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Tips for Visiting Morocco

Morocco has been a top destination for adventurous travellers for centuries thanks to its striking landscapes, rich history and proximity to mainland Europe. Bordered by over a thousand miles of coastline, and the Rif and Atlas mountains to the east, the natural beauty of this uppermost corner of Africa is not to be missed.

  • Although the political situation in north Africa has been tumultuous in the recent past, Morocco enjoys a fair degree of stability thanks to reforms by the popular King Mohammed VI. As always, it’s best to be cautious and respect other cultures when abroad, and to register with the Canadian government before you go.
  • ONCF train tickets can only be booked from within the country at present. Although most trains don’t fill up entirely, it’s usually best to get first-class tickets for only a few dollars more to guarantee your seats.
  • While Arabic is the official language, a few phrases in French should be enough to get by for native English speakers. On my recent trip I found my attempts to speak French and Arabic greeted with polite -- and fluent -- replies in English.
  • Moroccans are almost universally talkative and very friendly. Don’t be surprised if chance encounters result in invitations to dinner, unexpected telephone introductions to family and friends, long goodbyes and invitations to share a pot of traditional mint tea.
  • When shopping for goods in the souks of the medina, be prepared to haggle. If you’re skilled at negotiating you can often reduce the price of an item by more than 50% if you barter skillfully. While this long-standing tradition is expected (if not celebrated) in the souks, there are usually artist collectives that sell crafts at a fixed price for anyone who would rather pay the price on the price tag.
  • Bring a compass. The narrow streets of the medina in most cities rarely go in a straight line and hardly ever follow a predictable pattern. The best bet you have on reaching a given destination is by having a map (my iPhone’s map was extremely convenient) and an idea of what direction you’re going – and for that you’ll need a compass.

Getting there and getting around:

While direct flights from Canada can be pricey, there are occasionally unbeatable deals (like the one that brought me there for less than $500 roundtrip) that can make this dream vacation a reality. The majority of flights into the country land at Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca, while several low-cost carriers (Ryanair, EasyJet, etc.) operate flights into cities such as Fes and Marrakech. Most travellers experience Morocco as a side trip from Spain, stopping in to the northern port city of Tangiers for a day or two by way of the ferry across the Straights of Gibraltar from Algeciras.

Once you’ve arrived, the easiest way to get around is by using the ONCF, Morocco’s national railway. Most of the major destinations are linked by efficient, clean and surprisingly inexpensive trains that primarily run from Tangier in the north to Marrakech in the south.

Where to stay and where to go:

When the temperatures in Morocco soar during the warmer summer months, there’s nothing quite like retiring to the quiet (and air conditioned) comforts of the great indoors. Travelers accustomed to every class of accommodation will find numerous hotel and resort options in the larger cities. There are an abundance of well-known hotel brands and budget options available.

For a more authentically Moroccan experience, opt for a few nights in a traditional guesthouse known as a riad (or ryad). Riads are typically independently owned, individually decorated homes that offer several types of rooms arranged around a central courtyard. These can often be far less expensive than a traditional hotel stay, and they usually come with a small breakfast and the opportunity to make new friends. 

Most visitors arriving in Casablanca or Tangier are greeted by a highly populated urban landscape that often doesn’t compare to their Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman fantasies about the place. After a day or two of seeing the sights there, dive into the cities on the interior for a real taste of what the country has to offer.  Like many cities in North Africa, Marrakech is divided into the old walled city (or medina) and the newer city of grand boulevards and architecture that reflects its French Colonial past. Flanked by the snowcapped Atlas Mountains, Marrakech is a sensory overload of shops, public squares and fantastic food. The old walled city of Fez (or Fes el Bali) is the former capital of Morocco and a UNESCO World Heritage Site worth exploring. Don’t even try to avoid getting lost in the labyrinth streets of the medina -- embracing the moment and taking it all in is what travel is all about.

Many tour companies offer day trips from the major cities that can take you to the sands of the Sahara Desert or to the funky ocean-side fishing village of Essaouira. Checking out the Roman ruins just outside the town of Meknes is another great side trip. 

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Tips by

Deal Expert, Chicago
Friday, November 25, 2011
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Kevin Kitchen