What is your favorite country? It is one of the questions I get asked the most and to be honest, I hate it. It seems unfair to all the other countries and I also really dislike people's reaction to my answer. The answer is and has been for the past few years one and the same: Morocco.
People seem surprised by it. Am I suddenly jumping on the Morocco bandwagon? Do I really mean it or is this just my official travel blogger answer? Since Morocco is the new it destination, the second India, for travel bloggers and Instagrammers and all of a sudden everybody is flocking there. But no, I have loved Morocco for years. Admittedly after Pico Iyer, Yves Saint Laurent, and all the other cool kids explored it but definitely before taking a shot at Riad Yasmine ever became a "to do in Marrakech" thing.
Women seem especially surprised and usually follow up by asking if I am not scared to travel solo in Morocco. If I don't mind the harassment, the catcalling, the oppressive headscarves. Some questions are valid, some connotations I find offensive, to me and to Morocco. The media has done its part to give Northern Africa a somewhat bad rep in recent years and though Morocco has mostly escaped that thanks to becoming such a hyped destination, it still gets its fair share of bashing. I have read so many posts lately about how to behave in Morocco when traveling as a woman which to me seem to more discouraging than helpful. It makes me sad because I think all those girls out there, cautiously curious about Morocco who wonder, ask, and worry if and how they can travel there will probably be put off after reading one of those posts. I am not saying other writers' opinions aren't valid or accurate, I am not telling you that Morocco is made out of rainbows and rose petals (well, it kinda is...) and that it is the safest country in the world but...big BUT - I think the country is totally worth the hype and also worth putting up with its shortcomings.
I adore Morocco. I love the beautiful chaos, and I love the sound of the call to prayer even when it wakes me. I adore the architecture, the smell of sugar, bitter orange blossom and dusty roads, the overly sweet mint tea, and the fact that Morocco is not only full of cats but also tortoises. I can't wait to see the sunset again overlooking the ocean in Essouessaira, sleep in the desert in a billion stars hotel, and go hiking in Todra Gorge. Even Marrakech, a city I hated when I first arrived, I now love and return to frequently. Man, I <3 Morocco, so much people got annoyed after reading my book because every other chapter starts with..." and one time, in Morocco..."
With that said, I think you should go and have a look yourself. Do you have some concerns on how to travel to Morocco as a woman? I've got you covered. Me and my friend Amanda, also called Maroc Mama that is. Amanda is in a unique position as she is a Muslim woman from the States and has lived in Morocco for over ten years and is married to a Moroccan. It doesn't get more expert than that in my opinion. So we are sharing our combined expertise and views on how to have the best time as a woman traveling in Morocco.
Tips for Women traveling in Morocco
What to wear in Morocco as a woman
Let's address the elephant in the room first - what to wear in Morocco? Before I continue, I want to add it doesn't and shouldn't matter ever what women wear, women's clothing is not responsible for men's action. But I think in certain countries and situations a specific dress code comes into play, making your life easier in the end.
- With that said, my number 1 Morocco travel advice for women is to cover up. I see it as a sign of respect to cover up more than I would at home and it seems to make interaction with other women easier. There is no set dress code as in other Muslim countries like Iran which you have to obey, but I always cover my knees and shoulders and not wear anything too tight. I always have a scarf which comes in handy when I realize I might be dressed a little too sparsely.
- Obviously, you need to be covered more when you visit a mosque, but that's actually the same as when you go into a church or as a friend of mine put it - you wouldn't go to the mall in your swim trunks.
- While you can get away with shorts and tank tops these days in big Moroccan cities and guys will whistle regardless of what you wear, I don't recommend it. As Amanda rightfully says in this excellent post about women in Morocco, just because you can wear everything doesn't mean you should.
- I was in Marrakech in August once and was wearing a dress that came to my knees and was appropriate enough. Until I got on my friend's scooter and it hiked up quite a bit. Nothing happened, I didn't stop traffic, but I didn't feel particularly great about baring most of my legs either. Plus I got a sweaty bum. So remember that for pretty much any country: mustn't ride a scooter in a short dress!
- Unless you are Parisian and you know what you are doing, don't wear heels in the medina of any Moroccan town. The streets are hazardous. Medinas are not made for mere mortals in heels. I kinda knew that before my last trip so I should have just stuck to flats instead of packing three pairs of heels which I didn't wear.
- Don't underestimate that it gets cold at night in the mountains and the desert, and on the coast even in summer. Take something cashmere or at least something warm.
- These tips for female travelers in Morocco hold true whether you travel on your own, in a group or in male company and can be summed up to - when in doubt cover up a little more than you usually would.
- Need some inspiration what this could look like? Check out this post I put together on what to wear in conservative countries especially when it gets hot.
Avoiding unwanted attention
Yes, men will call after you and offer you camels. Sometimes that can be funny, other times annoying and a little insulting (like when they only offer you ten camels but forty to your friend) but from my experience, I never felt threatened. While that doesn't make catcalling alright, I have merely come to accept it as part of life here for a female traveler.
Some of my tips for solo female travel in Morocco include sunglasses, a resting bitch face, and being assertive with men. And Amanda tells me is me ignoring all advances, camels and catcalls is the best way to go.
I think one of the most essential travel tips for women in Morocco holds true for other countries as well: don't be so damn nice. While I know and understand cultural differences, I will set my boundaries with any interactions quite clearly. As women we often want to be accommodating, are afraid to offend but in all of my years of travel, I have fared a lot better when saying No rather than putting myself in a compromising position. There is no need to be rude but being direct (maybe it is my German side that has no problem with that concept) always served me well when traveling as a woman in Morocco.
Want to read more about this concept? Check out my friend Mariellen's post: The female traveller's guide to being rude.
Finding & shopping your way around the souks
- A medina to any foreigner is basically a maze. I found that smartphones are a bit useless as are most maps. Ask nicely at El-Fenn if they will give you one of their maps. They have the best map which shows every little nook and cranny of the medina.
- Also, don't be scared to ask for directions. People are friendly, and someone will usually just offer to show you the way or take you. If they do, a tip is generally expected - easy travel advice for Morocco, nothing to be scared of.
- Learn a few phrases in Moroccan Arabic or at least in French: Ou est....?, a droite, a gauche. This way you can ask for directions and understand the answers too.
- Know that in Marrakech all ways lead back to the Jemaa El Fna and you will find signs along the way.
- A common trick is to tell tourist a particular sight or museum is closed and wouldn't you rather buy a carpet instead? This is usually untrue - when in doubt check opening hours beforehand.
- Are you a bit lost on how to spend your money and how the whole haggling business works in the souks? If a vendor calls you a Berber, you have done well, but remember you don't want to be that tourist when it comes to negotiating a price. Bargaining is part of the experience but know the limits - a few dirhams might mean little to you but make a big difference to the seller. Ask yourself what the item is worth to you?
- Do not negotiate and settle on the price and then back out after accepting - that is just bad manners.
- Show me the money! That something my dad swears by and I think is a good tactic, especially when buying larger items. There is something about seeing a wad of cash people can't seem to resist even if the actual amount is below their asking price.
- If you rather have someone to help you, I recommend you book a shopping tour with Get Your Guide, a that takes you in the souks of Marrakech, showing you all of the best shops for the stuff you actually want to buy.Marrakech Shopping Tour: Secrets of the Medina
Moroccan hammam etiquette
You will find that Moroccan women are not shy once they venture from a public space into the hammam. Obviously, it is strictly separated by gender, but this is a place where everyone seems to drop their covers quite literally.
- As a foreigner be aware that a public hammam is not a spa and it probably will not be very fancy. For Moroccans, it is a place of socializing and of course to clean. You must bring your own savon beldi (black olive soap) and kessa (scrubbing glove), which you can buy at every corner shop, in addition to your other shampoos and towel. You can pay to get scrubbed, and honestly, I think it is the best thing ever; I don't think as a foreigner you can get the technique quite right to truly clean yourself.
- Scrubbing may hurt a little, and you may shed a lot of skin – don't be scared, that's all part of the process. The last lady who scrubbed me kept shouting "spaghetti, spaghetti!", pointing to black strings of skin she rubbed off me. While I was embarrassed to be so dirty, she seemed delighted to have her work cut out and get me clean.
- Don't wear a bathing suit, but keep your knickers on (though don't be surprised if they come off now and then in the scrubbing process).
- Don't take other people's water buckets – refilling can be tedious work so stealing other people's full buckets and pretending you didn't know better is really bad manners.
How not to get sick in Morocco
I remember that while I had a full bag of hand sanitizers, wipes, Imodium, and rehydration salts on my first Morocco trip, I took none on my last and was fine. As a general rule I wash my hands often, I check that chicken and eggs are cooked properly, and then I stuff EVERYTHING in my face what my greedy little fingers can grab.
I do drink only bottled water. While in the urban areas tap water is usually safe, and most locals drink it, your stomach may just not be used to it. Most hotels will also provide it for tooth brushing, which I had forgotten to use by the second day. I don't think it is a problem and do it wine tasting style - spit, don't swallow!*
*Actually that is a lie – I never spit when wine tasting.
Moroccans tend to eat local and seasonal so go with it. If you are in Essaouira or any other coastal region, eating fish and seafood is a must as it doesn't get much fresher than that.
While a lot of people seem scared of salads and fruit, I cannot live without them, and fresh Moroccan salads are rather good (unlike the overcooked vegetable most tajines come with). When in doubt eat fruit that can be peeled, eaten straight from a vendors cart, and drink as much fresh orange juice (four dirhams per glass!) as you possibly can.
While a lot of restaurants will serve alcohol, the ones that don't often have the better food. Or stay at the most awesome riad Chambres d'Amis and get the best of both worlds.
If you want an introduction to proper Moroccan street food, contact Youssef, Amanda's husband, for a tour. He will show you hidden food treasures like tangia and hout quari, fish balls in a sandwich.
He will also advise you on what not to say to vendors, ie. "I really like your balls!" Even though in my defense he was serving me fish balls. I guess there are some things a woman should never tell a guy she has just met, in Morocco or anywhere else.
Traveling during Ramadan
Ramadan is a special time for Muslims, and daily life will be affected even if you are a non-Muslim visitor. During my first Morocco tour, I arrived on the last days of Ramadan in Casablanca. Buying a bottle of water was challenging, and sadly for me, the beautiful Hassan II Mosque was closed to non-worshippers during this time of the year. Traveling on, a few in our group had lost their luggage upon arrival and choices of open shops to buy stuff were somewhat scarce. That said, it can also be an interesting opportunity to observe such an important holiday, and while I don't think I could fast for a month, I appreciate the thought behind it. If you have the chance to make a local connection and celebrate Iftar (the breaking of the fast after sunset) or Eid at the end of the Ramadan month - go for it.
In general, know when you are traveling during Ramadan:
- Drinking and eating in public is not officially forbidden (as in some other Islamic nations) but frowned upon. It is just not polite, so if you have to take a sip, please be discreet about it.
- Buying stuff and finding open restaurants during the day might be more challenging, especially in rural areas - plan accordingly. In big cities, some tourist places might be open but better check beforehand.
- Mosques are usually not accessible for non-Muslims during Ramadan and it general opening hours for palaces and sights might be affected.
- Remember this is a significant time for Muslims, a time for introspection and reflection and also quite difficult on the body. You are a visitor and while tourism doesn't stop, show some empathy and have some compassion!
Oh man, that is a struggle for many visitors - photography in Morocco. First of all, I think one should always prioritize being respectful over getting THE shot when it comes to taking pictures of people. I am actually working on a whole new post about the topic but in the meanwhile, know this about Morocco: many people make their living by posing for pictures. So if you go around and take a sneaky shot, you are effectively stealing from them.
How do you know if you need to pay? If you are at the Jemaa El Fna assume you have to. Snake charmers, acrobats, water sellers in costume, the scary man with the teeth - their business is not to sell your dentures or such but to pose for pictures. Usually, twenty dirhams are appropriate but negotiate before you take your shot. Don't even try to shoot from the hip - they always find you.
As a rule, I don't take pictures of or with animals as they are often captured and kept under gruesome conditions - monkeys get taken from their mothers, snakes get their teeth pulled, goats are tied in the trees ... it is an ugly business and one I do not want to support by paying for a picture.
In other areas, it might not be that easy to distinguish if someone works as a model or is just sporting a cool outfit. Either way, always ask if you can take their picture. Point to your camera, look at them, raise your eyebrows - getting permission works like that in any language. Some people, especially more traditional women, may not want their picture taken - respect that. Same goes for children, a tricky subject altogether as children can't really give consent to have their picture taken and published on your FB wall. In some countries, it is prohibited to post images of minors on your social media. I was told that paying children for pictures is a huge issue in Morocco as it often implies they won't go to school but rather make money.
As a courtesy, I always show someone the picture I have taken, and if someone asks for money now I have the choice to either agree to pay, or I will delete the shot in front of their eyes.
Any specific questions or concerns when it comes to travel tips for women in Morocco? Please comment, and Amanda & I will answer.