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Morocco is a top destination for those of us that like a more adventurous side of travel.
The labyrinth of the souks, the mystery of the Sahara, the colourful shopping sprees, the mouth watering food and the promise of an exciting escapade in tow. It definitely has an appeal for everyone and it doesn’t necessarily have to be adventurous. The riads (guesthouses) of Morocco are like an oasis that you may never want to leave!
But, NEWS FLASH! (Which I hope you’ll already know)
This country is not what you see on those pretty squares of Instagram or your Pinterest board.
It’s a lot grittier, it’s more raw and it’s real. Dirty, busy, people cat calling you, getting ripped off and shouted at real.
Call me crazy, but this culture shock is the reason why I love it so much.
But, on the flipside, this is the reason why a lot of hopeful travellers come away from the country disappointed or even so upset they never want to go back.
Morocco gets a lot of negative press from the media and even more so from word of mouth, especially for female travellers. So, I feel compelled to share some essential tips from my own travel experiences to help ensure that you get the most out of this mind blowing country.
I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I definitely feel I’ve had my own share of unfortunate experiences to hopefully help other travellers who are heading there to avoid them.
Here are the essential things to know before travelling to Morocco!
Like I said, you need to look beyond the Pinterest board ;)
1. Make sure to dress conservatively
Islam is widely practiced in Morocco with over 99% of the population being Muslim, so typical scenes will be women (and men) dressing conservatively. Women usually wear a full burqa or are dressed head to toe with a hijab (scarf) on their head.
Although you certainly don’t have to dress like the locals do, they are fully aware many tourists aren’t Muslim, I wouldn’t go packing your short dresses and strappy tops that show your cleavage in a hurry.
Unless you want a lot of unwanted attention, marriage proposals, groping and male harassment? Any takers? No? Okay then.
Make sure to cover up your arms and legs, wearing long dresses, jumpsuits, trousers and blouses etc.
Also make sure to bring the secret weapon: a pashmina! This is an ideal accessory for covering up your shoulders.
2. Learn a few phrases in French and Arabic
Parlez-vous français? Although the main language in Morocco is Arabic, French is also a widely spoken language especially in the likes Marrakesh.
Speaking French or Arabic can literally open doors for you in terms of haggling, asking for directions and other things like ordering a taxi.
Now, I’m not just talking about your typical Bonjour, Merci, Sacrebleu – no, no. I’m talking about learning some useful phrases that could help you out. I’ll outline some helpful phrases in French/Arabic below;
- Hello = f: Bonjour/a: Samaal alikum
- Thank you = f: Merci/a: Shukran
- How much is this? = f: Combien/ a: Kam althaman
- Where is? = f: ou est /a: ‘ayn hu
3. Be wary of those that want to show you around or want to be your ‘friend’
You’re new to this city, of course you want to explore and what better way to be shown around then by a local who knows his stuff?!
Well, before you jump in; stop and think.
Unofficial ‘tour guides’ are everywhere in Morocco. They could be in a restaurant, waiting around the corner in the souk, or approach you in the street. Don’t trust everyone you meet; if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
These guys are just after your money or worse to take your possessions.
Always make sure that you arrange a tour guide with your riad and that they are a licensed tour guide. Ask to see their licence, research the company and discuss a price knowing fully what you will be seeing on the tour before you commit.
Don’t believe any of this ‘pay what you feel’ or it’s free for you bull. If they’ve just spoken to you on the street, it’s most probably a scam.
Any reputable company doesn’t send out scouts on the street to gain business.
4. Learn how to haggle
Unless it’s specifically labelled as a fixed price store, most prices can be negotiated.
Not just for products in the souk; taxi fares, riads, meals, tour prices and the pretty leather products you see can all be picked up at a negotiated price.
Truth is, people treat you like you’ve just gotten off the plane and you’re a stupid tourist who’s a walking ATM. Well, prove em wrong!
Even if I don’t know what the price of an item should be, I still negotiate fully knowing that people try it on all the time. It’s sad, but it’s the norm here in Morocco and if you don’t haggle, you could end up paying 10x the price of what something should be.
Don’t feel bad about haggling, it’s expected and you can actually have a lot of fun with it.
The art of haggling is knowing that you have nothing to lose by not buying the product. Not losing your temper. Having your price limit in your head and not going over that. If they aren’t playing ball, walk away and see if they counter with an agreeable price.
Remember, there are countless stalls selling the same thing if you don’t get the price you want.
5. You will get lost
It’s inevitable, you will get lost at some point in Morocco.
With over 9,000 streets in the Fes medina alone, is it any wander? It’s literally a labyrinth. Even with the likes of Google maps, you sometimes won’t be able to find your way as not all the streets are on there!
But, there will always be people on hand to help. I must of gotten lucky with the people I asked as I didn’t get charged or when I offered to tip people didn’t take my money. But, that is a common practice here.
My top tip would be to screen shot a place you would like to go or the address of your riad in arabic on your phone or better yet grab a business card with the address on it.
I can’t stress enough the importance of being vigilant here. Be wary of people offering taking you places. Trust your instincts. If it feels like you’re being led on a merry dance; you probably are.
The best thing you can do in my opinion? Embrace getting lost! You never know what you’re going to find in the souks and it may open a door to the best place you’ve visited yet.
Getting lost allowed me to find this crazy colourful street in Fes!
6. Non Muslims cannot enter mosques
How can they tell? Good question. I have no idea!
But people who do not practice Islam are not allowed to go inside the mosques in Morocco. Well, they couldn’t in Marrakesh and Fes anyhow.
A great alternative though is to visit the madrassa’s (learning places) that you can find within the old parts of the cities. The architecture within them is so detailed it will take your breath away!
7. Cash is king in Morocco and they use Dhirams
Morocco is a closed currency country that use Moroccan Dirhams (MAD) and cash is ultimately king, so make sure you have a lot in your spare in your wallet!
Get into the habit of changing large notes you receive from the ATM. Especially when you’re shopping at the markets or grabbing a taxi. Many won’t have the change to exchange large notes which can cause a problem if you’re in a hurry.
Another tip on ATMs; they can be a little hit and miss and few and far between! They will charge a withdrawal fee, so it may be worth getting out the maximum withdrawal which is around 2000 MAD (£200) to save losing more money than you need to.
8. Bring your own loo roll
Haha! A funny one but one I feel in necessary. Bring your own toilet paper friends!
In the West, it’s normal to use paper but In Morocco and the Middle East, they don’t use it much.
Although in your riad you will (hopefully) find a Westernised toilet with paper, public toilets in Morocco are very different.
Eastern toilets are traditionally latrines (i.e. a hole in the ground with two footholds) where you will need to squat. The locals solely use water to clean up after themselves.
Now, this may sound a horrifying prospect but one you need to get over. Bringing your own toilet paper for these sorts of situations will help give you some Western comfort.
Sorry, I didn’t take any pictures of the loos. But, hey! Look at me with some lamps lol..
9. Cats are everywhere – but be wary!
I’m a cat lady at heart so for me, seeing all these cute cats was like a dream come true. There were also cute little kittens with big blue eyes and the cutest little toe beans. My heart melted and I was manically plotting how to ship them home with me.
But I digress, although they are cute. Be careful.
A British tourist died in Chefchaouen this year after being bitten by a cat. So, please be careful about approaching or feeding them.
You can only catch rabies from a bite and the saliva has entered your blood stream. But, even if you have had a vicious encounter with one (scratch, bite or otherwise) consult a doctor immediately! It could be life saving treatment.
They may look clean and adorable but you can never be too careful.
10. Negotiate taxis prices before you get inside and don’t let them bring a ‘friend’
Taxis were always a headache in Morocco.
Whether it was charging too much, not putting on the meter or inviting randoms into my cab, it was frustrating to say the least.
Some tips for taxis in Morocco;
- Taxis in the likes of Fes and Marrakesh have a meter. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. Always ask for it to be turned on.
- If you have no other choice, agree the price before getting into the taxi. If they try to charge more, politely remind them on the agreed price.
- Don’t allow others into your taxi unless it’s a shared cab. Not just for the principle but for your safety as well, you just don’t know who this ‘friend’ is getting in with you. In the end, I flat out refused to have them in my cab. It’s mind blowing I had to make a fuss to stop it happening, but there it is!
Taxis in Fes were Red, in Marrakesh it was yellow and Chefchaouen was blue which I found pretty cool!
11. Organise tours while you’re there and not before
This is going to unnerve a lot of type A people but, unlike Europe, it’s cheaper to book your tours while you’re here in Moroccco and not before.
There are countless tour providers available to cater to your needs and don’t worry, they won’t get booked up!
Whether you’re after a tour of the Sahara desert, a camel ride, a driver to take you around the country etc. it will be here waiting for you.
My overnight tour of the Sahara desert (Zagora) was around 350MAD (£30). That included sightseeing of the Atlas mountains, Aït Benhadou (pictured below), a camel ride into the desert, an overnight stay at a Berber camp, all soft drinks and meals!
I personally found if I went to the tour operator directly, I got a better price. Riads and hotels usually take a mark up! Also, remember to haggle. All prices can be negotiated.
Just a few little nuggets to help you out there.
12. Watch out for targeted scams for tourists
Ah, scams. An unfortunate byproduct of visiting Morocco as a tourist.
Although it’s not possible to be a immune to all scams, it helps to be aware of what scams are out there and how to avoid them!
Here are some typical scams that I personally experienced in Morocco;
- Taxis – a price is agreed before getting into the taxi but then they charge you more for ‘waiting time’ or ‘it was a different place than you said’. The price is the price!
- Tanneries – In Fes and Marrakesh visiting the tanneries is free. But people make a living by scamming tourists. Of course a tip is expected but don’t pay over the odds (max 20MAD).
- Souks – they will ask you into their stall stating a really good price and then it goes up when you agree to pay. Always negotiate and walk away if they’re charging too much.
- Showing you around – Not a scam as such but if you ask for directions and that person walks with you. Most likely you will need to pay. If this is fine with you go ahead. If not, politely decline the offer.
- Paying for photos – Again, not so much a scam but if you’re watching any street performances, or taking photos of locals expect to pay money. The scam part comes when people ask to take a photo with you, then charge you for it!
- Fake saffron – a lot of tourists come to Morocco to buy saffron. It’s dirt cheap compared to UK prices. But watch out for those selling you fake or plastic saffron. I personally didn’t go shopping for it, but many who do come away disappointed. Ways to tell: Make sure to take a taste test before you buy, it should be bitter. Sniff it for potency, the fake stuff will not smell or dip it in some water to see the orange plume!
13. Rise above the cat calling and staring
- “Do you want a Moroccan husband?”
- “Hello beautiful lady, where are you from”
- “England, sexy, come here!”
- “Nice ass”
- “I love you” (saw me 30 seconds before this!)
These are just some examples of the cat calling I would receive when I walked through the souk every day.
Some days I just laughed it off but after the first week, it really started to grate me.
My biggest tip would be instead of drawing attention to it, simply ignore it. The more I started to ignore, the less I got cat called. Just like any bully, when they realise it’s not hurting you any more, they stop!
14. Understand the distances between locations
Morocco is a massive country and the distances between the popular tourists cities are not to be taken lightly. For example, it’s not so easy to get from Marrakesh to Chefchaouen. In fact, that route could take up to 8 to 9 hours.
The best way to plan your route is to take a look at the amount of days you have and then plan your route realistically eliminating anywhere you won’t have time for.
A typical route through Morocco is to land in Casablanca, head to Rabat, then Fes, Chefchaouen and back, then take the overnight train to Marrakesh. Then heading into the Sahara desert.
My favourite way of planning a route is by Google maps. It’s visual and it allows you to ‘see’ a through route and see time between destinations
15. Alcohol and drugs are seriously frowned upon
Although not illegal, alcohol in Morocco is not a common practice and it is frowned upon in Islamic texts. Ergo, you won’t find many night clubs, wild parties or happy hours here!
If alcohol is served it is usually in restaurants, riads and cafés that have a licence and only there to cater for Western tourists.
The only time I had a drink was when I was safely in my riad and it was provided as a service in their bar.
Although 50% of the worlds hash comes from Morocco, drugs are also a massive no, no. It is very much illegal to be found in possession. So, my advice would be to not partake in any such activity or to use extreme caution when buying/using.
16. Make sure your pockets are zipped and your bags locked!
Pickpockets are common in Morocco so make sure your pockets have zips or stick to a bag. I wouldn’t leave any of your valuables out on display for prying eyes/hands to grab hold of!
On my backpack and daypack, I use a basic TSA lock to make sure that it’s secure and that no one can open it if I put it down at a restaurant or train etc.
In your riad, I would make sure that you lock any valuables that you don’t want taken away in your suitcase or in the safe provided.
It’s better to be safe than sorry!
17. Remain vigilant and use common sense
You can’t have eyes in the back of your head or a crystal ball to predict the future. But it is important to remain vigilant at all times and use some common sense when travelling;
- Don’t walk around late at night – it’s just asking for trouble. After my dinner most nights I would just go back to my riad
- Be wary of people trying to lead you astray – don’t follow people if you don’t know where they’re taking you. Don’t accept offers to show you around for free.
- Watch your pockets
- Women expect to receive a lot of attention – especially on your own. Just politely decline or ignore entirely!
The amount of undue attention you’ll receive is massive, so just be on the look out (especially in Fes), ensure that you don’t go to the off the beaten track places and trust your instincts.
18. Fridays are holy days and holidays
In Islam, Friday is a holy day that many take off as holiday for Namaz (prayer) and to be with their families.
But, that doesn’t mean that everything will be closed, a lot of places will still be open for business. But you may find some of the museums and attractions may be closed for a few hours. Always check on beforehand.
Transport will also still be running, I know the CTM bus runs on a Friday for sure, so don’t sweat it too much. If you booked a bus, train, plane or automobile for a Friday, it will still go ahead!
19. If anything bad happens, alert the tourist police
The tourist police were fantastic in Morocco, at least I know they helped me when I was in need.
I was frantic and I needed help as someone followed me from the bus station all the way up to the Merenid tombs. I panicked and had no idea what to do. It was so isolated and I feared for the worse.
But the tourist police quite literally came to my rescue, jumped on their horses like shining knights to investigate. They told the man to go away, helped me find transport back to my riad and were nothing but reassuring.
Morocco tourist police are there for these types of situations! Don’t suffer in silence. If anything goes wrong on your travels, make sure you alert somebody.
So, that’s the 19 essential things I wish I knew before travelling to Morocco.
Is Morocco a safe country to visit? By all accounts yes! But you just need to be a little more stealthy, especially in the busy city of Fes.
I loved my travels through Morocco and I will continue to go back simply because I believe most of the negative things that come with it are outweighed by how out of this world it is.
It’s an attack on the senses, a mind blowing experience that has a certain magic to it. Put it this way; you won’t forget your adventure there in a hurry!
Let Morocco dazzle you, come armed with an open your mind and ultimately don’t forget to have fun.