A whistle-stop tour of Morocco

“Balek!” cries the mule driver with just enough warning for my friend Tammy and I to dodge the rattling cart loaded with watermelons the size of spacehoppers. Sweltering beneath our backpacks amid an Aladdin’s Cave of lanterns and spices, hand-woven carpets and camel-hide bags, we are attempting to navigate the souks of Marrakesh and find the hostel we've booked. Our obvious confusion attracts the attention of the fake Rolex salesman.

“English?” he asks.

In broken French we explain the predicament. Glancing at our guide book he signals for us to follow him through narrow passageways, arriving outside our hostel in a matter of minutes.

“Salam alikom,” he grins. “Good travels.”

Basic but homely, Riad Medina Azahara is just minutes from the main square Djemaa el-Fnaa, which transforms at sunset into a circus of snake charmers, storytellers, musicians and amateur acrobats. The open air food stalls are by far the best, and cheapest, places to eat, where more adventurous diners can sample stewed sheep’s head and bowls of steaming snails – washed down, of course, with gallons of mint tea.

Nestled into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains 30km away is the village of Setti-Fatma, famous for its seven waterfalls. The climb to the top is not for the faint-hearted, but worth it for incredible views of the rocky landscape speckled with Berber hamlets whose women wash their laundry beneath the shade of weeping willows on the banks of the Oued below.

Clockwise from left: Setti-Fatma, the Roman ruins of Volubilis. Photos © Abigail Edge.

Six hours by train brings us north to Meknès which, despite a lack of decent budget accommodation, provides a handy stopover for a trip to the Roman ruins of Volubilis, where herons nest atop crumbling pillars. The next day we take a dip in natural mineral baths at Moulay Yacoub, where the healing benefits of a half hour soak supposedly outweigh the sulphurous eggy pong.

A guide is essential for negotiating the sprawling Fès medina – the largest living medieval Islamic city in the world. Nowhere is this more evident than the tannery, where methods of processing leather using pigeon poo have remained unchanged for centuries. Later we enjoy Moroccan hip-hop and a game of chess at Café Clock, whose menu boasts a deliciously eclectic mix of traditional Moroccan and European fare.

Despite touts claiming otherwise, it’s much cheaper arranging desert camel treks once you reach Merzouga, a sandy village 500km south of Fès. After a warm welcome at the Auberge Sahara, we enjoy an unforgettable hump-back excursion into the rust-coloured dunes of Erg Chebbi, camping beneath the stars before climbing to the top of the highest dune to watch the sun rise.

The laid-back fishing port Essaouira is the perfect finale to our trip, where days exploring galleries and the beach – a windsurfing hotspot – lead to lively sessions of bluesy Gnaoua music at Riad Essaouira lasting well into the early hours of the morning. Though Tammy and I narrowly miss the annual Essaouira Gnaoua Festival at the end of June, we’re already making plans to return.

This piece was originally published on the Guardian's Been There travel site, which folded in 2013.