All Articles 4 Marrakech adventures beyond the city limits

4 Marrakech adventures beyond the city limits

There’s so much more to discover on Marrakech’s doorstep.

Mandy Sinclair
By Mandy Sinclair01 Apr 2024 4 minutes read
Wide shot smiling group of friends on camel ride in the Agafay Desert
Image: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

For almost a decade, I called Marrakech home and still return regularly to the endlessly inspiring—and quickly changing—hub at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. While I loved living in the heart of the new city with art galleries, cinemas, and trendy restaurants at my doorstep, I always looked forward to a getaway into the surrounding countryside.

The city continues to attract a record number of tourists as new designers open up inspiring studios and restaurateurs fling open their doors. And so, while it may be tempting to spend the majority of one’s time in the Red City, a break from the hustle and bustle is often welcomed—particularly if you’re using the city as a base for more than a few days. Doing so will give you the chance to experience Morocco’s diverse landscapes, Amazigh hospitality in mountainside villages, a slower pace of life, and a breath of fresh air. Here’s where to go:

Get a desert experience close to Marrakech

Camel ride with Dunes & Desert, in Morocco

If you can’t make a multi-day trip to the Sahara Desert, you can find a similar experience just 45 minutes away from Marrakech in the Agafay Desert. Swap the Sahara’s mountainous dunes for stony, rolling hills anchoring the Atlas Mountains and the odd palm tree popping out of the landscape. You can still camel trek into a camp (overnight stays are available too) and dine with a desert view, too—I recommend checking out Dunes & Desert for tour options.

How you spend your time in the desert depends on what time of year it is. Come winter, soak up the sun (there isn’t much shade here) on a daytime tour, where lunch is prepared and served at a camp in the hushed desert. And in the warmer months, avoid the heat by booking a late-afternoon camel trek and sunset dinner excursion. (Note: Many camps close for July and August when temps are at their highest.)

Getting here: Organizing a private driver for a pre-arranged lunch/dinner or booking an all-inclusive excursion into the Agafay Desert is a must in the absence of public transportation. It'll also ensure someone is waiting when you’re ready to return to Marrakech.

Where to stay: If opting to stay the night, you’ve got a few options. Caravan by Habitas is a newcomer to the scene, Scarabeo is the classic option, and White Camel remains a favorite. Though it’s considered glamping, not all camps are served with electricity and water resources are limited. Don’t expect to be charging electronic devices or connecting to Wi-Fi.

Spend the day seaside in Essaouira

Seagulls flying over the Essaouira medina in Morocco
Image: Delbars/Getty Images

I could easily spend several days in Essaouira meandering, eating, and watching the world go by. But a day trip here can maximize the area’s fresh sea air and good eats. I would argue that Essaouira’s food scene is worth the drive alone: tapas at Umia, the seasonal and locally sourced menu at Azouka Eatery, and the fresh seafood cooked to perfection at one of the local grills are among my favorites.

The grid-like layout of the main tourist areas within Essaouira’s medina is relatively easy to navigate. The white walls are lined with artwork, colorful slippers, and baskets in all shapes and sizes, making for a laid-back shopping experience, too. And open, sun-soaked squares and plazas provide the perfect perch for watching the world go over coffee.

As the day comes to an end, watch kite surfers catch waves and the sun set over the Atlantic from one of the beachfront patios—Ocean Vagabond is a mainstay for good food and good vibes.

Getting here: Supratours buses depart Marrakech in the morning and return late afternoon from Essaouira, just steps away from the old city and the beachfront, and the journey takes about three hours each way. Tickets can be booked online and should be booked in advance, particularly in the high season and summer months. You can also book a driver for the day if you want more flexibility.

Where to stay: Book one of the colorful rooms at Salut Maroc where zellij tilework covers nearly every inch of the surfaces. Book the Casablanca room for a riotously colorful in-suite fireplace covered in zellij.

Admire the Atlas Mountains

Tourist walking on a hiking path in the Atlas Mountains
Image: Lukas Hodon/Getty Images

While some travelers prefer to summit Mount Toubkal (North Africa’s highest peak) in Toubkal National Park over a few days, shorter half- or full-day hikes through the surrounding valleys are equally as rewarding while providing insight into local Amazigh life.

While I’ve trekked in the region several times, I always prefer to hire a guide in advance, typically through an organized day tour. With few directional signs, a local guide will always know the best route along the rambling tracks that cut through the area's Amazigh villages, verdant farm plots, and dry riverbeds—and provide insight into life in the Atlas Mountains. Organized tours also typically include lunch and a tea break.

Getting here: Grand taxis are the only way to get from Marrakech to Imlil, in Toubkal National Park, via public transit. These six-seater collective taxis depart once all seats are sold. (Note: If there’s room, you can buy an extra seat for added space and comfort, something to consider as the taxis can be cramped.) Grab an hour-long ride from the grand taxi stand near Jemaa el Fna to the market town Asni, and then continue on in another 40-minute long grand taxi to Imlil. Or, opt to privatize the grand taxi for the day at an agreed-upon rate prior to departure—you can usually book one in advance through your hotel.

When to go: Visiting in the spring affords a delight for the senses as the region’s fields are filled with fruit trees in blossom. As summer arrives, it’s the best place for tucking into cherries, apricots, figs, and other seasonal delights.

Embrace the whimsy at Dar El Sadaka's sculptural park

Group of friends visiting the sculptures at Dar el Sadaka
Image: Jdizz77/Tripadvisor

French artist Jean-Francois Fourtou’s Dar El Sadaka is a sculpture park unlike any other. Ultra-realistic animal sculptures—some true to size, others larger than life—poke around corners and crevices, while larger installations invite visitors to step inside.

“The House Fallen from the Sky” is one of those installations, best described as a structure that landed upside-down when it fell to Earth. Inside, its rooms are full of overwhelming optical illusions—in one, oversized furnishings leave you feeling the size of a toddler. Outside, admire pumpkin-head farmers, known as “nanitos,” at work in the garden.

Getting here: The sculpture park is so exclusive that travelers can only gain access by booking a Marrakech Insider’s experience. You’ll arrive at the private property in a chauffeured sidecar before wandering around the park’s 27 acres. With endless photo ops, don’t forget your camera.

Book here: Stay a bit longer (three nights, minimum) with up to 20 of your closest pals or family members in Dar El Sadaka’s private villa, outfitted with nine en-suite rooms, and enjoy full access to the surprise installations not visited as part of the Marrakech Insider’s experience.

Mandy Sinclair
Mandy Sinclair is a freelance writer now living in Ontario, after 10+ years in Morocco. With arts and culture in her DNA and a love of good food, she writes about travel, culture, food and drink, and architecture. Her writing appears in the Monocle guide to Marrakech, Lonely Planet, Brownbook, the Independent, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Evening Standard, Fodor’s, and more. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her at a festival or cultural event, traveling to new and familiar destinations, listening to a preferred podcast, or whiling away the hours at one of her favorite cafes or restaurants.