, the Berber version of Coco Chanel perfume, and a handmade beanie.

> The Sahara:

Bearing witness to the largest (sand) desert in the world is another must when you’re in Morocco. For me, seeing a place that has probably been featured in thousands of books and films was almost too exciting to bear.

When my mother and I finally arrive at the edge of the Sahara, we drive through dunes en route to a Berber camp out in the desert. Surrounded by high mounds of sand, I fall asleep in my tent feeling completely isolated from the rest of the world.

Author Booker Mitchell rides a camel in the Sahara. (Photograph by Tania Cypriano)

Author Booker Mitchell is led on a camel in the Sahara. (Photograph by Tania Cypriano)

The men who take care of the camp are two of the most generous and amusing characters I meet. Communicating through a patchwork of English, French, Spanish, and hand signs, we laugh, tell jokes, and act out movie scenes in the desert with my skateboard.

Just when I think my experience can’t get any better, I am invited to watch the sunrise from the top of a particularly tall dune. After a short camel ride, we gaze at dune after dune stretching all the way to the horizon. To simply sit in silence and think about just how far that sand continues out and across North Africa is beyond mind-blowing.

> Fes:

Fes is another major Moroccan city, and one of the most visited destinations in the country.

Riads are beautiful old Moroccan mansions where all the rooms face in toward an internal garden, fountain, or pool. In fact, “riad” derives from the Arabian word for garden.

Riad el Amine, a traditional guest house located on the cusp of Fes's bustling medina, opened its doors in 2008. (Photograph by Tania Cypriano)

Riad el Amine, a traditional guest house located on the cusp of Fes’s bustling medina, opened its doors in 2008. (Photograph by Tania Cypriano)

Many riads, including the one where my mother and I stay, Riad El Amine, have been made into hotels that build on the original household, which lends them a historical yet cozy vibe. Another reason they’re great? They’re often located in the midst of medinas.

As I navigate Fes’s medina, I encounter a very different scene than I did in Marrakech. Instead of being a jumble of vendors selling unrelated wares side by side, Fes’s medina is divided into distinctive specialty sections.

For me, it’s getting to see behind the scenes that’s the best part. From one door to the next you can watch as an artisan makes a product—fabric, leather, and metal are common ingredients—then see it being sold a few feet away just hours later. Being able to witness traditions that have been handed down over the centuries in person, and the camaraderie and skill that are involved in such craftsmanship, is inspiring.

Watch the trailer for Booker’s adventures in Morocco: 

Booker Mitchell is the host of Booker Travels and one of National Geographic’s 2012 Travelers of the Year. Catch up with Booker on Twitter @BookerTravels and on his YouTube Channel.

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