the moroccan survival kit
August 26, 2014
I went to Morocco with friends on a yolo adventure last month, having just a cheap one-way plain ticket bought months before and the first night stay at a hostel in Marrakesh. The only thing that was limiting us was that we had just one week to cover everything we had in mind and very little money. We realised half of what I expected, but experienced more than we had imagined, traveled with bus, train, taxi and camel, ate so much local food to the point that we started hating it, slept in the desert, tried sandboarding (fail), got bitten by bed bugs (myself), couldn’t buy any souvenir or anything because we were left with no money (bad math), met new people and made friends, negotiated stuff successfully and unsuccessfully. Well, I think I can share my thoughts and advice on the matter and hope to return to this mesmerizing country soon.
I’ll point out each of my ideas in a way I wish I had found them before heading to Morocco.
1. Getting there. We flew Sevilla-Marrakesh with Ryanair with just under 40 euros, buying the ticket with about 3 months in advance, which felt like a bargain when we saw how the prices rose afterwards. It was more like “Oh, look, let’s buy a cheap ticket to Morocco just in case”. So yeah, if you want to fly there, think of buying the ticket in advance and check often the airlines websites. You can also get there by ferry from Spain (Tarifa or Algeciras), we used it on our way back. The ticket was 39 euros/person from Tanger to Tarifa and there was a free bus ride included from Tarifa to Algeciras. The ride was around 1h30min, not 30min how they like to brag about 🙂
2. Accommodation. We had a reservation just for the 1st night stay in Marrakesh, with around 5 euros/night/person in a hostel with a 4-beds room and a private bathroom, which was great because we were exactly 4. The room was nice and clean and we were welcome with delicious mint tea. We made the other reservation in Fez from our phone, as there was free wifi almost anywhere. We booked just one night and then negotiated the second night. Again, it was a hostel with around 6 or 7 euros/person/night, 4-bed room and a shared bathroom this time, but it was just us on the floor.
3. Desert trip. We booked our desert trip from our hostel in Marrakesh, with 120 euros. We thought it was a bargain because on the internet it was 240 euros at another agency. We couldn’t negociate it for less and we decided it was better to have this experience and remain without money, than spend all we had on buying clothes and souvenirs, so this is why I was left with almost nothing. The problem was that after we payed the 50 euros deposit, we found another offer on the street with 70 euros!!! This is the only reason I have a little regret for this trip, but I can’t tell if the one from the street was legit, as I read all sorts of stories about those street offers.
The trip took 3 days and 2 nights. We left from Marrakesh to Ait Benhaddou (visited, worth the ride), Ouarzazate (just passed through it) and Dades Valley. We were taken to visit an argan oil workshop (very touristy and with very expensive products, but interesting nevertheless). The dinner was included but no breakfast for the first day (just the 2nd and the 3rd), so bear that in mind and take some food with you. I only ate some waffles because there was just ONE little shop on the way, in the middle of nowhere, and everything was too expensive for our budgets. Lunch wasn’t included at all and we were taken at a restaurant near Ait Benhaddou, probably the most expensive one from the area. Bad serving but good food. We slept at a hostel in a mountain area, included in the price of the trip.
The 2nd day we visited a small berber town and a rug workshop (again, touristy and expensive! Make sure to negotiate the hell out of them if you want to buy anything) and Todra Gorges. We headed to Erg Chebbi sand dunes and spent 2 hours by the pool at a nice nearby hotel (included) until we could cross the desert due to the heat. We rode 1h30min the camels (fun at first, a nightmare afterwards as my legs were hurting so bad) to the camp, where we had dinner, music and one of the most beautiful skies I’ve seen in my life. We slept in nomad tents and returned the next morning, again with camels.
The 3rd day we were due to return in Marrakesh, a one-day long 600 km ride. However, we didn’t want to waste time, so they let us in Rissani, a small town from where we took a bus to Fez.
Bottom line, although a bit too touristy, it was a great and memorable experience!
4. Eating. We had a lot of tajine and cous-cous (I prefer tajine) and you have to try them! The problem was their traditional spice mix, very similar to garam masala, which was used in any dish and we got tired of it after a while. I loved their traditional bread and the salads. The sweets were a bit too.. sweet for my taste, but nice to experiment. In Fez I had the best peach I’ve had in my life! Extremely flavoured and tasty! The mint tea was also delicious everywhere, I still don’t know what they add to it. Apparently, it’s called moroccan whiskey or berber whiskey and it’s a special kind of tea. I’ll do a research about that.
In Marrakesh we had a great time and met new people while eating in the main market at one of the many street restaurants. The food is cheap, but they add all sort of salads, sauces or bread, that are not from the house, but add up to the final bill.
5. Orange juice. This one is special. It’s ultra cheap (around 4-5 dirham a glass, which is barely 50 cents) and you can find it almost anywhere. We fell in love with it from the very first night in Marrakesh and used to drink loads of it, as it was so sweet, tasty, refreshing and purely natural. Just that.. one day before leaving home from Fez, one of my friends got suddenly really sick and after reviewing what we’ve eaten over the day, we realised she had one orange juice more than us, served in a plastic to-go cup, instead of the classic glass cup. She spent a terrible night vomiting and couldn’t eat nothing the next day, but thankfully it didn’t turn into something worse. Therefore, I can only advise you to pay close attention to the cups they serve you! They should be made of glass and washed right on the spot. It’s also a great idea if you have your own to-go cup to ask them to pour the juice directly there.
6. Transportation. We took a local bus from Sijilmassa (Rissani) to Fez. 8 or 9 hours of 50+ heat, no air conditioning, dirty and old seats. 120 dirhams (~12 euros) the ride. A cute goat in the luggage deposit. I had no real problem with this ride, except my usual complainings, but one of my friends felt really bad due to the heat (thankfully it all turned out well without any happenings).
From Fez to Tanger we took the train, which was a good option. It was quite cheap and the train was really nice and clean.
7. How to dress. For respect to their culture and traditions, I decided to wear long trousers and cover my hair with a scarf. Fez still keeps some of the traditions, more than Marrakesh, so I recommend the women to do cover their hair. We attracted less attention this way and a guy even asked me if I am arabian. The guys were the ones breaking our cover, as they were walking around in shorts. In regards to the heat, I didn’t have a real problem with the scarf, but with the trousers. I only had skinny jeans, so I was simply dieing of the heat. Do take long pants, but something more loose and made of thinner materials.
8. Negociating. All those stories about negotiating are true! You HAVE to negotiate! You can try it even at the hostel and the restaurant. We always got small discounts on menus or got a drink included. However, the food should be really cheap, so if you negotiate it, do it with common sense! Also, ALWAYS DECIDE the price BEFORE sitting to eat, otherwise you might find that the bread, the salad or the mint tea weren’t actually from the house.
Where you can really go wild with negotiating is when buying things from street sellers. You should make the first offer, but if they do, just make sure your next offer is something as outrageously cheap as is theirs outrageously expensive. Set in mind exactly how much you want to pay for the product and ask for LESS, so you leave place for increasing your offer (the price should be of common sense!). NEVER begin with the real price you want to pay. If you don’t agree with the offer, just walk away. They might follow you and accept. If they don’t, you’ll find someone else.
As an example, I bought a plain simple scarf from Fez with 10 dirhams (~1 euro), but my friends bought something too so basically we negotiated the whole bunch of products. Another friend of mine negotiated a beautiful cashmere scarf with 40 dirhams (~4euro), but the next day the same guy didn’t want to let the price under 50 dirhams for the same scarf, so I walked away and didn’t buy it.
They are extremely persuading and you will end up buying a lot of useless things just for the sake of it. If you know you are easy to get tricked into buying stuff, the solution is to have no money on you. It worked great for me. I was dieing to buy this and that but I couldn’t pay for them so simply walked away. I have only one regret – the 50 dirham cashmere scarf. I wish I had it right now…
Also, you can tell them you’re Romanian. Each time we did it, they looked compassionate and said that they know Romania, “that poor country from the East”…
9. City guide. We took one in Fez with 200 dirhams (~20 euros) – 50 dirhams/ person. Although it’s nice to get lost on the streets of Fez, without the guide we would have missed plenty of things. We were taken to all sorts of workshops, to the famous leather tanneries, to traditional schools and mosques. The guide was funny and answered to all our questions. The problem was that we booked him through the hostel, without knowing who he is. The very same man approached us and offered us this tour with 100 dirhams in front of the Blue Gate in Fez (there’s plenty of them) and we refused. When we met him, we told him that we know who he is and he said that we misunderstood, because it was 100 dirhams/person (which was a lie!). So… take a look at the street offers before booking through the hostel. But if you want to be sure it’s legit (many of them are FAKE and God knows where they’ll take you), spend the extra cash and book through the hostel.
10. Walking around. In Fez the people are less harrassing than in Marrakesh, but if you look lost just for a second, a “friendly” guy will try to take you to… God knows where. We were fooled into following one to the leather tanneries and after taking a few corners on empty streets and not getting anywhere, we decided to return to the main street as long as we still knew the way. The guy kept following us and shouting after us for a while, but finally left us alone. So, pay attention to who you follow and where you want to go. Btw, if someone guides you to a place, they’ll expect money, so have some 10-20 dirham change to give them. Better place them in an empty pocket, so you can show them that you don’t have more.
Also, in the particular case of Fez, there’s a simple rule to follow if you want to wander the streets without a guide: uphill is to get to the edge of the old medina. Downhill, to the core of it.
11. Bed bugs. I don’t know which one of the hostels I stayed in was responsible for this one, but I got bitten by bed bugs. At first I thought they were mosquitos so I started scratching them. One night the bites were itching so bad that I almost scratched the skin off during sleep and got an allergic sort of infection, which led to a visit at the pharmacy. Three days of Fenistil and no scratching made my skin look like new. ALWAYS check the beds thoroughly and never leave your stuff on your bed or very near to it. This applies to any of your destinations, not just Morocco. If you take those bastards home, it’s a nightmare to get rid of them!