10 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Morocco
The above photo is an accurate representation of Morocco. Each city is different and holds true to its uniqueness and multiculturalism, whether lush green vegetation, snowy atlas mountains, or sunshine in the south. Morocco is the northen-most country in Africa bordering Spain and Algeria, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Its population is multicultural, the food well seasoned with spices, notably cumin, and its people, some of the friendliest. I know you dream about visiting Maroc and you’re oh so excited and can’t wait to visit this dreamy destination, but pull up your brakes. Before you book that flight or hop on that plane, here are TEN things you should know.
Know Basic Facts
- Official Country Name: Kingdom of Morocco
- Capital: Rabat — The administrative city
- Largest City: Casablanca
- Independence from France: March 2, 1956
- Population: Over 35 million
- Currency: Moroccan Dirham
The official languages spoken in Morocco are Berber and Arabic. French is also widely spoken and you will definitely get by if you know much or little. If you don’t speak these languages fluently or at all, learning basic words and phrases would certainly help you navigate the country. I think sometimes we forget that english is not the official language for many countries and we have this expectation for people to understand us. Don’t be that person. While in Morocco for the first time I learned to write and read Arabic. To learn some basic words and phrases check out the Moroccan Arabic Phrasebook and Dictionary
Morocco is predominantly a Muslim country and women dress more conservatively. It is so important to be informed of and respect the culture of the countries we visit. We visit to learn more than the newspapers and television would show us so when visiting Morocco be mindful of how you dress, i.e cover shoulders and knees. Some cities like Marrakesh are less conservative than places like Fes, but if you’re trying to avoid unwanted attention, be on the safe side and dress more conservatively.
Phone and Wifi
If you travel often, having an unlocked phone is a life saver. Most service providers have affordable and worthwhile international plans, but unfortunately Morocco is not on the list of international countries covered by these service providers and data use can be very expensive. On the brighter side, if your mobile phone is unlocked you can get a free local INWI sim card with 20 dirhams from the airport and data can be purchased as often as you'd like. INWI is usually located at the airport just before you exit for the taxi pick-up area.
Money - Cash Economy
The dirham (DH) is the official currency used in Morocco. It is important to know how money is exchange, the value of the currency and approximate prices of goods and services before traveling to Morocco. You can choose to buy the dirham from your local bank or exchange the money at the airport. For my recent trip, I decided to exchange money at the airport in Casablanca. There is an option to get half cash and half on a gift card at no cost to you. To avoid using your debit/credit card, the gift card comes with a unique 4-digit pin so that you can make purchases or withdraw money at the local banks. At the end of the trip if you did not use all the money you can always convert it back to your currency. Keep in mind most souks don’t take cards, but most restaurants do. Avoid changing money outside of the airport or local banks because I noticed that most of the money exchange places will give you a lower rate than the actual exchange rate.
In Morocco there are several modes of transportation from donkey to petit taxis, grand taxis, trains and trams. Depending on the city, the easiest and most popular way to get around is with a petit taxis.
What is petit taxi? — Petit, meaning small is usually for shorter trips and can carry up to 3 passengers. The cab runs like Uber Pool, except without the app. Taxi drivers are allowed to stop for passengers along the route if they desire. Petit cabs are not difficult to find, they are all over the city and depending on the city the color of the taxi will differ. For instance in Casablanca and Fes they are red, in Chefchaouen, Tangier and Rabat, they are blue and in Marrakesh some are beige and sometimes red. Most petit taxis do not have meters. If they do, you should always ask the driver to turn the on meter the moment you enter. If they don’t have a meter its super duper important before you get in the taxi to ask for the price and always negotiate for lower than what you’re being quoted for the ride. More often than not, you will find drivers who will double the price because you are a tourist. Be sure to ask your hotel reception or airbnb host about estimated taxi fare so you have an idea of what is expected.
Grand taxis on the other hand are for longer distance trip, they are white/beige in color and often do trips from city to city. Grand taxis are also more expensive. You should know that Moroccan taxi drivers are a tad bit reckless, they overtake cars, don’t pay attention to the roads and they think it’s funny if you ask them to slow down or pay attention.
If you’re traveling from city to city I strongly advise using the ONCF train instead of grand taxis. ONCF is Morocco’s national railway system with service across all cities in Morocco. You should know that there are 1st and 2nd class areas of the train. If you want to avoid cigarette smoke, loud talking and a guaranteed seat for your long commute I would advise traveling 1st class. Train tickets can only be purchased while in Morocco and should be purchased a day or two before your departure.
Avoid Local Guides and Scammers
I wrote about how Moroccans are friendly in my post about Casablanca, and it’s true, but do not let your guard down, that is not true about all cities in Morocco. Be vigilant and very careful when meeting locals, especially on the trains. They appear to be well meaning, kind and helpful and often very very pushy. They will show you places of sites you’re interested in and later take you to stores where you’ll feel pressured to make purchases. The official tour guides require a license from the government because there are so many faux guides, especially in Fes. You should know that faux guides are so prominent in Morocco that special “tourist police stations” were created to crack down on crimes against tourist. A quick google search about scams in Morocco will help you know what to look for and how to identify and avoid faux guides. Booking tours online could be a little more expensive, but be sure to make all arrangements before traveling to Morocco. Spending a few more dollars in the long run will cost you nothing compared to the trouble of dealing with faux guides.
Learn the Art of Negotiating
Unless you’re buying food from a restaurant, most goods in Morocco, especially in the medina (market) will not have prices because EVERYTHING is negotiated. Hopping from souk to souk can be either daunting or fun… for me it was so much fun, because I figured out the negotiating game, in part because I already experienced this in Kenya and in part because I got some tips from Hamza, my airbnb host in Fes. In the souks you will see a ton of lamps, rugs, mules, leather, scarves and it will make you giddy, but unlike me do not show your excitement too much for the things you want to purchase and only touch the things you do not want to purchase…HA! Also, never pay the amount you’re being asked, instead offer half the price. Sometimes you’ll have to pretend to walk away to get a much lower price.
As a follow-up to my last tip, packing light for Morocco will be the best thing you’ll ever do before you leave. I definitely overpacked for my trip, in part because I was packing for warm and very cold temperatures. The saddest thing about traveling is not being able to purchase something you really want because you overpacked. I had to buy another bag to fit all the things I wanted to purchase. Thankfully, the airline allowed me to check-in two pieces of luggage for free.
Download the app Maps.Me
Maps.Me is the offline map that really helped me maneuever Marrakesh. To effectively use the app, you need wifi or data to download the map for the city our country you intend to visit. My favorite part of the app is the feature which allows you to star/bookmark the places you'd like to check out. Given the intricacies of cities like Fes, (9,000 streets and 40,000 deadends) I don’t think the map is available for Fes. However, this app is very very useful and is one of my favorites to use when traveling.
Have you ever been to Morocco, what else would you add to the "things you should know" list?