Imperial cities desert tour

  • Destination: Ait Ben Haddou, Desert Merzouga, Fez, Imlil, Marrakech, Meknes, Rabat, Rissani, Volubilis
  • Duration: 13 days
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Day 1


On arrival in Casablanca, meet your guide and driver and depart Casablanca for Rabat. En route, visit Casablanca’s magnificent Mosque of Hassan II, heralded as the second largest mosque in the world. Morocco’s modern capital of Rabat is the first of our ‘Imperial Cities’, and the official residence of King Mohammed VI. A visit to the Mohammed V Mausoleum and the remains of the Hassan Tower built in 1196 ACE provide an excellent introduction to Moroccan history. Enjoy your first glimpse of Moroccan culture during a short walk through the narrow passageways of the Kasbah of the Oudayas, admiring the decorative doors and immersed the sights and sounds of daily Moroccan life. Overnight Riad Kalaa or similar.

NOTE: Your sightseeing itinerary en route to Rabat today will be tailored to your international flight arrival time in Casablanca.

Day 2

Meknes-Volubilis-Moulay Idriss

Drive East (2hr) to the second ‘Imperial City’, Meknes, with its famous gate of Bab El Mansour. At the impressive Dar Jamai Palace you’ll find the Royal Stables and the tomb of Moulay Ismail, the dreaded sultan of Morocco whose paranoia resulted in some of Morocco’s finest historical fortifications. Next stop is Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Morocco’s largest and best preserved Roman ruins. Walk the cobbled streets of Moulay Idriss a holy city named after fourth generation and sainted descendant of Mohamed, the founder of Islam in Morocco and founder of the city of Fez, your next ‘Imperial City’ and today’s destination (1.5hr). Overnight Dar Anebar or similar.

Day 3


The mesmerizing call to dawn prayer begins slowly and builds to a crescendo as each of a hundred minarets joins the chorus; a sound integral to Fez; a sound which has echoed each morning through this exquisite walled city for over 1400 years. The former capital of Morocco and considered the first Imperial City, Fez remains Morocco’s leading intellectual and religious center as well as a fascinating cultural hub. Head out on foot with your guide through the bustling medina with visits to a tannery, wool souk (market), spice shops, and stalls loaded with dates and olives experiencing thorough immersion in Moroccan mercantile life. You’ll meet shop keepers and craftsmen whose arts have been passed from generation to generation, and begin to see the fine web of traditions that make Moroccan culture so enduring and rich. Walking through the maze of narrow passage-ways we visit Qaraouine University, the Madrassa (Quranic school), and the Moulay Idriss II memorial.

End the day with a unique experience; the warmth and traditional hospitality of a local plains Arab family, and a home cooked dinner, perhaps a tagine or couscous, or even harira, the traditional soup that ends each day of Ramadan. Overnight Dar Anebar or similar.

Day 4

Berber Homestay

Driving from lowlands into the Atlas Mountains you’ll pass villages and fields using a system of gravitational irrigation established well before Roman arrival. There are many local footpaths we share with local residents stopping to picnic amidst the lentils, turnips and fava beans, or to shelter from the sun in the sweet shade of an apple or cherry orchard. Witness a lifestyle still organic, still in tune with the seasons, still natural and refreshingly far from the myriad demands of urban modernity. Explore the village of Zaouia D’ Ifrane and hike to a nearby waterfall before meeting our Berber hosts. As guests of a Berber family, we have a unique opportunity to experience a calmer, more relaxed way of life and to sample home cooked Berber cuisine. Beds are Berber-style mattresses on a floor of colorful carpets, with linens and blankets. There is a shared guest bathroom with a flush toilet. Overnight Berber Home Stay (or similar).

Day 5


Settle into your seats and watch the dramatic changes in landscape as the vehicle follows the ascending road, taking switch-backs to climb through the Atlas Mountains and descend into the mighty Sahara Desert. The terrain on this full-day drive (7hr) is varied and includes forests of giant cedar, high arid mountains with breathtaking views over mountain passes and flattening foothills of scrub as you drop into the vast Saharan desert that stretches seemingly endlessly before you for thousands of miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Following a centuries-old caravan route, pass through the Beni Mguild Berber capital of Midelt, an important center for local carpet making. We begin to see ksars (fortified strongholds) along the way to Errachidia and Rissani. Overnight Kasbah Ennasra or similar.

Day 6

Desert Camp

This morning you’ve some options; a refreshing dip in the hotel pool or an excursion to the Holy City of Rissani to visit the Mausoleum of Moulay Ali Sherife, Ksour Abdel Hamid and the Abdel Malik Kasbah. Your guide is on hand to offer advice. In the afternoon depart for the vast Sahara where the paved road ends (1hr), stopping at a quarry to view rock excavations and fossils. As the day cools, desert colors intensify. Mount camels and, accompanied by indigenous Touareg nomads in their famous blue-dyed turbans, ride into the Erg Chebbi, a vast expanse of huge, drifting sand dunes. Touregs are truly masters of their domain. Centuries ago, Touregs turned the deadly Saharan sands into an ocean on which their ‘ships of the desert’ (camels) traded goods as varied as dates and gold bullion from the Atlantic coast right across Africa to Lake Chad. The sunset changes and deepens the hues of this mystical landscape as your surefooted dromedaries transport you to your desert encampment for the night. After a cold drink and a delicious dinner, retire under a vast star-lit desert sky to ponder the imponderable, and to marvel at the comfort of our private tents, mattresses, linens, pillows and Berber rugs. There is a shared bathroom facility. (Those not wishing to camp in the desert may overnight in the Rissani hotel). Overnight Desert Encampment (or Kasbah Ennasra)

Day 7

Mountain Lakes

Ait Ben Haddou
Awaken before dawn to see the moon reflected off millions of microscopic silicon chips in the sand. In darkness mount your saddled camels for a short ride to watch the sun creep over the desert horizon. The true solitude and beauty of the Sahara shows itself only in such moments*. Back at camp for breakfast re-board your vehicle and drive to Todra Gorge (3hrs) first heading towards the mountains then turning south, hugging the Atlas through a stark landscape dotted with fertile oases and dramatic volcanic and limestone peaks. Turning off the main road to the impressive Todra Gorge, if interest and time permits, we embark on an optional short walk through the gorge, exquisitely river-carved over millennium. Continue (3.5 hrs) through the Dra Valley – the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs, to picturesque Ait Ben Haddou. Overnight Ksar Ighnda. [BLD]

*NOTE: If you chose not to camp and last night stayed in the Rissani hotel, you have the option of returning to Erg Chebbi for a sunrise camel ride this morning before departure, or departing directly from the Rissani hotel to Ait Ben Haddou.

Day 8

Ait Ben Haddou

After breakfast, begin a hike to the Salt River, a dry river bed region of dramatic beauty, traversing a gradual ascent to 1300 feet where we reach a natural plateau in the high Atlas Mountains from which there are wonderful views of the Anti Atlas Mountains which lie across the Sous Valley to the south. The scenery is beautiful, arid, treeless and volcanic. Reaching an oasis of palm, almond and alfalfa trees, stop for tea in a Berber house. Return to Ait Ben Haddou for lunch (total hiking time is about 4 hours with stop over for tea). Overnight Ksar Ighnda.

Day 9


Leaving the stark desert landscape of southern Morocco, we drive north from Ait Ben Haddou into the High Atlas Mountains (3hrs), and grind up a looping road over the Tiz-n-Tickka Pass (7,417 ft) the highest pass in Morocco. This route offers spectacular views. Turning off from the main road at Ait Ourir pause for “ateh” (mint tea) in the Ouirka Valley and take a short hike in the cooler mountain air. Isolated villages and stepped cultivation cling to hillsides along the river. Continuing to Imlil and leaving the vehicle behind, your bags will be transferred by pack-donkeys as you walk to Douar Samra, a typical traditional stone and rammed-earth Berber dwelling that’s been converted into a comfortable guest house and your home for the next two nights. Committed to sustainable tourism, this guest house helps provide work for the men of the village and gives an opportunity for the Berber women to hone their artisan skills and sell traditional crafts to travelers. From here you’ve got the perfect base from which to explore the Toubkal Massif. Overnight at Douar Samra (or similar).

Day 10


The fresh mountain air is exhilarating. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains and marvelous views, there is a myriad of hiking opportunities from which to choose in this truly dramatic setting. Local hiking guides lead a variety of excursions based on interests and abilities; everything from half-day hikes along sandstone ridges to pastel and ochre colored villages that appear organic to the lush-green terraced valleys to full-day treks in the nearby mountain peaks. There are more than forty spectacular mountain peaks surrounding the douar with altitudes of at least 11,500 ft. including Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. Overnight at Douar Samra (or similar).

Day 11


Enjoy a free morning over a relaxed breakfast to savior the kasbah and its surroundings, or head out on a brisk morning hike. After lunch it’s off to vibrant Marrakech (1hr) where there’s time to explore the narrow streets. As dusk begins to fall, the focus is the Djemma el-Fna, the huge square in the Marrakech medina and backdrop for an eclectic array of jugglers, storytellers, snake charmers, musicians and soothsayers. Mouth-watering aromas waft through the medina from the many rows of open-air food stalls. Perhaps you’ll retreat to a neighboring rooftop restaurant for a drink and the view. Overnight Riad Daria (or similar).

Day 12


Prepare for a full day delving into this distinctly Magrebi city’s history. Marrakech has for centuries been Morocco’s southern capital, competing with Fez not just metaphorically but militarily and religiously too. Posterity has lost many architectural masterpieces through such conflicts. Of those that remain, tour the Palais de la Bahaia which housed Bou Ahmed’s four wives, 24 concubines and numerous children, and visit the Saadian Tombs, the royal burial ground of the Saadian dynasty. Based on time and interest, walk among the narrow streets and shops of the old city, view the extensive Berber collection of clothing, jewelry, textiles, doors, baskets and carpets at the Maison Tiskiwin, and/or walk through Jardin Majorelle, the extensive gardens of French painter Jacques Majorelle with a collection of plants from five continents. In Morocco, as in most North African and Middle Eastern cultures bartering is considered an opportunity to converse and interact as much as it is to establish an agreed price. Your guide will give you tips and invite you to enjoy the exchange with shopkeepers! Return to the medina for any last minute shopping before reflecting on our Moroccan adventure at a farewell dinner. Overnight Riad Daria or similar.

Day 13

Departure or Begin Trip Extension

Transfer to the airport for your flight to Casablanca to connect with your return flight home or extend your vacation with a few days along the coast.