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When traveling we often carry a big ole bag full of experiences and expectations. These experiences and expectations often revolve around the tiny little world of our own existence. Often times we are unwilling or incapable of letting go of this tiny little existence to truly experience another culture. We may know things are different elsewhere, but we don’t really know how different. There are the 13 things I wish I knew before visiting Morocco.
On a recent trip to Spain, I decided to take a time to visit Morocco, as I had never been. I traveled from Tangier, to Chefchoauen, down to Fes, and then to Marrakech to Rabat and back up to Tangier again. This all happened within the span of roughly 10 days. These 10 days changed me and how I saw myself as a traveler. I had to open my world to things unknown and be uncomfortable at times to allow myself to grow. I had to, as my significant other calls it, “Leave my privilege at the door.”
Over the course of the last decade, I have intentionally put myself in a career to learn about other cultures. I have moved to a place where I was the minority to understand what it is like to be a minority (although it was amazingly beautiful and I was treated very well). I have traveled on a budget to get the feeling of new cultures. What I had not done was travel to a developing country, nor had I sought out much information on the Muslim culture.
During my days in Morocco I fully immersed myself in both of those things. Every day brought new learning experiences, all of which have made me a better traveler, a better human. The teacher in me wants to share the experiences I found to help fellow travelers manage their travel expectations when visiting Morocco.
Culture shock can hit strong.
This is the first time I have visited a majority Muslim country. The differences in interactions between men and women were night and day different from what I am accustomed to in America. It wasn’t a feeling of being uncomfortable, I just had to get accustomed to the male dominated world.
In the more traditional type places, such as Fes and Tangier, there was a feeling of being set back in time. The old world feel could be felt in the air. The sights, sounds and interactions felt hundreds of years old.
There is a huge language barrier.
I am accustomed to being glued to my phone with Google Translate when visiting a new country. For the most part, this helps me get by, as I am one of those silly Americans that only knows English, but insists on visiting very language country I possibly can.
In Morocco, there is a vast array of languages spoken, most of which are not English. You will find people speaking French, Modern Standard Arabic, Moroccan Arabic or Berber. It is a true guessing game to figure out how to communicate. I suggest brushing up on some of these common phrases before you go. It may save your trip!
There is a tourist up-charge.
It is no secret many inhabitants of Morocco live in poverty. The socioeconomic gap is large. If you are wanting to stay in the older, more cultural parts of any city, you will see the effects of generational poverty like you probably have never seen. With this being said, people are trying to make money any way possible.
While walking the streets, you will often see young boys and women selling soap to earn extra money. The children will also just beg for money. It is hard to walk away from those sweet, big ole eyes just begging for anything extra. For me, this was the hardest.
What caused frustration the most for me was the up-charge for taxi rides. I quickly learned you must agree to a charge BEFORE you step into a cab, and even then, some cab drivers will try to up-charge when you arrive. If the taxi has a counter (meter) running, make sure it is on at all times. Also be sure the driver doesn’t turn it off just before you arrive at your destination. You must pay attention at all times. Not every driver will try to take advantage, but many will.
Much of this caused frustration for me, as I am on a budget while traveling. Also, there is a part of me that feels taken advantage of, and that is not a nice feeling. However, I had to keep reminding myself of how poverty stricken much of the people are in Morocco. If I can have money to travel, even on a budget, I have more than many of these people. They are simply trying to survive.
When people help you, they expect a service tip.
While walking the streets, you will find many children and men offering to help you find your way. If you allow this, be prepared to tip for their service. Even when you say no, you have to be very adamant or else you risk them following along, being “helpful” and then asking for money at the end of the journey. I learned this the hard way.
When lost in the Medina, a young boy was very persistent in offering help, even saying he needed no money when we told him we didn’t have any to pay him. When he got us to our destination, we offered him the few dirham (Moroccan currency) we had. He said it wasn’t enough and then demanded more money from the innkeeper. He ended up with more money than the taxi driver quoted us to drive us to the hotel. Of course we felt obligated to give the money back to the receptionist, but I sure felt like we got shook down by some 12 year old.
You have to pay to go to the restroom.
Teaching for over a decade has helped me train my bladder. In the profession we refer to it as one of our superpowers to be able to go a whole school day without going to the restroom. Well, that is when you are in a comfortable environment, and can forgo copious amounts of liquids. When you are visiting Morocco in August, with 100F + temperatures, you have no choice but to drink ALL the liquids.
Unfortunately, many public access washrooms are what I like to call squatty potties. They are nicer versions of holes in the ground that must be washed down with water after use. There is an attendant in most places to do this, but it will cost you a small fee to use. Be sure to keep some change on you at all times in case nature comes a calling when you are out and about. (Also, it wouldn’t hurt to keep some tissue on you as well.)
**Luckily, all of the restrooms in restaurants, hotels and Riads had standard toilets.
Not all public transportation is created equal.
Public transportation was a source of major frustration for me. Historically, I have not been a public transit user, as the places I have lived have had little opportunities to use public transit. My experiences have been on the BART in San Francisco, the Washington DC metro, Spain buses and trains and the train systems in Japan. All of these transit systems are fabulous. I was not expecting great things, but I had no idea how vastly different all the systems are in Morocco.
The buses, oh goodness, the buses. Luckily, before my visit, I met a fellow traveler who told me to use the CTM bus system within Morocco. So, the first trip I took, I went with this company. It was no Spanish ALSA, but it was cheap and air conditioned. Good enough for me!
The next bus trip, we were less on top of things. When we got to the bus station, a local man intercepted us and asked us where we were going. We told him and he informed us there was a bus leaving momentarily and had two seats left for us. So, we took it. BIG mistake! It was a local bus line that ended up costing us even more than CTM after we were sorely ripped off for baggage fees. The bus had zero air conditioning for 4.5 hours, in scorching heat. It was oversold, so people were sitting in the aisles. It also stopped for every Joe Schmo along the way.
Moral of the story: If you are taking a bus, find the national line and stick to it. Do not take any local buses. You will thank yourself later.
Trains in Morocco: there was just as much of a difference in trains as buses. Luckily, you don’t have to play the “which line do I take” game, it is just a difference in classes. ONCF is the only train line to take throughout Morocco. Most trains are not the best, but they get you from point A to point B. Sometimes they are even cheaper than the bus.
The differences on the train is 1st class vs 2nd class. 2nd class was a terrible experience for me, as it had very little air conditioning without windows that opened. There were also 6 adults and two young children in a very small cabin. It was hot, sweaty and musty. The restroom was little more than an airplane toilet, but there was no running water or soap to wash hands and no toilet paper.
The 1st class area was a notch above; well worth the few dollars difference. 1st class tickets allowed you a seat in a cabin with just seats for 6 adults. I was much more comfortable and the seats were much larger. It also had a wonderful air conditioner to keep us all from sweating out all our fluids. Unfortunately, the restroom was in the same condition as 1st class.
The big differences for trains was the high speed train from Rabat to Marrakech. It is my understanding this is the only train like it in the country. It was much more like the trains in Spain and Japan. It was spacious, had charging ports and the air conditioner was amazing. The bathrooms were also very nice with toilet paper, running water and soap! It very much enjoyed that trip after the others I had endured over the 10 days.
The Sahara Desert is really, REALLY far.
I had never really dreamed of visiting the Sahara Desert before visiting Morocco. It had just never crossed my mind. However, once I got into the country, there was just a vibe pushing me to want to visit.
Unfortunately, after some research, I learned the Sahara Desert is far… Like really, REALLY far from any destination you will stay. I did find 2 day trips that only had about 8 hours of driving into the desert, but it wasn’t the rolling sandy desert you see in the movies. The short trips take you into a much less appeasing rocky part of the desert. And why get that far without getting the real deal?
To get to the part of the Sahara Desert you see in the movies and on those Instagram photos, you must take a 3 day, 12 hour driving tour. T-W-E-L-V-E hours in a van to get to your destination. This was off the table for me after days and days of less than desirable travel experiences.
There are also many things you need to take into account when packing for a Sahara Desert trip, including clothing for weather. This is not a spur of the moment trip a backpacker can plan on the fly. There needs to be true planning involved if you are lusting after a trip into the Sahara Desert.
The Medina is a maze just waiting for you to get lost.
Most old cities have an area called the Medina. The translation means old city. This is where you can find much of the shopping and food tourist love. Although I highly suggest visiting the Medina, be sure you pay attention to where you are going and do not go too far inside.
The Medina in Fez is giant and shockingly confusing. The little boy that shook us down for money also informed us there were over 9000 little (unmarked) roads and alleys in the Medina. To add to the confusion, GPS and even the maps.me app get confused. If you aren’t careful, you can get real lost, real quick. I got so lost, I walked almost 6 miles just trying to get my way out of the Medina. Not fun.
Be wary of the fabrics in the Medinas.
Many people come to Morocco to buy fabulous products at a very cheap prices. Leather, rugs and pottery are all highly sought items in the Medinas all throughout Morocco. I was only to admire those items, as I am a backpack traveler and had zero room for such luxuries.
What I did have room for and desperately wanted was a pair of Moroccan style pants. I finally found a pair in Marrakech and was very excited to wear them. Unfortunately, the very first time I washed them, I just threw them in with a load of other clothes. Terrible decision. That whole load of laundry now has spots of green, as the pants bled their color on everything! I have since soaked them over 10 different times to try to get the dye to stop transferring, but every time, I am left with very dark green water. They have yet to stop bleeding their color.
I am not saying don’t buy, just be careful when you try to wash. Hand washing is probably the way to go.
Bartering is alive and well.
Bartering is not my favorite activity. If this is your jam, you will love Morocco! You don’t just barter in the Medinas, you barter for everything. Taxis are one place I didn’t even think of having to do this, but you need to. They will always quote you a much higher price, unless they use the counter. Shoot for at least 10 dirhams under what they first say. As far as the Medinas, a local told me a good rule of thumb is most mark up their price at least 70%. Just don’t show your love for something, and shoot for the stars. The worst they can do is say no.
Alcohol is difficult to find.
Why I did not think about alcohol before I visited is a mystery to me. It makes total sense for a Muslim country to not have alcohol readily available. Duh!
The more traditional places like Fes, you really had to seek out alcoholic beverages. It wasn’t impossible, just limited options. More progressive places like Marrakech had plenty of options, but were still hidden from the public. You had to go to the rooftop or through a curtain to have a drink. They shielded you from public view. The alcohol was also very pricey compared to other places. It was upwards of 5€ for 25 cL bottles of Heineken. Wine was even more pricey.
Westerners are held to a different standard.
One of my biggest concerns before visiting Morocco was what to wear. I know Muslim women are usually very covered. I knew I didn’t have to do the same, but I didn’t want to be too revealing. What I learned is that it really doesn’t matter for Westerners. They do not hold us to the same standard, unless you are visiting a Mosque. In that case, cover your shoulders, elbows and knees.
I did not get any crazy stares or feel uncomfortable for the most part. There were a few times men said inappropriate things to me, but the nature of what was said made me feel like it would have been said no matter what I wore. Me being American was the biggest thing that made me stand out. Overall, I feel anything goes, as long are your parts are not out dangling for everyone to see.
There is beauty in being uncomfortable.
Before I left from Spain to head into Morocco, I seriously contemplated getting a guide and a driver for my travels. The little bit I knew was that my trip would be easier with someone who knew how to navigate the country. I decided against it in the long run.
I definitely see the value in tour guides. Their job is to take all the uncomfortable parts out of travel. They communicate, delegate and direct you to the absolute best experiences. Maybe one day I will come back and do this.
For this trip, I wanted to truly experience the culture. I kind of wanted to make the mistakes, to learn through those mistakes. I saw the nitty gritty. I felt the struggle. I was forced to learn about the culture in a way I would not have, had someone been there to show me all the right moves. There is beauty and learning in being uncomfortable in a new culture. I wouldn’t have changed it for anything.
One last thing! Chefchaouen is just as beautiful as the pictures!
You can see most of it within one day, though. So, keep this in mind while planning.