Marrakech: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Medina

A small dust-covered Suzuki motorcycle hurtled directly toward me in the darkened souk, leaving me only seconds to save myself.

The rider, a middle-aged Moroccan man dressed in a traditional long white kaftan and kufi hat, appeared not to see me. Or if he did, he assumed I’d heard him coming though the narrow, crowded alley and would shuffle out of the way like the Marrakechans surrounding me were doing with unworried indifference.

In slow motion, I saw the bike veer slightly to the left to avoid me, just as I went left. Then it went right, as I also changed course: a dance of doom. The feet of distance between us closed rapidly. My eyes grew wide and I squeeked several conjoined expletives. In my mind, I envisioned tomorrow’s headline: “American Idiot Flattened by Tiny Motorcycle in Marrakech Marketplace.”

Then the motorcycle swerved and buzzed past me, missing my sandaled toes by an inch.

“Welcome to Marrakech,” I thought to myself as my heart attempted to recover. I scurried to catch up to my friends Colin and Maria, who were busy dodging similar obstacles ahead of me.

It was the first of our eight nights in this place of sensory explosions. 

The Medieval medina was maze of perpetual movement; life zipping in every direction. Blasts of color radiated from baskets brimming with strange and vibrant spices, handwoven rugs hawked by persistent touts, and bright silken hijabs worn by the women. Rushes of scents, both pleasant and not, intermingled on hot breezes; sizzling kebabs, freshly baked slabs of bread, and the evidences of donkeys passing through, loaded up with heaps of wares.

Five times per day, beginning at dawn, mosque minarets across the city erupted with an unsynchronized cacophony of calls to prayer. The sound was simultaneously intriguing and eerie, a ghostly wail that rose and fell like a siren, echoing over Marrakech’s squares and through narrow passages, to reach every home and every ear.

Marrakech overview

A mosque in Marrakech’s El Fnaa Square, Atlas Mountains in the background

Our exploration of the city would be accompanied by the never-ending sound of car horns, engines, feet, hooves, calling, clanging, and general sweltering madness. 

Marrakech-9

My cheerful room at the riad.

We were staying in beautiful Riad Hossani, tucked away behind a nondescript low wooden door in a less noisy twisting alleyway that connected two parts of the Larousse district—an area which houses more locals than tourists.

From the outside, you’d never expect the charm that awaited behind the old riad door. But once inside, it opened up into a peaceful three-story patio lined with colorful tiles, and featured an orange tree and lush palm plants.

We each had our own ornately decorated room, but spent much of our down time gathered in an alcove off of the patio, relaxing on plush, multi-hued cushions. It was cooler there, and created a perfect escape from the souk’s eternal chaos and suffocating heat.

Though the cost was incredibly low by San Francisco standards, the place came complete with the sweetest, most wonderful cook/housekeeper named Zayara, who made us breakfast every day (her homemade crepes and donuts were amazing).

Our eight days there were filled with wandering the souks and the squares, listening to the traditional tunes of street musicians, exploring ruins, and finding interesting foods to try. Colin and I both love hunting down the weirdest dishes we can find, like camel burgers (tasty!), goat’s head meat (too fatty and gristly for me), plus more normal, classic meals like Moroccan tagine (always delicious!).

Our main contact at the riad was Kamal, a smart, soft-spoken man, who also offered to drive us to wherever we wanted to go for a day trip outside of Marrakech. After a couple days of the Medina, and a major heat wave about to hit, we were more than ready to get out of Dodge.

DAY TRIP #1: INTO THE ATLAS
OR,
I AM NOT A MOUNTAIN GOAT

Setti Fatma-15

Our first excursion would be a two-hour drive into the Atlas Mountains to go hiking up to a couple of waterfalls near a small village called Setti Fatma.

Kamal navigated the curving mountain roads safely and steadily while feeding us interesting bits of info about the area as we went along, like the fact that parts of Setti Fatma had been washed away not long ago during a flash flood.

That explained the evidence of mudslides and road repair being done along the surging snowpack-fed river, which ran the length of the town.

Upon arrival, Kamal explained that by law he could not lead us on the hike, he didn’t have the permit required, but he could have his friend Sedik guide us.

Colin, Maria and I thought that sounded like a ploy to get money of out of tourists. But we liked Kamal, so we didn’t say anything—pshh, I mean, how hard could it be?  

Setti Fatma-83

It. Was. Really. Difficult.

I was panting and stumbling over the uneven rock stairs that ascended straight up within minutes. In the 100 degree heat, and pathetically out of shape, I felt like I was cooking from the inside out.

“I…don’t know… if I’m gonna… make it…to the falls,” I managed to gasp when we took a quick break to buy bottles of water, which I gulped down like liquid crack.

Sedik, who hadn’t yet sweat a drop, assured me that the first waterfall was close, only seven minutes away. Embarrassed by my epic display of sissyness, I put on my best ‘It’s cool—I got this’ face and followed him onward, internally cursing every step. We hit the first waterfall seven minutes later, and to my relief, the temperature plummeted to non-heatstroke levels near the rushing icy water.

Finally I caught my breath and snapped photos of the mountain views. After a few minutes, Sedik waved for us to move on to the next falls. Now, however, he made me give him my camera, and he slung the strap over his shoulder, answering the perplexed look on my face with “Big climb now.”

‘Big climb NOW? I thought, ‘What was it that we just did??’

The trek to the second waterfall made it extremely clear why we needed a trained local guide.

Rickety, waterlogged wooden foot bridges stretching precariously across rocky river beds, some half washed away, were the sole means of crossing cold, surging waters. Outcrops of boulders piled upward without an obvious trail, making it pure guesswork for me on exactly how and where to scale them.

Setti Fatma-35

Our hard-earned mountain waterfall group shot

After a couple of (tiny!) falters, Sedik 100% distrusted my rock-climbing abilities, and pretty much hauled me up the mountain by the hand, wrist and elbow. He pointed to precisely which spot to place my feet for every step: “There,” “That,” “Here,” he instructed with the firmness of a drill sergeant.

Up, up we scrambled, our guide bounding over the boulders like a sprightly mountain goat to my city-slicker wobbling. At last, after much (literal) hand-holding for me, and sometimes also Maria (Colin apparently seemed least likely to kill himself on Sedik’s watch), we reached the waterfall and were able to relax and cool off.

Getting back down necessitated the same sort of careful maneuvering. Every time I tried to say “I think I got it.” or “It’s ok, I’m good.” Sedik would demand, “Hand.” and more often than not, I would almost immediately slip, saved from a rocky death by the mountain goat’s steady grip.

On the way out of Setti Fatma, we stopped at a women’s craft collective so Maria could stock up on much-coveted Argan nut oil products. I wasn’t in the market for oils, but I left with some images I adore of these skillful and self-sufficiant businesswomen who used nothing but nature’s bounty and the most basic ancient tools to create wonderful things:

DAY TRIP #2: AGADIR AND ESSAOUIRA –
SUN, FUN AND SANDBLASTS

The heat wave we’d heard would be overtaking Marrakech had landed, and the mercury rose to nearly 115 degrees, hot enough to instantly evaporate any and all motivation for city sightseeing.

A beach day sounded like pure genius.

The best beaches in Morocco, Kamal told us, were in Agadir and Essaouira in the southwest. So the next morning, we happily hopped on a bus, and rolled toward the Atlantic coastline.

It was not quite everything we had hoped for.

We arrived in unremarkable, crumbling Agadir after hours spent on the hot bus, taking in scenery that was utterly flat, scraggly and yawn-inducing. The whole way, Colin, Maria and I threw uncomfortable glances at each other from across the aisle while a pair of apparent hashish dealers sitting behind us loudly shared their drug cartel career ambitions with each other, peppering the exchange with curses, angry growls and hate speeches about various races and cultures (members of some of those races sat directly in front of us, awkwardly enough). Toward the end of the ride, they decided Colin was their new pal, and attempted to draw him into a conversation, which he gingerly sidestepped.

The long walk from our hotel to the beach through decrepit white washed buildings was especially torturous as we scavenged for every shred of shade along the way, desperate to avoid the sun’s breath-stealing heat.

11227288_10153232028904590_345726185_oFiery streets were finally replaced with scalding sand, and we quickly secured beach chairs and a broom-topped reed umbrella. I trekked the remaining half football field to the water; a ravenous child heading straight toward a birthday cake buffet. The chilled waves of the Atlantic struck my legs and within milliseconds sent doses of cold wonderfulness to every cell of my body.

‘Water. I love water. I love love love water water water.’ my roasted mind blathered nonsensically as wave after cool wave eroded away the entire first part of the day.

For the rest of the late afternoon, and into the golden evening as the sun began to retreat, our program became: relax, swim, repeat.

The three of us couldn’t help but notice that nearly every single beach goer here was male, aside from a small handful of European women and a few Moroccan mothers trudging through the hot sand in full head to toe garb and hajibs shepherding small children to beachside picnic spots. Hoards of sporty young men were swimming, sunning and playing soccer along the expansive crescent-shaped beachfront—a fact that was wholly disappointing to Colin, and slightly disconcerting to Maria and I, who were feeling a wee bit conspicuous.

The next morning, feeling clean and refreshed, we packed up and boarded a new bus for a two-hour ride to the port city of Essaouira.

This time, the scenery was captivating. Mountainous curves along the coast produced glimpses of small, charming towns, idyllic farmland, and desert-meets-seascapes. There was also an abundance of one of my new favorite sights—adorable, tough little donkeys trotting along the roadside beneath absurd heaps of sticks or straw, fronted by a bouncing Moroccan who inevitably dwarfed the hearty little creature. It made me grin and chuckle every time.

A must-see attraction in every Morocco guide book and online resource, there is one fact about Essaouira (pronounced Es-weer-ah) that somehow does not receive the attention it should in said books and resources:

The place is a massive, nonstop sandstorm.

From the moment we stepped off the bus, we were sandblasted with chilly forceful winds that could easily challenge Chicago’s “Windy City” title. The beachfront was dulled by fog or sand or both. My sunshine-expecting smile turned sour as sandy grit crunched between my teeth and lodged in my eyes and hair.

The redeeming factor here, Colin informed me with his Lonely Planet Morocco guidebook in hand, was not the beaches, as I had hoped for, but a unique old fortress and lively fish market. So, we followed our noses in the obvious direction of recently dispatched sea creatures.

And that’s when I discovered how a traveler like me could fall in love with this breezy fishing town.

Though the area has been a popular outpost since prehistoric times, the modern way of life in Essaouira hasn’t changed drastically since the mid-1700s when it became an important trade link between Marrakech and Western Europe.

And that’s what drew me in—the intense Old World charisma that Essaouira somehow managed to retain.

We strolled past a huge floating collection of electric blue fishing boats, patiently waiting for the next morning’s fishing excursion into the bay. Fishermen worked away sorting massive nets, while some solo residents perched atop the old fortress hoping to reel in their lunch.

 

In the fish market, locals meandered, inspecting the day’s catch, bargaining with sellers, and getting their next meal filleted and even cooked on the spot.

After hopping over puddles of decay-scented water and motorcycles loaded with bleeding crates of chum, we decided to move on to the more touristy section of town for lunch. We perused stall after stall of live or recently deceased fish, each tout promising that his array of offerings were the freshest, cheapest and most delicious!

We eventually sat down for a meal of crab and lobster at the outdoor picnic table of a stall that offered Colin and I free tastes (Maria passed on the slick delicacy) of the sweetest, and indeed—the freshest—sea urchin I’d ever had.

After lunch, we washed our sticky, fishy hands and toured the sights and bites in twisting alleys of the medina.

By late afternoon, we were ready for a beer and found the only cafe around that served alcohol to tourists in the dry Muslim city. We whiled away the remaining hour before it was time to get on the bus back to Marrakech sipping Casablanca beer on a patio overlooking the flat beach etched with partitioning lines in the sand.

It seemed possible that every otherwise unoccupied young man in town was gathered between us and the Atlantic Ocean to play pickup soccer games, or practice keeping the ball in the air by foot, forehead or stomach in small groups. Their skills and obvious love of the game were both inspiring and awe-inspiring.

The next day would be our last in red-hot Marrakech.

While the city had certainly charmed us with it’s vibrant atmosphere and time-worn beauty, we’d sampled about all we could handle of the relentless heat and crowded souks. But before blazing a trail to Fez, our next destination in Morocco, Colin and I ventured into the fray of El Fnaa Square for one last evening of food, motion and one-of-a-kind Marrakechan madness.

This time, I would dodge errant speeding motorcycles with masterful nonchalance.

Next stop: Fez and an incredible camel trek into the Sahara Desert!

Check out more photos from Marrakech and our day trips in Morocco HERE 🙂

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