Bonjour!!! Welcome to the place where Moroccan road trips come to life!!!
On the 8th of April Lucy and I embarked upon a serious adventure; we hired a car in Marrakesh and drove to Essaouria and then back across the Atlas mountains to the Sahara Desert. It was extremely successful and we both arrived back in Copenhagen sun-tanned and moderately unsure as to how it had all worked out so perfectly.
The challenge began in the planning; I'd spent a decent amount of time in Morocco before and was equally obsessed with every destination. I wasn't keen on doing the 'desert tour' again but knew that Lucy's first time in Morocco had to involve the Sahara. My solution to this was a car... I wanted one so badly... but every review and blog online was telling me to stay away. Naturally, I procrastinated and suddenly our flights were in a week and I hadn't organised anything. It wasn't until a desperate moment (in class obviously) where I stumbled across THIS blog post and I decided to book the car. From there, with the reassurance (and hope) that we would be able to get around pretty easily, I then planned the route and booked some of our accommodation.
A small disclaimer *** this trip was not that cheap. I didn't book anything further than a week in advance and we stayed in accommodation that was exuberantly luxurious rather than dirt cheap hostels, basically because we could!!! The car was definitely the biggest expense (which I will discuss in detail below) but without it our trip wouldn't have been anywhere near the personalized adventure that it was! All up the trip cost us $1100 AUD each including all expenses (flights, car hire, accommodation, food etc). Obviously this is not a feasible backpacking budget but as Lucy are I aren't travelling full time we took full advantage of the opportunity to spoil ourselves. That being said, considering how much we did and how little (not at all) we thought about budgeting, it really isn't that much money anyway!!!
We flew into Marrakesh on Monday evening, arriving at midnight. We paid 100 dirham to get into town (we had to bargain a little to get this price, its usually 150 after 8pm).
The second time we left the airport after we had dropped the hire car off, we walked out of the airport car park and onto the main road and got a taxi easily for 70 dirham. There is also a bus (if you are traveling solo) that leaves from outside the airport to the main square in the Medina that costs 30 dirham.
Be careful to double check the address of your Riad within the Medina (especially with Airbnbs) because a lot of the actual addresses are different locations to where they appear on the map. There are regularly double-ups in names and tiny differentiation (street, lane avenue etc) that can send you in the complete wrong direction. Also, if you are staying in the Medina, you will likely have to walk to your riad as the streets are for pedestrian traffic only (if you're a little apprehensive/arriving at night this is worth considering, but you will be fine !!!)
Where to stay
We stayed in Marrakesh on 3 separate occasions (over 4 nights) and stayed somewhere different each time to make the most of the ridiculous array of accommodation options in the Medina. The first 2 nights were in an Airbnb called Dar Mata Riad. This place was nice enough, it was located a little walk out of the central Medina but still had a lot of charm, the rooftop was cute and the breakfast was immense. It was $50 a night ($25 each) for a private room including breakfast). For $35 off your first Airbnb booking click this link!
The second time we stayed at the Bed Square hostel which used to be the Rainbow Hostel (which Ebbs and I stayed at in 2015 on several occasions and LOVED) it changed ownership and now, while still beautiful, is a wanky, clinical beige version of what it used to be. While the previous clientele were interesting (albeit crazy), hash smoking backpackers, this new venue hosted lots of karaoke singing Americans (which is what I'm ALL ABOUT). It was $20 each a night for a bed here and while it was a comfortable and pretty place to stay I would really only recommend it to a solo female traveler that wanted somewhere clean and chill. There are plenty of far better and cheaper hostels in Marrakesh.
The last place we stayed was called Riad Zahia and was $80 a night ($40 each). We had our own private suite (with its own staircase) and as I had requested we were given the pink room (each suite was themed a different colour). This place was pretty glamorous but I did find it a tinge trashy (I thought they could have made better choices with their fabrics) They had a beautiful rooftop, dodgy internet, a plunge pool and a civilized breakfast (not the best we'd had). While it wasn't anything like the Riad I stayed in in Fez (which will forever set my standards high and that you can read about here) it was beautiful, relaxing and luxurious which was just what we needed after the craziness of our road trip and before our flight home.
Where to do/eat
We spent most of our time in Marrakesh wandering aimlessly, eating overripe strawberries and trying to decode which few items of the immense amount touristy crap that we wanted to take home (Lucy bought nothing !!!). When we weren't walking we were eating and we went to a few notable places to do so. Le Famille is a beautiful cafe (open for brunch and lunch) in an extremely glamorous garden. The prices are incredibly reasonable (although not the cheapest you'll find) however, you'll want to book a table if you wish to eat here as we went twice and they were full. Two other aesthetically pleasing restaurants we stumbled across were called Le Jardin and Le Lemonia. Again, its recommended to book a table for either of these venues (especially for dinner). We ate cheap Moroccan food (veg Tagine and Moroccan salad) at Snack Toukbia in the main square twice (Ebbs and I used to have just about every meal in this place). For a nice view on the 'trendy' rooftop and 10/10 entertainment from the other Instagram inclined guests, head to the Atay Cafe. It was super close to where we were staying so we ate here a few times. Their avocado salad will change your life. We also ate at Roti D'or (around from the main square) a few times. They make incredible sandwiches that are super cheap!!! We mostly chilled during our time in Marrakesh but the last time I was there I did way more of the 'stuff' so if you want to read about that click here!!
Hiring a car
While I've hired a scooter in just about every Asian country, the hiring of a car has been something I've only done without my family a couple of times and with the pressure of insurance and the high cost stakes of making a mistake, I was a little stressed out. I had to keep a confident front however as Lucy was looking to me for strength, she was not at all keen on the idea of driving in Morocco and if I showed any fear all hope would be lost.
It was definitely a daunting proposition for a multitude of reasons. I was a little concerned by the terrifying reviews that were left online by almost EVERY car hire company. Most people had a story with regards to being ripped off in some way or the car being entirely faulty. I was also a little tentative about driving in Morocco itself. There are minimal road rules and lots of crazy traffic especially around the cities. I also didn't have a credit card which was stated as a requirement by just about every car hire company...
What it cost...
It definitely could have been much cheaper had we booked the car earlier, driven manual, and not been under 23. I only booked the car a week in advance as I had been procrastinating so it cost us $330 AUD for 5 days (including the young driver fee). On top of that we paid another $14 a day for insurance (which was provided by Discover Car Hire) and then, when we arrived to pick up the car without a credit card (which was a requirement for renting) my debit card didn't have enough money to cover the deposit so we paid another $130 of Hertz insurance which then lowered the deposit cost and thus made it possible for us to hire the car. (exhausting!!!!)
So in total the car cost us $575 to hire for 5 days ($290 each), which is a lot. When I was in Morocco last time I met a group of people who had bought a car for about this price and had been driving it around the country for weeks. We had no qualms with what we paid as I knew I'd been under-prepared and we only had a week to make the most of the country. Alternatively we could have shopped around while in Marrakesh and hired from a random Moroccan vendor (which obviously would have been much cheaper than Hertz) but, considering the first thing anyone said to us when we mentioned hiring a car in Morocco was "good luck" and the dire status of EVERY review online, we may have paid a little more than necessary but our trip was FLAWLESS and our car was in amazing condition.
That is not to say I don't encourage shopping around, if you have the time you could easily get a car (especially a manual one) for $10 a day and finding the best deal possible is often half the fun.
TOTAL KILOMETERS TRAVELED: 1708 km
A main thing I worried about in relation to hiring a car and driving through desert was the regularity of petrol stations. I read a blog post just before I hired the car that I will link here that really helped calm my nerves. There are petrol stations EVERYWHERE. They usually just have diesel and regular petrol (idk what this is called lol). You pull up, tell the petrol attendant how much you want (either an amount in dirham or just full) they fill it up, you pay the cash and off you go. It was an incredibly easy and stress free process and we never had less than 3/4 full tank of petrol. Its a safe idea whenever traveling anywhere by car (especially in remote areas) to NEVER have below half a tank a of petrol.
TOTAL SPENT ON PETROL: $106
While navigating around the crazy roundabouts in Marrakesh wasn't the easiest driving I've done, once you leave the city there is no real difference to driving on a highway at home. The roads are well established and safe due to the vast amounts of traffic that travel across the country. Those surrounding Marrakesh however are total chaos and require some acute attention as well as a dedicated navigator. Lucy did an amazing job at interpreting the bazaar road structures that appeared before her on the map... We only took one wrong turn!! As an Australian, be weary that they do drive on the right side of the road. Luckily as I'd been living in Copenhagen for a few months I didn't find this transition too jarring. Just take extra care on the first day and you'll be fine.
The drive between Essaouria and Marrakesh takes 2-3 hours and is mostly on double-laned, traffic separated roads. You'll have to pay an 8 dirham toll at one point but its just in cash and is an easy process and it was the only toll we paid the whole trip.
Crossing the Atlas mountains is quite precarious as it does take a few hours and requires full attention. You'll have to pull off some intense overtaking as large trucks that can't go over 20km/h often cause crazy traffic lines. The roads are insanely winding (as expected) and most are edged with sheer cliffs that fall into the valley below. Obviously, the danger rests in both your ability as well as the unpredictability of others, but generally we found all other traffic here well behaved and I was confident and comfortable the whole time (based off Lucy's thigh grabbing I think she may have felt a little less at ease).
Once you've crossed the mountains the roads all the way to the desert are basically straight and flat so you can travel at a pretty decent speed. The speed limit was not entirely clear but we drove at about 110km/h for the bulk of this part of the journey.
In order to ensure people don't speed at 100km/h through the little towns that pop up along the highway the police will sporadically appear with speed measuring guns at the start and end of a town. (We usually saw police 5 times a day) The speed limit will go from 100 to 80 to 60 to 40 pretty fast so make sure you're paying attention and slow down each time you see a change. I didn't quite understand this pattern on our first day and we got pulled over and given a speeding fine. It was only $25 and was kinda funny but we didn't want another one so I was careful the rest of the trip.
Other car things
Most hire places will require you to return the car clean and ours was FILTHY. Lots of the petrol stations have car washes and we luckily decided to get ours done while we were still 40 minutes outside Marrakesh. It was 40 dirham for a full clean inside and out and we got to drink orange juice and look at the mountains while we waited. Our alternative would have been a life-ending stressful experience if we had waited until getting to Marrakesh to wash it as the petrol stations, like everything else, are chaos.
We didn't understand a lot of the road signs/behaviors but we still managed to navigate pretty safely, it might be worth looking them up beforehand as it could really help, especially when driving in the city.
Its not recommended to ever drive at night, especially across the Atlas mountains as there are very little to no road lights. We made sure we planned all our journeys to arrive at least an hour before sunset just in case. We only ended up driving after dark once on the final night.
There are plenty of cafes to stop at on the way if you need to use a bathroom. Lucy and I just peed on the side of the road and enjoyed it just fine.
To hire a car in Morocco my Australian drivers licence was fine. I had to pay a young driver fee because I was under 23 (but this differs across companies). I paid for all the possible insurance for the car which is not something I'd normally do but it gave Lucy peace of mind and it wasn't an outrageous amount of money considering the likelihood of something happening was quite high (we had our hubcaps stolen on the second night??).
We used Maps.me to navigate the entire way and had no difficulties. Any offline maps app will suit you just fine, the roads are fairly straight and uncomplicated.
Day 1 - Marrakech - hours driven - 0
After an interesting and exhausting evening traveling from Copenhagen we woke up fresh and excited in our Riad to a beautiful Moroccan breakfast (lots of bread). As it was Lucy's first time in Morocco we spent the morning grazing our way through the Medina, smelling all the smells and eating all the foods. We went to the Bahia Palace in the afternoon which cost 70 dirham pp (it has increased by 40 dirham since 2015 lol) and had a relaxed dinner.
Day 2 - Essaouria - hours driven - 3
Woke up in Marrakesh, had a leisurely breakfast and went to the car rental store at 9:30 am. We were on the road to Essaouria by 10:30 and arrived at 1pm. We parked in the 'parking station' next to the fishing port for 50 dirham per night. Had lunch and explored a little before checking into our Airbnb at 3pm. I had booked us a penthouse apartment next to the ocean that slept 8 people !!!! While it cost a lot more than we needed to spend it was ridiculously cheap for what it was and we enjoyed strutting from room to room in our underwear... I think it as worth it. We spent the afternoon lying in the sun on the rooftop and then explored the town for a few hours before getting take-away falafel plates and bringing them back to our 'pad'.
Day 3 - Marrakesh - hours driven - 3
Woke up in our penthouse. We got take-away coffee and delicious cinnamon scrolls for 20 cents and walked along the beach (all the way to the end !!) Returned to our penthouse at 10am and lay on the roof for a few hours before checkout at 12. Threw our backpacks in the back of the car and went to Mandala for lunch. This cafe is wicked. it was 75 dirham for a massive breakfast, delicious coffee and the best carrot, orange and ginger juice I've ever had. We then explored the town a little more and left for Marrakesh at about 3pm. The drive was chill, the weather was hot and dry. We arrived in Marrakesh at about 6pm and parked the car in the paid parking lot near "Koutoubia" near the main square. We paid 60 dirham to park the car there overnight and then walked from the car to our Riad for the night. We stayed in the hostel Bed Square and ate dinner at Snack Toukbal before getting into bed at 8pm!!!
Day 4 - Dades valley - hours driven - 8
Today was a MASSIVE day. We woke up at 7 and were on the road by 8:15, luckily avoiding the worst of Marrakesh's traffic. We stopped in Al Haouz for coffee and orange juice (the start of our favorite tradition) in a beautiful road side restaurant with a balcony overlooking vibrant green fields, a Berber village and snow capped mountains. We then started the apprehensive drive over the Atlas mountains, there was a lot of construction work being done to the roads here but otherwise we had a smooth uninterrupted drive, stopping whenever we wanted a better look at the view (which was often). We stopped for lunch at Ait-Ben-Haddou, an ancient city about 20 minutes outside Ouarzazate. After lunch we explored the city and sat in the sun on top of the fort on top of the city for a few hours and at about 3:30pm we were back on the road. We didn't stop until we reached our destination for the evening which was in the Boumalne Dades region. I had booked us an Airbnb for $15 that looked like it had a nice view (they are all much of the same) but upon arrival there was no water and no electricity and the owners didn't speak English so we had no way of communicating with them. Unconcerned about losing the $15 we got back in the car and drove 5 minutes up the road to where a few other guest houses were and we spent 15 minutes talking to each of their owners to get the best price for dinner, a room and breakfast. The one we settled on was $20 each for both meals and a private room with hot water and internet and it had beautiful views over the valley. I'd highly recommend not booking somewhere for this night of accommodation as there are always so many options and they are all so much more expensive online. If you have a car you have the freedom to explore and there is nothing better than picking the place you like the most in person!!!! Its wise to have a final destination in mind though, we used the Airbnb as a guide to where we stayed (the valley is immense) otherwise you could just be driving around for hours.
Day 5 - The Sahara Desert - hours driven - 4
We woke up early again and ate breakfast at 7. We were on the road by 7:30. Despite only having 4 hours of driving ahead of us we wanted to reach Merzouga as early as possible so we could relax and find the right camp. We arrived at around 12:30 and got coffee and orange juice before using the map to guide us to all the hotels that lined the edge of the desert. We went to the hotels rather than organizing our trip from a tout in town because we wanted to book our trip through a company that had an affiliated hotel with a pool (so we could lie by it that afternoon) and it was also a lot less stressful as we had the power of being able to walk away. (we only knew to do this as when I had done the 3 day trip from Marrakesh in 2015 the camel trip had started and ended in a big kasbah/hotel on the edge of the desert) We went into 5 hotels, avoided those that didn't expressly state they had a pool on the sign outside (they flaunt what they got here) and settled finally on Auberge Le Touareg which was a big kasbah-like hotel with a glamorous pool on the outskirts of the town. The best part was they had a large tour going that night (with 50 other people) so it was easy to barter the price down considerably. While all the other places we had been were saying 500-600 dirham pp this place agreed that 300 each was okay (we ended up paying even less because the ATM wasn't working) We spent the afternoon lying in the sun by the pool before showering and leaving on the camels at around 5:30 pm. The camel ride was nice enough, its extremely touristy (but I mean how could it not be) we enjoyed it for what it was, in fact I enjoyed it a lot. We watched sunset over the sand dunes and then rode the camels to our camp which was quite glamorous and much different to the one I stayed in last time. We had our own room with beds (not a rug on the floor like last time) and we were served a delicious dinner of salad and tagine in the mess tent at our own private table !!! We had a good look at the stars before climbing into bed at 9:30 and sleeping like we'd died haha!!
Day 6 - Marrakesh - hours driven - 11
We woke at 6 and then rode our camels through the sunrise back to the hotel in Merzouga where we had breakfast, showered and then were on the road by about 8am. We were both a little anxious about the drive ahead of us, purely because it was such a long way and we didn't want to have to drive in the dark. We made amazing time though, and the entire drive was a pleasure, surrounded by unreal, constantly evolving landscapes. We blasted music and had the windows down the entire time because it was a beautiful 33 degrees (I got seriously sunburned knees). We stopped for lunch at 12:30 at a restaurant we had driven past on the way to the desert that we had noted had an amazing view. Our coffee and orange juice combo had never tasted better. The view was incredible, we had Moroccan salad and fries and then were back on the road 40 minutes later. Again, this section of the drive was ridiculously scenic and we're honestly lucky we didn't crash as I really struggled to keep my eyes on the road when there were so many mountains and lakes to look at. We got the car washed at a petrol station about 40 minutes outside Marrakesh and dropped the car back at the airport by 8:30 pm. Semi delirious, we got a taxi to our final Riad in Marrakesh and passed the fuck out!!!!
Day 7 - Marrakesh - hours driven - 0
We started the day with breakfast in our Riad. The morning was leisurely. We had to check out at 12 so made the most of our room for the morning. I lay on the roof in the sun and watched Peep Show. We spent the afternoon shopping (me) and eating. I got my hair braided in the main square for $8 because we had some time to kill. We left for the airport at 9pm, paying 70 dirham for the taxi. Our flight was at midnight. I had bought a rainbow chandelier from a market that day and somehow managed to slide it on as carry on... We arrived back in Copenhagen at 6am and life continued yay!!