Africa,  Marrakech,  Morocco,  TDM,  Travel Journal

Road trip in Morocco: Christmas in the middle of an oasis (part 1/3)

Today we take the CTM bus from Essaouira to Marrakech. If we come back to Marrakech it’s to go on a roadtrip for a week with Aurélien, with whom we already left last year to visit the temples of Angkor.

One year later, we meet again to celebrate Christmas and New Year together in what we hope will be a memorable roadtrip to Morocco. This trip was entirely organized following the advice of Lonely Planet. Both for the itinerary but also for the hotels and restaurants. This is the first time that we blindly follow their advice, we will see if they are wise (we aren’t sponsored by them).

Note: this article was written partly using a speech recognition tool, so I apologize in advance for any spelling mistakes.

Day 1 : Arrival in Marrakech

JB repeated a very well rated riad in the heart of the medina(Riad Sabbah, link Booking) – this address isn’t on Lonely Planet 😀 The owner is a French architect and he transformed a dilapidated land into a beautiful riad too quiet. The only negative points are the small size of the rooms and the bad sound insulation inside the riad (you can’t hear anything from the souk outside).

Unlike last time, we manage to negotiate cab fares well. The driver asked us to pay only 20 dirhams, but another driver made him understand that we had to scam more and that it was not right to lower the price so much. In short, even honest drivers cannot afford to be honest. Learn more about cabs in Marrakech here.

Arrived at 4pm, there isn’t much left to visit in Marrakech except the Secret Garden. The entrance costs 50 dirhams and we enter a renovated space consisting of two gardens. The watering system and canalisation is well highlighted thanks to the explanatory panels.

What we like very much in this garden is the presence of many very comfortable and beautiful sofas. There is even a café overlooking the main garden. I highly recommend the visit, it is a haven of peace in the middle of the medina.

We get lost again in the small streets in search of a foudrouk(coordonnées Google Maps), the former “hotel” of the nomads. There we find souvenir stores and craftsmen. I fall for a traditional lipstick made of poppy. It’s not easy to use, you have to wet your finger and then scrape the ceramic piece to get some lipstick. The salesman shows us many other wonders so the pieces of wood that smell very good or traditional recipes to not have a blocked nose. JB buys an alum stone as deodorant and after shave.

It’s not a cork, but a lipstick

There are fewer tourists in this part of the city, I highly recommend you to come this way. Meanwhile Aurélien is spending time with another SEO colleague.

We take advantage of being in Marrakech to go eat in a Japanese restaurant Soto (I recommend you). It’s to stock up on raw salmon because there is none in Essaouira where we are currently living.

Day 2 : Ait Ben Haddou

The next day we meet at 6 am on the main square. We hail a cab without difficulty and the trip from the Grande place to the CTM bus station costs 30 dirhams (after negotiation).

We buy the tickets (90 dirhams towards Ouarzazate). Our CTM driver isn’t very careful and spends his time driving on the left to overtake everyone.

It is however a dangerous road with lots of curves. The landscapes are magnificent and we see some snowy summits from far away. Moreover, because of the curves, I did not feel very well. I recommend to all those who have motion sickness to sit in the middle of the bus, and not at the front like me.

The city we wish to visit isn’t served by bus. We ask to be dropped off at a crossroads (which is called Oued el Maled, type the Carrefour Ait ben Haddou on Google Maps to see where it is) then we take a cab to get there. JB negotiates the fare at 40 dirhams for the three of us, which is an acceptable price, nothing more. If you manage to take a collective cab, the fare is 5 dirhams per person and the cab leaves when there are 5 customers.

The driver stops at a panoramic viewpoint so that we can take a picture of the pretty town ofAit Ben Haddou.

Our hotel is located in the old town and we have to cross a small bridge on foot to get there.

If I am not mistaken, there are only four hotels in the old town. All the others are on the other side of the river, in the new town. The inhabitants don’t live here anymore because the old houses have collapsed. The walls are made of straw and earth. The ceilings are supported by palm trunks, leaves and a huge layer of earth.

The old town is rather small and it takes us only 30 minutes to go up to the top. We have a 360° view on the whole city and the river. There is a small hill next to where we have a very beautiful view of the city and the sunset. Many movies have been shot here (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Lawrence of Arabia…), and Game of Thrones.

We are told that the inhabitants put plastic plates that cannot be removed on the computer to force the director to go to them and monetize the removal of these plates. There is no indication or vestige of the old shootings. Some vendors use photos of the films shot here to attract the attention of tourists and bring them to their store. The owner of our hotel still remembers the shooting of the Game of Thrones series and the presence of Khaleesi (“the beautiful blonde”) just in front of the main entrance of the city. Apparently, the shooting lasted two weeks however the actors did not stay here but in the big city next door. Watch episode 5 of season 3.

There are some groups of tourists who come to visit the city for one or two hours but most of the tourists do not sleep here.

We spot a restaurant inn on the other side of the river with a very nice view(Azaddou Tamlalte Inn).

We opt for the Berber omelette and spend all our time on the restaurant’s terrace. Some Berbers do their laundry by the riverside while their children have fun crossing the bridges made of stone bags. Life is really peaceful, especially in the evening when everyone leaves the old town, except for a few tourists who sleep here.

if you go to the desert, buy one of these cheeses right away, it’s half the price here

Fortunately we opted for the dinner proposed by our kasbah (kasbah is an old house of rich people made of earth and straw), 130dh/person. Indeed, the old city is deserted in the evening and there is no restaurant.

on the terrace of our kasbah

Our kasbah, Dar el Haja(link Booking), recommended by Lonely Planet, is one of the last 4 to accommodate tourists in the old city. We don’t have electricity in the whole hotel (and no electric plugs in the rooms) but solar energy so we dine by candlelight and there is a corner in the sofa with a multi-plug where we can recharge our phone batteries. As much to say that there are often people on this sofa 😀

Hot water is also obtained thanks to solar energy but I managed to take a hot shower. It’s amazing to have such comfort in a medieval city.

Day 3 : Oasis of Skoura

The next day we have breakfast with the cat of the inn who is more interested in the piece of “laughing cow” than in us.

We visit an old kasbah next to our hostel. The entrance costs 10 dirhams per person, there are some baskets and tools inside but it isn’t very interesting. At one point we go up to the terrace and the ground shakes under our feet. We are a little afraid that the kasbah isn’t so well maintained and we hurry to leave. We will learn later that this phenomenon is normal for this kind of constructions. By looking attentively at the ceiling, we see that it was redone recently, I think that we should not be afraid.

We find the cab driver of the day before, at 11 am “inchala”, but the Moroccan time is 11:30. For 25 dirhams per person, we are dropped off in Ouarzazate, which is 22 km from here. The driver isn’t allowed to drop us where he wants, but only at the bus station. If we want to be dropped off in front of the hotel for example, we will have to take another cab.

We walk to the car rental office in Hertz. The pick-up is painful, it’s a franchisee who makes his cars available on different platforms (Hertz, budget, thrifty) and it looks like he’s angry with us for having booked and paid online.

First bad surprise it announces us that it does not have the GPS that we reserved and paid.

Second bad surprise: he asked us for a bank pre-authorization of €1,200, whereas we had taken the option “full repurchase of franchise” to avoid this. The renter is unable to explain to us what this insurance covers (which we have already paid for…). We call the Hertz support who explains that despite the “total repurchase of deductible”, we will still have to pay a deductible in case of an accident.

So what is the purpose of this option that we paid for? No idea!

But at the sight of a very clean and very recent automatic 4×4 (Citroën C4 Cactus), we forget the inconveniences and are very happy to go on an adventure.

As it is already noon, we have to change our plan. Instead of going to the Dades Gorge, we just visit the surroundings of the oasis of Skoura, which is composed of a palm grove as far as the eye can see.

We have lunch nearby, choosing a restaurant at random. The first address makes us take muddy paths and in the end, impassable. This small passage was enough to dirty all the wheels of the car. We understand better why the renter insisted that we return the car clean and full of gas.

The best lemon chicken tagine in Morocco

The second address will be the right one. We discover a very nice hostel with swimming pool(Kasbah Ait BenHadda, linkBooking). The menu costs ten euros per person all inclusive and today he offers us a tagine with lemon chicken.

It will be the best lemon chicken tagine of our entire trip (and we can’t tell you how much we ate!). The employee of the inn shows us the rooms, hoping undoubtedly to accommodate us, but we already made the reservation in an inn of at side. It is nevertheless the Christmas Eve.

Kasbah Amridil

After this delicious lunch, we go to the Kasbah Amridil which is represented on the 50 dirham ticket. At the beginning we didn’t want to opt for the guided tour but we thought it was important to understand the architecture and the usefulness of the kasbahs so we paid 50 dirhams for the guided tour.

Fatima is the official guide of the castle. She explains to us that the castle was twice as big, then it was divided between cousins. The castle of the cousins offers visits as well. So be careful to visit the Amridil Kasbah.

We visit different rooms, storage space and the five towers of the castle. Apparently this is the only one that has all five, all the others have only four. However, we discover with amusement that the fifth tower was not reserved for defense or a luxury room, but to ventilate the toilet space, which was filled with excrement on four floors. This excrement storage may seem horrible to you, but it is an important natural fertilizer. I should point out that at the moment there is no more excrement there:D

The Palm grove of Skoura

Fatima makes us understand that she is also a guide of the palm grove. So we ask her to accompany us because we don’t know how to get there.

She gets into the car and shows us the way. Once again, we are happy to have opted for a 4×4 because we are only on the track, crossing 3 dry rivers before going to the palm grove.

Contrary to what we thought, there are less palm trees and between two palm trees are wheat fields. In spring, apparently one can also eat all the fruits that are on the trees. But today, the visit is less greedy because we only have one palm tree left with dates.

I didn’t know it but there are male palms (smaller) and female palms. To get dates, you have to put the seeds of the males into the females, manually.

Fatima then takes us to see a potter. He explains to us how he makes pottery, and how he goes to fetch earth 5 km away by donkey and then reduces it to pieces. The technique is far from equal to the one in Turkey but it looks more artisanal. Here, the tray is made from a recycled wheel

The potter is very happy to receive visitors even if we don’t buy anything. JB still gives him 20 dirhams to thank him for the demo.

I really enjoyed talking with Fatima, she made a good impression on me, in the same way as the camel breeder in Cairo. She tells us that she is the only guide in the city because she is divorced and other married women aren’t allowed to date other men (it is forbidden by their husbands). But she still manages very well socially, being president of an association aiming to eradicate illiteracy among young people and adults. She also tutors children in math and physics. If you are in Morocco, run to visit the kasbah to meet her because she will soon be working for a local hotel.

We take Fatima back to the castle and she shows us the way to our hotel. At the beginning we wanted to take the asphalt road which seemed safer and which was indicated no GPS. As we turn left, a scooter behind us honks its horn to indicate that we are taking the wrong path, Fatima runs behind us to show us the direction again.

Not wanting to offend anyone, we turn around and head out onto the track with the soft light of the sunset, praying very hard to arrive safely. Aurélien reminds us that we still don’t know what our insurance covers.

Fortunately, as Fatima said, the road was really easy, at last, with a suitable car. Google Maps isn’t very well done for Morocco (it does not allow GPS mode in car), I recommend you to use like us, which even lists the small country roads (and dry rivers).

Night at Talout

We arrive in front of our hotel(Chez Talout, link Booking) to discover that it looks like a palace. It will be the best hotel of our trip (not listed on Lonely Planet, as Lonely Planet isn’t an absolute reference). The door opens as if by chance when we arrive like a drawbridge of a fortified castle and we enter the small courtyard/parking area, protected by five hyper muscular guys

The owner welcomes us and we send him our greetings on behalf of Fatima. She told us that he is a man with a big heart, who has contributed a lot to his local association.

Fortunately Fatima made us take the track because 10 minutes away we would have missed this extraordinary show.

It is December 24th and we are expecting a slightly more luxurious dinner, but for the hotel, it is an ordinary day without any reference to Christmas. No alcohol, no oyster, no foie gras, we are proposed a tajine with chicken & lemon (in fact, we have no choice, there is only that on the menu), it is less good than the one we ate at midday, but it remains delicious. What we really like at Talout’s is the heating in the room. It really feels good because the nights are cool!

Day 4 : Dades Gorge and Rose Valley

After an excellent night (the bedding is top, the heating too), and a copious breakfast, we leave the hotel by taking a much more pleasant road (vs. the track taken yesterday).

We want to go to the Dadès Gorge today. The way takes only 1h30 if we drive non-stop, but the landscapes are so sublime that we finally put 2h30 by multiplying the stops to admire the view.

The final destination is this one: 4 successive turns at 180°C. We were impressed by the photos, but in reality, the driving was not so difficult as that and few cars use this road.

We take a mint tea at this hotel at the edge of the cliff, from where we took the photo above.

Starving, we turn around and have a quick lunch in this restaurant with a panoramic view.

Valley of the Roses

We take the road back to Ouarzazate, without forgetting to stop at Kelâat M’Gouna, THE PLACE to buy rose-related products, as it is here that thousands of rose bushes are found. Morocco exports a lot of rose water, rose essential oil, as well as argan oil, dates etc.

Unfortunately, there are no roses at this time of the year so we just go around in circles without seeing any roses. However, we have seen many, many stores selling rose water.

The landscapes remain magnificent…

I don’t want to buy rosewater in the city center and prefer to go far away. I come across the Rosamgoun cooperative, about 10km from downtown. Here, the 150ml bottle of rose water is sold at 150dh (15€), out of price. The saleswoman says that there are no chemicals… After testing this rose water for 10 days, I can tell you that it is of high quality, and it smells divinely good. But try to negotiate the price a little. For example, for 500dh of products, we got a free oil (value 100dh).

We were so tired that we did not visit the El Mansour Eddahbi Dam but if you have time, do it!

Dar Kamar

We go to the kasbah Dar Kamar, featured on the Lonely Planet. This guide sold it to us as an “inn with a lot of humor”, the tajine shaped sink, the tables made of old sewing machines… As it’s Christmas day, we offered ourselves a suite for 150€, hoping for an extraordinary experience. But unfortunately, we did not find the “humorous” elements in question. Even the hammam was paying despite the exorbitant price of the room (in the end, we were not even charged for it because it was not very hot…).

In fact, Ouarzazate doesn’t have many nice hotels, so this one stands out from the others. But I don’t recommend it too much, the experience doesn’t justify such a painful price.

The big plus of this hostel is the terrace with many rest areas and especially a magnificent view of the oasis, with the little mist that goes well …

We dine at the restaurant next door: Douyria and it’s an explosion of flavor! I particularly liked the dromedary tagine (which I am eating for the first time), it is a bit expensive (110dh) but it is very good!

Day 5: Movie Day

Today we have to return the car at noon. As we are soon leaving for the desert, we try to take a good shower in the morning before leaving. Except that the water is tepid, even icy. A small information at the reception, and we learn that the night was so cold that the gas bottles used to heat the water froze. The hotel staff had to put hot water on them but that did not solve the problem.

This worries us a little because if it is so cold even in the city, will we be frozen in the desert?

Car wash

Before returning the car, we decide to wash it first. This is important because it is dirty as anything else and we were instructed to return it clean and full of gas. Here, nobody has to wash the car himself. Everybody subcontracts, because it doesn’t cost much: from 20dh (2€) for the outside only. We opt for the option interior-exterior wash at 40dh (4€) and the car is returned to us as new!

Atlas Studios

Ouarzazate and its surroundings, nicknamed Ouar-llywood, is a popular filming location, thanks to its beautiful light, good weather almost all year round, perfect for scenes of medieval cities, in the desert or imaginary countries. Many famous film productions have been shot here.

As we still have 45 minutes before returning the car, we decide to go to the Atlas studios, outside the city for a visit at a run in 30 minutes. There are two large studios in Ouarzazate: this one (Atlas Studios) and CLA Studios.

If you have more time, you can opt for a guided tour (highly recommended as there are no explanatory panels on the site)

There are many life-size decorations, made of plaster, super cheap wood … but the whole is credible. With some cinema effects, a good light and we would have thought we were in Nepal.

Movie set: the statues aren’t 100% finished

What touches me very much is this beautiful and colorful Egyptian temple used in Asterix and Obelix mission Cleopatra. As we visited Egypt recently, I had the impression that I was coming back for a few minutes. Plus, with all these colors ! It allows us to imagine the real temples we visited, in their splendor. I like it very much!

The outside of a village: we can see it’s fake
But on the inside, we believe in it 100%
Who would have thought it was just a movie set?

After this visit, we return the car (without any problem) to Hertz and continue on foot or by cab. Note: in Ouarzazate, cabs have fixed prices: 5dh/person/journey, super convenient!

The Kasbah of Sands

We go to this restaurant which benefits from a huge frame on the Lonely Planet guide. It is a little hidden in a small alley but the cabs know it very well. The food is excellent, even if the waiter clearly lacks motivation. That made us a lot of good to have such a good meal, the day before our trip in the desert.

However, I sincerely think that this restaurant will be more beautiful in the evening, with the lights and fireplaces on.

Museum of Cinema

We come back to the hostel to get our bags, and as we still have time left, we visit the cinema museum which is just in front of us. It is here that Gladiator was filmed (but again, we will not know in which set and for which scenes).

I really liked this decor which strangely reminds me of the monastery at Mont Saint-Michel.

This one is so realistic that one wonders if Caesar himself will not appear.

We go to the CTM bus station. It is the only company to offer a bus to M’hamid, while the other companies stop in Zagora and let their passengers manage to take a collective cab. Tonight, we will sleep at the gates of the Sahara desert.

In conclusion, Lonely Planet is excellent to establish its itinerary. The information concerning transportation is reliable.

However, the addresses (hotels, restaurants) mentioned in the Lonely Planet are correct, but not extraordinary either . We recommend that you take inspiration from them, but you can always find better and cheaper by digging a bit more (on blogs, or by searching on Google Maps and Tripadvisor).

Finally, our best addresses were not mentioned in the Lonely Planet (nor in the Routard)

I tell you the rest of our journey in this article.

Part 2: Practical Tips


  • Transportation
    • Bus CTM Essaouira – Marrakech: 90dh/person
    • Cab bus station CTM => city center: 20dh to 30dh/taxi
    • Bus Marrakech – Ouarzazate: 90dh/person
    • Cab Oued el Maled => Ait Ben Haddou : 40dh/taxi or 5dh/person in collective cab
    • Cab Ait Ben Haddou => Ouarzazate : 100dh/taxi or 20 to 25dh/person in collective cab
    • Hiring of an automatic 4×4 at Hertz: 112€/24h (insurance included)
  • Hostel or Hotel
    • Marrakech : Riad Sabbah 37,8€ per double room, breakfast included link Booking
    • Ait Ben Haddou : Guest house Dar El Haja 45€ the double room, breakfast included. Supplement 10€/person for dinner(link Booking), I recommend you to dine on the spot.
    • Skoura : Chez Talout 63€ the double room, breakfast included. Supplement 12€/person for dinner. Our favorite hotel of the Booking link trip Be careful to go to this hotel, take the small road on the left of the junction(Google Maps coordinates) then follow the signs instead of crossing the dry rivers. The hotel is located in the middle of nowhere so opt for a dinner at the hotel (12€/person) g>Dar Kamar between 100€ and 150€, breakfast included. Too expensive for what it is
  • Restaurants
    • Kasbah Ait Ben Hadda in Skoura : tajine chicken lemon to fall. 10€/person starter main course dessert dessert drink
    • The Kasbah des Sables in Ouarzazate: everything is good, count 100dh/flat, generous portion
    • Douyria in Ouarzazate: everything is good, count 80 to 100dh/flat, generous portion
  • Visits
    • Marrakech : Secret Garden 50dh/person
    • Skoura: Kasbah Amridil: 20dh/person for the entrance. 50dh/group for the guided tour (I recommend!)
    • Guided tour of the palm grove of Skoura: 150dh/hour/group. Address to the Kasbah Amridil
    • Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate: 50dh/person. A supplement is to be paid if you wish to pay for a guide and/or if you wish to visit the Kingdom of Heaven scenery 1km from the studios (where they re-created Jerusalem)
    • Museum of Cinema in Ouarzazate: 30dh/person


I will write a detailed article on this roadtrip later. In the meantime, here are the main tips:

  • For GPS, choose instead of Google Maps. lists country roads and dry rivers. Google Maps is more difficult.
  • If you take the bus between Marrakech and Ouarzazate, sit in the middle of the bus. The successive turns may make you sick if you sit in the front.
  • The trip from Marrakech to M’hamid independently, with only one driver, is too tiring and expensive (renting the 4×4 cost us 112€/24h). I recommend you to do like us: take the difficult bus routes (Marrakech => Ouarzazate, and Ouarzazate => M’hamid), and rent a 4×4 to explore the surroundings of Ouarzazate and Skoura in 48 hours.
  • We went through Hertz for the 4×4 rental in Ouarzazate, but many other local agencies offer 4×4s at a more economical price. The cars will be older, but if you don’t drive in the mud, it must be good. Renting a 4×4 is recommended because the most beautiful kasbahs and places are often on the track.
  • There are tours Marrakech – M’hamid, with 1 or 2 nights in the desert. In an organized tour you have a private driver and guide, but it is more expensive than in an independent tour. For example, we paid 600€/person for everything (8 days, 8 nights), in the best restaurants and hotels. While in organized tour, you will be in less luxurious hotels, less gastronomic restaurants, for 750€ (7 days, 6 nights)

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