What images come to mind when you hear that name? Do you think of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman? Or maybe camels crossing the Sahara, the steady beat of drums sounding time in the background? Or do you think of race cars and Grace Kelley? Or do you think of nothing at all? Well, all of those images (or lack thereof) come to the minds of people when I’ve mentioned that I’m living here, and some are more accurate than others (and some are completely wrong). To that end, here are some questions, and more importantly, answers…
1) That’s the place where they race cars and Grace Kelley was princess, right?
Wrong. That’s Monaco. Monaco is a small principality on the southern coast of France. Morocco is a country on the northern shores of Africa, with part of it on the Atlantic Ocean, and part on the Mediterranean Sea. Rabat, where I live, is on the ocean side. Morocco also borders the Sahara Desert, and contains the Atlas and Rif Mountains. Just knowing this, you can imagine that there is tremendous variety within this relatively small country, and you’re right! Rabat reminds me very much of Los Angeles, as far as climate goes. Marrakech, however, is inland and has more extreme climate, with very hot summers and cooler winters than we get here in Rabat. And Ifrane, in the mountains, is called the Moroccan Switzerland, with gorgeous ski slopes and Swiss-style chalets. Morocco has amazing variety, there really is something here for everyone. But please don’t confuse it with Monaco.
2) What’s Casablanca like? Is it like the movie?
No. Casablanca (or just “Casa” for us locals) is a big, bustling city with all the positives and negatives you would encounter in any big, bustling city. It’s loud, it’s chaotic, it’s kinda dirty, and to be honest, it’s very skippable. There is an amazing, gorgeous mosque there right on the ocean, the Hassan II Mosque, but other than that, there is not much to see. Locals tell me to avoid the Medina (the old city), as other cities have much better ones; it doesn’t have much in the way of cultural attractions…and it’s nothing like the movie. The movie wasn’t even filmed there. There IS a Rick’s Café there, but it was established in the 2000s, based on the movie, and not the other way around. It is surprisingly wonderful, and if you’re in town you should check it out. But I wouldn’t say you should visit Casa just for Rick’s.
3) Is it safe?
In a word, yes. I feel far safer here than I do in the U.S., actually, since guns are strictly forbidden. Do incidents occur? Yes, as they do anywhere. But if you want to see crime statistics, here is a website that, as far as I can tell, is unbiased: https://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/compare/Morocco/United-States/Crime
I have been doing more solo travel lately, and I would say that I use the precautions here that I would use anywhere: I don’t go out at night alone, I make sure I know where I’m going before I go out, I don’t flaunt expensive jewelry or wads of cash…basically I don’t make myself an easy target. If you’re going to be the victim of a crime here or most places when traveling, it’s likely going to be petty crime like pickpocketing. However, I’ve never had a problem here, nor have any of my friends who live here. But if you want a really thorough treatment of safety in Morocco, visit this post from MarocMama. She is an American blogger living here in Morocco, and her blog is amazing!
4)What are the people like?
They’re very warm and welcoming, kind and generous. Most Moroccans have at least some heritage that is tied to the Berber, or Amazigh, people. Many also have Spanish ancestry due to the long Moroccan occupation of Spain. They speak their own dialect of Arabic, called Darija and most also speak French. English speakers are harder to come by, so if you visit it is very helpful to know French or have a translation app. Morocco is a Muslim country, but the Moroccan people are very “live-and-let-live” types. Centuries of trade, occupation, and interaction with people of other countries and faiths has left the Moroccans quite a tolerant bunch. That being said, I would like to add my little PSA here: when you travel, do remember that you are a guest in another population’s home. Treat it as such, be respectful of their beliefs, morals, and norms, even if you don’t conform to them. You’ll find that the currency of courtesy goes a long way, in Morocco and any other country you may visit. Thank you, end of PSA.
5) Can you drink alcohol in Morocco?
Yes, you can, but it’s not easy. The little suburb of Rabat that I live in has one liquor store. Chefchaouen has one hotel where you can buy alcohol to take off-site and they charge whatever they want to charge. Larger cities like Rabat have liquor stores, but it’s not like the U.S. where there seems to be one on every corner. Some grocery store chains, mainly European ones, sell liquor, but local chains do not. Some restaurants serve alcohol, but smaller local ones largely do not. And there are no liquor sales during Ramadan.
6) Do women have to cover up?
No, probably owing to their aforementioned “live-and-let-live” attitude. From what I’ve observed, it seems that most married Moroccan women do wear a headscarf, but it’s not required. You won’t feel out of place if you do not cover up. However, if you go out in super-short cutoffs and spaghetti straps, expect to get attention from men that you probably don’t want. Dress in at least short sleeves and don’t wear shorts that are too far above the knee. Morocco is a conservative country, and if you still insist on Brittany Spears circa 2000, please re-read my PSA in #4.
7) OK, so then how are the men?
Before I arrived here, I was told by people who had visited to prepare for lots of unwanted male attention. I’m blonde, and I heard this so much that I even considered dying my hair brown before I moved! I’m really glad I decided against that, since my experience has not at all conformed to what I was warned about. I had one single time when some young teenagers came up to me and asked for my phone number, I’m sure just to be silly, since I’m obviously way older than them. I just kept saying “la”, which means “no” in Arabic, and finally shooed them away, and they left. No big deal. That’s really it! I don’t make eye contact with men when I’m out walking, but honestly I don’t make eye contact with strangers when I’m out walking no matter where I am, so that’s not exactly weird for me. I don’t wear shorty short shorts because…yuck…so my wardrobe is not attracting unwanted attention, either. Again, back to my PSA, if you don’t want to stand out in any country you are visiting, then find a way to fit in to whatever extent is practical for you. This will avoid you getting the attention of strangers, scammers, and pickpockets as well. It’s just good practice when you’re traveling.
8) It is expensive?
In a word, no. In multiple words, it depends on your lifestyle and where you shop. If you are here just to visit, you will probably find that it’s much cheaper than traveling in Europe. A meal in a local restaurant will run you anywhere from around $3 for a light breakfast to maybe $10 for dinner. And that would be a filling, big dinner. Groceries also depend on where you buy them. If you get produce from a local produce stand and you buy in season, it’s pretty cheap. Pomegranates, avocados, citrus fruits, figs, and dates are just a few of the local items you can buy for not too much money, and they are delicious! When you visit, find out what’s in season, and be sure to sample it.
Souvenirs from the medina can also be had for a pretty reasonable price. A hand painted mug might be a couple dollars, a leather pouf might be around $30, a smaller Berber rug, less than $100.
Accommodations also vary depending on where you stay. If you want to go luxury, you’ll pay the same as you’d pay anywhere. If you go local, you can get a room for much less. There are lots of Airbnbs here with a wide range of prices. I highly recommend staying in a ryad at some point. Fes is chock full of them, and they are gorgeous and quite reasonable.
9) Is haggling a thing?
Haggling is an art here, and one that I am not even at novice level. Vendors in the Rabat medina don’t haggle as much as in other cities, and I just hate haggling so I don’t do it. If you do, you might save 10-15% off of the original price. If you like haggling, go for it. If you don’t, don’t worry that you’re getting ripped off. My rule of thumb is that if I feel like it’s a fair price, if I feel like the item I’m buying is worth (to me) what the vendor is asking, I’ll pay it. If not, I’ll leave it. They might come back with a better price, they might not. Be ready to walk away if you can’t reach a price that feels good to you. Some of my favorite things to buy here in Morocco (and which you might consider taking home with you if you visit) are: pottery from Fes, hand carved and finished wooden boxes from Essouira, naturally dyed leather poufs (which are sold without filling, so are actually very easy to transport home), brass lanterns (the smaller table top styles aren’t too big and cast a beautiful light pattern), and of course the Berber rugs.
10) Can you drink the water?
Ah, yes, finally, the water question! Again, I would say it depends. For the most part, the water here is perfectly safe to drink. That may not have been the case 20 or 30 years ago, but Morocco has really changed a lot in the 2000s. The new king has made it a priority to bring Morocco into the 21st Century, and it shows. There is a ton of construction all over the country, the infrastructure is up to date (including a brand new TGV line!), and the water is treated, chlorinated, and safe. In fact, the one complaint I hear is that it might be a tad too chlorinated. Personally, I find that the Brita pitcher I brought from the U.S. is totally adequate for my drinking needs (and I drink a LOT of water). Moroccans buy a lot of bottled water, but one of my lifestyle goals is to use less plastic, so I just can’t bring myself to buy that much bottled water. If you visit, consider bringing a reusable water bottle that has a built-in filter if you prefer taste-free water. If you’re moving here, bring a Brita from home; they do not sell them here. (More on that later—a future post will list all the things that are hard to buy here in Morocco.)
There you have it! I hope this list helps you to have a better understanding of this amazing country and its people. Do you have other questions I didn’t address? Leave them in the comments! If there are lots of them, I’ll do a Part 2 post!