Nomadic in Morocco: You CAN Afford the Trip of a Lifetime
From stylish Marrakech across the Sahara and jaw-dropping Atlas Mountains, this is a road trip like no other. But we're happy to report it's easier and more budget-friendly than you'd ever imagine.
Prepare for an unforgettable adventure! While the name Morocco may conjure images of endless desert, or the classic film Casablanca (which was, of course, shot entirely in Hollywood), the real Morocco rolls out some of the world's most beautiful mountains, a scenic coastline that may remind you of Northern California (really!), a surprisingly easy-to-navigate Sahara, and opportunities to pamper yourself, especially when you arrive in chic Marrakech. The North African nation welcomes visitors to its ancient medinas and souks, but also to world-class restaurants, alluring (and affordable) spas, and stylish hotels. Whether you decide to see Morocco on a pre-arranged package tour or to dive into a self-guided road trip like the one photographer Michael Hanson took for this story (take a slideshow tour of his incredibly beautiful photos!), you'll delight in the cultural coming-together of Berber, Arab, and Saharawi cultures on an exotic-yet-attainable vacation of a lifetime.
Whether you're seeking days of adventure in the mountains and desert or just a day trip to get a taste of "wild Morocco," we recommend that you make Marrakech your base of operations. Everybody starts their exploration of the city at Djemaa el-Fna and you should too: You'll enjoy wandering through the souks, shopping for exquisite carpets and other handiworks, and you'll also be pleasantly surprised at the number of stylish boutiques in the old city. We love Cafe de France, at Place Djemaa el-Fna, perfect for strong coffee (or fresh-squeezed citrus juices) and people watching. For an indulgent night, book your lodging at a riad, such as Riad Noga (riadnoga.com, from about $100), and ask about their spa treatments.
Many day trips or multi-day tours out of Marrakech head to this town via 4x4, and it really is a must-stop on your way to or from the big city when exploring the wilder side of Morocco. Ait Benhaddou is one of the most impeccably preserved examples of a 1,000-year-old North African caravan stopover. It actually looks like a movie set. And for a very good reason: The town has served as the location for scenes in Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and Jesus of Nazareth, and has benefited from some Hollywood spruce-ups. You'll nab some of your best Morocco photos here, and enjoy an hour or two getting to know the handful of locals who call it home. You'll probably be on your way before evening, but if you do need to bunk down, Hotel la Kasbah (hotel-lakasbach.com, from $31) is reliable and very affordable.
While Ait Benhaddou may resemble a movie set, nearby Ouarzazate is actually a major center of TV- and movie-making. Scenes from Game of Thrones and other film and TV projects have been filmed here and it is home to CLA Studios, which you can tour. But on a hot day, the first thing you may want to do is jump into the cool blue pool at Hotel Al Baraka Des Loisirs (hotel-albaraka-ouarzazate.com, from $30), which offers high-quality rooms at a great price. And since your next stop may very well be the Sahara Desert, Ouarzazate is a good place to relax over a tasty hot meal: Get your tagine on at Les Jardins de Ouarzazate (hotel-les-jardins-de-ouarzazate.com). The delicious staple of Moroccan cuisine is a historically Berber recipe named after the clay dish in which it is prepared with a rich collection of spices, vegetables, and sometimes meat.