Let me start off by saying Morocco is absolutely amazing. The first time I walked around the souks in Marrakech I felt like I was in “Aladdin” and loving every second of it. If you want to go somewhere where you can experience a totally different way of life (at least different from the western world), Morocco is a great place to start. The streets, the food, the way people dress… you probably won’t see much you recognize from your home country. While this is something most travelers crave, it doesn’t come without its challenges. I’ve been to Morocco twice, visiting three different cities in all. The first time, I went to Marrakech with three other friends (all girls), and the second time I went with Raul to Tangier and Fez. These two experiences were completely different from one another. Not only were the cities very distinct, but being with a male the second time around I noticed people interacted with me in a new way. After these two trips I feel like I have a better understanding of Moroccan culture and want to share a few tips that I think will be helpful to anyone visiting the country for the first time.
It’s important to get one thing straight right off the bat: Morocco is a man’s country. There is a totally different set of rules for what is acceptable for a man compared to what is acceptable for a woman. This was, and still is, pretty tough for me to swallow, but it comes with the territory. If you want to visit a place like nowhere you’ve been before you have to be willing to accept the differences that come with it, even if you don’t agree with them. Which brings me to my first point:
1. Be Modest
Men – wear whatever you want. Women – you can also wear whatever you want, but be prepared for the kind of attention you will attract. If you don’t want men staring at you like a fresh piece of meat, or even the occasional groping, you probably don’t want to stroll around the medina in shorts and a tank top, even though the heat will make you want to. That’s not to say you need to wear a full burka, though. I would suggest women keep their legs, shoulders, and chest covered up to avoid most unwanted attention. Some women like to cover their hair as well, but I didn’t find it was necessary. To summarize, wear whatever you want – you’re not going to get arrested – but expect a much different reaction from people than you would get at home. And remember, it’s usually not going to be a very friendly one.
2. Men Do The Talking
Again, Morocco is a man’s country. This is something I really noticed the second time around. When I was with Raul, 90% of the people we talked to would address him instead of me. Even if I was the one to initiate the conversation or ask the question. At a restaurant, at the market, even in our hostel, it was like I didn’t even exist. This took awhile for me to get used to especially since the first time I had visited Morocco I was with a group of other girls. People had no choice but to talk to one of us. Without a man around, interactions felt pretty normal. Supposedly, addressing the man is a sign of respect for both him and the woman. The man doesn’t need to feel threatened that the third-party is talking to the woman he’s with, and the woman doesn’t need to concern herself with handling small, silly things like remembering directions or asking for prices in the souks (yeah… right).
3. Your Pockets Won’t Get Picked (Probably)
Upon arrival in Morocco, you will probably feel like everyone is just waiting for the right opportunity to rob you. This is not the case. Yes, the streets are crowded and chaotic, and yes, people will try to pull you into their shops, but usually they are just aggressive salesmen, not pickpockets. Of course there is always a possibility you will be targeted and someone could try to steal your purse or wallet, so take normal precautions, but don’t obsess over it. Morocco is full of police officers in plain clothes who are there to protect tourists. If someone is caught stealing, the punishment is very harsh. In all honestly, you are much more likely to get swindled into paying an arm and a leg for a supposed “antique, handmade” rug, than to get robbed. In fact, while we were in Fez, Raul spent a good 30 minutes walking around with his backpack wide open and his wallet on top for all to see without anything happening. I don’t suggest you try this method, but it was good to know we didn’t need to be too paranoid about pickpockets.
4. You’re Going To Get Lost, Don’t Ask Just Anyone For Directions
After about five minutes in the medina (the walled and oldest part of town) you will realize it is a literal maze. There is no rhyme or reason to the streets and every alleyway looks exactly the same. You will get lost. Just accept it. You’ll also need to accept that you’re pretty much on your own when it comes to getting where you want to go. I swear a favorite Moroccan pastime is misdirecting tourists who ask for directions. They must really get a kick out of it. For example, we would ask for help from one person standing on the street and then 15 seconds later another person would tell us we needed to go the exact opposite way. Hilarious. Also, if someone offers to take you where you’re going, you’re most definitely not going where you think you are. They will probably lead you to their friend’s shop that sells the best leather bags in the city, or their family restaurant that you just have to try. You’re really better off wandering around until you find what you’re looking for instead of asking anyone on the street. If you need help though, ask a shopkeeper you just purchased something from or someone at the restaurant you’re eating at. They’re more likely to give you accurate directions.
5. Help Isn’t Free in Morocco
Along the same lines as #4, many people will offer to help you get where you’re going by walking you there. So nice, right? Well, don’t expect this help to come for free. Once you arrive at your destination, your guide will most definitely ask you for a tip. If this is all that happens, you got off easy. Pay the man a few dirhams and be on your way. If you happened to get handed off from one person to the next, expect them all to miraculously show up at the end of your journey, each awaiting his own tip. This is what we experienced when trying to get to the tannery. The first person offered to take us there and then promptly handed us off to someone who would show us around, and finally a leatherworker brought us to his shop to see the whole process and hopefully make a few purchases. Of course we realized this wasn’t going to be a free tour, but what we didn’t expect was to have to pay each individual person we encountered. Luckily we got by with just giving them each a small tip which didn’t set us back too far. Lesson learned.
6. Bargain, Bargain, Bargain
If you don’t haggle in Morocco, you’re going to end up paying at least twice as much for everything as you should. So unless you like overpaying for your souvenirs, learn to bargain. Bargaining is expected with locals and tourists alike, and you don’t need to feel weird doing it. The first price a shopkeeper gives you will most likely be two or three times what you should pay. Start your prices low and eventually work to find some middle ground. There are many techniques on how to do this, but remember to always be respectful. This goes a long way in the souks. You probably won’t get the same price a local would get for the same item, but if you learn how to talk with the salesmen you can definitely get some great deals.
7. Smell Your Leather
Last, but definitely not least, smell your leather! Morocco is full of handmade leather goods at affordable prices. This is because Morocco is also full of tanneries, which will become very apparent the moment you’re within about a half-mile radius of one. The smell is strong to say the least. I, like many visitors, was drawn into one of the leather markets and bought a beautiful purse for next to nothing. I was really excited about my purchase until I got home. I opened my backpack and was immediately overcome by the stench of the tanneries. Even worse, my nice, new purse had contaminated all my clothing and souvenirs. I later learned that most of the leather in Morocco is treated in pigeon droppings and camel urine, hence the unique scent. Awesome. Two years later and every treatment known to man attempted, my Moroccan purse remains in a box full of dryer sheets in my laundry room. Sigh. So if you’re planning on buying any leather goods make sure to give them a good hard sniff before bringing them home.
Even with all its quirks, Morocco is one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone. If you are considering going, I encourage you to plan your trip now and live your own “Arabian Nights”, but just make sure you know what to expect before diving straight into the souk-filled medina.
Have you been to Morocco? What do you think is important for any potential visitors to know? Leave us a comment below!