argan-eating goats

”Morocco is like a tree nourished by roots deep in the soil of Africa, which breathes through foliage rustling to the winds of Europe.” King Hassan II

1. Meet the Free People

Most Moroccans are of Berber (Amazigh) decent.  The Amazigh – meaning “the free people” – are the original inhabitants of North Africa.  Today, the Amazigh practice Islam, but remnants of their ancient religious beliefs still exist today.  The Amazigh population consists of over 100 different tribes, each with its own cultural practices and unique identity. Every tribe has its distinct symbology, which you can clearly see in their jewelry, rug patterns, henna and tribal tattoos.

Amazigh symbol

2. Stick with Amazigh

Keep in mind, that while most Moroccans are perfectly fine with the term “Berber,” some find it to be offensive. “Barbar” was initially used by the Greeks to refer to all foreigners but later adopted by the Romans to define “uncivilized” or “savage.”  And while the etymology of “Berber” goes way-way back, and the debate on whether the term is insulting or not is ongoing, you can always avoid the controversy by sticking to “Amazigh.”

3. Love 'em Shapes & Figures ⨀ ○ + ⦶

The moment you step onto Moroccan soil, you see signs in peculiar geometric figures – that’s Tamazight (or Berber) – the “language of the free.”  Despite being spoken by an estimated 40 % of Moroccans, Tamazight was recognized as the second official language only in 2011.   If you travel to remote areas, you are sure to come across people (especially women) who only speak Tamazight.

For millennia, Tamazight has been transmitted orally and written in Arabic or the Latin alphabet, but in 2003, Moroccan researchers came up with a standardized written alphabet.  Up till now, only about 250 books have been written in Tamazight.  What complicates the teaching of Tamazight in schools and universities is that there are three different dialects and many sub-dialects. Despite the challenges, the recognition of Tamazight has been extremely important for redefining the Moroccan identity.

Moroccan flag

4. Learn Darija

Moroccans speak a dialect of Arabic known as Darija, which is quite different from Classical Arabic (more on that here).  So if you are learning a few phrases before your trip, make sure they are in Darija, not Classical Arabic.

spanish language

5. Speak Spanish

Although French and Arabic are the dominant languages in Morocco, over 1 million people speak Spanish too.  You’ll hear it a lot in the North, particularly in Tetouan and Tangier, and in the Western Sahara.

6. Avoid Traveling During Ramadan

Ramadan

… or give up any expectation of efficiency.  During the holly month, people are hungry, thirsty, and short on sleep.  Fuses are short, service is bad, and productivity is down.  Banks and businesses close early and open late.  Restaurants don’t serve food until after sunset.  Alcohol is nowhere to be found.  Everything slows down and comes to a halt.

On the flip side, you do get to experience the country during its holiest month, witness whole families come together to break the fast, savor traditional Ramadan foods and partake in the celebration.

7. Remember Grandma's Warnings

Millions of people visit Morocco each year, thousands of women travel solo, and the vast majority encounters no security issues.  Most Moroccans like tourists, and the Moroccan government is resolute to keep them safe.   But bad things do happen, particularly to women traveling without a male companion.  As warm and hospitable as it is, Morocco is very much a man’s world with double standards for the two genders and often twisted perceptions about western women.  As a female traveler, remembering your grandma’s warnings may not be a bad idea: don’t walk alone at night, avoid suggestive clothes, carry a scarf that you can wrap around your shoulders, and always let someone else know where you are heading. Small things like that may not fully eliminate cat-calling or unwanted attention, but they will minimize your chances of ending up in an unwanted situation.

8. Don't Put People on the Spot

Agadir kasbah

“God, Nation, King” illuminating a hillside in Agadir

Morocco’s penal code criminalizes speech that “harms” the monarchy, the king, Islam, and Morocco’s “territorial integrity.”  So if you are interested in someone’s honest opinion about the royal family or the government, make sure not to quiz them in public.

9. Leave your Drone at Home

Morocco prohibits the import of drones and remote-controlled flying devices without authorization and strictly regulates their use within the country.   If you are caught sneaking a drone into Morocco, it will be confiscated, and you’ll end up paying a hefty fine.  Operation without authorization is punishable by fine or imprisonment.  So if you can’t get an authorization, your best bet is to hire a local production company.

10. DO NOT Overstay your Visa

Moroccan visa on-arrival is valid for 90 days.  If you overstay, you will not be allowed to leave the country until you fix the problem, which entails spending at least one full day in the police department and appearing before the judge in a full-fledged court proceeding.  (Yes, I’ve learnt it the hard way.)  The easiest way to get an extension is to leave the country and come back.  If you are in the North of the country, it may be as simple as taking a day trip to La Ceuta.

11. Know the Roads

overloaded truck Morocco
motor tricycle Morocco

Driving in Morocco is not without challenges.  For starters, be prepared to share roads with donkeys, caleches, overloaded trucks, motorized tricycles and other nonconventional transport. Remember that lanes are not respected, signaling is uncommon, and right-of-way to pedestrians in crosswalks is just starting to get enforced.  Morocco’s fatality rate from road accidents is about twice that of the U.S., with  poor road conditions, inadequate infrastructure, old vehicles, and driving practices all to blame.  Keep in mind that the roads become particularly dangerous at night due to poor lighting and just before sunset during Ramadan, when everyone is rushing home to break the fast.

12. Don’t Get Stuck with Dirhams

13. Carry Cash

As a visitor, you can purchase dirhams but you cannot sell them back without the original exchange receipt.  You are also not allowed to take more than 2,000 dirham (around $200) out of the country. So if you end up pulling out too much from an ATM, be ready to spend it on souvenirs (luckily, that’s not hard).  It is also possible to exchange it back unofficially at a lower rate, but you should watch out for scammers and counterfeit bills.

moroccan dirhams

… even in the city.  Most supermarkets and bigger restaurants take credit cards, but smaller stores, taxis and souk vendors only accept cash. Private businesses are usually happy to accept dollars and euros.

14. Appreciate the Ride

A “petite taxi” is likely the smallest, shabbiest and most unpresuming car you’ve ever traveled in. It comes in red, blue or white colors (depending on the city where it operates) and typically has no seatbelts (including in the front).  It is, however, very accessible and very cheap.  Watch out in places like Marrakesh where drivers are notorious for charging tourists 10 times the standard fee.   To avoid getting ripped off, make sure that the meter is on or negotiate the price upfront.
Tipping is welcome, and 10% is the accepted norm.

15. Don't Be a Sardine

Grand taxis are a common and a cheap way to travel between towns and to remote destinations. They are typically large old Mercedeses or Volvos that take you places buses don’t.  Be aware though that drivers pack them as cans of sardines with two people next to the driver and four people in the back (unsurprisingly, seat belts not included).  Fortunately, just a few bucks will buy you extra space and reduce the waiting time.  If you’ve ever taken a grand taxi ride in Morocco, you’ll know that’s the money best spent.

grand taxi Morocco

Two passengers and a driver sharing the front seat of a grand taxi.

16. Fly Air Arabia

Marrakesh airport

Royal Air Maroc flies to all major cities in Morocco, but it is often more expensive than the less known Air Arabia.  Air Arabia has fewer internal flights but offers very affordable rates from Marrakesh, Casa, Tangier and a number of other cities in Morocco.

17. Rent a Car with Cash

That’s right – in Morocco, you can still get away with that lousy credit history and a maxed-out debit card!  Many local rental companies will happily accept cash.  And although they require the full amount upfront, they often don’t ask for a security deposit.

18. Get Invited to Someone’s Home

Moroccan restaurants are great, but the best dishes are created in Moroccan homes. Some traditional foods such as Sfa and Rfissa are almost never on restaurant menus.  So if you haven’t yet received an invitation to a family dinner, start working on it now.

Moroccan cuisine

19. Skip the Hotel - Stay in a Riad

A Riad is a traditional Moroccan palace historically owned by a wealthy family that has been converted to a guest house. A typical Riad has an interior garden or a courtyard with a fountain or a citrus tree in the center and is adorned with mosaic.  The service tends to be excellent, the food – delicious, and the overall stay provides you with a traditional Moroccan experience that few hotels can match.

20. Go Nuts for Argan

argan nut

Culinary argan is the most delicious nut-flavored oil that is unique to Morocco.  It is amazing on salads, breads and in Amlou (to-die-for almond butter with honey and argan oil).  Unlike the cosmetic oil, culinary argan is pressed from roasted kernels, which brings out all the flavors.

Did you know that argan trees grow only in southwestern Morocco?  That’s why argan is such a valuable commodity.  The best places to stock up on it are around Essaouira, Agadir and Taroudant.  That’s where you can also find Morocco’s famous argan-loving goats.  You can see them in villages and along the highways sprinkled around argan trees 30 feet up in the air.  Many Moroccans say that the goats swallow the nut and poop it out later, but the new study shows that they only eat the fleshy fruit and spit out the nut.  Whichever end of the goat the nut comes out of, it most definitely doesn’t spoil the taste – if anything, it only makes it better!

Moroccan goats

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