Author and journalist, Lucas Peters, is our lead in-country curator of our trips to Morocco. He literally wrote the book on Morocco. His second edition of the Moon Guidebook to Morocco was just released in December 2019. We asked him to share a few up-to-date insights and travel tips about this ancient land that is readily adapting to 21st C modernity.
What's new in Morocco?
I've been told I travel through my stomach. I'm obsessed with local foods and Morocco is no exception. These days, fusion foods are all the rage. Though Italian, Spanish, and French cuisine fused with Moroccan has sort of been a staple of the local scene for the past few years, there's been an uptick in accessibility branching out from Marrakesh to Essaouira, Casablanca and beyond. However, Mexican-Moroccan fusion is something new hitting the scene with some surprisingly fantastic flavor combinations. The terroir trend has also hit with nicer restaurants featuring local farm and seafood products, one of which is a favorite restaurant of mine, Port XIV in Asilah, being one of the first true farm-to-table restaurants in the country.
Besides the food, Marrakesh continues to offer exciting opportunities for exploration. Sure, one of the biggest reasons Marrakesh is always a top destination for travelers from around the world has to do with the nearly year-round great weather and storied hospitality, but the constant drive to find new and inventive ways to discover city and the region is definitely another reason that "The Red City" remains so popular. Recently, I've become enamored of the Russian Sidecar motorcycle tours you can take through the palm groves. These are adventurous, exhilarating, and just the sort of adrenaline shot for any tour of Morocco.
There have also been a number of infrastructure projects that all help getting around Morocco a lot easier. Many cities, like Fez, Marrakesh, and Tangier have opened new airports while the Al-Boraq high-speed train now links Casablanca with Tangier in two hours, making the north of Morocco much more accessible. In fact, I'm in the south of Spain as I write, scouting to design a new Wildland Adventure combining Morocco through Tangier across the Strait of Gibraltar to the southernmost tip of Iberia.
What is it about Morocco that makes it so different from any other destination?
Geographically, it's very peculiar. It's where the Orient meets the Occident and where Africa meets Europe. There is literally no other place in the world with its composite geographic privilege. In Arabic, Morocco is called "the West" (el-Maghreb) and is thought to be the Westernmost Muslim country, the most progressive, and most liberal, in the entire MENA region. It's a little like the State of California of this region and is one of the very few Muslim countries that produces its own wine and beer. Of course, there are the calls to prayer five times a day and the old medinas that remain largely unchanged after hundreds of years. It's this constant mix of everything new and old, East and West, Africa and Europe, that makes it such an attractive destination.
What are the secrets of Fez one is able to experience with enough time and a good guide?
Fez is arguably the most medieval city in the world, dating back to 789AD. The labyrinthine streets here are all pedestrian paths and with no motorized traffic, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, pedestrian-only zones in the world. It's no wonder that the entire old city of Fez is a UNESCO world heritage site.
What a truly great guide does is bring this rich history to life for you so — more than just dates and figures — what you get are the wonderful stories from and about characters past and present that bring this city to life. The best guides are able to stop on seemingly innocuous street corners or public fountains and tell you the kernels of events that happened in that spot bringing this medieval wonder to life. Beyond that, depending on your interests, you'll also be able to go behind-the-scenes to interact with the many artisans who keep alive the creation of utilitarian and artistic objects using traditional methods and materials.
What opportunities do travelers have to better understand Islam and Muslim religious practice in daily life?
One of the wonderful things about traveling with our Wildland drivers is that they act as a sort of cultural attaché and are adept at answering questions you might feel awkward asking a stranger. They know locals everywhere they go and open doors everywhere for our travelers to understand a culture and religion that seems, on the surface, so different from what we're perhaps accustomed to. Beyond this, we create opportunities for Wildland travelers to experience intimate settings, in private homes for example, where they are also able to witness firsthand some of the local customs and traditions that are all part of the practice of Islam in daily life.
The one place I wish more people would take the opportunity to visit is The Souss and Anti-Atlas Mountains, a region south of Marrakesh across the High Atlas. This is an area that is rich with hiking and trekking and, though just a few hours from Marrakesh, still just far enough away that it has the feeling of being largely unspoiled from the effects of tourism. The people here are friendly to a fault and some of the intercultural interaction you can have is truly inspiring, language barriers and all!
For experiences... I know that a night in the Sahara is on a lot of people's bucket lists, and rightly so! It's amazing to be out in the great sand sea and see the vast expanse of the Milky Way lighting up the night sky. Though Erg Chebbi at Merzouga is the easiest to get to and, thus, the most popular, I do wish more people would take the extra effort and time to get out to experience a night in the desert in the much further afield sand dunes of Erg Chigaga. This area of the desert maintains the feeling of uncharted territory and that extra feeling of remoteness, of wildness, alive in this part of the Sahara adds so much to its charm.
... that said... if you keep this between us, I'd probably say Erg Chigaga for the same reasons I said above. I just love getting out to the "edge of the known world" and for some reason, Erg Chigaga feels like that to me. When I dream about the Sahara, this is what I dream about.
As the author of Moon Guide to Morocco, what is the difference in a traveler's experience traveling solo with a guidebook vs traveling in Morocco with Kamal and our local regional guides?
I usually travel with one or two guidebooks, no matter the country I'm in. I think the idea of traveling with a guidebook over the years has changed a little bit. Of course, today there are so many handy apps on your phone and websites that are easily accessible, a lot of what you might have once turned to a guidebook for has become obsolete in some respects. That said, I obviously think guidebooks still have their place. I use them myself to have as a quick reference on-the-go and as a place where I can rely on someone's advice who has already done the research and formed opinions. Like this, I can plan a trip ahead of time and, when in-country, always have a trusted source of material with me. However, there are things that are edited out of guidebooks (including mine!) due to space or that I might miss when flipping through the pages.
One of the easiest cultural experiences to build into most trips is a cooking course. In Morocco, these are always lively, fun, and give an important glimpse behind the scenes of the real values and aesthetics of the people... after all, there's nothing quite like traveling through your stomach! This is an experience that really hits all the senses.
We also make special arrangements on request like we did for Wildland guests who asked if they could host cocktails in our community of Ilfrane where we invited, teachers, university professors and a local political representative for lively and informative discussion.
Lucas is our Morocco in-country director who grew up in Seattle where he attended the University of Washington, and has made Morocco his home since 2009. Today, he lives with his wife, a Tanjaious from Tangier, and their son, splitting time between the family home in Tangier and their mountain residence in Ilfrane. Lucas is the author and principal photographer of the Moon Travel Guides: Morocco, as well as hundreds of articles and images for magazines and websites about Morocco. He lived for 6 years in a remote village in the Atlas Mountains before starting a family. Now he travels throughout his adopted home solo and with his family exploring small towns, difficult-to-access mountain villages, and remote frontiers of the Moroccan Sahara desert. Together, we help Wildland travelers discover parts of Morocco the Peters family enjoys most through their family roots and many acquaintances they know along the way.
Keeping it wild,
President of Wildland Adventures