Experience Moroccan Traditions Minus the Plane Ticket

Experience Moroccan Traditions Minus the Plane Ticket

Discovering Marrakech’s Morning Magic

It’s 4 a.m. in Marrakech and my phone’s alarm rings loudly, jolting me awake. The boozy haze from our late-night adventure at Jemaa el-Fna – surrounded by dancers, pushy vendors, and smoky mint teas – still lingers. The thought of venturing into the medina at this ungodly hour feels like we never went to sleep.

But today, I’m going on a hot air balloon ride. Mustering every ounce of willpower, I force myself out of bed and into the darkness of my riad room. Everything is eerily silent, and even the numerous plants cascading down the ceiling look like they’re asleep. Venturing out in the Marrakech medina this early is like entering another dimension.

The hundreds of shops usually crowded with tourists are shut and silent. The lively streets filled with the fragrance of pastries, tagines, and mint are empty and unrecognizable. Even the cats have disappeared. There are only a few people walking with their heads down, heading to the nearest mosque for their early-morning prayer.

The Treasure Hunt Begins

We’re directed to meet our contact, a lady named Safia, in front of the Ben Salah Mosque. Confident that we’ve passed this mosque countless times, finding it again shouldn’t be a problem. Mistake. The darkness and loss of all the familiar landmarks trick our sense of direction, and within minutes, we’re hopelessly lost in the perfectly planned medieval maze of houses, closed shops, and hidden gardens.

It’s 5 a.m., and we’ve finally reached the entrance of the mosque, only to realize no cars can access that point. Panic sets in as we wonder if the guide is still waiting for us. Then, a lightbulb goes off in my head – there’s a small square not too far from the mosque where we arrived from the airport. That must be the meeting point. I quickly call the only number I have for emergencies, and a sleepy man tells us someone will collect us near the mosque.

After a few moments of frantic wandering in the darkness, we spot a white 4×4 arriving from one of the small alleys. My panic finally subsides at the thought of finally getting on that hot air balloon.

Soaring Over the Atlas Mountains

You have to know that when booking a Marrakech hot air balloon flight, the location is just metaphorical. Any reasonable person should admit that it would be slightly challenging to fly around the maze that is Marrakech, despite the incredible view it would offer. The actual place where you’ll take your flight is a base camp located about 40 minutes’ drive from the city.

As we board the car, the driver tells us we have to make a stop to collect two other people on the way. Fine, but those two took a good 15 minutes to get out of their hotel. The trip took longer than expected, as we drove dark, bumpy roads in the middle of nowhere, with only a few isolated mosques in sight. We reach our camp around 6 a.m.

At this point, my joy is hard to contain. As soon as we get off the car, a young British lady welcomes us with a smile – she left Britain to become a hot air balloon pilot, and her passion for her profession is palpable, even at this ungodly hour.

After a short briefing and a light pre-breakfast, I’m finally able to look around and see them – giant, majestic hot air balloons being inflated on a field not far from us. The process is loud and fascinating, and I can’t take my eyes off the numerous people moving quickly around the area.

Floating Over the Moroccan Countryside

Soon, we’re directed to one of the biggest balloons – a sixteen-person one. I learn that you need a very experienced pilot to fly one of these, and our pilot, Quim Boet, has over 2,000 hours of experience in the skies all over the world. This should be enough to reassure any nervous flyer.

Jumping into the basket with my dress is trickier than expected, but I eventually manage to sneak in without falling – yes, that’s always a danger with me. As we slowly ascend, the ground starts looking smaller, and I let my hands reach out into the air, feeling the freedom of being up in the sky.

The silence surrounding us is almost surreal, with everyone handling cameras and phones, captivated by the spectacle. Only the burner giving power to the balloon and the slightly unpleasant smell of gas remind me that I’m not actually floating – I’m flying.

As the first rays of light appear somewhere behind the Atlas Mountains, our pilot rotates the balloon to give us a better view. The excitement of everyone aboard is palpable, and as the sky turns into a palette of a thousand colors, I feel grateful for this moment. I’ve seen many sunrises in my life, but this is certainly one of the most spectacular ones I’ve ever witnessed.

The Bittersweet Return to Reality

Time seems to slow down and speed up simultaneously as we float over the Moroccan countryside. Before we know it, an hour has passed, and it’s time to say goodbye to this magical dimension and return to reality.

We move quite far away from our original departure point, passing slowly over little villages beautifully isolated in the pinkish Moroccan countryside. I can’t help but wonder about the inhabitants of those villages, who look up at the sky every morning to see these colorful balloons flying over their homes. Who knows if they ever desired to jump on one of those flights?

As we start our descent, I realize the wind is picking up, and our pilot announces it’s time to adopt the landing position – a squat pose with a straight back, hands gripping the outer handles. The landing process is handled smoothly, and we’re the last ones to leave the basket, still in awe of the experience we just had.

A Moroccan Breakfast to Remember

Back at the base camp, we see a long queue of people waiting to get their flight certificates. As I receive mine, I feel a sense of accomplishment, even though everything still seems like a dream. Breakfast is served, and it’s a lovely spread of Moroccan breads, pastries, and fruit – the perfect ending to this incredible adventure.

The return trip to Marrakech looks much shorter than the one on the way out. When we arrive, the medina is still quiet, and it’s not even 9 a.m. I take the chance to capture a few pictures of the peaceful alleys before they come alive. The sun is high above the minarets of the old town, but that day, I saw it rising from the Atlas Mountains, and it was simply breathtaking.

As I reflect on this experience, I’m convinced that you don’t need a plane ticket to immerse yourself in the rich traditions and captivating landscapes of Morocco. El Bahia, our Moroccan restaurant in New York City, offers a taste of this magical country, right in the heart of the Big Apple. From the flavors of our authentic tagines to the vibrant decor that transports you to the souks of Marrakech, we strive to bring the essence of Morocco to your doorstep. So come and experience the traditions of this enchanting land, minus the plane ticket.

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