Visiting Morocco: Some Tips for the First-Time Traveler
|The Hassan II Mosque in Cassablanca - photos by Garbriel Forsyth
By Gabriel Forsyth
My plane was the last one in for the night. The airport was practically empty save a few airport employees here and there. I walked around looking for my friends who had arrived a few days earlier and were supposed to be meeting me at the airport.
It was just past midnight and I was beginning to get worried. I didn’t know any French or Arabic and I had never been to Morocco before. I walked around the airport looking to see if maybe my friends had gone to the wrong terminal.
Luckily Casablanca’s airport is relatively small reassuring me that if I walked around for a bit, I wouldn’t miss my friends. Right as my internal tension about this new place was reaching its peak, my friends walked through the terminal’s glass doors.
“Come on” they said, “We’ve got to get on this bus going into the city, there will not be another one until tomorrow morning.” We hurried out the door and boarded the bus.
In this country where tourism contributes greatly to the national economy, a little bit of common traveling sense is absolutely essential for the first time visitor. My trip to Morocco was filled with learning experiences from which I gleaned some basic DOs and DON’Ts that will help make traveling in this mysterious country a smoother experience.
DO hang on to your bus ticket.
Once we arrived in Casablanca, we immediately jumped on another bus heading for Marrakech where the rest of our friends were waiting for us. As we were making our way out of the city, the bus driver and his assistant started yelling back and forth.
We had no clue what was going on at first. Then all of a sudden the bus driver stopped the bus on the side of the road. The bus driver’s assistant began checking everyone’s tickets. We soon picked up on the idea that we were carrying one too many passengers.
A meat vendor in Marrakech
When one man couldn’t come up with proof that he belonged in a seat, he was quickly escorted off the bus to be left on the side of the road. I was genuinely relieved I had held on to my ticket.
DON’T agree to a cab drivers offer prematurely.
In Marrakech, I extensively explored the Market. After a few days I started picking up on some of Morocco’s cultural etiquette. I began feeling comfortable in this fascinating ancient city.
While looking for the most affordable cab fair, I hastily agreed to a cab drivers offer not knowing my friend had found a cheaper price across the street. This nearly escalated into an all out street brawl between the competing cab drivers.
I realized just how little I really did know about cultural etiquette. We eventually escaped with minimal emotional distress and an exciting story after struggling to obtain our luggage from the disgruntled higher priced cab driver and literally jumping into the moving cheaper cab.
A stream in the Moroccan countryside
DON’T follow the kid who wants to be your guide.
The market in Marrakech is a labyrinth of narrow passageways lined with shops. Each corridor of shops is unofficially divided by the type of items being sold.
For example, all of the spice shops are in the same area, followed by rows and rows of shoe shops, and then neverending rows of rug shops.
Remembering this became very handy each time we were ready to make our way back to our hotel.
While walking around the market, young boys would come up to us and offer their services as a tour guide. We later learned that this practice is highly discouraged by the government, so much so that a degree in “Tourism” is offered at the universities.
Tourists are expected to only employ the services of official tour guides. Nevertheless, the boys in the market would come up to us and say in broken English that they could show us around, which meant eventually leading us to their families shop or a shop that was paying them to bring in tourists.
On one such occasion we happened to follow this young boy who offered to show us where leather was dyed, something Morocco is well known for. Tanners still dye the leather by hand in large honeycomb like vats.
A Berber village
We began wondering where we were going when we started getting strange looks as we walked through the part of the market where tourist are rarely seen, where lambs heads sit on the counter and bloody meat hangs from hooks in the shops.
After a few blocks through obvious residential neighborhoods, we turned into the tannery. The large vats of dye smelled like death, but we smiled as we were guided around the tannery for a quick tour narrated in broken English.
When the tour was over we were asked to pay for the tour, a fact we had been unaware of. We negotiated the price of the tour down to the price of a bowl of couscous. After thanking our little guide and parting ways, we discussed on our way back to familiar ground how we shouldn’t use young guides anymore.
DO visit a Berber village.
Hundreds of villages are scattered throughout the mountains that surround Marrakech. For a small fee, we contracted a tour guide to lead us up to a village and arrange a one night stay with a family in the village.
Our group with our host family
This ongoing practice allows the villages to receive a small portion of the revenue that tourism brings to Morocco. The host family in the village is paid in exchange for opening their home to travelers.
We traveled several hours in a cab to the where the road ends for modern vehicles. We then rented a couple of mules to carry our backpacks to make our journey on foot a little easier.
The hike up to the village took all day. We stopped periodically to drink some water and ponder why we weren’t going to one of the many villages we had already passed. After what felt like an unending uphill battle, our guide pointed out to us the village we were going to in the distance. I did not understand why a family would have chosen to start a village so far back in the mountains.
As we got closer to the village the beauty of the green crops dancing up the mountain and the smiling faces welcoming us from the cluster of square red clay houses shook all misunderstanding from my head.
The night was celebrated with rabbit Tajine for dinner followed by soothing mint tea under the stars, a fitting end to the day’s incredible hike. Experiencing the hospitality of this village sealed Morocco in my mind as one of the greatest places on earth to visit.
View from the village
DO negotiate over the price of a hotel room.
After spending several days in Marrakech, we returned to Casablanca. Being fresh independent-minded travelers, we had planned on staying at the Casablanca Youth Hostel.
Once we arrived at the youth hostel, we learned that other independent minded travelers had the same idea, apparently quite a few others, making the youth hostel overbooked.
We prepared ourselves to spend the few remaining dollars we had left on the next two nights in a hotel. However, we discovered that hotels desperate for guests will often lower their prices with minimal effort of persuasion. My friends and I were able to talk a more luxurious hotel in the middle of Casablanca in to giving us a nightly rate lower than that of the near by overbooked youth hostel.
DON’T let a friendly stranger borrow your bus fare.
Moroccans take hospitality to the extreme, making it virtually impossible to be a stranger in their culture. Everywhere I went it seemed after only a few minutes of introductory conversation I was handed a cup of hot mint tea and asked to stick around for couscous.
In light of this unending openhandedness, I was feeling extra trusting of Moroccans by the end of my stay.
During the afternoon of my last day in Morocco I was killing time sitting outside a coffee shop, sipping a cappuccino, and writing in my journal. My friends had already flown home the night before.
Hiking back to Marrakech
A couple of guys sitting at the table next to me began to talk to me. We carried on a conversation much like many I had had with other Moroccans throughout the week. They asked me if I wanted to have dinner with them and I agreed.
They said they wanted to treat me to dinner but they couldn’t cash their checks until the banks opened back up. In Morocco banks are closed down for two hours during the afternoon. They asked me to front the money for dinner and they would pay me back when the banks opened back up.
I explained to them that I was flying back to America soon and all the money I had left was to be used for my bus fare to the airport. They said it was no problem; they would give it back to me right after the banks opened back up.
I gullibly proceeded to give them the money. They told me to wait at the coffee shop, at which point I started to get suspicious. They said they would go get the food and come back to the coffee shop to eat with me. I never saw them again.
After waiting around furious for a few hours I decided if I wanted to make my flight I needed to do something quick. I proceeded over to the market where I had made some friends earlier that day. I explained to them my situation and I asked them to buy a few clothing items from me that I had in my bag for enough money for my bus fare and a bite to eat.
They graciously agreed to purchase a couple of clothing items from me. With much relief I was able to make it to the airport in time to make my flight.
Morocco stands tall among the alluring destinations of the world. I plan to frequent its bustling markets for years to come. My memories of the mint tea hospitality of Morocco’s incredibly friendly people beckon me to travel its roads again. Lessons learned along each journey leave me with a little more travel savvy under my belt.
Gabriel Forsyth is a freelance writer based out of Orlando, Florida. Visit his website tastethenations.com.