Our Morocco road trip from Marrakech to Mhamid via Essaouira on the southern coast was the long way to the edge of the Sahara but my mother was in the backseat and we all had goals. Terence wanted to see some waves, Mum wanted to see the sign to Timbuktu, and I wanted to see a kasbah.
Morocco is a magic country to visit, rich in culture and history, with a wonderful cuisine, atmospheric hilltop towns, walled cities with labyrinthine old medinas, laidback cities with Art Deco architecture, and diverse landscapes. In a matter of a few days, you can take in sweeping beaches, majestic mountains, snow-capped peaks, and enigmatic desert.
Whether you’re exploring Morocco by train, bus, or car, it’s one of the safest destinations in North Africa for travellers. Yet since two Scandinavian women were murdered in December on a hike in the Atlas Mountains near Marrakech, travellers are beginning to question how safe Morocco is. Tragically, their murders were an act of terrorism, the first terrorist attack in Morocco since 2011. France has had more than two-dozen terrorist incidents in that same period.
We’ve travelled to Morocco numerous times without incident since 1999, exploring the country as backpackers by train and bus our first trip, then later by car and staying in boutique hotels. On our last trip we spent two weeks in a riad in Marrakech. We became so smitten with the country, we almost bought a riad in Essaouira.
Yet one of our most memorable trips was a Morocco road trip from Marrakech to Mhamid via Essaouira – with my mother – and like other Moroccan travels, it was also without issues. Here’s how we did it.
Morocco Road Trip – How to Drive From Marrakech To Mhamid via Essaouira
“The King’s guards,” the porter at Dar Les Cigognes, the enchanting boutique hotel that will be our home in Marrakech, announces knowingly after opening the door. “The King’s in town,” he explains, nodding in the direction of the men in uniform outside the Royal Palace gates across the road, as he takes our bags and guides us into the light-filled central courtyard.
From the sunny rooftop terrace where we take our breakfast of pastries, crepes, olives, white cheese, and fruit jams the next morning, we overlook the palace. We are eye-to-eye with the royal storks – after which our riad hotel is named – nesting on the palace ramparts.
From the other side of the hotel terrace, we have views of Marrakech’s medina and the mellah (Jewish quarter). As it’s the Muslim feast of Eid Al Adha, we see lambs butchered on a neighbouring rooftop and their bloody carcasses hung from the clothesline with the family’s laundry.
It’s our second time in Marrakech and this time we’ve brought my mother along. We spend five days shopping the atmospheric souks and revisiting the places that were favourites from our first trips: Place Djemma El Fna, the pretty Palmerie, Yves Saint-Laurent’s exquisite Jardin Majorelle, and the enchanting Menara with the snow-topped Atlas Mountains behind, beckoning us.
When we return to Dar Les Cigognes each afternoon, exhausted after having shown my mother our favourite sights, the porter comes to our cosy, high-ceilinged room to light our fireplace. We sip pre-dinner drinks in front of the crackling fire before meeting mum to head out for lavish meals at Marrakech’s many magical restaurants – Le Foundouk, Dar Moha, Dar El-Yacout.
Although we never tire of Djemma El Fna with its snakecharmers, storytellers, child boxers, and dancing transvestites, after five days buying too many trinkets and eating too many elaborate meals, we are ready for a change of scenery. We all crave the simplicity of life on the road and a home-cooked tagine.
We head to the nearest car rental office, book a hire car and make a beeline for the nearest café to plan our Morocco road trip route. At a tiny pavement table in the sunshine at a local coffee house, the three of us pore over a Maroc road map I picked up from a bookstore.
We plan our journey as the waiter pours us mint tea, holding the teapot high, not spilling a drop. My mother wants to see the famous ‘52 days to Timbuktu’ sign on the edge of the Sahara desert, I want to see a kasbah, and Terence says he’ll be satisfied if he sees some good surf. We plan to leave the next morning.
Driving From Marrakech to Essaouira
From Marrakech we take a direct route on the P10 to the fishing port of Essaouira. The excitement of being on the road, of having been so spontaneous, of having the freedom to stop wherever we want, hits us when we spot our first argan tree, dotted black with hungry goats balancing themselves on the sturdy twisted branches, grazing on its undoubtedly tasty leaves.
We drive off road to shoot some snaps, when a young goat herder approaches us to ask for money for our pictures. We give him some dirhams so we can take an image of him. We will discover later that evening that the golden argan oil is delicious, especially with bread. It’s thought to slow down the aging process and throughout the area you can buy argan oil skin products. I make a note for the next Morocco road trip.
It takes an hour or so to get to the pretty white walled town of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. We park our car near Orson Welles Square (Othello was filmed here) near the city walls, where we’re promised for a small fee the vehicle will be closely watched by a snoozing guard.
We soon regret staying at the much written about, but highly over-rated Villa Maroc, which I’d been reading about in the likes of Conde Nast Traveller and dreaming about for years. The staff are disinterested, the plain rooms are freezing cold (in winter), and it’s compulsory to eat a very average set menu as part of the stay.
Wandering the atmospheric streets we stumble upon Casa Lila & Spa, a charming little riad that intrigues. I pop in for a look. Colourfully decorated, with a bohemian sense of style, it has wine glasses in every room, and sunshine streaming into its courtyard. It could be a little sister to Dar Les Cigognes. We think about changing hotels but decide not to waste time. Another note for the next Morocco road trip.
We quickly discover that the traffic-free streets of Essaouira’s walled medina, with its various souks, are as wonderful as ever to explore and its sunny squares make relaxing places to chill out. Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley also chilled out here in the seventies.
Essaouira is also a fabulous place to shop. Fragrant wooden Thuya products are handcrafted in workshops under the sturdy ramparts. The brass-threaded bread boxes, marquetry serving trays, and mother-of-pearl inlaid boxes are hard to ignore, but art is what the town is becoming famous for.
Inspired by Arab-Berber history and local myths, the naïve style of Essaouira’s artists is akin to Australian Aboriginal ‘dot painting’, but more colourful, mystical and symbolic. Mohamed Tabal is the father of this group of self-taught artists, and his work is sold at Galerie Damgaard, however, I invest instead in the work of a couple of rising stars that I instantly become smitten with, and I load the car boot with paintings by Tifri and Amal Bouhali.
We eat extraordinarily delicious fresh seafood at Le Chalet de la Plage, a popular restaurant with a terrace by the sea. From our table we watch the tide creeping in, local kids playing football, and tourists taking camel rides on the wide white-sand beach.
We walk off lunch on Essaouira’s sqalas (sea bastions), where we savour the salty sea breeze, the sound of seagulls, waves crashing against the walls, and the wind in our hair. We stroll to the docks to watch fishermen perched by their blue boats repairing their nets, and we admire their catch, having worked up our appetites another meal
Essaouira is windy – they say there are good winds for 260 days of each year – and as a result it’s renowned for its windsurfing and surfing. It’s busiest from April to September, the windiest part of the year. The winds keep the coast cool in summer and in winter provide a good excuse to warm up by a fireplace.
Later that night we clink glasses of champagne by the hearth at Heure Bleue Palais before savouring divine French cuisine at its elegant restaurant. Because it’s off-season the staff show us the palatial hotel’s hammam, the rooftop pool, and luxurious suites. We wish we’d checked in there instead. More notes made.
Driving From Essaouira via Agadir to Taroudant
We leave Essaouira, driving along its splendid beach and estuary, Wadi Qsob, where we spot the crumbling old foundations of the city walls. We stop at the village of Diabet where Hendrix used to live. They say the ruins of Dar Soltane Mahdounia, an 18th century palace built by Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah, inspired him to write Castles in the Sand.
The surf is up so Terence insists we stick to the coast. No objections from mum or myself. At Sidi Kaouki, a pretty windy bay, we check out the waves and some local blokes call out to invite us to tea. We politely decline as we’re eager to continue.
We drive to Smimou along a quiet country road. The landscape takes on a craggy beauty, dotted with simple sandstone houses, and crumbling low brick walls that climb over the small stony hills of green.
Back on the N1, a good main road that runs close to the coast for 165 kilometres between Essaouira and Agadir, we start to see people, even in the middle of nowhere. Everywhere there are people, even when there’s not a single dwelling about, and they wave and smile. Some walk by the side of the road and stop to wave when they hear the car. Some wait for a ride and wave us we drive by.
We pass through main streets of towns transformed into souqs. The tiny market town of Tamanar is capital of the argan industry and home to a large Berber population. On the road out is a cooperative where Berber women sell argan products. This time I don’t resist and stop to buy some oil and soap.
We see an old man and his young sons leading camels and donkeys laden with goods along the side of the road. We stop and ask if we can take their photos, having never seen so much stuff heaped so high upon animals before. Like everyone else, they smile.
The coastal scenery is breathtaking. The swell is good. Taghazoute is the most popular surfing spot north of Agadir. Once a hippy mecca, its main street is lined with surf shops and laidback cafes. We find it strange to see bare-chested guys in this conservative Muslim country with wetsuits rolled down to their waists.
We pass elderly, tanned, fair-headed couples driving campervans and count how many European countries we spot on the registration plates. Outside Agadir we’re astounded to see thousands of campervans and their owners taking tea in an enormous seaside parking area.
We don’t think much of Agadir, a characterless tourist town, so we decide to drive another 80 kilometres to Taroudant, passing through rich farmland of fruit orchards, sugar cane, and olive groves.
Driving From Taroudant to Ouarzazate
We arrive in the fortified town in the late afternoon and quickly deposit our bags at Hotel Palais Salam, so we can hurry to see the ochre walls of the ramparts change to a rich red with the sunset. We notice red Moroccan flags poking through the battlements, where the guns would have rested.
Visibly wealthier from the trade in the region’s beautiful fresh produce, Taroudant’s residents are laid-back and happy. We receive warm welcomes as we explore the tourist-free souks selling spices, purple saffron flowers, pottery, baskets, and goatskin sandals.
That evening we listen to a fine oud player in the hotel’s atmospheric bar before enjoying the hearty home-cooked meal we’ve been craving, a tasty harira soup, a delicious chicken and lemon tagine, and mounds of couscous.
The next day we drive some 270 kilometres to Ouarzazate, making stops along the way to explore kasbahs. We decide to take a backroad and are excited to see our first crumbling ancient citadel, Kasbah de Freija, sitting somewhat majestically by a dry wadi.
We continue along this road via Arazane and Tassoumate, through more lush farmland, cotton fields, orange groves, and vineyards. We skirt around the mountains of the High Atlas, always to our left as we head east, passing Jbel Tichka (3350m), Jbel Igdet (3616m), and Jbel Toubkal (4167), their peaks covered in snow.
Back on the N10, the scenery changes and we’re in a landscape of wild beauty – rocky red earth sprouting smatterings of colourful wildflowers and cacti. It becomes more spectacular the higher we climb.
At Talouine, a town between two passes and centre of the saffron industry, we explore the spooky semi-abandoned kasbah of the Glaoui family, now inhabited by Berber families.
The road is good, although winding and narrow, and the drive gets more dramatic as we travel through the passes of Tizi-n-Taghatine (1886m) and Tizi-n-Ikhsane (1650m) and the volcanic Jbel Siroua (3304m) to the north. Gobsmacked, we pull over so we can get out of the car to savour the spectacular scenery
It’s bitterly cold. I check the map for a nearby town. We stop in Tazenakht for glasses of steaming milky coffee. The local men look warm in their thick hooded jellabas and woollen capes. I make note to get one of these. I want to look at the striking orange carpets woven by the Ouaouzguite people that hang outside the shops, but it starts to snow.
At the pass of Tizi-n-Bachkoum (1700m) with a moonscape ahead of us, and snow clouds rapidly moving in, Terence slows down, so I can take a photo. By the time I wind my window down, three filthy little urchins have scrambled up the hill out of nowhere, rocks tumbling down beneath their desperate feet.
Bundled up in rags yet shivering from the cold, snot dripping from their noses and running down their dirty faces, the children shove each other out of the way so they can get their hands in the window. I give the kids all we have – a handful of coins and sweets.
I feel sorry for the tiny girl hurled away by one of the boys, but what can we do? We don’t have anything else to give them. Apologising I wave and close the window and we continue on our way. I look back to see them squabbling over the lollies. Sad and embarrassed, we decide to stock up on water, fruit and snacks in the next town.
By early afternoon we arrive at Morocco’s most famous ksar or fortified castle or palace, the magnificent Ait Benhaddou. Situated in an oasis beside Wadi Mellah, with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop, it’s even more breathtaking in real life.
We park our car in the village and head down to the wadi, hopping from rock to rock to cross the icy water. Although still inhabited by Berber families, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been used as a setting in countless films.
With its huddle of impressive red ochre kasbahs with crenellated towers, decorated with geometric patterns and arches, and carved wooden doors, it’s easy to see why. Hungry, we lunch on delicious kebabs and couscous and drink mint tea as we pet a friendly cat at a simple café overlooking Ait Benhaddou.
We hit the road to Ouarzazate and we start to see red everywhere. Moroccan flags poke out of windows and are slung over buildings. Driving into town, we see people fixing the red flags onto streetlights and hanging banners across the roads. The sun is about to set and it’s freezing cold, so we make a beeline for the best lodgings in town.
The Berbère Palace is an elegant hotel set in palm-shaded gardens with architecture inspired by the local kasbahs. After asking if there’s heating and hot water – “Of course there is!” I’m told – I’m also told that we’re very lucky, as we’ve secured the last rooms. The Moroccan king’s entourage checked in earlier and the king is at his Ouarzazate residence.
While my mother has a steaming shower and her heater blasts hot air, in our room we have only luke-warm water and the air conditioner blows cold. After several visits by the repairmen, we’re shivering from the cold, so the manager moves us to the ‘Royal Suite’, which seems fitting.
There is not a lot to do in Ouarzazate apart from exploring the restored maze-like Taourirt Kasbah and shop for silver jewellery, carpets and handicrafts at the busy souk. It’s also positioned uninspiringly beside the main road and we’re eager to see more kasbahs in natural oases, so we decide to hit the road early the next morning.
Driving from Ouarzazate to Zagora
As we leave town, we see a man hunched over beside the road slapping white paint on a stone. Another bloke jams a tall red flag into the stone. The road is lined with these decorative fixtures for hundreds of kilometres, all the way through the string of crumbling kasbah towns of the fertile Draa Valley to Zagora.
We begin to wonder if the majestic route we’ve unknowingly chosen for our Morocco road trip is the same one the King’s chosen for his?
We cross an arid desert dotted with little else but black volcanic rocks. As we climb to the pass of Tizi-n-Tinififft, we observe the moonlike landscape, carved by deep canyons. We see a satellite dish on the back of a vehicle ahead and a man waving to us with an empty water bottle. We stop to give him our water. Could this poor man be braving the harsh elements to improve the King’s mobile phone reception?
Although Zagora is only 150kms from Ouarzarzate, we take the whole day to get there, stopping along the way at the many magical ksars, set amid lush date palm groves that line the road. Our favourites are the partly restored Tamnougalt kasbah, pretty Timiderte, the unusual Igdaoun kasbah, and Benizouli with a Muslim cemetery.
We stop to chat to the friendly children who wave and call out to us. They’re happier than those we saw at Tizi-n-Bachkoum, grinning widely once we reveal our offerings – oranges and bananas, chocolates, bottled water, coloured pens, and coins.
It must be washing day. In each village we see groups of women doing their laundry together, scrubbing their clothes in pools of water in the otherwise dry creek-beds, and spreading them over large rocks or hanging them in scrubby bushes to dry.
Later in the day we see Berber women, faces tattooed, dressed in fine woollen cloaks and bedecked in elaborate silver and coral jewellery. Their small children are dressed up in frilly white dresses and little suits. When we see an open-backed truck full of people approach, we realise they are waiting beside the road for rides. We wonder if the King is perhaps heading this way…
The people of Zagora are busy draping their buildings with red bunting. We quickly learn that the rooms at the best hotels are full. Big black shiny sedans are parked outside them. We get the last rooms at the comfortable, traditional-style Hotel Riad Salam. It’s a shame it’s too cold to swim in the enormous turquoise pool. Another note jotted down for the next Morocco road trip.
We pile into the car again and drive through the lush palmerie, stop to browse some handwoven carpets, and drink delicious hot milky coffee in the sunshine at a pavement café as we watch the town prepare for the King’s arrival.
We drive off in search of the famous ‘52 days to Timbuktu’ sign. It doesn’t take long to find. Its naïve image and faded colours are charming. My mother is happy. We don’t take photos as the sun is setting and there’s little light, so we plan to return.
Driving From Zagora to Mhamid
The next morning, with no news of the king’s arrival, we drive out to see the splendid ksar at Tamegroute, known for its green-glazed pottery, and the red dunes of Tinfou, which rise strangely from the red rocky earth.
Donkeys stand alone in the middle of nowhere, tethered to white painted stones by the side of the road. Perhaps they’re waiting for their masters who’ve headed into town to catch a glimpse of the king.
We cruise through the date palm groves in the pretty oasis of Oulad Driss, giving a ride to an elderly French female hitchhiker who we spotted on the roadside. We pass large trucks with massive wheels covered with red dust, packed with hot weary people. We know we must be close to the frontier town of Mhamid, once a major caravan centre, and now the last stop before the Sahara.
There’s nothing much to do at tiny dusty Mhamid. The few people we see are on the move, heads wrapped with blue scarves to keep the sand from their eyes. The only other sign of life is a couple of camels tied to a post.
We take consolation in the fact that we’ve arrived at our destination, despite the many diversions along the way, and pause before turning around to start our journey back to Marrakech.
It’s still light by the time we get to Zagora so we head for the famous Timbuktu sign to snap our photos. It’s gone! And the wall it was on has been torn down and bricks for a new one are being laid.
Disappointed we reluctantly head on our way. Doing a U-turn at the end of the street, we see a new Timbuktu sign has been erected in another location and has been freshly painted. Sadly, it lacks the charm of its predecessor, but we snap our pics nevertheless. The length Morocco will go to in order to welcome its king!
How To Do A Morocco Road Trip
We hired a vehicle when we arrived in Morocco from Budget Car Rental in Marrakech on Boulevard Mohamed Zerktouni but you can book a rental car online ahead of your trip. Self-driving is easy in Morocco and has long been popular with Europeans, especially campervanners. Yet driving can be slow-going due to low speed limits, especially on routes, such as the Marrakech to Essaouira road, which can get busy. Moroccan roads are good and the locals warm and welcoming, making things like filling the car with petrol a breeze.
Hiring a Driver and Car in Morocco
If you’re nervous about self-driving, consider a driver with car. On other trips we’ve hired drivers when Terence has wanted to sit back and enjoy the scenery. All Morocco hotels can arrange drivers for you, Morocco travel guidebooks list reliable drivers, and you can find travellers’ recommendations on sites such as TripAdvisor.
Doing a Morocco Tour
The other alternative to a Morocco road trip is an overland Morocco tour and our friends at Luxury Escapes currently have an offer for a 10-Day Moroccan Adventure with return airfares from $3,399 taking in Casablanca, Rabat, Volubolis, Fez and Marrakech. You’ll visit Africa’s largest mosque, explore ancient Roman ruins at UNESCO World Heritage listed Volubilis, get lost in the medieval medinas of Fez and Marrakech. You’ll travel overland in air-conditioned vehicles with an expert local guide and stay in five-star accommodation.
Image provided by Luxury Escapes and used with permission.