Okay, so we had booked a 3 day 2 night group tour to the Sahara Desert. We don't often do group tours because we like to make our own schedule. And we haven't done a group tour since we were in Iceland in the fall of 2012.
This tour reminded us of why we don't do group tours!
There are many tour operators in Marrakesh. And there are many different set tours that you can do. A lot of people do private tours, but they're quite expensive for what you get and Morocco is actually quite an easy country to navigate.
I'll say this right away...if we were to do this again, we would have rented a car and set off to do it on our own the same way that we did in Romania and Italy. We've learned that this is our favorite way of travel, outside of exploring in a motorhome.
I wouldn't want to drive in downtown Marrakesh, but outside of the big cities, driving in Morocco for me wouldn't be an issue at all. And it gives you a lot more freedom.
Our AirBnb host Marco had set us up to talk to one guy (Azziz) who organizes tours. I think in actual fact all he does is sell tours. I'm not sure, but there are so many of these tours all going on at the same time, and so many different people involved in the whole process...subcontractors, drivers, different guides that you pick up along your route...that it's hard to know who's in charge.
Azziz had told us that it would cost 900 dirhams ($126 CAD, $93 USD) each for the three days and two nights. Breakfast and dinner were included, but you were on your own for lunches. The first night would be in a hotel along the way, and the second night would be in a tent in the desert. There would be between 15 to 17 people in the group.
We checked with another tour operator (seller) who also started off at 900 dirhams, but quickly dropped to 850. The tour seemed essentially the same, and normally we are very price conscious. But this guy came across as a used car salesman and we actually like Azziz better. So later on Monday afternoon, I went over and booked and paid with Azziz. He said to meet outside his door on the street at 7:00am.
And so Tuesday morning we were up bright and early, got all our stuff ready, and walked the ten minutes over to the meeting place. We got there at 6:55am and found it odd that there was nobody there waiting with us. We had read that many tour operators will pick you up at your hotel or riad, so we figured that must be what was happening. Still, we found it strange.
And we waited. 7:15am came and went, and we were starting to get a little worried. Had I misunderstood the instructions? I didn't think so, but you start to wonder. By 7:20 or so, a young guy came by the entrance way and he spoke a little English. We told him we were waiting for the tour bus, and he seemed okay with that and went inside the building. But he came down a few minutes later and asked again. I mentioned the name of Azziz, and eventually we ended up upstairs and the guy phoned Azziz, and Azziz told him that yes, the bus was on its way.
Not impressed. Why were we told to meet at 7:00am?? We never did get any kind of apology or explanation.
It was 7:50am when a minibus that seats 17 plus the driver pulled up with only two other girls as passengers. Strange.
This minibus took us to the central square where there were many minibuses all setting off on different tours. We were told to get out of that minibus and into another one that was almost full. Okay, so we did that. Our luggage was strapped on the roof, and off we went.
Countryside east of Marrakech.
Once we got out of the valley, it became quite scenic.
Beautiful green countryside.
And then we started climbing. Part of the drive east involves a long curvy mountain pass that is very slow going. So first, we stopped at 9:20am at a roadside restaurant for a bathroom break and to stretch our legs. There was no guide yet on the bus...only the driver, who spent a lot of his time on his cell phone. he would yell out "10 minutes"...but it would often be 20 minutes before he got back in the van.
There were quite a few other tour groups who stopped here as well.
The bathrooms cost 2 dirham (25 cents) to use. Most bathrooms in Morocco cost money to use. We've seen them as high as 1 euro ($1.45 CAD, $1.10 USD) per single use. Yikes. I'll find a tree somewhere for that price!
We started to climb, and there was more great scenery.
Up in the mountains.
We stopped for a 5 minute photo break...with many other vans doing the same thing.
Lots of switchbacks.
The road we came up on.
Scenery along the way.
We passed through several small towns.
Scenery along the way.
Despite the desert environment east of Marrakech, there are a lot of underground springs that the locals have tapped into as a water source. Therefore, there are actually quite a few crops being grown and there is a lot of greenery in the limited space on the valley floor.
We made a stop at one town, and a guide hopped on board. He introduced himself as Mohammed (but you can call me Moo-moo). He asked if everybody could understand some English, and this was our first real introduction to the other guests on board.
Yes, everybody could get by in English.
There was a mother/daughter originally from Russia, but the mother now lives in Texas and the daughter works in Chad. Three friends from South Korea who are on a volunteer program in London. A young couple from China. A sister and two brothers from Germany, but who have an American parent and speak perfect English. A sister and brother from Netherlands. And a couple from Turkey, she is a doctor. And us!
Moo-moo did some talking as we made our way to the ancient Berber fortification of Ait-Ben-Haddou.
Moo-moo, talking to our group.
Ait-Ben-Haddou is also a well used movie set. In fact, the 1985 movie "Jewel of the Nile" was partly filmed here. Moo-moo talked a lot about the Hollywood connection to the area, and seemed very proud that he was the official translator for Samuel L Jackson when he was here also filming "Rules of Engagement".
Strangely, here in the middle of nowhere also exists a movie set tourist attraction.
We had to cross a stream to get to the old city.
Do you see the gateway off to the right in the picture above? That was built specifically for the movie Jewel of the Nile. It's the gate that the fighter jet flew through! I can't believe that the local government allowed this gate to be built by Hollywood at a UNESCO heritage site. Oh well...so much for authenticity.
Local kids try to "help" people across the river, then stand there with their hand out.
Some people actually pay them!
The old fortification of Ait-Ben-Haddou.
The newer town on the opposite side.
Ruth, and the view.
By the time we were finished there (at 1:45pm), everybody was starting to wonder about lunch. Sure, we had been told we were on our own for lunch, but what did that mean exactly? Did they ever actually give us any time for lunch? Or were we supposed to pack a lunch? (which nobody did).
Very little communication.
Moo-moo said we would stop for lunch "soon".
It was 3:00pm when we pulled into the town of Oarzazate and pulled up to a touristy restaurant. Famished, we were all herded to a table and menus placed in front of us. The meals were all priced at 80 dirhams ($11.20 CAD, $8.50 USD).
No thanks. This is in a country where you can buy a very good meal for 45 dirhams. We took one look at the menu and told Moo-moo that we were going to find our own place to eat. He didn't look very happy (I'm sure he gets a cut of it) and the three young siblings from Germany did the same thing.
As we were heading down the stairs, a guy who worked in the restaurant (Manager? Not sure.) Shuffled us into a side room where there were a couple of locals and said in broken English "I give you discount...50 dirhams..including water".
Too funny. So while the rest of the group were upstairs paying 80, we sat downstairs and paid 50.
Lemon chicken tagine.
After lunch, we wanted to go for a walk. Looks like there are some things worth seeing in Oarzazate but there was no time. Back in the bus.
As we got back on the bus, Moo-moo said that his time with us was over. Hmm. That was short. Anyhow, now it was time to tip the guide, and give a "friendly contribution" towards a charity project being operated by "Carleton University in Ottawa". That's our home town! We gave a few dirham, and I got on the bus to check the internet and the validity of this charity. Sure enough, Carelton University does operate a charity in Oarzazate.
As for his tip, he sure wasn't with us very long. Many people did not give at all, and I think they were thinking the same thing we were. We were starting to learn that tourists on these group tours get asked for money at every turn, and often it's far more than what you should be paying.
Lots of beautiful scenery along the way.
Strange rock formations!
The last thing Moo-moo told us was that the next stop would be Dades Gorge, where we would overnight. But we stopped at a viewpoint just before that....
Along with a few other tourist vans.
There was a campground (parking lot) with some RV's in it. There are actually quite a few campgrounds in Morocco because (mostly) the French come here to escape their winter. Now that we were seeing the countryside, we now know that it would be very easy to RV in Morocco.
At the viewpoint.
But, it was only a five minute photo stop. We could have spent five nights here, going for hikes and exploring!
Another village along the way.
We arrived at Dades Gorge at about 6:45pm.
It took a little while to get our groups rooms figured out, as it always does with groups. The hotel is pretty much right in the gorge, and we were looking forward to going for a walk in the morning. The sun was starting to go down, and we were told to meet for supper at 8:00pm.
An earlier group was already in there eating. Ruth and I went for a short walk and just explored the hotel and the upper terrace. We walked to a little shop and bought another bottle of drinking water for the next day.
Our room. Not bad, it'll do for a night.
The facilities. A little dated, but again, it'll do.
They have a wifi connection in the lobby, but it was pretty slow. It took forever, and we just gave up. In fact Ruth couldn't even get on with her laptop.
Then we went with everyone for dinner. They actually have a bar there, with expensive (but not necessarily good) beer and wine available. There are only two breweries in Morocco, and they had both brands. I figured this might be the only time I might ever have a Moroccan beer, so I bought a bottle of "Stork" for 35 dirahms ($4.90 CAD, $3.70 USD). Yikes...those are Canadian prices! But, I splurged. It was just okay... nothing special.
Dinner arrived. It was couscous and a chicken leg, with a bunch of veggies and bread. Good thing we had some rice cakes with us, because we didn't eat the couscous or bread. Pretty slim pickins for meat on those chicken legs too! We didn't starve, but it was by no means great.
We were looking forward to seeing Dades Gorge first thing in the morning, and were told to meet for breakfast at 7:00am, and we had to be ready to leave for 8:00am.
We got to know some of our group, and they were all interesting people to talk to. In fact, one of the reasons we did this tour was because it sounded like fun to be with some other travelers. And it was. Despite some of the tour things we had an issue with, we saw some interesting stuff, and we were enjoying our time with the people.
Off to bed, because it was going to be another long day on Tuesday!
But Dades Gorge never happened. Stay tuned for the next post.
Monday's drive, 327 kms (203 miles).
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