Friday, August 17, 2012

Morocco as Mosaic

I just wanted to give everyone - who has not yet had a chance to visit - a glimpse of the astounding diversity of the Moroccan landscape. Traveling across this small country - about the size of California - reveals such striking changes in scenery over such short distances as to leave any traveler reeling. From the gently rolling meadows of the northwest to the silent majestic sand dunes at the brink of the Sahara Desert, from the rugged barren mountains of the east to the white rock and olive groves of the Atlantic coast, the Moroccan landscape is rich - and bewildering - in its scenic array.

We begin our journey where the Atlantic Ocean yields to Morocco's Western shores. We choose Mehdia on the northern coast, near Rabat, where we are rewarded with a full and broad beach, wild, pristine and inviting.

We then make our way south into the almost excessively-watered feel of the country's breadbasket, featuring spring-green pastoral hills, shown below as seen from the train (the best way to travel in Morocco, by the way, not least of the reasons being that it features the cleanest windows which allow for better picture taking!).

Changing direction towards the northeast we come upon the craggier landscape around Fez. Here, we see the ancient wall enclosing the city, surrounded by olive groves and grazing pastures for goats and sheep.

Pictured below are the ruins of the 16th century Merinid tombs overlooking Fez, with the hills beyond.

Moving south from Fez, we come upon the forests of Azrou and Ifrane, which was nicknamed the Switzerland of Morocco and is home to one of Morocco's two ski resorts.

Taking a jump to the southwest about 350 km, we come upon the stunning sight of the Ouzoud (which means olives in the local Berber language) Falls, or Cascades, dramatically plummeting 330 feet into a lush green gorge and then tumbling over smaller waterfalls into a succession of pools. Thrill-seeking swimmers can leap into the cold spring water from rocks of varying heights, ranging to the formidable. The rainbow completes the fairytale look of the falls.

From here, we change direction and head southeast - to where the Atlas and Anti-Atlas mountain ranges meet - and we find Dades Gorge, a precipitous canyon named for the river that carves its way through the rock at its base.

Continuing straight on for about 200 kilometers, we reach the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert (a redundant phrase actually as the word sahara - pronounced SA-hara - means desert in Arabic). The Sahara Desert extends over most of the southeastern portion of Morocco, penetrating the country in a broad swath 1200km wide and 350km deep from the borders with Algeria and Mauritania until it is thankfully stopped in its tracks by the Atlas Mountains (making the greener photos in this blog possible). Most of Morocco's portion of the desert, as is the case with that outside of Morocco, is just disappointing rocky plateau and doesn't really feel cool and Sahara-y until you get to the dunes. Pictured here is the beginning of the dunes at Merzouga.

From here, we head directly west - for about 350 km - and we arrive in Skoura, an oasis in the rocky ruggedness of the Ouarzazate region. Framed by the Atlas mountains in the distance - pictured here with a fresh spring snow (we will be crossing these in a minute) - this spot, the jnen (meaning fields) an inexplicable miracle of life in the midst of a barren wasteland, surrounded by mud villages, epitomizes compactly the dramatic variety of the Moroccan terrain.

Continuing west past the desert city of Ourzazate, we come upon the village of Ait Benhaddou, so authentic and picturesque it has served as the setting for 16 films during the period from 1963 to the present, including, most recently, Gladiator (2000), Alexander (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Prince of Persia (2010).

Finishing our tour of the southern desert regions, it is time to veer back up to the northeast, bussing it across the dreaded Tishka Pass (don't leave home without your Dramamine) - a 5-hour-long ride - some of it of white-knuckle caliber - over the High Atlas Mountains. Pictured here, a view at the top. (This is the part of the mountain shown covered with snow in the photo above depicting the oasis at Skoura.)

The mountains come alive as we descend on the other side, gradually transforming themselves into forested cliffs - reminiscent of Colorado - lush valleys and then softening into rolling hills. Pictured here is the scenery near Touama.

If you will indulge in what I believe you will consider a worthwhile detour, we will hang a left from Touama for about 125 km to behold the mystically beautiful n'Fis river valley, south of Asni, near the village of Ijjoukak, right on the border of Toubkal National Park.

Detour complete, we then return to Touama, and then continue northeast for about 100km, until we reach Ouargi, a small oasis town with idyllic fields.

It's now time to head west about an hour into Marrakech itself - the Berber capital of the south - and from there grab the next bus to the coast. We will notice over the 3 hour journey from Marrakech to the ocean that the red rocked desert turns to arid pastures which turn to olive-and-argan-tree-dotted hillsides which, in the spring of a good year, will be shimmering with rolling golden wheat. We take a quick stop on our way in the village of Talmest, 27 km inland in what is nicknamed Green Valley, for a glimpse of the Tuscany-esque landscape.

We then hasten our pace as the cooler temperatures of the nearby beach town - Essaouira - beckon. This 16th century Portugese fort city has been nicknamed the "City of Wind" (not to be mistaken for Chicago, despite it's confusingly similar nickname "The Windy City") because of the strong ocean breezes that relentlessly buffet the white-washed town and her inhabitants (who are afflicted with perpetual bad hair days). Yet the feel of the town is inexplicably relaxed. Though not exactly natural landscape in keeping with the theme of this blog posting, Essaouira somehow breathes - through the ragged cries of the seagulls and the perpetual crashing of the sea - and feels alive like the cedar forests surrounding her, so I am making an exception by including her here.

Heading back up the coast to fly home, we take one last stop at the beach at Mehdia for a spectacular sunset to bring full circle our journey through this breathtaking land.

Note: Despite the comprehensive goal of this blog entry, it only features places I have actually visited - and photographed - in Morocco. There is a broad swath of the country I have yet to discover, as revealed by the map linked below, which marks the points referred to in this blog.

Click here: Photos Mapped


  1. Gorgeous photos! It makes me even more anxious to visit Morocco.

  2. OMG!!!!! You've certainly been to see lots of Morocco!! What an awesomely beautiful country. How fortunate you are :-).

  3. Larissa, you've been blessed to have this once in a lifetime experience. I'm so glad you're taking advantage of it.