A week of Marrakech, medinas, Atlas Mountains, Merzouga – and beyond.
By Alison Salas
Morocco beckons with endless sand dunes, colorful markets, luxe textiles, fragrant spices, towering mountains, seaside resorts, and affordable riads. It certainly has a little something for everyone, but we found it to be especially sensational with kids.
It’s just an added bonus that flight sales regularly run for $500 USD round-trip between the US and Morocco’s major airports. So what are you waiting for?! Let’s go to North Africa!
Most first-time visitors to Morocco are looking to visit the bustling medina of Marrakech and the desert sands of the Sahara. And, that’s precisely what we had in mind, too. So, when the unique opportunity came, we savored a full month in Morocco with our two littles (ages 6 and 2). We followed the classic Moroccan travel route, entering from the Mediterranean region in the north and making our way south to the Sahara Desert.
Our children are still talking about their time riding a camel through the desert and yours will, too. What kids wouldn’t revel in the memories of playing in the world’s largest sandbox?! Read on as we share how to perfectly suit the trip for both adults and children, with a few alternatives and essential travel tips mixed in. We know Morocco is a family adventure you’ll never forget!
The ROAM Report – Morocco
- Travelers: The Salas Family
- Date: One month during spring 2019
- Itinerary: Marrakech, Aït Benhaddou, Merzouga, Casablanca, Fez and Chefchaouen
- Budget: $50-75 per day for a family of four, plus $100-200 per person for Sahara camel safaris (children usually receive a discount, depending on their age) for all lodging and transport
The Good Stuff
Morocco – A Five-Day Itinerary for Families
For starters, we took the classic Morrocan travel route which meant exploring the historic city of Marrakech and then entering the Sahara Desert. Be prepared for an adventure, as this leg of the journey takes three full days of travel on its own. You simply cannot reach large sand dunes from any of Morocco’s major airports with an overnight, two-day trip.
Therefore, if you really want to dig into the desert (and we hope you do), it’s best to plan for at least five full days which start and end in Marrakech. This journey mirrors the standard Sahara route through the Atlas Mountains ending in Merzouga. Although you find will some variety in tour company quality and shared or private tour options, the actual route is relatively fixed.
Day 1: Experience Marrakech
You’ll want to plan for time to acclimate from your flight the prior day. The best way to do this is by spending a light day walking around Marrakech’s historic medina (an ancient walled city with maze-like streets). After all, walking is certainly the best way to get acquainted with the charms of the country, and there is so much to do in Marrakech.
Make a point to pause for the simple things, soaking up the Morrocan culture with quintessential activities like sipping mint tea, eating from a tagine, or listening to a snake charmer’s song. Be sure to save some time for browsing and buying spices or to admire the handwoven rugs the region is famous for. Don’t be afraid to try those haggling skills to buy some souvenirs for your loved ones back home. It will prove an immersive part of your experience.
Day 2: Depart for the Sahara Desert, Stopping at Aït Benhaddou and Dadès Gorges
Wake up early on the second day to depart Marrakech for the Atlas Mountains, visiting traditional Berber communities en route to the Sahara Desert. Don’t forget your Dramamine because the roads are quite winding. Be sure to stop at the famous film location and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou. It has served as the backdrop for dozens of Hollywood movies including Gladiator, The Mummy, Prince of Persia, and most recently Game of Thrones. Continue through the mountains along the Route of a 1000 Kasbahs until you reach your hotel in the Dadès Gorges valley.
Day 3: Continue through the Atlas Mountains, Stopping in Todgha Gorges and Merzouga
Get ready for another early day as you continue through the Atlas Mountains and into the Todgha Gorges community, located between two canyon walls. Here, you’ll pause to eat another fine tagine lunch and learn about traditional Berber weaving. It’s the perfect place to choose your favorite hand-woven rug. You can rest assured that your purchase directly supports the local community. And it’s nice that you don’t have to lug it around as they will gladly ship it to your home address.
From here, you’ll continue driving through the mountains until you reach flat ground, just before the sand dunes appear. Now, you’re just behind Merzouga, at the gateway to the Sahara Desert. At this point, you will meet the camel who will take you to the Berber camp where you’ll spend the night.
But, before nightfall arrives, take the chance to climb a sand dune and watch the sunset over the Sahara Desert. Then, fall asleep at camp under a million stars, but only after eating another tagine meal and listening to the soothing sounds of the traditional Moroccan music. Yes, it has been a very long trip, with two full days traversing through the desert, but the sights are far more magical than you imagined.
Day 4: Return to Marrakech
What would a trip to the Sahara be without both a sunset and a sunrise? So, wake up early to catch the first light rising over the Sahara. Then, make your way back to Merzouga via camel, 4-wheeler, or 4×4. From there, you’ll spend the rest of the day driving from Merzouga to Marrakech. Remember, the van that will take you back may seem less enchanting, but you’ll soon appreciate that it’s far more comfortable than a camel!
Make the most of the ride by flipping through all the amazing pictures and videos you can hardly believe are your own. The memories you’ve made are filled with the vivid colors and vast landscapes you’ve captured over the last few days. Soon you will be back to your comfortable riad (a traditional Morrocan house).
Day 5: Final Day in Marrakech
After a good night’s rest, prepare to spend your final full day in Marrakech seeing the city outside of its historic walls. Be sure to visit the Saadian Tombs, El Badii Palace, Jardin Majorelle botanical gardens, and the Kutubiyya mosque with gardens. And make a point to loop back after dark to see the medina come alive at night. This is also a great time to look for those last souvenirs you haven’t time to grab yet.
Beyond 5 Days – More Spots in Morocco
If you happen to have more time to spend in Morocco (or, if you had other attractions in mind), you might appreciate a few alternatives to the classic route. Keep in mind that it can take some time to travel between cities, so be careful not to cram too much into the itinerary. While the roads are generally good quality, the country has many mountainous regions between the Atlas Mountains and Rif Mountains. For this reason, the cities are further apart than one might think.
See waterfalls: If you have an extra day to spare and are keen to see more around Marrakech, a great option is to visit one of the numerous waterfalls in the area. The Ouzoud Waterfalls are a popular option and can easily be reached with a day trip from Marrakech. You can also add them as an additional day/night onto the Sahara Desert route. Also, if you are visiting more cities than Marrakech and can’t commit to three fulls days in the Sahara, the Ouzoud Waterfalls offer an alternative opportunity to see the Atlas Mountains and its Berber communities in just one day.
Arrive over sea and land: If you are visiting Europe beforehand, you can take a one-hour ferry from Tarifa in Southern Spain to Northern Morocco and see the port city of Tangier. It’s perfect for enjoying the corniche (seaside boardwalk) and medina before taking an overnight sleeper train directly to Marrakech. It costs just $38 per person, with reduced rates for children. Tangier is also the closest city to Chefchaouen, the Blue Pearl (see below). You’ll definitely want to consider a detour to the famous blue city before taking the train all the way.
Fly into Casablanca: If the flight prices to Marrakech aren’t quite grabbing you, consider flying into Morocco’s largest and busiest airport, Casablanca instead. From here, you can reach Marrakech in about 2.5 hours by taxi or a bit longer by train. This airport leaves you better poised to add Fez or Chefchaouen (see below) to your trip.
Visit Fez: If you want to visit another of Morocco’s imperial capitals that also boasts a UNESCO medina but has a less touristy vibe than Marrakech, consider visiting Fez. Fez sees fewer travelers and offers a bit more of an authentic experience. However, its tourism infrastructure is not as developed as Marrakech so it’s good to weigh those factors into what makes an enjoyable trip for you. Fez is approximately 3.5 hours from Casablanca by taxi or 6 hours from Marrakech. You can also take a train from Marrakech. Some Sahara route options travel between Marrakech and Fez, so this would be another way to work both Marrakech and Fez into your itinerary.
Visit Chefchaouen: If you want to experience a town straight from your imagination, consider adding in the Blue Pearl of Chefchaouen. The town is tucked into the Rif Mountains and is full of blue-washed buildings amid steep cobbled lanes and stairs. Chefchaouen is approximately 3.5 hours beyond Fez, or 2.5 hours from Tangier if arriving in Morocco from the north.
Good to Know
When to go: Generally, spring (March to May) and fall (September to November) offer the best weather to enjoy a range of Morocco’s activities. During these times you avoid the high summer temperatures and the cold of winter. However, depending on your interests and activities, Morocco can be enjoyable through summer and winter, too.
For example, seaside towns and cool mountains make for the perfect summer escapes, while the cities are more comfortable during the winter months when temperatures are more tolerable. This makes it a lot easier to explore all day (especially with kids) without facing too much heat. Keep in mind you will find big crowds during the summer months as it’s the high tourism season. Plus, some businesses close during the Islamic holy days of Ramadan.
Luckily, Morocco has a pretty permissive visa policy. For example, US, Canada, and EU citizens can travel in the country visa-free for up to 90 days.
What to budget: Many of us are looking for ways to shave off the cost of a big trip like this. Luckily, there are a variety of ways to enjoy Morocco on various budgets. As usual, the cost increases as you gravitate toward luxury hotels and private tours. However, it is possible to experience the country on a much more modest budget.
Marrakech currently ranks 26 of 137 on the backpacker price index so that value is in your favor. Marrakech is also the second least expensive city in Africa and the Middle East on this list (next to Zanzibar City, Tanzania).
Another plus is that intercontinental flight prices continue to fall as the country grows in popularity. Not to mention, rental properties offer a lot of square footage for their value, too. Our family rented a four-bedroom riad in Marrakech next to the historic quarter for about $40 USD/night. However, since the economy is cash-based and prices are almost never indicated, you have to practice your haggling skills to get the best deal when shopping or booking tours (see more below).
Where to stay: Morocco has many gorgeous resorts and boutique hotels, with some of the most beautiful pools in the world. However, it also has a rich market for affordable rentals via Airbnb and similar companies. We booked all our accommodations through Airbnb and the market is rich there, to suit all budgets and appetites. We had a huge place for just $40/night with three beautiful pools, and options went down to basic and up to real luxury from there.
When traveling as a family, we recommend renting a local riad, which will offer more of a home environment with a local twist. Riads are typical multi-story homes with an interior garden or courtyard – think of your backyard inverted into your house so your child always has room to play and you have a private space to relax. Some even have their own small pool. You’ll also have plenty of room to stretch out with a living room and bedrooms for everyone, plus a kitchen to try your hand at the local cuisine and produce. This makes it easier to keep those discerning eaters (we’re looking at you kiddos) happy, too. Plus, You can often arrange with your host for a local to come in and cook a fabulous and affordable meal.
How to get around: Tourist travel is generally directed to a taxi system that runs within and between cities (petit and grand taxis, respectively) or via organized tours that take you along a route between major cities or to the desert, for example.
Car rentals (car hire) and travel via the CTM bus lines is less common but possible. A train also runs from Tangier in the north through Rabat, Casablanca, and Marrakech all the way to the southwestern coastal city Agadir. However, the train does not run through the country’s interior mountain or desert regions. Within larger cities, you can also take city bus transportation but this is less common than the very economical petit taxis.
How to pay: The local currency is the Moroccan Dirham with an approximate 10:1 USD conversion. Morocco is largely cash-based so be prepared with plenty of cash whenever possible. This is sometimes true for lodging and tours, too. It is possible to book some of your tours online and in advance, but you’ll get a much better deal in person and with a bit of haggling (see below). And hey, it’s a local pastime!
Note that it is not uncommon for ATMs to be out of service or out of money, so take money out anytime you get the opportunity. With some advance notice, you may also be able to order Morrocan Dirhams from your bank back home.
What language to speak: While in Morocco we heard Arabic, French (in the center and south), Spanish (in the north), and English — in that order. While you can get by with English, especially in tourist areas, we recommend learning a few words of Arabic and French. Start with “hello,” “thank you,” and “goodbye” and you’ll improve your connection with locals.
How to dress: Locals in Morocco generally dress conservatively. This is true for women, men, and children. However, in tourist areas, you still will find international travelers wearing a range of clothing. Even so, it’s best to err on the modest side and wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. This is especially important if you plan on visiting any religious or holy sites.
While you are not expected to dress in any way while sightseeing, it’s not a bad idea to respect local customs when visiting someone else’s community. Loose linens, blouses or button-up tops, and long flowy dresses or skirts are great options that may already live in your closet.
How to book with a tour company: While Moroccan tour companies have an increasing online presence, most tours are booked in person while in Morocco. You can save as much as 30% on your tours by booking in person and talking a good game. This is no joke, as we experienced it firsthand with very limited haggling skills.
However, keep in mind that sometimes you get what you pay for. So, depending on what kind of traveler you are and what brings you comfort on a trip, the bottom or top line prices may not be the best options. You may want to select a company you can easily find online and read all of their reviews versus finding one among hundreds in the medina.
Most three-day Sahara tours cost somewhere in the ballpark of $100-200 USD per person (50-75% of that for children over age 3). The three-day tour includes breakfasts, dinner, lodging, and transportation. You can usually choose to book most tours as either shared or private. While the latter may run more money, it may be well worth it for families traveling with small children who need more or less time in particular locations.
We booked a shared tour and had to be very strategic about fitting in snacks, meals, and diaper changes. Also, be sure to double-check whether those reduced rates for children and infant prices allow individual seats for transportation. You’ll want to be sure they will have their own seat belt. When booking camel rides in the desert, consider if your child is capable of riding on their own.
How to avoid tourist scams: Most Moroccans are very friendly and especially welcoming of families. Our children were treated very warmly and ushered in many wonderful conversations we might not have otherwise had.
However, it is not uncommon to run into someone in or near a tourist area who wants to offer you friendly advice and ultimately leads you to their friend’s business. Everyone seems to have a friend who runs a restaurant, a tour company, and a shop. If you’re on the lookout for a recommendation and don’t mind the personal tour there, this will probably be to your favor. Note, they will also get a small commission for this referral.
But, if you are looking to travel a bit more independently and stumble upon sights organically, you will have to offer a firm “No, thank you” and continue on your way. Also, seek out one of the many second or third-story eating establishments which offer great views and people watching. Getting above street level won’t leave you subject to unwarranted requests from street vendors and panhandlers.
What to pack: Here are our tips for packing for a trip to Morocco:
- Layers, layers, and more layers. It can be quite warm when the sun is out but cools down quickly once the sun goes down. This is especially true in the mountains and deserts (for any overnights in the Sahara).
- Carry a scarf to easily add a conservative layer or to cover-up as the night cools off. Be sure to wear practical sandals that allow walking. Closed-toe shoes are ideal for the mountains and deserts.
- Don’t go anywhere without a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen to guard against year-round sunshine. Bringing a swimsuit is essential since many hotels and riads have pools.
- Bring an outlet converter (types C and E as in most of Europe) plus a power bank for desert and mountain excursions.
- Carry an extra bag for all those souvenirs you will buy from the medina.
- Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones are also ideal so you are not woken by those pre-dawn call-to-prayers.
- Bring your toiletries if you are very particular about them since we did not find many big-box stores while there.
- Don’t forget some great storybooks for travel and bedtime: a fairytale is even more compelling when you seem to be spending your days in one.
Alison Salas – January 2020
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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