Over the other side of the mountains lies the Morocco that most travelers imagine. A land of palm-fringed oases; a turbaned nomad astride his one-humped steed; a fortresslike mud-walled kasbah; and Saharan dunes rising above a harsh, unforgiving plain. This image wasn't merely dreamed up by some movie director -- it's real. The French-made cities of Ouarzazate, Er Rachidia, and Erfoud are merely steppingstones to a land that still largely operates on "desert time," working with the sun rather than the clock.
History flows out here, and Morocco's sands of time have seen it all. Here were the days when the earliest camel caravans passed through on their way to and from the valuable salt lands of West Africa, and armies of zealots built their desert empires before setting out to conquer as far away as Libya and Spain. Today you'll find rally drivers saying goodbye to the last vestiges of civilization before they continue their race through the desert to the westernmost point of Africa in Dakar.
The rich history hasn't stopped modernity from reaching the region. Looked at through the eyes of a virgin visitor, the advent of good roads, electricity, Internet, and satellite TV might shatter the untouched desert image. But look a bit deeper, and you'll see people, a mixture of the original ancient tribes and Bedouin and Berber immigrants, who've got the blend right. Modernization and tradition are given equal status, and over time, the best of both worlds have been accepted into daily life -- and today's travelers now reap the benefits. Where once travel was only by slow bus or even slower camel, it's now possible to reach the edge of Morocco within a day or so (some tours from Fes or Marrakech manage to have their clients sleeping under Saharan stars that same night). Upon returning from a desert adventure, an air-conditioned room and swimming pool await, and e-mails to family and friends can now be done that very same day. All of this is now readily available in what is still essentially a land on the edge of the desert.
This is the desert Morocco of tourism folklore and is best absorbed rather than merely viewed. A stay of even just 2 nights (try for 3) in the region will reward the traveler with the stories, pictures, and memories that are secretly hoped for when Moroccan travel plans are originally made.
There's a lot to see in central Morocco, but at the same time some travelers believe that it all provides essentially the same experience. Perusing the region harshly, one could say that there are three valleys, two gorges, and two "deserts." Everywhere, bar the last 50km (31 miles) to one of the desert dunes, is easily reached by most means of transport. Renting a car out here is a popular option among independent travelers. The roads are pretty good, traffic is nowhere near as hectic as the cities in the country's north, and traveling by public transport affords only fleeting glimpses of scenery as your vehicle speeds past. If you do travel by public transport, make sure to grab a window seat to take full advantage of the fantastic views.
Tip: Gas stations are few and far between in central Morocco. If you're driving on your own, top up your tank whenever and wherever you can, especially if your car runs on sans plomb, unleaded fuel, which isn't available at every gas station.