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.
Are you ready? Camel treks to Berber tent camps are the easiest way to make your way through the wild landscape of the Sahara Desert, though a healthy hike can take you to the top of one of the many dunes in this windswept masterpiece of nature. Of course the desert is a scorcher during the day, but at sunrise and sunset it's magic, with the smooth red dunes glowing and the temperature quickly dropping. If you're on a 4x4 tour or in the hands of an experienced guide, the logistics will all be arranged in advance. If not, La Maison Rurale, in Merzouga, offers treks into the desert and can help with accommodations before and after. As beautiful as the desert is by day, the real show is at night, when you can stare at an infinite universe of stars swirling overhead as you lie on the warm sand.
Sure, tour guides will give you the opportunity to ogle the beautiful Atlas Mountains from a distance if that's what you prefer-but you can also get a little more adventurous and start hiking. A gentle trail leads you to Refuge du Toubkal les Mouflons (refugelesmouflons.com), in the ski area of Jbel Toubkal, where you can have a surprisingly comfy stay, enjoy a home-cooked meal, and meet fellow trekkers intent on conquering Toubkal Massif, at more than 10,000 feet, the highest peak in North Africa. Don't miss Dades Valley and its winding roads-one of the most stunning drives in the world, cutting through the rugged landscape for a 100-mile stretch. And you can even relax and watch the sun sink and the shadows rise as you sip mint tea at a café perched high above the valley. Whether you see the mountains for a few hours or a few days, they are a sight you'll never forget.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
We've suggested several reliable hotels and restaurants to help you plan your Morocco adventure. But even travelers who enjoy blazing their own trail in Europe or South America may appreciate a little of the TLC that comes from booking a package tour when visiting Morocco. Budget Travel has offered Morocco deals from such package tour companies as Gate 1 Travel, G Adventures, and Intrepid Travel, which offer a range of itineraries and price points. You'll always get great airfare and hotel rates rolled into a package deal, and the security of having an English-speaking tour guide and transportation prearranged. Whether youj're looking for a romantic getaway that's heavy on the spa treatments, shopping, and fine dining, or a let's-get-lost adventure that lets you snap selfies atop the highest peak in North Africa, riding a camel to a Berber camp in the Sahara, or haggling over the price of a carpet in a souk, Morocco has something for every taste and every budget.