Morocco with kids is a big adventure that turns out to be child’s play. Find out what happened when Ellen Himelfarb and family explored Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains by camel, mule and foot.
One of the secrets to doing Morocco with kids is knowing when to cut and run. Granted, it’s not easy when you’re headed toward a long-anticipated Sahara trek, to bob atop camels with your sundress re-purposed as a turban and tumble down dunes into a campsite under the stars. Alas, as the weather forecast (and car-hire agent and petrol-station attendant) warned us, a sandstorm was coming. And there was no telling how long it would last. To that my husband and I gave a hearty ‘pshaw’, even as the sky darkened and the breeze turned gritty. Before we hit our base in Zagora, the storm hit us, hard. So we cut and ran, doubling back at speed straight into an opaque, golden-sand curtain. Miraculously, we made it out in one piece, but we’d lost a day of holiday to hubris.
Kids are resilient, and happily our little girls are more resilient than most. Back in Ouarzazate, gateway to the desert, we plied them with dried fruits, fresh juice and couscous as we plotted our next move. Soon enough we’d left behind the sunset-oranges of the arid mesa for the snowy peaks of the misty-blue Atlas Mountains. The first snowflakes fell as we turned off the N9 motorway and wound steadily toward Imlil, an adobe village 1,800m in the sky. By the time we arrived, we were singing Christmas carols.
Working the phones as I drove, my husband bagged us a two-day tour with Aztat Treks, an Amazigh-run outfit offering mini-outings for families visiting Morocco with kids for the first time. Among the millions of nomadic Amazighs, or Berbers, who roam the Atlas Mountain heights is a roster of robust guides willing to lead the Berber-curious through treks of any duration and intensity. At short notice, Aztat paired us with ‘Mustapha the younger’ (we met ‘the elder’ out back, huddled over a card game). We wouldn’t climb Toubkal, the highest Atlas peak – I was getting dizzy even at base camp – but rather follow an easy scenic route with Toubkal’s snub nose on the horizon. After an uneventful night in a simple two-star, Mustapha loaded our packs onto his skinny stiff-eared mule, so cute he banished those coveted Saharan camels from memory.
The girls perked up in the brisk mountain air, running ahead to kick stones and collect tiny yellow wildflowers for their hair. Mustapha herded us down a sandy detour through an orchard of bushy argan trees, the source of my beloved Moroccan oil. Then he pointed out a tree laden with… giant birds? ‘Tree goats,’ he told us, as we approached the shaggy white creatures that were perched on every gnarled branch. The girls stared at the goats bewildered, calculating the physics while Mustapha explained the symbiosis: how the goats climb up the trees to eat, then expel the hard, indigestible seeds, which are in turn pressed by farm-hands for oil. We hadn’t really factored any safari experiences into our Morocco with kids adventure, but gravity-defying goats were as good as white rhino in our books.
The girls took turns riding the mule across an urgent river, past a small earthen shrine where a massive boulder is said to have crushed an ancient prophet, Wile E Coyote-style. We stopped for mint tea on a thatched terrace built into the mountainside, watching a convoy of school children as they toddled home from school. Recognising two peers in their midst, they paused mid-step. It gave our girls the chance to attempt the Amazigh greeting Mustapha taught them: ‘Azul!’ The children responded with a chorus of hellos. It all seemed wonderfully charming – even to us adults, who knew we hadn’t ever left the tourist trail. After all, there were so few tourists around to remind us.
Mustapha billeted us in a hillside cottage, where we slept in a row of spongy guest beds under an open window. The cold night air did us good. We slept the sleep of the dead and woke, renewed, to the bright morning sunshine, the bleats of sheep and a postcard panorama. Our hostess laid out plates of tomato, cucumber, goat’s cheese and toasted khobz: the local pitta. Our mule brayed, then Mustapha popped round to escort us along the gentle zigzag path back down to Imlil and the next leg of our Morocco with kids' expedition.
Mustapha waved us off on the road to Marrakech, and as we followed it the landscape opened up into valleys. The number of clay villages overlooked by palms – like floodlights over a stadium – multiplied and grew. They seemed to represent a more orderly civilisation, even though Marrakech is nothing of the sort.
The wide boulevards of the outskirts narrowed as we neared the medina, Marrakech’s 12th-century fortified city, until the earthen walls literally closed in on us. Somewhere between the royal palace and the chaotic main square, we wedged ourselves between facing shops with no way of opening the doors to escape. The girls could sense we were nervous, and we all jumped when one of the many, many amused onlookers – a boy barely older than my eldest – guided us in reverse like a runway marshal. Once he’d found us a place to park, he escorted us through the warren of lanes to Riad Cinnamon, located in a converted merchant’s house with tiers of Moorish colonnades. For his services we handed over a wad of dirhams, so he could retire for the day.
We’d barely made it through the door before the girls discovered the shallow courtyard pool. Daddy checked us in while they paddled, then staggered across the tiled floors like excited puppies. I must have dozed off in one of the daybeds surrounding the pool, because the next thing I knew our host was beckoning me to the roof, where the others awaited in candlelight with hot, fall-off-the-bone chicken tagines. As we ate, mullahs all around delivered their calls to prayer in layered harmony. For the first time in our short time as a travelling ensemble, I think we were all equally enraptured and nearly moved to tears.
I’m grateful to have booked three nights in the old city, so we could mitigate the madness of tour groups and insistent hawkers in the shopping souks by moving slowly. Our first morning we progressed about 10 metres in an hour, accessing a simple wood door to Madrasa Ben Youssef, a Moorish idyll of intricate carved stone, lacy arches and classical tilework. We assembled for selfies in front of the turquoise mosaics – fit to be framed – then climbed to the mezzanine to examine thousands of arabesque motifs chiselled into the stone. Artisans spent a decade carving them in the 12th century, while craftsmen tended to the pyramidal formations on the minaret and the aquamarine ceramic roof.
Yadda yadda. The kids were antsy to see what we could discover beyond our front door. We blazed a path through the Medina toward Djemaa el-Fna, that central square, using the sandstone minaret of the grand Koutoubia mosque as a compass. But any plan went to hell when the first souk lured us off-piste and our magpie instincts took over. The girls, each holding one hand, practically pulled me in two to get at decorative silk tassels and sequin-embroidered baskets, pointy silk slippers and leather purses in natural pastel dyes. Looping back toward the riad, we even spotted the dyers themselves, hanging their saturated wools to dry in the alleys of Souk des Teinturiers.
Our spiritual home, we decided, was Souk Cherifia, a two-tiered atrium of boutiques selling clay tagines, pompom-festooned shawls and shimmery lanterns. The younger, artier merchants here were less tolerant of haggling, but the girls looked on delighted as I tried to negotiate the price of a fringed suede handbag.
My husband, on self-imposed meal-watch, managed to sniff out open-air terraces up random staircases in obscure corners. Off an alley draped with hand-hooked rugs he found Le Jardin, a palm-shaded cafe blanketed in cool, green ceramic tile. At our table overlooking a sun-drenched marketplace, the girls ordered burgers and courgette fritters as an alternative to the usual dried-fruit tagines. For dinner, we roamed the leather bazaar to Le Foundouk, behind iron-studded double doors manned by fez-wearing guards. We wound our way to a rooftop twinkling with lanterns and starlight, and shared a pizza-sized pastilla, a flaky savoury pastry stuffed with chicken mince, almonds and spices.
We also loved the courtyard-cafe at Jardin Majorelle (), a photogenic pleasure-garden studded with cacti set outside the Medina walls, first cultivated a century ago by French painter Jacques Majorelle. The designer Yves Saint Laurent was absolutely smitten by the garden when he visited decades ago with his partner Pierre Bergé. So after Majorelle’s death in the 1960s,
he pledged to revive the lush greenery and save the electric-blue villa at its heart. It’s the coolest excursion in town, in every sense. Within the safe confines of the garden walls, we gave the girls our phones to capture the bold contrasts of colour and texture. That gave us a quiet moment over a cold pitcher of lemonade in the cafe.
Walking the vast, open boulevards outside the ramparts, we started to feel the heat. Normally I’d consider it cheating to jump into the first horse-drawn calèche that comes along. But for our purposes it hit the perfect note. We clip-clopped home the long way, past the pretty pink villas of Guéliz and the famous arched veranda of Hôtel La Mamounia, smelling the orange trees. Our driver – Mustapha, again! – let us out in Djemaa el-Fna square to see the Koutoubia’s minaret up close. We enjoyed the happy calm of the wide-open square before the night hawkers fired up their charcoal grills for the throngs. As for us, we walked back for a nap, serenaded by the call to prayer.
Inspired by big adventures in Morocco with kids? Take a look at The Islands of Tahiti: an incredible family-friendly paradise. And don't forget to follow Family Traveller on Instagram and Facebook for more family holiday ideas.