Kongo recently finished a 10-day visit to Morocco. If this country is on your bucket list it might be worthwhile to read on. Kongo will clue you in on his latest advice for visiting this magical country.
Morocco is known as the place where the sun sets. It’s the west. In ancient times Morocco was literally the end of the world. The Romans called it Mauretania and they had a thriving colony here until the middle of the second century. Before that were the Berber tribes and they’re still here. Portuguese and Spanish left their influence in the Age of Exploration and before that Islamic culture coming from the east molded much of Morocco into what it is today.
When you’re thinking about traveling to Morocco there’s plenty to think about. Where to go in Morocco is a good question and you have lots of options. You can pick a major city like Casablanca, Fez, Tangiers, or Marrakech and head there. You’re going to see a lot but you’d be missing a great deal. Kongo urges you to see the cities but also to get out in the countryside and see the villages, the Kazbahs, the oasis in the middle of nowhere, and listen to the silence in the Sahara. To do that you’re going to need transportation. If you’re really the adventurous sort you can rent a car at the airport and head out. Now you can do this and if you do, you’re going to get lost. Kongo guarantees it. That may be part of your adventure itinerary: “Lost in Morocco” but if you’re on a schedule and have a list of things you want to do and places you want to see, Kongo gently suggests you want to take a tour. Morocco is a diverse country with a lush coastal plain north of the Rift Mountains, a rugged mountain range in the High Atlas, and a large desert track that includes the Sahara desert. The only way you’re going to appreciate the country is to get out and see all of these areas.
There are different ways to do a country tour. You can go in a small group like Kongo that had a luxury travel van, a driver, and a guide. Drivers are important because they know the roads, the local driving habits, and how to navigate through busy cities with endless traffic circles, jammed traffic, and close encounters with donkey carts. The guide is your window into Moroccan culture, your hotel fixer, the guy who takes care of the tips, the one who interprets when necessary, points out the things you wouldn’t know otherwise, and the one who tells you when to wait for Marrakech to buy your hand made rugs or to go ahead and get that leather coat you have your eye on in Fez. Kongo’s group was made up of 9 travelers who already knew each other and had travelled together on other trips. In many ways that made things easy. In Marrakech he met a nice couple from Australia who were heading out on a similar itinerary but it was just the two of them with their own car/driver and separate guide. This type of tour affords you the most flexibility as you only have to deal with a spouse about whether to take a detour to see another kasbah, or stay on the road and get to your next overnight before dark. With nine of us there were a lot of votes. There are also much larger tours. Kongo spied many full size tour buses with 45-50 people in the group. With something like this you’re flexibility options decrease as a square of the number of people in your group, hotel options decrease, and your group is so large that you become the perfect embodiment of the Hisenberg Uncertainty Principle where the very act of observing something changes its properties.
The one downside of a group tour like Kongo took is that you’re moving a lot and there is plenty of packing and unpacking. Your driver and hotel staff will schlep your bags but it’s still a hassle depending on how ambitious your itinerary is. Then there are the group meals and dealing with split checks in a foreign language, but after awhile you get used to it. On an ocean or river cruise you only unpack and pack once and the vessel takes you where you paid to go. And all your meals are included. With a ground tour you are the one that’s moving and eating at a different place for every meal. But you can’t see Morocco on a river cruise so unless you confine yourself to one or two cities, you’re going to be moving around.
How to Set Up a Tour: Google “Morocco Travel” and you’ll find a whole list of sites offering to plan your perfect Morocco tour. You can also travel to Las Vegas and WIN BIG BUCKS at the casino. You might also win the Readers Digest Sweepstakes. Take the monkey’s advice on this one: Don’t take your chances on a trip like this — use your travel agent. Kongo has been using the same travel agent for trips like this for a long time. We generally plan our adventure a couple of years in advance to lock in good rates and we know what to expect in terms of quality and accommodations. Betty, Kongo’s fantastic travel agent, set up the tour by coordinating with a local agency in Morocco but she customized the itinerary for those traveling with her in the group. She knows us all well enough to plan a perfect trip. You can find Betty here. If Betty ever retires, Kongo will likely stop traveling overseas. She’s that good. The local travel agency Betty used is Heritage Tours. Nothing in the tours offered by Heritage is fixed in stone. Everything is flexible and customizing a tour to meet your needs is their specialty.
Cost and What’s Included:
Kongo’s tour included a van/driver, guide, VIP airport pickup and transfers, expedited clearance through customs, and hotel accommodations for ten nights along the way. Included meals were breakfast every morning, two dinners, and a lunch at Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot. The rest of the meals are on you. Twice we had to transfer to 4×4 vehicles to get to our destination. This was also included. Admittance to all venues, camel rides in the Sahara, a cooking workshop are part of the package. Baggage handling at the hotels was also taken care of although we all contributed to a baggage tip pool. Basic cost for this was about $3,500/person and we paid for this nearly two years ago. What’s NOT included is airfare to and from Morocco, gratuities (about $700/couple), meals, shopping, and travel insurance (about $1,000). The Kongo’s spent another $500 or so on meals and drinks. Our group rendezvoused at Charles de Gualle airport in Paris and we all flew into Casablanca together. Mr. and Mrs. Kongo flew direct to Paris from Los Angeles. Our return flight took us through Seattle with a connecting flight to LAX.
All the hotels were 5-star and included everything from the Four Seasons to exotic guest houses in the middle of the desert. Here’s where we stayed.
- Four Seasons in Casablanca (two nights)
- Palais Faraj in Fez (three nights)
- Desert Encampment in the Sahara (one night)
- L’Ma Lodge in Skoura (one night)
- La Maison Arabe in Marrakech (three nights)
During our trip we visited the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, the Casablanca Jewish Museum, Rabat, Fez, Fez Medina, Volubilis Roman ruins, Meknes, High Atlas Mountains, Middle Atlas Mountains, Sahara Desert dunes, Ouarzazate, and Marrakech city and medina. Along the way were plenty of kazbahs and desert oasis stops, mountain views, desert vistas, camels, goats, nomadic Berbers, Jewish quarters, movie studios, museums, and more.
Safety: Westerners are increasingly paranoid about travel abroad, particularly to a “Muslim” country. Get over that. Morocco is very safe. The people are friendly and welcoming, the scenery is awesome, the sights are exotic, and you can be assured that you’re going to have a safe trip. Kongo never felt uncomfortable or worried about his safety. Obviously in any big city you need to keep your valuables under control, don’t go out of your way to display wealth, be aware of your surroundings, and avoid situations that might be troublesome. In Spanish Morocco there are occasional protests for independence and on our last day there was a large demonstration in Casablanca protesting the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem. It wasn’t near our hotel and we didn’t worry about it. Kongo recommends subscribing to U.S. State Departments information bulletins for the time you’re in Morocco. You can access that website here.
Morocco was actually the second country in the world to recognize American independence (after France) and there is a long, warm, and cooperative relationship between the United States and Morocco.
Be aware of local guides who may approach you and offer a “free” tour. No such thing. Walking alone at night in some areas can be iffy and women should not be out and alone at night anyplace. Sorry. It’s a good idea to travel with a few others when you’re venturing out on your own.
Traveling in a Muslim Country. When you’re a guest in any country, but particularly a Muslim nation, it’s best to observe local customs. Ramadan began while we were in the country and during this month-long religious holy month people do not eat between sunrise and sunset. That includes avoiding water and smoking and other things. While this does not affect non-Muslims it’s something to be aware of. There are still plenty of restaurants open during the day but shops may open later than usual and sometimes people get a little cranky toward the end of the day. Most Islamic countries, and Morocco is no exception, are conservative in their dress (particularly for women) and the use of alcohol. Women don’t need to completely cover up but its respectful to cover your shoulders and not wear skimpy outfits unless you’re around the hotel pool. Mrs. Kongo always kept a scarf that could quickly be used as a cover-up if she needed it. When visiting a mosque, visitors will remove their shoes. Most hotels and rated restaurants in the big cities serve alcohol. (The Four Seasons in Casablanca is an exception.). Moroccan wine and beer are good.
Money. The local currency in Morocco is the Dirham. During Kongo’s visit the exchange rate was about 9.4 DH to 1 U.S. dollar. Kongo rounded it to 10:1 for quick calculations. You can exchange dollars at the airport through a money changer or use one of several ATMs. In the big cities, you can get money at ATMs near the nicer hotels and banks. In the smaller cities and villages don’t count on an ATM. You will need cash. Some of the nicer shops will take credit cards for a big purchase but most shopping involves haggling and cash transactions. It’s a good idea to carry coins because if you visit a toilet there will be a restroom service attendant who will expect a tip. She’s the one who will provide a towel and toilet paper so the 2-5 Dirham tip is well worth it. (Kongo always travels with wet wipes just in case.)
Water. Don’t drink it. Really. Don’t. Drink. The. Water. Don’t eat raw salads or fruit that can’t be peeled. Just don’t do it. Don’t get ice in your drinks. Pack Immodium. Drink only bottled water. Kongo is serious about this. Really. The water in the nice hotels is safe and Kongo did drink his martinis made from shaken ice and didn’t have a problem. Maybe the vodka kills the bugs. He wouldn’t have drank a soda over ice.
Photography. This is a paradise for photography. Between the cities, the mountains, and the desert, there are plenty of great shots to be had. Kongo made about 5,000 pictures during his visit. Since he was moving around so much he limited his camera kit to his Canon 5d Mark III body, a 24-105 MM L lens, and his 75-200 L telephoto. The overwhelming majority of images were made with the 24-105 lens. Be mindful of your ambient light. Moving around in the medina you will pass in and out of both very bright and very dark spaces. Adjust your ISO accordingly. Kongo did most of his shooting in Av mode.
Many Moroccans, especially the Berbers, don’t like their picture taken. You should get permission to take someone’s image and Kongo did this by simply smiling and raising his camera in their direction. The either smiled back or waved you off. If they wave you off, just move on. If they smile, be prepared to leave a small 2-5 DH tip.
Be sure you have spare batteries and memory cards. Know your camera and what settings will give you the effect you’re seeking. Practice low light situations and shoot in RAW to have the most flexibility in processing your images.
No matter how much you practice, it’s still going to be tough to get good shots from the back of a moving camel just before dawn. When you get to this situation, crank up your ISO, set your frame rate for high speed and blast away. With any luck you’ll get some good shots.
Electrical and WiFi. Morocco uses a Western European 220V system. Make sure you have converters and take an extension cord with lots of plugs to keep everything charged up. Hotels have WiFi and some of them have WiFi that actually connects to something. Internet access is sporadic at best.
Shopping. There’s plenty of great shopping all over Morocco. Hand made Berber carpets, brass lamps, leather goods, jewelry, clothes, antiques, wood products made from cedar, and even little bottles of Sahara sand. (Yes, Mrs. Kongo purchased this….)
You’re going to encounter touts or street vendors just about everywhere and they’re not shy about approaching you. They can be very persistent. Learn the Arabic for “No thank you,”: la, shakraan. Eventually that will make them go away. Don’t make eye contact and don’t ask, “how much?” unless you’re really interested. Once you start the haggling process you probably going to buy something.
You are expected to haggle. It’s part of the culture. Whatever the first offering price, Kongo suggests dividing by 3 and starting from there. You’re an American (or Brit, or Aussie, or French) so you’re going to pay more than a local. That’s just a fact so get over it. Figure out in your mind what you’re willing to pay and don’t pay more. Then forget about it. It’s all a good deal. But if you agree on a price make sure you consummate the deal. Don’t change your mind after an agreed upon price. It’s bad form and everybody gets upset for having their time wasted.
Tipping. Everybody gets a tip in Morocco. Service charges are 10% in restaurants but check to see if the service charge is included before ponying up for an additional 10 percent. Baggage guys, hotel maids, guide, driver, people you take pictures of, all are going to expect a tip. Make sure you carry change and small bills.
Top 10 Must Do’s in Morocco (Kongo’s Opinion)
- Vist a mosque. The Hassan II mosque in Casablanca is spectacular.
- Ride a camel to see the sunrise in the Sahara.
- Explore a medina.
- Visit a Kasbah
- Go to the Beach
6. Visit the Roman Ruins at Vilibulis
7. See a Berber Market
8. Tour a palace.
9. Go to an Oasis
10. Cross the High Atlas Mountains
Of course, there’s a lot more than 10 things to do in Morocco. You’ll find out when you get there. Feel free to ask Kongo any questions about travel to this part of the world.
Travel safe. Have fun!