Morocco: the kingdom of colors and chaos

Morocco is chaotic and colorful – these are definitely the first two things I noticed after landing. If you’re not used to traveling outside Europe, you’re in for a huge surprise here. I have to admit I had forgotten what culture shock is, so I welcomed that mixture of excitement and anxiety with eyes wide open!

Before you go

EU and US citizens can visit the Kingdom for up to 90 days visa free. You just need to fill in an entry card which you’ll receive on the plane when you go in and at the airport when you leave the country. You need to enter the address of the place you’ll be staying at on the card, so make sure to have the hotel/airbnb address with you.

Keep in mind that you can’t enter or leave Morocco with more than 1000 MAD (approx 100€). Because of that (at least in the Netherlands) it was quite challenging to find an exchange office selling Moroccan dirhams, especially one with a good rate. I would definitely recommend if your bank has a good exchange rate (over 10 MAD per 1€ is considered a good deal!) to simply withdraw at the airport in Casablanca or Marrakech – there are a couple of banks immediately after passport control in Casa.

Weather

The weather was great in December (about 18-20 C, rain for a day or two but not excessive and definitely not enough to ruin any plans!), which instantly made me think summer would’ve been unbearable for me.

Transport

We landed at Casablanca airport which is conveniently connected to the city center via a train (tickets cost 43 MAD per person, one way) and in about 30-45 min you’re at Casa Voyageurs or Casa Port. Both are in the center so it should be close enough if you’re staying in the city. Not taking a cab was a good choice at this point – the traffic in Casablanca was the first indication of chaos! It takes some time to adjust to even crossing the road. Boulevards are big and busy, taxi drivers are… Well, cabbies!

Taxi

There are two types of taxis in Morocco (or at least in Casablanca and Marrakech) – grand and petit. The small red ones (petit taxi) take up to 3 people and big white ones (grand taxi) can fit up to 6 passengers. Since the big ones were really crowded, we went with the small ones. You can stop one at every street, they are everywhere. You should know that if you’re a solo traveler or a couple – the driver will stop to pick-up a third person (one of my reasons to pick a small and not a grand taxi -seeing 6 people in a regular Mercedes sets you off a bit 🙂 )

Compared to Western Europe the price of the taxi (as the prices of almost everything else!) is veeeery low. We were told to ask the driver to always have the meter on, however, since we didn’t know which way is the shortest or fastest I preferred to ask for the price in advance and let the driver decide on the route. If the taxi is not full, he’ll probably not take a shortcut so he can pick other passengers on the way. From Casa Port to the Twin center in Casablanca (approx 4km) we paid 30 MAD for the two of us which I find extremely affordable!

Tram

We never got to use the buses in Morocco but the tram in Casablanca was definitely a smart choice. We only saw one line (T1) crossing the city but honestly it went to all the places we wanted to visit plus the trams are new, air-conditioned and on time for the price of 6 MAD per trip! You can buy a rechargeable card for 7MAD preloaded with one ticket and then charge the amount of trips you want on it. We had a bit of an issue with the ticket selling machines – it wouldn’t accept Visa, MasterCard or Maestro and we didn’t have coins at this point, if you encounter the same – you can buy a ticket from a newspaper/cigarette shop and then recharge it with coins.

Connections to other cities

Casablanca stations offer good connections to pretty much every other place in Morocco. Trains to Marrakech depart from Casa Voyageurs every hour (price 95 MAD for a 2nd class ticket and 148 MAD for a spot in the 1st class), the trip takes about 3 hours. To Rabat you can also take the train from Casa Port – travel time approx 1 hour, price one way 2nd class is 37-47 MAD, depending on the train. Now would be a good time to mention that on the trains to Marrakech and the airport there was no significant difference between the first and second class. Both were crowded saloon carriages, in the compartment railcars the second class will have 8 seats and the first – 6, but we didn’t run into these. The guy at the cashier in Casablanca advised us to get a second class ticket and overall I think he was right.

You can find prices and schedules for trains to Agadir, Fes or Tangier at oncf.ma. You can’t buy tickets online but you can buy in advance at the train station. The personnel is helpful and speaks English well enough for you to reach your destination. 🙂

Knowing your way around

As far as language goes you’ll really have the upper hand here if you speak French! In Marrakech and in the North – Spanish will be helpful too.

At hotels, restaurants and railway stations people speak English – not necessarily fluently but everyone is helpful and they will try to assist you.

Dress code – Morocco is a religious country and you can’t forget about that. Local women are mostly wearing a head cover, niqabs are also not a rear sight. In this respect women are expected to comply with the local culture and traditions – make sure your shoulders are covered, leave your mini skirts and shorts at home. Jeans are generally fine, long skirts and maxi dresses are okay as well. Probably don’t go overboard on  the accessorizing! We didn’t really notice anything special regarding men’s appearance. Public shows of affection are not well received – you’ll rarely (if at all) see a couple kissing or holding hands in public.

Food and beverages: tea and coffee for everyone!

Mint tea
Mint tea served in Casablanca

Mint tea is the official drink of the country – it’s the star of every menu and it’s good so make sure you try it even if you are not a tea lover! Another must try is coffee – the one served by default is ristretto-like – short, black, strong. I prefer noos noos (sometimes spelled nus nus) which is basically flat white – a shot of espresso and a shot of milk. Tap water is supposedly safe to drink but it’s highly chlorinated so I’d stick to buying mineral water. From what we saw – alcohol is highly scrutinized in Morocco. It’s not illegal per se but don’t bother looking for it in the menu particularly during Ramadan. The large international hotel chains offer alcohol in their lobby bars or gardens but most of the small independent riads have a policy of their own and in most cases won’t allow alcohol on the premises. If you really count on a glass of wine/beer after a long day of exploring I suggest checking the policy of your accommodation in advance. Bars and restaurants we noticed offer alcohol if it’s an international place like an Irish pub or an Italian trattoria but our priority were the local Moroccan places.  In some local shops you can find non-alcoholic beer but you’ll rarely see anyone drinking in public (especially women!).

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Dried fruits in the Medina, Marrakech

Food – welcome to paradise! Cuisine was one of the best things about Morocco for me. Lots of spices and herbs in everything!

Traditional minced meat tajine
Traditional minced meat tajine

Saffron lovers will be in heaven here. Tajine (or Tagine) is my personal favorite – a stew-like dish (often with meat but not necessarily) and vegetables cooked in one of those ceramic plates we all know! Of course couscous is on the menu; in Casablanca seafood is a god send – try it if you have the chance! Sweets and almonds are everywhere – pastries, cakes, fresh fruits and juices on every street. Freshly baked bread also comes with almost every dish (that’s right – it smells and tastes delicious so goodbye diet!). You can of course find all types of Western and European food here but you’ll be missing on a lot.

Tips (and tricks!)

Tips are the essential part of Moroccan mentality and services. You are expected to tip for almost everything (including someone showing you the way when you’re lost, kids helping you cross the road etc.) which is not usually a big deal since prices are significantly lower than euro ones. However, when in Marrakech – we didn’t really run into this in Casablanca – especially at the medina – be careful! People will stop you and try to sell you everything in every language they can make contact in. It’s fun at first but since the market is a huge labyrinth getting lost and counting on their good will to go back is not a lot of fun. Keep in mind that everyone offering you to take you somewhere, show you something etc. will eventually expect a “reward”. That’s how we ended up at a Berber sheep and camel skin coloring festival – which was very interesting to watch and learn about, nonetheless knowing in advance that this experience will cost us 200 MAD would have been nice. At the end we were taken to a leather goods store for a final shopping part which we politely declined (sometimes Moroccan sellers can be very persistent!).

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