Just a short hop by airline or ferry from Spain, it’s culturally a much further distance to travel. You will be swept away by the full technicolour, complete sensory overload of Africa and Islam.
Tangier – that faded libertine on the coast – has traditionally been a first port of call, but the winds quickly blow you along the coast to cosmopolitan, movie-star-famous Casablanca and the whitewashed fishing-port gem Essaouira. Inland the great imperial cities of Marrakesh and Fez attract visitors in droves; the winding streets of their ancient medinas hold enough surprises to fill a dozen repeat trips.
If you really want to escape from everything, Morocco still has a couple of trump cards. The High Atlas Mountains seem custom-made for hiking, with endless trails between Berber villages, and North Africa’s highest peak to conquer.
Government. Authoritarian with elements of a constitutional monarchy.
Population. 33.3 million
Languages. Moroccan Arabic (Darija), French and Berber.
When to Go
Mid-Mar–May: Morocco is at its best in spring, when the country is lush and green.
Sep–Nov Autumn is also good, when the heat of summer has eased.
Nov–Jul In winter, head for the south – but be prepared for bitterly cold nights
Moroccan dirham (MAD), which is divided into 100 centimes. Sept 2016 exchange rates: 1US$ = 9.74 MAD; 1€ = 10.9 MAD
It’s forbidden to take dirhams out of the country. The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla use the euro.
ATMs (guichets automatiques) are widespread and generally take international bank cards. Major credit cards are widely accepted in the main tourist centres. Australian, Canadian and New Zealand dollars are not quoted in banks and are not usually accepted.
Tipping. Tipping and bargaining are integral parts of Moroccan life. Practically any service can warrant a tip, and a few dirham for a service willingly rendered can make your life a lot easier. Tipping between 5% and 10% of a restaurant bill is appropriate
Visa-free. Most visitors to Morocco have visa-free entry and are allowed to remain in the country for 90 days on entry. Schengen member states, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Chile, Côte d’Ivoire, Croatia, Republic of Congo, Guinea, Hong Kong (30 days), Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Libya, Mali, Mexico, New Zealand, Niger, Oman, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Singapore (30 days), South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Venezuela
Exceptions to this include nationals of Israel, and most sub-Saharan African countries (including South Africa). Moroccan embassies have been known to insist that you get a visa from your country of origin.
Extensions. Simplest to leave (eg travel to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla) and come back a few days later. Your chances improve if you re-enter by a different route. The Spanish enclaves have the same visa requirements as mainland Spain.
Visas for Onward Travel
Algeria. Although Algeria has now emerged from over a decade of civil war, the border with Morocco remains closed and visas are not being issued.
Mauritania. Everyone, except nationals of Arab League countries and some African countries, needs a visa, which is valid for a one-month stay. These are issued in 24 hours at the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat (apply before noon). Visas cost Dh340, with two photos and a passport photocopy. An onward air ticket to Nouakchott is not required. Get to the embassy well before the 9am opening time, and be prepared to fight for your place in the queue.
Berbers & Romans. Morocco’s first-known inhabitants were Near Eastern nomads who may have been distant cousins of the ancient Egyptians. Phoenicians appear to have arrived around 800 BC.
When the Romans arrived in the 4th century BC, they called the expanse of Morocco and western Algeria ‘Mauretania’ and the indigenous people ‘Berbers’, meaning ‘barbarians’. In the 1st century AD, the Romans built up Volubilis into a city of 20,000 (mostly Berber) people, but emperor Caligula declared the end of Berber autonomy in North Africa in AD 40. However, Berber rebellions in the Rif and the Atlas ultimately succeeded through a campaign of near-constant harassment.
As Rome slipped into decline, the Berbers harried and hassled any army that dared to invade, to the point where the Berbers were free to do as they pleased.
Islamic Dynasties. In the second half of the 7th century, the soldiers of the Prophet Mohammed set forth from the Arabian Peninsula. Within a century, nearly all the Berber tribes of North Africa had embraced Islam, although local tribes developed their own brand of Islamic Shi’ism, which sparked rebellion against the eastern Arabs.
By 829, local elites had established an Idrissid state, with its capital at Fez, dominating Morocco. Thus commenced a cycle of rising and falling Islamic dynasties included the Almoravids (1062–1147), who built their capital at Marrakesh; the Almohads (1147–1269), famous for building the Koutoubia Mosque; the Merenids (1269–1465), known for their exquisite mosques and madrassas, especially in Fez; the Saadians (1524–1659), responsible for the Palais el-Badi in Marrakesh; and the Alawites (1659–present), who left their greatest monuments in Meknès.
France took control in 1912, making its capital at Rabat and handing Spain a token zone in the north. Opposition from Berber mountain tribes continued to simmer away and moved into political channels with the development of the Istiqlal (independence) party. Sultan Mohammed V proved vocally supportive of movements opposing colonial rule and was exiled for his pains.
Since Independence. France allowed Mohammed V to return from exile in 1955, and Morocco successfully negotiated its independence from France and Spain in 1956.
When Mohammed V died in 1961, King Hassan II became the leader of the new nation. Hassan II consolidated power by cracking down on dissent and suspending parliament for a decade. With heavy borrowing and an ever-expanding bureaucracy, Morocco was deeply in debt by the 1970s.
In 1973 the phosphate industry in the Spanish Sahara started to boom. Morocco staked its claim to the area with the 350,000-strong Green March into Western Sahara in 1975. It settled the area with Moroccans while greatly unsettling indigenous Sahrawi people agitating for self determination. The UN brokered a cease-fire in 1991, but the promised referendum, in which the Sahrawis could choose between independence and integration with Morocco, has yet to materialize, and Western Sahara’s status remains undecided in international law.
However, the growing gap between the rich and the poor ensured that dissent against the regime was widespread. Protests against price rises in 1981 prompted a government crackdown, but sustained pressure from human-rights activists achieved unprecedented results in 1991, when Hassan II founded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human-rights abuses that occurred during his own reign – a first for a king.
Mohammed VI has ruled since 1999 and overseen small but reformist steps, including elections, and the Mudawanna, a legal code protecting women’s rights to divorce and custody. The king has also forged closer ties with Europe and overseen a tourism boom, aided in great part by the arrival of European budget airlines. Morocco’s human-rights record is one of the cleaner in North Africa and the Middle East, though repressive measures were revived after September 11 and the 2003 Casablanca bombings.
Clever politicking by Mohammed VI saw the sting drawn from the Arab Spring when revolutionary events overtook Tunisia and Egypt. The nascent 20 February protest movement was overtaken by the announcement of a new constitution in 2011, drafted without consultation but approved in a national referendum.
Amazigh, the main Berber language, was granted official language status, although political power continues to be concentrated in the palace rather than in a move to a more constitutional monarchy.
Culturally, Moroccans cast their eyes in many directions – to Europe, the economically dominant neighbour; to the east and the lands of Islam; and to their traditional Berber heartland. The result is an intoxicating blend of the modern and the traditional, the liberal and the conservative, hospitality and the need to make a dirham. Away from the tourist scrum, a Moroccan proverb tells the story – ‘A guest is a gift from Allah’. The public domain may belong to men, but they’re just as likely to invite you home to meet the family. If this happens, consider yourself truly privileged, but remember to keep your left hand firmly out of the communal dish.
In present-day Morocco, jellabas (flowing cloaks) cover Western suits, turbans jostle with baseball caps, European dance music competes with sinuous Algerian rai and mobile phones ring in the midst of perhaps the greatest of all Moroccan pastimes – the serious and exuberant art of conversation. An inherently social people, Moroccans have a heightened sense of mischief, love a good laugh and will take your decision to visit their country as an invitation to talk…and drink tea and perhaps buy a carpet, a very beautiful carpet, just for the pleasure of your eyes…
People. Morocco’s population is of mixed Arab-Berber descent. The population is young, growing and increasingly urbanised. Nearly 60% of Moroccans live in cities and the median age is just 25 years and decreasing – two trends that present the country with clear social and economic challenges. Fundamentalism is discouraged but remains a presence – especially among the urban poor, who have enjoyed none of the benefits of economic growth. That said, the majority of Muslims do not favour such developments and the popularity of fundamentalism is not as great as Westerners imagine.
Religion. Islam 99% – Sunnis form the majority at 67% with non-denominational Muslims at 30%. There are an estimated 3,000 to 8,000 Shia Muslims, most of them foreign residents from Lebanon or Iraq, but also a few citizen converts. Followers of several Sufi Muslim orders across the Maghreb and West Africa undertake joint annual pilgrimages to the country.
Christians are estimated at 1% (~380,000) – predominately 5-25,000 foreign-resident Christians in the Casablanca, Tangier, and Rabaturban areas and as many as 8,000 Christian citizens throughout the country, but many reportedly do not meet regularly due to fear of government surveillance and social persecution. The number of the Moroccans who converted to Christianity (most of them secret worshippers) are estimated between 8,000-40,000.
Judaism. Emigration to France, Israel and the US has reduced Morocco’s once-robust Jewish community to approximately 7000 from a high of around 300,000 in 1948. The Jewish communities that once inhabited the historic mellahs (Jewish quarters) of Fez, Marrakesh, Essaouira and Meknès have largely relocated to Casablanca with about 2,500, and the Rabat and Marrakesh Jewish communities at about 100 members each. The remainder of the Jewish population is dispersed throughout the country. This population is mostly elderly, with a decreasing number of young persons.
The Baha’i community, located in urban areas, numbers 350 to 400 persons
Architecture. Moroccan religious buildings are adorned with hand-carved detailing, gilded accents, chiselled mosaics and an array of other decorative flourishes. A mosque consists of a courtyard, an arcaded portico and a main prayer hall facing Mecca. Great examples include the 9th-century Kairaouine Mosque in Fez and the colossal Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. While all but the latter are closed to non-Muslims, the madrassas that bejewel major Moroccan cities are open for visits.
Although religious architecture dominates, Casablanca in particular boasts local architectural features grafted onto whitewashed European edifices in a distinctive crossroads style that might be described as Islamic geometry meets art deco.
The street facades of the Moroccan riads (traditional courtyard houses; also called dars) usually conceal an inner courtyard that allows light to penetrate during the day and cool air to settle at night. Many classy guesthouses occupy beautifully renovated traditional riads.
Music. The most renowned Berber folk group is the Master Musicians of Jajouka, who famously inspired the Rolling Stones and collaborated with them on some truly experimental fusion. Joyously bluesy with a rhythm you can’t refuse, Gnaoua music, which began among freed slaves in Marrakesh and Essaouira, may send you into a trance – and that’s just what it’s meant to do. To sample the best Gnaoua, head to Essaouira on the third weekend in June for the Gnaoua & World Music Festival.
Rai, originally from Algeria, is one of the strongest influences on Moroccan contemporary music, incorporating elements of jazz, hip-hop and rap. A popular artist is Cheb Mami, famous for vocals on Sting’s ‘Desert Rose’.
Morocco’s three ecological zones – coast, mountain and desert – host more than 40 different ecosystems and provide habitat for many endemic species, including the iconic and sociable Barbary macaque (Barbary ape). The pressure upon these ecosystems from ever-more-sprawling urban areas and the encroachment of industrialisation in Morocco’s wilderness has ensured that 18 mammal and 11 bird species are considered endangered.
Pollution, desertification, overgrazing and deforestation are the major environmental issues. Despite plantation programs and the development of new national parks, less than 0.05% of Moroccan territory is protected, one-third of Morocco’s ecosystems are disappearing, 10% of vertebrates are endangered and 25,000 hectares of forest are lost every year.
Hotels vary dramatically, ranging from dingy dives to fancy five-star options (the latter mostly in larger cities). Cities that see many tourists also offer gorgeous guesthouses in the style of a riad (traditional courtyard house).
Expect to pay up to Dh400 for budget-style accommodation, Dh400 to Dh800 for midrange and over Dh800 for top end. Exceptions to this are Casablanca, Essaouira, Fez, Rabat and Tangier, where budget accommodation may cost up to Dh600, midrange Dh600 to Dh1200 and top end more than Dh1200. Advance reservations are highly recommended for most places, especially in summer.
FOOD & DRINK
Influenced by Berber, Arabic and Mediterranean traditions, Moroccan cuisine features a sublime use of spices and fresh produce.
Breakfast. It would be a culinary crime to skip breakfast in Morocco. Sidewalk cafes and kiosks put a local twist on a Continental breakfast, with Moroccan pancakes and doughnuts, French pastries, coffee and mint tea. Follow your nose into the souks, where you’ll find tangy olives and local jiben (fresh goat’s or cow’s milk cheeses) to be devoured with fresh khoobz (Moroccan-style pita bread baked in a wood-fired oven).
Lunch is traditionally the biggest meal of the day in Morocco. The most typical Moroccan dish is tajine, a meat-and-vegetable stew cooked slowly in an earthenware dish. Couscous, fluffy steamed semolina served with tender meat and vegetables, is another staple. Fish dishes also make an excellent choice in coastal areas, while harira is a thick soup made from lamb stock, lentils, chickpeas, onions, tomatoes, fresh herbs and spices. Bastilla, a speciality of Fez, includes poultry (chicken or pigeon), almonds, cinnamon, saffron and sugar, encased in layer upon layer of very fine pastry.
Vegetarians shouldn’t have any problems – fresh fruit and vegetables are widely available, as are lentils and chickpeas. Salads are ubiquitous, particularly salade marocaine made from diced green peppers, tomatoes and onion. Ask for your couscous or tajine sans viande (without meat), or go for beans (loubiya) or pea-and-garlic soup (bsara) .
For dessert, Moroccan patisseries concoct excellent French and Moroccan sweets. Local sweets include flaky pastries rich with nuts and aromatic traces of orange juice, are the country’s greatest bargain.
Water. It’s not advisable to drink tap water in Morocco.
Beer is easy to find in the Villes Nouvelles – local brands include Casablanca and Flag. Morocco also produces some surprisingly good wines from the Meknès area: try President Cabernet and Medallion Cabernet for reds, or the whites Coquillages and Sémillant Blanc.
• Rabat – The capital of Morocco; very relaxed and hassle-free, highlights include a 12th-century tower and minaret.
• Casablanca – This modern city by the sea is a starting point for visitors flying into the country. The historical medina and the contemporary mosque (the third largest in the world) are well worth an afternoon
• Fez – Fez is the former capital of Morocco and one of the oldest and largest medieval cities in the world.
• Marrakech (Marrakesh)– Marrakech is a perfect combination of old and new Morocco. Wander the huge maze of souks and ruins in the medina and join the crowds at the great plaza of Djeema El Fna.
• Meknes – A laid back city that offers a welcome break from the tourist crush of neighbouring Fez. Was once an imperial capital and retains its extensive walls and an “old city” smaller yet similar to that of Fez. There are a number of vineyards in the area around Meknes.
• Ouarzazate – Considered the Capital of the South, Ouarzazate is a great example of preservation and tourism that hasn’t destroyed the feel of a fantastic and ancient city.
• Tangier –Tangier is the starting point for most visitors arriving by ferry from Spain. An enigmatic charm which has historically attracted numerous artists (Matisse), musicians (Hendrix), politicians (Churchill), writers (Burroughs, Twain) and others (Malcolm Forbes).
• Taroudannt – A southern market town.
• Tetouan – Nice beaches and is the gateway to the Rif Mountains.
• Al Hoceima – Beach town on the Mediterranean coast
Unesco World Heritage Sites: 1. Archaeological Site of Volubilis – a Roman ruins 35 miles outside of Fez. 2. Historic City of Meknes 3. Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou 4. City of Meknes 5. Medina of Essaouira (formerly Mogador) Small port town with fortified medina – narrow lanes, crafts, artisans, cafes. Surfing and windsurfing destination. 6. Medina of Fez – perfectly preserved medieval walled town – crammed with alleyways, covered bazaars, workshops, markets and restaurants and their sights, sounds and smells. Largest and most confusing medina in N Africa. Fez Festival of World Sacred Music features 2 concerts/day in various outdoor venues at the end of May. 7. Medina of Marrakesh – Hotel La Mamounia is the most special hotel in N Africa. Built in 1920s in the medina on the site of a sultan’s palace with original gardens from 16th century. Place Djemaa el-Fna is a square with buskers, dancers, food stalls and rooftop cafes surrounding the square. Yacout is famous restaurant in the medina. 8. Medina of Tetouan (formerly known as Titawin) 9. Portuguese City of Mazagan (El Jadida)
Imilchil Betrothal Fair – Annual marriage mart held for 3 days in early September in remote village in central Atlas Mountains.
La Gazelle d’Or – Exclusive resort outside Taroudant (“little Marrakech”) with 4 miles of crenellated 20-foot walls.
Epic Hikes: 1. Trekking the High Atlas: Around Marrakesh are treks to Toubkal, the cedar forests of Michlefen, and the plunging gorges and karsts of the Mgoun Valley. Reasonably flat terrain alternates with treks in 13,000 foot mountains. Best May and October.
Natural Sites 1. Talassemtane NP, Tetouan 2. Dades Gorge, Ouarzazate 3. Great Sahara – Erg Chebi sand dunes are the highest in Morocco. Desert towns, fortresses, ruins and oases. Berbers and Tuareg herders.
Epic Road Trips: 1. Dades Gorge Mountain Pass
Agadir – Agadir is best-known for its beaches. The town is a nice example of modern Morocco, with less emphasis on history and culture. Take the local bus for MAD5/10 to the north town of Auorir andTamraght where there are great beaches
Amizmiz – With one of the largest Berber souks in the High Atlas Mountains every Tuesday, Amizmiz is a popular destination for travelers looking for a day trip that is easily accessible (about an hour) from Marrakech
Chefchaouen – A mountain town just inland from Tangier full of white-washed winding alleys, blue doors, and olive trees, Chefchaouen is clean as a postcard and a welcome escape from Tangier, evoking the feeling of a Greek island
Essaouira – An ancient sea-side town newly rediscovered by tourists. From mid-June to August the beaches are packed but any other time and you’ll be the only person there. Good music and great people. Nearest Coast from Marrakech
High Atlas: Tinerhir is the perfect point of access to the stunning High Atlas. Imouzzer a traditional Berber town perched in the Atlas mountains, beautiful scenery and a wonderful waterfall. Excellent handicrafts, argan oil and berber jewellery. Merzouga and M’Hamid – From either of these two settlements at the edge of the Sahara, ride a camel or 4×4 into the desert for a night (or a week) among the dunes and under the stars.
Archaeological sites. Volubilis – 30km North of Meknes, biggest Roman ruins in Morocco, next to the holy town Moulay Idriss
Camel Treks & Desert Safaris. Exploring the Moroccan Sahara by camel is one of the country’s signature activities and one of the most rewarding wilderness experiences, whether done on an overnight excursion or a two-week trek. The most evocative stretches of Saharan sand are Erg Chigaga (the Drâa Valley) and Erg Chebbi (Merzouga).
Autumn (September to October) and winter (November to early March) are the only seasons worth considering. Prices hover around Dh350 to Dh450 per person per day but vary depending on the number of people involved and the length of the trek.
Hammams. Visiting a traditional bathhouse is a ritual at the centre of Moroccan society. Every town has at least one public hammam, and the big cities have fancy spas – both are deep cleaning and relaxing. A visit to a standard hammam usually costs Dh10, with a massage costing an extra Dh15 or so.
Hiking. Morocco is a superb destination for mountain lovers, offering a variety of year-round hiking possibilities. It’s relatively straightforward to arrange guides, porters and mules for a more independent adventure. Jebel Toubkal (4167m), the highest peak in the High Atlas, attracts the lion’s share of visitors, but great possibilities exist throughout the country, including in the Rif Mountains around Chefchaouen. The Dadès and Todra Gorges also offer good hiking opportunities. Spring and autumn are the best seasons for trekking.
Tourist Information. The national tourism body, Office National Marocain du Tourisme (ONMT; www.visitmorocco.com) , has offices in the main cities, with the head office in Rabat. These offices are often called Délégation Régionale du Tourisme. Regional offices, called Syndicat d’Initiative, are to be found in smaller towns. Most tourist offices inside Morocco offer little more ” “than standard brochures and helpless smiles.
Embassies & Consulates. For details of all Moroccan embassies abroad and foreign embassies in Morocco, go to www.maec.gov.ma. Many countries have representation in Rabat.
Business Opening Hours. Cafes 7am to 11pm. Restaurants Noon to 3pm and 7pm to 11pm. Shops 9am to 12.30pm and 2.30pm to 8pm Monday to Saturday (often closed longer from noon on Friday). Tourist offices 8.30am to 12.30pm and 2.30pm to 6.30pm Monday to Thursday.
Post. Post offices are distinguished by the ‘PTT’ sign or the ‘La Poste’ logo. You can sometimes buy stamps at tabacs, the small tobacco and newspaper kiosks you see scattered about the main city centres.
The postal system is fairly reliable but not terribly fast. The parcel office, indicated by the sign ‘colis postaux’, is generally in a separate part of the post-office building. Take your parcel unwrapped for customs inspection. Some parcel offices sell boxes.
Newspapers. For a full list of Moroccan newspapers online, go to www.onlinenewspapers.com/morocco.htm
Radio. Moroccan radio encompasses a handful of local AM and FM stations, the bulk of which broadcast in either Arabic or French. Midi 1 at 97.5 FM covers northern Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and plays reasonable contemporary music.
TV. Satellite dishes are everywhere in Morocco and pick up dozens of foreign stations. There are two government-owned stations, TVM and 2M, which broadcast in Arabic and French.
Electricity. Electric current is 220V/50Hz but older buildings may still use 110V. Moroccan sockets accept the European round two-pin plugs.
Telephone. Privately run Téléboutiques can be found in every town and village on almost every corner. Public payphones are card operated, with télécartes (phonecards) sold in general stores and news kiosks.
All domestic phone calls in Morocco require a 10-digit number, which includes the four-digit area code. The country code is 212.
Morocco has three GSM mobile phone networks, Méditel, Maroc Telecom and Inwi, which cover 90% of the population. A local SIM card costs around Dh20; top-up scratch cards are sold everywhere.
Internet. Widely available, efficient and cheap (Dh5 to Dh10 per hour) in internet cafes. One irritant for travellers is the widespread use of French or Arabic (non-qwerty) key” “is the widespread use of French or Arabic (non-qwerty) keyboards.
Most top-end and many midrange hotels offer wi-fi, and it’s more or less standard in most riads and maisons d’hôtes.
FESTIVALS & EVENTS
Religious festivals are significant for Moroccans. Local moussems (saints days) are held all over the country throughout the year and some draw big crowds. The Fez Festival of World Sacred Music is always a favourite.
Gnaoua & World Music Festival (www.festival-gnaoua.co.ma; Essaouira) Held in June.
Moussem of Moulay Idriss II (Fez) September/October.
All banks, post offices and most shops are shut on the main public holidays.
New Year’s Day 1 January
Independence Manifesto 11 January
Labour Day 1 May
Feast of the Throne 30 July
Allegiance of Oued-Eddahab 14 August
Anniversary of the King’s and People’s Revolution 20 August
Young People’s Day 21 August
Anniversary of the Green March 6 November
Independence Day 18 November
In addition to secular holidays there are many national and local Islamic holidays and festivals, all tied to the lunar calendar.
Eïd al-Adha Marks the end of the Islamic year. Most things shut down for four or five days.”
Eïd al-Fitr Held at the end of the month-long Ramadan fast, which is observed by most Muslims. The festivities last four or five days, during which Morocco grinds to a halt. Ramadan will most likely fall in summer when you read this.
Mawlid an-Nabi (Mouloud). Celebrates the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed.
Drugs. Plenty of kif (marijuana) is grown in the Rif Mountains, but possession is illegal and drug busts are common.
Touts. A few years ago the brigade touristique (tourist police) was set up in the principal tourist centres to clamp down on Morocco’s notorious faux guides and hustlers. Anyone convicted of operating as an unofficial guide faces jail time and/or a huge fine. This has reduced but not eliminated the problem of faux guides. You’ll still find plenty of these touts hanging around the entrances to medinas and train stations (and even on trains approaching Fez and Marrakesh), and at Tangier port. Remember that their main interest is the commission gained from certain hotels or on articles sold to you in the souqs.
If possible, avoid walking alone at night in the medinas of the big cities; knife-point muggings aren’t unknown.
Women Travellers. Women can expect a certain level of sexual harassment when travelling in Morocco. It comes in the form of nonstop greetings, leering and other unwanted attention but is rarely dangerous. If possible, it’s best to try and ignore this attention. Women can save themselves a great deal of grief by avoiding eye contact, dressing to cover their knees and shoulders, and refraining from walking around alone at night.
Gay & Lesbian Travellers. Homosexual acts are officially illegal in Morocco. Discretion is the key and public displays of affection should be avoided (aggression towards gay travellers is not unheard of). This advice applies equally to heterosexual couples. Marrakesh and Tangier are more gay-friendly, with ‘gay’ bars found here and there. Lesbians shouldn’t encounter any problems.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the pressures of poverty mean some young men will consider having sex for money or gifts; and exploitative relationships can be an unpleasant dimension of the Moroccan gay scene.
Air. Morocco’s two main international entry points are Mohammed V international airport, 30km southeast of Casablanca, and Marrakesh’s Ménara Airport. Other international airports are in Fez, Tangier and Agadir. There are flights from New York, Montreal, Dubai and various European cities to Casablanca as well as seasonal charter flights to Agadir.
Many European carriers serve Morocco including Iberia, TAP Portugal, Air France, Lufthansa, Swiss, Turkish Airlines, Norwegian, BMI, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, Air Berlin, Alitalia, Transavia, Portugalia, and Germanwings.
Aer Lingus — Flies weekly from Dublin to Agadir.
Easyjet — Now fly from London, Manchester and Milan to Marrakech and Casablanca. Another option is from Paris – Charles de Gaulle to Casablanca.
Ryanair — Has signed an agreement with the Moroccan government and flies to Morocco from Bergamo, Girona, Reus, Bremen, Madrid, Brussels, Frankfurt-Hahn, Eindhoven,London, Porto. Flying to Fez 3 times per week. Flights to Marrakesh and Bergamo-Tangierare also available.
Royal Air Maroc — The state airline, which drastically needs a price cut.
Air Arabia Maroc – Owned by Air Arabia, is another low cost carrier which flies to other Moroccan destinations as well as France, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Tunisia and Turkey.
Jet 4 You — A new low-cost carrier with extremely cheap tickets from France and Belgium.
Aigle Azur — A small North-African carrier with reasonable rates.
Thomson fly — Flights from Manchester to Marrakech and are very reasonably priced.
Binter Canarias — Flights from Canary Islands to Marrakech.
Emirates — Flights from Dubai to Casablanca.
Egypt Air — Flights from Cairo to Casablanca.
Turkish Airlines — Flights daily from İstanbul to Casablanca.
Many visitors also fly to Gibraltar or Malaga (which are often considerably cheaper to get to) and take a ferry from Algeciras, Tarifa or Gibraltar to Tangier. This is not recommended in summer as literally millions of Moroccans living in Europe use this passage during the summer holidays.
Car. The only open border posts on land are the ones at the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. The frontier with Algeria has been closed for ten years. For the closest maritime connection you head for Algeciras or Tarifa in southern Spain. At Algeciras, there are ferry services to Ceuta and Tangier that carry cars. Tarifa has a similar service to Tangier, and this is the shortest and fastest route (just 35 minutes).
It’s also possible to enter Mauritania by car from Dakhla. Most countries’ citizens need a visa to get into Mauritania, which are available at the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat (visas are no longer issued at the border).
It might be hard to get into Morocco with a commercial vehicle. Campervans are acceptable (but they must look like a camper van), but other commercial vehicles might get turned around and prevented from traveling onwards.
Boat. There are several ferry connections to Morocco, mainly from Spain. Algeciras is the main port and serves Ceuta (40 minutes) and Tangier (about 2 hours. €37, €81 return as of August 2016). Tarifa, on the southernmost tip of mainland Spain to Tangier takes 35 minutes. Some companies run buses between Tarifa and Algeciras for free (25 minutes), so you will have no problems getting to the train station. Other Spanish ports that have connections to Morocco are Malaga and Almeria who connect to Melilla and its Moroccan neighbor town of Nador.
Ferries from France go to Tangier from the port of Sète near Montpellier and Port Vendres near Perpignan. However, these ferries are rather expensive. The Italian towns of Genoa and Naples also have direct connections to Tangier. The British crown colony of Gibraltar connects to Tangier through a high-speed boat service.
Land Borders. The trans-Saharan route via Mauritania is now the most popular route from North Africa into sub-Saharan Africa. This crosses the internationally disputed territory of Western Sahara, although the border itself is administered by Morocco.
The only border crossing between Morocco/Western Sahara and Mauritania is at Guegarat, north of Nouâdhibou. Crossing this border is straightforward and the road is entirely tarred to Nouakchott, except for the 3km no-man’s-land that separates the two.
The border with Algeria has been closed since 1994 and is not expected to open any time soon.
Train. Trains are generally the best option because of their speed, frequency and comfort. There are different 1st- and 2nd-class fares, but 2nd class is usually more than adequate on any journey. Couchettes are available on the overnight trains between Marrakesh and Tangier for an extra MAD100. This is the only option if you would like to lie down sleeping as there are obstacles between the seats in regular compartments.
Morocco’s train network is run by ONCF (www.oncf.org.ma Don’t be alarmed by the French. Scroll down to Billets Normaux (under Prix & Reservation) and choose your ride.). There are two lines that carry passengers: from Tangier in the north down to Marrakesh; and from Oujda in the northeast, also to Marrakesh, joining with the Tangier line at Sidi Kacem, linking Meknes and Fez to the main line.
The only disadvantage of Moroccan trains is that they are very frequently delayed, so don’t count on the timetables if you are in a hurry. The trains are very cheap compared to Europe.
People are incredibly sociable and friendly on the trains in Morocco, and you will find yourself perpetually talking to strangers about your journey. Each new person will advise you on some new place you should go or invite you to their home for couscous. Stations in smaller cities are often poorly marked, and your fellow passengers will be more than happy to let you know where you are and when you should get off. It’s expected to greet (Salam) new passengers entering your compartment, and if you bring fruit, cake, etc., it’s common to offer the other passengers something as well. If you spend a little extra for 1st class you increase your chances of meeting someone proficient in many languages.
Bus. Luxury buses are the next best bet, with almost universal coverage and air conditioning. CTM (www.CTM.co.ma Operates buses from most main cities to France, Belgium, Spain, Germany and Italy as part of the Eurolines (www.eurolines.com) consortium. Supratours and some smaller companies provide good comfort at reasonable prices. Supratours buses offer tickets that allow you to link with the rail system. It’s best to book ahead for CTM and Supratours buses, which are slightly more expensive than those of other companies.
All bus companies charge for baggage separately; however, CTM is the only one that does this officially and provides baggage receipts. Baggage attendants often demand up to MAD20; pay no more than MAD5.
Local buses are a completely valid choice for the hardier traveler, are more fun and often even have more leg-room than luxury buses. Cost is 25-50%. They are not very comfortable, can be extraordinarily slow as they will stop for anyone, anywhere, but you can get in contact with the local people and learn a lot about the country. They are not air-conditioned and locals hate open windows (locals think 35 degrees is “cool” and no reason for opening a window). The local buses often take longer routes than the big ones, so you can see villages you would never get to see. The route from Rissani, Erfoud, and Er Rachidia to Meknes and Fez, while long, runs through the Middle and High Atlas and is particularly scenic.
Taxi. Grand taxis are shared taxi services that also operate between towns; fares are semi-fixed and shared equally between passengers. However, note that there are six passenger seats per car, not four as in the ubiquitous Mercedes; there are 8 or 9 seats in the bigger Peugeots in the southeast. Two people are expected to share the front seat, with four across the back. If you want to leave immediately or want extra space, you can pay for any additional empty seats. Grand taxis generally cost less than a luxury bus but more than the local. Late at night, expect to be charged a little more than during the day and for all the seats in the car.
Petit taxis are not allowed to leave the city borders and thus are not an option for traveling between cities. They are licensed to carry up to three passengers and are usually metered. Fares increase by 50% after 8pm.
However you are traveling, work out which direction you are heading, where the sun will be for the majority of your trip and choose a seat on the shady side.
Air. Domestic flying is not a popular means of transportation – for most routes, flying is an expensive and inconvenient option compared to road or rail. Royal Air Maroc (RAM www.royalairmaroc.com) dominates the Moroccan airline industry, with Casablanca as its hub.
Other airlines include Air Arabia Maroc and Jet4you.com.
Car. Taking your own vehicle to Morocco is straightforward. In addition to a vehicle registration document and an International Driving Permit (many foreign licences, including US and EU ones, are acceptable), a Green Card is required from the car’s insurer. Not all insurers cover Morocco.
Renting a car in Morocco isn’t cheap, with prices starting at Dh3500 per week or Dh500 per day for a basic car with unlimited mileage. International rental companies are well represented; booking in advance online secures the best deals.
The main road network is in good condition. Road surfaces are good but roads are very narrow, in most cases only one narrow lane in each direction. Note that many roads in the south marked as sealed are actually only one lane total sealed with wide shoulders to be used every time you meet oncoming traffic.
Fuel is not so common in the countryside, so plan ahead and get a good map. Roads are varied and mixed with many cyclists, pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles.
Road signs are in Arabic and French and the traffic law is as in much of Europe, but you give way to the right. This means that traffic on a roundabout gives way to that entering it. Be very careful as many drivers respect signs only if a policeman is nearby. There are numerous police checks on the main roads where you must slow down to allow them to see you. The speed limit is enforced, especially the 40km/h in towns and at dangerous intersections, where fines are imposed on the spot. A general rule to follow is that vehicles larger than yours should be given priority/yielded to (trucks, buses and even grand taxis).
Driving safely in Morocco takes practice and patience but can take you to some really beautiful places. The centre of Marrakech can be a scary place to drive. You will be constantly beeped at regardless of how well you drive, even if you’re just in front of them at a red light. Pay very close attention to your wing mirrors and your blind spots, mobilettes (push bikes with an engine), drive defensively and keep your speed down.
Hitchhiking is a routine form of travel in the country, particularly in large farm trucks which supplement income by picking up paying passengers. The price is about half that of a grand taxi. Expect to ride in the back with lots of locals.