As many of you guys know, I just finished a pretty epic 12-day adventure-heavy trip running around in Morocco. I read up a bit about the country before I went, using Wikitravel, and a few guides like DK’s awesome Top 10 series, The Rough Guide to Morocco, and TripAdvisor, but honestly I had barely done any research and kinda did a lot of trip-planning at the last minute. After traveling around this totally epic country, I came up with a list of my Top 10 Ways to Survive (& Enjoy) Morocco. If you or anyone else you know is planning to go to Morrocco anytime soon or in the future, this will probably be some pretty good information to have before you get started on your trip! Here we go:
1) Stock up on tons of small 5 – 20 Moroccan dirham (~$0.50 – 2) coins and bring backup ATM cards/Euros for emergencies as soon as your trip starts
The ATM’s at the airports in Morocco and in the big cities tend to spit out 100 – 200 dirham bills (~$10-$20). Unfortunately, most things that you will spend money on daily (food stands, buses, taxis, minor shopping in the markets, going to the bathroom in public, etc.) all require money way less than 100 – 200 dirham bills. A typical excuse in Morocco from vendors, cab drivers, etc is usually “I don’t have change, sorry!” They’re hoping you’ll just give them a big bill and they’ll keep the change. Sure, it’s only an extra $0.50 or $1 they are getting out of you, but after awhile it definitely adds up…And besides, it’s the principle of it! Why get ripped off if you don’t have to? So as SOON as you can try to break as many 50 and 100 dhr bills early and often to get a lot of 1-20 dhr change for tips, tourist sites, pictures, and avoiding the common “I don’t have change so just give me more than I deserve” routine! You’ll be happy you did.
Also make sure that your ATM and credit cards have their travel notifications set up and are good to go to withdraw cash and be used. I had one ATM card swallowed whole for no good reason at all, which would have really sucked if I didn’t have two backup ATM cards. And even then, in some towns some of my ATM cards didn’t work at all, also for no good reason. You will mainly be using coins and bills though, because like 8-9 out of 10 times you spend money in Morocco you will have to use cash since people don’t take credit card much there, unless it’s a fancier restaurant, hotel, or other tour activity.
2) Make sure you have downloaded maps or have offline maps for Fez, Marrakesh, and other Morocco cities you visit that are complete mazes and easy to get lost in. Don’t trust people who promise to be your guide!
The markets and souks of Marrakesh, Fez, and other large cities in Morocco are a totally confusing rat maze. It doesn’t matted what kind of guide you have, or what kind of paper map you have. Download a good offline map, like Google Maps or better yet TripAdvisor city (Marrakesh, Fez, etc) and set up whatever app you use to have Location Services on. This will allow you to stare at your GPS blue dot as you slowly navigate and get comfortable with the totally confusing jumble of alleys you will 100% get lost in.
Make sure you pin and save your favorite tourist sites, restaurants, shops, bars, etc. so eventually you’ll always know where you are just based on landmarks, restaurants, and shops you’ve been to before. Since your GPS and apps will be sucking up so much energy and draining your phone, make sure you bring a Mophie or some sort of portable battery pack and charging cable! Don’t forget the power converter as well, obviously. Also, as a last minute way to find your way out of somewhere when you are completely lost in the alleys or Morocco, try to use the compass function on iPhone or download a compass app…it always is a useful last minute item, and way less obvious than pulling out a big book or map that makes you look super lost.
Lots of people will try to guide you to the restaurant, riad, store, etc. you are looking for, but do NOT ever use these people unless you (surprise surprise!) like spending money you don’t need to for it. Half the time they won’t take you to where you want to go, but instead drag you to their friend’s restaurant, riad, store, etc. and convince you to stay there, because they will get a commission for it. And in case they DO take you to the right place, they 100% will be asking for a tip of some kind. In Morocco, unfortunately most of the times, especially in the Old Town/medina, markets, and shopping areas, people are usually not offering help for free!
3) Wear wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses, speak a foreign language, and walk quickly and confidently whenever you are around major Morocco souks and markets, if you want a hassle-free experience!
Wear sunglasses as much as possible in day (or even night if possible), allows you to avoid eye contact with beggars and shop owners while still checking out shops/wares without getting attention and having to start haggling. Get good at “drive-by window-shopping” while walking. Walk with purpose. Speak another language they can’t speak (Spanish sometimes works, unless you are in the north of Morocco like Tangier or Chefchaouen, or Chinese also works well). Wear earbuds while you are walking around in the markets to pretend you are listening to music and can’t hear them. Or you can just ignore them, it’s the most effective way…although you’ll may be feel bad, you won’t get stuck in the markets forever! Basically pretend you are a hot chick trying to walk around your neighborhood without being hassled or hit on…it’s basically the same techniques! 😛
4) Make sure you are careful of who and where you take photographs in Morocco
Japanese tourists, teenage girls, and people with the last name “Kardashian” are totally okay snapping hundreds of pictures, taking selfies, and generally using a camera or camera phone every where they go. Moroccans, and a lot of Muslim people, are not always the same! In Morocco, don’t assume you can just take candid or sneaky photos of everything and everyone, especially close-ups of people’s faces without asking them first. I mean, a majority of the time it’s okay! But some Moroccans find this offensive, some (especially around Jemaa El Fna and other large markets) will flat out ask you for 10-20 ($1-$2) to be able to take that picture. If you didn’t realize this before you took the picture, it’ll be awkward as you try to argue against having to pay for it!
If you happen to be in a some of the bigger clubs, like 555 Club, you also will probably get reprimanded by the bouncers for taking photos. This is because Morocco actually had a problem with liberal Moroccan girls going to party and dance, but then having their photo taken, spread all over the internet, and being called slutty or cyberbullied, etc. No joke! More than a few Moroccan girls told me this was a problem. So don’t take photos in the clubs unless you are sure you can do it. On the other hand in Theatro in Marrakesh everyone seemed to be fine taking photos. The smaller Western lounges like Kozybar, Comptoir, and Dag Mahal (and other places that have belly-dancing dinner shows) usually don’t have a problem with photo-taking.
Other places where photography might be frowned on is inside a mosque during prayer, which you probably won’t be able to get into as a non-Muslim, and maybe certain market stalls.
5) Stay safe and clean…Because there are many of opportunities to be unsafe or get dirty in Morocco, very quickly!
Standard rules apply. Carry stuff in front pockets to avoid getting pickpocketed, especially in busy squares, markets, and alleys. Make sure you know exactly where your bags are when you are taking long-distance buses, trains, etc. Bring hand sanitizer and Kleenex or toilet paper with you everywhere, since most public bathrooms are pretty dirty and don’t get cleaned much. Baby wipes are golden as well to keep you clean. And this goes without saying, but it’s widely know that in Morocco you should ever be drinking tap water. That extra 5 or 8 dirham for a bottled water is well worth it to save you from “travelers belly”!
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of using nasty squat toilets, these are often the only toilets that are availably in public areas like bus and train stations. If you’re a girl or unfortunately have to drop a deuce, you’re sort of screwed when you travel long distances on the road and you’ll be forced to use a squat toilet. The fact that you have to fill up a plastic bucket to gravity flush these squat toilets to make all the nasty stuff go down makes it even worse! Try to use a normal Western style toilet before you get on the road if you are grossed out easily, before you start traveling or needing to use public restrooms, to avoid an awkward experience. But if your bus ride is going to be some long 10-12 hour bus ride, you may not have a choice!
6) Always be thinking about how to position yourself the best way to (surprise surprise!) avoid the hard sell in Morocco and being upcharged.
If you have to sit in an outdoor cafe or restaurant by square or busy area, sit one row or table inside; you’ll be less likely to be bothered every minute by beggars and peddlers hawking cigarettes, sunglasses, watches, fragrances, compared to the the row of tables and chairs right on the square. Better yet just try to sit on one of the many rooftop terraces to get some peace and quiet and safely away from all the street peddlers who will try to sell you everything from watches to fragrances to wallets to belts.
As soon as you arrive outside an airport, train station, bus station, or other public transportation hub, make SURE you cross the street and go farther away to get a fair price. Always make sure you agree on a price beforehand that is fair (so know what a fair price is with research online!) or get the taxi to use the meter. The older and more beat-up the taxi is, the less likely you will be to get ripped-off.
Don’t take illegal taxi-cabs if at all possible. I made the mistake of taking one in Agadir to get to a small surf town of Taghazout and some random dude threw me in the back of his minivan and then made me hide under a towel to hide from angry cab drivers that knew he was an illegal cab. The same guy also convinced/forced me to lie to Moroccan police about his name and how I knew him in order for me to get there…no joke! And he still charged me 50 dirham ($5 more) than the ride was supposed to cost!
7) Learn some basic Arabic or French words, numbers, and phrases…It goes a LONG way in Morocco!
People always try to say “Hi, where are you from my friend?” or guess your origin by saying hello in multiple languages “Konichiwa! Hello! Bonjour!” Especially if you are Asian or blonde or white or speak French, they will be definitely be trying to get your attention right away. Learning basic numbers in Arabic, such as 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, etc, really helps with bargaining. Also learning how to say “Yes,” “No,” “Please,” “Thank You” in Arabic go a long way. Everytime some trys to bug you about something you have no desire for, just say “La, Shukran! (No, Thank you!)” or “La, Min Fadlak! (No Please!)” without breaking stride and keep walking! I promise you, it’s probably the most useful phrase you’ll use in Morocco.
On the other hand, if you know some French it will come in supremely useful since many local Moroccans have learned how to speak French as they were growing up due to Morocco’s former status as a protectorate/colony of France before World War II. Many people will be able to speak some English, but mainly in the major cities. Don’t assume for sure that they will be able to speak English well everywhere you go.
8) Be aware of your surroundings, simply for safety’s sake!
Crossing the street, even when you have the right of way or light, or just walking around the markets at any time of the day can be hazardous to your health! Stay to the far right or left when walking around medinas or souks, since in general there is no pedestrian right of way at all. Every 30 seconds there will be a dude careening by on a bicycle or scooter at 30 kmh or someone pushing a heavy metal cart or wheeling a bunch of chickens around or something. The Old Towns and medinas are supposed to be pedestrian-only and not for scooters or cars, but almost everyone completely ignores this rule and nobody seems to be enforcing it! There is no such thing as “pedestrian rights.”
One night when I was in the famous Jemaa El Fna market square in Marrakesh, I literally had walked 5 feet away in the middle of the squareto try to get WiFi reception, and the dude next to me got completely creamed head-on by a bike. He got really hurt, had the wind knocked out of him or ribs broken, and proceeded to curse the guy who hit him in Arabic, while the bike driver just dusted himself off, shrugged a “Sorry!” and slowly rode away. Everyone else acted like this happened all the time. So be really aware of your surroundings so you don’t get creamed by some sort of motor vehicle, pushcart, bicycle, chicken wagon, or something else. Listen for cries in Arabic of “Belek! Belek!” to get out of the way. In fact when anyone yells ANYTHING in Arabic while you are in Morocco, it’s probably a pretty good idea to just get out of the way! 😛 I had a very extensive travel insurance/accident insurance policy in Morocco, and was happy I did!
9) Protect yourself from the vicious Moroccan sun, excess dehydration, and not being able to poop
Bring good wide-brimmed hat for that hot Moroccan sun. Even in February or the winter, you can get some pretty sun in the daytime. Or get some head covering…a short sleeved collared shirt you can wrap around your head with sunglasses to hold them in place works in pinch, in case you don’t have a legit wide-brimmed hat or turban to wear. This is especially important if you start doing long hikes out in the open or camelback trips in the Sahara in the daytime. But you’ll also need to back for some colder weather that can come on at night and in the winter, such as a few long-sleeved shirts, maybe even a sweatshirt or bulkier top, jeans, a good warm jacket, gloves, and a hat. You can always pick up a cheap wool beanie in the markets of Marrakesh for 15-20 dirham.
Also, remember your “ABHF”: Always Be Hydrating & Fibering! Lots of heat in the daytime, tons of starch and meat in the Moroccan diet, coupled with not enough access to veggies and fruits usually end up with a very full feeling that won’t go away. If you don’t want to be bloated and all “stuck-up,” make sure you are constantly drinking bottle water, juice, or trying to eat some fruit or veggies whenever the chance arises. You’ll thank me later when you’re not just sitting there on a Moroccan toilet wondering why nothing is happening!
10) Get really patient and good at dealing with loooooong Moroccan bus and train rides
Morocco is a wonderful country, but unlike Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Scandinavia, and other more developed parts of the world, almost everybody has to travel between cities on trains and buses that aren’t of the best quality. The trains aren’t so bad and usually have multiple availabilities a day, but usually only run between major cities like Tangier, Fes, Casblanca, Rabat, and Marrakesh. Trains also have frequent delays, cost about 30-40% more than the comparable bus ride, and aren’t always a lot faster than buses. On the other hand, they are way more comfortable than buses, don’t charge you for luggage, allow you to get up and walk and stretch easier, and tend to have snack carts and a basic (Western) bathroom on board.
If you are going south or west of Marrakesh to Essouaira, Agadir, or the Atlantic shore beach towns, over the Tiz-N-Tchka mountain passes or other mountain journeys, to smaller desert towns like Zagora or Merzouga, or beautiful northern towns like Chefchaouen, then you’ll be forced to take a more cramped long-distance bus . In Marrakesh, the long-distance buses take off from Supratours station just west of main train station (Gare de Marrekech); be careful if you take CTM instead of Supratours since they don’t often service the exact same routes and they sometimes have different stations.
An average bus ride from Marrakech to/from Agadir costs, for example 100 dhr ($10) and takes 3 hrs, every 2 hours. From Marrakech to Merzouga it’s a long windy 12 hr bus ride, once a day at 0830, and costs 220 dhr ($22). It’s 175 dhr ($17.5) for a Supratours bus ride between Merzouga to Fes. The buses usually have AC, stop a few times to pick up passengers at smaller towns, and include a few short stretching breaks for food or bathrooms. The longer rides will have at least one main 20-30 min water and food break in the middle so you can get a quick sandwich, crepe, or bowl of harira soup somewhere.
Try to buy bus tickets early in person at the station you want to leave from or there is danger of not getting one or having to wait for the next one, esp in busy season/infrequent buses/specific bus. Each piece of luggage you bring on a bus costs 5 dhr, and you have to prepay 15-30 minutes before and get yellow luggage sticker/claim ticket before you can put it on the bus.
Morocco is an insanely beautiful and wonderful country, with unbelievable sights, sounds, colors, smells, and tastes. It’s one of the perfect gateway countries to start experiencing Africa, if you’ve never been there before. All over Morocco, you’ll see buildings, jewelry, clothing, and foods you’ll never have seen anywhere else, and experience a culture like no other. There’s no wonder in my mind why places like Marrakesh and Fez and the other gorgeous smaller towns of Morocco are so popular to visit; multiple tourists I had talked to were visiting for the 2nd, 3rd, or even 10th time! And despite all my warnings and advice here, I really felt like a huge majority of Moroccans were super welcoming, eager to help, and were just trying to genuinely help/weren’t trying to rip you off.
Even after visiting 48 countries worldwide, Morocco is probably one of the most memorable, exciting, mysterious, and fascinating places I’ve ever visited in my life, and I’ll definitely be back. Hopefully reading this will make you want to go to Morocco, and be able to travel the country like a local!