Morocco always felt like an exotic destination in my mind. This was even before I saw any pictures or read anything about it. I got really keen to visit Morocco after seeing pictures and posts from a well-travelled friend of mine (Thanks Shiba!). I recollect being especially attracted by the pictures of the High Atlas mountains and the sand dunes. It also created an impression in my mind that the logistics of travel in Morocco could be quite difficult. Looking back, this was probably because the High Atlas terrain reminded me of the Ladakh region in India where the logistics of travel are indeed a bit difficult, owing primarily to the high altitude and remoteness. As it turned out, it wasn’t difficult at all in Morocco. The roads are good, information is easily available online, pretty much everything tourists want can be booked online, people are friendly, and there is a rich diversity of experiences within driving distance of each other.
This post is a detailed one about what we did in Morocco. For a more general overview about Morocco, read my other post titled 12 Things I Learnt in my 12 Days in Morocco. It is recommended to read that post first, especially the point about the omnipresent hustling.
A. Our Itinerary (and what I would have done differently)
Day 1: Land in Casablanca, collect rental car (Europcar), drive to the city to spend the night
Do differently – Drive straight to our next destination (or a place en route), or spend the night at a hotel near the airport and leave in the morning. Immigration at Casa airport took a long time, the drive to the city is over an hour, and not much to see in Casa.
Day 2: Receive my mother at the airport and drive to Fes. 3.5 hours on excellent expressways. Remember to have Dirhams for the many toll booths along the way.
Do differently: Go to Tangiers and Chefchaouen first for 1-2 nights each, and then to Fes.
Day 3: Exploring the Fes Medina
Day 4: Day trip to Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. 1.5 hours. Beware of police speed traps along the way.
Do differently: Visit Volubilis also (around 10 mins away)
Day 5: Fes to Midelt via Ifrane. 1.5h to Ifrane, 2 hours from Ifrane to Midelt
Day 6: Midelt to Merzouga with a brief detour to Source Bleue oasis, and then to our desert camp in Erg Chebbi sand dunes by our Riad/Camp’s 4×4. 4 hours of some amazing Middle Atlas terrain (Midelt to Merzouga). Further 15-20 mins by 4×4 to the camp among the sand dunes.
Day 7: Merzouga to Ait Benhaddou. 5.5 hours
Day 8: Ait Benhaddou to Marrakesh. 3.5 hours. Curvy, mountain roads that looked even more daunting because of the incessant rain.
Day 9: In Marrakesh
Day 10: Day trip to Essaouira. 2.5 hours
Day 11: In Marrakesh
Day 12: Marrakesh to Casablanca Airport (remember the Dirhams for the toll), return rental car, Leave Morocco. 2.5 hours from Marrakesh to Casablanca Airport on an expressway.
B. Info / Logistics
1. Morocco Visa – is required, expensive, and takes 3 weeks for Indian citizens. It costs INR 3k when applying from India and SGD 250 from Singapore, for a single entry visa. So we felt it was best to do one long trip and cover as much of Morocco as possible. The documents are simple but the process to apply isn’t very clear so we applied via a travel agent / visa specialist.
2. Casablanca Airport Immigration – is chaotic. There are a couple of priority windows on one side that are meant for families with children, the elderly, the disabled etc. The same windows are also used by the crew, and by travellers who have paid for priority immigration. Unfortunately, the queue itself is not well managed and there is a lot of jostling and elbowing going on. The main queue is a little more orderly but very long. In either case, be prepared to spend around an hour plus at immigration. You can also book priority immigration in advance at ~USD75 per person. I used Pearl Assist for my mother for our exit immigration as she was flying separately.
3. Dirhams – If you don’t already have Dirhams then it’s best to get some at the airport. The rates are not the best but not very bad either. Dirhams will be needed to buy the sim, pay a small tip to the rental car parking attendant, and to pay for tolls.
4. SIM/Mobile – I purchased a SIM card from Orange at Casablanca airport in the baggage claims area. I recommend doing this because the staff here speak English and they are tuned to what tourists need. For 100 Dh (~USD 10), the sim card came loaded with 4gb of data, 4 hours of local calls and 100 sms. Make sure that the SIM card is activated and working before you leave the airport. It was also quite easy to top-up calls/sms/data as needed later via the Orange Maroc website.
5. Rental Car – I booked a Europcar rental via rentalcars.com. Alternately, you can compare rates on rentalcars.com and then book directly with the provider. I booked on rentalcars.com because there wasn’t much of a price difference, insurance was included and they have a nice interface.
6. Driving in Morocco – is recommended. Roads are good, distances aren’t much and the traffic is largely well-behaved. Remember to follow traffic rules diligently, especially traffic lights, stop signs, one-ways, speed limits, and security checks. If you do get stopped by the traffic cops, do not worry. They are quite friendly and very professional.
7. Lodging – Morocco has a lot of options for all lodging types and budgets, from opulent Riads/Palaces to budget hotels. I found airbnb and booking.com to have the best options. We stayed in a renovated palace in Fes, a cosy hotel at Midelt on the way to the Sahara, a desert camp in Erg Chebbi, a beautifully located hotel in Ait Benhaddou constructed in traditional Berber architecture, and a 5-bedroom Riad in Marrakesh. All of them were really good.
8. Food – was good, almost without exception, everywhere. I would recommend avoiding the food stalls at Jemaa El-Fna in Marrakesh. The food wasn’t great and we ended up paying substantially more than what a place like that should have cost. More about Jemaa El-Fna in Section C – Marrakesh. The Tagine dishes are very flavourful, succulent and delicious.
9. Getting Around – For visiting points of interest in Fes/Marrakesh etc., Google Maps was very useful and accurate. Sometimes the GPS is not very accurate in the narrow streets of the Medina so you need to orient yourself well. It’s best to not ask directions because the person will then insist on taking you there and expect a tip for it (which is not a bad option either but be on your guard). For driving from a city to another, Google Maps, unfortunately, does not have live turn-by-turn navigation, only static directions. I used mapFactor Navigator and bought a Morocco map. It was very convenient, especially when used on a split screen along with Google Maps.
10. Money – Most small shops will not accept credit cards so best to carry cash. Money exchanges are available in many places but make sure you google the rate first and compare before exchanging. I consider a 2-3% difference from the google rate normal, and up to 5% acceptable. It is also always best to specifically ask how much Dirhams you will get for the amount you are exchanging. This way there is no confusion about any other hidden charges.
11. Alcohol – Alcohol is neither banned nor really a taboo in Morocco. However, most restaurants do not serve any alcohol. A few bars do. Beer, wine and spirits can be bought from most Carrefour markets. Local beer is quite good. Just search for one nearest you. If not sure whether they sell alcohol, just ask a question on Google Maps and someone will respond quite quickly.
Section C – Points of Interest
We experienced Morocco in two ways – walking around in the Medina, and driving around in the countryside. In this section, I will list down a few points of interest in/around Fes and Marrakesh that can be covered while walking the alleys of the Medinas, or as a day trip. The road trip from Fes to the Sahara and then on to Marrakesh was the highlight of our Morocco trip and is covered in a separate post – Morocco – Road Trip to the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara.
1. Fes. The Fes Medina (Fes El Bali) is believed to be the largest urban pedestrian zone in the world. Fes Medina is more charming than Marrakesh because there is everyday local life here co-existing with shops and establishments targeted at the tourists. Apart from a little helpful info for Chouara Tannery, the rest of the POIs is a simple list.
a. Chouara Tannery – The tannery is a real functioning tannery that still uses traditional methods of working with leather. The tannery itself cannot be visited but can be seen from the terraces of the many leather shops that surround the tannery walls. The shop-keeper will take you to the terrace and provide a brief history/audio tour. There is no obligation to buy at the shop but it’s a nice place to get a souvenir and if you do decide to buy then haggle hard.
b. Other POIs – Al Attarine Madrasa, Karaouiyne University, Rue Talaa Kebira, Synagogue Ibn Danan, Palais Royale Dar El Makhzen, Borj Sud/Nord (South/North Tower)
2. Around Fes. A day trip to Volubilis, with a stop for lunch at Moulay Idriss Zerhoun is ideal. The route goes through some inside roads and villages where we got a glimpse of rural Morocco with cactus hedges and donkeys/donkey carts ferrying people and goods.
3. Marrakesh. Similar to Fes, the Marrakesh Medina is best enjoyed by walking through the alleys keeping a few POIs in mind. The Jemaa el-Fna is a huge central square full of performers, snake charmers, juice shops, food stalls etc. The best way to enjoy Jemaa el-Fna is from the terraces / front yards of one of the many restaurants surrounding the Jemaa. Walking into the Jemaa is an experience in getting hustled. If you stop to take a photo of a snake charmer then he will charm, cajole, threaten you into paying him a small fee. If you go into the food stalls, you will very likely end up significantly over-paying. It is a unique experience if you do decide to plunge in but be ready to get hustled.
Other Marrakesh POIs – Medrasa ben Yousuf, Tombeaux Saadien, Bahia Palace, Koutoubia, The Mellah, Bab Ftouh, House of Photography
4. Around Marrakesh. We did a day trip to Essaouira (180km 2.5h), which is famous for its citadel. The highlight of the day trip was finally seeing the famed goats on an Argan tree!
When we were in Morocco, at times we felt overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, constant hustling etc. In retrospect, the hustling didn’t really matter much; it’s polite, friendly and only a way to get you to either overpay for something you want, or get you to pay for something you don’t want. We didn’t get the feeling that anyone was out to cheat us. The medinas are a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of parts. What stays in the memory is not the individual points of interest, but the overall ‘feel’ of the medina. Morocco will always remain one of our most memorable travels ever.