With its rich musical and artistic legacy, breathtaking scenery and maze-like markets, shifting sands and crumbling casbahs, it is no wonder that the country of Morocco is one of the most sought-after destinations in Africa. With direct flights from the US daily and close proximity to Europe, Morocco has set an ambitious goal of welcoming more than ten million tourists by the end of the decade.
Traversing the length and breadth of Morocco is not an easy task, but one way to view this exotic crossroads between sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean is to hire your own vehicle and take the trip at your own pace. Morocco's interstitial network of roadways and rail systems is impressive, though a car allows you the advantage of visiting places often inaccessible by train.
Included in what is known as "The Maghreb" or "place of sunset" alongside Algeria and Tunisia, Morocco is a place best explored overland -- where the journey can be taken in slowly and relished, like a fine tagine slow-cooked over an open fire.
Getting the Car
In most main cities such as Tangiers, Casablanca and Marrakech, there is a wide selection of local and international car rental agencies including Hertz, Budget and AVIS. It is wise to shop around before deciding on the best one that will suit your budget and length of trip. Usually the rental price will include insurance and gasoline, with an additional fee if you decide to hire a driver.
If you plan to stay on main and paved highways, an economy or standard size automobile is sufficient, and the price will vary depending on whether you require air-conditioning, 4WD or automatic transmission. Make sure to inspect the car before you hand over any money or give away your credit-card details -- you don't want to be caught footing the bill for a faulty gear shift or broken muffler on your return.
The typical requisites for renting a car in Morocco include meeting the minimum age requirement (25 years), and possessing a valid driver's license and credit card.
Purchasing a good road map of Morocco before you arrive is recommended. It will be indispensable as you try to navigate some of the larger cities, or suddenly find yourself in a region devoid of any visible signposts. The A3 coastal highway from Casablanca to Rabat, and the A2 from Rabat to Fes are well-paved and easily navigable, but bear in mind that unmarked dirt tracks, teetering donkey carts, speeding motorcyclists and the ubiquitous Mercedes-Benz "grand taxis" will undoubtedly put your reaction times and driving skills to the test.
Most cities and many towns will have filling stations, but don't expect this to be the case everywhere. In some parts, including south of Marrakech as you cross over the High Atlas Mountains en route to Ouarzazate, you may go for miles without seeing anything more than a herder and his goats. Though Morocco is a relatively safe country and banditry is not a widespread occurrence, it is wise to not be caught out at night with an empty tank.
Choosing the Route
Eight days: If getting to the edge of the Sahara is one of your aims, an 8-day return trip to Merzouga to experience the magnificent Erg Chebbi (erg in Arabic is defined as a large area comprised of dunes) is a must. There are plenty of car rental options to begin your journey in Casablanca, home to the spectacular Hassan II Mosque -- the second-largest in the world after Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. This feat of craftsmanship houses over 25,000 worshippers and is said to have taken 6,000 master artisans over five years to complete. The intricate woodwork, tiled mosaics (zellij), and local stone and marble carvings make this a masterpiece of achievement at the edge of the Atlantic.
After leaving Casablanca, you can take the recently opened Marrakech-Casablanca expressway, known as the A7, past marabouts' (saints) tombs and gathering palms into the red-walled city of Marrakech. Almost immediately the heat is palpable, and the drier air and thicker dust brings intimations of the desert to the South. Famous for its bustling main square, the Djemaa Al Fna, this distinctive city burns a deep ochre at sunset. If you can avoid the tourist snags of snake charmers and hustlers, you'll come into the maze of narrow souks, or bazaars. Inside, swathed women thread delicate palm-leaf baskets, fine silk hangs on racks waiting to be sewn into the traditional outfits known as jellaba, and dark alleyways are filled with aroma of candied fruits and heady incense.
It can take over 4 hours to navigate the switchbacks on the Tizi n'Tichka pass on the High Atlas road on the way to Ouarzazate south on the N9. On a hill along the Ouarzazate River, you should make a stop at the clay-wrought village of Ait Benhaddou -- its magnificent casbah is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Farther along the road in Ouarzazate, formerly a stopover for caravan traders passing from Africa into Europe, you'll find the Casbah of Taourirt and Morocco's most-celebrated film studios. This quiet town has been the setting for such big films as "Star Wars," "Lawrence of Arabia" and more recently, "Gladiator" and "Babel."
A car will make your trip to the Dad's and Todra Valleys -- where ochre gorges, cut deep from the snow melt of the High Atlas Mountains, harbor lush oases and crumbling casbahs -- easily accessible. Approximately 100 km south of the Dad's you'll pass by the Saharan towns of Rissani and Erfoud, to arrive among the shifting sands of Merzouga's Erg Chebbi. On your return, pass via the Middle Atlas to the alpine village of Ifrane -- a predominantly European-style town nestled among cedar and oak. Continue your journey onto Fes -- the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco. Here you can uncover both the new and old medina (town), another UNESCO site. The high, narrow passageways bustling with donkey-driven carts, shouting traders, covert cafe's, local shoppers and bemused tourists -- is a sight that must be experienced. As dusk settles on Fes, climb the hill outside the old town to listen to the wave of muezzins -- as they echo their call to prayer from the minarets that surround the city.
Suggested itinerary: Casablanca - Marrakech - Ouarzazate - Ait Ben Haddou village - Dad's Valley - Todra Valley - Merzouga dunes - Midelt - Ifrane - Fes - Rabat - Casablanca
Three to four weeks: If you have more time to travel in Morocco and would like to follow your route primarily along the Atlantic coast, a 3- to 4-week trip could start in the historical city of Tangiers -- an easily accessible town by sea, air or car. Tangiers is a town made famous for its eclectic mix of artists and musicians during its period as an international zone from 1923-1956. Writers such as William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett all took up residence for a time here. A slight 2-hour detour to the laid-back mountain village of Chefchaouen along the N2 is well worth your time. Meander through the charming white- and blue-washed medina here to the local waterfall, where the attitude is laid-back and a rare touch of Spanish is spoken. Meeting along the coastal road of the Atlantic, check out the pristine capital of Rabat, where you can visit the Royal Palace and the remnants of Chellah -- a peaceful compound of ancient and historical significance.
Once a trading outpost for the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, and later taken over by the Romans, this site is a sanctuary for various birdlife such as nesting storks. In a pool within the crumbling mosque walls, tortoises and eels still receive offerings of hard-boiled eggs from women hoping to improve their fertility.
Moving southwards towards Safi, you can view skilled artisans craft ceramic pottery in the traditional style. Don't miss visiting the photogenic town of Essaouira. Water sports and cafe lounging are favorite pastimes here, so soak in the creative atmosphere, and walk amid the old quarter where local and international artists often converge. Essaouira's ancient harbor (dating back to the 7th century) is still a mainstay of local life, where market sellers and boat builders are busily at work.
If you have the hunger to go farther south, make sure you have your papers in order and continue down the N1. Though not technically considered a Moroccan city, Laayoune, part of the Western Sahara, is worth a stop on your road trip. The people in this region are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality, and you may find yourself being invited to attend a traditional Sahrawi wedding. Onward to the former Spanish outpost of Dakhla in the deeper South, you'll find this coastal Atlantic town has an unassuming serenity. It's worth stopping a couple of days here to walk along the secluded beaches and enjoy the bay. On your way back, travel inland to Marrakech via Agadir, a modern town renowned for its cosmopolitan outlook, warm climate and long stretch of sandy beach.
Suggested itinerary: Tangiers - Chefchaouen - Asilah - Rabat - Casablanca - El Jadida - Oualidia - Safi - Essaouira - Taghazoute - Agadir - Mighleft - Sidi Ifni - Laayoune - Dakhla - Agadir - Marrakech
As a new driver to Morocco, you should expect ambiguous traffic laws, unpredictable drivers and unforeseen obstacles, but don't let that discourage you from discovering some of the magical sites of this North African kingdom. To experience the quiet sanctity of the Sahara, view the lush palm trees of the Draa River Valley, or watch a procession of camels silhouetted across a windswept plain, you must be willing to get off the beaten path, into a car and out on the road.