Medina Mazes in Morocco

Visiting Morocco has been on my bucket list for years now and I was excited to finally have 2 and a half weeks to explore this beautiful country. I arrived in Marrakech at 1 am and took a taxi to my Raid where I would be staying for the next couple of nights. As soon as I arrived, a couple people were up chatting in the living room and offered me some mint tea. I instantly hit it off with the people staying there and decided to spend the next day with them to explore this new city.

Marrakech was vibrant and bustling from morning into the late evening. Since I was only staying a couple blocks away from Jemaa El-Fnaa Square, it was always very busy with something to see and do. For those of you who do not know, the Jemaa El-Fna is a large central square marketplace located in the old medina. During the day there are stands that sell freshly squeezed Orange Juice, vegetables, nuts, fruits and trinkets. At night this square transforms into nighttime entertainment with dancers, snake charmers, music and delicious cheap dinner stalls. The guys and I walked around the square for the day, ordered Chicken Tagine for lunch and headed to the nearby park to relax.

After exploring the square and the surroundings with them, I decided to head towards the Bahia Palace while they rented a car. This palace was built in the 1800s and the word “Bahia” translates to Beautiful or Brilliant. Apparently, some of the best Moroccan artisans came to Marrakech from around the country to work on this palace. As you walk through this beautiful place you will notice the painted ceilings, tiled walls, detailed woodwork, symmetrical columns, gorgeous courtyards with Orange Trees, mosaic flooring and large fountains. When I was walking around the streets leading up to the palace, they were dirty and bustling with a lot of storefronts leading up to the palace. I would have never guessed a gorgeous area like the Bahia Palace were behind the gates of the dusty and bustling streets. I walked around the palace and admired the beauty and the colors of this 18th century work of art.

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When I met back up with the guys, we met someone who had just come back from an epic hike at the hostel and was raving about it. After acquiring some more details about the Toubkal Hike in the Atlas Mountains, the 3 guys and I decided we would set out to conquer that hike the next day. Little did I know, this hike would be the hardest hike that I would ever set out to complete without the necessary equipment. The next morning, we packed our day packs and got into the rental car to drive 2 hours south to Imlil where we parked our car and set out on the journey. After asking many locals where the trail started, we finally got on the correct trail about an hour into our day. We knew the first day’s hike would take us around 6 hours to get to the Refugee where we would be sleeping that evening. While we were on the trail we found out that Mount Toubkal is the tallest mountain in North Africa standing at 4,167m (13,671 ft). Before this mountain, my highest hike was Snowy Mountain with my friend Adela at 3,400 ft. This is when I knew this hike was no joke and rethinking what I had gotten myself into…

The first part of the hike was scenic with views of the local villages, passing by schools filled with children playing outside and of course passing the multiple donkeys that were carrying up camping equipment and food up the mountain. The first couple hours were easy and not too hard of a trek. When we reached the halfway point, Sidi Chamharouch, we purchased some juice and food at the stands and took a quick break. A local squeezed some fresh Orange Juice for me and as soon as I tasted it, it reminded me of a sour orange sour patch kid – it was the SOUR! Orange Juice in Morocco is usually extremely sweet, some of the sweetest orange juice you will ever try but this one was totally different and left a sour orange flavor in my mouth for an hour after. After we finished our juices and candy bars we started to trek again. The guys I went with (Ben, Dom and Timo) were all in very good shape (way better shape than I was in). As we climbed past 2500m closer to the Refuge that we were staying at, Ben started to feel very fatigue and crampy. We realized quite quickly that he was experiencing altitude sickness so I decided to stay back with him and trek up slowly while Dom and Timo continued at the normal pace. Fortunately for me, it was good to go at a slower pace with lots of breaks and allow myself to adjust to the different altitude with thinner air. It took us another 5 or 6 hours to reach the Refugee where we would be staying that evening. As soon as we arrived and put our day packs down, Ben had been feeling extremely ill and did not think he would be able to trek the next day if his sickness continued to worsen.

As we sat down for dinner, we started to talk to the other hikers who were staying at the refugee and noticed quite quickly how difficult the next day would be for us. It seemed like people who hiked this trail had a guide and had trained for a couple months before in order to appropriately acclimate their bodies for this hike (whoops, here goes nothing)! They also mentioned that we should wake up around 6am to start the trek up to the summit which was only 3km up but usually took around 3 hours because of how steep the hike is. We charged all of our necessary equipment that night, enjoyed the chicken tagine with mint tea and prepared for the next day’s hike. Unfortunately, as I was trying to fall asleep my nose was completely stuffed up and I couldn’t breathe well so I may have gotten 45 minutes to an hour’s worth of sleep. It also didn’t help that they crammed 30 people in one large room. When my alarm went off at 6am I woke up the guys and put on the necessary layers. Ben was still feeling incredibly fatigue with an awful headache so he stayed behind to get a donkey back to Imlil. After eating a quick breakfast and packing two water bottles for each of us, we started the trek up the mountain.

Within 10 minutes of a completely vertical trek up, Timo’s shin started to kill him and he decided to head back down early and get a donkey back with Ben so he wouldn’t hurt his shin further. THEN THERE WERE TWO….I made sure Dom still wanted to hike to the summit and we continued, not knowing exactly how hard this trek would be up. Since we left around the same time that everyone else did, we were following another group who had a guide with them so we wouldn’t veer off of the path. Within the next 2 hours and 30 minutes we had hiked through rocks, small pebbles, snow, ice and large boulders to reach the summit. At one point, every step we took forward we would take 5 steps back because the pebbles on this mountain were like quicksand and since the incline was so steep we would continue to fall down the mountain. It took absolutely everything in me to keep going. Dom and I kept a great pace the entire way and summited 30 minutes before the average person while passing 10-15 people who had started earlier than us. The views were INCREDIBLE and when we got to the summit all the pain and energy it took was well worth it. After stopping for a quick snack and some pictures, we started our trek down. I’ve always said that going down is harder for me than hiking up the mountain. As soon as we started, we were sliding and falling all over the place because the small rocks were so unsteady. Since it had been after 10:30am when we started the downhill trek, the snow that we hiked up in the early morning had melted slightly. As we were trying to walk down the large snow patches, every step I took I kept falling on my ass so I decided to sit down and go sledding down the hill on my bare butt with my non-waterproof leggings. Within 5 minutes of this decision, my feet, legs and hands were freezing and soaked. Luckily we only had to go through 7 snow patches to get down.

Once we got down to the Refugee where we had stayed the previous night, we collected our other gear, grabbed some more water and chocolate bars and started down the original hike. After hiking up to the summit for the last 5 hours, my legs were on fire and throbbing. Since it was already 2pm when we started the hike down to Imlil, we knew we probably would reach the small village until sunset if not later. Since we did not adequately prepare meals or snacks for the 2nd day of trekking, at the first small rest stop Dom bought some bread and hot tea (which actually turned out to be cold tea and made him have food poisoning). Fortunately, I opted out of drinking tea and decided to eat 2 snickers bars instead. Within 20 minutes of hiking past that rest stop, Dom was feeling extremely ill. We figured out that the rest stop did not bring the Moroccan water to a boil and that his mint tea caused him to have food poisoning. For the next 4 hours, Dom rode on a donkey down the hill to Imlil while I walked behind the guide. Finally, at 8pm after trekking for 14 hours we reached Imlil and I was the last one standing and the only person who did not need a donkey ride down the hill. I felt extremely exhausted but very proud of myself for completing this spur-of-the-moment trek! Overall the trek was stunning and it was wonderful to hike with the guys and I am so happy they allowed me to tag along with them for the last three days! Stay tuned for a GoPro video shortly that I captured every step of the way!

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Unfortunately, the next day the boys had to leave me to go to Tangier and I decided to stay an extra two days to explore Marrakech more before I headed to Fes. That day I decided to head to the Majorelle Gardens that was purchased and restored by Yves Saint Laurent. Although the gardens were small, the buildings were beautifully and brightly painted and attracted tourists from around the world. In one room, YSL’s LOVE posters that he sent out each year as his new year’s greetings to his friends were displayed. I loved this room because you got to see a glimpse of his work and what inspired his redesign of the gardens. After the gardens, I headed to the mall to buy the top rated Argan Oil that Morocco has to offer (I didn’t want any of that cheap crap they sell around the square for $10). After finding the Nectarome 100% Organic Natural Argan Oil, I headed back to the square and passed by the Ben Youssef Mosque to take a couple selfies. That evening I tried the chicken couscous at one of the dinner stands in the Jemaa El-Fnaa Square and it was fantastic! After checking off everything on my Marrakech bucket list and more, I decided it was time to head to Fes to experience Morocco’s oldest imperial city.

After a quick 9 hour bus ride to Fes, I arrived and checked into my Raid that was in the middle of the old medina. Also since Morocco is an Islamic country, you should try to respect their dress code and cover yourself appropriately even if its 90-100 degrees outside. Saying this, Fes is known for their old medina that has over 9,000 small narrow streets with a lot of hustle and bustle in the marketplaces. While I was walking around by myself trying to navigate the medina and get around to all the different small market places selling handmade carpets, fresh poultry, vegetables, fruits, leather goods, etc. I got completely lost. I tried to find my way back to my Raid that I was staying at when my phone died unexpectedly. I decided instead of getting more lost, to just grab a taxi and direct him to the main street I was living off of. After a 15-minute taxi drive to the main street (still unsure how I got that far from where I was staying), I was safe and sound in my Raid. The evening, the king was visiting so everyone was outside waiting for him to pass by (see the video clip below). After waving hello to the king and making some dinner from the vegetables and eggs I purchased that day, I decided to call it a night. The next day the friends I met at the Raid invited me to tour the city to see the Royal Palace, the oldest Jewish synagogue, and the tanneries. We took a taxi to the other side of town to visit the Royal Palace where we took pictures in front of the brass multi-colored doors and with the guards out front. Then we walk to the Ibn Danan Synagogue that dates back to the 17th century. After walking around the tiny synagogue with ancient history, Torahs and bath house downstairs, we ventured along the streets towards the tanneries. Your nose cannot miss the tanneries because the smell of poop takes over the streets. Luckily we came prepared and plug our noses with tissues or mint leaves and headed up to one of the leather goods stores balconies so we could see the Chouanra Tannery. From the picture below you can see the tannery is composed of different stone vessels filled with numerous different dyes and various liquids. This tannery processes the hides of cows, sheep, goats and camels and turns them into high-quality leather goods. The process typically starts by hand soaking the hides to clean them and break down the tough leather. Then once they are dried, the tanners scrap away any excess hair fibers and fat to prepare the hides for the dying process. The hides are then soaked in another mixture of water and pigeon poop so the hides can absorb the dyes. After this, the hides are places in the dying pits and dried in the sun. You can watch the entire process from start to finish on top of the leather stores balcony but make sure your nose is completely plugged up because it smells BAD! After the Tannery, while walking back to our Raid we noticed a pet shop that had a full grown cat living in a bird cage. We decided we could not leave that cat in there and to purchase it and let it out in the park so it would have a better life, I guess that was our one good deed for the day.

After a long day, I spent some time playing with the kittens upstairs. In our Raid’s kitchen, we found a box of 4 kittens. Although the mother was pretty protective over her kittens, she allowed us to hold them and play with them. They were probably 4-5 weeks old and just learning how to walk. Something that I haven’t mentioned yet is that in Morocco there are hundreds of thousands of stray cats everywhere. They have a serious problem but most of the cats I passed by seemed rather healthy to me and the locals didn’t seem to mind them.

The next morning, we headed to the bus station to head to Chefchaouen also known as The Blue City. This tiny blue town is located in the Rif Mountains with the friendliest people I have met so far. The first day we arrived, my group of friends went on a waterfall hike outside of town deep in the Rif Mountains. After 2 hours of hiking, we arrived at a small trickling waterfall, I guess we forgot to look up the last time it rained in Morocco…whoops! Luckily we were able to enjoy the small pool of water under the waterfall for a while before all the other hikers got there. After spending the afternoon there, we decided to head back to Chefchaouen and explore the town a bit. We learned a bit of the history of this small, quaint town from some locals –

  • Chefchaouen was painted blue by the Jewish refugees who lived there in the 1930’s
  • When you hike up (15 minutes) to the Spanish Mosque, Chefchaouen’s blue colors are enhanced by the gorgeous mountains surrounding the city
  • Chefchaouen was ruled by the Spanish for several centuries
  • Residents will continue to upkeep their blue houses every month or so

The next couple of days, I explored every inch of Chefchaouen and relaxed at my gorgeous Raid to take in the surroundings and read a couple books. The thing I loved the most about Chefchaouen and Morocco was that I was able to experience Ramadan there for the first couple days. When I planned my trip to Morocco, I did not know that I would be there for the first 5 nights of Ramadan and honestly didn’t know much about this special holiday but quickly learned about all of the traditions and the beauty of the holiday. The first night, a couple people from the hostel went up to the Spanish Mosque to view the city below and one of the friends happened to be Muslim and filled us in on what Ramadan was all about –

  • Ramadan occurs every 9th month in the Muslim calendar year
  • During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast (no eating or drinking!) during the daylight hours from dawn (3am in Morocco) until sunset (7:30pm in Morocco)
  • To respect Muslims and their holy holiday, tourists should not walk around the streets during the day and eat or drink in front of people
  • The first call to prayer in the morning hours (3:30am in Morocco) starts the fast and the first prayer of the day while the 2nd to last call to prayer (7:30pm in Morocco) ends the fast for the day
  • Each evening, Muslims will break the fast with their family and friends in their homes or on the beach (like I saw in Rabat)
  • Another important thing to note, during Ramadan, Muslim men should avoid sexual activities with women or their wives during the day but can resume after the fast is broken

After learning some fun facts about Ramadan, we witnessed the most beautiful evening ontop of the Spanish Mosque hill. As soon as the call to prayer began at around 7:34pm on the first night of Ramadan, the streets were absolutely desolate. There wasn’t a single human in the streets, the cars were all stopped and the mosques were lit up. The town was still because everyone was inside breaking the fast with their family and friends for the first evening of Ramadan and starting their prayers in the Mosques. This was such a special evening for me and for the next 5 nights in Morocco, I was able to experience breaking the fast in special ways each evening!

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After relaxing in Chefchaouen and meeting a couple of awesome people, I headed out to Rabat which is a small coastal town located on the Atlantic Ocean. It only took me an hour of walking around when I arrived to fall in love with this city. After experiencing the crazy Marrakech city life to the calm Atlas Mountain villages to the small blue town of Chefchaouen, this was completely different. Firstly, I stayed in a surfer’s hostel where the owner was a professional surfer who has traveled around the world. Secondly, the medinas were very relaxed with friendly store owners inviting you in and not hassling you like they did in Marrakech. Lastly, as I was walking around the “boardwalk” during sunset each night I experienced a different part of Ramadan. Since I only had 4 days in Rabat before my flight left for Portugal, I walked around the city, ate a lot of 10 cent pastries and meet a ton of new local friends. The beauty of Ramadan that I experienced was when the sun starts to set and the call to prayer starts, everyone is joyous and extremely happy. As they are breaking their fast with their friends, family and coworkers they want everyone to feel welcomed and to experience their traditions. Each evening as I watched everyone gather together on the beach to break the fast, someone would always invite me to break the fast with them. I was overwhelmed with emotions each night because they had been fasting all day without anything to drink or eat, while I was eating fruits and pastries all day and they still wanted to share their food with me and their religious traditions – it was so beautiful for me to witness.

The last couple of days I had left in Ramadan, I went carpet shopping. After reading many blogs and talking to a couple of people about purchasing a carpet in Morocco, they said the art of buying a carpet is the bargaining that comes with it. I decided to spend a whole day going to different carpet shops, comparing prices, bargaining and finding the perfect carpet that I could keep for the rest of my life. What makes carpets so unique in Morocco is the fact they are all hand-woven by the Berber village people. They are made from a variety of different types of wool and are dyed to create different patterns. The type of carpet that I fell in love with was the Beni Ourain carpets that are woven from undyed natural wools and traditionally decorated with black geometric designs. These carpets were perfect for me because of the simplicity of them and the historic Moroccan background of the Berber community. After bargaining and learning about each carpet and going to 6 different shops, I finally found the perfect 2 Beni Ourain carpets to ship home! I know when I finally move into another apartment, these will provide the perfect touch to my room and living room along with my paintings from Bali!

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The last day in Morocco after I shipped my 2 new carpets to the states, I decided to head to the Moroccan Contemporary Art Museum because they had a special Picasso segment going on until the end of the summer. The artwork was beautiful and the Picasso segment was wonderful to see and compare his earlier works of art to his later years. There was also some amazing contemporary works of art in this museum as well.

Morocco will hold a special place in my heart for a very long time because of the friendly people I met, the amazing pastries I tried and experiencing Ramadan as a local. Until next time Morocco! Now for the next journey in Portugal!

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