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The sights! The sounds! The tastes! Morocco is a country to be experienced with all of your senses. But this exotic North African country can seem a bit overwhelming. Enter National Geographic Family Journeys with G Adventures. This affordably-priced tour offers a good sampling of exploration, history and culture without any of the stress of planning a trip – or the need to read street signs written in Arabic or speak French.
Disclosure: The writer was hosted for this trip.
What happens when two well-known and respected tour companies join forces to launch tours for families? They sell out quickly.
That’s what happened when National Geographic Expeditions and G Adventures created Family Journeys. Within months, many of the reasonably-priced tours to some of the world’s most exotic destinations were sold out.
The first-ever Family Journeys trip to Morocco was a media-only event. It gave 8 writers and their kids an up-close look at the Nat Geo/G Adventures partnership, along with a bucket list adventure in the Sahara desert.
Each Family Adventures tour accommodates 20 or fewer participants with two CEOs (Chief Experience Officers) who are local to the country and offer insights, stories and advice along the way.
On our trip, the CEOs (both dads themselves) also turned out to be great fun on the Sahara sand dunes. They rode the snowboards down with a kid on the back, then gamely dragged it back up so they could slide down again. And they kept it up until everyone collapsed in exhaustion to watch the sun set over the Sahara.
TravelingMom Tip: Be serious about sun protection. The sun in this North African country is intense. A sun hat, sunglasses and sunscreen are required every time you step out of the shade — all of those things should be part of your Morocco packing list.
Should You Book a Tour to See Morocco?
To Europeans, it seems the answer is “no.” They drive their RVs (which they call caravans) south and take the 30-minute ferry over from Spain to camp in the Sahara. But to Americans and someone visiting Morocco for the first time, this exotic country can feel a little overwhelming.
Still, a group tour requires a trade-off. You trade freedom of choice for assured comfort and a plan created by an expert. Even the well-traveled group on my National Geographic G Adventures family tour seemed happy with the trade-off.
I felt it acutely on my last night in Morocco when I ventured out alone, as an American woman, to wander through the medina (pronounced med-ee-na, the word means “walled city”). Like other female travelers in Morocco, I had to work hard at ignoring the vendors, hustlers and hawkers who spend their days looking for an easy mark among the tourists.
Morocco Tour Details
This tour is called “Morocco Family Journey: Ancient Souks to the Sahara.” It bypasses some of Morocco’s major cities and well-known spots — Casablanca and Fez; the beach town of Essaouira on the Atlantic Ocean; Chefchaouen; Tangier and the Strait of Gilbraltar, or Volubilis with its Roman ruins.
I will have to see those on my next visit.
This tour starts in the tourist center of Marrakech (also sometimes spelled Marrakesh), travels over the High Atlas Mountains and ends in Merzouga and the Sahara Desert before heading back across the mountains to Marrakech.
Ours was a slightly abbreviated version of the 9-day tour that starts running in March 2020. Here are the details of each day of my trip.
Morocco Travel Day 1: Welcome Dinner
This is arrival day in Marrakech. People coming from the USA or Australia had traveled for nearly 24 hours, so it was a light day. Dinner was optional, but I recommend trying to stay awake long enough to manage it. (I came in a day early in the futile hope of getting a leg up on the jet lag.)
We gathered for a briefing, then headed to the bus for a short drive to the medina. The square was crowded with people on an unseasonably warm Friday night in February. People set out their wares on blankets. Others occupied stalls lined with colorful fruits, vegetables and meat skewers. An estimated 5,000 sellers pack this market. People dressed in traditional Moroccan atire played music, creating a cacophony of sights and sounds.
And then the haunting call to prayer rose over the square in this Islamic country and the music stopped. People continued to mill about and hawk their wares, but in a more subdued manner.
Belly Dancers and Belly Treats
We crossed the square to a restaurant on the second floor with a view over the square. A belly dancer wowed us with her talent and surprised us by allowing patrons to tuck tips beneath the straps of her bra.
It also was our introduction to the delectable sights, smells and tastes of Moroccan food. We ate carrots sweetened with cinnamon and orange blossom, savory potatoes, deep red beets and small, deep fried egg rolls called briouate stuffed with chicken, cheese and veggies.
Morocco Travel Day 2: Moroccan Filmmaking
Still stuffed from dinner the night before, I skipped the hotel breakfast buffet and hopped on the bus for the longish ride to Ouarzazate (pronounced war-za-zot).
During a lunch stop, the younger kids burned off energy playing tag on the rooftop where we ate more colorful chopped veggies, and the lightest coconut cake I’ve ever tasted, all washed down with traditional Moroccan mint tea.
Our destination: Atlas Studios, the center of Moroccan filmmaking. This is the studio that made films such as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Gladiator,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Jewel of the Nile,” the awful “Mummy Returns” with Tom Cruise and one of my favorite films, “Salmon Fishing in Yemen.” In fact, this relatively safe country often “plays” other less safe countries on film – Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan.
There’s a new studio open now. The old studio is mostly used for backstage tours, although a film crew was setting up for a shoot during our visit. There’s a school nearby that teaches locals the movie-making trade – from makeup to costume-making.
TravelingMom Tip: Snag a seat on left side of the bus. It seemed to consistently have the better views. At least that’s the way it looked from my seat on the right side of the bus. And, if you or your kiddo are prone to motion sickness, get a seat toward the front of the bus. The roads over the High Atlas Mountains are typically twisty and turny. Road construction along the way means they also can be very bumpy. All in all, it proved to be a tough combination for people who have trouble with motion sickness.
Morocco Travel Day 3: The Long Drive
On the drive on Morocco’s longest street, the “street of 1000 kasbahs,” the highlight was an impromptu stop at a new roadside business selling traditional Moroccan scarves. There, we got a lesson in how to twist, wrap and tuck them just like a Moroccan would. We all bought scarves (don’t forget to haggle over the price). They came in handy the next day, the perfect accessories on our camel ride through the Sahara.
I marveled at the idea that a business selling scarves and tourist tchotchkes would spring up along a deserted stretch of highway with nothing else in sight for miles (or, in this case, kilometers).
Dunes at Dusk
At the end of the drive, we arrived in Merzouga (mer-zoo-ga) at the Hotel Nomad Palace. The huge rooms could easily sleep 4. The view from mine was of Ergh Cheabbi, the highest of the Sahara dunes. Surprisingly, the dunes glowed red in the bright sunshine.
The kids happily splashed in the very cold pool water while their parents lounged around the pool deck sucking up precious wifi (pronounced wee-fee in Morocco).
Morocco Travel Day 4: The Sahara Desert
This is the day I came for: Exploring the Sahara Desert by 4×4 and camel back.
It was the biggest hit with the kids, too. They spent an hour sliding down the Sahara dunes on a snowboard with the guides while most of the parents watched the magical play of light and shadow as the sun set over the red sand.
The 4×4 ride was mostly over packed sand, although we did get a few thrills when the driver took some smaller soft sand hills. But the views were incredible – camels walking along, the great red dunes in the background, nomadic tent compounds dotting the landscape, and increasingly, hotels under construction at the foot of the dunes.
A Traditional Nomadic Family Meal
We stopped several times along the drive – at an oasis to learn about desert irrigation and another to learn about fossils found in the desert. But the highlight was a visit with a nomadic family who works with the Moroccan tourism office to share their unique culture with visitors.
They offered us mint tea (a Moroccan staple). Then, the mom, wearing a traditional black head scarf that left only her eyes uncovered, baked traditional boutgorri (boot-gor-ee) bread stuffed with onions, camel fat and herbs, in a fire-burning clay oven.
In a sign of the changing times, the boutgourri bread was served to us by her 18-year-old daughter who wore a pink stretchy outfit with the words “love you” written all over it in English. Still, when we asked the young woman through our guides who acted as interpreters, what she wanted to be – wife and mother or something else? – she answered, “Whatever God decides.”
Back at the Hotel
Back at the hotel, we ate another yummy lunch – including the best burger…ever! (The secret? A marinade of black pepper, turmeric, cilantro and olive oil). Then, we lounged by the pool, resting up for our evening adventure atop a camel.
I rode a camel in the Australian outback and I remember it fondly. I don’t remember this one as fondly. The Moroccan camel saddles do not come with stirrups, so there’s no way to use your feet to help keep your balance. Staying high atop these awkward animals requires a death grip on the cross bar. Riding on flat parts of the Sahara was fine. Going uphill was OK. Going downhill took everything I had to keep upright. And it felt like the whole trip was downhill.
Would I have skipped it? Not for a million bucks. I may never again be in the Sahara desert. There’s no way I would pass up the chance to ride a camel there, no matter how awkward. Besides, where else will I be able to show off my mad scarf twisting skills?
The tour day ended with Gnoua (gah-no-a) musicians, descendants of Sudanese settlers who migrated to Morocco in the 15th century. They wore traditional white dresses and played drums and castanets while we danced around the bonfire and looked for shooting stars in the incredible night sky.
My day did not end with the dancers. I booked a visit to the hammam, a traditional Turkish bath-style spa at the hotel. It involved some time in the sauna, some serious full body exfoliation and a rather rough hair washing.
The front desk doubled-booked my provider, so the whole experience was a little short changed. Still, I was more than a little appalled at how much dead skin she was able to slough off, even with the truncated service. The next time I’m in Morocco, I’ll definitely try it again. And, with an exchange rate of 10 dirham to one US dollar, it was the least costly spa treatment I’ve ever had.
Note: This is not for the modest. It was a very, um, personal experience.
Morocco Travel Day 5: Berber Culture
The highlight of this day was our introduction to Berber pizza. Called medfouna (med-foo-na), it’s a bread stuffed with perfectly spiced chicken and vegetables. Traditionally, it’s cooked in the ashes of the fire in the sand. These days, the cooks use aluminum foil to keep the ashes and sand off the food.
It was delectable. As one fellow traveler said as she reached for a third irresistible slice: “It’s not obvious at the moment, but I don’t really care about food.”
Next Up? Gorge-ous Views
We ate with a view of the Todra Gorge, our unplanned destination that day. The itinerary called for us to see a different gorge – Dades Gorge. But, after a long morning on the bus, the CEOs made the right decision to head instead to Todra Gorge. Seeing Dades Gorge would have required another 2-3 hours on the bus. That would have been far too much for the kids. The adults, too, I think.
At Todra Gorge, we walked a short distance past the locals selling scarves and trinkets to marvel at the sheer sandstone walls that are a beacon for rock climbers. A river that flows from an underground spring meanders along the base of the cliff walls. The fresh, clear water draws rock-climbing nomads who come here to gather drinking water.
Our day ended early to give the children a chance to play in the lovely pool at our hotel for the evening, the Spanish-owned Xaluca Dades Hotel. Featuring massive carved wooden entrance doors, huge African statues and jungle-themed room décor, the hotel looked like a model for Disney World’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Morocco Travel Day 6: The Food
This day is all about Moroccan cooking and native traditions – roses, herbs, rugs, a kasbah and tagine (ta-sheen) cooking.
While the Damascus roses were not in bloom (the festival is the first week of May), we did stop in Kalaa Mgouna, (ka-la-ma-goo-na, known as The Roses Town) to buy some rose products, including rose water and creams.
Next up was a visit to an herbalist who demonstrated the healing powers of herbs and essential oils. I was surprised at how engaged the kids were. Apparently, there were enough things to test and taste to keep them focused while the parents browsed and shopped.
To Buy or Not to Buy?
A short ride brought us to a Moroccan rug-making co-op. It employs 86 women who can spend a year or longer weaving the most beautiful rugs. They’re available for sale at a truly reasonable price that includes shipping. I was oh so tempted to buy despite the fact that I don’t need another rug at home. I didn’t, although several of my fellow travelers did.
The co-op is across a river from an abandoned city, Eit Ben Haddou (ite-ben-ha-do), a UNESCO heritage site. It’s a climb up many stairs to the kasbah at the top, but the views made it worth the effort. (A kasbah is the central structure for a Moroccan village. It translates to “keep” or “fortress” and is where the members of the village keep their most important possessions.)
Finally, after all of that eating, it was time to learn a little Moroccan cooking. We headed to our hotel, the Riad Maktoub, ahead of a cooking lesson during which we each prepared our own tagine chicken with vegetables while the kids made msemen (mem-see-men) bread.
To be honest, mine was not as good as the tagine chicken I had been eating all week. I did buy some spices from the herbalist, but I have no great hopes that I’ll be successfully recreating that mouth-watering Moroccan cuisine.
Morocco Travel Day 6: Marrakech
Our tour ended in Marrakech. The morning featured a laid back stop at The Henna Art Cafe for temporary henna tattoos and more mint tea. It’s a lovely spot owned by an American ex-pat artist. (Be sure to pop into the bathroom to read the lovely inspirational messages.)
That and a quick tour of a former palace and we were all wiped out. Once again, the CEOs got the message and altered the itinerary so we could have time at the hotel to rest and decompress before heading back to the medina. That’s when I was on my own, feeling a little accosted by the aggressive hawkers.
I’m not a big shopper, but I do enjoy haggling for the best price. I found most of the sellers spoke enough English to argue over whether they would sell their wares for a few less dirham.
Be sure to get out of the main square and wander down the winding alleys of the medina. Vendors in impossibly small shops sell everything from fresh meat to pots and pans to live birds. The crowds are thinner and the merchants less aggressive there. But pay attention to which way you turn. It’s very easy to get lost in the winding alleyways. And keep your eyes and ears open. Locals will zip by on motorcycles perilously close.
Things to Know about Family Journeys Before You Go
This tour covers a lot of ground. That means many hours on a bus. We never rode for more than two hours without a 15-minute pit stop to use the facilities, have a coffee (or traditional Moroccan mint tea) and let the little ones run off a bit of pent up energy. Still, some days involved as many as 5 hours on the bus altogether. The destination at the end of the day was always worth it
Motion sickness happens. The roads over the Atlas Mountains are twisty and turny and bumpy. It was a challenge for a few fellow travelers who suffer from motion sickness. Grab a seat in the front of the bus and try Psi Bands. One woman swears by them and wore one on each wrist every day. Taking Dramamine works, too, but it tends to leave people a bit sleepy. When my son had problems with motion sickness as a child, sucking on ginger pops usually did the trick for him.
You’ll want to pace yourself at meals. Every meal went on for course after course. I kept making the mistake of filling up on a course. Then, surprise, another delicious treat would arrive. Don’t repeat my mistake.
About Family Journeys
Nat Geo and G Adventures have partnered on tours since 2015. Those tours might include children, but they were not developed with kids in mind. Family Journeys, launching in the spring of 2020, are tours developed with families in mind.
Tours are best for kids ages 7 and up. Pricewise, the tours are at the lower end of the price spectrum for National Geographic and the high end of G Adventures tours. Pricing for the 9-day National Geographic Family Journeys with G Adventures “Morocco Family Journey: Ancient Souks to the Sahara” tour starts at $1999 for adults and $1799 for children, not including airfare to Morocco.