Thursday, December 06, 2007

Tips before Heading to Morocco

For those of you planning to go to Morocco for a visit or longer, I have provided some information that should be helpful. As well as I hope this will motivate you to discover more about Morocco.

1. Some Basics

Respecting the Culture of Morocco is the best way to avoid unpleasant situations and misunderstandings. I’d like to call this piece “For best results…"

Tipping in Morocco is expected for just about any service rendered. As a rule of thumb leave 10% in restaurants however for other services such carrying your bags, five to ten dirham is sufficient. A special note, if you plan to take photos of the locals, you should definitely ask first. And it is possible that you will be asked for a tip as well.

While Alcohol is mostly easily attainable; don’t assume that all bars and restaurants will serve it. As Islam forbids alcohol consumption, there is a certain level of restriction. The best places to look are supermarkets where you can buy beer and wine as well as expensive restaurants or those catering to foreigners.

Ramadan is a month long period where from dusk to dawn, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex. Every year the dates change as Ramadan falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. In the evenings, families get together and have a big feast. How this affects you is restaurants open for meals/drinks may be hard to come by during this period.

Women Travelers should plan to cover up especially if traveling without a man. Bear in mind that legs and shoulders are considered private body parts in Morocco and really both men and women should keep these areas covered. Long sleeved tops that don’t show cleavage and pants or long skirts will help you a great deal. Yes, of course while you can wear whatever you want, know that you will receive a lot of unwanted attention. You will be treated how you are dressed, therefore if you would like to be treated with respect, dress modestly. When approached with unwanted advances/ offers always politely decline. While I suggest you be assertive and mean it, using profane language or yelling will only make the situation worse.

Mosques and holy places are forbidden to non Muslims. The exceptions are Hassan II in Casablanca, Mohammed V Mausoleum in Rabat and the Moulay Ismail Mausoleum in Meknes.

2. Shopping in the Souks

Often I come across travelers who are experiencing, what I call, misunderstandings, when shopping in the souks and I think this often comes from ignorance of culture on both sides. Yes, that of the traveler as well as that of the native. First and foremost, even amongst each other, Moroccans haggle, or rather, negotiate for all most everything they need or want. Therefore it is only natural that they will expect you to do the same. Before buying anything, have a look around, find out what others spent on a particular item and then give it a shot. Know the absolute most you are prepared to spend and be prepared to leave if you’re not happy with the final price. Do accept mint tea in the spirit in which it is given and discuss price with a light heart. If the shopkeeper lets you walk away without lowering his offer, he was most likely giving you a fair price.

No matter which souks in the country you visit, I would suggest you go without a guide even in Fes which is considered to be one of the more intricate souks. It really does add to the experience. However, understand that by wandering around guideless, you will attract many kindhearted Moroccans offering you their services as a guide. My best advice to minimize this is to get there early at about 9 am. Not all shops will be open so you’ll have an easier time orienting yourself as well as few guides and would be guides are out yet. Also when asked, if you need a guide, mention that you have been in the city of choice for two or three days and you already had a guide. If you find yourself hopelessly lost and are ready to get out of the labyrinth, you can always get a young person to show you the way out for a small fee.

3. Recommended Places to Visit

Where you decide to go depends on the type of experience you are looking for. However, I would suggest for the first time visitor to Morocco/North Africa, to visit some if not all of the Imperial cities which include Marrakesh, Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes and Fes. While it is most likely that if you arrive by plane you will arrive in Casablanca, I don’t think you should stay there too long. Unlike the other cities I have mentioned, Casablanca is not an artisan center, therefore many cultural aspects are lost to the visitor who is staying for just a visit as well as there are few remnants of traditional Morocco. That said, if you do happen to find yourself there even for only the afternoon, I suggest you visit Hassan II Mosque, the world’s third largest mosque.

As for the other four cities I mentioned, each provides a different atmosphere and are good introductions to the country for the newcomer and are mostly set up to receive foreign visitors. Each offers specialty crafts unique to the region as well as they are good bases for off the beaten path travel. Every city has its specialties; Rabat, for its embroidery and carpets, Meknes, for its wood carvings, metal inlay and mosaics, Fez, most famous for its leatherwork and famous blue pottery and Marrakesh for its leatherwork as well as spices and Berber carpets. And I have barely scratched the surface of what can be found.

4. Getting Around

One of the best choices for getting around Morocco is by train. It’s inexpensive and mostly comfortable. The only real difference between first class and second is that sometimes second class has no air-con. You can view accurate train schedules at

Even less expensive than the train is bus travel which is well connected but for longer journeys you risk a high level of discomfort as there is often not much legroom. You can also opt for taking a Grand Taxi from one city to the next but know that unless you’re a big group willing to pay for the entire taxi, you wait until the driver fills the taxi with six people. And also, the taxi does not necessarily leave you in the center of town; it’s usually on the outskirts.

5. Expenses and Safety

ATMS are plentiful and secure in large and medium/small cities. Now there are even bank machines that will except banknotes in dollars, euros and sterling and return the conversion equivalent to you in dirham in a matter of minutes.

Concerning safety as compared to many other countries where I have traveled, I see Morocco as relatively safe country as long as one uses some common sense. For example, outside of the main squares and populated areas don’t walk alone at night. Always keep the majority of your money/credit cards under your clothing in the form of a money belt and when in especially crowded areas pay extra attention to your belongings, such as a camera etc.

Always avoid people offering to take you to a hotel, shop or restaurant. They usually are getting a kickback for bringing you there so you will be charged more than if you showed up on your own. As well as offers for a city tour especially if you don’t know where they intend to take you. As a rule of thumb, either tell people that this is your second visit to Morocco or that you have been in the said city for several days already so you know your way around.

With all this said I find Morocco to be both a fascinating but culturally demanding country for the visitor. Therefore, to allow yourself to enjoy Morocco to its fullest, I strongly suggest you bend to the demands of this country’s customs and consider the points I have given as “For best results…”