Cristian

Cristian

With a passion for travel and particularly Morocco, I own and manage Sun Trails.

Tuesday, 02 March 2021 12:05

Trekking in Morocco 15 things to know

 plateau de tazarart break on the trek

Trekking in Morocco: when, how, where, for how long and other such essentials.

With 16 years of in- country living, the best part about Morocco and hiking around it must be the wilderness, the untamed nature of its topography. Virtually devoid of well signalled routes, camping areas, mountain gites or via ferratas, the traveler is besotted by the virginal aspect of a terrain instilling the feeling of treading where few, if any, have treaded before. For let's face it: Don't we all relish the feeling of exploring, of having pioneered a certain route ? Then, there is another cachet, perhaps intertwined with the previous, which is a certain way of life that has so far endured over centuries: whether in the Sahara desert or on the steep slopes of the Atlas, where your path will cross that of shepherds and mountain dwellers. They will most likely invite you for a tea, glad to cross trails with other souls amidst these otherwise remote realms, in spite of any language barriers. Hamlets stuck in time where water mills still grind the grains into flour, where horses graze freely by the brook or the mules still trot over the wheat stalks lying strewn across the stone- build threshing plot. And hospitality, above all, natural, spontaneous, instinctive.

amtoudi natural pools

When to trek in Morocco ?

Morocco travel restrictions will eventually ease up and wane completely by summer 2021. In spite of what some deem 'the best time of year to visit Morocco', there is no such thing. Even more so when it comes to hiking in Morocco. Visiting Morocco and trekking in Morocco can be done all year round. As a rule of thumb, from November to March you are likely to encounter snow over an average altitude of 2000 meters high. And, except for few aficionados, trekking in snow is not fun, to not mention the additional issues: special gear, thermal sleeping bags, reinforced tents, etc.

( Disclaimer: all below photos were taken by us ( Sun Trails team) during our various treks over the past 5 years )

gite at 3000 meters altitude high atlasTazarart refuge, May 2017

The seasons: in winter ( November to March), the Anti Atlas is ideal for trekking and in particular the region east of Guelmin, with an average elevation between 1000 and 1800 meters in altitude. How would you like to stumble upon milennia- old engravings depicting archers or ostrichs ? In other countries, the spot would be safeguarded. Not in Morocco. The landscape is austere, to say the least, yet the trekker is rewarded with lush uncanny palm groves and oases, materializing  when one has almost given up hope, sun- blinded after hours of desert trekking. Temperatures can be chilly at night, expect 7 to 12 degrees Celsius and comfortable day time ( 20- 25 Celsius). In the winter, in the High Atlas you will find snow above 2000 meters high. The Sagho range ( between the High Atlas and the Anti Atlas) with its shards of dark stone pointing out skywards, is also a great choice in the season, but temperatures might be somewhat cooler. In case you wish to blend Sahara dunes and mountain trekking, Jebel Bani, a 400 km long ridge bordering the Sahara, averages 600 meters in altitude.

tizi moussem and snowy peaks  High Atlas mountains view, December 2020

From March to November, focus on the High Atlas, the Middle Atlas and the Riff mountains. Temperatures will not rise over 27- 30 Celsius as long as you will keep over 1800 meters altitude. The Toubkal peak is best approached during this time of year, but it is also the period that sees most tourists. If you wish to climb up to 4000 meters high without the crowds, there are other options available ( minimum over 2 days) in the area, also with a base around Imlil. Yet wilder landscapes are to be found around Mgoun peak, with a base in Skoura's palm grove. From there, ascend to 3000 meters high and stumble across lost- in- time villages, where life hasn't changed that much as centuries passed by.

amtoudi natural pools

Anti Atlas natural pools, January 2021

How many days you need for a Morocco trek ?

First of all, we should define what we exactly mean by trekking. Trekking, per our definition, is at least a half a day endeavour, over hilly terrain ( not necessarily hardcore) requiring a minimum level of fitness and/ or endurance. Walking around a village on one of the many stops along your private Morocco tour, doesn't qualify as trekking as per the intentions of this article. In Morocco, we'd recommend anywhere between 2 and 6 days of continuous trekking. 2 days is a minimum to immerse oneself in the local culture. It would prove rather strenuous to go for more than 6 days without regular hot showers, proper mattress and all the rest of comforts of a modern lifestyle. Also, remember to make responsible choices. In May 2018, on our trek up to Tazarart plateau, one of us almost didn't make it back. Almost. Over the course of one day we hiked from 3000 to 4000 and descended from 4000 to 1500 meters. In general, you should keep to maximum 1000 meters of altitude difference a day. Also keep in mind that the closer you get to 4000 meters, the likelier the altitude sickness will kick in. If you've never experienced that altitude, don't just assume things will go well by default. 

waterfalls roulidane high atlas in december

Roulidane waterfalls, December 2021

Where to trek in Morocco ?

Depending on what you'd like to encounter in terms of landscapes and local experiences, you are spoiled for choices. If you wish to avoid the crowds, keep away from Imlil and Toubkal. Todra gorges and Dades gorges are also very popular with groups of tourists making their way from the Sahara to Marrakech or the opposite. Riff Mountains can get very crowded during summer holidays as Moroccans favor Chefchaouen and Tangier for their holidays.  For more ideas, have a look at some of the treks we've completed over the last few years. Most of the starting locations that can be accessed by car: Imlil ( from Marrakech), Tafraoute ( from Agadir), Skoura ( from Ouarzazate), Tamanart Valley ( from Tafraoute), Chefchaouen ( from Tangier) and that's where you should aim to arrange for meeting your local guide.

high atlas wedding procession

High Atlas mountains wedding procession, May 2018

How to travel to Morocco ?

If you travel from Australia, Asia or the US, flights direct into Casablanca are available. Once travel restrictions are off, most likely later in 2021, Marrakech and to a lesser extent, Agadir, are very well connected to the main airports in Europe ( especially Italy, Spain and France) but also the UK, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, etc. with low cost and mainstream carriers. These cities are also the two best positioned sites in terms of logistics, as both of them offer multiple trekking opportunities within a little more than one hour drive away. You can also cross over the Gibraltar strait by ferry ( a 2 hour endeavour, including paperwork and boarding), into Tangier, but that is hardly practical as the only mountain range close by is the Riff Mountains, where Chefchaouen, the blue village, is the main attraction. Tangier lies 6 hour drive away from Marrakech and 7- 8 hours by train.

rock climbing anti atlas lucian

Clambering rocks in the Anti Atlas gorges, February 2018

How expensive it is to trek in Morocco ?

The expenses can be minimal if you are planning on self autonomy. We wouldn't recommend that option though, first of all from a safety point of view ( more on that in the Is it Safe paragraph). If you employ the services of a local guide, foresee a fare of about 300- 400 dirhams ( 30- 40 US dollars) per day. If you are looking to also have a muleteer and a mule to carry some of your luggage and cook one or two hot meals a day, the fares will considerably increase. Don't forget to factor in the transport from the main city ( Marrakech, Casablanca or Agadir ) to the starting point of your trek. Some of these locations can be accessed by public transport ( collective taxis ) whereas for others you will need either a driver with a 4x4 or a rent- a- car.

paradise valley guelta

Paradise Valley, close to Agadir, May 2016

What to pack for a Morocco trek ?

Even in winter months, the sun can be ruthless. We suggest a wide brim hat. Ankle- level hiking boots are essential, considering the rocky terrain. Crampons will make a difference, notably since much of the time you'll be walking on slippery surfaces. Wearing low- ankle shoes may expose you to jags, low spiky thickets and other rolling rocks. They don't have to be waterproof- the likelihood of rain is quite scarce. From March to mid November a light sleeping bag will do. The rest of the year, we suggest a reinforced sleeping bag, capable to endure temperatures as low as -5 Celsius. Mountain water sources are not as dense as in other mountain ranges around the world, so we'd suggest carrying at least 2 liters of water with you at all times. Locally, you are not offered a great choice of canteens or collapsible water bottles, so think of bringing your own.

high atlas mountains roof terrace march 2019

Roof terrace Tizi Moussem, High Atlas, March 2019

Maps and itineraries: there are some written guides but not as many as you'd expect. In general, we always recommend employing the services of a local guide, even when the trek is easy and the change in altitude is minimal. Most of the them will speak French and some speak English.

Autonomy and mules: it is practical hiring mules through your local guide, if you wish to not have to carry all of your provisions, tent, sleeping bag, etc. Having a mule and a muleteer which doubles as a cook ensures at least a warm meal every day. Please remember there are very few refuges in Morocco compared to Europe or other parts of the world. Naturally, from time to time, even if you only have a local guide with you, you'll still be able to arrange for a hot meal here and there.

Camping and making fires: there are literally no camping sites up in the mountains. It's more or less a question of camping on a plain surface and devoid of rocks. Even the rockiest or steepest of landscapes can be someone's property, but your guide will smooth out any lost- in- translation situations. For any trek more than an overnight, you'll need a gas cartridge and stove ( can be bought locally). It is forbidden to light fires inside national parks. If you are outside a national park, consider the fact that wood is scarce in Morocco and the local shepherds and nomads need it for their daily use. 

tizi moussem berber village

Berber village, 1800 meters altitude, October 2020

Can I include the desert in a Morocco trek ?

A distinction must be made between Sahara desert ( sand dunes/ camel treks/ million stars ) and rocky deserts which inform the particular landscapes of the Anti Atlas mountain range and their fringes. Since only a reduced part of the Sahara desert actually lies within Morocco, it would make little sense if at all to trek over several days in the dunes, unless you wish to revisit similar landscapes over several days. The change in altitude will also miss from the mix. Can you trek the dunes and the mountains in the same day ? Well, yes and no. Smaller ergs (dunes) are found south of the Anti Atlas mountains, yet the diversity of landcapes will wane and ideally you'd want to keep your senses awake. Especially more so when Morocco is also known for 'getting from snow to desert dunes' in the same day. If you are looking to visit the Sahara desert and trek in the High Atlas mountains, we recommend giving yourself at least 7 days in Morocco.

imi n ifri rock formation

Imi n Ifri gorges, Middle Atlas mountains, August 2019

Acquire gear and necessities locally.
Although a few years ago, Decathlon has opened shop in the large cities in Morocco, you are still short of finding variety of instant foods, trekking socks or dehydrated meals. You will find basic gear including gas heaters, coffee thermos, power bars, rain ponchos, etc. Also, if you are into hardcore trekking and you'll need ice axes or other niche items, better check with your local organizer first.

colourful donkey and apples

Mule and its colorful charge, High Atlas mountains, October 2018

Is it safe to trek in Morocco ?

With the exception of the murder of two foreign tourists next to Imlil in 2018, Morocco is a very safe country to travel to and most of our guests felt safer in Morocco than in Barcelona or Istambul. As mentioned formerly, we strongly encourage hiring a local guide: there are virtually no marked trekking routes, the need of an intermediary between the locals and yourself and someone to liaise with the local services in case you have an accident. Emergency services: in case of a trekking accident, only large cities boast western- level clinics: Marrakech, Agadir, Ourzazate. Please make sure to ensure your travel insurance covers any accident- related injuries.

gorges amtoudi sunset

Anti Atlas mountains canyon and natural pools, January 2021

How to arrange for a trek in Morocco ?

The question you'd have to ask yourself is whether you'd like to only focus on the trekking while in Morocco or include it along with some time in the Sahara and/ or the imperial cities. If the first option, you can either enquire with local guides before arriving into the country ( make sure they are licensed) or else make your way to starting locations ( Tafraoute, Imlil, Skoura, etc.) and enquire locally. If the second option, you might want to have your trekking arrangements made through a local private tour operator, that would ideally take care of your trekking arrangements ( local guide, mules, meals, gear, etc.) as well as the rest of your private tour including private transport, meals, local guides, entrance fees to monuments, etc. For instance, Leigh and John, all the way from Canada, entrusted us to arrange for them a two week private tour to include 2 days of just trekking: https://hikebiketravel.com/a-2-day-hike-in-the-anti-atlas-mountains-morocco/.

children trekking next to Imlil

Above Imlil village, 1900 meters altitude, March 2019

 © Sun Trails 2021. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Thursday, 21 January 2021 13:55

Work from home? No, thank you- 1

In these series, we detail how the Covid restrictions and the trend to work from home, have but amplified our natural propensity to explore Morocco. After all, it's about trails. And sun.

Part 1: The desert, the water and the djinnoun.

small granary at Amtoudi

Water diviners. Overhanging fortresses. Gold diggers. Sculpted boulders, wells in the desert, trees sprouting out of rock. Treasure hunters, tears of lava - is this how legends are pieced together ? I am told of an aged man fetched all the way in Tiznit, treading these hollows holding olive tree twigs. When water is nigh, leaves flutter. At least, in his hands they do. Yet, it appears the olive tree is not absolutely necessary; a youngster from a nearby village bears the gift of 'hearing' the underground sources. The spell is cast, yet my more rational side pulls me back to the immediate reality. Hassan, my local guide, is quite the story teller, but I start wondering if he's not making things up as we trail along.

nomad cemetery

In this barren immensity, rolling brows and crags of rock dotted by tufts and shrubs, one has to possess a sharp eye. Discern intention. Nature or man. A heap of stones or a an ancient burial chamber ? Rocks piled up on top of each other, erosion's natural outcome ? Or a shepherd’s den ? A vantage point ? Mountain tops or village fortresses ? Without doubt, the too many hours spent in front of a screen don't give me an edge.

I have taken up a two day trek in the Anti Atlas mountains and our departure point this morning was somewhere south of Tafraoute. The ruined village we leave behind is said to have fostered a Jewish community. Hassan points out the marks of someone's recent excavations, testimony to the local myth of treasure hunters. If there's smoke, there is fire... Later, I hear about some which did strike it lucky.

tree burrowing rock

Despite the appearance of a rubble desert, not one hour goes by that we don't cross another soul, mostly nomads, going about their business, which is taking their camels and goats to the next pasture land. And what can grow in the desert ? While crossing a gully, I stumble upon a giant snake burrowed in the rocks. It turns out to be the root of an argan tree. How could it make its way across, or rather through, it's beyond my comprehension. Later in the day, sundry colours grace the stones around us, from the ubiquitous beige and dark grey to burgundy and even turquoise.

gueltas at Boulakouass

Ancient rock engravings etched on canyon's wall portray goats and bovines. At least that's what I make out. Nearby, the water surfaces, creating natural pools deep enough to bathe in, the gueltas. Bordering them, a 30 feet horizontal slab gave birth to most peculiar rock shapes, like horizontal and parallel rows of miniature sarcophagi stacked one next to each other. At night, my guide relates, it becomes the ideal spot to spy on wild animals , gazelles, rabbits or foxes looking to quench their thirst.

sarcofagi at boulaquasse

Late afternoon, we descend onto dramatic canyons, the gigantic slab walls ominous, humbling, their protruding jabs almost menacing. At the bottom of the gorge, we pause and drink straight from the source, rewarded, grateful. The lava caught in time on the side of the canyon, is redolent of wax dripping on candles, silent testimony that at some point in time, year ago ( thousands, millions ?) a volcano spilled over. As the night falls, the call of the muezzin resonates through the valley, a mundane reminder that the supernatural reins.

rock engravings

Next day, I wake up refreshed after my first night in a real bed in a few days. If my legs seem to have recovered from the 9 hours of walking of the previous day, my feet not quite so: I feel blisters shaping up, double- layer socks or not. Yet, who can fret about such trifles when the sun already bathes the valley with its rays ? The girls are preparing for school and giggle around the house, while Hassan is busy performing his morning prayers. Before long, the breakfast is ready and we're feasting on pancakes draped in honey and coffee, a once a day exception for my guide who is otherwise addicted to atay, like any other Moroccan. After breakfast, I saunter around the village alleys and muse about the distance both literally and not so, between here and the world out there, quelled by an invisible, yet ravaging pandemic.

gorges Amtoudi source

With only 5 hours of walking ahead of us, we allow ourselves a late morning. Later, we climb north and leave the village behind. To my left, I wave a silent goodbye to the granary, the stately guardian of the valley. Soon, we are aspirated back into the immensity and desolation of the rubble desert.

granary at Amtoudi

Beyond the next brow, lies a cave. A cave large enough to live in, my guide insists. In principle, grottoes are for animals when rain falls over, while the nomads shelter under their tents, waterproofed by plastic layers. Wouldn't you protect first your most precious goods ? Unless, it is that kind of cave... For the ones that come at night. The ones that can not be seen. The djinnoun. Mentioned in the Qor'an, the spirits, still hold a special place in the collective imaginary of the Berbers. Traditionally, they are believed sometimes to dwell in caves and it used to be a local wont to leave offerings for them ( grains or other edible goods) at the mouth of certain such caves, to appease and propitiate them, a practice somewhat still heathen to the more orthodox Islam. Gradually, we settle into a mute mechanic trudge. The repeated pattern. Oued, brow, oued, brow. How can one explain what oued is ? Not a river, rather an intermittent stream, whose flow relies on rain and the water table.

kasbah in the shade
Today will be completely distinct from yesterday. From 11 AM until 5 PM when we finally arrive at our destination, the only living soul we cross is a wild rabbit. The silence and the humdrum trek are only punctuated by my guide's remarks. Here, he points out how traces of wild animals, rabbits, gazelles, coyotes, and how they converge on the same trail to mean that water is not far. There, he motions me to glimpse in the distance to a chink in the thicket of piled- up slabs; what I thought was a tiny cave turns out to be a well, furnished with a string and bottle, so that any itinerant can help himself to drinking water. Where two dry bed rivers meet, a cemetery lies, its pointed slabs jutting out skywards. A nomad cemetery, by all evidence, as no traces of a hamlet or den litters the site. Hassan lifts his two palms towards the sky and from his whispers comes out a hushed litany to honour the dead.

hassan pouring moroccan tea

Later, we stop for lunch. My guide offers canned sardines. I offer half a pack of camembert cheese and we end up spreading it on the freshly baked bread that we fetched with us from the village. Moments later, atay is poured and our occasional sluices is the only thing disturbing the monumental, almost baleful silence. I wouldn't trade this moment for the best restaurant in Bordeaux. Instead of itching to check my phone for instant gratification, I feel gratified when the No Service mention shows up. Has anyone picnicked here before ? On the same spot ? Treaded in the same steps ? Boulders abraded by sun and wind, has anything else brushed against you ?

gueltas for picnic

Everything surrounding us makes it unlikely. For there is no trail or signs to speak of. I'm relying on Hassan's experience and intuition and my compass that tells me we've been headed NNE all morning. But does it matter ? As long as we're not walking in circles, I'm happy to press on. At the end of the afternoon, when I'm tiptoeing around trying not to step on my soon- matured blisters, I realize how fortunate I am, to be able to glimpse into, dip my toe into other ways of living and feel, if only for a few days, immensely grateful. For in less is more, what is really less ? And what is really more ?

Lunar landscapes, pink washed kasbahs and dramatic summits.

image00051If Titans of Greek mythology, those giant supernatural beings fighting gods, ever had played in their childhood at molding boulders and cleaving rocks, Tafraoute, a little town 3 hours drive south of Agadir, must have been their playground. One hardly ever tires of happening upon most peculiar shapes. As I survey the horizon from the top of the highest crag of the area, vis -a- vis Napoleons Hat, never met the chap yet it's awkward how a French general's name has stuck here out of all places, it dawns on me that we are in the presence of a geological accident. It is only Tafraoute and its surroundings where rocks seem to be piled upon each other forming granite crags jutting out of the ground, as some kind of absurd dream of a pharaoh renouncing too early the endeavour of erecting a colossal pyramid and leaving all detritus behind.

napoleons hat tafraoute

Besides me, the barren ridges of the Anti Atlas glint in the distance, half brazen half charred, depending where you look from. Except for the astute acacia tree, sprouting sometimes plain horizontally out from between the stones, no stain of green or pasture greets the eye, if you except the few scattered shrubs here and there past hoping for the next rains. There is a time of day, not too long before dawn, where the sun slants the rocks as they gradually transform into metal mirrors, slick with the last rays of light. The lumps of stone, eggs, potatoes, ice cubes, slabs, shards, at least that is what they seem to me, are piled up on top of each other. Come on, who dropped that on top of that ?! I hear myself speaking out loud. Not so far away, an gigantic stone egg seems to be tipping on top of a stool. For a second, I could just dart over and nudge it, see if it wobbles. But who'd want to alter anything in this Martian landscape ? Not that I'd know how that looks like. What is undeniably not Martian is the winter sun. Morning brought along a layer of frost on the window of the 4x4 that has by now long thawed away, as the thermometer shows 21 Celsius. Not bad for 1 January. 

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Tafraoute used to be a small picturesque village where French tourists would be taken to on a day trip while holidaying in Agadir. It was also a Mecca for the hippies in the 70's, a tradition that still endures nowadays ( minus the flower power), to the extent that a board now says 'Caravans forbidden to park' on the off road to Painted Rocks. The construction of its main hotel, Hotel des Amandiers, was even inaugurated by no less than King Mohamed 5 in 1959, which says not a little about the ambitions of a tiny village to become a booming tourist destination. Needless to say, that boom never happened, not in the 1970's when Agadir was Morocco's star in the golden age of sea and sun tourism as hordes of sunken Europeans were disembarking on the Moroccan coast in search of vitamin D and exoticism, and neither in more recent times when culture shock and local everything are banners highly flown. After all, Chefchaouen today is not the Chefchaouen from 2005, mostly prized by Spanish backpackers looking for cheap hashish. Yet, why not keep things as they are ?

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To this day, Tafraoute is devoid of any red light, which is probably why it would take about 2 minutes and a half to cross it with your vehicle. In all, I've counted around 2 (two) restaurants where one can be served a decent tagine ( if you except all the hotels - closed due to the curfew at the time of this article). At 9 PM, it has been night for at least 2 hours and in the empty camping site where I choose to spend the first night of my voyage, the owner and few friends roll away the iron balls of petanque, amidst sluices of mint tea and occasional snickers.
pink washed kasbah

Next afternoon I find myself in a carpet shop, where Hassan takes me through a grove of books about hiking, rock climbing, canyoning and trekking. After all, the area yields plenty to satisfy the most demanding. The lofty Anti Atlas ridge, culminating with Jebel Kest summit at almost 2400 meters high towers over the town and would stretch a few glutes, Tafraoute itself lying at 900 meters altitude. On the way, beware of the Lion's Head. No, not the animal, the Moroccan lion being extinct now for at least a century, but a rock formation on the southern slope resembling the said feline. Speaking of rock climbing, an English couple and their friends have set up hundreds of climbing routes around Tafraoute, published a book and created a website.

Seeming a bit dishartened, if I were to take a guess, most likely by the drop in tourism caused by the pandemic, Hassan doesn't even bother to try and sell me a carpet from the thorough selection. A Jewish wool cape hangs on the wall next to the entrance and I stop to admire it briefly. The last rays of sun caress the boulders as I make my way to the Painted Rocks, just a few miles outside the village and pitch camp for the night. 

painted rocks tafraoute

The morning is chilly. Clouds have gathered on the horizon and even the stone lumps have been engulfed by the fog. Later in the morning, the fog dissipates and an azure blue sky prevails. The surrounding villages are a joy to behold with their vintage pink- washed kasbahs. I briefly stop for a chat with Jean and Bernadette, the owners of El Malara, where many of our guests have resided in the past. Part of the reason for my travels this time is to acknowledge how our partners, guest houses and local guides, are holding up through the covid pandemic. The plight affects them too, yet they remain optimist and relate how many of their former guests expressed their wish to return to Morocco as soon as reasonably safe to do so.

lunar landscape in tafraoute

When is time to leave, only one thing is on my mind: when will I get back ? A silent vow is made, to return before summer and not solo. Hidden wonders like this one are best enjoyed in good company...  Fifteen years of living in the country have perhaps blunted my ability for being easily enthused and the bias internalised as a private tour organiser also plays its part as the focus lies on what makes a location unique among others in Morocco. Here, in Tafraoute, the martian landscape makes almost all of the caché. There is no doubt about it. Yet, overcoming it, a feeling of a place that hasn't changed much, that in a way is still redolent of... Morocco. Unimpacted yet by the mass tourism. And likely to continue so. For many of us, that's priceless.

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© Sun Trails 2021. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020 10:15

Travel to Morocco in 2021- is it safe ?

Vaccines are here. Is Morocco ready to welcome visitors ?

Update 2/04/2021: Morocco's vaccination campaign is on track with 21 percent of adult population having received at least one dose, looking to wrap the campaign by end of May. 

{ Presently, there are no Morocco travel restrictions in place from the US. We expect the UK travel restrictions to be wavered next May, as Easyjet reported holidays bookings up 600 percent, with main destinations being Spain, Portugal, Greece and also Morocco ( from Gatwick). Those currently flying to Morocco are asked to present a 72 hour PCR test when embarking and upon arrival at the airport in Morocco together with a hotel booking. The good news is that you are dispensed of the obligation to quarantine for a week or two, still required in other countries } 

natural pools amtoudi gorges Gorges and palm grove in the Anti Atlas mountains 

As I am writing these lines in Sun Trails' offices in downtown Marrakech, Morocco, a favourite destination with the well - travelled intrepid traveller, having become increasingly popular over the last few years owing to Sahara desert, Biblical villages, verdant palm groves, innate hospitality and those inconspicuous palaces called riads, grapples with the effects of the COVID 19 pandemic: a nation- wide state of emergency, local curfews, in- country travel restrictions and compulsory mask wearing. While being the first country in Africa to start vaccination ( on January 25 ) and having curbed new cases since past November, is it safe to travel to Morocco in 2021 ? 

[ Read: Start planning a private Morocco tour in 2021 ]

VACCINES AND TESTS

After a gruelling wait, the much anticipated vaccines are finally here and although some dispute the reduced time of developing a vaccine, it is after all nothing short of a milestone. You can see here the evolution of the vaccination campaigns around the world. Major airports have introduced already on- site fast Covid tests and airlines are making it easier for tourists to test before traveling. In Morocco, the first country in Africa to start vaccination, the campaign started on 29 January and intends to vaccinate most of the adult population within 3 months . Will this terminate the pandemic ? Unlikely. Success depends on quite a few factors, among which: how well the vaccine will be distributed and available to the population at large, how many people will be willing to take it, the rate of contagion, etc.

amtoudi small granary                                           Fortress - granary in Morocco's south 

HOW DOES MOROCCO COMPARE TO OTHER COUNTRIES ?

Currently, the situation in Morocco is considerably better compared to countries where its visitors come from, in terms of number of cases, evolution of contagion and safety measures. A few months ago, Covid testing facilities opened up in major cities. In some locations, like Marrakech, for a little extra, you can have a specialized professional coming to your house and giving you the test for a cost of about 800 Dirhams ( 80 USD). In November, private clinics in Morocco were finally allowed to treat Covid patients, assuaging the over- burdened public health system. Morocco was the first country to start its vaccination campaign and aims to vaccinate most of its adult population within 3 months. 

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[ Read: Book a summer private tour in Morocco ] 

IS MOROCCO READY TO WELCOME TOURISTS ?

In the summer of 2020, Spain and Portugal, among other countries opened their borders and welcomed tourists from abroad. The logic was to restart the tourism industry, particularly hit by the pandemic and make up for the losses incurred in March, April and May. Access to beaches was regulated, nightclubs, cinemas, attractions parks and other popular hotspots were kept shut down, restaurants were limited in terms of how many customers they could serve at one time, etc. Portugal had put into place Clean and Safe label and some regions in Spain even went as far as to relodge and compensate for all associated expenses for those tourists that contracted the virus while on holidays. Did it work ? No. Partly because population at large was still afraid to travel, partly because quarantine measures upon return made it impossible.

High Atlas mountains trekking Morocco                                                                                                    High Atlas mountains in December

In that respect, Morocco trailed behind. The government thought it too risky to open the borders and allow travel agents and hotels to recommence their activity. Besides, summer translates into low season in Morocco, generally. Yet, in the long run, it seems that Morocco's strategy worked better as both total number of cases as well as new cases are significantly better in Morocco as of late February compared to Portugal, Spain or France and the recent figures show a tendency towards a descendent trend since November. In Marrakech, Majorelle Gardens, Yves Saint Laurent museum, Le Jardin Secret, Dar El Bacha museum, among others, are already open to visitors. Our partner riads, kasbahs, lodges, boutique hotels and desert camps have mostly reopened since last Christmas.

TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS INSIDE MOROCCO 

Compared to other countries in Europe, the situation in Morocco is covetable, to say the least. Whereas Italy has seen no Christmas markets, with many regions will be under partial lockdown, Spain prohibits citizens from moving between regions and France reinstated lockdown in several regions, in Morocco terraces, restaurants and hotels are open, from early morning till 8 PM, although night clubs and bars are still shut. Travel between regions is allowed, subject to a permit relatively easy to obtain from local authorities. Wearing a mask is compulsory nation- wide in public spaces and on the street. And let's face it: Morocco is much more about the Sahara desert than museums or other crammed spaces, so when on a Morocco private tour, you forget all about mask wearing and struggling ICU's.

Jemaa El Fna square Marrakech                                                                                                   Jemaa El Fna square, Marrakech 
WILL IT BE SAFE TO TRAVEL INSIDE MOROCCO ?

We expect the vaccination campaign in Morocco to curb the rise in new cases in the next couple of months. Although Morocco is a country where still many people live in remote regions, previous experience indicates that a vaccination campaign will be successful. 11 million Moroccans were vaccinated in 2013 against measles in only 4 weeks.

[ Read: Trek in Morocco in 2021 ]

Considering the above, we estimate that it should be safe to travel inside Morocco as early as May. With the vaccination campaign in full swing and the new- cases rising curb bent, safe travel around Morocco should resume as early as May. When we say safe, we mean that the probability of catching the virus will be scant, yet not inexistent. We also mean that travel restrictions will be relaxed, if not completely removed.

IS IT POSSIBLE TO TRAVEL TO MOROCCO RIGHT NOW ?

Flights between US and Europe are presently at a halt, following a decision back in March this year by the US to impede the entrance of all EU citizens in the US. An exception to that is the Atlanta to Rome flight Delta Airlines offers. It is, however, very likely for flights to resume soon, pending approval by the US authorities, as United Airlines and other major carriers in the US are already offering flights in March, April and May to some European capitals. The Moroccan borders are currently closed to UK nationals but we foresee an opening before the summer. 

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With airports and airlines struggling in the last 12 months, the approval of the vaccine and the widespread introduction of fast express Covid tests at the airport terminals, it seems plausible to believe that international flights will resume soon. The good news is that you don't need to book your flight through Europe if you wish to fly direct to Morocco. Royal Air Maroc offers direct flights into and out of Casablanca from New York, Montreal, Miami and Washington. Moreover, Air Arabia, EasyJet and Royal Air Maroc have added new destinations to connect visitors to Morocco. 

Babouche slippers crafts medina of Marrakech                                                                                   Babouche slipper making class in the medina of Marrakech 

Presently, there are no Morocco travel restrictions from the US. Those flying to Morocco are asked to present a 72 hour PCR test when embarking and upon arrival at the airport in Morocco together with a hotel booking. The good news is that you are dispensed of the obligation to quarantine for a week or two, still required in many other countries. Naturally, most of the travelers will already have a booking confirmation whether booking just their accommodation or more comprehensive travel arrangements, such as a private tour to include accommodation, transport, activities, guides, etc.

amtoudi granary at sunrise

BEST TIME TO VISIT MOROCCO ?

Perhaps it has never been a better time of year to book a Morocco holiday. Avoid the crowds: We estimate that it will take some time before Morocco's visitor numbers will return to a 'normal'. How does that translate for those wishing to visit soon ? Popular sites, such as Jemaa El Fna square, UNESCO world site Ait Benhaddou or the picture perfect village of Chefchaouen will see much less of the usual hustle and bustle, rendering them all more genuine and picturesque (yes, you can actually walk around Jemaa El Fna without being pestered by a monkey...). So, no danger of confining yourself into people- packed spaces. What is more, booking a Morocco private tour will include a lot of travel to remote, off- the- beaten- track areas, such as Draa Valley, the Sahara desert or the Gorges of Dades. No chance there of being jostled. A private tour could, or rather should, include a traditional hammam and body scrub treatment or a cookery class, both of them private experiences. All our local guided tours are private, your only escort being a local, well- informed guide.

Discounted rates and flexible cancellation terms: It is no secret to anyone that everyone working in tourism in Morocco has toiled and strained from March until now, from the informal food stalls on Jemaa El Fna square to the booking department of uber- luxury hotels such as La Mamounia or Royal Mansour. Therefore, you are likely to be offered last minute and/ or early- bird discounts, part of a nation wide effort to attract tourists back and ensure a more than necessary money flow to a depleted trade.

Help local populations: The pandemic has hit everyone, that is true, but unevenly. Before the pandemic, populations in remote areas of Morocco, where climate change and rural exodus are contributing to social inequalities were helped by the slight, yet constant passage of visitors. The few teas with the nomads, guided tours, bread- baking classes and the likes helped making ends meet. These populations living on a day to day basis are currently the most affected. Each of us can make a small difference in our own way by inspiring people to travel again to those areas. 

Sunset over Marrakech palm grove                                                                                                             Sunset over palm grove

We've all been through a lot in 2020. I can't think of a better place to put it all behind, than the top of a dune in the Sahara, soaking in the oceans of saffron- couloured sand, while the sun rises on the horizon. Here is to a 2021 full of hope and traveling to that once- in- a- lifetime destination.

Marrakech, 5 February 2021.

 

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