I’ve long been suffering from a burning desire to go to Morocco. My fascination with the Middle East, Turkey and its neighboring countries has only grown bigger through the years, and so I caught up with Alex Ros, owner of Open Sky Expeditions to tell us more about his globetrotting story around the world, as well as his unbelievable photography tours through the Saharan desert in Morocco.
Monica Suma: Tell us a bit about yourself. Why do you travel?
Alex Ros: I travel because exploring is what I know; it’s what I feel called to. I grew up moving around, living in several countries in Latin America, far away from the rest of my family, the familiar (and in awe) of the view from a plane window for as long as I can remember. And I’ve never tired of it.
A defining moment was a gap year I took between high school and college. After working at a map store half the year to save up money, I traveled on my own for six months. I discovered a very bold part of myself through those travels, comfortable with total uncertainty, smitten with truly feeling life as a journey. At just 17, I flew to Mexico for a month-long sea-kayaking course with NOLS, and then worked my way by land through Baja California to San Diego. In California, my mom’s friend lent me a pink Chevy van that I drove through the state for two weeks with no particular itinerary in mind. It was freedom. I loved it. I had no idea what was around the corner. And then, three days shy of my 18th birthday, I flew to Madrid, with a big red backpack, the rest of the money I saved up, and no specific itinerary in mind. Three months later I had backpacked through 16 countries, seen amazing things, met incredible people, and I was hooked. I knew I would never stop traveling.
It is truly such a privilege, unique in our age, to know the globe and its infinite variety—the jaw-dropping beauty that exists, the depth of places, how behind our curious cultural quirks we are all essentially the same… Travel teaches me about the human condition; it teaches me about myself. Stripped away from contexts and crutches of the familiar, it keeps me from settling for easy answers to difficult questions. It makes me flexible, adaptable, and grateful. And it is so satisfyingly stimulating. I particularly love that first day in a place. How sharp my senses feel…
Tell me about Open Sky Expeditions. What made you start a tour company?
Soon after college, I “fell into” the travel industry on a freelance gig working for Travel Dynamics International, one of the world’s top operators of high caliber educational programs aboard small ships. They were running a family program for Harvard & Yale alumni in Mexico and I was tasked with leading a fun yet substantive educational program for the kids onboard. As I do with these sorts of things, I got really into it, delivered a kick-ass program for the kids, and furthermore also ended up taking the lead on a number of logistical mishaps during the tour. Something must have impressed the company owners because I came back to a job offer to work as a Tour Manager, set to lead these high-end alumni tours around the world. At just 22, I would become the youngest person in the company’s history to hold that position.
Tour Managing was amazing. I traveled all over the Mediterranean, through North Africa, Latin America, and in 2004 alone took the same expedition ship to the Arctic, the Amazon and Antarctica. It was stimulating, fascinating; I was getting a ton of on-the-ground experience in the industry, and furthermore a continuing education in archeology/ classics/ natural history/ international relations — you name it — from experts in those fields not in the classroom but on site, the very places they were lecturing about! I got to practice languages I’d learned, and picked up new ones on the job. I took a zillion and a half photographs. It was awesome.
Then, just as I was starting to evaluate what to do with all that experience, I was offered a position at the company’s NYC home office in Operations – working as “Director, Program Development & Management” to contract all the services for their tours, essentially responsible for taking the owners’ tour concepts from ideas to logistical masterpieces. It was an appropriate match. I knew their product intimately from working as a Tour Manager; now I could construct it.
Soon enough, I was given even more to do. In addition to the tours, I was hiring and managing the field staff, designing the sailing schedules, and eventually — this was the really cool part— doing all of the on-the-ground scouting. They’d say “Alex, we’ve never done a tour here…go figure it out” and I would fly to X destination to put together the pieces of the logistical puzzle into an exclusive, in-depth experience their travelers would pay big bucks for. A lot of that work was in Africa, in truly out-of-the-way destinations (Sierra Leone, Gabon, Sao Tome & Principe, Liberia, Mauritania, to name just a few…). My “travel thesis” as I like to call it, was a 5-week-long expedition cruise to 14 countries along the west coast of the continent, many of which had never seen anything like this. That scouting was intense, stimulating, and groundbreaking… Conde Nast Traveler even interviewed me for it in 2009.
Eventually, there was nowhere else to go within the company, and an entrepreneurial itch that had been building for many years became too strong to ignore (in great part inspired by a local non-profit I volunteered for and now sit on the board of, www.RisingTideCapital.org). So, I took the plunge. I left the office job and set out to start my own tour company. I knew that I had the experience, contacts and passion to deliver amazing travel experiences—and I was excited to build a vehicle to bring my own travel ideas to life. I now had to build my own infrastructure for it rather than relying on someone else’s.
Open Sky Expeditions (www.OpenSkyExpeditions.com) is the result of that aspiration. We are a boutique tour company specialized in finely crafted small group tours throughout Africa, the Americas, and the Mediterranean. I know all the destinations intimately, have trusted contacts in every single one of them, and pour myself into delivering seamlessly executed powerful travel experiences.
What differentiates you from other tour operators?
Attention to detail, extensive on-the-ground experience, personalized service. Plus, I believe our passion for travel is unmatched!
I know each of our destinations firsthand and have trusted contacts who help with local details that make a trip authentic. A restaurant like Sant’ Andrea in Palermo (personally recommended by the local author whose book all the travelers on our Sicily trip read) or beautiful Riad El Fenn in Marrakech… these places allow for a kind of intimacy with a city that mass travel just does not afford. As opposed to the disconnected experience you get on tours planned by committee, or by operators with little first-hand knowledge of the destination — as is too often the case with other particularly larger tour companies — our trips are remarkably coherent, conceived by a single person who knows every aspect of the journey intimately.
We also shape our tours to our clients. For our customized small group tours, we speak to our clients beforehand to get a sense of their travel style, needs, personalities, and particular interests, and we plan a tour that fits. Our niche tours are another way for our clients to have an experience that grounds travelers to place in a particular way. These trips might focus on photography, regional cuisine, dance and music, or the healing traditions of a culture. Instead of just floating from tourist highlight to tourist highlight, our clients come to know a place by actually engaging with its culture, and experiencing it with all the senses.
The magic is in the details. We know from experience how those details translate from paper to reality, and we are truly passionate about delivery. I don’t want my clients to leave just satisfied; I want to BLOW them away.
You mentioned Morocco is your favorite country. Why?
It’s difficult to pick a favorite country, but I feel strongly that Morocco is one of the most compelling places I know on the planet. It hits the mark on so many levels that travelers are looking for: it’s exotic, visually striking, friendly, with a sumptuous cuisine, historically rich, and a fascinating fusion of European, African, Berber influences and the Muslim/Arab world. It is a feast for the senses and the mind! I spent four months there last year and the upcoming tour will be my 22nd in the country. It struck me as I was leaving last time that I have never once felt bored in Morocco. I have perpetually been intrigued, curious about what’s around the corner. The maze-like medinas embody this…. you could walk by a non-descript alley for months on end before discovering that it leads to a beautiful door that gives way to the most incredible 16th century palace. Morocco keeps you guessing. It is seductive in that way. It never gets old. I love it.
Tell me about the Morocco Photography Tour & Expedition to the Sahara.
This is essentially a tour to some of the most amazing places I know in Morocco with my personal passion for photography layered into it. Morocco is visually striking and such an inspiring place to practice photography! So, why not go on an awesome tour and improve your photography at the same time? (As my friend said recently, it’s a “2-for-1”!). Towards that end, an award-winning internationally acclaimed photographer will be joining us. David H. Wells has extensive experience teaching photography including on international tours, and together we have refined an experience that will allow you to both explore Morocco to the fullest and also take your photo skills up several notches. Since the group is small, and I will also be there, we are able to cater to beginners and more experienced photographers alike.
The tour itself begins in Marrakech at Riad El Fenn (a lovely boutique hotel owned by Richard Branson’s sister—the name means “House of Art” in Arabic) with a couple of days of in-depth exploration and instruction by David. Well prepared, we then embark on a five-day trip into the Sahara desert via the majestic Atlas Mountains, through the Trail of the Thousand Kasbahs — with our stay in a private deluxe camp in the dunes of the Sahara as a true highlight! We return to Marrakech via another less explored but equally fascinating route and end up again at Riad El Fenn, where on the last day we can relax or follow up on any interest that came up earlier in the tour (shopping, massages, more photography, cooking classes, etc.). Check out www.MoroccoPhotoTour.com for details. The dates are November 8-18, 2013 and we still have a few spots; a discount may even still be possible if folks contact us soon.
How is Morocco for female travelers? Is traveling with a group better advised rather than traveling as a female solo traveler?
As a man, this is a tricky question to answer. That said, I’ve traveled many times with women in Morocco both personally and professionally. I’ve found that women can sometimes experience a certain amount of unwanted attention in the form of cat-calls or the like, but I believe when it comes to the somewhat restrictive atmosphere for women in the Arab and North African world, Morocco is one of the safest and least intimidating places for women to travel. To each her own, but I would probably recommend traveling with a companion, if not a group, simply to minimize any opportunities for unwanted attention. Traveling with an experienced operator like us, that has vetted very single place and carefully manages the experience, is about as safe and hassle-free as it gets.
For someone that has never been to Morocco but that is obsessed with its rich culture, food, décor and architecture, what experiences/ cities would you recommend?
– Of course, the imperial cities of Fez and Marrakech are fascinating and endlessly interesting.
– In Marrakech, experiencing the transition from day to night in the central square, Djemma El-Fna is a must-do. I’ve scouted all the rooftop cafes and know the best ones to go watch the historic square -–a meeting point for caravans for centuries– come alive at dusk.
– Moroccan cooking lessons don’t disappoint (which we include or offer as an option on every trip). I have experimented with several and they have all been excellent. I’d say there’s a 90% chance you’ll learn to cook chicken tagine…
– Shopping in the twisted maze of the souks in Marrakech is an experience unto itself…just by walking into it!
– The Sahara is sublime; for anyone who can make it out there, staying overnight in a desert camp in the dunes is truly unforgettable.
– The journey through the majestic Atlas Mountains to get to the Sahara is no less stunning. En route, the UNESCO-protected mud brick city of Ait Ben Haddou is so impressive, it was used as a backdrop in the movie Gladiator.
– And many more off-the-beaten track places… like the 11th century Tin Mel Mosque in the middle of the High Atlas Mountains where you’ll be the only visitor within the roofless masterpiece. Lovely, enchanting Essaouira on the coast. Tafraoute in the deep south. The blue city of Chefchaoeun in the north. I could go on and on….
What are some of the future tours in store for Open Sky Expeditions?
This winter, we are introducing a new program in Puerto Rico — in collaboration with Mickela Mallozzi’s Bare Feet — called Island Rhythms, focusing on the Caribbean island’s rich music and dance. My family is Cuban, largely exiled in Puerto Rico, and I am a musician myself, so it’s a tour that’s particularly close to my heart. See www.PRMusicTour.com.
For the rest of 2014 we’ll be back in Europe (specifically Sicily & Greece), again in Morocco, and in the fall returning to South America for Chile, one of our top destinations and where I spent seven years of my childhood.
All Photos: Courtesy of Alex Ros
For more information on Open Sky Expeditions Morocco Photography Tours, head on over to www.MoroccoPhotoTour.com.