In spring 2011 myself and a friend planned a trip to Europe- landing in London, spending a couple days there, then flying to Marrakesh for a 1 week trek in the Atlas Mountains, following by a plane to Barcelona, then a train to Nimes, a train to Cannes for some quality beach time, and finally to Paris. When planning trips I let my frugalness shine (usually at least) so I will try to give you a unbiased review of the hotels, sites, and approximate cost in case you’re planning a trip in the future!
We booked a tour with Exodus travels for a 1 week trek up Mt.Toubkal, in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. The tour price when we departed was $750 CDN, or slightly less than $100 per day for the 8 days. The price included all accommodations, meals (except for misc. snacks and dinner the first and last nights), transportation, and the guided hike with donkey porter-age. Overall, I was impressed with the tour company – the guide was knowledgeable and friendly, the accommodations were (for the most part) decent, the food was generally very good with a few exceptions, and everyone had fun. I would consider the price a bit steep after having done the hike, but considering the time-cost of organizing accommodation and travel ourselves, the ease of it was a big plus.
The first and last night were spent in Marrakesh, in a 3* hotel which was standard in all respects. The stay included a hot breakfast which was a plus! The remainder of the trip was spent in “gites”- primitive accommodations somewhere between a hostel and a campsite, meaning there was usually running water (but not hot), and bedrooms were communal and unheated, with either bunks or mats for sleeping. However the gites were all quite charming- our first night was spent at one with beautiful wall tapestries and embroidered pillows and furniture everywhere. And the second one (definitely the best of the three) had a gorgeous courtyard in a central area, surrounded by 2-person rooms with beds, more in the style of a traditional hotel. And hot water! What a blessing 🙂 -after two days of hiking in dry hot weather, pouring rain, and damp/wet/muddy weather (in that order), a hot shower was an incredible feeling. Below is a photo of the view of the mountain we would be climbing from the terrace at the second gite (left), and some local housing on the second hiking day (right).
Our final gite was actually the “mountain refuge” at the base of Toubkal- the last 30 minutes hiking to this gite were on increasingly wetter and wetter ground until we hit full-on snow. Lovingly nicknamed “The Hovel” by one of the fellow trip attendees, this was not the type of place one wants to spend a lot of time. Damp, musty, less than desirable cleanliness, minimal bathroom and washing facilities. . . you get the idea. I must admit my heart sunk a bit upon seeing my bed in a cramped cold damp room packed with 10 bunk beds. Knowing the next day we would be climbing 1000 m of elevation gain, starting at 3500m above sea level, I was hoping for a good sleep. Alas.
We woke up at 3:45 AM, as storms are generally rolling in by noon on Toubkal and you have to be off the summit before that. Not only this, several full tour groups were forced to not ascend the day we arrived due to dangerous storm conditions. However, we were lucky as our ascent day-forecast was fine. So we found ourselves at 5:30 AM outside The Hovel, strapping crampons onto our boots and ice axes onto our backpacks and preparing to start climbing in the dark. This was the steepest and toughest hike I’ve ever done. There was not only the extreme incline to deal with, but the high elevation, making every step feel like 20. I think we took a breather every 7 steps or so! We made it to the cull of the mountain, where you turn off to one side to traverse across to the summit, as the sun was beginning to blaze down on us. The first glimpse over the other side of the mountain was amazing; shear cliffs drop into a seemingly endless Moroccan desert as far as the eye could see. Unbelievable! After a rest we began the traverse, the really hairy part of the hike. I was informed by several of the more experienced hikers after we were safely down that we should have never been hiking the section we were without ropes and full guidance. At least they told me after. All I knew at the time was “wow that looks steep. I’m going to look the other way”. Reaching the summit was incredible- looking back across the Atlas Mountains and the clouds below us, it really felt like the top of the world. A few quick pictures in the howling wind and we started back down. As soon as we reached the cull we began to understand what they meant by “get off the summit by noon”- a thick wall of fog was rapidly travelling up the canyon. As soon as we were in it we couldn’t see a thing- literally sliding down the snow completely blind! And hopefully avoiding large boulders along the way.
Anyways, we made it down safe and sound and ravenously descended upon our two little cooks who accompanied our tour. I have a feeling they have seen wild-eyed somewhat-insane looking North American tourists running towards them before. They had a most delicious lunch of chicken, pasta, the typical Moroccan salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and oranges, and bread. Looking back it was a really simple meal- but man it tasted good! After a cold-ish shower in the basement wash facilities the group huddled around the fireplace in the communal area of The Hovel, chatted, played cards, read books. A well-deserved quiet afternoon!
The included meals on the tour were really good in my opinion, considering the primitive cooking supplies and facilities available. Breakfast was always porridge, bread, butter, jam, and sometimes eggs. Lunch always started with a beautiful salad (and the presentation was always incredible- see photo below) and consisted either of fish or chicken, pasta or potatoes, bread, and vegetables. Simple but delicious. I was impressed with the amount of vegetables we received as usually I find this is the first thing to go when supplies have to be carried up on donkeys. Dinner was almost invariably a tagine, but all were really tasty. We only had a disappointing bland meal one evening, but otherwise I would highly recommend the Exodus tour group- good bang for your buck and an unforgettable experience. Our guide, Mohammad (by the way 90% of the local men we met were named Mohammad) was a big part of our enjoyment as well, he was attentive, easy-going, kind, and funny.
Following the tour we spend an extra day in Marrakesh doing some touring around, my favorite part being a visit to the Yves St. Laurent gardens. That night we went to the central square to witness the bustling carts of vendors and musicians and buskers- crazy busy but very cool! The most memorable things about the trip to Morocco was firstly, the beautiful fabrics and patterns used in the clothing, buildings, and decor there. The second was how wild, beautiful and remote the villages of the Atlas Mountains are. Most nights without running water, electricity, or any other distractions, hearing the Muslim call to prayer was the only thing to break the silence. It is a very beautiful and eerie sound to hear echoing across the mountains. For anyone looking for a unique trip, sure to excite you and take you out of your comfort zone, this is for you!