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Morocco: A North African Nature Odyssey

Discover the Natural Side of This Ancient Kingdom on a Mountain & Desert Adventure
Day 1: Casablanca, Morocco / Rabat
Arrive in Casablanca and transfer to the imperial city of Rabat where we'll enjoy a welcome dinner and an overview of our Morocco tour from our Expedition Leader. Our hotel is centered on a private courtyard with interior garden and pool, offering a serene escape from the city the moment one passes through its sheltering outer walls.

Day 2: Lac Sidi Boughaba / Volubilis / Fes
En route to Fes, we stop first at Lac Sidi Boughaba, a freshwater lake divided from the ocean by a sand dune system, which is a magnet for migrating birds. Lunch awaits at a vineyard in Meknes, Morocco's most fertile agricultural region known for its wine and olives. This afternoon we visit Volubilis, a site of extensive Roman ruins including well-preserved mosaics. And while none of the many presses remain, the Romans once produced prolific amounts of olive oil from Volubilis. We continue to Fes, the best-preserved medieval city in the Arab world, to spend the next two nights.

Day 3: Ifrane National Park / Fes
Fes is our base for exploring Ifrane National Park, home to most of the world’s Barbary macaques. This Old World monkey species is the only wild primate found in Europe—a population lives on Gibraltar—though most inhabit the cedar, oak and pine forests of Morocco, in troops of 10-30 individuals. The monkeys are used to seeing people and we will observe them at close range. Look, too, for birds of prey. We’ll also take a nature walk through the Cedre Gouraud Forest, an important habitat for Barbary Macaques and rare birdlife. More than a thousand species of flora, including 250 endemics, thrive in these forests that are watered by the abundant rivers and lakes of the Middle Atlas. These mountains hold enough snow to support a Moroccan ski area nearby! Before returning to Fes we enjoy a sumptuous lunch at the Michlefin Ifrane Hotel, a gorgeous mountain lodge marrying wood and stone with heavy Berber carpets, roaring fireplaces and traditional Moroccan décor.

Day 4: Casablanca / Agadir
We drive back to Casablanca where we’ll have lunch before transferring to the airport for an afternoon flight to Agadir on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, one of Africa’s most historic trading ports. We overnight at Atlas Kasbah, a historic fortress converted into an award-winning ecolodge just outside town in the UNESCO Argan Biosphere Reserve. Argan forests flourish here in the Middle Atlas range, the world’s only source for the coveted oil produced from their nuts that is used in many beauty and culinary products. These ancient and endangered endemic trees were once found across northern Africa but now exist only in southwest Morocco They represent the last barrier to the encroaching desertification of the Sahara. On arrival we’ll tour the ecolodge grounds, including the splendid gardens and saltwater pool, and learn about the property’s innovative sustainability practices amid the challenges of an arid region.

Day 5: Souss Massa National Park
Nowhere in Morocco’s many national parks do we find a more spectacular variety of bird life than in the Souss Massa, including the highly endangered northern bald ibis. The park protects 75 of the 100 breeding pairs that remain. Souss Massa's impressive diversity of habitats -- beaches, imposing sand dunes, rocky cliffs and Argania forests—draw a wide range of species including jackal, Algerian hedgehog, African wild cat, red fox, wild boar, leopard lizards and a host of other reptiles and rare amphibians. In the springtime, a bright array of wildflowers adds a showy touch. We spend a full day touring the park, breaking for lunch at the atmospheric guesthouse Ksar Massa, which surveys a 4-mile expanse of wild beach. We return to the Atlas Kasbah to spend the night.

Day 6: Argan Oil Co-Op / Paradise Valley / Immouzer 
This morning we tour a local argan oil co-op to see how the precious nut oil is extracted. All argan oil sold today is produced by a Berber women's collective that shares the profits. We’ll learn about the ecosystem reforestation project developed by the cooperative to ensure a sustainable supply of argan oil and the income it provides to support many southern Morocco communities. We also tour the botanical garden on site and have a chance to purchase argan oil and herbal products directly from these local producers.

We continue with a scenic drive into Paradise Valley. This deep gorge cut by the River Tamrhakht is flanked by terraced crops and undulating plateaus covered with argan, almond, juniper, olive and palm trees. Also called the Valley of Honey, the region is known for the different varieties that are produced using thyme, orange blossom and even cactus, which is very popular in Morocco. It is also home to several traditional Berber villages, and we ascend into the mountains to the market town of Immouzer, centered on a palm oasis. The town is best known for its seasonal waterfalls—rain-dependent cascades that only flow in winter.

Day 7: Tarroudant / Saffron Fields / Ait Ben Haddou
A full day’s drive takes us from Agadir to Ait Ben Haddou, with several stops along the way as we traverse the Souss plateau. The town of Tarroudant is a center for Berber arts and crafts, where we may have an opportunity to purchase ceramics, woven rugs with intricate geometric designs, and the spectacular silver Berber jewelry for which the city is famous. 

This is a rich agricultural region, and we’ll see vast fruit and vegetable plantations, especially citrus. It is also a center for argan oil production, as well as the world’s rarest and most costly spice, saffron. Morocco is the world’s fourth-largest producer of the treasured “red gold,” all of which is grown around the village of Taliouine. We stop to see the fields where most of the work is done by hand, including the painstaking harvesting each fall. Bent low to the ground, farmers must separate the tiny purple flowers of the saffron crocus to retrieve the fragile red stigmas that are dried to create the spice. It takes about 150,000 flowers to produce a single kilogram of saffron. Saffron contains a carotenoid dye called crocin, which imparts a rich golden-yellow hue to dishes and textiles.

We continue into ever more arid country till we reach Ait Ben Haddou, a fortified mud-brick city, or ksar, along the former caravan route that linked ancient Sudan to Marrakesh via the Sahara. The earthen houses are crowded together within high defensive walls, an eminent example of southern Moroccan architecture dating from the 17th century. We overnight in the adjacent village, settling in to the elegant desert retreat of Ksar Ighnda with views of red cliffs and olive orchards.

Day 8: Draa Valley / Zagora 
Our drive to Zagora takes us first up and over the volcanic Jebel Sarhro mountains, then down steep cliffs into the magnificent Draa Valley, a lush date palm oasis nearly 150 miles long that’s known for its kasbahs, or citadel towns. Flowing seasonally from the High Atlas, the Draa is Morocco’s longest river, cutting a deep channel between the Jebel Sarhro and Anti Atlas mountain ranges through a series of rocky canyons. The valley floor is a verdant patchwork of fruit orchards, vegetables crops, rose farms, and of course date palms; 18 different varieties of dates are grown here, watered by a sophisticated system of ancient underground irrigation canals.

The Draa Valley’s multicultural inhabitants are a mixture of Arab, Berber, Jew and the descendants of Mauritanian slaves. Under constant attack from pillaging nomads, they clustered together in fortified villages surrounded by fields and palm groves. We soon realize we are approaching the Sahara as we observe dromedary camels along the way. Our destination, the town of Zagora, is the last outpost of civilization before reaching the Sahara's vast expanse, earning it the title “Gateway to the Desert.” 

Day 9: Sahara Desert Exploration / Erg Chicaga 
The legendary Sahara beckons today, and we venture into its mystical depths on an all-day excursion culminating with a night beneath the stars in a traditional desert encampment. We travel first on a narrow one-lane paved road, then into the undulating dunes by 4x4. A cursory glance might lead one to think the desert is nothing but an empty, endless expanse of sand, but the Sahara dunes are actually an ecosystem with living organisms, despite the intense climatic conditions. We learn about its nuanced details, observing fossils and discovering how the dunes were formed, as we explore by 4x4. 

As evening falls and the heat of the day abates, we retreat to the comforts of our exclusive private camp, where we’re greeted with mint tea and fresh dates. It’s hard to believe such luxury exists in this remote, harsh environment, but we relax on leather sofas and poster beds, dine on exquisite tagines and other Moroccan dishes, and enjoy the crackle of a campfire beneath the dark, starry sky overhead. Nothing can compare with the silence permeating this ocean of sand. We sleep in rustic luxury in spacious canvas tents, feeling like we’ve walked right into a scene from Arabian Nights.

Day 10: Erg Chicaga / Ait Ben Haddou
Rise early this morning to watch the sunrise over the dunes, casting an ethereal golden glow. After breakfast we continue our exploration of the desert environment as we return through the shifting dunes on our way to M’Hamid and back through the Draa Valley to Ait Ben Haddou. It is a full day’s drive, and while our route retraces sections we have covered before, the landscape is so captivating that it feels as if we are embracing it anew on the return journey. Tonight we enjoy a second stay at Ksar Ighnda near the red earthen blocks of the fortified city, a most welcome oasis of luxurious hospitality at the close of a long day.

Day 11: High Atlas Mountains / Imlil
The scenery becomes ever more dramatic as we ascend into the High Atlas today, traversing the highest paved mountain road in Morocco over Tizi n’ Tichka Pass en route. Berber villages cling to the steep mountain slopes, and we finally reach Imlil, where we’ll spend the next two nights at the award-winning Kasbah du Toubkal. The small auberge-style hotel is situated at the foot of snow-dusted Jbel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa at 13,671 feet, and enjoys spectacular 360-degree views from its perch atop a rocky bluff. Embodying legendary Berber hospitality, the Kasbah has been transformed using classic Berber style, design and building methods from the home of a feudal caïd into one of Morocco’s most impressive hostelries. Adjacent to Toubkal National Park, it provides the perfect base from which to explore the High Atlas region.

Day 12: Exploring the High Atlas
We spend the day discovering a sector of the High Atlas Mountains. The range transects Morocco diagonally in a 600-mile span that separates the Sahara from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Via 4x4 and on foot, we follow narrow tracks that pass through ochre-colored Berber villages and nature trails through neighboring valleys. In the springtime, blooming wildflowers add touches of color to the region, while our fall trips enjoy rich seasonal tones.

The mountains slopes are a variegated tapestry of trees, from juniper, Atlas cedar, Holm and Kermes oak to Barbary thuya, Aleppo pine, carob and argan. The forests harbor a number of plant and animal species that are unique in Africa, often more like those of Europe, many of which are endangered. We may come across Moorish geckos, butterflies such as the Moroccan copper, desert orange tip and painted ladies flying between England and West Africa. Birds to watch for include the Moussier’s redstart, crimson-winged finch, rock bunting and flocks of brilliantly colored bee-eaters. Overhead, look for the Lannier falcon.

We also encounter authentic rural Moroccan life in the villages as we meet the famously friendly local people, learning about their traditional culture and marveling at their walnut and fruit orchards that thrive in this steep, rugged terrain. Along the way we’ll enjoy a picnic lunch in the open air, then return to the warmth of our guesthouse for dinner and a quiet night in the cool mountain air.

Day 13: Imlil / Marrakech
After a last tranquil morning in the mountains, we drive to Marrakech, Morocco’s most entrancing medieval city. A guided tour of the famous Medina, with its winding lanes and pungent fragrances, is a sensory extravagance. Our hotel, Tigmiza Hotel & Suites, is located in the exclusive area of Le Palmeraie—a vast palm grove just outside Marrakech that was once a natural oasis—and boasts magnificent gardens. This evening we savor one last superb Moroccan meal at our farewell dinner. Tonight, our epic Morocco nature adventure draws to a close.

Day 14: Marrakech / Home
Transfer to the airport for homeward flights.

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