Important Things To Know Before Traveling To Morocco

Cultural insights and tips that every budget traveler in Morocco should know.

From the native Berber villages of the Atlas Mountains, to the rippling sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, to the madness of the Medinas and marketplaces, Morocco is diverse in landscape and rich in culture.

valley views hike

IMG_2228

Moroccan life can seem a bit chaotic to the average traveler, especially in the more populated areas. It is not uncommon to witness a heated screaming match in Arabic, a wild animal or bird on a chain or a rope, a motorbike zooming full speed through a crowded alleyway, and a local man pressuring you to buy hashish, and all within a couple minutes.

To have a better chance of traveling in Morocco without getting overwhelmed, confused, or even scammed, it is vital to understand some of the local customs.

Here are some important things to know before traveling to Morocco, including basic knowledge, cultural things to be aware of, and general travel tips for the average tourist.

Basic Knowledge:

Currency: Moroccan Dirham. 1 Dirham is about 0.10 USD, so 10 Dirhams is $1. Pretty easy conversion for me!

Language: Main language is Arabic, though many people speak French. In the north you’ll find a bit of Spanish as well, and Berber is the traditional native language in Morocco.

Outlets: two circular prongs, the same as Europe.

Visas: Don’t need one for staying up to three months.

fullsizeoutput_3236

Cultural Tips To Be Aware Of:

Islam is the main religion.

Most Moroccans practice Islam, which means a few things for those who have never visited a Muslim country before.

About five times a day, you’ll hear the hypnotically beautiful “call to prayer” bellowing from the speaker situated atop the tower of a Mosque. Everyone practices their religion to a different level of intensity. Some locals just turn down the music or TV during the call to prayer. Sometimes locals will leave their posts at work to run into a Mosque and pray for a moment.

It is also important to note that Mosques are usually only open to Muslims. No matter how stunning they may look from the outside, you probably won’t be allowed inside if you aren’t Muslim.

fullsizeoutput_305d.jpeg

Women dress conservatively.

As a predominantly Muslim country, most women wear clothes that cover their whole body, and sometimes their hair and face as well. Even at the beach in the middle of summer, women are still fully dressed and just wade into the water in their clothes.

Regardless of what we wear in our own countries, we should respect the local culture and try to blend in. Dress appropriately, at least cover your shoulders and knees, and avoid shirts that are too low-cut.

At the beach I only swam in a bikini when no one was around. On crowded beaches, I swam in a t-shirt and shorts to avoid unwanted attention.

fullsizeoutput_311c.jpeg

Moroccans often eat with their hands.

Many local dishes, like tagines and omelettes, are often served without cutlery. This is because Moroccans eat them with their hands, using a piece of bread like a spoon to mash the food up and scoop it into the mouth.

In the coastal town of Safi, we ate freshly grilled sardines with a bunch of locals. This meant we had to pick the fish apart with our hands, skin, bones and all. My hands smelled like fish for days. Just get used to it!

Drinking tea is a daily occurrence.

The most popular beverage in Morocco is undoubtedly mint tea. Moroccans usually brew the fresh mint leaves in a silver tea pot with boiling water, and then pour it into small glass cups. They usually pour the cups back into the pot, and re-pour the tea a few times to mix up all the sugar.

If you don’t like sweet drinks, be sure to ask for your tea without sugar otherwise they’ll usually throw about five sugar cubes in there.

Drinking tea together is an act of hospitality and friendship. Sometimes shop owners will offer you a glass of tea while you’re browsing, and tea is often served with meals as well.

fullsizeoutput_3201

Moroccans are usually not punctual.

Contrary to much of westernized civilization, Moroccans are often fashionably late for things and don’t take punctuality very seriously.

Breakfast usually isn’t served until 8:30am at the earliest. If you tell a friend you want to go somewhere in 30 minutes, it will usually end up being 3 hours. If your tour bus is supposed to leave at 3pm, it will be closer to 4pm. Just try and be patient, and adjust your expectations to Moroccan time.

Animals aren’t treated very well.

This fact saddens me a lot, but I just had to accept it while traveling in Morocco. Animals are often used to make locals lives easier and richer.

In Marrakech, so many horses are forced to lug tourists around the city streets in fancy carriages, and at Ouzoud Waterfalls I saw two beautiful horses dressed up and chained to a wall for photo opportunities.

Also in Marrakech, locals dress little monkeys in tutus and chain them up for tourists to take photos with, and snakes are definitely drugged or something for the “snake charmers” to perform with.

In Chefchaouen I saw men with parrots and cockatoos forced to take photos, and in Essaouira I saw camels in the middle of the city, also dressed up and used for photos. Everywhere in the country, donkeys and mules are used to carry locals’ carts around, and I’ve seen them get whipped furiously a few times.

So animal exploitation is something I’ve seen all over Morocco, usually for the sake of tourists paying to take photos with them. I urge people not to support this animal abuse, and try not to let it depress you too much while traveling in Morocco because that’s just the way things are here.

fullsizeoutput_320e

Cats, however, are treated pretty well.

There are more stray cats and kittens in Morocco than anywhere else I’ve ever been.

Though not all the cats survive, the majority of cats I’ve seen are pretty well taken care of by locals. I’ll often see fish or meat scraps left in street corners for the stray cats, and sometimes locals pet and cuddle with them.

At least some animals live a good life in Morocco!

fullsizeoutput_3221

fullsizeoutput_300f

Touristy Tips:

Always watch out for hectic drivers.

As a passenger in a tour bus or van, or even in a local friend’s car, be prepared for the aggressive driving that you’ll probably witness. Drivers often pass other cars at the speed of light, even on narrow, winding cliffside roads with a huge truck coming the opposite way.

It’s also important to be cautious as a pedestrian. Cars will speed down even the smallest alleyways, and motorbikes are always flying in and out of crevices on the street.

Many crosswalks are also scary because cars don’t stop for you unless you’re literally right in front of them. You have to just tough it out and barge across the road hoping cars will stop. If you’re nervous, find a local and follow them across.

fez-medina

If YOU are driving, drive carefully and try to follow the road rules.

If you rent a car, be cautious when driving in Morocco, as the road rules are sometimes unclear. Some intersections are just a free for all, and it looks like cars are just whizzing around in reckless abandon. So be careful, but in roundabouts you have to assert your position on the road otherwise Moroccans will just keep cutting you off.

Policemen often sit by the side of the road with speed cameras, ready to pull people over for speeding. They will actually pull you over for anything, like a broken windshield or to make sure everyone is wearing seat-belts. Just follow every possible rule when driving in Morocco, to avoid hefty fines.

Prepare to get lost in a Medina.

Most cities and bigger towns will have a Medina, which is a section of the city with high walls and a maze of narrow streets filled with vendors, plazas, and souks (traditional markets).

fullsizeoutput_3116.jpeg

Cities like Marrakech and Fes are famous for their sprawling Medinas, the latter of which has the oldest Medina in the world. Medinas just don’t have many street names and all the alleys look similar, so prepare to lose your sense of direction and wander aimlessly until you find your way out.

A navigation app like Maps Me can help you at least walk in the right direction.

Anticipate the heat.

Much of the landscape in Morocco is dry and the weather is usually hot. Winter is still around 60 or 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and summer can get well into the 100s. Because you need to dress conservatively, try to pack clothes that are lightweight and breathable. Sandals are acceptable, and sunglasses are a must.

Despite the heat in summer, the temperature of the ocean is actually pretty cold, which feels great after sweating in the sun all day.

matt-dune-morocco.jpg

Try not to drink the tap water.

Some locals say the tap water is fine to drink, others say it isn’t.

Be safe and drink either filtered water or bottled water. I drank the tap water for my first few days in Morocco, and though I didn’t get super ill, it definitely tastes off so I eventually stopped.

A 1.5L water bottle should cost 6 Dirhams, though touristy places might charge 10.

Expect to get ripped off. Often.

Some say that in Morocco, there’s the “tourist price”, and then there’s the real price. It’s just too easy for locals to take advantage of tourists, so they often charge us way more than the actual price.

Whether this is the price of a taxi ride, the cost for a bag of fruit, or a souvenir from a shop, always assume you’re paying more than what you should.

fullsizeoutput_3224

Just use your judgement about when you should negotiate the price or not. Sometimes you just have to suck it up, in cases like food you’ve already eaten or a taxi ride you’ve already taken. If you don’t speak the language well enough to discuss the price, most of the time you’ll just have to pay the tourist price.

But if you’re buying clothes or a trinket in a shop, locals will often ask you what price you want after you decline their first offer.

Just don’t get too cocky, and try to be respectful even when the locals aren’t necessarily nice in return.

crafts-morocco.jpg

Be confident saying “No”.

You can’t walk 5 feet in Morocco without locals trying to get you to buy something.

Shop vendors will yell at you from across the road to come look at their stuff. Random men will offer you weed and tobacco all day long. Seemingly friendly locals will try to walk you to your destination or show you around as a favor, then demand money afterwards. Even kids will try and hassle you.

You just have to say “No”, and say it with confidence. If someone is especially persistent, say you have no money to pay them as soon as possible and they should go away.

You can’t visit a rug shop quickly.

Morocco is full of traditional rug shops, selling gorgeous handmade rugs and blankets made of usually sheep, goat or camel wool.

If you show even the slightest amount of interest, the shop owner will probably proceed to unfold every rug in his shop and throw them on the ground in front of you. He’ll hold a lighter up to the expensive cactus silk rugs to prove they don’t burn, he’ll show you your favorite rug in every possible color, and he’ll unfold the giant rugs even if you’ve already said you can’t afford them.

If you’re really not planning on buying one, just leave right away to avoid feeling guilty after the owner unfolds rugs for 30 minutes for no sale. And he will definitely continue unfolding rugs, until his entire floor is covered in countless layers, or until you tell him to stop.

If you are actually planning on buying a rug, this customer service is wonderful.

fullsizeoutput_3127

The price of accommodation varies.

Morocco is a relatively cheap country, so you can find some great accommodation when traveling on a budget. The options vary from city to city, however.

Most touristy places have great cheap hostels; in Fes we stayed at Funky Fes Hostel for $7 a night, and in Marrakech at Red Kasbah Castle Hostel for $6 a night, both in dorm rooms.

Our last few weeks in Marrakech we found a hostel on Workaway, called Ya Salam Hostel, that let us stay for free in exchange for some help answering emails in English and cleaning a bit.

In Chefchaouen, we stayed at Hostel La Joya where it cost $8 each for a dorm bed and only $9 each for a private room, so we each paid the extra $1 for our own room which was awesome.

fullsizeoutput_3049

Surprisingly, Casablanca didn’t have any hostel dorm beds for less than $20 a night, so it was actually cheaper to rent a whole spare room in a apartment on Airbnb for $20 a night. I’ve heard the hostels in Rabat also cost $20 for a dorm bed, minimum.

We also used Airbnb in Safi, because there were no hostels at all here. We got kind of ripped off by the hosts; they said the price we paid for online was inaccurate and we had to fork over an extra $20 at the end of our stay. At this point we were used to Moroccans trying to milk money out of us at any opportunity, so we weren’t too shaken.

fullsizeoutput_307e.jpeg

Moral of the story: always check multiple websites for accommodation options depending on which part of Morocco you’ll be in. (I recommend Hostelworld, Airbnb, and Workaway or Worldpackers, the last two for work exchanges).

Some people with a bit more money than us like to stay in Riads, a sort of traditional Moroccan townhouse usually with a nice garden and courtyard. And of course, luxury hotel rooms are available everywhere.

But for the budget traveler, there is always at least one somewhat cheap option.

Bus is the cheapest way to get around.

A cheap and easy way to travel from city to city in Morocco is by coach bus, CTM being a popular and reliable bus company. Tickets vary but usually won’t be any more than $20 for a long journey, and the buses have small air vents and curtains to block out the sun.

This website can help you plan your journey, and you can buy tickets the day of at the station, or in advance at a CTM ticket booth. Supratours is another popular bus company to use if CTM doesn’t have the journey you want.

Sometimes the buses charge you a fee if you have luggage, but it usually won’t be more than 5 dirhams ($0.50).

If there is no bus, consider a collective taxi.

Some Moroccan destinations are more remote, like villages in the Atlas Mountains or  waterfalls in the middle of nowhere.

Collective taxis are often available to somewhat popular destinations. You can share a mini-van taxi with other travelers for pretty cheap, usually between 50-100 Dirhams. Just find out where the collective taxi stand is in your town, and show up early in case you need to wait a while for the taxi to fill up.

Research on Google or ask a local if collective taxis run to your destination. Sometimes they are even faster and more convenient than a local bus.

village oasis

Following this advice, your Moroccan trip should run smoothly.

Unidentified scents, vibrant colors, and intriguing music will follow you everywhere in Morocco, and you’ll encounter some intense, aggressive people and some super laid-back and friendly people.

Morocco must be received with an open mind and a positive attitude, otherwise the culture-shock can be strong.

Using some of this cultural knowledge and applying these tips to your trip, you will definitely have a rich Moroccan experience.

For more budget travel advice, and some of my personal experiences while traveling in Morocco, check out these articles:

Fes: A Startling Introduction To Morocco

Budget Travel Guide To Imlil, Morocco

13 Awesome Things To Do In Marrakech

The Best Sahara Desert Tour (Marrakech to Merzouga)

Chefchaouen Photo Diary

Budget Travel Guide to Essaouira, Morocco

IMPORTANT THINGS TO KNOWN BEFORE TRAVELING TO MOROCCO