Nuno Serrão had never done a big road trip outside of Portugal before. When planning his first, he searched for a destination that would offer something different from his homeland, somewhere with drier landscapes and a chance to escape the modern way of life found in big cities around the world. Nuno soon found himself looking at Morocco, the North African nation known for its deserts, souks, and two distinct ethnic groups: Arabs and Berbers.
With their plane tickets purchased and rental car booked, Nuno and his girlfriend, Andreia, set out on an eight-day journey across Morocco, an adventure that would see them traveling 1,350 miles (2,200 kilometers).
They started in Marrakech and headed southeast, down a lonely stretch of asphalt that crosses the Atlas Mountains. For the first three hours of the drive, brown, rocky peaks flanked the car. Then, as the road reached its highest point, Nuno could see the landscape flattening into desert in the distance — he recognized the area. This was Tatooine, the fictional planet from “Star Wars.” In our galaxy, the name for what they saw in the distance was Ouarzazate — a small city also known as the “Door of the Desert.”
They spent that night at Ait Ben Haddou, an ancient clay dwelling not far from Ouarzazate that juts up from the desolate terrain of rock, sand, and a few scraggly trees. Though the sun had already set, the reward of a late-night arrival was seeing the structure lit up by the moon. The 11th-century ksar that welcomed them had no electricity, which meant that their dinner that night was illuminated solely by candles and the aforementioned moonlight, making the homemade experience unforgettable. And despite it being his first night in Morocco, Nuno knew this would be hard to top.
The next morning began with a stroll through the ksar, inspecting the wondrous and detailed clay architecture. But before long, Nuno and Andreia were back in the car, cruising down empty side roads surrounded by dusty, barren landscapes. One avenue brought them to CLA Studios, one of two large movie production epicenters in the small and pleasant city. After exploring a few sets and examining peculiar props, they ended their day on a high note by driving through the Dades Valley and along its famous winding road.
Day three brought more long hours behind the wheel, as well as a police blockade. Nuno had heard reports of policemen trying to take advantage of tourists in Morocco, but luckily, their run-in was cordial. The remaining drive to Merzouga was nothing but peaceful. Nuno couldn’t help but think of more scenes from “Star Wars” as they spotted the first signs of the Sahara’s striking sand dunes came into focus.
They spent two days and two nights in the iconic desert, where they witnessed spectacular sunrises over the dunes and had the privilege of meeting local Berbers — an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. Nuno and Andreia’s time with them offered a glimpse into their culture, one that is becoming less and less nomadic, yet still survives as a free society.
Though it was hard leaving such kind and friendly people, Nuno and Andreia got back in their car and headed north toward Errachidia, a small city with fewer than 100,000 residents. The journey took them through mountains, valleys, and gorges, the terrain seeming to change by the hour. Just outside of Errachidia, they came to the remains of a vast lake that reflects one of the most significant problems in Morocco: drought. A local informed Nuno that the problem there is less a result of global warming than the nearby hotels, which each have two or three swimming pools to maintain. Nuno and Andreia didn’t stay long in the mainly industrial city, though; it was time to start backtracking to Marrakech.
Along the way, they kept to roads that steered away from urban centers and provided views of Morocco’s pristine countryside. But as they drew closer to where their trip had started, towns and cities grew unavoidable, and Nuno couldn’t help but feel that the best was behind them.
He and Andreia spent their last night in Marrakech and chose to explore the city by foot. Within a few hours, they felt they had truly seen the beautiful but chaotic metropolis that people talk about. But looking back, it’s the minimalist and isolated lifestyle of the country’s rural interior that Nuno remembers best — the experiences that live outside the bustle of modern life, that can only be found in the desert and the mountains, in the rock dwellings and rural ethnic groups that have survived for centuries.
To Nuno, that is Morocco.
Want to learn more about this cultural hub? Explore more of Morocco in our comprehensive country guide!