Visiting Morocco has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. I’ve always wanted to catch a glimpse of the golden undulating dunes of the Sahara and gaze in wonder at the lush green fields that spanned the valleys of the Atlas Mountains. It’s a country that drew me in with the markets full of heady colours and rich scents. For two weeks, I soaked in the sights and sounds of Fes, Chefchouane and Marrakech. Let’s be clear on one thing: walking around in Fes or Morocco can be overwhelming. Streets are narrow, winding, and many seemingly lead nowhere. But once you get the hang of it, they’re wildly magnificent cities. While I had a great time soaking in the sights, food and galleries, I grew wiser in the two weeks I was travelling and there are a few things I wish I knew before I visiting Morocco!
1. Internet and data
Open WiFi networks are non-existent so get an international SIM card. One of the most difficult things to cope with was orienting ourselves in a maze of alleyways within the medina. There were moments where most of the problems would have been alleviated if only we could get from A to B without somehow ending up somewhere else entirely! If like us you arrive in Morocco at night and the phone shops are closed, the next smart thing to do will be to screenshot Google Maps directions, addresses and phone numbers of where you want to go. Expect to make lots of pit stops at cafes too. While in Fes, I’d ask for the Wifi password before even looking at the menu!
Cab drivers smells tourists from a mile off- negotiate a day rate. Before setting off, a relative put us in contact with a driver he’d used while he was in Morocco. He gave us day rates we were able to negotiate, offered private tours as well as airport transfers. We didn’t end up using him all the time but I wish I had! Bargaining with cabbies was hard, especially if you arrive to a dark deserted town and don’t want to be abandoned.
3. Travelling around Morocco
Take night trains (or domestic flights) if you’re planning on visiting multiple regions. If you have the budget, check if you can catch connecting domestic flights from Marrakech. Start from the north and end your trip in Marrakech. However the schedule didn’t work out in order to include domestic flights. We travelled from Fes to Marrakech on an eight hour train. The landscape was endlessly verdant which shocked the city girl in me!
Be firm with locals offering help in tourist areas. This ties in with point 1 and 2. If you are properly prepared and have your wits about you, there’s less of a chance for somebody to mislead you. Especially in the medina, some people may take advantage of the fact that you’re lost, help you out and ask for a hefty fee. They mostly know where they are taking you and if you are fine with paying for directions, you won’t get lost. However, I find the premise of following you around and pestering you going too far. If this happens and you’d rather be left alone, be polite and firm when saying “No, thankyou- I don’t have money!”
5. Religious Sites
Some mosques and madrasas are not open to non-Muslim visitors. Mosques are a sacred space for the Moroccan Muslim community so understandably, they do not appreciate tourists disturbing prayers or recitations. I found that it was best to visit the mosques outside of prayer times. If you’re Muslim and want to enter the prayer sections, not just the courtyards, make it known to the guards outside.
6. Dress Code & Etiquette
In general, it would be useful if you researched local etiquette and customs. Tipping isn’t required at small cafes in the souks but service charge is normally added if you are in a more Western establishment. Little things like a salam and a few phrases in Arabic or French go a long way in endearing yourself to locals. Dress code is a sensitive topic as Morocco is known for being conservative and modest. Even it’s uniform architecture hides the grandeur of the riads inside! If you are travelling to rural areas, play it safe with maxi length dresses and long sleeves. Chefchouane, being closer to Spain, seemed to be a lot more accepting of foreigners and Western outfits. However, if I had the intention of entering a mosque in any area, I made sure I was wearing long dresses and a scarf in my bag to be respectful of religious practices.
7. Exchange Rates
Exchanging in the UK was extortionate as the dirham is a closed currency. It is more worthwhile to wait until you land in Marrakech and find a bank such as Bank Populaire that accepts foreign VISAs. I used these cashpoints all throughout the trip, making sure they were either in a bank or train station/airport and have not had fraudulent activity occur.
8. The Art Scene
Morocco (Marrakech in particular) has a booming art scene. My favourite was Dar Bellarj, which was exhibiting artwork inspired by the geometric tattoos of Berber women. There are no fees to pay but you are welcome to donate to the gallery’s women’s initiative instead. Of course, you also have the traditional artisans, blacksmiths and craftsmen who are spellbinding to watch in their stalls throughout the souks.
9. The Art of Haggling
I know I’m Bengali, but part of me hates engaging in any kind of bargaining activity because I’m worried it will turn into a confrontation! In Morocco, haggling is embraced and is considered the norm in souks where there is no such thing as a fixed price. As a rule of thumb, offer a third of whatever they propose and negotiate your way to your real goal price. I opted to go for the polite, light hearted route and managed to score spices and tea trays for at least a third off!
10. Peak Times for Tourist Attractions
We were often discouraged from visiting popular sites like the Atlas Mountains/Dades Valley and Jardin Marjorelle during weekends, particularly in the middle of the day. Not heeding this advice, we headed to Gueliz to visit the famous gardens only to be met with queues snaking around the block- and it was only 11 a.m! You can be waiting for hours in the heat. The trick I used was to head to the YSL museum first where you can purchase a combined ticket for the museum and gardens. Once I was done admiring silhouettes, I proceeded to skip the queue for the gardens, showed them my combined ticket and was admitted without any trouble. Many people aren’t aware of this and end up suffering in the neverending lines. Make sure you’re not one of them!