10 Things to Know Before Traveling to Morocco

From the breeze of the Atlantic Coast in the town of Essaouira, the bustling medina of Marrakech-- a city painted in red-orange hues like the Sahara desert, the iconic blue pearl city of Chefchaouen, and to the bustling cosmopolitan city of Rabat, where the King of Morocco is building a 250-meter high skyscraper that dreams are made of and would soon become Africa's tallest skyscraper, Morocco has now opened its doors to travelers from North America and Europe.
A local's backyard in Chefchaouen
In the midst of the intricate Moroccan and Berber architecture and history, you will find commonalities in each place that you visit. Water is symbolic in the Muslim world that fosters serenity and contemplation, so you will see fountains, basins, wells and/or pools whether in contemporary or historical buildings. 
Aside from the play of water, shown in many of the images in this article, here are the top 10 things to know before traveling to this North African country:

1. Know the difference among a dar, riad and kasbah. 
A dar is a townhouse with rooms around a courtyard, while to be a riad, the house must have a garden with rooms divided by a fountain. These days, the term riad is often referred to a hotel or guesthouse with a shared common area, which is at times the center focal point of photo enthusiasts with a small swimming pool that serves as a mirror to horseshoe or Moorish arches and intricately carved wood. 

A kasbah, like a castle, has high walls and was mostly built atop hills as a form of defense since it was a place for local leaders to live in the olden times. Influenced by Berber architecture that is simpler than Arabic design, a kasbah is a "safe place" for guests for the Berbers, but for the Muslims, the 4 corners of the kasbah are meant to house 4 wives. 
Riad Faraj
A small pool is the ceterpoint at Riad Faraj, Marrakech.
2. Experience an authentic hammam.
Spend a glorious hour laying naked (with disposable underwear) on marble as someone washes and scrubs you down. Whether you choose to go to a public or private hammam, do note that local Muslims visit hammams often before their Friday prayer as a way to cleanse their bodies. A hammam, known as the crown jewel of Moroccan well-being, can also vary in price, depending on where you go and the treatment you select.  

In Marrakech, $50+ can get you an hour at Hammam de la Rose located in the northern part of the medina, while you can indulge in the ultra-luxe hammam at the Royal Mansour for $120+Owned by the King of Morocco, the Royal Mansour is a destination hotel in itself where security is tight, so you can't just wander in to take photos. After I alighted in their golf cart from the lobby to the spa, I was greeted with what seemed like a gateway to heaven. You have to visit it for yourself to experience this temple of beauty decorated with an ethereal, all-white structure from top to bottom that reminds me of honeybees. Of course, there is a fountain at the center of the lobby filled with fresh, floating flowers that fill the entire space with notes of orange blossom and peppermint.

Laying on hard, cream marble did bother my ailing tailbone at first, but I thoroughly enjoyed being rinsed and fully scrubbed with an exfoliating mitt to release stress, toxins, and anxiety. My senses were fully woked as I dipped in the cold plunge pool to end my hammam journey with the Royal Mansour's Hammam Lumiere Sur Le Corps. Then, I was ushered into a sitting room that I could have spent a whole day napping in and snacking with their preserved fruits and nuts and fresh detoxifying juices and tea. But alas, I was under a tight schedule and had to complete my entire spa experience with an hour-long massage that actually fixed my ailing right shoulder-- something that my Thai masseuse in the US couldn't do-- for an additional $200+. 
Hammam
The Royal Mansour Spa's staff knows where the good photo angles are.
3. Wander in a medina (aka old city), but have a plan.
Like in any other busy local market, shopkeepers will welcome you with gusto. Albeit being forewarned by many female friends who have visited the same medinas in Morocco, I found that there are ways to avoid locals from continuously heckling you, especially if you are a solo female tourist: (1) give them your best rrbf (respectful, resting bitch face), (2) walk fast if you don't intend to buy, (3) at night, walk closely with a group of locals/families that is close enough to pretend as their guest, and (4) if there are no locals in sight, walk closely with a group of tourists. While there are certain times that cars are not allowed in the medina, motorcycles can whizz by any time of the day, so be careful while wandering the narrow labyrinth. 

Ironically because I came at a time when there were no flights from Asia to Morocco, many guys were confused about where I came from. To my amusement, one guy even corrected his friend to talk to me in English rather than in Chinese or Japanese because I was giving them my well-practiced rbbf

4. There's something for whatever your heart desires.
From water sports in Essaouira to hiking in the Atlas Mountains, time is of the essence to be able to cover the country's vast tourism offerings, so I was thrilled to collaborate with Morocco Tours Agency, which customized my 11-night stay and provided me with a driver, Youssef, who is also my highly competent, personal assistant for this trip. 

Marrakech's points of interest are close by to each other, but in order to avoid the dry, summer heat in the city, Youssef dropped me off and efficiently picked me up when visiting different places. I didn't have to exhaust myself from long walks under the sun, which triggers my migraine!  

Landscapers, plant, and even fashion enthusiasts can geek out in the Majorelle Gardens, a 2.5-acre botanical garden located in the upscale neighborhood of Gueliz. With its exotic plants from around the world to the cacti varietals, this luscious garden painted in striking blue also boasts a small monument for its fashion icon co-owner, Yves Saint Laurent. The late couturier, who passed in 2008, was inspired by the traditional Moroccan dress, such as the kaftan and djellaba, that transcended to his haute couture collections. Also in the midst of the medina is Le Jardin Secret, a historic 19th-century riad that boasts an exotic and Islamic garden. 
Majorelle Garden
Resting in Majorelle's cafe.
Majorelle
Fashionable pieces at Majorelle. Can you guess how much these are?
Engross yourself with Moroccan architecture and history at the:
  • El Badi Palace: Means "incomparable" built after the fall of the Portugese, featuring 4 lower levels of gardens.
  • Bahia Palace: Marvel at this 19th-century palace that was built to be the greatest palace at its time. 
  • Saadian Tombs: Houses the remains-- in style-- of the important figures from the Saadi Dynasty, including Sultan Ahmed Al Mansour who died in splendor in 1603. 
5. Savor on tajines, couscous, mint tea, and more!
Food, wine, and coffee connoisseurs also have a place in Morocco. Expand your knowledge of Moroccan cuisine. Tajines are slow-cooked stews braised at low temperatures in an earthenware pot, resulting in tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce. Most tajine dishes come with kobz bread. Referred to as the Moroccan shakshuka, the Berber omelette is also cooked in a tajine and has less tomato sauce than its Middle Eastern counterpart.

chicken tajine
Chicken covered in potatoes and vegetables.
Chicken tajine with lemon, black pepper, safron and olives from Darori restaurant in Fez paired with white wine from Meknes.
Couscous in Morocco is the equivalent of rice in Asia as a staple food to pair with meat or vegetables. It is typically served with meat simmered in raisins and caramelized onions, which unlocks the sweet flavor of the sauce. 
couscous
Chicken couscous at Al Fassia, Marrakech.
Wake up to fresh orange juice everyday since there are a plethora of orange trees even in a riad, and curb your hunger with local seasonal fruits, such as plums, peaches, watermelons, cherries and cantaloupes. The best meal in my entire trip was a simple goat cheese pie salad from Amal Women's Training Center, a nonprofit that teaches disadvantaged women to cook in Marrakech. Jam-packed with fresh flavors-- from savory to subtly sweet-- and different textures from the figs, cherries, tomatoes, beetroot, olives, avocado, melt-in-your-mouth goat cheese, and the crunchy pie, this very affordable salad is an epitome of a farm-to-table experience, utilizing the country's finest local ingredients in an unassuming, low frills space. Who can provide me with the recipe?
goat cheese salad
Hands-down best meal in Morocco from Amal Women's Training Center.
After a fun excursion in this former French colony, dine with an authentic French meal that can be paired with wine from the Meknes region Although Muslims are forbidden to drink alcohol and taxes are high, you can still wind down with a glass or more at restaurants and hotels. 

For less than $30, including a non-alcoholic drink, I was able to take advantage of the 3-course meal at La table du Palais in Marrakech. As the sun was setting and the afternoon breeze whistling through the orange trees plus the sound of water trickling from their fountain, the intoxicating, unique vibe of this restaurant set in a riad elevates the French dining experience. 
La table du Palais
Smoked salmon stuffed with poached egg and creamy avocado at La table du Palais. 
Cleanse your palette with coffee, mint tea, fresh juice, or wine of your choosing. Among these options, the standouts include Bacha coffee, a homegrown premium brand that even has a thick, coffeetable book about coffee pods and the world's coffee bean supply. It is headquartered in an airy, luxurious setting inside no less than the Dar el Bacha Palace, which means “house of the Pasha” built-in 1910 in Marrakech. More importantly, you cannot leave this country without dousing in Moroccan mint tea. Even in the peak summer heat, mint tea is meant to be brewed with fresh mint and served hot usually with a cube of white sugar.  
Jannat Luxury Camp
Shaky hands pouring mint tea after a 1-hr camel ride to get to Jannat Luxury Camp at 35 Celsius degrees.
6. Go on a road trip to visit different cities and villages.
The terrain of Morocco is largely mountainous. The Atlas Mountains stretch from the central north to the southwest and expands to 840 miles. Even though I spent about 4 to 5 hours per day on the road, I was quite impressed with the well-paved, organized roads all throughout the country. My driver also made the long drives easier with carefully planned pitstops at places where there are clean tall (aka Western) toilets. With the pandemic slowing down tourism, I highly commend Youssef for making an extra effort to check individual bathroom stalls and ensure they were clean and in good condition before I even took a peek at the facilities!

7. The outskirts villages are popular for something.
  • Essaouira: I recently wrote about this seaside town, but what I missed is visiting an argan cooperative. I was able to visit a coop in another village, but their headquarter is actually in Essaouira. Argan oil has been popular in hair care and skin products, but pure 100% argan oil is hard to come by in Western markets. Take this as an opportunity to learn about argan production for cosmetics and food and support local businesses with a bottle or more of 100% argan oil.
  • Ourika Valley: Before settling under one of the colorful umbrellas by the river, I hiked to the Setti Fatma waterfalls that in retrospect is not an easy hike in plain, city sneakers when trudging on slippery, wet boulder rocks. Thanks to my guide who pulled me on treacherous slopes. 
  • Fez: While Fez is a city and not a village, it houses the picturesque Royal Palace of Fez and is known for the Chouara Tannery, which is touted as the oldest tannery in the world and still using ancient ways to treat leather. I visited the tannery on a Sunday as the only tourist on site and entered through the actual tannery by the parking lot and not through a shop unlike what I've read in other travel sites. I sludged through whatever was overflowing in the vessels, which I later learned are cow urine, pigeon excrements, and quicklime among others, to be able to get to the top viewpoint. This is one of the most unique views I've ever had in my travels. With a mask on, the smell was not overwhelming, and I was enthralled by tanners with bare hands and feet stomping on a vessel, while others were skinning and drying the leather skin.
  • Ouarzazate: The UNESCO World Heritage site, Ait-Ben-Haddou, has been used as a backdrop for many shows, including Games of Thrones. Established as the Hollywood of the Sahara, Ouarzazate has the largest film studio, Atlas Studio, in the world. Not too far from the main road, you can also get a glimpse of the apparent glow of the Noor Power Plant, the world's largest concentrated solar power plant project.
  • Skoura Valley: Drive through the road to a thousand kasbahs.
  • Rose Valley: Stop by in one of the many rose cooperatives.
  • Dades Valley: Those picturesque zig-zag roads makes up the Dades Gorges, a series of rugged wadi gorges. During the winter season, the roads may close when snowfall is high.
  • Draa Valley: Boasts as the capital for dates and celebrates their bounty with a dates festival.
argan coop
Grinding the nuts from the argan tree to get a thick argan paste.
Ourika Valley
The colorful umbrellas of Ourika Valley.
Chouara Tannery
A sight to behold at the oldest tannery in the world, Choura Tannery in Fez.
Berbere Palace
Production set from the movie "The Ten Commandments" at the Berber Palace, Ouarzazate.
8. Get to know the Berbers and nomadic living.
The Berbers are an ethnic group who are indigenous to North Africa. In Morocco, they have 3 dialects and are proud to showcase their flag-- blue represents the Mediterranean, green for Africa, and yellow for the Sahara desert.
Dressed as a Berber woman and carrying the Berber flag.
Outside of the city, you can also find nomadic families. Especially during the time leading up to Eid, a major Islamic holiday that starts July 19th this year, nomads bring their herds of goats or sheep nearer to the villages to be sold to local families for the upcoming festivities. 

9. The Sahara desert is a misadventure in itself, and temperatures can go up to 45 Celsius during the summer.
I didn't realize that spending an hour or so on top of a camel can be very strenuous. The peaks and throughs of the Sahara desert can be exhilarating but could also easily throw someone off the camel even with a camel guide in tow. Thus, both hands on the handle of the camel's saddle is a must, and don't even attempt to take a selfie when the camel is trotting if you don't want your mobile phone to disappear in the Saharan abyss.

Surprisingly, I was welcomed at the Jannat Luxury Camp even if I was the only guest that night. Despite a tiring, hot day, I jammed with the Berbers in the camp in front of a bonfire, strumming with their local instruments, such as the krakeb, which looks like a pair of two, small iron plates joined together.
Jannat Luxury Camp
A night to remember at Jannat Luxury Camp, Merzouga Desert.
10. Plan your covid testing in advance.
Welcome to the new normal in travel where you do need to plan covid testing! Upon further research prior to departure, I discovered that there are more testing centers in Casablanca and Rabat, the capital, which is one of the reasons why I opted to fly out of Casablanca instead of Marrakech. If you need a covid test to fly back home, book your covid testing in advance or buy the right antigen covid test with telehealth assistance, which is through eMed.com for incoming US travelers. 
Morocco
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Note: This trip was made possible with collaboration from Morocco Tours Agency and Villa Garance, Essaouira. If you decide to contact them, please tell them Christine of Gastronomic (Mis)Adventures sent you. Choukran!

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