Morocco: Play it again, Sam!

Hollywood has had a long love affair with Morocco as a country perfect for spies and lovers wandering through labyrinths of markets or along the country’s stately beaches, its mountain passes, its deserts, upon the back of a camel. With the country’s location on the tip of North Africa, at one point barely seven miles away from Spain, Morocco has been an international crossroads for millennia.


Getting in, out, and about


US travelers with a valid passport can gain entry into Morocco for up to 90 days. If you want to stay beyond that time, you would have to apply for an extension in as far advance as possible, which includes your purpose in staying in Morocco, as well as a residency permit. If someone is a child of a Moroccan father, they may run into obstacles when it comes time to leave Morocco because Moroccan citizenship derives from the father. If this situation applies to you, be sure and discuss any issues with a Moroccan embassy or consulate before making your trip.


Morocco does not require any specific vaccinations in order to enter the country. The US Center for Disease Control recommends that all travelers be up to date on the common vaccinations, and that most travelers should consider vaccinations against Hepatitis A and typhoid. Some travelers may also want to consider vaccinations against rabies or Hepatitis B depending on travel and activity plans. Consult with your local doctor before you travel to determine which, if any, vaccinations are appropriate for you. Do not drink tap water or use ice made from tap water in Morocco.


LGBT travelers should be forewarned that same sex activities are criminalized in Morocco. People who are traveling on religious missions should also beware of the prohibited status of public religious proselytizing. This can also include a restriction on the importation of religious materials.


If you want to rent a car and drive in Morocco, your valid foreign driver’s license is good for up to a year. However, be forewarned that traffic accidents are much more frequent in Morocco. Road conditions tend to be poorer than what you’ll find in the US. In addition, roads are often narrow, even into single lane roads where you have to pull onto a shoulder to let oncoming traffic pass. In the mountainous areas, you will find much steeper roads with sharper turns than is common in the US. Drivers tend to be far more aggressive in Morocco. If you are stopped by Moroccan police and assessed a traffic ticket, you must pay immediately or risk having your driver’s license confiscated until you make payment. During Morocco’s rainy season – November through March – extensive flooding of the roads in many rural areas is not uncommon.


Probably the most efficient and enjoyable way to travel throughout Morocco is by train. The network is not all encompassing however, so for some trips, you may have to take a bus. Keep in mind that many bus drivers tend to drive recklessly and the cheaper fared busses can be overcrowded and targets for robberies. Luxury busses, although more expensive, tend to be a safer option. Another option, depending on your destination, is to use a shared taxi. These allow you and up to five other travelers to split the taxi fare, but the fare for any seats that are not purchased must be divided among the other passengers.


The extent of public transportation available within Moroccan urban centers varies, with cities such as Casablanca and Marrakech offering extensive services, whereas in other towns, public transportation is under developed. Even when the latter is the case, a lot of the tourist attractions cluster together, making walking a viable option. In some cases, renting a bicycle is another great way to get around.


When you get ready to leave Morocco, you cannot carry any Moroccan currency out of the country. If you happen to be changing a lot of Moroccan currency into something else, you may arouse suspicion from customs officials. Hold onto any receipts, and you may find it advisable to declare any cash you bring into the country with you beforehand.


The traveler’s tongue


The primary language in Morocco is a dialect of Arabic referred to as either Moroccan Arabic, Maghreb Arabic, or Moroccan Darija. If you speak standard Arabic, be prepared to not understand Moroccan Arabic in many cases, since it is radically different. French is the second most popular language in Morocco, since the country was under French control for many years. Berber is another language spoken, which is entirely indigent to the area. You’ll find Berber spoken particularly in more rural places and in the mountain regions of the country.


While English has become a popular subject in schools, it is not widely spoken in Morocco where French takes precedence as a second language. You may find English speakers among hotel workers and tour guides, but often as not, they will speak better French than English. Another language that you will hear spoken in Morocco is Spanish, particularly in the northwestern parts of Morocco, near the strait of Gibraltar.


While it may be tempting to think of Morocco as a generally unsafe place, this would be inaccurate. The country has a low rate of homicides. US travelers should remain wary about their surroundings, particularly in areas near US government buildings or places where US citizens are known to congregate. Terrorist attacks that target US citizens have occurred in the past, even if it’s not a frequent occurrence. Most crime that travelers should be concerned about will be on the level of scams and petty theft. As a tourist, you may become a target for scammers, so be cautious when dealing with people, especially those who approach you. The southwestern part of Morocco that features a portion of the Sahara desert is under dispute. Consequently it’s not advisable to travel in that part of the country.


Money matters in Morocco


The Moroccan unit of currency is the Moroccan dirham, which is written with the abbreviation ‘Dh’ in front of a numerical price. Keep in mind that the dirham itself is currency for other countries in the Middle East as well, but not the Moroccan version, so you need to specify which dirham you refer to in some circumstances. Moroccan money is not available at all outside of Morocco, and you will have to either forfeit or change your Moroccan money before leaving the country.


Morocco is a country that accepts tips, and tipping can be involved in a multitude of transactions. You should tip all restaurant servers, bar tenders, hotel porters and cleaning service providers, tour operators and guides, and taxi drivers. Keep in mind that many Moroccan service workers make less than $12 USD a day in wages.


Another aspect of Moroccan society is the practice of haggling. In the souks (the North African markets, equivalent to bazaars in other Middle Eastern places), it is almost required. Business transactions tend to be slow and involved, and you can expect to be able to haggle your way into a 50% discount in many cases. When you haggle, you should always provide reasons for why you want to go down in price. However, each transaction is unique and can be affected by numerous factors, including the number of tourists present at any particular time.


ATMs are available in hotels, some banks, and at the entrance to some souks. You can also change money at banks, post offices, and dedicated money exchange booths. Even though the exchange rate is officially set by Moroccan law, you should compare fees and rates to make sure you are getting a good return. Most tourist areas will accept major credit cards, but this can become less common in rural areas, so using Moroccan cash is usually your best option.


Hostel accommodations tend toward the inexpensive, with many reasonable options for under $15 USD per person per night. However, you can also find fairly decent three star hotel accommodations for around $50 USD a night per person, so Morocco is fairly inexpensive compared with many other destinations. A dinner entrée at an inexpensive restaurant will average around $5 USD, and you can even find mid-range meals for two at less than $25 USD. Of course, when you go for the most luxurious of anything, the prices can skyrocket, but you will find many luxurious options available to those with even the smallest budgets.


Highlights of a vacation in Morocco


Morocco offers many unique attractions throughout the year; however, during the month of Ramadan, you may find fewer attractions open or available. Since this month occurs on the Arabic calendar, Ramadan will vary from year to year according to the US calendar. Here are some highlights of a visit to Morocco:


  • Casablanca. Of all the gin joints in all the world, Rick’s is the one most synonymous with Casablanca. The café in this city is based on the fictional creation from the movie. You can find a good array of nightlife choices in the Gironde and Maarif neighborhoods. During the day, check out the Old Medina section of town or head down to the beach. Another great attraction is the Hassan II Mosque, which features the tallest minaret in the world.
  • Fez. The Fez el-Bali medina is a fantastic maze of medieval buildings and walls in the heart of the city. It is the largest automobile-free urban area in the world. Another highlight is the Merenid Tombs. Fez also features the oldest university in the world, Qarawiyyin.
  • Tangier. For the past century, this town with its lovely beaches has been a popular hangout for world famous artists, writers, and musicians, as well as being noted for supplying safe houses for spies throughout the Cold War.
  • Marrakech. The medina area of Marrakech is not to be missed, and there are numerous amazing museums and sites in this town, including the Majorelle botanical gardens, but Marrakech is also a staging ground for tours and treks out into the Atlas Mountains or into the Sahara desert


These highlights only touch on the array of possibilities a trip to Morocco provides. Come see this country and experience the multiple and myriad cultures that have passed this way and left their mark.