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Trip Report MAGICAL, MEZMERIZING MOROCCO (Revised)

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I’m writing this trip report after finally editing 2500 photos from travel in 2012 and 2013. The images and the memories of the fabulous places we visited, have inspired me to share my observations and experiences with others who may be considering travel to this amazing country. I hope it will be of some interest and assistance.
After much discussion and research, we took the advice of friends and travellers with experience in Morocco and decided to use a private driver and guide. This was a big decision because we are independent travellers and had never used a travel company.
Our extensive research led us to a Moroccan company with local experienced cultural driver/guides. From our first contact with the managing director we felt very comfortable and confident we’d made the correct decision. After a number of conversations and emails, he organised a fantastic itinerary that suited us perfectly and booked all our accommodation. He was friendly and very professional and answered all our questions promptly by return email.
In 2012 we travelled with Emirates from Australia to Casablanca via Dubai; all very easy without a problem. We started our trip in Casablanca only because it was a convenient place to meet up with two other members of our family who wanted to travel with us.
Casablanca is mostly a commercial city and I would not recommend a stay there unless you have unlimited travel time as there are so many more interesting places to see. Many parts of the city are in need of a lot of TLC, but the Art Deco architecture of the 1930s is very interesting and evident in the fabulous old apartment and city buildings; many of which are being restored. There are some fine restaurants in the city and on the waterfront. The Hassan 11 Mosque is the largest outside of Mecca, and maybe the only one open to non-Muslims, and is worth a guided visit. If you feel like a bit of nostalgia (as we did) have lunch at Rick's Cafe (as in the Bogart movie ‘Casablanca’), it's a lot of fun; and yes, we sat at the bar, wore a fez, and had photos taken at the piano; the food was good too.
After a two night stay our travels in Morocco really began when our driver picked us up at our Casablanca hotel in an immaculately clean SUV. If we had any doubts about spending the next two weeks with a complete stranger, these were dispelled immediately. Our driver was an articulate, amusing, educated man who spoke many languages and English fluently. We felt we were off to a great start and in capable hands with this guy, and this was indeed the case as our tour progressed.
We had only two weeks to see as much as possible and travelled north from Casablanca to the capital Rabat, the historic city of Meknes, and visited the magnificent Roman ruins at Volubilis on our way to Fes; the world’s most complete mediaeval city.
We loved these exotic Imperial cities like Fes and Marrakech with their wonderful historic sites and ancient fabulous souks, but it was the landscape and the people that captured our hearts.
The landscapes were stunning with an extraordinary diversity; from the Atlas Mountains, gorges, valleys, cedar forests, and the Sahara Desert to the beautiful coastal areas along the Atlantic Ocean.
Some of our most memorable experiences were the rugged off-road journeys. Our driver took us to remote places where we were privileged to spend time and have tea with a cave-dwelling nomad family. We saw very young shepherd boys isolated with their sheep and a very young teenage girl helping her mother herd camels in the wilderness while her beautiful little sister was safely secured to the back of a donkey.
One of the highlights of our tour was the desert and the ever-changing shape and colour of the sand dunes; from soft apricot, pinks and lilac tinged burnt orange through to an almost incandescent hue.
Our driver organised a camel trek into the Sahara Desert from Merzouga for an overnight stay in a Berber tent on New Year’s Eve which was quite magical. We were served fabulous Moroccan food and then entertained by local Gnouan musicians by a roaring fire; just spectacular. The night sky in the Sahara is stunning and the stars seemed to twinkle just above your head with a clarity that amazed everyone. We were woken by our camel driver just before dawn to witness the sunrise over the sand-dunes; awesome!
After we left Merzouga, we asked our driver to deviate from our itinerary and take us to the fossil fields of Erfoud we’d heard so much about where you can see fossils millions of years old. Although we were not scheduled to travel to Erfoud, he happily made this detour for us.
It’s hard to choose a particular highlight as there were just so many in this amazing country. We particularly loved feeding the Barbary apes in the cedar forests, and watching the crazy goats climbing up into the Argan trees to eat the nuts as we made our way to the coastal fishing port of Essaouira via the seaside resort of Agadir. In Essaouira, our driver treated us to a wonderful lunch of fresh seafood he purchased from the fish market and then had cooked in the fish market café.
Travelling with a private driver and guide was cost effective but more importantly we found it enriched our travel experience enormously. The beauty of the country can be seen from main highways, but travelling off-road offers a lot more and we would never have attempted that alone. Our driver/guide was a well-educated Berber and extremely knowledgeable about his country and its history, and constantly enjoyed telling us about it. By the end of the trip we knew so much more about the history, culture and the Moroccan way of life.
Our driver was keen to show us family life in Morocco. He started as our cultural guide and driver, but our friendship built over the days on tour and we visited his sister and nieces who decorated our hands with traditional henna designs. We also felt very honoured to be asked into his own home to meet his family and have afternoon tea. He made our trip memorable in so many ways. On our last night in Marrakech, he generously gave a wonderful farewell dinner party for us at our riad with musicians and a Belly Dancer.
On a practical level Morocco turned out to be much easier than we thought it would be. Having a private guide/driver was a great decision. You have a built-in assistant, translator and 'go-to' person for your practical needs; particularly for first-time travellers to Morocco.
Moroccans speak several Berber dialects, Moroccan Arabic, and in tourist centres most locals speak French. Although not much English is spoken, you could manage by yourself because the people are so friendly, but having a private driver/guide ready to lend a hand when needed and sort things out quickly meant we were free to relax and enjoy a completely stress-free holiday. This was particularly useful for finding the nearest rest-room or ATM and on one occasion he escorted us to the pharmacy and made sure the pharmacist understood what we needed.
Again on a practical level, mobile/cell phone coverage is fantastic in Morocco (even in the desert) and there are plenty of banks and ATMs which are very easy to use.
There are many choices for accommodation in Morocco and we chose to stay at the traditional riads except on two occasions in 2012 when we stayed at hotels. The riads are traditional style Moroccan homes/guest-houses usually with a central courtyard and fountain, and traditional Moroccan decor. We loved them. Some of the very old riads (although renovated) have varied sized rooms; bedrooms and bathrooms may be large or they could be smaller, but charming just the same if you want an authentic experience. There are many new riads built in the traditional style but have larger rooms.
The food in Morocco is healthy, fresh and delicious. Breakfast is usually included in the price at most riads/hotels. Freshly squeezed orange juice is always served; eggs, yoghurt, pastries, fresh breads, freshly baked Moroccan pancake/crumpet speciality served with local Moroccan honey and various preserves are also usually on the menu. Fresh fruit is always on the table and plenty of freshly made coffee and tea.
Moroccan cuisine is quite varied; from simple to very complex. Many traditional Moroccan lunches or dinners seem to start with an assortment of numerous freshly-made salads of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers and olives and breads; followed by tajines (casseroles) of chicken, lamb, beef, goat or vegetables. There are lighter quick lunches available, which may be skewers (brochettes) of lamb, chicken, beef or turkey. The Moroccan cuisine is extensive and I'm only mentioning the most basic and popular everyday dishes; but it's worth trying many of the more exotic and unfamiliar ones. Fresh fruit is the most popular desert to finish meals unless it’s a festival or special occasion. There are many gorgeous traditional pastries in Morocco if you have a sweet tooth.
It's a good idea to only drink bottled water in Morocco which is readily available and very inexpensive.
Alcohol is available in Morocco and they produce some very fine wine which we enjoyed; although we did make a bad choice in a bottle shop on one occasion and it was terrible; our mistake. Let price be your guide. Alcohol is not normally available in most Medinas (being the traditional part of Moroccan cities) but outside of the Medinas most restaurants and nightclubs have wine lists.
We always felt completely safe in Morocco and never threatened in any way. The people are gentle, helpful, hospitable and caring by nature and tourism is an important industry for them. Any inappropriate behaviour with tourists is not tolerated as tourism is a growth industry and the government wants to keep it that way.
I stayed in Morocco by myself for nearly one month in 2013 and did not experience any problems at all. As in any city or place in the world you have to be sensible, and mindful of personal security. I walked, dined, and was site-seeing alone on many occasions and felt completely comfortable.
Appropriate dress codes for Morocco often come up in conversations. I think some of the suggestions made are 'over the top'. Commonsense and a little modesty should be your guide.
I decided to be just a little conservative. You don't need to cover head to toe. Yes, it is a Muslim country, but the locals understand that visitors have different dress codes. Local men for example don't seem to bare their arms or wear shorts. They wear long sleeved shirts or T-shirts with jeans or regular trousers. Male visitors seem to wear the same but also wear shorts, but in the longer style. Some Moroccan men wear the djellaba (a long robe like a caftan with a hood).
Most women in Morocco wear some type of head-scarf and while many local women in cities and rural areas still wear the djellaba, many younger women do not. Many younger women in bigger towns and cities wear regular jeans and fashionable tops and jackets; the only difference being the tops and jackets seem to cover to mid-thigh.
So the guide for women is probably not to wear shorts in hot weather but instead choose cotton/linen regular pants or capri pants with looser tops that have sleeves (at least to the elbow) with a neckline that is not too low. You do see tourists wearing T-shirts, but you don't see too many in short shorts or sleeveless tops, but there are a few. A scarf is a good accessory in winter or summer to throw across for modesty when in doubt. Of course on beaches and in resorts you will definitely see more relaxed western dress. When I was staying in Essaouira last Easter there were lots of tourists sun-baking on the beach in bikinis.....that seemed to bring out the local lads to play more than the usual amount of beach soccer! It’s the same as anywhere really.
Cooler weather is easy; just jeans/pants with sweaters and jackets.
Comfortable walking shoes and strong sandals are good options, but an extra pair of something a little ‘dressier’ if you plan to dine out in more stylish big city restaurants.
I was fortunate to travel in Morocco again in 2013 for nearly 4 weeks. I travelled alone this time and stayed mostly in Essaouira on the Atlantic coast where I rented an apartment near the waterfront as I’d previously stayed in the Medina.
Essaouira is a fishing port on the Atlantic coast once occupied by the Carthaginians, Romans and later the Portuguese and is famous for its artists and artisans, world championship wind-surfing and the annual Gnouan music festival. It's very laid back with a very easy to negotiate souk in the Medina. The vendors are much more relaxed than in big cities like Fes and Marrakech and rarely 'encourage' you to buy anything.
It’s a great place to spend a day or two, but also it’s a wonderful place to relax if you have a little extra time which I did on this trip. I spent most of my time walking or horse riding on the beach, writing, reading, painting and taking cooking classes. I loved shopping for food in the wonderful souk and just watching the ‘passing parade’ and observing the daily rituals of local life; particularly the way Moroccan families promenade in the late afternoon and evening.
After my stay in Essaouira I decided to use the same tour company again to travel to Tangier, and then to Asilah, neither of which I’d seen on the previous tour. Tangier was interesting but I decided to have a short stay in Asilah which is another seaside town with a strong Spanish influence on the Atlantic coast about 40 minutes from Tangier. Asilah holds a wonderful Arts Festival each year and artists from all over the world come to paint murals on the walls in the Medina; just gorgeous!
From Asilah I continued on tour and went up into the mountains to visit Chefchaouen, the blue city, named for the colour the locals paint their houses; a very beautiful hilly mountain town with a fascinating history that's well worth a visit and where, like lots of places in Morocco, time seems to have stood still.
I finally returned to Casablanca via Rabat for my departure to France, safe and sound after my solo adventure. I found people everywhere to be helpful and respectful and never at any time did I feel vulnerable or unsafe.
If you have been considering a trip to Morocco but aren’t sure….I would just say GO! It’s such a beautiful and interesting country with an ancient landscape, fascinating history and exotic culture whose people are welcoming and hospitable; we just loved it. Morocco is currently undergoing modernisation under the popular and progressive monarch Mohammed V1; particularly women’s rights and family law, education and now more development opportunities to address poverty.
Of course coming from a first world country there are many obvious and immediate differences, but you soon realise whilst it's not 5th Avenue or the Champs Elysees, what it does have to offer is so much more on many levels.
Moroccan ancestry is complex, but Morocco is predominantly Berber. Berbers, or more correctly, Imazighen, are the original inhabitants of Morocco of which there are several groups; perhaps making up 80% of the population; the remainder are Arab, Jews and Christians. All these groups seem to happily co-exist in what is quite obviously a very moderate Muslim country, where you will see not only mosques, but churches and synagogues.
Morocco is not a bland country and excites your senses with sights, sounds and smells that make you feel very alive and in touch with real humanity. Although Morocco still has many social issues to be addressed, it’s a place to reconnect your soul to real life in a world that is increasingly homogenised, sanitised, superficial and soulless.
People seem to have a lot less in a material sense in Morocco but appear more content. Life revolves mostly around community; cooking, eating, and sharing time with family and friends.
I’m currently planning my next trip to Morocco and hope some of my experiences and observations will encourage you to visit this terrific country that is embracing the modern world, while retaining a life-style that keeps them close to their core values of community and family.
Even if you usually travel independently, I would definitely recommend a professional driver/cultural guide for a first time visitor, or if you just want someone to take the worry and stress out of your travel arrangements and experience. I’m sure there are many very good tour companies in Morocco but I can only talk about our experience with the one we chose.
We were very pleased with our tour company, not just because they are obviously very experienced professionals, but because we all felt enriched by their knowledge and their companionship; they made our trip very special and I would recommend them to anyone interested in travel in Morocco; whether for a day tour or something longer and more in depth.
I would be happy to reply to any questions about travel in Morocco at boonibardb@hotmail.com
Danielle

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