Guests on the Intrepid Travel tour can ride camels in the Sahara Desert. // © 2018 Valerie Chen
Feature Image (above): Morocco's Atlas Mountains // © 2018 Valerie Chen
A tantalizing blend of aromas — of rosewater and other spices, we later learned — wafted toward our group as we reached Morocco’s Sidi Chamharouch: an enormous rock painted white and surrounded by a cluster of pise homes.
On tour with Intrepid Travel, our group had hiked through a stretch of Toubkal National Park in the High Atlas mountains to get to the famous shrine. Toubkal, the park’s namesake and the highest peak of the mountain range, stood in the distance. Spanish juniper shrubs — near extinction, yet stubborn enough to survive in the dead of winter and at altitudes up to 10,800 feet — dotted nearby slopes.
Other than the clunking of meandering donkeys and occasional waves of chatter, the silence felt deafening.
Arriving at the monument took us about two hours from the ancient Berber village of Aroumd. But Muslims from all over Morocco embark on pilgrimages to Sidi Chamharouch, traveling long distances to seek healing from Allah. And as proper houseguests, they wouldn’t dare arrive empty-handed: Sheep, chickens, donkeys and even couscous are offered as gifts inside the shrine, then shared as meals with local villagers.
Through translations by our Intrepid guide, Aziz, we spoke with an elderly woman whose time here had already exceeded three months. Like many others who decide to move into the shrine’s surrounding compound — at zero cost for Muslims — she’s superstitious, in addition to being deeply religious. Leaning in conspiratorially, she whispered that she feels her ailments melting away more each day.
On our trek back to our family-run gite (mountain home) in Aroumd, where we were to spend the night, Aziz pointed at the dry dirt around us.
“All of this was covered in snow this time last year,” he said solemnly.
It was Christmas Eve, when Morocco’s temperatures, especially in alpine regions, drop significantly — snow or no snow. The lack of heaters in our gite, which hovered around 20 degrees Fahrenheit upon nightfall, was remedied by hot mint tea, heavy blankets and a sleeping bag I brought from home.
Sixteen people, including my partner, Ben, and me, were spending the holidays away from loved ones and in a predominantly Islamic country. Most of the group had hit the road before us on Intrepid’s 18-day Morocco Encompassed tour, which includes the country’s northern highlights such as Chefchaouen, Casablanca and Fez. Ben and I were among the newcomers who had opted for the shorter 10-day South Morocco Discovery trip, which starts and ends in Marrakech and includes stops in Ait Benhaddou, dubbed “Moroccan Hollywood” from its stints in “Game of Thrones” and “Gladiator;” the immense Sahara Desert; Essaouira, a laid-back coastal city; and more.
Travel advisors booking this tour should note that there is substantial time spent driving each day; destinations in Morocco’s south are located farther apart than those in the north. To reach the town of Taroudant from the Sahara, for example, our group hopped on four-wheel-drive vehicles for three hours, then spent five more hours in a minivan.
Thankfully, abundant breaks were provided: We’d stop to stretch our legs, satiate our hunger with tagines, examine fish fossils in the now-barren Iriki Lake and learn about the harvesting of argan oil at a women-run cooperative. Scenes seen in passing were entertaining, too, including Tafilalt, the country’s largest oasis with 2 million palm trees, and a tribe of goats teetering on branches in Taroudant.
Most of the accommodations on the tour were modest, albeit comfortable (twice, bathrooms were unisex and shared). Still, true to Moroccan style, there was no shortage of beautiful geometric patterns, floral motifs and elaborate arches. The 19th-century Palais Riad Hida, located in Oulad Berhil, was one riad (a traditional house with an interior garden) teeming with such details. Before our morning departure, several peacocks eyed me curiously as I plucked oranges to serve as sticky-sweet road snacks. (Note: Lodging may vary per trip departure due to availability.)
Wi-Fi access was often spotty, if offered at all, and hot showers sometimes felt like a delicious luxury. But, when balanced with an adventurous spirit, these quirks were easy to shrug off. And in the Sahara, racing up the Erg Chigaga sand dunes in time to watch the sunset — without toppling over in the process — was far more important, as was roasting the perfect marshmallow over a bonfire later that night.
With our bellies full of s’mores and tagine, we clapped and cheered as Aziz, the drivers and the camp chef began singing and playing grumbreis (guitars) and taarijas (drums). Some of us danced along to the traditional Moroccan music, while others simply tapped their feet while passing around wine that had been procured in a nearby town.
We all hailed from different pockets of the world, from the U.S. and Canada to New Zealand and Australia, plus several places in between. Together, though, we had holiday spirit aplenty.