Morocco – general hints, tips and safety advice

Djemaa el Fna

Djemaa el Fna

Do I need immunisations for Morocco?

Morocco is malaria free and vaccinations are not necessary. You may read advice that suggests you get vaccinated against Typhoid and Hepatitis A, I have never had these myself but if you feel you must then go along to your doctor and discuss it. As with all holiday destinations it’s a good idea to make sure all your normal vaccinations are up to date, such as polio and tetanus.

What language do they speak in  Morocco?

Moroccans speak Arabic as their first language and most speak French as a second language. In the cities, and even to a certain extent in the mountains and rural areas, most Moroccans speak several other languages too. Satellite TV has brought the world into their homes and although many can’t read and write they are excellent linguists. If you don’t speak they will often try to guess your nationality by going through their repertoire of languages, which can be quite an amusing game.

Should I be worried about terrorism in Morocco?

Terrorism is not rife in Morocco although there were a series of attacks in Casablanca in 2003. Since then things have been quiet and you are as safe there as you are anywhere these days. Take the same precautions as you would in the UK, for example don’t leave bags unattended, keep away from any suspicious packages and report them to an authority figure. Although Morocco is an Islamic country it is a very liberal one and I have not noticed any anti western feeling. Quite the contrary, in fact the Moroccans are very friendly welcoming people who have showed me nothing but hospitality.

How do I get through immigration in Morocco and do I need a visa?

You must have at least six months validity on your passport throughout your stay so check this before you book as you could be turned away at the airport. British citizens don’t need a visa to enter Morocco. If you are not a British passport holder check with your travel agent or the embassy before you book. Visas can take up to six weeks to arrive.

You have to complete a landing card (usually green) before you go through passport control. These are normally handed out on the flight just before landing so make sure you take a pen in your hand luggage. Landing cards can be confusing. Hopefully this example will give you a few pointers and ensure you have all the information you need to hand.

The queues at passport control are legendary. Don’t be impatient, this is a fact of life and everyone has to wait. When you go through passport control you will get a dated stamp on your passport. This allows you to stay in Morocco for 90 days. You will get another stamp when you leave. You will not be charged an entry fee.

When you leave you will have to fill in another similar card (usually white). These can be found in the departure lounge or may be given to you in your hotel. Make sure you fill this out before you get to passport control or you will have to go back and queue all over again.

What money do they use in Morocco?

The Moroccan currency is the Dirham, which is divided into 100 Centimes. Morocco has a closed currency. This means it is illegal to take Dirhams in or out of the country. You can’t buy Dirhams in the UK and you shouldn’t take any home with you.

You could buy travellers cheques but these can work out expensive and be hard to change when you get to Morocco. My suggestion is to take some Sterling and change it into Dirhams at a bureau de change once you arrive then use your debit card at the ATMs that can be found in most towns. To avoid any nasty surprises when you come home it’s worth checking with your bank what charges will be made for using ATMs, what the exchange rate will be and the maximum you can withdraw. There are ATM machines at the major airports and in some hotels too. Credit cards are also widely accepted although you will need some cash for souks, tips, taxis etc. On arrival, if you haven’t had a chance to change any money or withdraw some from an ATM, I have found that most Moroccans are happy to accept Sterling when it comes to tips.

A word of warning. Take the same care when using your credit card or debit card as you would in the UK. Never give your pin to anyone. Always cover your pin when getting cash from an ATM or in a shop. Always check ATMs for skimming devices and cameras, as you would in the UK. ATM and credit card fraud is a worldwide fact of life.

Please make sure you keep your exchange receipt. It is supposed to be compulsory to have these when you change money back into Sterling. I don’t remember ever been asked but it is better to be safe than sorry.

Who should I tip and how much in Morocco?

Tipping is part of the culture in Morocco, much more so than in the UK, not just in restaurants but for any service you receive no matter how small. Between one and five Dirhams will normally suffice for porters, toilet attendants, café waiters and taxi drivers although in some tourist areas the people have become used to more as many tourists over tip. Always be discreet when you tip, just slip the coin or coins into the hand without making a big thing of it or it could be considered insulting. I usually keep a few coins in my pocket just for tipping, that way I don’t have to open my purse and show how much money I’m carrying and I can be much more discreet about it.

As a guide

  • Café staff 1-2 Dirhams
  • Porter 5 Dirhams
  • Taxi driver 1-2 Dirhams
  • Restaurant waiter 5-10 Dirhams each or 10%
  • Toilet attendant 1-2 Dirhams
  • Museum staff 5 Dirhams
  • Hotel porter 5 Dirhams

Remember the average wage is 1800 Dirhams per month, which works out at about £120 but many Moroccans live on less than half of that. A three Dirham tip (about 20p) may not seem much to you but it is an awful lot of money for someone who only earns between £2 and £4 a day!

Are beggars a problem in Morocco?

Many Moroccans will give a few Dirhams to the beggars you see n the streets. This giving of alms is called zakat and brings baraka or blessings from Allah.  Personally I don’t give coins to beggars as I’ve found it can lead to a stream of beggars following expecting money. If you wish to give it’s up to you but a few Dirhams will suffice.

Can I take photographs on the streets in Morocco?

Taking photos on the street is fine, but if you want to take a photo of a Moroccan it’s polite to ask first. Not asking may cause offence, especially in the more rural areas and some people will expect, or even ask for, a tip. The dancers you see in Djemaa el Fna, or the water carriers will definitely expect payment for photos, it’s how they earn their living.

Should I go to Morocco during Ramadan?

During the month of Ramadan Moroccans are expected to fast from sun rise to sunset. This means no food, drink, cigarettes or sex. Ramadan falls on different dates each year so check before you book. Having said that I have been in Morocco during Ramadan and it doesn’t cause too many problems. You will find that the shops open a little later than normal and that everything stops before sundown as the Moroccans, understandably, want to be at home for Iftar, or the evening meal that breaks the fast. Iftar is more of a feast than a meal and often people actually gain weight during Ramadan.

Tourists aren’t expected to fast and restaurants will still serve food and drink, although it’s only polite to de discrete and not eat, drink or smoke on the street. If Ramadan falls during the hottest part of the year you may find tempers a little shorter than usual. It’s especially difficult to go without water when it is so hot.

Ramadan ends with the festival of Eid al-Fitr or just Eid. The celebration lasts for three days, families get together and the man of each household is expected to buy and slaughter a goat or sheep for the feast. Some people may find this upsetting to some as often these sacrifices happen in the street.

What is the food like in Morocco?

Moroccan food is a delicious mixture of Berber, Arab, African, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean influences. You will find a wonderful variety of salads, couscous and spicy meat stews called tagine after the conical clay dish they are cooked in. In costal resorts there will also be a wide variety of fish dishes.

Moroccans take eating seriously and meals shouldn’t be rushed so that the flavours, scents and colours can be appreciated. Usually meals begin with a selection of hot and cold salads, olives and tasty flat bread. This is followed by a tagine (usually lamb or chicken) served with couscous. Desert is not a big thing in Morocco so most meals end with fruit or small sickly sweet pastries with pistachio, almond, honey, cinnamon, dates or sesame seeds. Finally there will be mint tea or coffee if you prefer.

Although tagines are spicy, using complicated mixtures of the spices you will see in the souks, they are not hot like currys. Preserved lemon is often used, as are dried fruits, olives and olive oil. The most commonly used herbs and spices are mint, saffron, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, paprika, aniseed, coriander, parsley, cumin, pepper and sesame seed.

You will not find pork dishes, as pork is not eaten in Islamic countries. Chocolate is also, sadly, quite thin on the ground. If none of the above appeals, you will find many restaurants serving international cuisine, particularly French. Some of these are very good but expect to pay quite a bit.

Can I drink alcohol in Morocco?

Non-Muslims can buy and drink alcohol in bars, hotels and some restaurants. You have to be over 16 to buy alcohol but there is no age limit for drinking it. Be prepared though, it’s very expensive. Don’t get rolling drunk and don’t drink in public places (other than bars, hotels etc.). Muslims are not allowed to drink, although some do, so don’t offend them by offering to buy them a drink.

There are, believe it or not, many delicious alternatives to alcohol. Moroccans drink mint tea all day every day. It is the drink you are most likely to be offered wherever you go and it is a bit of a ritual, poured from pretty little silver pots into dainty tea glasses. Usually Moroccan mint tea is about 90% sugar so be warned.

Fruit juice is one of my favourite things to drink, cooling, refreshing and very tasty. Fresh squeezed orange juice is one of my favourites and you will see many stalls in Djemaa el Fna selling it. For a change try banana, avocado, or one of the other varieties on offer. Fizzy drinks like coke can also be found everywhere.

Are drugs a problem in Morocco?

Morocco has a bit of a reputation for hashish which goes back to the hippy trail days of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. All narcotics are illegal in Morocco, just as they are in the UK although the penalties may be much harsher. I have heard stories of people being offered hashish in the medinas. This is not something I‘ve experienced myself. Maybe I don’t look the type or perhaps the stories are exaggerations harking back to a different time. Either way avoid at all costs. If you want to take drugs on holiday, go to Amsterdam, everything and anything is available there and you will not end up in prison for a very long time.

How should I dress in Morocco?

Moroccans tend to fall into one of two camps, those that wear traditional and those that wear modern clothes. Either way they don’t show a lot of flesh. Dress modestly outside of the hotel or the beach and you won’t go far wrong. Women especially will attract a lot of attention if they expose too much flesh and may cause offence.

What about health and safety in Morocco?

As with all African countries you should be careful what you eat or drink to avoid Moroccan Tummy. Tummy upsets seem to be a fact of life for some people while others, with stronger constitutions are fine. Usually those that get sick just have a mild stomach upset that is soon over. It isn’t worth spoiling a good holiday by feeling ill so it’s wise to take care what you eat and drink, especially if you are prone to stomach upsets. Only drink bottled water, avoid ice in your drinks (these may be made with tap water) also don’t eat salads outside of good hotels and restaurants as these may have been washed in tap water. I would also be very careful of food from street vendors, however tempting it may be.

Moroccan tap water is not poisonous, just treated differently and with different bugs to our own. Therefore it can cause stomach upsets. Bottled water is cheap. I never drink the water in any country outside of the UK and I always use bottled water to brush my teeth too. Better safe than sorry. I have been to Morocco four times and have only once been ill. I wasn’t badly ill, just a little sickness and diarrhoea one night. I’m convinced it was from ice in a glass of Baileys and since then I have avoided ice.  I also always take Imodium with me when I travel just in case.

Another reason people get ill is too much sun and dehydration. This can cause stomach bug like symptoms and very bad headaches. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty, by then you will probably already be dehydrated. Wear high protection sun cream at all times and try to stay in the shade during the hottest part of the day. It’s true what they say that mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Although it is hot during the day the temperature can drop dramatically at night, especially in the desert. Be aware of this and if you are going to be out after dark take something warm to cover up with.

Be very careful when crossing roads, even on pedestrian crossings. Cars, mopeds and Caleches may not stop for you. I think the system is very much like that in France where cars have right of way on pedestrian crossings. I have never been able to work out what the point of these crossings actually is but that’s the way it seems to work. Beware of mopeds and handcarts in the souks and the medina too. The mopeds zoom in and out of the pedestrians and although I’ve never seen anyone run over I’m sure people must be.

Public toilets are not always clean, although those in most restaurants and hotels are fine. In more out of the way places you will find Turkish style toilets, basically a hole in the ground (albeit a ceramic one) that you have to crouch over. This is not a particularly Moroccan thing, you will find the same thing in France in many public toilets. There may not be toilet paper either. I usually carry a small handbag sized pack of baby wipes and some hand cleaning gel just in case.

Crime, especially violent crime is quite rare in Morocco but petty theft still happens. Look after your possessions in the same way you would at home. Don’t take risks by walking in unlit areas alone after dark or by leaving your bags unattended, your valuables on display, your wallet in your back pocket your handbag open any more than you would at home. You are more likely to be ripped off than you are to be mugged or robbed so don’t be naïve. Avoid the unofficial, faux guides (they were made illegal in the late 1990’s but they are still around). If someone offers to show you around just politely decline. They won’t hurt you but they will lead you to their ‘cousins’ shops where they get a commission on every purchase you make and you are overcharged. To add insult to injury they may then ask you for payment for their ‘services’. Book an official guide through your hotel or a reputable company like Complete Tours  http://complete-tours.com/.

Public displays of affection such as kissing are not a good idea. It just isn’t the done thing in Morocco although holding hands is OK (hand holding between Moroccan men is quite common it is a sign of friendship and nothing else). This is especially true of same sex couples. Homosexuality is a criminal offence in Morocco (that is not to say it doesn’t exist) as is sex outside of marriage (don’t worry hotels make exceptions for us foreigners so you won’t have a problem booking a double room). Be discreet and you will have no problems.

How do I get a good bargain in Morocco?

Leather goods are some of the best bargains you will find in the souks but be aware that the leather may be goat or camel. Handbags, babouche slippers and footstools (they look like dog baskets because they are sold unstuffed and folded in on themselves) are all good buys.   Don’t buy animal skins. If you do they will be confiscated by customs and you could face a hefty fine or worse still jail. Other good bargains are jewellery, especially silver, spices, tagines, tea glasses and silver teapots, lanterns and wooden items.

Personally I would not buy a carpet. They are beautiful, handmade and worth every penny but, and it’s a big but, working as a customer services consultant for a tour operator one of the most common complaints about North African countries was from clients who had purchased their dream carpet, then found they would be charged double or triple the asking price to have it shipped home, worse still, sometimes the carpet never did arrive or when it did it was not the carpet so lovingly picked out in the souk. I would also always bear in mind the size of the items your buy. How will you fit them in your case and will you have to pay excess baggage?

Bartering is the name of the game in the souks. If you really don’t like this you should ask at your hotel about local fixed price shops. You will pay a little more in these but that is the trade off for avoiding haggling. Always start with an idea of the price you want to pay. A trip to a fixed price shop might help you ‘get your eye in’. Don’t base your ideal price on the cost of things in the UK. The leather footstool that you love might cost you £50 in England when it’s been imported but you will probably get it for £15 or less. The shopkeeper will start by offering you two, three or more times what they want so start much lower than your final offer and work up. These things can’t be rushed and part of the fun is in this ‘game’ of ‘I’ll give you,’ and ‘oh but look at the quality, the stitching.’ If you don’t get the price you want walk away. You will find many stalls with the same selection of goods and you might be luckier elsewhere. Often your shopkeeper will run after you and offer you a better price or ask you what your ‘best price’ is. They won’t sell at a loss and whatever you pay you can be sure your bargain is also a good deal for the shopkeeper. Above all enjoy the experience and keep a smile on your face.

You will get some hassle in the Moroccan souks but it is all fairly harmless. Shopkeepers may try to persuade you to buy from them. If you don’t want to then just politely decline and walk away. If you show the slightest interest in an item the shopkeeper will do his best to sell it to you. Again, if you don’t want to buy or want to look around a bit first just say so with a smile. As you walk through the souks people will call out to you, they will offer you ‘good price, Asda price’ or call out English phrases they have heard on satellite TV. They are surprisingly good at working out the nationality of the people passing their shops. Women should nit be offended if they hear calls of ‘beautiful lady,’ offers of camels to buy them or marriage proposals. Take these as complements and let them put a smile on your face. This is how they are intended. If you are blonde, expect extra attention. There is a real fascination with ‘golden hair.’

How do I get around in Morocco?

Car hire charges are quite high and I wouldn’t personally advise driving in built up cities like Marrakech unless you are a very skilled driver with nerves of steel. Trains and busses are cheap, but slow and they can be crowded. The best way to get around is by taxi.

The petit taxis only operate inside the cities. They are small, brownish yellow, often tatty looking cars (usually French). They do have meters but they don’t always use them. Always barter a price before you get in. Don’t expect to pay anywhere near what you would pay in the UK and, if you don’t like the price, try another taxi. Usually you will only get two or three people in a petit taxi, four at a pinch, and they may not have seat belts. Be prepared to shut you eyes a fair bit too!

For journeys outside the city use the Grand Taxis (usually Mercedes and also brownish yellow). These will be charged by the seat based on six to a car (fairly cramped) so, if you want the taxi to yourself you will have to ‘buy’ all the seats. Again barter your price before you get in.

A lovely way to see the city is by caleche. These green horse drawn carriages are everywhere and are also very cheap but incredibly smelly. The horses may look a little threadbare but believe me they are well looked after. The horse is the caleche driver’s livelihood and as such will be cared for better than his wife and children. Like the cars both horses and carriages are usually old and run down and would have been long ago scrapped in the UK. This is a sign of the Moroccan way of using everything until it can be used no more and then recycling it into something else. Remember, your Dirhams will pay for the horse’s dinner as well as the driver’s.