Morocco offers intrigue and charm to the visitor, but to truly make the most of your experience, there are a few top tips one should know before landing in the country:
Morocco is a cash based country, with the dirham as its currency. Nearly all your purchases will be in cash. Unfortunately, Morocco is a closed monetary system so you cannot exchange your money until you are in the country. After getting through customs at Casablanca’s airport, I made my way directly to the ATM. Though credit cards are accepted at larger hotels and restaurants, you will still be encouraged to pay in cash. One of the riads I stayed at stated on their website that they accepted credit cards, but upon arrival, it was a different story. So, be prepared.
All Moroccans are comfortable conversing in French and Arabic. Though you can get by in English, it can be difficult in some areas; although, some Moroccans may want to take the time to speak with you to practice English (and even ask you to jot down words and their meaning so they can study later). Knowing a few words in Arabic will greatly impress the locals. The words I used the most were:
Hello – salam alaykum
Thank you – Shokran (pronounced show-ka-ron)
No Thank you – La shokran (this you will use a lot when going through the souks)
Traveling in the Country
The fastest way to travel from city to city is via train. For the most part, their train system ran on time and the carriages were clean and it is an extremely affordable way to travel. However, one cannot book train tickets outside the country. A useful tool I used to help plan my journey and budget was Oncf’s website.
Riad vs Hotel
If you’re like me, you’re going to Morocco for a full Moroccan experience. It doesn’t get any more Moroccan than staying in a Riad or Dar. These are traditional Moroccan homes with either a garden or fountain in the courtyard. Staying in a riad, I found that you really get to know your hosts and they take great care of you (while in Fes I got a cold and every morning my host would give me cold medicine!). The downside is that most are found inside the medina (old city) where typically no cars are allowed. This means you are lugging your luggage through narrow, crowded, cobblestone streets which can be difficult (pack light). And, you may end up lost in the medina, though all my hosts offered to arrange a meeting point outside of the medina to help guide to the location upon arrival. But I could not imagine enjoying Morocco as much if I didn’t stay at riads.
You cannot visit Morocco without trying a tajine and couscous. You will not leave feeling empty! Something I didn’t know was that Morocco is overflowing with oranges! The fresh squeezed orange juice is not to be missed. And mint tea (aka Moroccan whiskey) is served with every meal. I was surprised to see on menus lots of Italian dishes. However, do not order expecting traditional Italian dishes. In Marrakech, I ordered a Bolognese and got spaghetti with spicy meatballs. As for drinking water, I always went with bottled water. Though you can drink the water in the larger cities, the water has a higher mineral content which may cause stomach issues (I heard no one leaves Morocco without getting an “upset” stomach and I found this to be very true!).
Over the counter drugs are only available at apothecaries. Street vendors are not allowed to carry such items (though they do offer regular toiletries) but they happily point you in the direction of the nearest druggist. Your common medicines will not be found there and most of the labels are in Arabic so you must relay on the chemist to give you the right medicine. It is best to pack some medicine to have handy on the trip in case of any upset stomach, cold, or any other ailments. A must in your luggage is toilet paper. Always have some handy as many public restrooms, especially those outside of the main cities, do not have any.
It is a way of life in Morocco, especially in the souks. When shopping and you spot that perfect souvenir, you will need to engage in bargaining with the vendor on the price. It is considered rude if you do not or if you end up agreeing on a price and then opt not to purchase. But be prepared – bargaining takes time. You can count on spending a good 15-20 minutes before it comes to an end, after which, the vendor will be more than happy to escort you down the street to his cousin’s rug shop (it seemed everyone in Morocco had a cousin who owned a rug shop just down the street). Always be polite and a smile goes a long way.
Get Out of the City
Morocco is much more than its cities. The diverse country side demands to be explored. Among the key highlights are the Atlas Mountains, Rif Mountains, and the Sahara Desert. You can rent a car and drive the countryside yourself (the roads are well marked); however, there are a lot of police stops and you will need to ensure that you have the necessary paperwork handy at all times. I chose to hire a private driver. This way I could dictate where we stopped and for how long rather than having a tour operator say it’s time to get on the bus. It also afforded me time to speak with the driver about daily life in Morocco, the country’s history, their ideology, and learn more about Islam. To have that opportunity was well worth the small added cost of a private tour. The best operator for this option I found was Omega Tours.
Exploring the Cities Solo
I’m a female and I found no issue with spending the day wondering around the cities by myself. But I will say that I would not recommend it to everyone. The medinas can be extremely overwhelming with vendors calling out to you, the crowds, the heat, and the constant sense of getting absolutely lost. But it was so much fun! Every day was adventure and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. And not once did I ever feel threatened. I did notice that being a solo female did attract more attention from the locals, but not in a negative way. But it does take backbone. And in Marrakech, you do need to be weary of friendly locals who will help guide you to your next destination. They will expect a hearty tip for their service even when it wasn’t asked for!
The most important tip is to just enjoy and take your time immersing yourself into the culture of Morocco. If you rush around, you’ll leave never truly knowing the country nor the people.