5 Practical Tips I Wish I Had Known Before Visiting Morocco

What never disappoints in Morocco: landscape!

During my time traveling through Morocco, there was more than one occasion when I questioned whether it was the “wrong” destination for me and if I should cut my losses and move on. I was traveling for an extended period of time, so I did not want one country to drain all my energy.

As I look back on my experience, I feel grateful that nothing truly bad happened to push me over the edge.  I also have realized that there are a few external factors that kind of work against Morocco; it was not entirely the country’s fault that I did not enjoy it to the fullest.

One is my preceding trips were Taiwan and Burma where the kindness of the people was so unreal. The benchmark has been set.

Another is I did not do sufficient pre-trip research about the country to understand the difficulties that a solo traveler might encounter. I wish someone had knocked on my head and reminded me that Morocco is culturally very different from all other countries I had been to.

When telling family and friends back home about the trip, the question I got asked most often was if I regret having visited Morocco. After all, there are a lot of other countries with beautiful sceneries and genuine people. My answer is a resounding NO!

While my time there was not perfect, I did get to see some of the most surreal sights and meet really lovely travelers whom I still keep in touch with. What I would have done differently, however, is reading a little bit more carefully about the potential challenges to know how to handle them.

So for all soon-to-be first-timers to Morocco, I hope this guide is helpful 🙂

1: Do NOT trust strangers who come up to you and offer their help

I contemplated hard whether to put this advice in the open, because I do not want to spread negative ideas about a country around the Internet. But after what happened to me and to people I spoke with, I have decided to stand by my judgment. Of course there are exceptions to every rule; not everyone in Morocco who offers to help you has ulterior motives. BUT, you really need to err on the side of caution when you are in Morocco.

_DSC0958Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fnaa is legendary. But be careful; if an old lady suddenly grabs your hand and start painting it, she is sure as hell going to make you pay!

After an uneventful 3-hour flight (but full of rambunctious children) from Paris, I landed in Marrakech Menara Airport. From there to my hostel (Hostel Waka Waka, which I will review in a separate post), it was a 20-minute taxi ride that cost 100 Moroccan dirhams (roughly 10 euros). As the hostel is located inside the car-free medina (old town), I was dropped off at one of the gate entrances that, according to the taxi driver, was only 5 minutes walk from the hostel.

The Medina of Marrakech is a labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys that are fun to explore and get lost in…theoretically. It becomes more of a nuisance when you are worn out from all the traveling, and especially if you are followed. With no map and a no-internet iPhone in hands, I went into a restaurant and asked the waiter how to get to Waka Waka. I left with some straightforward enough directions and…an unwanted follower.

He followed me all the way inside the medina and pestered me with questions of where I was from and what I was looking for. Feeling too uneasy, I stopped responding and just ignored him, hoping that he would leave me alone. He eventually did, but in a state of extreme irritation, and even warned me, “You are never going to find it.”

Two minutes later, a much younger and cheerful man walked towards me from a small alley and asked if I was headed to Waka Waka. Guarded, I said no and that I knew my way. He went on to reassure me that he worked at the hostel and it was very, very close.

I eventually let my guard down and followed him.

True to his promise, the hostel was just a few corners away. However, he skipped on mentioning his “fee”. And that he lied about his “job”. After a brief, non-confrontational verbal give-and-take, I gave him 1 euro and scorned him for being a terrible, dishonest person.

The other guests at the hostel who opened the doors for me and thus witnessed what went down were not as lucky, though. They told me I did a better bargaining job than they had, as they paid those con artists 10 euros. (Well, growing up and living in South East Asia have its perks; bargaining for everything is your second nature.) Also, I should not have wasted my energy scoffing him. I could have said he was the worst motherfucker in the whole wide world and he would still grin from ear to ear as long as he had my money.

I would hear the same story from every traveler I met during the rest of my time in the country. Of course, we budget travelers learn fast and never fall victim to this kind of scams again. A couple of euros do not matter in the grand scheme of things, but what I detest most is that the experience made me so alert and high-strung that I no longer felt comfortable wandering around aimlessly like I always do when visiting a new place.

_DSC0953Which was a shame because Marrakech has SO many charming streets and alleys.

Later, when I was lost in Fes and a middle-aged French man approached me and offered to show the way, I almost refused him. It did not help that the touts kept yelling at me, “Don’t follow him. He is tricking you.” Though extremely reluctant, I agreed to let him lead the way but kept pressing him if he was after my money. He answered no; he had been to Morocco many times and just wanted to help other travelers out. Those touts hated him because he “stole” their potential victims.

When I got to where I needed to be, his parting words were, “Voila. I didn’t trick you. Have a fun time.”

I FELT LIKE THE BIGGEST ASSHOLE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD!!!

Bottom line: Beware of Moroccans who come out of nowhere and act all friendly with you. Do NOT even try to be nice; be blunt instead. For your information, those con artists are scared shitless of police. If they are caught, they will be jailed. You can play that card if the situation gets out of control.

2: Arrive at stations really, really early if you take the trains from one city to another

Otherwise, you would have a torturous train ride!

The train ride from Marrakech to Fes is the one I will most likely never forget, only because it was so excruciatingly long and uncomfortable. While it makes for a good little travel story, I hope I will never experience something similar again. Ever!

_DSC0978But this I want to see again!!!

My second stop in Morocco was Fes, which is 8 hours by train from Marrakech. The morning of the departure date, I woke up at 5AM, had a nice hot shower, ate a filling breakfast, checked out and hailed a cab from the medina to the city’s posh train station.

The earliest train to Fes was at 10.45AM, so after I bought my second-class ticket, I sat down at a nearby coffee shop and ordered a croissant and a latte. I checked my iPhone and almost screamed when free fast Wi-Fi was available. At that point, I was so desperate after almost a week of patchy Internet. The two-hour wait passed in the blink of an eye.

At 10.35, I gathered my bags and headed down the check-in gate. In hindsight, I should have realized right there and then that it was not going to fare well when people, instead of standing in line, jostled and squeezed to get through the gate.

When I got on the train, my immediate thought was, “I just fucked myself…HARD.” Despite coming from the third world, I had never been on any train that was more cramped and disorderly; every inch of available room on the train was occupied. Mothers and children sat on the floor, looking tired and resigned. Given that asses were all they saw when they looked up, their feelings were totally valid.

There was no space inside the cabin, so I had to stand in the gangway bellow. For more than 8 hours, I was no more an inch from another Moroccan in front of me. I could not stretch my arms or my legs, or dare to close my eyes since I had to watch my belongings.

It was nothing short of a miracle that I did not need to relieve myself at ANY point during the ride.

No doubt it was physically arduous. But the harder part was being scrutinized, as I was the only Asian on the train. And between you and me, I have to confess I was scared shitless whenever people took a look at me and whispered something to their companions.

Needless to say, I wanted to scream when the train pulled into Fes station.

_DSC0191A lot of things about Fes made me want to scream. This scene was no exception, but screaming with awe instead. 

Bottom line: Try to book first-class train tickets; they are usually just 10 euros more than second-class tickets. But you are guaranteed a seat. If you have second-class ticket for whatever reason, arrive EXTREMELY early and wait at platform so you can embark and snatch a seat as soon as your train arrives.

3: Book your bus/train/flight tickets early IN PERSON

If you are anything like me, you want to pre-book everything before you arrive. Because it feels reassuring, and under many circumstances it saves time and money. But certain things in Morocco cannot be booked online in advance. Which, for control freaks like us, can be a little bit unsettling.

I have learned, though, that it is okay. No need to fret. All you have to do is come to the bus/train stations a day or two before your departure date and book your tickets.

P/S: The Fes-Chefchaouen bus tickets sell like hotcakes. Book yours well in advance!

_DSC0359I mean… Chefchaouen is so freaking gorgeous.

4: Do NOT book your Sahara tour in advance. And do NOT do the 2 days/1 night tour

Here is my conclusion after traveling through Morocco: Everyone and their mother seem to be offering the Sahara desert tours. Even though they all go to the same spots and basically do the same activities, prices vary wildly.

I strongly advise you against booking the tour online. Just come and shop around for the best offer. I cringe when some companies I inquired charge hundreds of euros even though their itineraries are exactly the same as the one I joined. And I paid 80 euros!

(Okay, your group might be smaller, or your driver might be more knowledgeable, but when you are in Sahara, you ride a camel and sleep in the tents just like every other group.)

Also, you should allocate at least 3 days/2 nights for this whole Sahara trip. It is quite far away, whether you depart from Marrakech or Fes. The 2 days/1 night tours do not take you to the impressive part of the desert.

_DSC0998I repeat, you will not get to this insane and mind-blowing and other-worldly sand dune if you do the 1 night tour. 

_DSC1025Also, I do not guarantee your night is going to be as magical as this (excuse my feeble attempt at capturing. No photo is able to do the Sahara starry night justice).

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