Morocco is a wonderful and unique place that I would highly recommend to anyone looking for an off the beaten path adventure. Morocco is a nice middle ground between the western world we all find comfortable and the complete wild.
Marrakesh is probably the most well-known city in Morocco, with the possible exception of Casablanca made famous by the 1942 Movie of the same name (which was actually based on the city of Tangier and not Casablanca!). Marrakesh is also the biggest tourist destination in Morocco. That being said, if you were to travel to Morocco and only visit Marrakesh you would be doing yourself a huge injustice as there’s much more to Morocco than just Marrakesh. Morocco ranges from huge cities such as Marrakesh and Fez, as well as ocean fishing villages, and remote desert camps – ready to get started?
Guidebooks – Must have! Websites are great of course but you are going to want a guide book or two for your trip; for both planning purposes and use while traveling. We had them all I think, including: DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Morocco, Lonely Planet Morocco, Fodor’s Morocco, National Geographic Traveler: Morocco, and Top 10 Marrakech . You in no way need all of these. The one that became our go-to book was Fodor’s Morocco; we had both the 2009 and 2012 editions. I would actually recommend the 2009 over the 2012. They cut out about a third of the book in the newer edition and added colored pictures. I think the full text is way more valuable than the colored photos.
Language – Morocco’s official language is Arabic, but there are numerous languages and dialects spoken throughout the country. In northern Morocco there is a strong Spanish influence in the language; and in the southern and rural areas Berber is still the predominate language. The most overarching language besides Arabic though is French; and this is the language that will be of the most use to you. Many written ‘things’ in the country including street signs and menus are written in both Arabic and French. Since French shares the same alphabet as English, you will probably find yourself much more comfortable with it. With all that being said, in heavy tourist areas you will find English being spoken enough to get by.
Currency – The currency of Morocco is the Moroccan Dirham, MAD. This is not a widely traded currency outside of Morocco and you may not be able to get any until till you get in country. If this is the case it’s not a problem, there will be plenty of ATMs available to you at the airport; you may also want to trade it in before leaving the country as well. Cash is also the currency of choice; not plastic. You should always have enough cash on you, (hidden carefully), to cover anything you might want to buy for a few hundred dollars or less and even to pay for your hotel. If someone is trying to sell you a $1,000 carpet they’ll find a way to take plastic.
Women – I never felt uncomfortable once! I will caveat this by saying that I was almost always with my daughter and women with children are treated differently, because there is a high respect for family. I was often driving, shopping, walking, living day-to-day life without my husband with me in Rabat and never had a problem. To a lesser extent I did traveling without him and again never had a problem. I did go out of my way to avoid walking after dark, (just as I would in any large American city). Dressing – I followed a simple self-prescribed rule, no knees and no shoulders; and found this to be a great middle ground between personal comfort and respect for the culture. This dress code in no way made me blend in, but there were really no clothes that were going to do that. I also never covered my head. In fact doing so would have only prompted more questions from people asking if I was Muslim and when I would respond no, they would want to know why my head was covered.
Transportation – There’s a reasonable chance that if you are taking a trip to Morocco it may be through a tour group, but if you are venturing out on your own or even planning your own trip from scratch there are several transportation options. I would recommend staying with trains and rental cars.
The trains are great, but limited. You can use them to travel from Marrakesh to Casablanca, Rabat, Fes, Tangier and any place in between; but that’s it. If you do take the trains, absolutely get a first class ticket, it’s still going to be a bargain and they are air-conditioned! (usually…)
We had our own car in Morocco so we never had a rental car, but they will be available wherever you are flying into. Honestly, I have no idea what you’re going to get but I imagine it could be most anything; that being said do it anyhow it’s all part of the experience. If you are traveling with children though, I would bring their car seat! Car seats aren’t required in Morocco, but if you would like to have your child in one bring it yourself and do not rely on what you might be given at the rental location. Also, if you have a Garmin GPS you may want to consider buying the maps for Morocco. At the time of this post they were for sale for $120, which is not inexpensive but depending on how much driving you’ll be doing during your trip it may be worth it.
The other common means of transportation is to hire a driver, I don’t recommend this largely because I don’t think it’s necessary. As you research your trip you will find lots of tour guides that will pick you up in Marrakesh or Fez and drive you in their 4 x 4 vehicle on some excursion, most likely to the desert. What this means is that they will drive you to their buddy’s hotel near the desert and he will provide you with the rest. This in no way requires a 4 x 4, you could do this in your own rental car. If you wish to go to the desert, (which I will publish a post on in the future), you can drive yourself to the hotel of your choosing in your non 4 x 4 rental car and they will provide you with everything you need; 4 x 4 tours of the dunes, off road vehicle tours of the dunes, and of course guided camel rides and a night in their desert camp.
Once at your destination whether you arrive by car, train, or other you may find it easier to move around via taxi. There are two types of taxis in Morocco, grand taxis and petit taxis. Grand Taxis are large 6 passenger cars, (4 in the back and 2 plus the driver in the font). You don’t want these. You pay for them by the seat so unless you are going to wait for strangers to share it with you, you’ll be paying for all 6 seats. Also they aren’t necessary unless you are driving from one town to another. Petit taxis are what you are looking for, and they are just as they sound. A small brightly colored car, for 3 passengers. These are also on a meter so it’s much easier to keep track of what it’s really costing you and it should not be much. The only down side is the 3 passenger maximum. If there are 4 of you, you will need to split up into two taxis, (which will still be much cheaper than the grand taxi). The other …. interesting thing that differs from taxis here is they can pick up passenger if they aren’t full yet. So while enroute you might find the driver stopping to ask where someone is looking to go and if it’s in your direction you’ll have company. This is surprising if you don’t know what’s going on, but it’s completely normal.
Lodging – It’s all part of the experience. You have your full gamut of options, luxury to no running water. My biggest recommendation would be to use Tripadvisor to research your lodging. We found their ratings to be very dependable and were never steered wrong. You can cross reference with your guidebook, but there are just too many lodging options for any book to adequately cover them. The actual booking process can sometimes be tricky so the simplest booking option is to use booking.com.
You will find many of the lodging options to be referred to as a Riad or sometimes a Dar. There’s not a good American equivalent for these. They are somewhere between a B & B and a hotel. Most likely 4 – 12 rooms, all different with several lounge areas inside and out for guest use. Breakfast is usually included and dinner is often available upon request. Staying at a Riad or Dar will complete your experience in Morocco.
However, when in doubt if you really aren’t comfortable with any of your lodging options I would recommend Accor Hotels. They are a huge franchise conglomerate and have options ranging from near-hostels to the full lap of luxury. We have used their simple, mid-range, and extravagant options in Morocco, Europe, and the Middle East.
Regardless of where you stay they are going to be your home base to help you with everything! I mean everything. If you would like a tour of the city you are visiting, (which you will find I often recommend), they will arrange that for you. If you are looking to buy something specific they can help you with the right shops. They can help you not only with dinner reservations but getting there. If they speak English and you don’t speak the language take advantage of it and have them call to schedule or confirm anything else you need. Anything you need ask – this is where they excel!
I will go into more detail on these in later posts, but here is a quick overview to get you started.
Casablanca (city) – You will most likely fly into Casablanca, but I would not spend much time there. There is a site or two, but it doesn’t require more than a day.
Marrakesh (city) – This is the most touristy city, and probably because of that not my favorite. It’s certainly worth seeing, but please don’t stop there, there is so much more to Morocco!
Fez (city) – Love it! This is my favorite city in Morocco and I would recommend it hands down over Marrakesh. In fact if you can only visit one location in Morocco I would make it Fez.
Rabat (city) – This is the capital and was my home for two years. It’s not much of a tourist attraction though. There are things to see, but I wouldn’t go out of your way to fit it in the schedule.
Tangier (city, seaport) – This is the city directly across from Spain, and gets a lot of day trip tourists for that reason. It houses the first American consulate ever which is now a museum and very interesting; but other than that you can see everything else in a larger city which offers you much more.
Essaouira (seaport) – Love it! This is also one of my favorites, but should come second to seeing a large scale city. It is much smaller, much slower, much more comfortable to wander about in; and beautiful!
Merzouga (desert) – One of two main points to see the desert from. I would highly recommend doing one, but not worry about seeing both.
Mhamid (desert) – The other one of two points to see the desert from.