Impressions Of Morocco

Hello from Marrakech!

I’m finishing up 12 days in Morocco including my first extended group tour which was a new experience for me as a (very) independent traveller.

I’ll be writing a separate post about some of my thoughts on doing group tours (vs. travelling independently, which is how I normally travel), but for anyone who is considering visiting Morocco, here are my thoughts from my first time here.

Casablanca

It’s a gentle introduction to Africa

You may recall my disastrous visit to Ethiopia a few years ago, where everything seemed to go wrong, and I was hopelessly out of my depth.

In comparison, Morocco was exotic, but not the culture shock that Ethiopia was. There were plenty of other tourists, plenty of English spoken, and it was relatively easy to get around.

It was a nice mix.

Wifi was frustratingly slow and unreliable

You may have noticed that my posting has been limited, and sporadic the past two weeks. This is mainly because even at chain hotels, the wifi barely worked.

This meant I wasn’t able to write each day like I normally do, which was both frustrating and disappointing. Even if there was a wifi signal in a hotel it would often be either so slow that pages wouldn’t load, or the signal would tell me that wifi wasn’t available.

In hindsight I should have bought a local sim card to use as a mobile hotspot, but I was surprised hotels could provide wifi networks, but the wifi didn’t work properly.

Even as I write this (in relatively stable wifi), it is taking several minutes for each one of the images in this article to upload!

Rabat

It felt safer and cleaner than I was expecting

I had heard some horror stories from friends about being ripped off by taxi drivers in Casablanca, or not walking the street in Marrakech at night. I didn’t experience that.

You certainly need to keep your wits about you (my blonde hair attracted far more attention that I would have liked), but the same could be said for many cities around the world.

Locals will certainly constantly approach you if you are a tourist, either offering to sell you something, inviting you to their restaurant or simply asking you for money, but a simple but firm ‘no’ would suffice and the locals would move on and you would be on your way.

It’s a BIG country

There’s plenty to see and do in Morocco, but a lot of the sights are pretty spread out. We travelled by bus around the country, and while we managed to see everything we wanted to, it took quite some time to get from place to place. Especially when you are travelling along winding roads through mountainous areas it took a long time to get from place to place. So for town that are 200 kilometers apart, don’t think you can drive between them in two or three hours.

Even spending two weeks here was a very rushed experience and I would recommend three weeks if you want to see the country at a more manageable pace.

The blue city of Chefchaoueun

I didn’t love the food

Apologies to any Moroccan readers we might have, bu I won’t be seeking out any Moroccan restaurants when I get back home.

The food was fine for a few days but every Moroccan restaurant has exactly the same (limited) menu and the food became pretty repetitive by the end. I found Moroccan food to be a bit bland — they don’t really use strong flavours — there aren’t really herbs or spices used (other than cinnamon). My tastebuds are used to other flavours but I was crying out for some spice.

There are also a lot of fruits and other sweet flavours cooked with meats, which I’m not personally a fan of.

I ADORED the Sahara Desert

Of my time in Morocco, my favourite part was definitely the two nights spent in the Sahara Desert.

We rode camels through the sand dunes to a desert camp, climbed the dunes to watch the sunset, listened to local African music, camped in surprisingly comfortable tents (with proper bed linen, and clean bathrooms), then went flying through the dunes in 4×4 vehicles the next day.

The Sahara was exactly what I was hoping it would be like — vast, desolate and beautiful.

Sunset sand dunes in Merzouga

It was more liberal and progressive than I was expecting

While Morocco is very much a developing country, I was impressed with the views and beliefs held by the locals I spoke with. We learned while we were there that the current King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, had greatly modernised the country. The statistic that impressed me the most was that while previously, women in Morocco would not even attend school, women now outnumber men in Moroccan universities.

There’s an strong Muslim influence in the country, and local Muslims were very interested in both hearing about tourists’ other religions and beliefs, as well as answering any questions we had of their faith in a gentle, respectful way.

Amazing fresh juices and tea, terrible coffee

Alcohol was difficult to find in Morocco, which I was expecting, given the strong Muslim influence. There was the odd liquor store which was like something from a prohibition period — blacked out windows, no signage, and bottles wrapped in newspaper.

The plus side of almost no alcohol, was that the non alcoholic drinks were amazing. Buffet breakfasts in three star hotels featured delicious freshly squeezed orange juice, not that sugary long life orange drink junk I’ve experienced in many a hotel breakfast.

Moroccans also love their mint tea, which I also grew to enjoy, and found that I didn’t really miss the alcohol while I was there.

The downside was that the coffee wasn’t great. I’m used to enjoying a good cup of espresso coffee each morning and the hotel breakfast coffee wasn’t great.

Surprisingly, the best coffee I drank was at random roadside cafes in the middle of nowhere.

Essaouira

My favourite cities weren’t what I was expecting

I purposely planned extra nights in Marrakech after the tour ended, as I had thought months ago when booking that it would be my favourite place in Morocco.

While it had a certain charm, it was also exhausting. I could not stand still in the Medina without locals immediately trying to get my attention, which meant I had to constantly keep moving, which I didn’t find relaxing. There’s only so many times you can tell someone you’ve already eaten.

The Sahara desert was my favourite experience which I’ve mentioned above, but my favourite two cities were Rabat and Essaouira. I found the capital city of Rabat to be a very elegant, laid back and sophisticated city, while Essaouira had great beaches and a relaxed, sea side vibe.

Our riad in Marrakech

Bottom line

I had a great time in Morocco and would recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit different.

It probably goes on to my list of countries I thoroughly enjoyed but wouldn’t feel the need to necessarily visit a second time (I also put beautiful Norway on that list), though I would be happy to spend more time in Rabat and/or Essaouira.

Have you visited Morocco?

Comments

  1. Hmmm…I’m getting a vibe based on your word choices that you find travel usually to be a relaxing experience. You should ALWAYS expect to get back “exhausted” if you’re really trying to get to know a destination that isn’t home!

    Glad you found your experience in Morocco rewarding and got many takeaways out of it. Where did you have the terrible coffee you speak of — were they restaurants associated with chain hotels? Big chains restaurants? Morocco is all about their spiced coffee, hope you gave that a try.

  2. Yes, I have. My experiences were rather different though particularly since it was the 117th country which I traveled to. I don’t have any negatives to say about Morocco and I spent all except two nights from my four months in Morocco in home-stays, which were delightful, warm and presented the opportunity to really appreciate the customs and the local cuisine. While the general sites are wonderful, my most memorable moments in Morocco were living and learning to cook with the Berbers in Tafraoute, hiking for a week in Imlil, fishing in Asilah, and visiting the famous Ait Ben Abou in Skoura.

    Appreciate your perspective on the trip.

    Happy and Safe Travels!

  3. I have been to Morocco (Marrakesh, Casablanca mostly) twice and never had issues with wi-fi whatsoever. Even in riads in Marrakesh it was fast enough to stream HD videos.
    Regarding food, I don’t agree with it being “bland” at all. It’s generally not spicy, yes, but it’s full of flavour. After all, they don’t have all these spice markets for nothing.
    There are no problems with alcohol – in Marrakesh, for example, it can be found even inside the medina, but if you venture outside of it and go to Carrefour, for example, you’ll have a huge choice of international and Moroccan alcohol. Drinking wine on the roof of your riad – owners never had any objections after me asking them if it was okay – under the stars is amazing. And Moroccan wines remain some of my all time favourites. Beers are nothing amazing, but quite decent too. Spirits are strong, but fine in quality. And price-quality ratio is almost unbeatable.
    As for coffee, I’ve had some great cups of coffee there in different cafes. It’s no Italy, though.
    Still, good that you enjoyed the country.

  4. Thanks for sharing James. I will be headed to Ethiopia in a few weeks and it will be my first time in Africa. Hopefully it will be more enjoyable than your experience. I am not even planning on getting a SIM card as the cell phone service is unreliable.

  5. @James – I was once criticized (as publicly as possible on this blog) for commenting on the lack of destination experiences and a lack of diversity in writing. Of course, my perspectives are different due to the nature of my work as a travel journalist, but I find articles such as this present a breath of fresh air – especially at a time when the miles and points game is becoming all too common. The only criticism I will provide to you is that you may consider spending time to revise and polish the language of your articles. You may also consider presenting your ideas in a less condescending tone.

    On a last note, it’s not surprising that you discovered the best coffee at road-side stalls. My key to enjoying a destination is by following the locals.

    Bon Voyage

  6. Morocco is a great place. The Sahara is always nice isn’t it? Yet, I think the allure of the country sits in the fertile valleys around Fez and Meknes. Marrakech is great, as is Ait Benhaddou.

    I agree with you on the food – you need to seek out more refined restaurants in the big cities to get away from the standard low quality couscous and tagine. Top hotels in Fez and Marrakech has exquisite food.

  7. @Jared I definitely thought the same that you. James’s referral to say ‘ give a firm no….’, say that he got attention for being blond ( was that really????) , The lack of knowledge about alcohol when in MArrakech there are clubs that close at 07:00, no mention to Fez, Chefchaouen and its marvellous blue houses, the grilled fish and surfing in Essaouira, beaches in Agadir, Fez, bustling Casablanca, slight mentions to people kindness, the lamb tajines….
    Honestly travelling that way he could stay at home. I Wonderwall where he stayed, both Riads or notch hotels like La Mamounia are difficult to forget….

  8. I have to disagree on most counts, but based only on two cities in Morocco – Essaouira and Marrakech. On the food – yes it’s within a style, but amongst that, there are huge variations, and if it was spice you were missing, then you were missing some of Morocco’s best.

    On the meat and fruit thing – you sound like my Dad, who through the two food groups should never meet. However, I think that quince and lamb is a combination made in heaven.

    Alcohol – We never tried to buy it outside of hotels, but within hotels were introduced to an amazing range of cocktails that joined the magic of Morroco’s way with juices, to our westerners love of alcohol. One, in particular, involved Gin, tonic and Campari, and is a favourite to this day.

    On jostling – meander in the Medina, and rest in the Riad!

    And isn’t mint tea amazing – hot, sweet, and refreshing. I found the coffee good too – as long as you went with the indigenous method – not expecting an Italian espresso.

    I look forward to your future reports on Morocco, hoping that you visited the Majorelle gardens in Marrakesh, and of course the Atlas mountains as well as the desert.

  9. I just got back from Morocco a week ago (also my first time in Africa) and can’t wait to go back. We were only there for a week, based in Marrakesh, with a three day tour to the Sahara. It definitely wasn’t enough, but I’m still sooooo happy I went. I feel like I saw one layer of the country and there are so many left to peel back and explore.

    Since it was just two of us, the private tours to the desert were prohibitively expensive, so we did the typical sardine can tour but upgraded to a luxury camp. I’m not a tour person at all (and this tour itself wasn’t great), but it was totally worth it, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I finally finished unpacking a few days ago and knocked out a bunch of that bright orange sand from my shoes and it gave me a little twinge in my heart. I was with my mom, but if I was with my boyfriend or a larger group of friends, I would totally rent a car and do the drive out there. Once you get out of the cities, it’s pretty much a straight shot, and the route seemed safe and manageable.

    I was also taken aback by how clean Marrakesh was. The Medina is crowded and dusty (even with shopkeepers pouring water on the pavement multiple times a day), and there are so many smells, but there is pretty much no trash anywhere. I mean, I see more trash walking in DC next to million dollar rowhouses than I did there. Besides that, the Medina was even more nuts than I was expecting, and it wasn’t until our last day that I really felt like I found my groove and felt more comfortable navigating it. Sucked that that’s when I had to leave.

    Re: the food. I found it similar to Cuban food in style. A lot of slow cooked foods with warm spices, but definitely not in your face. I enjoyed it, but met some people who didn’t really care for it.

  10. We returned from a week in Morocco last Monday. We flew Charleroi-Ouarzazate with Tuifly, where we got our car from Europcar (pretty sure they scammed us with an unneeded insurance), then we stayed at 5 different riads and kasbahs booked through booking dot com. Driving is a great experience in Morocco, roads are in excellent condition. I agree the food, while tasty, was a bit repetitive. We are vegetarian, and we got a vegetable tajine most of the time, with exactly the same vegetables.
    Compared with other deserts we visited in the past I thought Erg Chebbi near Merzouga was a bit too touristy. During sunset you hear the noise of quads everywhere.
    In my experience Morocco is an ideal destination to travel independently. The landscapes are stunningly beautiful, the people very friendly and it is very affordable.

  11. lol at all the commenters going out of their way to state that they “disagree” with the author’s personal perceptions and experiences. They are personal perceptions based upon experience. Sure you are free to disagree, but what’s the point folks arguing about something such as whether X food tastes good? It’s all subjective. I suspect the underlying point is that some readers view this article as a failure to toe the PC line by which practically all travel bloggers are expected to abide.

  12. @Wes – agree with you. It’s a blog – hardly a source for rigorous journalism or information. It’s just some yuppies sharing their perspectives (and ignorance) of the world. Let’s just leave it at that.

    On a more relevant note, Morocco is beautiful.

  13. @pepe, I agree that Erg Chebbi didn’t feel totally desolate. The 4x4s and dirt bikes especially were really distracting, especially those doing “acrobatics” on the dunes and not just delivering supplies. I wished they would limit those activities a bit more. That said, the sight of these giant orange dunes rising from nothing was absolutely spectacular. I’d be interested to check out Erg Chigaga next time as it isn’t as touristed. The dunes aren’t as large, but really, with the exception of the main dune, most of the dunes at Erg Chebbi weren’t massive.

  14. I would love to visit Morocco. It is on my list. I am interested in hearing about the tour group you chose and what you liked about it and what you didn’t.

    I have never done an extended tour group thing. I have done two day tours with groups and they were both small groups and a lot of fun. So, I am awaiting that post with interest.

    I love Moroccan food in general, but can relate to the spice issue. Sometimes its too subtle, or too sweet. Thanks for the post.

  15. @Jared

    How did you get to Tafraoute? Last I was in Morocco, I wanted to visit there, but the modes of transport seemed highly undependable and so I had to cut that plan. My partner and I want to explore Tafraoute and some of the other places like Skoura on our next visit. Thanks for the info in advance.

  16. Not for me they don’t have good enough human or animal rights and sounds like they try to sell you too much stuff

  17. I, for one, enjoy these destination posts. To me the I’m such a better traveler than you (AKA I’m a traveler, you’re just a tourist) types are pretty similar to the package tourists demanding their own food and beer — neither seems to have grasped the central lesson of travel: that there are many different ways of being in the world.

    The highlights of my own trip to Morocco in the 80s were

    * An 11 hour walking transit of the Atlas mountains from Oukaimeden to Asni.

    * Getting trapped in the town of Tailouine when our bus from Taroudant to Ouarzazate could not continue due to washed out roads and the onward trip several days later through majestic desert scenery in the back of a series of pickup trucks that required us, eventually, to ford a river and continue, wet, to Ouarzate.

    * A visit to the Tinerhir gorge.

    * An epic bargaining session over a djelaba in Rabat which ended only when the shopkeeper plucked a pen from my pocket to close the deal.

    I also remember being somewhat disappointed in the food.

  18. Hi, I lived in Morocco for 2 years while in Peace Corps. Yes, the food is seasoned lightly compared to the Moroccan Recipes you see in cook books. I hope you tried the breakfast breads – the corn bread and semonlina pancakes. In the country, in Berber homes, the food is better than what you can find in hotels. When it is home cooked, it is so flavorful with simple spices. The fresh fruit and olives were the best thing.

    Since it is Muslim country, you had to go to certain places to get booze. Some western restaurants or bars have wine, beer, and what not. Marjon – the Walmart of Morocco (in big cities) has the best selection.

  19. @Jared – Out of curiosity, which parts/introductions were written in a condescending tone? I am starting out on writing my travel experiences, and would like to avoid such impression.

    Granted, I teach too, and that comes off in condescension I have been told. Ack!

  20. @Emily – I hitch-hiked with a family from Marrakech, involved in the production and trade of argan oil trade. The lived in one of the Berber villages. There are “regular” buses and jeeps, which run between the two cities.

    @Kato – It often helps to attract readership by keeping the apriori biases or misconceptions out of the article and focusing on the actual experience. The reason for travel is to discover for oneself a new destination and cultures firsthand. Lastly, weave together a story and don’t just list a series of activities or observations. I wish you great success in your blog and would love to read it!

  21. I found this article very straight forward and don’t understand how it is condescending.

    I was in Morocco a couple of years ago with a gay tour group and found It to be very pleasant and don’t mind going back one of these days.

    Regarding the food, I don’t think it is unflavorful. The regular restaurants might have a limited menu but I generally found the food full of flavor but may not be spicy. I think it is probably a different definition of “flavor”.

    Before we went into the Sahara, we actually loaded up on alcohol at a Carrefour. The choice was great. The guide only told us to keep the bottles in the shopping bag when walking on the street to respect the local culture. I thought that was perfectly fine. We had so much alcohol in the hotels it never even occurred to me that we were in a Muslim country.

  22. Jared,
    I think your underwear is to tight, buy a size bigger, it will make you an overall happier camper.
    Alex

  23. food bland? Dude you went to the wrong places to eat, ill tell you that. Their food is amazing and a lot of other commenters will back me up. You should have asked your readers to help you out in that regard and you would have had a different experience, dont just open tripadvisor and go to those places. Thats a mistake

  24. You shouldn’t have done the tour group, my friend.. frightened as you might have been.

    There’s plenty of alcohol in Morocco (they make wine) but it’s just not sold in the old cities, or near mosques, etc.

    Morocco also has a thriving (for a MENA country) gay scene.

  25. Just like Mark F., I am interested in learning about the tour company and related experiences (and anyone else’s recommendations for a great small group tour company).

  26. What a refreshing article! Love the honesty & the way you write, and Im thankful there’s some diversity of content coming to OMAAT. I have little interest in visiting Morocco but enjoyed reading about it!

  27. I just came home last night from 17 days in Morocco, mostly Marrakech, Fes, Rabat, camping in the Sahara, Meknès, Ouarzazate, and finally 3 days in Essaouria, which I loved. The medina was so much nicer than those in Fes and Marrakesh. I’m a senior citizen but toured with a small group and had a great time. We stayed in a gorgeous riad and then some decent hotels…the coffee in most of the hotels was the instant stuff in machines. I had some good food, enjoyed a winery, and we purchased wine at Carrefour. Overall, the trip was great and I’d recommend Morocco to anyone who enjoys a different culture.

  28. @Janet, I’d very much appreciate the name of the tour company that you used. Morocco has been on the list of places I wanted to visit, but as a senior citizen I was concerned about the trip. Thanks in advance.

  29. I was in Morocco this past spring. I found Casablanca to be a shithole, Marrakech was nice, but unsafe for a female traveling alone especially at night, but Essaouira was wonderful, especially along the walls.

  30. Great post! Morocco has been on my list for a very long time. Thanks for mentioning places like Rabat and Essaouira. I would like to go places that are not as popular as Marrakech.

  31. As a solo traveler, I found Morocco to be physically beautiful but the sightseeing emotionally exhausting. I can’t recommend Marrakech, Fez or Tangier because of the constant hounding by touts. The Medina in Marrakech was made much worse by the motorbikes constantly buzzing by you in the narrow passageways and the ubiquitous haze of exhaust. Thankfully, the powers-that-be in Fez seemed to have banned the bikes from the Medina. And you had to be constantly on guard on the intercity trains as conmen are on the lookout for fresh marks. After a couple of them sat down on the train next to me and wasted an hour of my time with a thinly disguised pitch for a tannery, I just decided to tell everybody else to get lost. I’m an experienced traveler and not naive but I think I’m done with Morocco except to maybe visit the desert.

    On the bright side, the people with whom I was able to establish an honest rapport were very nice and fun to talk to. And it is a beautiful country. I really liked Casa because you are more or less left alone and that city has some underrated sights.

    This isn’t really my style but I’m told that being part of a tour group really cuts down on the knucklehead and is the way to go in the Maghreb.

  32. It’s been 25 years, but I still remember the smell of Thuya wood in Essaouira. Whenever someone I know goes there, I tell them to buy at least one Thuya piece — a jewelry box, a backgammon board. etc. 2000 years ago Cicero praised this wondrous wood.

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