For many travellers, Morocco might just be a short hop away by ferry or by one of the myriad budget airlines from Spain, but it’s a much further distance to travel culturally. The regular certainties of Europe are suddenly swept away by the arrival in full technicolour of Africa and Islam. It’s a complete sensory overload.
Tangier, that faded libertine on the coast, has traditionally been a first port of call, but the winds blow you quickly along the Atlantic coast to the cosmopolitan and movie-star famous Casablanca, and whitewashed fishing port gems of Asalih and Essaouira. Inland, the great imperial cities of Marrakesh and Fez attract visitors in droves as they have done for centuries. The winding streets of their ancient medinas have enough surprises around each corner to fill a dozen repeat trips. Away from the urban beat, you’ll find Roman ruins and dramatically craggy valleys to distract you.
If you really want to escape from everything, Morocco still has a couple of trump cards. The High Atlas mountains seem custom-made for hiking boots, with endless trails between Berber villages, and North Africa’s highest peak (Jebel Toubkal) to conquer. Or if you prefer someone else to do the walking, simply saddle up your camel and ride it straight into the Sahara, to watch the sun setting over an ocean of sand
Demographics and Stats
Moroccans are predominantly Sunni Muslims of Arab, Berber, or mixed Arab-Berber ancestry. The Arabs brought Islam, along with Arabic language and culture, to the region from the Arabian Peninsula during the Muslim conquests of the 7th century. Today, a small Jewish community remains as well as a largely expatriate Christian population; both enjoy religious freedom and full civil rights
Most people live west of the Atlas Mountains, a range that insulates the country from the Sahara Desert. Casablanca is the center of commerce and industry and the leading port; Rabat is the seat of government; Tangier is the gateway to Spain and also a major port; "Arab" Fes is the cultural and religious center; and "Berber" Marrakech is a major tourist center.
Souks are a way of life in Morocco and you usually wont have to go far to find one. You can often get good bargains here, but remember that most Moroccans will have a lot more experience than you will when it comes to haggling the price so you will seldom find yourself able to get better than that which is offered.
You may find, if you are friendly and courteous enough, that you will soon start to make friends with the locals. If this happens and you are invited to a meal, it is good to keep in mind some of the local customs. For example, you will usually take off your shoes when entering a house. You can follow your host’s example in this regard. Also it is a good idea to take a gift of some sort with. If you are in a home in the city you might take some pastries or some sugar with you. If you are in the county it would be better to buy a live chicken for the household which is likely to not be quite so well off. A home invitation is perhaps the most authentic way to sample Moroccan dishes. Most Moroccan food is eaten with the hands. If you are invited to join someone for a meal, you should always eat with the right hand as the left is supposed to be used for the toilet.
Any plans to visit mosques will usually meet with failure as these are considered to be very holy places that only Muslims are allowed access to. Though this is allowed in other parts of the world, the closest you will likely get to the inside of a mosque in Morocco is if you visit some ruins or disused mosques such as Tin Mal and Smara. Most other monuments are on view to the public for a price and you can also observe certain celebrations such as the Imilchil wedding Fair.
When taking photographs of the local people, it would be wisest to ask their permission. Taking a photograph of someone with out their permission – especially in rural areas – can cause offense. This may result in them demanding money from you – even if you only intended to take a scenic shot of something. In contrast, taking photographs of someone you have become friendly with is usually very welcome. Often people with whom you’ve become acquainted will take you to a place where they can get a photograph taken with you for themselves. You should not be unfriendly about this as it usually does not result in you paying for the picture or any further harassment.
Traditionally the men take to the streets and the women are in control of their homes. This means that you will not often find woman in cafés or restaurants. If you are a woman and you strike up a friendship, you will likely be invited to the person’s home or to a hamman (bath) for further association. On the other hand, if you are a man or a man and woman traveling together, you will likely be invited into a café for some tea or a meal.
In general, Moroccan culture can be an exiting and worldly experience. The people are friendly and the place is colorful. Hospitality is really a part of their culture so you can strike up friendships virtually anywhere if you have the right attitude. Usually this results in further association with these dynamic and interesting people and a real taste of Moroccan life.
Craft (artesanie) traditions are still highly active and even the goods that are mass-produced for tourists are surprisingly untacky. However, to find pieces of real quality is not that easy. Some crafts have become dulled by centuries of repetition and others have been corrupted by modern techniques and chemical dyes. If you’re planning on buying something it’s always worth getting as close to the source of the goods as possible. You can get a good idea of the original standards by visiting one of the various traditional craft museums that are spread around the country. There are pretty good ones in Fez, Meknes, Tangier, Rabat, and Marrakech.
Carpets Rugs and Blankets
Moroccan carpets aren’t very cheap; you can pay thousands of dollars for the finer Arab designs in Fez or Rabat. However it is possible to find rugs and kellims, which are woven rather than knotted, at more reasonable prices.
Pottery in Morocco is colorful if fairly crudely made on the whole, though the blue-and-white designs of Fez and the multicolored parts of the Chefchaouen are highly attractive.
You’ll find quite a big variety of food products in Morocco that you won’t find very easily back at home. Many of these make an easy and inexpensive gift or souvenir. Locally produced olive oil is very easy to find and it is distinctive with a very strong flavor. Olives also come in numerous varieties, and there are many shops that specialize only in the selling of olives.
Bargaining is entirely natural in Morocco. Never pay attention to initial prices. This is simply a device to test the limits of a particular deal or situation. The best thing to do is to visit a fixed price store to determine the real prices of the crafts. Set your mind on how much you are willing to pay and then go back to the souks to negotiate the prices of the articles. You should always take your time when bargaining. You might get a better deal than some other tourist with less patience or experience. So be patient and stick to what you feel is a fair price.
Stretching across the Corniche of Casablanca and with a total surface area of 10 hectares, the Morocco Mall is the largest shopping mall project in North Africa.
Arabic is Morocco's official language, but French is widely taught and serves as the primary language of commerce and government. Moroccan colloquial Arabic, Darija, is composed of a unique combination of Arabic, Berber, and French dialects. Along with Arabic, about 10 million Moroccans, predominantly in rural areas, also speak one of the three Moroccan Berber dialects (Tarifit, Tashelhit, and Tamazight). Spanish is also used in the northern part of the country. English is increasingly becoming the foreign language of choice among educated youth and is offered in many public schools from the fourth year on.
Regular ferries run to Europe from several ports along the Moroccan Mediterranean coast. The most trafficked is Tangier, from where there are boats to Algeciras, Spain (US$40, 60 to 70 minutes, hourly); Tarifa, Spain (US$28, 35 minutes, five daily); and Sète, France (US$281, 36 hours, two weekly). Hourly ferries also run from Ceuta to Algeciras (US$32, 35 minutes, hourly). Daily ferries go from Al-Hoceima (summer only), Melilla and Nador to Almería and Malaga in Spain. Taking a bicycle onboard is an additional US$10 to US$20, while a car is US$64 to US$102. Children travel for half the price. Tickets are available at the port of departure or from any travel agent in town.
The trains in Morocco are very comfortable and fairly inexpensive. They cover a limited network of routes, but travel between all the major cities so they are easily the best option. They are reliable, comfortable, fast and efficient.
The Shared Taxis are one of the best features of Moroccan transport. They operate on a wide variety of routes and are much quicker than the public buses. The fares are very reasonable. The taxis are usually big Mercedes cars that may carry up to six passengers.
Buses are usually cheaper than the shared taxis and they do more regular routes. Shared Taxis will bring you to your destination much faster, but the buses are far more comfortable and safer.
There aren’t many problems driving by car in Morocco. The speed limit in town is 50km/hour and outside town on the highways it is 100km/hour. By law all drivers and passengers are required to wear seatbelts. However you should be careful of driving at night. It is legal to drive without lights at up to 20km/hour and there are many cyclists, animals and hikers at night, so drivers need to be extra vigilant. There are many car rental depots, though you should have insurance and they are very expensive. The petrol prices in Morocco are also fairly high.
Motorcycling in Morocco is increasing each year. Although you should be careful of your safety at night, you will be able to visit all the sought after places for the enthusiast. It will be advisable to take a good tool kit and puncture repair kit.
RAM (Royal Air Maroc) operates domestic flights from Casablanca to major cities nationwide. Between any other two points you will usually have to change planes at Casablanca, unless both points are stops on a single Casa-bound flight. In general flight are expensive but will save you a lot of time.
Guichets automatiques (ATMs) are now a common sight across Morocco and many accept Visa, MasterCard, Electron, Cirrus, Maestro and InterBank systems. Major credit cards are widely accepted in the main tourist centres, although their use often attracts a surcharge of around 5% from Moroccan businesses.
American Express, Visa and Thomas Cook travellers cheques are widely accepted for exchange by banks. Australian, Canadian and New Zealand dollars are not quoted in banks and are not usually accepted.
Tipping and bargaining are integral parts of Moroccan life. Practically any service can warrant a tip, and a few dirham for a service willingly rendered can make life a lot easier. Tipping between 5% and 10% of a restaurant bill is appropriate. A supply of small coins is vital for the payment of taxis, tips and guides. It is a good idea to load up at a bank when you arrive so you are well prepared.
Morocco’s era as a hippy paradise is long past. Plenty of fine kif (marijuana) is grown in the Rif Mountains, but drug busts are common and Morocco is not a good place to investigate prison conditions.
A few years ago the brigade touristique (tourist police) was set up in the principal tourist centres to clamp down on notorious faux guides (false guides) and hustlers. Anyone convicted of operating as an unofficial guide faces jailtime and/or a huge fine. This has reduced – but not eliminated – the problem. You’ll still find plenty touts hanging around the entrances to medinas and outside train stations, especially at Tangier port and near Bab Bou Jeloud in Fès. If you end up with one of these people remember their main interest is the commission gained from certain hotels or on articles sold to you in the souqs.
Official guides can be engaged through tourist offices and hotels at the fixed price of US$14 per half-day (plus tip).
Women can expect a certain level of sexual harassment when travelling in Morocco. It comes in the form of nonstop greetings, leering and other unwanted attention, but it is rarely dangerous. It is best to avoid overreacting and to ignore this attention. In the case where a would-be suitor is particularly persistent, threatening to go to the police or the brigade touristique is amazingly effective. Women will save themselves a great deal of grief by avoiding eye contact, dressing modestly and refraining from walking around alone at night.
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Morocco is at its best in spring (mid-March to May), when the country is lush and green, followed by autumn (September to November), when the heat of summer has eased. At other times, don’t underestimate the extremes of summer heat and winter, particularly in the High Atlas, where snowcapped peaks persist from November to July. If you are travelling in winter, head for the south, although be prepared for bitterly cold nights. The north coast and the Rif Mountains are frequently wet and cloudy in winter and early spring.
Apart from the weather, the timing of Ramadan (the traditional Muslim month of fasting and purification) is another important consideration as some restaurants and cafés close during the day and general business hours are reduced.