Difference between revisions of "Morocco"
Revision as of 14:32, 23 March 2009
Morocco (المغرب al-Maghreb)  is a North African country that has a coastline on both the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. It has borders with Mauritania to the south, Algeria to the east and the Spanish North African territories of Ceuta and Melilla on the Mediterranean coast in the north. It is just across the Strait of Gibraltar from Gibraltar.
Morocco's long struggle for independence from France ended in 1956. The internationalized city of Tangier was turned over to the new country that same year. Morocco virtually annexed Western Sahara during the late 1970s, and even though the status of the territory remains unresolved, the government is trying to conceal this, e.g. on all maps in Morocco, Western Sahara is drawn as an integrated part of the country.
Gradual political reforms in the 1990s resulted in the establishment of a bicameral legislature in 1997, although the king still possesses the actual political power. The press is relatively free, although clampdowns have occurred following criticism of the authorities or articles concerning the Western Sahara situation.
Electricity and voltage
The biggest event on the Moroccan calendar is the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast during the daytime and feast at night. Most restaurants are closed for lunch (with the exception of those catering specifically to tourists) and things generally slow down. Traveling during this time is entirely possible, and the restrictions don't apply to non-Muslims, but it's respectful to refrain from eating, drinking or smoking in public during the fast. At the end of the month is the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, when practically everything closes for as long as a week and transport is packed as everybody heads back to their home village.
For tourists from countries that need a visa to enter Morocco, the Moroccan Embassy is usually the first port of call. They charge the equivalent of £17 for a single entry and £26 for double or multiple entries. (Double or Multiple entries will be issued at embassy discretion). Visas are usually valid for 3 months and take around 5-6 working days to process. Visa requirements are completed application forms, four passport-size photos taken within the previous six months, Valid passport with at least one blank page, and with a photocopy of the relevant data pages; Fee, payable by postal order only, a photocopy of all flight bookings and a photocopy of hotel reservation.
Tourists can stay for up to 90 days and visa extensions can be a frustrating and time-consuming process. (You may find it easier to duck into the Spanish-controlled Ceuta or Melilla and then re-enter Morocco for a new stamp). Anti-cholera vaccination certificates may be required of visitors coming from areas where this disease is prevalent and pets need a health certificate less than ten days old, and an anti-rabies certificate less than six months old.
Ryanair  — has signed an agreement with the Moroccan government and flies to Morocco from Bremen, Girona, Frankfurt-Hahn and London. Flying to Fez 3 times per week. Flies to Marrakesh are also available.
Royal Air Maroc  — the state airline, which drastically needs a price cut.
Atlas Blue  — a so-called budget airline owned by Royal Air Maroc, but is still fairly expensive.
Aigle Azur — a small North-African carrier with reasonable rates.
Thomson fly  — Fly from Manchester to Marrakech and are very reasonably priced.
Binter Canarias  — Fly from Canary Islands to Marrakech.
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.
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.
There are several ferry connections to Morocco, mainly from Spain. Algeciras is the main port and serves Ceuta and Tangier. A ferry between Algeciras and Ceuta takes 40 minutes, and less than 2 hours to get to Tangier. You can also get to Tangier from the small port of Tarifa, on the southernmost tip of mainland Spain. This will need 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 also go to Tangier, from the port of Sète near Montpellier and Port Vendres near Perpignan. But 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.
From Tarifa to Tangier the ferry costs about 25 Euros each way. From Algeciras it costs £28 single.
Trains are usually most preferred recommended transport because of speed and comfort; they are far less cramped and stressful alternative to local buses. Train network links Marrakech and Tangier via Casablanca and Rabat, a branch line to Oujda starts at Sidi Kachem linking Meknes and Fez to the main line.
Many Moroccans also take luxury buses between towns usually run by CTM, Supratours and smaller companies. These offer comfort and a reliability (the train service is not good in this), are inexpensive and provide much better coverage. When using CTM services, keep in mind they charge a small fee per bag (~7dh).
A shared taxi service (grand taxi) also operates between towns; fares are semi-fixed and shared equally between passengers. If there are empty seats you can pay for them in order to make the taxi leave rather than waiting for further passengers. grand taxis are often the cheapest way of traveling between towns and cities in Morocco. Late at night, expect to be charged a little more than at daytime, and also to pay for all the seats in the car as it probably won't show up other customers late. A (petit taxi) is not allowed to leave the city borders and is thus not an option for traveling between cities.
Domestic flying is not a popular mean of transportation, however, Royal Air Maroc, the national flag carrier, has an excellent but expensive network to most cities.
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 its 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.
There are three daily departures from Tangier, bound for either Oujda or Marrakech, although all of them can be used to reach either destination as there are corresponding trains in Sidi Kachem using the opposite branch of the train coming from Tangier. The night trains between Tangier and Marrakech offer couchettes for an extra dhr 100 (June 2008). This is the only option if you would like to lay down sleeping as there are obstacles between the seats in regular compartments.
The only drawback with Moroccon trains are that they are very frequently delayed, so don't count on the timetables if you are in a hurry.
Train network is operated by ONCF .
The major cities, Marrakech, Meknes, Fez, Tangier, Rabat, Casablanca, etc are all linked by reliable (if not very fast) rail links. There are usually several trains every day to or from every major town. There is also a night train between Marrakech and Tangier.
Nearly every city has a central bus-station where you can buy tickets to travel from region to region. You can either choose the buses for tourists with air-condition and TV. Or you can take the local buses which cost only 25%-50% and are much more fun. These ones aren't really comfortable, but you can get in contact to the local people and learn a lot about the country. The buses often take longer routes than the big ones, so you can see villages you would never get to as a "normal" tourist. For heat-sensitive people this is not advisable though, as locals may tell you that 35 degrees is "cool" and no reason for opening a window. 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.
Luxury buses operated by CTM  are also inexpensive and offer an easier travelling experience than local buses.
Supratours , major rival of CTM, complements train network to Essaouira and all major Atlantic-coast towns south to Marrakech.
Travel by taxi is common in Morocco. There are two sorts:
Prices for petit taxi are reasonable and it's the law that taxis in town should have a meter - although are not always on. Insist that the driver starts the meter. If not, ask the fare before getting in (but it will be more expensive).
grand taxi is a shared, generally long-distance taxi, with a fixed rate for specific route; the driver stopping and picking up passengers like a bus. grand taxis usually can be found near main bus stops. Negotiate on price if you want a journey to yourself and this will be based on distance traveled and whether you are returning--but price per taxi should not depend on the number of passengers in your group. When sharing grand taxi with others, drivers may cheat tourist-looking passengers charging higher--look how much locals around you pay; don't worry to ask other passengers about the normal price, before boarding or even when you're in.
grand taxis are usually a ~10-years-old Mercedes regular sedans that in Europe are used for up to 4 passengers plus driver. For grand taxi, it is normal to share a car between up to 6 passengers. Front seat is normally given to two women (as local women are not allowed to be in contact with a man, they rarely take rear seats). Travellers often pay for 2 seats that remain unoccupied to travel with more space inside, and hence comfort.
grand taxis can also be hired for approximately the price of two petite taxis for shorter trips. This is useful if your party is of four or more. Beware, some taxi drivers will refuse to drive off until the taxi is full, potentially causing you delays. Alternatively, for a relatively reasonable sum (depending on the driver), you can hire a grand taxi in Marrakech for the entire day, allowing you to explore the Ourika valley.
Taxi owners vie with each other to add extras such as sunshades. A clean vehicle and smart driver is usually a good sign of a well maintained vehicle.
The main road network is in good condition. Roads have good surface, although very narrow, in most cases only one lane in each direction.
The main cities are connected by toll expressways still being extended.
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.
Roadsigns are in Arabic and French and the traffic law is as in much of Europe but you give way to the right. Be very careful as many drivers respect signs only if a policeman is nearby. This means that traffic on a roundabout gives way to that entering it. 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 40kph in towns and on dangerous intersections where fines are imposed on the spot. General rule is that vehicles larger than yours should be given a priority: 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. Marrakchis like to beep their horns at anyone they feel to be holding them up. This may mean even if you're just in front of them at a red light. Also, pay very close attention to your wingmirrors and your blind spots. The two lane roads often become free-for-alls, up to the point at which you may see four cars wing to wing at a red light. One of the major hazards on the roads in Marrakech are the mobilettes. These pushbikes with an engine will zig-zag around you and generally make themselves a nuisance, however, on longer stretches of road, they tend to keep to the right. Often, a few beeps of the horn will cause a mobilette rider to pay a little more attention to his surroundings. However, be warned that some drivers pay absolutely no attention to your horn, as they have become so used to the sound. Drive defensively, and keep your speed down, so any accident causes minimum damage. Do not be intimidated by other drivers. Make sure that you drive predictably, and don't do anything rash.
Rental firms abound in the large cities. Most worldwide rental networks have their offices in Morocco. Also there are several local rental companies (5-7 have rep offices in Casablanca airport). They offer lower prices, but be sure to check the vehicles condition, spare tire, jack etc. Local companies may be less proficient in English--but if you are ready for higher risk, when you rent in an airport try to negotiate with them first; if failed you always have worldwide rivals to go next.
Multinational companies seem to easily share cars with each other (although prices and service level may vary), so if your company of choice doesn't have what you need they may ask from another company.
Check where you can drive - some rental companies won't allow travel on unmade roads.
All Alamo and National Car Rental offices are colocated in Morocco.
During low season (November) expect at least 20% discount from the list price if you come without a reservation--at least for economic class (Peugeot 206, Renault Logan Dacia).
Deposit is taken as a paper slip of credit card; Alamo is unable to transfer your slip to the city of your destination if it's different from your starting point.
Some economy-class cars (like Peugeot 206) are as old as 4 years, with mileage up to 120,000 km.
Renting a vehicle with driver/guide
Some tour operators will arrange for you to hire a 4x4 or SUV with a driver/guide, and offer customised itineraries, including advanced booking in hotels, ryads, etc.
The local currency is the Moroccan dirham (Dh or MAD), which is divided into 100 centimes (c).
£1 is worth Dh 12.33, US$1 is worth Dh 8.57 and 1 Euro is worth Dh 11.05 (as of 14/2/2009).
There are 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, Dh 1, Dh 2, Dh 5, Dh 10 coins, although coins smaller than 20c are rarely seen these days. Notes are available in denominations of Dh 10, Dh 20, Dh 50, Dh 100, and Dh 200.
Only local currency is officially accepted in Morocco, although some hotels may accept your EUR/USD unofficially.
Money Exchange: It's forbidden to bring more than Dh 1000 out of the country, so it's virtually impossible to obtain local currency outside Morocco. Exchange rates are the same at all banks and official exchanges, as required by law.
Don't expect to see many banks in the souqs or medinas, although in larger cities there are often an ATM near the main gates, and even one or two inside the large souqs (if you manage to find your way). You may also encounter "helpful" people who will exchange dollars or euros for dirhams. Unofficial exchange on the streets outside souqs or medinas doesn't seem to exist.
Besides banks and dedicated exchange offices, major post offices provide exchange, and work until late hours. There are several exchange offices in Casablanca airport.
Try to have as much small change as possible and keep larger bills hidden separately.
What to buy?
Apart from classical tourist souvenirs like postcards and trinkets, here are some things from this region that are hard to find elsewhere, or even unique:
If you're looking for T-shirts, consider designer items by Kawibi--they look much more inspiring than boring traditional set of themes. Available in duty-frees, Atlas Airport Hotel near Casablanca and probably many other places.
Moroccan cuisine is often reputed to be some of the best in the world, with countless dishes and variations proudly bearing the country's colonial and Arabic influences. Unfortunately as a tourist through Morocco, especially if you're on a budget, you'll be limited to the handful of dishes that seem to have a monopoly on cafe and restaurant menus throughout the country. Apart from major cities, Morocans do not generally eat out in restaurants so choice is generally limited to international fare such as Chinese, Indian and French cuisine.
A Dh 3 - Dh 5 serve of harira or besara will always include some bread to mop the soup up and will fill you up for breakfast or lunch:
Many cafes (see Drink) and restaurants also offer good value petit déjeuner breakfast deals, which basically include a tea or coffee, orange juice (jus d'Orange) and a croissant or bread with marmalade from Dh 10.
Snacks and fast food
Snackers and budget watchers are well catered for in Morocco. Rotisserie chicken shops abound, where you can get a quarter chicken served with fries and salad for around Dh 20. Sandwiches (from Dh 10) served from rotisserie chicken shops or hole-in-the-wall establishments are also popular. These fresh crusty baguettes are stuffed with any number of fillings including tuna, chicken, brochettes and a variety of salads. This is all usually topped off with the obligatory wad of French fries stuffed into the sandwich and lashings of mayonnaise squeezed on top.
You may also see hawkers and vendors selling a variety of nuts, as well as steamed broad beans and BBQ'd corn cobs.
As a predominantly Muslim country, Morocco is mostly dry.
Alcohol is available only in restaurants, bars, supermarkets, hotels and discos. Some Moroccans enjoy a drink although it is disapproved in public places. The local brew of choice carries the highly original name of Casablanca Beer. It is a full flavoured lager and enjoyable with the local cuisine or as a refreshment. Also you can find local judeo-berber vodka, mild anise flovered and brewed from figs.
As a rule, do not drink tap water at all in Morocco, even in hotels, as it contains much higher levels of minerals than the water in Europe. For local people this is not a problem as their bodies are used to this and can cope, but for travellers from places such as Europe drinking the tap water will usually result in illness. Generally this is not serious, an upset stomach being the only symptom, but it is enough to spoil a day or two of your holiday.
Bottled water is widely available. Popular brands of water include Oulmes (sparkling) and Sidi Ali, Sidi Harazem and Ain Saiss DANONE (still). The latter has a slightly mineral and metallic taste. Nothing with a high mineralization produced (so far?).
Any traveller will be offered mint tea at least once a day. Even the most financially modest Moroccan is equipped with a tea pot and a few glasses. Although sometimes the offer is more of a lure into a shop than a hospitable gesture it is polite to accept. Before drinking look the host in the eye and say 'bi saha raha'. It means enjoy and relax and any local will be impressed with your language skills.
Note that a solo woman may feel more comfortable having a drink or snack at a pastry shop or restaurant as cafes are traditionally for men. This doesn't apply to couples, of course.
Morocco has hotels to suit all budgets. High end chain hotels (Sheraton, Hyatt, etc) can be found in the ville nouvelle regions of all major tourist centres, while in smaller cities classy guesthouses--essentially palatial Moroccan townhouses (riads) converted into boutique hotels--will satisfy your desires.
With the exception of large high end hotels, expect the hot water supply in hotels to not be as stable as in more established countries. In Marrakech, MHamid, near Ourzazate and possibly other places, the hot water temperature varies dramatically while you take a shower.
On the lower end of the budget scale, HI-affiliated youth hostels can be found in the major cities (dorm beds from around Dh 50) while the cheapest budget hotels (singles from around Dh 65) are usually located in the medina. These hotels can be very basic and often lack hot water and showers, while others will charge you between Dh 5 and Dh 10 for a hot water shower. Instead, consider public hammams there are quite a lot of them in the medina and in rural areas.
Newer, cleaner and slightly more expensive budget (singles from around Dh 75) and mid-range hotels that are sprinkled throughout the ville nouvelles.
Many hotels, especially those in the medina have delightful roof terraces, where you can sleep if the weather's too hot. If you don't need a room, you can often rent mattresses on the roof from Dh 25.
For those looking to camp, almost every town and city has a campground, although these can often be some way out of the centre. Many of these grounds have water, electricity and cafes. In rural areas and villages, locals are usually more than happy to let you camp on their property; just make sure you ask first.
Most foreigners looking to study in Morocco are seeking either Arabic or French language courses. All major cities have language centres, and some will even arrange homestays with an Arabic-speaking family during your course.
Some Moroccans that you meet on the streets have come up with dozens of ways to part you from your money. Keep your wits about you, but don't let your wariness stop you from accepting any offers of generous Moroccan hospitality. Put on a smile and greet everybody that greets you, but still be firm if you are not interested. This will leave you significantly better off than just ignoring them.
Try to learn at least a phrasebook level of competency in French or Arabic (Spanish may help you in the North - but not largely). Just being able to say "Ith'hab!" ("Go Away!") may be useful to you... Many locals (especially the nice ones who are not trying to take advantage of you) will speak limited English. If you can at least verify prices in French with locals, you could end up saving a lot of money.
What to wear
You won't need high and heavy mountain boots unless you go in coldest time of the year like February: it's quite warm in the country even when it's heavy raining in November. Even in medinas, streets are paved if not asphalted--just be sure your footwear is not toeless in medina, as it may be dirty or unsanitary.
For trekking in valleys, low trekking shoes will be likely enough.
For a desert trip to dunes, ensure your pockets can be easily shaken out as sand gets in there very quickly.
Like any country, Morocco has its share of problems, and is not particularly safe for solo travelers, but that can be easily avoided should you follow common sense. Avoid dark alleys. Travel in a group whenever possible. Keep money and passports in a safety wallet or in a hotel safety deposit box. Keep backpacks and purses with you at all times. Make sure there is nothing important in outside or back pockets. Women especially will experience almost constant harassment if alone, but this is usually just cat-calls and (disturbingly) hisses. Don't feel the need to be polite--no Moroccan woman would put up with behaviour like that. Dark sunglasses make it easier to avoid eye contact. If someone won't leave you alone, look for families, a busy shop, or a local woman and don't be afraid to ask for help. If you are so inclined, you could wear a hijab (headscarf), but this is not necessary. Morocco can be a very liberal country and many Moroccan women do not wear headscarves. However, women should always dress conservatively (no low-cut tops, midriffs, or shorts) out of respect for the culture they are visiting. In cities, women can wear more revealing clothing but as a general rule they should follow the lead from local women. Locals will also assume that Moroccan women venturing into ville nouvelle nightclubs or bars alone are prostitutes in search of clientèle but foreign women entering such places will be not be so considered but will be thought of as approachable. Be careful about being drugged, especially as a solo traveler. The common and easy-to-make drug GHB only lasts 3 hours and is undetectable in the body after 7 hours, so if you are attacked take action immediately. Hustlers can be a big problem for people travelling to Morocco, and Tangier in particular. It's often difficult to walk down the street without being accosted by somebody offering to give you directions, sell you something, etc. Your best bet is to politely refuse their services and keep walking, as all they are after is money. There are some legitimate tour guides, but just know that your guide will receive a commission on anything you buy while you're with them, so don't let yourself be pressured into purchasing anything you don't want. Armed fighting in the disputed areas of the Western Sahara are less frequent now, but clashes between government forces and the Polisario Front still occur. Don't wander too far off the beaten path either, as this region is also heavily-mined.
Public telephones can be found in city centres, but private telephone offices (also known as teleboutiques or telekiosques) are also commonly used. The international dialling prefix (to dial out of the country) is 00, but international rates are comparatively expensive. If you have a lot of phone calls to make, it may be worth ducking into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta or Melilla.
Useful Numbers Police: 19; Fire Service: 15; Highway Emergency Service: 177; Information: 160; International Information: 120; Telegrams and telephone: 140; Intercity: 100.
The GSM mobile telephone network in Morocco can be accessed via one of two major operators: Meditel  or Maroc Telecom . Prepaid cards are available. More infos on available services, coverage and roaming partners are available at: GSMWorld .
It is very easy and cheap to buy a local GSM prepaid card in one of the numberous phone shops showing a Maroc Telecom sign. The SIM card (carte Jawal) costs only 30 DH (3 €) with 10 DH (1 €) airtime. The rate is national: 3-4 DH, to Europe ca. 10 DH, SMS 3 DH. The card is valid 6 month after the last recharge.
The Moroccan postal service is generally reliable and offers a post restante service in major cities for a small fee. You will need some identification (preferably your passport) to collect your mail.
Items shipped as freight are inspected at the post office before they are sent, so wait until this has been done before you seal the box.
Email & internet
Moroccans have really taken to the internet. Internet cafes are open late and are numerous in cities and smaller towns that see significant tourist traffic. Rates are about 4 - 10 dirhams per hour and they are often located next to, above, or below the telekiosque offices. Speeds are acceptable to excellent in the north, but can be a little on the slow side in rural areas. Most internet cafes will allow you to print and burn CDs for a small charge.