Visiting Morocco - a hybrid travel itinerary for Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains and Casablanca
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Many people, when they think of traveling to Morocco, have images of colorful rug bazaars, long flowing robes with head scarves, camel riding, and elaborately detailed metal tea pots. And all of this comes with the imagined scent of aromatic foods spiced with turmeric and cinnamon and served in tagines. I sure did. And all of this is Morocco. But as an Active Travel enthusiast, there were two other aspects to this culture that I really wanted to experience: the Atlas mountains and the hard-working Berber tribes who lived and farmed there in summer. So I started planning a hybrid trip that would give me a taste of the city, then get me out in the villages, up into the mountains, and conclude with some luxury travel at an oceanfront resort at the end.
My planning began with a search for a trekking guide. My husband and I are pretty self-sufficient when it comes to navigating through most mountain areas. But for this trip, we saw no reason to spend extra time pouring over foreign terrain maps and trying to correspond with remote mountain accommodations when a local expert could provide the same in less time. We also saw an opportunity to have five days of education on the region and a more personal introduction to the culture by way of firsthand local knowledge. Our experience with our selected guide was far better than we anticipated and became one of the highlights of our trip. (Go here to read a review in The Best way to Trek through Berber country and the Atlas Mountains)
Since I wanted to create an Active Travel/Luxury Travel experience, I searched next for beach resorts that could provide some relaxation after a week of cross-country trekking. The Canary Islands initially got my attention. As the crow flies, these islands are only about 100k off the southern Moroccan coastline. However, despite its seemingly close geographic location, the only way to access this Spanish archipelago is by way of Madrid. Although I been hopeful for the convenience of a high-speed ferry like those in the Greek islands, none existed at the time. And since the flight schedule in and out Madrid did not maximize our vacation time, we chose a resort on the Casablanca coastline instead.
So take a look at the following itinerary. You may be interested in using part of it, or all of it. Or you may simply get some good recommendations related to trekking in the Atlas Mountains. But either way, I recommend exploring beyond the souks and making the effort to connect with the Berber people. The experience made our trip that much more memorable and made me even more grateful for the life that I live in my home country.
Hiking through Berber country and then summiting Mount Toubkal is obviously the active part of this experience. During the 5 day trek, we walked 5-6 hours a day over varied terrain. We hired a guide and muleteer to carry our food and duffle bags, which made it that much more enjoyable. Summiting Mount Toubkal can be icy in some parts and quite rocky in others. The trail is not well defined and we were grateful that we had a guide to show us the safest route. Other hikers that we passed on the way up, had to be redirected by our guide several times to avoid getting lost.
There are plenty of upscale hotels in Marrakech like Maison MK, Four Seasons, Royal Mansour, La Mamounia, Amanjena. In Imlil (Berber country near Toubkal) Kasbah du Toubkal is a beautiful place to stay. It has been designated as one of Nat Geo Unique lodges of the world, has only 14 rooms, and a terrific rooftop terrace with 360 degree views of the surrounding high Atlas range. This hotel has received many Responsible Tourism awards and is staffed by locals. It also takes 5% of your final invoice to support local organizations such as Education for All. (see more below) On the coast, Mazagan Beach and Golf Resort has large ocean-view rooms, a casino, golf course, spa, a gorgeous pool and several wonderful dining choices.
How to Connect
For connection, although we didn’t speak French or Arabic, we did our best with polite interactions, honored the local religious custom by wearing long skirts or pants and shirts with our shoulders covered. We also took advantage of the opportunity to experience the local cuisine by trying items such as snail soup, pigeon pie and fresh spit-roasted lamb from street merchants.Hiring a local guide for the trekking portion helps to keep tourism dollars local. And supporting organizations like Education for All through a stay at Kasbah du Toubkal helps young girls in local villages pursue their education by providing scholarship and boarding. See more about this worthy cause here.
Trip rating - L3-4 Throughout the country, French, Arabic and Berber are the primary spoken languages. There were not many Americans here when we went. But we did meet a few travelers from England and saw several European visitors. You can get lost easily in the souks and like any big cities, the main square can be conducive to hustlers and people who pick pocket. So comfort with route-finding when lost, staying aware of your surroundings in a crowd and an ability to problem-solve in a foreign country are advantages. Depending your travel experience, food may feel very foreign with many new spices and meat combinations. There are also religious or cultural customs that travelers are advised to respect, such as ankle to wrist clothing coverage for both genders. Short-sleeved shirts are tolerated on tourists in hot weather. But wearing something light-weight with long-sleeves is more respectful of the cultural norms.
NOTE on alcohol - If you are a lover of Happy Hour, you won’t find many bars or places to get a beer or cocktail because of the Muslim influence. However, wine is served at nicer restaurants. And of course, you will get a lot of mint tea.
NOTE on flights - Because we wanted to spend some time at a resort on the coast, we planned a open-jaw flight with a train connection in the middle: We flew from the USA into Marrakech, then took the train from Marrakech to Casablanca (2 hours) and flew out of Casablanca to get back to the USA.
(See my Tips for Managing Jetlag here)
Month of travel – We traveled in August but it was extremely hot in Marrakech. I would recommend going in May or June. But you may get some remaining snow in the mountains at this time.
Length of trip – 15 days
Day 1 & 2 Getting to Marrakech
Flight -10am LAX to JFK, arrive 6:30p
Flight - 8:55p JFK to MAD, arrive 10:10am
Flight - 11:45am MAD to RAK, arrive 1pm.
Moderate price - Riad Africa is little gem that we found in Marrakech.
NOTE - This hotel can arrange transfer to/from the airport. Very nice staff, very obliging, employees speak some English. Rooms are clean, cosy, classic Moroccan Riad design, breakfast included.
Activity suggestion - after a nap, walk down to Djemma el-Fna plaza and market area to people-watch, take in the snake charmers, story tellers and the amazing assortment of street food.
Day 3 - Souk Shopping
Activity suggestion - Go get lost in the souks! Our cell phone GPS helped a little but give yourself plenty of time to simply wander and not feel pressured to be any where at a certain time. This is a classic Marrakech experience.
Restaurant suggestion - Al Fassia Gueliz
Hotel suggestion - Riad Africa
Day 4 – Start of Berber Country Trek
Check out of your hotel in the morning and get picked up by the guide company driver.
TIP – we stayed at the same hotel in Marrakech the nights before and one night after our mountain trekking week. Since we were staying with them, the hotel was more than happy to keep our larger bags at the hotel. That way we could pack only a small duffle for the trekking week.
Our guide company - Toudaoui Mohamed tours / Toudaoui tours
Activity – Meet the guide, who will take you on a small morning hike to assess your hiking speed and skill. In the afternoon after lunch, hike over Tizi Addi. We were lucky enough to be invited for tea by one of the guide's local berber friends in Tachddirt.
TIP - a small tip to the host in common courtesy for a tea invite
Accommodations - Tigmi Tachddirt trekking lodge
Day 5 – Imnan Valley
Activity - trek over Tizi Tamatert
Accommodations - Kasbah du Toubkal
Dinner suggestion - Meals included at this hotel
Day 6 - Toubkal basecamp
Activity - hike to Toubkal basecamp
Accommodation - Refuge Toubkal les Mouflons
Private room with two beds, separate shower, basic basecamp accommodations with common area for dining and socializing. Guides will make meals.
Day 7 – Toubkal summit
Activity - early morning start if weather permits, RT summit takes 4-6 hours.
Accommodations - Refuge Toubkal les Mouflons
Day 8 – Back to Imlil
Accommodations - Kasbah du Toubkal
Activity suggestion - Relax and enjoy this beautiful property, hamman or get a massage. Enjoy dinner on the terrace with its 360 views and listen to the 5pm adhans that echo from all the surrounding villages.
Day 9 – Back to Marrakech
Activity suggestion - If you haven't enjoyed a hamman yet, now is your chance. Hamman at Le Bain Bleu is a beautiful luxury hamman that allows co-ed bathing.
Hotel suggestion - Riad Africa – where you had your luggage stored.
Dinner suggestion - Gastro MK
TIP - make reservations here at least 30 days in advance. This is one of the few places to get really good cocktails in Marrakech. It has a nice rooftop for appetizers and cocktails and then a 5 course dinner is served.
Day 10 – Casablanca
TIP - Riad Africa hotel arranged for transfer to train station, and purchased our tickets. The trip was only ~$10 pp US
Train - 12pm departure, arrive 2pm
Transfer - we paid for a driver from Mazagan Resort to pick us up at train station and drive us one hour from Casablanca center to the coastline resort in the suburb of El Jadida.
Accommodation suggestion - Mazagan Beach & Golf Resort 5 nights
Day 11-14 Time to unwind
Activity suggestions - There are so many activities offered at this resort! A golf course, tennis courts and a casino will keep you busy. There is a also a spa and beachfront lounge on site. And if you need more options, there is opportunity to four-wheel, go-cart, or ride horses, as they have their own stables on the property. See the Mazagan website here for a full description of available activities.
Day 15 - Home
Early transfer (4am!) from resort to Casablanca airport
Flight - CMN to MAD 7:50am , arrive 10:35a
Flight - MAD to CLT (Charlotte, NC) 12:30p, arrive 3:55 pm same day ( 9.5 hour flight)
Flight - CLT to LAX 6pm, arrive 8:18pm (5 hour flight)