Movie Studios to Monkey Fingers: 10 Off the Beaten Path Stops in Morocco

Movie Studios, Monkey Fingers, and More: 10 Off the Beaten Path Stops in Morocco

In Morocco, it’s a good idea to expect the unexpected. That rule of thumb kept us from being too surprised when a motorbike passed within inches of us on the streets or when our dinner was interrupted by a polite but persistent meowing from a friendly cat hoping to share our meal. We found the unexpected elsewhere, too. We found it in landscapes, tourist attractions, and relics of Moroccan history and lifestyle that gave us insight into what life once was like in the country. We knew we would see the busy Marrakech medina, historic kasbahs, and the golden Sahara Desert, but movie studios? Steep, winding roads? Ancient fossils? Those were all surprises to us.

Here are ten of our favorite off the beaten path attractions in Morocco!

Movie Studios

This set was used in the movie Alexander
Morocco is actually a pretty popular place to shoot movies—so much so that a handful of movie studios popped up outside of Marrakech to handle the demand. We had a chance to visit Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate, where famous films like Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Babel, Lawrence of Arabia, Game of Thrones, Alexander, The Mummy, Patton, Kundun, and Black Hawk Down were filmed. Tours begin in the lobby of the appropriately named Oscar Hotel, and we had a fantastic guide escort us through a variety of different sets as he told us about the different movies he had seen as they came through the studios.

We spent some time in a huge, dimly lit room completely filled with columns leftover from the set of Cleopatra before moving to the outside, where we saw several Egyptian-themed sets. Our guide gave us plenty of insight into movie magic—he pointed out the materials sets are constructed from and encouraged us to interact with the sets wherever possible. I felt just slightly underdressed when I sat down in a carriage on the Cleopatra set, with our guide posing as a guard next to me—I really should have had a magnificent gown or at least some traditional robes! I loved walking through incredibly detailed structures made to look like buildings, all while knowing they were nothing more than wood and polystyrene, not clay and stone.

As it turned out, our guide had been an extra in a couple of movies, so some of the fun during our tour was in scrolling through his phone (he insisted!) and seeing him in different costumes. If you’re a big fan of movies (we’re huge fans of travel-themed movies) and haven’t toured a studio, Atlas Studios in Morocco is a fun, informative stop!
More Information: StudiosAtlas.com

Fossils

Fossils from dinosaurs and sea creatures have been found in Morocco
We were surprised to learn that Morocco is home to lots of fossils—in fact, just recently the oldest human fossils were discovered in the country.

We stopped in Erfoud to walk through a fossil museum, and we were amazed to see fossils that dated back millions of years. We saw a few hundred types of fossils, many of which were dinosaurs and trilobites. Trilobites were pretty fascinating; they went extinct more than 250 million years ago, and while they were alive they controlled the oceans. That’s one of the reasons we were both so interested in the fossils—it reminded us that millions of years ago, the sandy Sahara was covered by an ocean instead of baking under the sun. Trilobites had a characteristic exoskeleton that easily fossilized, which means there is a well-preserved record of their existence.

We had a chance to watch as a few workers carefully and artistically liberated fossils from the rocks and debris that protected them for centuries. I wouldn’t have thought of Morocco as a place that would house such an extensive collection of fossils, but Erfoud provided a surprising window into our planet’s past.

Monkey Fingers

Monkey Fingers
Our visit to the Dades Gorge in Morocco took us to the Monkey Fingers, a spectacular rock formation that presents itself like hundreds of long, smooth, intertwined fingers rising from the river. It took nature millions of years to carve out the long rock columns, and it makes for a beautiful photo stop as well as a nice place to enjoy a hike.

Todgha Gorge

Not far from the Dades Gorge and the Monkey Fingers is the Todgha Gorge, a canyon in the High Atlas Mountains that provides an incredibly scenic place to walk and relax. We spent about 30 minutes walking along a small river, gazing up at the tall, jagged cliffs. We even took a few minutes to sit down and dunk our feet into the cold steam, a pleasant respite from the heat.

Tisdrine Boumaine

Tisdrine
If you’re looking for an exhilarating ride, look no further than the Tisdrine Boumaine, a long, winding road that isn’t for the faint of heart. The road itself is narrow, and while two cars can pass each other, the road’s blind turns and sharp corners make it just a bit on dangerous. When you get to the top, though, the views are worth the risk; looking at the pavement winding throughout the canyon is a beautiful reward.

We were happy to enjoy our drive from the back seat of our tour car, though—our guide Amnay was a fantastic, safe driver, and we were grateful not to be behind the wheel!

Moroccan Fruit Groves

We took a walk through the palmeraie in Tinghir, which introduced us to some of the many types of fruit that grow well in Morocco. We spotted almost everything we like to eat at home—huge watermelons, honeydew melons, oranges, tiny crab apples, apricots, and berries clung to trees and bushes as we walked through them. The most impressive to me were the watermelons; they are enormous in Morocco (one that Adam carried weighed about as much as our suitcase!), and they are deliciously sweet and juicy. Morocco has great growing conditions for many types of fruit, and we were surprised to find so many types growing so well.

Markets

One of the most authentic experiences we had involved a simple walk around some of the markets we visited throughout Morocco. Generally, markets are incredibly busy places that serve as central points in a community. Some towns have permanent markets where vendors reliably sell everything from food to spices to shoes, but some markets move around, visiting a town just once a week and necessitating that locals purchase everything they will need for seven days at once. Notably, we saw that most markets offered fresh food including baked goods, meat, and fresh food like fruit, and it was also easy to find Moroccan oil and clothing.

We also noticed that it was almost impossible to avoid shops selling carpets. We visited a few to learn about the process (making them requires a great deal of skill!), but it was interesting to hear that carpet production can take weeks or even months depending on the pattern. That said, most shops seemed to have hundreds available for sale, and one shop owner was so committed to selling me a carpet that he asked me to list my favorite colors so he could have someone start a custom project for me. I declined (custom carpets were sadly not in my travel budget), but whenever I think of Moroccan markets I will always remember the carpets.

Gnawa Music

VIDEO: The Groupe Des Bambaras performed for us
Our guide, Amnay, pulled into a very quiet parking lot alongside a very dark building late in the afternoon on our way to our camel trek. We walked inside the building and peeked into a large space where five or six men were fast asleep on the floor and benches that lined the room.

“Should we wake them up?” Amnay asked me. I wasn’t completely sure who they were, so I said no, of course not! After all, our visit coincided with Ramadan. These poor people were just trying to catch some sleep to pass the time before their daily fast was over. As Adam and I made our way back toward the sunlight, we heard voices. One of the men had heard us and had started to rouse the others. Amnay ushered us into the room where all of them were now awake and collecting musical instruments. Adam and I sat down, and within just a few moments we were served Moroccan mint tea as three of the men started to sing, keeping the beat with castanets. For about 20 minutes they entertained us with some terrific music and singing- and a few stifled but noticeable yawns from those who were a bit more soundly asleep than others!

Gnawa music originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Groupe Des Bambaras—the performers—carry on the traditional sounds today. The music is both famous and culturally important; some believe that the music can cure illness. In addition to castanets, a hajhoui—a three stringed lute—and drums make up the trio of instruments featured in performances. The performances are just as physical as they are musical, with the group moving to the beat even as they play instruments. We found it to be a great, culturally enriching experience.
More Information: Facebook.com/GroupeDesBambaras

Moulay Ali Cherif Mausoleum

Moulay Ali Cherif Mausoleum
When we arrived in Rissini, we spent a short time touring the Moulay Ali Cherif Mausoleum. Much of the mausoleum itself is off limits to non-Muslims, which meant Adam and I were restricted to the garden and the outer portions of the buildings. That was still worth seeing, though; beautiful tile work and arched doorways surround a lush, green garden brimming with trees and plants. The mausoleum is meaningful because it serves as the burial place for Moulay Ali Cherif, the founder of the Alaouite Dynasty, or the current royal family of Morocco. It’s a great stop to make, and it’s certainly off the beaten path.

Moroccan Irrigation Systems

Transporting water is no easy feat in the desert, so we were interested in learning more about how irrigation systems were constructed and used before more advanced methods were available. We had a chance to see a well structure from both its highest point (outside) and its lowest point (deep underground). We saw wells many times during our journey; they dotted the horizon even though many have been abandoned. It was interesting to have a chance to explore what they looked like on the inside, particularly because these structures were for a long time the only way to ensure water was available in the area.

Bonus: Berber pizza

This isn’t exactly an off the beaten path destination, but it was an off the beaten path snack! Our lunch in Rissini was Berber pizza, which is more or less a stuffed pizza. The pizza has two layers of crust and is filled with a mixture of ground beef, onions, and almonds as well as spices. It’s really good—but it’s also incredibly filling! I was only able to eat one piece before throwing in the towel, and Adam could only eat two. We ended up with lots of leftovers that we shared with new friends (for when they broke their fast at sunset) as well as a few pieces to carry with us to our desert camp for a late night snack.

The world is full of interesting and surprising places, and Morocco has no shortage of great off the beaten path spots that will connect you to its history, culture, and natural beauty. When you travel through Morocco, look forward to the fun, unexpected spots that will enrich your visit and more deeply connect you to the people who live there. Although we loved the major attractions we visited, much of our trip was made in the moments between them.

Here are a few more photos of some of our favorite unexpected stops!

 

Movie Studios, Monkey Fingers, and More: 10 Off the Beaten Path Stops in Morocco
 

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* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we booked a multi-day tour with Morocco Immersion Tours & Adventures, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected Morocco Immersion Tours & Adventures independently and based on our own research and travel needs. We received discounted pricing for our tour as a result of booking it after the DC Travel and Adventure Show. We were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review.