Like most of the people on this planet, I have a huge bucketlist. One of the items in my list has always been seeing the dunes of the Sahara desert. Add the spectacular views, landscapes, architecture, colours and atmosphere of a beautiful country like Morocco to the mix and here I am on my flight to Marrakech after the amazing times in Portugal (<- click for the fotojournal)
This was also my first time in the African continent and in a Muslim country, therefore I asked my friends who have been there for general advice on culture and etiquette and now that I’ve been myself I’m happy to give a few tips and good-to-knows before going:
- It’s a bit tougher for girls: I met several female solo travellers in Morocco and they told me they felt generally safe. Although in cities like Casablanca and Tangier you can see girls dressed in western clothes and have a more western vibe, unfortunately in most of the country gender roles are still way too defined. A woman (doesn’t matter if Moroccan or not) should watch out for the way she dresses and behaves if she wants to avoid catcalling, hissing, whistles and all other forms of annoyance and harassment on the streets. I had a conversation with a Moroccan girl on the train from Tangier to Casablanca and she explained to me that while in these 2 cities she has a very normal lifestyle, in Marrakech she avoids going out or even driving if she’s alone because that unfortunately results in being called names and getting harassed. On top of that, given the fact that premarital sex is illegal in Morocco (for Moroccans) most of the local guys I have met when travelling were very touchy, pushy and sometimes a bit creepy with foreign girls. I’ve seen hostel managers giving unsolicited back rubs, taxi drivers rest their hands on a girl’s thigh as soon as they got in the car and Berbers who kept asking girls to go with them alone in the dunes. All that doesn’t mean It’s unsafe for a girl, as long as you use common sense you’ll be fine and have an amazing time!
- Punctuality? No such thing. Expect everything to be in “Moroccan time”, as the manager of my Riad said, which means anywhere between 10 minutes or 45 minutes later than agreed. They also love to take their sweet time and don’t really plan or organise things until the last minute so be ready for that. It’s not necessarily a bad thing and adds a bit of fun to the mix.
- Haggle, haggle haggle! When shopping never settle for the price they say. Depending on the items they are trying to sell, they could be asking anywhere from 3x to 10x the price. If you like something, try not to look too interested, give a price and stick to it even if they ask for more and be ready to walk away. In most cases the shop owner will follow you on the street and agree to your price. Don’t haggle if you don’t want something: if they end up agreeing to your price and you walk away anyways they’ll get very offended.
- In Marrakech, be ready to say “No” a lot. The people who won’t try to sell you something, will offer to show you around and take you somewhere or help you out with something. Often they’ll make it sound as a favour, but it never is. Locals will always end up trying to get some cash off you! Don’t listen to people trying to get your attention on the streets. Ignore also general questions like: “Where are you from?” If you reply they’ll say something in your language (often a joke) and then will somehow manage to talk you into buying something, sitting at their restaurant, booking one of their tours, and so on… One of the places I wanted to visit was closed and I listened to a guy that told me he was happy to walk me to the jewish/berber quarter as a favour, since it was very close by… I ended up buying 30€ worth of spices I didn’t need from his father’s shop.
My 10 days Itinerary
In 10 days I managed to see everything I wanted to see, visited a lot of places and didn’t feel like I rushed too much. Here’s a screenshot of my itinerary from my Polarsteps
I spent 3 days in Marrakech, went on a Marrakech to Fez 3 days tour visiting the Atlas, Dades Gorge, Todgha Gorge, Ait Ben Haddou, Tinghir, Ouzarzate ecc. Then Spent 1 day and a half in Fez and 2 days in Chefchaouen, before heading back to Marrakech from there via Tangier and Casablanca.
Days 1 to 3: Marrakech.
I arrived in Marrakech at night, getting public transport from the airport was a bit complicated at that time of the day so I had to get a taxi, I tried to haggle for the price but apparently at night they have a fixed rate of about 20€. The manager of my riad, Zaid, was really kind to come and pick me up on one of the main streets and showed me the way to the riad. The street leading to the place was hidden behind a small hole in a wall and I wouldn’t have been able to find it by myself. I went out for some food at around 11 PM and was immediately surrounded by kids asking me where I was going and trying to offer to show me around or take me to places in exchange of some change. Marrakech really is incredible and something that must be experienced. The next day, after being woken up call to prayers of the Imam coming from the mosques, I visited the beautiful Tombs, the Koutibia Mosque, the palaces and gardens.
Although the architecture is amazing and spectacular, in my opinion the best part of Marrakech is getting lost in the Medina and experience the frenetic Djemaa el Fna square. Go and wander around the small streets, visit the Souks (marketplaces), try the street food and experience, in awe, the blend of colours, smells and sounds.
I really recommend going up to one of the bars in Djemaa el Fna Square at sunset to watch how the snake charmers and other sellers are replaced by the street food stalls (there’s a timelapse of this happening in my video at the bottom of the page). At night getting some food here really is an experience: Everyone keeps stopping, trying to win you over with jokes and by putting up little shows and choreographies to convince you to eat at their place. Marrakech is an amazing city but my opinion and the ones of other travellers I met during this journey are the same: 3 days is enough. It really is a lot energy consuming and eventually I got tired of being stopped on the street every 2 minutes and of people asking for money.
Days 4 to 6: The Sahara Tour
I decided to took a Sahara tour for mostly 2 reasons:
1. I really, really wanted to visit the desert and take some pictures there.
2. It’s a really convenient way to visit a lot of places and go from point A to pint B (Marrakech to Fes, in my case) without having to worry about planning, accommodation and transport too much.
The tour leaves early in the morning and goes through the High Atlas, Ait Ben Haddou and the Dades Gorges, where we stopped for a night (the tour includes dinners, accommodation and breakfasts)
Ait Ben Haddou was really impressive, our local guide explained how the houses of the village are built using wheat straws and mud, as well as explaining the culture and traditions to us very thoroughly. I was very impressed with the village and its looks. I’m not surprised it was chosen to be the set of films like The Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones.
After the stop in the Dades, we left early in the morning to go and visit the Todgha Gorges, as well as the towns of Ouzarzate and the city of Tinghir, where a Berber family showed us how they craft rugs using sheep and camel wool. In the Todgha Gorge I took one of my favourite portraits, a shot of a Berber woman with her baby.
After this little tour of the Berber lands we finally headed to Merzouga, where we rode camels (the website advertised the tour as cruelty free, hope it’s true.) to go watch the sunset, then head to our camp for dinner and a drum circle, before getting up to see the sunrise over the dunes.
The Desert was fantastic, I left a piece of my heart there. However the way out of it was a nightmare. The company we booked the tour with chucked me and the ones who had to go to Fes afterwards in a dodgy, uncomfortable taxi. But eventually, tired and glad to be alive, we made it to Fes.
Days 7 to 9: Fes – Chefhaouen
There’s really not a lot to do in Fes, other than check out the blue gate and a couple of gardens. The thing that struck me the most was the massive difference with Marrakech in the Souks and Medina. People are not going after you or pushing you to buy stuff. They must be used to people arriving from Marrakech, since they often welcome you saying: “No worries, you can just have a look, don’t have to buy anything if you don’t want to.” Being able to shop without the Marrakech pressure was actually quite relieving. After a night out in Fes we headed to the beautiful Chefchaouen, the blue city. Imagine a city that is completely painted in blue and is full of lovely cats that let you cuddle them. Paradise. Chefchaouen is very small, you can have a look at the whole town in less than a couple of hours. However if you’re into hikes take an extra day to visit the Akchour waterfalls.
If I had to choose my favourite city I would definitely say it’s Chefchaouen. The atmosphere is way more laid back, relaxed and chilled compared to Marrakech. I definitely recommend visiting it. If you have more time, maybe checking out Essaouira (especially if you’re into surfing) and trekking in the Atlas might be two good ways to spend time. But 10 days if well managed are enough to visit the most beautiful and unique things in the country.
At the end of this adventure was time to head to my favourite destination so far: Turkey.
It’s been more than a month since I left Morocco and I managed to scribble this post just now. If you want to see where I’m at in real time, the BTS and see my pictures as soon as I shoot them give me a follow, you’ll find my Instagram profile at the footer of every page.