9 mistakes travelers often make in Morocco
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Crowded souks, stunning riads, the call to prayer, fragrant spices, fresh mint tea, sizzling tagines: These are just some of the sights, sounds and smells you’re sure to encounter on a trip to Morocco.
A country with roots you can trace back to the ancient Roman Empire, Morocco has been influenced by many different cultures, from the Berbers to the Arabs and the French. It’s got everything: bustling cities, the dunes of the Sahara and Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains.
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Morocco has long been a popular travel destination, but there’s never been a better time to visit. Marrakech was named Africa’s first-ever Capital of Culture in 2020, and events celebrating the designation will be held all year long. Royal Air Maroc formally joins Oneworld this year, and a spate of luxury hotels are expected to open all across the country, including in Tangier, Rabat and the resort development of Tamuda Bay. These are just a few reasons Morocco landed on TPG’s list of the hottest travel destinations right now.
Of course, traveling in Morocco presents certain challenges you should be prepared for if you decide to visit.
I just returned from my second trip to Morocco and, though I had an incredible time, there are certainly some mistakes I could have avoided. Based on my own experience — and the advice of some seasoned travelers — here are some common mistakes to avoid in Morocco.
Choosing the wrong accommodations
Where you go will certainly dictate your options when it comes to accommodations, but in Marrakech — Morocco’s most popular city — you can find everything from hostels and Airbnbs with rooms under $25 per night to ultraluxurious hotels with suites exceeding $3,000 per night.
If you want to splurge, the Royal Mansour and La Mamounia combine five-star service and amenities with gorgeous Moroccan design. (Book them through the Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts (FHR) program if you have either The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express. You’ll get exclusive perks like daily breakfast for two; a room upgrade upon arrival, when available; and a property credit, among others benefits, and earn 5x Membership Rewards points.)
You might also consider The Oberoi Marrakech, a new resort that opened in December 2019 and will likely join the Amex FHR collection alongside more than half a dozen other Oberoi properties.
If you want a truly authentic Moroccan experience, however, you should stay in a riad: a traditional Moroccan home built around a central courtyard with a garden and fountain. Many historic riads have been converted into boutique hotels or guesthouses.
“I think a lot of people try to go the cheapest route possible finding an Airbnb, but the riads end up being the same price and more centrally located in the medinas,” said Elizabeth Guthrie, a professor of Arabic studies at the Catholic University of America who has traveled around the country extensively and organizes summer programs in Morocco for her students. “And then you’re living in a part of Morocco’s history instead of a house that’s been turned into an Airbnb.”
Not packing the right clothing
My recent trip proved that layers are key, as the temperature varied enormously from the morning to the afternoon and evening. The sun rises quite late in Marrakech (around 8 a.m.) and mornings are very chilly, but by lunchtime the heat of the sun made it feel like a beautiful spring day. Keep in mind that Marrakech is wedged between the mountains and the desert, so the temperature changes can be extreme. Coastal areas also tend to be cooler.
Related: The best times to visit Morocco
Aside from staying warm, layers can be helpful when you need to dress modestly. While Marrakech is a very international city, and many Moroccan women there don’t cover their heads, it’s a good idea for women traveling through Morocco to cover their arms, chest and legs. Otherwise, unfortunately, you might receive unwanted attention.
One woman I was traveling with, for example, got some comments while wearing a sleeveless sundress around the souk. So, it doesn’t hurt to cover your shoulders with a light jacket or a shawl.
Being unprepared to haggle
Haggling over prices is a big part of the culture in Morocco, so if you plan to shop in the souks, be ready to bargain. I’ve been told by locals that when shopping in the souks, you should aim to get the seller down to about 50% of the original price. This isn’t always easy, but remember not to rush the interaction. It also helps to have a poker face: Don’t make it obvious how much you might want an item. After all, someone else might have something very similar a few storefronts down.
“Don’t ever expect to get the local prices as a tourist — that’s just not gonna happen — but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a steal by your definition,” Guthrie said, adding that it’s important to keep things in perspective. “I like to keep in mind that a little bit there ends up going so much farther for a family … If you compare the price of the products to imported products, you’re getting a steal.”
If, for example, you realize you’re arguing with a vendor about 10 Moroccan dirhams ($1) and you only have a 20 dirham bill, it’s probably not worth making him give you the change. I realized this while arguing with a taxi driver over a 70 dirham ($7) taxi fare. It just wasn’t a significant enough expense to continue.
Not knowing local taxi rules
“Know if haggling for taxis is the norm in the location you’re going to. And if it’s not the norm, and [a driver] tells you they don’t have a meter, don’t get in the car,” Guthrie said. This is as simple as asking the staff of your hotel or your Airbnb host what the local etiquette is and how much an average ride should cost.
I asked the concierge at my hotel if I would have to haggle over the price of a taxi in Marrakech, and she told me I would since drivers there don’t use meters. If that’s the case, make sure you agree on a price before you get in the cab. She said I should expect to pay between 50 and 80 Moroccan dirhams to get from Djemaa el Fna to the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, so when the first taxi driver wanted 100 dirhams, I told him no and found another driver on the official taxi line across from the square.
Only carrying large bills
You know those snake charmers and men holding monkeys in Djemaa el Fna? They’re not just there to be subjects in your souvenir photographs — they expect to be paid, too. So, if you snap a photo of a snake charmer or pick up a monkey, you should expect to hand over some money.
Please, don’t be that person getting chased down in the market. Instead, be prepared to give about 10 or 20 dirhams (between $3 and $6).
If you get big bills out of an ATM, it’s a good idea to break them early on during your trip. Morocco is still very much a cash culture, and you can’t expect those guys with the snakes and monkeys (and camels!) to give you change.
Going without a guide
I’ve done tours with a few guides in Morocco, and while some are better than others, it’s almost always a good idea to have someone who can help you navigate your first trip to Morocco.
“Hiring a guide is very important to know more about Moroccan culture and history,” Mustapha Chouquir, a leading guide who bills himself as “a Marrakech GPS,” told TPG, adding, “A good guide is a … Moroccan ambassador of his country.”
Chouquir loves taking his clients — including Madonna, Kate Winslet and Alec Baldwin — to visit palaces, museums, gardens and artisans. While you may not know the difference in quality between the various items sold at the souk, a guide like Chouquir does. Having a guide bring you to the best shops can help you avoid getting ripped off. Just tell your guide what you’re looking for so he can tailor the tour to your interests.
A good guide will also keep you safe, whether you’re traveling in a big city or a remote area. “My biggest tip is to really be careful about crossing train tracks and roads,” Guthrie said, explaining that she was once hit by a car in Morocco. She noted that a lot of drivers don’t obey stop signs and traffic lights. If you don’t have a guide to lead you, only cross when there’s a group of Moroccans crossing the street with you.
Eating street food indiscriminately
“If you’re going to eat street food, you need to make sure you’re updated on all your vaccinations, like hepatitis A,” Guthrie said, adding, “Don’t take juices that you haven’t seen prepared in front of you — you don’t want to be drinking water that isn’t clean ….”
That said, you should definitely taste traditional Moroccan delicacies, like couscous and tagines.
Oh, and if you see Moroccan salads on a menu, don’t expect a big bowl of lettuce. It’s usually an assortment of cooked and spiced vegetables, like roasted eggplant with cumin, sweet carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers, sautéed zucchini, and peppers cooked with herbs and spices. Another delicacy is pastilla, a phyllo dough pastry typically stuffed with pigeon or other poultry, though you can sometimes find versions made with seafood or vegetables.
Skipping the hammams
Going to a hammam for a traditional treatment is a must-do when visiting Morocco, but it can be a bit anxiety-inducing if you don’t know what to expect.
Many luxury hotels can arrange private treatment rooms, but in a traditional hammam, people get scrubbed down in one big room. You’ll likely have a little pair of disposable underwear, but other than that you’ll be naked. If your hotel doesn’t have its own hammam, you can find one by searching online, though they range in quality and price.
According to Guthrie, “You can always go ask to see the hammam before you pay, so you don’t have to commit to it.”
Personally, I’m not very comfortable bearing it all in front of strangers, so I always opt for a private hammam. Just take a deep breath and relax and you’ll find it’s a soothing experience — and your skin feels incredible afterward. Moroccan hammam treatments incorporate black soap, clay masks and argan oil, and use a special kessa glove to scrub away dead skin cells, so afterward you’re left with smooth, baby-soft skin.
When traveling, of course, you want to be open to new experiences. But use common sense when it comes to deciding who to trust. While it’s fine to chat with locals, you should take the same precautions you would at home. If a friendly stranger you met in the U.S. invited you to their house for dinner, you might find that odd, right?
“Never accept invitations from someone to come eat at their house, because that’s usually where the scams start. Even being nice and friendly has limits,” Guthrie said. That’s how TPG contributor Brian Biros got caught up in a scam by men trying to sell carpets.
“We bought a couple extra rugs thinking we could sell them in the U.S.,” said Kimia Kline, a Brooklyn-based artist who traveled with her husband to Fez. “The rug dealer definitely lied to us and told us he would help us, said he had contacts in New York City he would connect us with.” Kline said it was “a total scam.”
“We felt pressured to buy, and it ended up being a waste. It’s fine now — we use the rugs — but I’d just caution against that.”
It’s not unusual for a guide to bring you to a friend’s shop, but you should never feel pressured to purchase anything. Just politely decline, and make it clear you want to be on your way. Even if you’re in the market to buy, be firm about what you do and do not want.
Featured photo by Louis Hansel/Unsplash.
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