Country Profile: Morocco
Currency: Moroccan Dirham MAD ($1 = ~9MAD / 1€ = ~10-11 MAD check for changes)
Language: Arabic (Moroccan Dialect), French, various Imazighen dialects (Berber)
Visa required?: Americans, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis, and Europeans can get a visa stamp at the gate. Others need to check here.
Random fact: The Imazighen people are the people of the desert. They pre-dated the Moors and any European influences. People generally know the Imazighen people as “Berbers” although this is considered to be an offensive term to them. The term has its roots in the English word Barbarian. Therefore, you should refer to the people and the language as Imazighen. The Imazighen women can be recognized by an ink mark on their chin. Muslim women would not have these markings because it is haram (forbidden) in Islam.
Overview: Morocco is probably the most visited country in North Africa besides Egypt. For good reason, Morocco is an interesting introduction to the North African region. Its culture has its roots in both African and Islamic tradition, but it has been influenced by some European nations as well. Moroccan people tend to be very hospitable and willing to share their culture.
Morocco is diverse and is a mildly challenging place to visit, but it is well worth it. Morocco is enclosed by desert to the south and east, and sea to the north and west. The country can offer desert, mountains, beach coastlines, and a vibrant city life to the traveling person. Morocco is a wonderful place because it is full of a rich culture that has existed for many generations. The legacy of the Imazighen people combined with Morocco’s influences by the Moors, Europeans, and Africans gives it a unique feeling that you cannot just find anywhere. The Imazighen people have left a strong mark on the foods, architecture, and musics of the country.
What is the best time to visit Morocco?
Visiting Morocco at any time during September through October and April through May are the higher tourist times. These are the times of year when the weather is best for the average traveler. Moreover, this is considered to be the ideal travel times for Morocco.
If you travel to Morocco during the months of November through February the nights will likely be cold, but days will be fair.
June through August can be extremely hot. Temperatures at times exceeding 35-50°C (Roughly 95-120°F+). If you cannot take the heat, you may want to consider coming at a
different time. It can be dangerous. Also, you need to consider that late July through the middle of August is the Muslim fasting ritual of Ramadan. People are not going to be so active during the day because of this. Traveling to Morocco during this period of time will likely have an effect on your trip.
What to see in Morocco?
In Morocco, you can visit different things. What interests someone might be different for another. Therefore, travelers may aspire to see different things.
A good starting point would be:
- Casa Blanca
- Merzouga (for a desert tour)
- Chefchaouen (A truly blue city)(Look it up its cool)
- Small towns (Pick and choose)
- Ait bin Haddou (Ancient Imazighen city. Part of Gladiator was filmed there)
How to get to Morocco?
From Europe: The simplest way to get to Morocco is by flying. If you do your research you and buy tickets a month or two in advance you can get plane tickets from multiple cities in Europe, particularly Spain (Madrid and Barcelona), for less than $10 with Ryanair. I purchased mine around 3-4 weeks in advance one of my tickets was about $15 and the other was about $20-25.
If you wait until the last-minute, flying still will not cost you a fortune, but you cannot expect the same bargain deals.
You can also stay to the ground to get to Morocco from Europe, well almost at least. There is a ferry that crosses from southern Spain to Tangier. Visit Aferry for schedules and prices.
From Africa: Reportedly, the border with Algeria is closed for through traffic; therefore, traveling by bus, car, or train is not possible from that direction. To the south Morocco is bordered by Western Sahara, which is not populated. Your best options are to search flights from African cities by using a search engine like Kayak.
From the USA: There are frequent flights from New York City to Casa Blanca with Royal Air Maroc.
What are Moroccan customs like? What do you need to know?
Morocco is quite receptive to foreigners and they are accustomed to having them visit. That being said, you do need to prove where you will be staying while in Morocco. I showed the officer a printout of my hostel booking and that was enough. It is best to write down at least one address of the hostel(s) that you are going to be staying at while visiting Morocco and have it ready to present at customs. Also, you will need this address on the way out so do not get rid of them. Additionally, your passport needs to be valid for at least 6 months from your date of entry.
To travel around Morocco you have 3 main options: train, bus, and hitchhiking. A fourth and different approach would be to rent (hire) a car. You cut your options depending on where you are going. For instance, the train
- Train – The company is ONCF. It services the northern, western, and central regions of Morocco, but does not go to places like the desert.
- Bus – As it was explained to me, there are basically three buses in Morocco. The first is a local bus. It is cheap, infrequent, and usually leaves only when it is full. The second is called CTM. CTM is a middle-of-the-road company. By price, it is between the first and the last bus companies. However, the company does not service all areas of Morocco. Lastly, is a company called Supratours. Supratours is known as the ‘tourist bus’ because it is the nicer of the three, a tad more expensive, and it has better amenities. Any traveler taking either CTM or Supratours would not have to spend a ridiculous amount of money. The companies are both reasonably priced for bus trips of many distances. If you are on a time-schedule Supratours may be your best bet because it is frequent and you can count on the bus being there.
- Hitchhiking – Hitchhiking is actually quite common in Morocco. Morocco was the first country that I hitchhiked in, and I actually did it with little effort. For a bit of encouragement, read my blog article on the experience here. The only reason that I was open to it in the first place was because of a friend who had been before me. He actually hitchhiked everywhere that he went in Morocco. Apparently, it is just a norm there. It is important to note though, that you may have to spend some time waiting. Therefore, people who plan to hitchhike around Morocco need to be flexible in their time.
Where should I stay in Morocco?
Obviously, staying with locals is always the most ideal situation. This is true primarily because you get to experience the real authentic places. You can be shown a local time and have experiences that you could never find as a ‘tourist’. I think that this is even more true of Morocco. I believe this because Moroccans have such different life principles and outlooks on life that the only way to truly witness them is by experiencing them firsthand. In order to stay with locals you would either need to have friends or have connections through social networking sites like Couchsurfing and other options.
Your second best option is Moroccan hostels. Moroccan hostels (referred to as either Riads (in Arabic) or an Auberge (in French)), are cheap and usually well located near a cities main attractions. For example, you can find multiple Riads and Auberges near Jemaa el fna square in Marrakesh for no more than $5-6. Yes, that is a real price, and the hostel is just as nice as others. Things are cheaper in Morocco. Even finding a hostel for a little more would not cost more than around $10-15. Search HostelWorld or HostelBookers for options.
What to eat in Morocco?
Moroccan food has been influenced by its Imazighen people quite substantially. For example, the tajine and couscous are both great examples. I would recommend eating either of these. They are both filling and inexpensive. A tajine or couscous would be around $3-6 in a larger town. It will be served with a circular shaped loaf of bread.
While you are eating your lunch, be sure to ask for a mint tea (Touareg tea). This Moroccan specialty tea will be served before you in a small kettle, which will yield multiple glasses. The tea has an aroma of freshly crushed mint leaves and a flavor to match it. Additionally, it will probably be the sweetest tea that you have ever had. Do not ask them how much sugar they put into it. It is better not to know. Let us just say that you might not want more than one serving.
If the tea was not enough for you, you can get some fresh pastries as a desert. There are many other foods available in Morocco, but these are the two listed above are the most common dishes. You can also find good street food. Usually in the form of meat (lamb, beef, or chicken) with spices stuffed into a bread loaf.
How much to budget for Morocco? How much money do you need for Morocco?
You may have gathered a few prices from the different sections by now. The truth is that Morocco can be cheap or expensive, just like everywhere else.
- Eating in Morocco – In my experience, Morocco is not expensive for food. There is no need to buy groceries and cook unless you really want to. In the larger cities like Marrakesh or Fes meals will cost $3-6 for a filling tajine or couscous. Drinks like tea or coffee will cost $1. A 1.5 Liter water cost me 60 MAD or about .60¢ wherever I went.
- Tours – Depending on what you plan on doing in Morocco, you are going to have to budget to an extent. If you plan on doing a desert tour for example, expect to spend at least 400 MAD for your guide, meals, and accommodation while there. Other tours can cost accordingly. (Be very advised of false tour guides and scam artists. I will talk more on this in the bottom.).
- Buses, trains, and transportation – As you saw earlier in the ‘how to get around Morocco’ section, buses are reasonable even if you plan on taking the nicer bus company.
- I found that the smaller towns were actually more expensive than the larger cities. I was also traveling during low season, but when I went to Ait bin Haddou I was charged significantly more for my night’s accommodation (even though I negotiated the price down A LOT). I paid 75 MAD for my room in Ait bin Haddou. (They wanted to charge me 300).
Where (How) to exchange money in Morocco?
- If you have cash: The best exchange rate that you are going to get if you have cash is at the airport. The rate is fair and there are no large charges for your conversion. The second best would be banks. Lastly, you may be able to find a hotel that can exchange currency for you. However, it is best to ask someone at your hostel (Riad) if you have any questions or need a place. *As a rule of thumb, it is a good idea to know how much your currency should yield before you bring it to get converted. Therefore, you know if someone is trying to cheat you. If your $100 on equals 600 MAD in someones eyes you should probably look elsewhere.*
- If you do not have cash: The best is consistently in my experience ATMs. However, you may not find too many out of the airports.
How to stay safe in Morocco?
In the big cities you should be mindful of your surroundings. Know that conditions can change at different times of the day, and the streets can be quite confusing to a foreigner. It is not difficult to get lost walking around in a Medina. There are rarely street signs and many of the streets look alike. People will try to lead you places and help you. The best thing that you can do is thankfully decline. Unfortunately, you do not know their intentions (read more later).
Try and blend in as best as possible. This will reduce you standing out to would be thieves or scam artists. Avoid pulling out maps and cameras when you can.
I found that the small towns, specifically the ones that I visited in the Sahara were quite safe. We were out of the hustle and bustle of the big city life and people took care of one another.
Tips for traveling around Morocco
- Language – Moroccans speak typically 2-3 languages as native speakers. Almost every Moroccan will speak French and Arabic. Many will speak Imazighen as well. Even more will speak some combination of Spanish, English, Italian, and German. On my flight over, I was amazed to hear the man behind me teaching his 7-year-old how to count in 5 languages. It is truly amazing there. Knowing multiple languages is part of their livelihood so it is a quite common skill, especially for merchants. When you are in the countryside though the knowledge of languages will shift back towards the 2-3. Therefore it helps to know some of their languages. Do you need to know Arabic to travel in Morocco? No, but it helps. French is also quite helpful. If you do not speak either knowing Spanish could be useful. One thing that helped me was to get a small piece of paper and pen to use for negotiations. I wrote my price, they wrote theirs. Until we meet in the middle.
- Bargaining – A Moroccan girl who lived in England explained to me that there are basically three prices in Morocco: The price for her mom (the lowest); The price for her (middle-price for someone who they were not quite sure about); and, lastly, the price for a foreigner (highest). She said the difference might be as great as 10-50-70 respectively. Although she was embellishing the numbers, there is great truth to her words. You need to realize that their prices are made to bargain, and bargaining is a part of their culture. Bargaining is not just for the markets. You might also have to bargain for your taxi, or even a hotel room in Ait bin Haddou (me). The best way to start is to know both your price ceiling and what a local might pay. You are still going to pay more, just accept that. However, you can still get a better deal than someone who just takes the first price.
- Taking Pictures – If you are in place like Jemaa el fna square and other places accustomed to large amounts of tourists be careful who you take pictures of. Often times, people be receptive to you taking a picture of their actions (i.e. snake tamer, a man dressed in tradition clothes, monkey holders, etc), but after they will aggressively pester you for money. They say that they charge per picture. If you must take pictures of cultural events, do so discreetly.
- Heat – If you travel through Morocco during the summer months, do you best to spend some time hydrating before your trip. Drink plenty of fluids and once you arrive keep a water bottle with you constantly.
- Asking for directions – If you ever ask for directions in a larger city like Fes or Marrakesh be sure to ask someone at your hostel or at the bus station. If you are on the street look for a police officer. Frequently, people will approach you if you look lost and ask if you need help. As you engage with them they will continue to tell you things and walk with you. After, they will expect money for their words. It is best to stay away.
Additional links for Morocco
Supratour Bus – Click here
CTM Bus – Click here