Morocco is one of the best countries in the world for road tripping. No question about it. It’s also a great country to experience festivals, which range from food, film, religion, arts and culture, and most notably, music. Whether you’re hittin’ the road in winter, when it’s hot, or in summer, when it’s scorching, it’s best to do some research to make your trip the trip of a lifetime.
Check out this list to help you connect all the dots and navigate through this rad country on your own. Although the Paris-Dakar rally no longer goes through Morocco, the country is no less awesome, and will provide amazing backdrops to some of the most-scenic driving routes in the world.
No matter which direction you drive, the sights are in abundance. Plan ahead and try to make some pit stops at some of Morocco’s internationally-renowned festivals. You may not be able to catch them all, but depending on when you’re visiting, be sure to make a spot on your itinerary for one of the events listed below.
The Gnaoua World Music Festival will kick off its 21st edition in the hippie-hideout-turned-resort-paradise of Essaouira. It’s been referred to as Morocco’s Woodstock. The eclectic music, arts and culture festival brings in a huge lineup of African funk, blues, reggae, jazz and soul acts from across Africa and worldwide.
The festival has drawn more than 500,000 people (last year saw 300,000) to see an abundance of brain-melting performers, including the likes of Marcus Miller. The festival has helped pave the way for Gnaoua music, a Moroccan mix of Islamic, spiritual, and religious sounds and rhythms, into the mainstream.
Route 301 is a simply serene, eye-opening drive. Past beach resort towns, fishing villages, futuristic-looking villas, and seemingly abandoned abodes (particularly during Ramadan), this drive will not disappoint even those with the most road trip experience.
Leaving El Jadida, the road winds along the coast, past fisherman and fish hawkers. It later weaves in land and back to the coast, finally arriving in artsy Essaouira, which sits on right on the Atlantic coast.
The fresh sea air and coastal breeze make Essaouira a great place to unwind, kitesurf, catch some waves, and catch up with other adventure seekers in this backpacker hotspot.
There’s no shortage of epic things to do in Morocco, and that includes taking in as much amazing music as possible. Held each summer in Agadir, the Timitar Music Festival celebrates Moroccan Berber heritage, as well as features a diverse variety of Moroccan, African, and contemporary music from all over the world. But, what defines the festival is its focus on Berber (Amazigh) music, culture, and identity.
Get down with what’s happening at a local level, contribute to the resurgence of Berber culture, and kick it with 900,000 other festival goers.
Sure, driving in Morocco can be hectic, but you’ll get the hang of things in no time, like right after a few life or death moments on the tarmac. Driving mainly on Route 105 from Agadir to Tafraoute is a life-changing route. Heading farther away from the coast, to dryer and dryer lands, where fewer cars roam the narrow roads.
Up into the Anti-Atlas mountains, where the terrain seems more martian than earthly, around ravines, around steep and jagged rock-topped peaks, zig-zagging up and down what seems like never-ending switchbacks, all the while on a single lane hoping not to meet any oncoming cars around each and every corner. Then, around the next bend, Tafraoute.
It may seem like salvation after not seeing any people or vehicles for a few hours. Every backdrop, every landscape, every thing that moves or that has been sitting still for decades is a photograph waiting to happen.
Tafraoute and the surrounding area looks like some master planner made it for rock climbers. Round boulders of all shapes and sizes cover the land. No doubt, climbers have been coming here for decades to scale some of the thousands of routes. When you hit the road again, the path takes you farther into the Anti-Atlas mountains, where local people occupy the most distant of places, where casbahs pop up in the middle of valleys, and where red and brown colours take over from land to home.
The roads soon flattens. The villages become smaller, quieter, and fewer in number from one point to the next. Trees claim territory to larger and larger areas of land. The air is dry. Caravans of camels slowly wander aimlessly into the void. Heat bounces off the distant road ahead. You’re heading into the Sahara. But then, in the distance, is it a mirage?
Amazingly not – it’s a green, lively, palm-filled oasis. One of the many you’ll pass while driving around this region. Very quickly, however, the green fades to brown, and the desert takes over once again. The sky seems bigger than ever before. The wind slowly but surely starts to blow sand-filled air from every direction. Next stop: Zagora.
The end of the line (not exactly, but saying so seems almost romantic in a sense). The Sahara is on your doorstep. And you know it by walking around Zagora, because the town looks and feels like it’s on the edge of the desert.
Scarves hang on racks from shop to shop. Tour companies, eager to take tourists to the dunes, make up many of the local businesses. 4X4s roam the streets. Choose wisely after undertaking some research.
The terrain in between looks inhospitable: sometimes covered in small sand dunes; sometimes the land is flat, and blanketed in endless-looking stretches of black pebbles; sometimes there’s nothing but tumbleweeds tumbling in front of the vehicle; sometimes a fog of sand.
Then, all of the sudden, a sea of dunes appear. They don’t seem as high as they are, but after a few steps you’ll feel a bit winded. But upon reaching the top, a sea of rolling wave-like dunes stretch into the horizon as far as your eyes will take you. Night falls, and you’re in the Moroccan Sahara in North Africa under one of the starriest skies you’ll ever stare into.
The ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is a month of fasting observed by Muslims worldwide. Life during daytime, as you know it, particularly in rural areas, basically ceases to exist. Empty streets give villages an eerie abandoned feel. Restaurants are closed. Shops are closed. Well, nearly everything is closed.
In the larger cities, however, despite there being some tension in the air, life carries on at a usual, but slightly less chaotic speed. Many businesses in popular tourist areas stay open during Ramadan, whereas other businesses, especially outside of the larger cities, will have sporadic hours and will sometimes stay closed the whole month. No smoking, no drinking (alcohol, water, anything), no sex, no eating, during daylight hours. Not for your average festival-goer.
Evening in Morocco during Ramadan is a different story. The streets slowly fill. Children and families take to the souks and markets, buy food and play games. Adults meet with friends, drink tea, play cards, celebrate with each other and keep going into the wee hours. However, none of this happens before Iftar – the first meal of the day. It starts when the sun goes down, and sirens sound clearly through the city, initiating the time to start feasting.
Fresh juices of orange and avocado, luscious dates, a variety of aromatic breads, hard-boiled eggs, hot soups (mainly harira), fresh fruits, sweets (often shabakiya), cup after cup of sugary mint tea, cheese, olives, and a spectacle of specially-made foods sit on tables around the country. I had some truly amazing Iftar meals, and they were all the better after I struggled to find restaurants open during daylight hours.
I enjoyed my time in Morocco during Ramadan. Sure, the daytime vibe would have been more lively, and I would have gotten to do more of what I love (eat) more often, but it’s all alright. I got to experience the country at a slower pace, from a different angle, and I wouldn’t change that.
Specialty foods were available in the evenings, and I was invited to share meals with people who hadn’t touched a piece of food or tasted a drop of water all day. And that’s what it’s all about – meeting locals, sharing food and experiences, and learning about their culture and traditions. Don’t skip out visiting somewhere if it’s Ramadan, but I do suggest experiencing the country during and after the month.
Another world-renowned music festival, the World Sacred Music Festival is held in Fez each year. Main events are held at Bab al Makina in the open-air grounds of the Royal Palace. Other events, and free concerts, are held in the day and evening at cultural landmarks throughout the city. Don’t miss the Sufi nights to hear top-notch Sufi musicians perform.
The festive days are filled with music, dancing, storytelling, art, all around good vibes, and arguably some of the highest-quality world music in the world. Mainstream artists from other years include Ben Harper and Bjork.
Whenever you’re in Morocco, wherever you find yourself, there’s going to be something rad to do or see.
Photos by Evan Ceretti
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