Updated: May 18, 2022
In the middle of darkness and after 15 hours of traveling, I see my assigned driver at the airport with my name on the sign. I immediately have this huge sense of relief. Finally, something is working out smoothly. (After 4 canceled and/or delayed flights and a stolen phone during my recent layover in Barcelona, I wasn’t expecting anything to go as planned!)
The driver - who happens to be in a hotel uniform - is taking me through cramped, unlit back alleys and tells me this is as far as he can take me. Another hotel employee will help me with my bags and take me to the riad. I had a moment where thoughts of a kidnapping started running through my head. I didn’t see any other tourists. I was in a very residential area. After being duped by the phone thief in Barcelona, my guard was on high alert!
Hisham is the second hotel employee who grabs my incredibly heavy bags and leads me to a non-descript doorway down a dark alley. No hotel signs, nothing. I thought, it’s now or never if I’m going to make it. Then, the door opens to another hotel employee with the kindest smile who welcomes me into this serene riad with the traditional pool in the center. I felt like I had stepped into a romantic movie. (I was also relieved I wasn’t going to have to run for my life!) Riads in Morocco just happed to look like hidden gems. They are tucked away in dark alleys with non-descript doors that open into mini palaces of gardens, pools, and stunning bedrooms above.
I chose to stay at Ana Yela for its high reviews and for allowing me to use Marriott points to book my stay. It was a bit further away from the souks and markets, but the interiors of this riad were far superior to the next one I stayed.
I was only able to book for 2 nights instead of 3 at Ana Yela because it’s high season in Marrakesh. I researched for another riad nearby. My IHG points allowed me to stay at Riad Jaaneman which was perfectly located in the Medina and next to my Hamman appointment at De La Rose.
Photos by Abdul Assaoui, Marrakesh Guide
The Medina is a thousand-year-old marketplace that has stood the test of time. It was surreal to see shoe cobblers and blacksmiths still laboriously doing things by hand. So many questions ran through my mind. How are they earning enough to eat and live? They are not able to charge more because their goods are “artisan”. If anything, these seem like less expensive options. Same with fast-food and packaged foods, where these are considered cheaper options for Americans. Eating out and eating packaged foods is a luxury to Moroccans. I wish this was the case in America. Wish our commerce fostered healthier and budget-saving habits. Eating out is so ubiquitous and affordable that I feel like Americans feel it is a right to do so, at the cost of cheap, unsustainable labor and ingredients. When I was growing up, we maybe went out to eat twice a month. I learned the value of saving from my immigrant parents, and the age-old saying, “It’s not how much you make, it’s how much you save”. Isn’t that the truth!
I also met so many lovely Moroccan hospitality employees in restaurants and hotels who would be dream hires. We have such a devastating deficit in labor - across all industries, not just restaurants - it seems backwards that the U.S. has more jobs than people are willing to work and in other countries, there are not enough jobs for eager, talented people. Every Moroccan I met spoke at least 3 languages: Arabic, English, and French, also Berber if they are from that region. And they make you feel like family when you walk into their place of business. I wish I could miraculously pass them through immigration and process work visas for them!
I love the location of one hotel but prefer the feel of the other. Ana Yela’s riad was completely renovated by craftsmen. My suite was gorgeous with a sitting area, a tub the size of a small pool, and the most romantic lighting. I loved taking long showers in the gigantic bathtub. I could imagine myself living in Morocco a thousand years ago as royalty, enjoying leisurely showers and baths with orange blossom shampoos! Yes, the shampoos, conditioners, and body gels were infused with fresh orange blossom water. I just wanted to shower as many times a day as possible in that riad. The hotel staff at Ana Yela were so incredibly warm, friendly, and accommodating. The first night, they said they are my family now in Morocco. Anything I need, please let them know. Riad Jaaneman’s service was also nice and their location was more central, but the interiors couldn’t compare to Ana Yela’s craftsmanship and attention to detail. Ana Yela is owned and run by a woman - maybe that explains why it is extra special!
My good friend, Kim, who used to be married to a Moroccan man never needed a guide when she visited her former husband’s home country but helped me pick out a suitable guide. She chose well! Abdu of Marrakesh Guide Tours created custom, private tours for me. He showed me all the best-hidden gems of the souks and the Medina. There are so many merchants selling the same trinkets to tourists. I wanted to see where the locals buy. He showed me the best man for poufs, rugs, scarves, lamps, anything, and everything. My mom taught me to be a tough negotiator when buying street stuff! I have a price in mind. I offer that price and stick to it. I never want anything badly enough to go above it. One lamp merchant wanted to charge me $50 for a small lamp. I was willing to pay $20. He gradually went down to $25, but it was too late. I had already lost interest.
I found these deliciously shelled broad beans in the market with my guide and asked if the riad chef could add them to my dinner that evening for extra protein. They made a wonderful vegan tagine (without couscous) because they knew I was watching my carbs because I had already eaten lots of Moroccan bread that day! Even though it’s only me, they gave me enough food to feed at least 2 to 3 people. I tried my best to eat all of it. It killed me that I couldn’t finish.
The first course was a Moroccan tomato, and lentil soup with freshly baked Moroccan bread served with an olive tapenade and fresh olives. That alone was enough as a meal. I’m so in love with olives and tapenade now. It took me traveling to Portugal and Morocco to appreciate these gems.
Then, the massive vegetable tagine arrived with a side of my broad beans. I ate until my stomach hurt. I slept so hard that night from being in a food coma, I overslept the next morning by 3 hours. Luckily, I was only a bit late to meet my guide. Before I knew it, I’m on my way to hike in the Atlas Mountains and the first stop is a women's cooperative making soaps/oils, etc. They fed me more bread, what seemed like ½ a jar of peanut butter, more olives, and olive oil. I felt so bad wasting so much food- I tried to eat as much as possible!
Abdul also recommended a lovely Hamman experience which was managed by a lovely manager. She worked 3 jobs while managing her household and family. Ever since I learned about Korean body scrubs, I’ve been looking forward to the day someone could slough off my dead skin! The Hamman spa included a gentle all-over body scrub as well as showers, gels, lotions, and the works. It was a private experience. There are many Hammans all over town. I’m not sure how De La Rose compares to others. I probably would not revisit that one again because I didn’t feel their cleanliness was up to par. We laid on rubber mat linings that felt like germ magnets for mold or other bacteria to me. I also found multiple pairs of used, disposable underwear in the pocket of my cleaned robe. When I asked for a new robe, the attendant said the robe was clean even with the used underwear, but still retrieved me a new robe. Not quite the response I was hoping for! The cost of the spa treatment was about $95 USD. I would pay more for a cleaner, more polished experience.
What I found disheartening about Morocco is that they will charge euro/USD prices for services, but still pay the staff in these industries very low wages.
I was looking forward to escaping the craze of the Medina and venturing to my happy place - the mountains and nature! The drive to the Atlas mountains was out of a movie set, and just as I was thinking that my driver tells me Tom Cruise’s latest Mission Impossible movie is filming right in front of us as we were driving along the winding roads bordering a Berber village.
Photos by Lahcen Igdem, Berber Guide
Abdul knew I wanted an intense hike and he relayed that information to the wonderful Berber guide who was a hiking expert in those mountains. Lahcen Igdem took me on a 20km hike to a ridge of mountains (not as high as Toubkal because that takes 2 days). It was just him and me. I’ve never hiked at this high of altitude and was so curious to see how my body would respond. For the first hour or two, I became out of breath very quickly and my legs felt like lead. Once I was acclimated, I felt like I could go forever. We hiked for about 5 hours and then I visited a local Berber home where they feasted me with a vegan meal. The host family was my guide’s cousin. I was really kicking myself for allowing my phone to be stolen. I still vividly remember my mental picture of the views of the cherry trees, Toubkal mountain, and the red villages dotted along the green valley. I didn’t feel like this place was real.
I was still full from the dinner the night before, the breakfast I wasn’t hungry for, the snack of dates/fruit my guide insisted I eat before our descent, and now this beautiful meal of Moroccan salads. I was happy it was light salads. I can finish this. Then, they present me with a massive vegetable tagine – and couscous with more vegetables – and there’s homemade bread. I didn’t want to be rude and not eat as much as I could after the family made such efforts to make me a vegan meal. It was deliciously fresh, healthy, and light. I was feeling so lucky to be able to eat wonderful Moroccan and Berber meals that were imaginably better than the restaurants.
Photos by Lahcen Igdem, Berber Guide
The story of the Berber people - the original Moroccans - who came before the Arabs were originally a nomadic tribe. Their story is rich, and I won’t do the disservice of summing it up here. Please take a deep Google dive into the history and people of the Berber villages of Morocco.
I retired after my hike to the Riad Jaaneman to do work and catch up on emails. As others were exploring the city at night, I felt so at home being in my cozy riad. I just had the best day hiking in the majestic mountains above the Berber villages and seeing the sunlight shine upon those ancient villages as if time stood still. I hiked among hardened volcanic rock and experienced a different type of terrain I haven’t hiked on before. The best part was the scenic views of the snow-capped mountains that looked close enough to touch. Morocco is magical. The people are so incredibly hospitable, kind, and generous. Their Islamic faith leads to their kindness. Moroccans do not judge if you do not believe the same as they do or follow their customs. Their open-mindedness was so incredibly refreshing.
I only wish I had more time to visit the real Sahara desert which is a day’s drive away from Marrakech and to visit the Blue City - Chefchauoen.
Moroccans referred to me as a “solo traveler”. It’s been about 9 years since I last took an international trip by myself. This trip has been so life-affirming, inspiring, and fueling for my mind and body. I’ve learned so much about what makes me happy at this point in my life, what keeps me motivated, and how I want to spend my time moving forward. I love learning and experiencing how other cultures and people live and be. I want to enjoy life now – not when I’m retired. My friend Betty shared a poignant saying, “If you’re not doing what you love now, you never will.” For me, that means being in nature, pushing myself mentally and physically to new heights, and learning. Now, I just need to figure out what to do about P.S. & Co. to afford me the time and freedom to explore the mountains and cultures of the world!