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So you’ve made the plan, booked the flight, and are headed to the Maghreb. You’re probably excited and maybe even scared. If you’ve never been to Morocco, you will be unsure what to expect. Going to a new country is undoubtedly an exhilarating and confusing experience. With this newcomer’s guide to Morocco, you’ll find tips to help ensure that your trip to Morocco goes as smoothly as possible.
First Things First – Clothes to Pack for Morocco
Regardless the time of year of your trip, Moroccan weather can be varied. You can experience chilly mornings, followed by hot afternoons, and even frigid evenings and nights. During the rainy season, things can be downright cold and damp. In the summer, they can be unbearably hot. Be prepared by packing the right variety of clothes.
- Tops. It’s a good idea to bring several different types of clothing. Layered tops work particularly well. That way, you can put them on and take them off at your convenience. I suggest t-shirts, sweaters, cardigans, shawls, pull overs, and light jackets.
- Bottoms. Shorts can be worn, but knee-length is best for both men and women as they’ll draw the least attention in a traditionally modest society. You’ll also want to have a comfortable pair of pants or two. and for women, perhaps a long skirt, for cooler days or when touring conservative areas.
- Scarves or Wraps. When visiting a mosque, it is recommended to cover your arms and legs. Women may even feel more comfortable covering their hair. Carrying a scarf, wrap or throw for these occasions is a good practice. A large scarf can also be used to cover your shoulders and arms when wearing something short-sleeved or more more revealing.
- Shoes. Pack a few different styles of shoes. You’ll definitely want a sturdy sneaker or comfortable boot; Moroccan streets can be pretty rough! As much as you may be tempted to wear a cute summer sandal while strolling through the souk, I’ve ruined a great many shoes by doing the same. Reserve the nicer shoes for special occasions that require less walking.
Other Essentials to Bring to Morocco
Leave designer bags at home and instead bring a fanny pack, cross body bag, or other similar bag that can be worn over a shoulder and across or around the body. Not only do such bags minimize the risk of having things stolen, they allow you to keep both hands free while securely carrying money and other important items such passports, bank cards, identification and room keys.
Some other essential items to bring to Morocco and carry around with you are:
- Band-aids. Chances are you’ll need one and they’re not always easy to find.
- Tissues. They are especially important if you’re out and about and need to use the restroom. Many public restrooms in Morocco are not stocked with toilet paper so carrying small packs of tissues is definitely a must.
- Prescription Medicines. If you have any medications that have been prescribed for you, pack them in their original containers (with prescription label included) and seal in a clear Ziploc bag.
- OTC Medicines. Also bring along other basic over-the-counter medicines such as pain relievers, diarrhea medicine and allergy medicines. While all are available in Moroccan pharmacies, there is sometimes a noticeable difference in their strength, so they may not work as well as you need.
- Guidebooks and Phrase Books. A general travel guidebook and a French or Moroccan Arabic handbook will prove useful. These will help you navigate the landscape, learn details about particular cities and sites, and communicate with locals to ask directions or shop.
Money in Morocco
Morocco is still very much a cash-based society, so you’ll want to familiarize yourself with Morocco’s monetary system. You’ll need to keep cash on hand to pay for all sorts of things from taxi fares to street food to market finds.
Moroccan currency is the dirham. It’s often written as DH, Dh or MAD. Although the exchange rate fluctuates, 10 Moroccan dirhams is roughly equivalent to 1 US dollar. One dirham can be divided into 100 centimes (cents), formerly called francs.
Paper notes come in denominations of 200 dirhams, 100 dirhams, 50 dirhams and 20 dirhams. Coins have values of 10 dirhams, 5 dirhams, 2 dirhams, 1 dirham and 1/2 dirham as well as 20 centimes and 10 centimes.
For the purpose of making small purchases and taking taxis, you will want to make sure you always carry enough small change. Taxi drivers will rarely (if ever) have change for 200DH or 100DH.
Using Foreign ATM Cards in Morocco
If you plan to use your ATM card in Morocco to withdraw cash, make sure you’ve notified your bank back home that you’ll be traveling. This helps avoid international restrictions on your debit card. Some banks automatically freeze card usage if they notice mysterious activity outside of the country. This happened to me and it was a pain in the butt. You will definitely want to avoid this.
ATMs are widely available in Morocco, but more so in cities. It isn’t unheard of for ATMs to be either low in cash or empty on weekends or holidays. Some flat out reject transactions from a foreign bank. So make sure you plan accordingly and have a bit of extra money for the unexpected. Also do the same if you are planning a trip to the countryside where ATMs will be much harder to locate.
A debit card should only be used for the purpose of withdrawing money from an ATM. Although it is slowly changing, most small establishments do not accept debit or credit card payments. Even if you stumble upon them, it’s probably safest to pay in cash or use an actual credit card that won’t hold you liable for fraudulent purchases.
Exchanging Foreign Currency to Moroccan Dirhams
If you prefer to bring cash from home for your trip to Morocco, you can have it exchanged into dirhams at the airport upon arrival. You can also exchange money in national banks and at exchange bureaus which are often located in many of the larger cities. Keep in mind that before you go home you will want to change your remaining dirhams back into your home currency.
How to Communicate in Morocco
There are several languages spoken in Morocco. Due to its colonial past and long-lasting connection to France, most Moroccans speak at least some amount of French. English is growing in popularity among younger Moroccans, and Berber languages are heavily used certain regions.
However, the most common tongue in Morocco is Moroccan Colloquial Arabic (Darija). I recommend learning a few key words and phrases for your travels. These can be learned phonetically—I learned this way—so no need to labor over learning to read and write the Arabic script.
You’ll find some online resources for learning basic words and phrases in Darija. Or, consider purchasing a Darija language book or phrasebook to use at home and bring along with you. Some suggestions are:
- Moroccan Arabic: Shnoo the Hell is Going On H’naa?
- A Basic Course in Moroccan Arabic
- Lonely Planet’s Moroccan Arabic Phrasebook.
Shopping and Bargaining
Shopping in Morocco can be one of the most exciting but frightening experiences. Language issues aside, navigating the Moroccan souk can be incredibly intimidating. The sights, the sounds, the crowds, the pushy shopkeepers—it can be overwhelming.
So, here are a few tips to help you on your day at the souk.
- Try not to carry a purse or bag that hangs from the shoulder. Keep your money in a wallet or a fanny pack as mentioned above. While I sincerely hope that you will not have any issues—I personally never have—it is best to play it safe.
- For the same reason, don’t carry wallets in back pockets. I do know a few people who have either been pick-pocketed or had their bags stolen when they weren’t paying attention. This can of course happen anywhere in the world, including our home countries, but it is a frightening thing to experience in a strange land. Just be aware of your surroundings and keep your belongings close.
- Be ready to bargain. This is what makes shopping exciting! Whether speaking to you in Darija or with limited English, Moroccans love to haggle. The first price they ask for is often double or a third more than what they are willing to take for the item. So haggle haggle haggle. If you want to take it a step further, go with the Moroccan trick of walking away at their lowest price. I am willing to bet, they will come after you with an even lower offer.
- Know that Moroccan shopkeepers can be very assertive. Many foreigners have even gone so far as to say that they’ve been harassed by shop owners. While it certainly feels like that (and it can happen on occasion), this is very much part of the seller-buyer dynamic in Morocco. Generally if you give a firm “La” (no) or “Baraka” (enough), they will pull back.
Traveling Around Morocco
For travel within Morocco, you have a few options, depending on whether you need to get around locally or travel to a different city. Casablanca, Rabat and Tangier have added tramways in recent years, which some travelers may want to try. Most travelers, however, will use private transportation or taxis to get around various cities.
Taxis in Morocco
There are two types of taxis available in Morocco—grand taxis (large white-colored vehicles) and petit taxis (small cars which vary in color according to city). Both types of taxis might pick up other passengers while en route to your destination.
The primary difference between the two is that petite taxis are for use within the city and grand taxis will take passengers outside of city limits, sometimes for long distances. It’s not unheard of, for example, for someone to travel to a neighboring city using a grand taxi.
Petite taxis will carry a maximum of three people besides the driver. People picked up together for one destination will generally pay one fare, while people picked up as separate passengers will each pay their own fares.
Petit taxis have meters (compteur in French), and you’ll want to insist that the driver use it. It’s all too common for tourists to hear that it’s broken or to be told a flat fare so that the driver can overcharge them.
Grand taxis, on the other hand, charge a flat fare per person, regardless of the destination or if they are traveling as a group. They tend to have set routes and drivers don’t deviate much off them if at all. So while you can catch a petit taxi in most city neighborhoods, grand taxis tend to stick to main roads.
Grand taxes generally try to fit as many people as possible inside the car. This might include three passengers up front and four in the back. However, passengers may pay for additional spots to avoid being pressed up against a stranger.
For comfort and security, foreigners choosing to use a white taxi are advised to pay for all seats, even if traveling alone. This is to avoid having to be squeezed in with a group of strangers who may or may not be well-intended.
Buses in Morocco
Additionally, there are buses available for travel between cities. CTM is a popular bus line that offers comfortable, air conditioned trips to nearly every city in Morocco. You can check the CTM website for exact routes and fares.
Traveling by Train in Morocco
For more distant travel, there is of course the national train. You can find out more information about routes, fares, and travel times at the ONCF website. (Please note the website is in French.)
ONCF also operates a high speed train (Al Boraq) that travels between Casablanca and Tangier, shortening the travel time to around two hours. This is great if you want to plan a day trip from one city to the other.
Now that you’ve read the most basic and practical pieces of advice for people coming to Morocco for the first time, I hope you feel more informed and a little more prepared for your trip. Safe travels and b’ssaha—to your health!