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Travel Guide: Morocco

In Travel by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

Endless sand, gorgeous coastlines, massive peaks and valleys, cosmopolitan thrills, and ancient, atmospheric medinas – this is Morocco. It’s one of the most geographically diverse and culturally fascinating countries in Africa, not to mention its proximity to Europe and relative stability. Whether you’re looking to see what Berber culture really is, take in the sights, or venture off into the wilds, Morocco will be the place for you.

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History and Culture | Currency

Transportation

There are a variety of ways to enter the country, and this will largely depend on whether you are coming from North America, by way of Europe, or from somewhere else. Flying is an option no matter where you are (more on prices later), while ferries are a common way to enter Morocco from nearby Spain. You can also drive in from the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, but that is about it. It should be noted that citizens of some countries need special visas to visit Morocco, but Canada, the US, and most of Europe are not among them.

Rail is likely your best option for navigating the country with frequent and reliable trips, although the network isn’t comprehensive. Morocco has a large system of roads and highways, principally among them the many National Routes. Buses are a good way to get around as well (luxury or local). There are also shared taxis that can take you from town to town. In general, roads are in relatively good condition, though the traffic and driving culture in some cities such as Marrakesh can be frightening for the un-acclimated.

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Climate

As we mentioned, Morocco features a wide variety of landscapes. As a result, there is much more variation in climate here than in most countries in this part of the world. The northern portion of the country is mostly comfortable and Mediterranean. The Atlas Mountains feature significant variation from warm to temperate to quite cold, (temperatures can fall below freezing). As you near the Sahara, you might think the weather would get hotter and dryer – and you’d be right. While there are oases, the weather is pretty much what you’d expect from the world’s most famous desert, especially in the summer.

Where to go in Morocco

Agadir | Atlas Mountains | CasablancaEssaouiraFez | Marrakesh | Rif Mountains | The Sahara | Tangier

Casablanca

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Often known as ‘Casa’, Morocco’s largest and most well known city might not be exactly what you were expecting. It does not feel traditionally Moroccan; instead, the city has grown into a large cosmopolitan and economic powerhouse. While you may be tempted to set off for the more scenic, smaller cities and towns, do yourself a favour and take some time to explore this vibrant metropolis. Yes, the crowds and urban sprawl may not be what you came to the country for, but Casa does feature great bars, restaurants, and nightlife seemingly lifted straight out of Europe. That being said, there’s still enough here to get a taste of Moroccan culture and history (albeit with a more Western vibe). The massive Hassan II Mosque is the most impressive Islamic religious building this side of Mecca, while new developments are cropping up all the time. Take the time to lose yourself in Casablanca for at least a night before setting off for other, more picturesque destinations.

Marrakesh

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When you first started planning your getaway to Morocco, Marrakesh is likely the type of place you had in mind. Simultaneously chaotic, ancient, atmospheric, and tourist friendly – Marrakesh is the must see city in the interior of the country. Between the maze-like streets, bustling markets, and the massive medina, you might literally lose yourself in the city but that’s the point. From the large madrasa to haggling for goods, there’s a wealth of opportunities to experience the time-lost culture of the land. The new town (Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle) offers all the modern trappings you’d expect from drinks to food to art galleries. Once you’ve experienced Marrakesh, venture out into the Palm Oasis or even the nearby Sahara or Atlas Mountains.

Tangier

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Only 20 miles south of Spain lies the port city of Tangier. While many elements of Spanish, Portuguese, and French culture can be found here (thanks in part to the numerous ferries that make port), the city serves as an excellent gateway to North Africa and the region’s way of life. Neglected for years, the more progressive economic ideas that have come with the turn of the century have resulted in the city growing into a major hub of tourism and commerce. There’s a great many modern fixings here from hotels to restaurants and more. In addition, the walled-off old city (medina) features winding alleyways, a Kasbah (Sultan’s palace), and well-worn and atmospheric markets. Tangier is a great introduction to Morocco if you’ve already gotten your fill of southern Europe.

Fez

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We may have called Marrakesh the must-see city in Morocco’s interior but that wasn’t entirely true – Fez is right up there as well. The ancient medina is one of the most impressive in the world, and the crown jewel of what was once the country’s capital. Indeed, Fez is closely linked with the history of the country dating back for over a millennium and remnants of this past crop up throughout the city. This isn’t to say that Fez is a museum or collection of tourist sites; it’s a living, breathing city. While the recent protests during the Arab Spring have resulted in neglect of infrastructure (scaffolding and repairs are commonplace as investment comes back), there’s still no better way to get a feel for Medieval era Morocco than by wandering the winding streets of Fez.

Agadir

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We could explore the medinas of Fez and Marrakesh for days, but sometimes we all just want to take a breather and relax by the beach. Agadir, located on the Atlantic in southern Morocco is the premier seaside resort destination in the country. An earthquake in 1960 necessitated extensive rebuilding in the city, so there is not much history to see here. Instead, Agadir offers familiar comfort food and beaches. With sun almost year round, you’d be hard pressed to not find the climate agreeable. This is a great destination for holidaymakers and families just looking to unwind. If you’re in the country to get a feel for the culture however, we recommend looking elsewhere. Still, the city and region delivers on its promise of sun, sand, and nighttime thrills. You’ll find many other, less crowded, beaches by heading out of the city along the coast – especially south towards Mirleft.

Essaouira

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While it also features gorgeous beaches and coastline, Essaouira is much less a resort destination than Agadir due to strong coastal winds. This results in an arguably richer visiting experience, although still expect an abundance of tourists. The fortified city is picturesque in the truest sense of the world, and is similar in many ways to coastal cities found in France or other parts of Europe. Within the walls, the old town, markets (fish and otherwise), and sound of music mixed with the howls of wind turn Essaouira into one of the most unique cities in Morocco. Winter is a better time to get a feel for the essence of the city, while summer will be much more crowded (but has better beach-going weather).

Rif Mountains

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Located in the northern part of the country, the Rif is a significantly different environment than most of the places you’ll likely visit in the country. The mountains here aren’t all that high but the area is largely forested thanks to an abundance of rain and other factors. It should be noted that deforestation is common, and has played havoc with the ecosystem – although the region remains beautiful. Whether it’s fishing or exploring the tranquil hills and valleys, the Rif is an escape from the sometimes-frantic Moroccan city lifestyle. That being said, be sure to visit the city of Chefchaouen. The architecture and medina is memorable, and the city offers a taste of Moroccan life as you always imagined it.

Atlas Mountains

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This more famous (and much bigger) mountain range stretches not just through Morocco, but also Algeria and Tunisia. Within Morocco, you can find three sub-ranges – Anti-Atlas, Middle Atlas, and High Atlas. Within the vast amount of land these mountains cover, there will be something for everyone from cities to remote hiking. High Atlas is a great place to explore indigenous Berber culture (Berbers often outlasted foreign empires by remaining in the mountains). Traditional villages dot the landscape, both high and low, while impressive sites like Aït-Benhaddou can also be found throughout the region. Many fantastic excursions lie just outside Marrakesh so take a chance and check it out! In addition to hiking (check out the village of Imlil as a starting point), you can find rivers and lakes ripe for kayaking and other water sports. All told, between the history, unique culture, and wealth of recreational activities – the Atlas Mountains are a must to complete a full Moroccan getaway.

The Sahara

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You’ll probably have to do a bit more research before just wandering off into the desert – but exploring the barren, sometimes hugely inhospitable landscape is a great counterpoint to snowcapped peaks and charming coastlines. The sections of the Sahara that lie within Morocco offer some of the safest and easiest ways to explore one of the most impressive natural areas on earth. Leave the bustle of the cities behind and step into the shoes of a nomad. Visit the massive sand dunes of Erg Chebbi and Erg Chicaga or take a trip on a camel if you like. The Oriental Desert Express is also a fantastic way to see the desert landscape, if you have the time to take the train journey. All told, there are many different ways to experience this vast region depending on where you are and what you’re looking for, but the Sahara represents one of the most exotic and adventurous trips you can make.

How much does it cost?

Flights from Pearson straight to Casablanca can be very expensive, often found around the $1700 Canadian mark or more. If you’re already in Europe, you can often find cheaper flights (or even ferries from Spain) to get you to Morocco. It all depends on what type of trip you’re planning, but just be aware going straight to Morocco can set you back quite a bit. Shop around with different airlines and adjust your arrival and departure dates to get the best possible deal.

Once you arrive in Morocco, you’ll find that prices are pretty cheap for the most part (certainly more affordable than North America or Europe). An average day’s expenses will likely run about $50 with a budget of $27 for accommodation and $15 for food. The higher end of travel will cost closer to $119 per day while budget travelers may be able to make it through the day by only spending $20. Public transportation, produce, and labour are all cheap throughout the country while cars, gas, and electronics are pricier. Overall though, you should be able to visit Morocco without spending a lot of money while you’re there (depending on what you plan on doing of course). It’s getting there that’s the tricky bit.

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Health and Safety

Morocco is one of the safest and most stable countries in Africa (and North Africa especially), but you should still be careful when travelling there. While there is no nationwide advisory in effect according to the government of Canada, a high degree of caution is recommended, primarily due to the threat of terrorism. Following the French intervention in nearby Mali, there has been a heightened threat of terrorist strikes in the wider region, especially against Westerners. Be sure to monitor local reports and listen to local authorities.

While the Canadian government does not recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, the region is a de facto part of the country. Assistance from Canadian services is very limited, the land is largely inhospitable, and remnants of the conflict remain (such as unexploded landmines). Make sure you take the advice of locals and plan ahead if you do visit the area. Be sure you are well supplied in case you plan on venturing into the more remote areas.

You should also be careful of demonstrations, which can turn violent. Women traveling alone may be subjected to unwanted attention or harassment, though this is rarely dangerous. As with most crowded areas or tourist centres, petty crime is a problem. Pickpockets, purse-snatchers (sometimes on a motorcycle), and scams are found in medinas, markets, parks, and other areas. Be careful in the Rif; a large amount of drug trafficking and production presents a danger that tourists can sometimes unwittingly get mixed up in.

Overall however, Morocco is a relatively safe place – which is why it is an increasingly popular tourist destination. Use your best judgment and stay on top of local news, and you will be treated to one of the most spectacular trips you’re likely to take anytime soon.

These are just a few examples of where to go in Morocco, there’s tons more to see and do. If you think somewhere else should be on the list, let us know in the comments. Check out our Country of the Week for more general information about the history and culture of Morocco, as well as our Currency Spotlight for details about the Moroccan dirham.

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