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A Birdwatchers Guide to: Morocco

Travellers Facts




In this section we will use a broad brush to paint a picture of some of the practical matters the visitor will encounter when visiting this country.
The first part, 'Travelling', describes on a high level how to travel to Morocco and how to get around after arrival. There is also a subsection 'Accommodation and Food', giving some brief notes about the various forms of tourist accommodation and also Moroccan cousine. This part is rounded off with a subsection about 'Health and Safety'
The second part gives information about things that are important to know for your pretravel preparations, including 'Visa and Red Tape' and 'Customs', but here you can also learn about some of the down to earth practicalities, like the currency used, bank holidays, opening hours and what kind of electricity you can draw from the socket.
The final part focuses on cultural issues, and then basically the kind of cultural issues that you should know about to either avoid to offend local people's sensibilities or to keep you out of trouble. This includes some notes for female travellers, as well as for gay and lesbian travellers.
We hope the information in this section will help you in preparing your trip and that it will help you to fully enjoy your visit!

Quick links to the information on this page:



photo of yasmina oasis in Erg Chebbi sanddunes


The text on this page is partly derived from Wikitravel.org. A list of original contributors is available at the original article on Wikitravel.



Travelling



In this section I will give some general advice about traveling in Morocco. In the subsection 'Travel to/from Morocco' I give some information about getting to Morocco by air, car or boat. I do not give much detailed information, as specific information about flight connections etc are easily available elsewhere. In 'Getting Around' I focus mainly on commenting about getting around in your own (rental) car. If you want to do some serious birding in Morocco (and most other countries) you do need your own wheels. Theoretically you can reach many birdwatching locations by bus or taxi, but this can be very cumbersome, and for more remote locations impossible. Acknowledging that many birders will visit Morocco for other business than serious all-day-out birdwatching (say a family vacation or a business trip) I do also provide some short notes about getting around by train and bus as well.
Following this transport information is some useful information about food and accommodation. Again, I do not go in detail. If you want specific information about restaurants and hotels for a specific city or town, you should consider some of the excellent travel guides available; my favourites are The Rough Guide and Lonely Planet.
In the last part of this section I focus on some of the risks that a traveller has when visiting this most interesting country. Generally speaking Morocco is a safe country to visit and travel in, but being a poor country crime can be a concern and there are some other serious issues that the visitor should be aware of.


Travel to/from Morocco


By air
The primary international airports in Morocco are Casablanca, Marrakesh and Rabat, but Agadir and Fez are also becoming increasingly important and particularily Agadir is a popular choice for the visiting birdwatcher.
Many European carriers serve Morocco including Iberia, TAP Portugal, Air France, Lufthansa, Swiss, Turkish Airlines, Norwegian, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, Air Berlin, Alitalia, Transavia, Portugalia, and Germanwings.
There are also connections to North America, including New York and Montreal, and many of the Arabic countries in North Africa and the Middle East have connections to Morocco.


By car
The only open border posts on land are the ones at the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. The frontier with Algeria has been closed for years. For the closest maritime connection you head for Algeciras or Tarifa in southern Spain. At Algeciras there are ferry services to Ceuta and Tangier that carry cars. Tarifa has a similar service to Tangier and this is the shortest and fastest route, just 35 minutes.


By boat
There are several ferry connections to Morocco, mainly from Spain. Algeciras is the main port and serves Ceuta and Tangier. A ferry between Algeciras and Ceuta takes 40 minutes, and less than 2 hours to get to Tangier. You can also get to Tangier from the small port of Tarifa, on the southernmost tip of mainland Spain. This will take 35 minutes (Some companies run buses between Tarifa and Algeciras for free, 25 minutes). Other Spanish ports that have connections to Morocco are Malaga and Almeria who connect to Melilla and its Moroccan neighbor town of Nador.
Ferries from France also go to Tangier, from the port of Sète near Montpellier and Port Vendres near Perpignan. However these ferries are rather expensive. The Italian towns of Genoa and Naples also have direct connections to Tangier. The British crown colony of Gibraltar connects to Tangier through a high-speed boat service.


Getting around


By car
In Morocco you drive on the right side of the road and road signs are in Arabic and French. The traffic law is as in much of Europe (give way to traffic from right). This means that traffic on a roundabout gives way to that entering it.
The main road network is in good condition. Roads have a good surface, although very narrow, in most cases only one narrow lane in each direction.
The main cities are connected by toll expressways still being extended. The expressway between Casablanca and Rabat (A3) was finished in 1987 and was extended from Rabat to Kénitra in 1995 and today reaches the northern port of Tangier (A1). Another expressway (A2) goes eastwards from Rabat to Fez and this road comprises part of the planned transmaghrébine expressway that will continue all the way to Tripoli. South from Casablanca runs the A7 all the way to Agadir and also around Casablanca and down the coast is the A5 expressway which connects Mohammedia and El Jadida. Another expressway is the A2 between Fez and Oujda (on the Algerian border). All of these expressways are in very good condition.
Fuel is not so common in the countryside and you should plan ahead. Roads are varied and mixed with many cyclists, pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles.
There are numerous police checks on the main roads where you must slow down to allow them to see you. The speed limit is enforced especially the 40km/h in towns and on dangerous intersections where fines are imposed on the spot (believe me, these checks are very frequent and ignoring the speed limit you will be fined!).
As you might expect the traffic culture in Morocco is vastly different to what you are used to in Europe or North America. Most drivers in Morocco have little regard for road rules, and no apparent regard for each other. Many drivers appear to want only to be ahead of another, to overtake at all costs and generally appear to have very little tolerance of others. Many drive very close to the sides and rear of others in all traffic situations. However, if holding back and maintaining your space it is not difficult to maintain good safety margins whilst travelling at the same speed as other traffic.
If this sounds overly dramatic it should be noted that the situation is by far the worst in the larger, crowded cities (Marrakech is notorious!) and in the countryside it is less of an issue.

Renting a Car:
Rental firms abound in the large cities. Most worldwide rental networks have their offices in Morocco. Also there are several local rental companies. They offer lower prices, but be sure to check the vehicles condition, spare tire, jack etc.
NB! Check where you can drive - some rental companies won't allow travel on unsurfaced roads (rather unpractical for visiting birdwatchers)!

Train
Trains in Morocco are generally a good way to travel because of their speed, frequency and comfort. For visiting birders that are serious about their business, however, this is not a viable option because of the limited network: the train network links Marrakech and Tangier via Casablanca and Rabat and a branch line to Oujda starts at Sidi Kachem linking Meknes and Fez to the main line.

Bus
Obviously you can reach more destinations with bus than with train. Luxury buses has almost universal coverage in Morocco, and can be an option to consider if you don't have your own wheels. These buses provide good comfort with reasonable prices.
Local buses are a completely valid choice for the hardier traveller, and often even have more leg room than the luxury buses. They are dirt cheap, but they tend to be extraordinarily slow as they will stop for anyone, anywhere, and only luxury buses are air conditioned.


Accommodation and Food


Accommodation:
Hotels in Morocco are a matter of choice and fit every budget. Classified hotels are 1 star (simple) to 5 star (luxury), and are classified as an auberge, riad, rural gîtes d'étape or hotel. Stays usually include breakfast, and many include dinner.
Auberges are found in the country or in rural small towns, and are built in the traditional mud (kasbah) style, many with wood burning fireplaces and salons or roof terraces for taking meals. Auberges are very comfortable, small and usually family run and owned.
Riads or Dars: In Marrakech, Essaouira, Fes or anywhere there is a medina (old city), small hotels renovated from old houses are called riads or dars. These are often small (about 6 rooms or less), clean and charming, often with a lovely walled garden where breakfast is served on an inner patio or up on a roof terrace. Some are in former merchant houses or palaces and may have large opulent rooms and gardens.
Gîtes d'étape are simple country inns and hostel style places, where mountain trekkers can grab a hot shower, a good meal, and have a roof over their head for one night.
Otherwise there are the usual more modern hotels or equivalent found anywhere in the big cities and larger towns around Morocco. On the lower end of the budget scale, HI-affiliated youth hostels can be found in the major cities (dorm beds from around Dh 50) while the cheapest budget hotels (singles from around Dh 65) are usually located in the medina. These hotels can be very basic and often lack hot water and showers, while others will charge you between Dh 5 and Dh 10 for a hot water shower. Newer, cleaner and slightly more expensive budget (singles from around Dh 75) and mid-range hotels are sprinkled throughout the ville nouvelles.
For those looking to camp, almost every town and city has a campground, although these can often be some way out of the centre. Many of these grounds have water, electricity and cafes. In rural areas and villages, locals are usually more than happy to let you camp on their property; just make sure you ask first.

Food:
Moroccan cuisine is often reputed to be some of the best in the world, with countless dishes and variations proudly bearing the country's colonial and Arabic influences.
Couscous made from semolina grains and steamed in a colander-like dish known as a couscoussière is the staple food for most Moroccans, and is probably the best known Moroccan meal. It can be served as an accompaniment to a stew or tagine, or mixed with meat and vegetables and presented as a main course. Almost all Moroccan restaurants uphold the tradition of serving couscous on Fridays.
Tagine (or tajine) is a spicy stew of meat and vegetables that has been simmered for many hours in a conical clay pot (from which the dish derives its name). Restaurants offer dozens of variations (from Dh 25 in budget restaurant) including chicken tagine with lemon and olives, honey-sweetened lamb or beef, fish or prawn tagine in a spicy tomato sauce. There are many variations of this dish.
A popular Berber contribution to Moroccan cuisine is kaliya, a combination of lamb, tomatoes, bell peppers and onion and served with couscous or bread.
A popular delicacy in Morocco is Bastella, made by layering thin pieces of flakey dough between sweet, spiced meat filling (often lamb or chicken, but most enjoyably pigeon) and layers of almond-paste filling. The dough is wrapped into a plate-sized pastry that is baked and coated with a dusting of powdered sugar.
Moroccans often elect to begin their meals with warming bowl of Harira (French: soupe marocaine), a delicious soup made from lentils, chick peas, lamb stock, tomatoes and vegetables. Surprisingly, among Moroccans Harira has a role of nourishing food for "blue-collars" rather than a high-flying cuisine. Soups are also traditional breakfasts in Morocco. Bissara, a thick glop made from split peas and a generous wallop of olive oil can be found bubbling away near markets and in medinas in the mornings. Many cafes and restaurants also offer good value breakfast deals, which basically include a tea or coffee, orange juice and a croissant or bread with marmalade from Dh 10.
Although a predominantly Muslim country, Morocco is not dry. You can legally buy alcohol when you're 18. Alcohol is available in restaurants, liquor stores, bars, supermarkets, clubs, hotels and discos.


Health and Safety


Health:
No particular inoculations are needed for Morocco under normal circumstances, but check with the CDC's travel web pages for any recent disease outbreaks. As with most travel, it makes good sense to have a recent tetanus immunization. If you plan to eat outside the circle of established restaurants, consider a Hepatitis A inoculation. Rabies can be found in dogs, bats and other mammals in Morocco, so you could consider this vaccine.
Malaria: Present in the northern, coastal areas of the country but is not a major problem. Take the usual precautions against being bitten (light coloured clothing, insect repellent, etc) and if you are really worried see your doctor about anti-malarial medication before your departure.
Food and Drink: Avoid uncooked fruits and vegetables that you can not peel. Avoid any food that is not prepared when you order it (i.e. buffets, etc). Usually fried and boiled foods are safe. Some travellers have also had problems with unrefrigerated condiments (such as mayonnaise) used in fast food outlets.
Water: It is advisable to drink bottled water (check that the cap is sealed - some people might try to sell you tap water in recycled bottles). Be wary of ice or cordials that may be made with tap water.

Crime:
Morocco remains a safe place with one of the lowest homicide rates in the world and among, if not, the safest country in Africa. Crime is nonetheless a concern in Morocco, particularily in the large cities and main tourist areas. Pickpocketing, purse snatching and theft from occupied vehicles stopped in traffic are the most common issues. Street robberies by criminals (sometimes armed with knives) have occured, but these kind of incidents are fortunately very rare. Walking around in the large cities it is always best to have a travel companion and at night you are probably better off by getting around in a taxi (taxis are generally speaking safe).
You should not get paranoid by all this, though. Although there is some risk, Morocco is considered a fairly safe country to travel to. By using common sense you should not encounter any major problems with crime in Morocco.

Terrorism:
The potential for terrorist violence against westerners exists in Morocco as evidenced by a spate of suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003 killing more than 45 people and the bombing of a tourist cafe in Marrakesh in 2011. This last attack killed 17 people, including 14 tourists. There have also been a number of (less deadly) suicide attacks the previous 15 years. Establishments that are readily identifiable with the west are potential targets for terrorist attacks. These may include facilities where foreigners congregate, including clubs, restaurants, hotels, US/western brand establishments etc. Other targets might be establishments that may offend religious sensitivities, such as casinos or places where alcohol is consumed.

Demonstrations:
Demonstrations occur frequently in Morocco and are typically focused on political or social issues. During periods of heightened regional tension, large demonstrations may take place in the major cities. There have been reports of violence in Laayoune and Dakhla (Western Sahara) stemming from sporting events and from political demonstrations. There have been no incidents of demonstrations with violence against tourists, but travelers should be aware of the current levels of tension in Morocco and stay informed of regional issues that could create an anti-western response. Avoid demonstrations if at all possible and if caught in a demonstration move away immediately.

Mines:
The Western Sahara is an area that was long the site of armed conflict between Moroccan armed forces and the POLISARIO front which continues to seek independence for the territory. A cease-fire has been fully in effect since 1991, but a legacy of the conflict are thousand of unexploded mines in the Western Sahara and in areas of Mauritania adjacent to the border. Exploding mines are occasionally reported and they have caused injury and death. The birdwatching sites described in the Western Sahara section are said to be safe for mines, but see 'Western Sahara' section for full details.



Practicalities

Some of the things that are vital to know before visiting another country are the passport and visa requirements and other paperwork that you must be able to show when entering a country. For some countries in South America and Africa for instance you are obliged to show an International Certificate of Vaccination to prove that you have had yellow fever vaccine. In the subsection 'Visa and Red Tape' you will find relevant information about these matters. This subsection is followed by 'Customs' where you can read about what restrictions are in place for bringing goods or currency into, or indeed out of, the country.
The last three subsections are more relevant once inside the country. In the subsection 'Currency and Money' you will find a description of the currency used and also some indications about the availability of banks and ATM's and also other ways of paying your bills (like using creditcards or traveller's checks). In this section you will also find a currency converter that you might find useful.
The reminding two subsections ('Bank Holidays and Opening Hours' and 'Electricity') should be self-explanatory.

Visa and Red Tape

All visitors to Morocco require a valid passport but visitors from the following countries do not need to obtain visas before arrival:

Schengen member states, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Côte d'Ivoire, Croatia, Republic of Congo, Guinea, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Libya, Mali, Mexico, New Zealand, Niger, Oman, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Singapore, South Korea, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States and Venezuela

For tourists from countries that need a visa to enter Morocco, the Moroccan Embassy is usually the first port of call. They charge the equivalent of GBP17 for a single entry. Visas are usually valid for 3 months and take around 5-6 working days to process. Visa requirements are completed application forms, four passport-size photos taken within the previous six months, Valid passport with at least one blank page, and with a photocopy of the relevant data pages; Fee, payable by postal order only, a photocopy of all flight bookings and a photocopy of hotel reservation. Tourists can stay for up to 90 days and visa extensions can be a frustrating and time-consuming process. (You may find it easier to duck into the Spanish-controlled Ceuta or Melilla and then re-enter Morocco for a new stamp).

Anti-cholera vaccination certificates may be required of visitors coming from areas where this disease is prevalent and pets need a health certificate less than ten days old, and an anti-rabies certificate less than six months old.


Customs

It's illegal to bring more than 100 Dirham of local currency out of the country, so you can't get dirhams outside Morocco. By law, exchange rates should be the same at all banks and official exchanges.


Currency & Money

The dirham (pl. darahim, but normally refered to as "dirhams") is the currency of Morocco. The dirham is subdivided into 100 santimat. The dirham is issued by the Bank Al-Maghrib (the central bank of Morocco).
Please use the Money Converter for converting between the Moroccan Dirham and other currencies or to check the latest rates of the Moroccan Dirham.

an illustration of a 200 Dirham note

There are coins of 1/2 dirham, 1 dirham, 2 dirhams, 5 dirhams and 10 dirhams, as well as 1 santim, 5 santimat and 20 santimat. Banknotes are issued in 20 dirhams (purple), 50 dirhams (green), 100 dirhams (brown) and 200 dirhams (blue).
On the latest series (from 2013) the notes on one side feature a portrait of King Mohammed VI and the royal crown. Each of the notes show a Moroccan door to the left of the portrait, demonstrating the richness of the country's architectural heritage, and symbolizing the openness of the country.


Don't expect to see many banks in the souqs or medinas, although in larger cities there are often an ATM near the main gates. Besides banks and dedicated exchange offices, major post offices provide exchange, and work until late hours. ATMs can be found near tourist hotels and in some modern ville nouvelle shopping districts.
Only a relatively small number of businesses in Morocco accept credit cards. Those that do are most likely to accept Visa or MasterCard however will often apply a surcharge to cover the cost of processing your transaction. Before travelling, ensure you make a note of all credit card numbers and associated contact numbers for card issuers in case of difficulty. The numbers are usually free to call as you can reverse the charges, make it clear to the operator at your hotel that you wish the call charge to be reversed. Many people now use a prepaid FairFX or Caxton card. Theses offer good exchange rates, are safe and money is protected if the card gets lost or stolen. These are accepted in Moroccan ATMs anywhere you see the MasterCard logo and in some shops too.


Bank holidays and Opening Hours

List of Public and National Holidays in Morocco:



Electricity

The voltage in Morocco is generally 220 V, and outlets will fit the two-pin plug known as the Europlug. It's probably the most commonly used international plug, found throughout continental Europe and parts of the Middle East, as well as much of Africa, South America, Central Asia and the former Soviet republics. Europlugs are included in most international plug adapter kits.
Watch out for American and Canadian appliances, which are made to be used with 110V. That means that even with an adapter, plugging them into a 220V socket may damage them. If your appliance is "dual-voltage", it should be fine (it's designed for both 110 and 220V). If not, you'll need a power converter as well as an adapter.



Cultural issues

What follows in this section are some observations about cultural issues. How strict you should adhere to these recommendations is all up to you, but it should be obvious that traditions and what is regarded as acceptable behaviour waries widely between different cultures; some cultures being more conservative and traditional that at least westerners might be accustomed to. Reading the notes below might give you some tips and insights you might not have been aware of and who knows, perhaps this might even help you to enjoy your visit more than you would otherwise have?
The first part describes local sensibilities in a broad sense, but also with some concrete tips about how to behave in the interaction with local people. This is followed by some general observations for female travellers as well as gay and lesbian travellers.
In many countries a recurring problem for many visitors are the hustlers, which sometimes can be a major point of irritation and this is described in the next subsection. Finally there are some comments about photography, or actually what local restrictions there are to photography. These restrictions can either be legal by nature (for instance photographing military installations) or cultural. In this subsection we give some general advice about this matter.

Sensibilities

Greetings among close friends and family (but rarely between men and women!) usually take the form of three pecks on the cheek. In other circumstances handshakes are the norm. Following the handshake by touching your heart with your right hand signifies respect and sincerity.
Left hands used to traditionally be considered 'unclean' in the Muslim religion, as they used to be reserved for hygiene in toilets. As in many cultures it could be considered impolite to shake hands or offer or accept something from someone with your left hand, more so is giving money by your left, so try to avoid that. While left-handed people may get an occasional exclamation, and local children may get pressured by parents to use their right in traditional societies, most people will understand if you do your own business with your left hand.
Moroccans still have the tradition of highly respecting their elders and the sick. If someone who is handicapped, or older than you is passing, then stop and allow room for them. Or if a taxi arrives and you are waiting with an elder, then you should allow the older person to take precedence over you. Tourists are not held to these expectations, but it improves regard for tourists in Morocco when they adhere to the same traditions.


Female Travellers

Women especially will experience almost constant harassment if alone, but this is usually just cat-calls and (disturbing) hisses. Dark sunglasses make it easier to avoid eye contact. If someone won't leave you alone, look for families, a busy shop, or a local woman and don't be afraid to ask for help. If you are so inclined, you could wear a hijab (headscarf), which is not necessary. Morocco can be a very liberal country and many Moroccan women do not wear headscarves. However, women should always dress conservatively (no low-cut tops, midriffs, or shorts), out of respect for the culture they are visiting.
The general rule is to follow the lead from local women. Locals will assume that Moroccan women venturing into nightclubs or bars alone are prostitutes in search of clientèle but foreign women entering such places will not be so considered, but will be thought of as approachable. Be careful about being drugged, especially as a solo traveler.


Gay and Lesbian Travellers

Homosexuality is considered relatively common, though rarely acknowledged, amongst Moroccan men. Even though illegal and punishable with imprisonment, the lack of everyday integration between the sexes has lent itself to a general and subtle tolerance toward male effeminate behavior. Platonic affection between Moroccan males - such as holding hands, which is a sign of friendship and respect - is freely shown, and some of the Berber tribes are known as particularly tolerant toward homosexual behavior. Lesbianism is relatively uncommon and definitely not acknowledged, as it portrays a weakness in both the woman - she's expected to get married and bear children - and her family.
For both gays and lesbians discretion is advised. Avoid public displays of affection, as this is something that is even frowned upon when shown by a heterosexual couple. Tangier is still considered somewhat gay-friendly. Marrakech certainly has a mini gay scene, thanks largely to the number of gay French couples now residing there.

Read more: frommers.com


Hustlers

Hustlers can be a big problem for people travelling to Morocco. It's sometimes difficult to walk down the street without being accosted by somebody offering to give you directions, sell you something, etc. In my experience the best way to avoid this unwanted attention is first to politely refuse their services and then just ignore them and keep walking until they lose interest. There is absolutely no need to get rude or aggressive!


Photography

Morocco offers wonderful opportunities for photography, but there are some important restrictions to bear in mind. The real difficulties occur when it comes to photographing people. Moroccans are both suspicious and superstitious about being photographed and one should never try to photograph a Moroccan without their permission. In tourist areas, many Moroccans are quite happy to comply with such requests, but may in return ask for a small sum of money. However, you should not be surprised, or overly persuasive, if someone in Morocco refuses your request to be photographed. It is wholly unacceptable to photograph a Moroccan at prayer or carrying out any other form of religious observance.
Other limitations to photography are the same as in most other countries, ie refrain from photographing sensitive sites such as military bases and power installations. Sometimes what constitutes 'sensitive' is open to interpretation (what to think of a bridge?), but mostly it is a question of applying common sense.