Having visited Morocco earlier this year, I made a detailed plan about the locations I wanted to visit in this picturesque country that I have been wanting to sightsee and photograph for many years now. After spending a bit less than two weeks in Morocco and coming back with many images from a number of locations, I thought it would be a good idea to showcase the images, as well as share detailed information about this country with our readers.
Originally, my plan was to spend a total of three weeks in Morocco, but due to other commitments and my busy schedule, I ended up spending a total of 12 days instead (two of which weren’t particularly productive due to flights back and forth). Although there were a few options to get into Morocco from Europe, I ended up flying into Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca. I made earlier plans to rent a car and drive within Morocco, so it didn’t matter all that much which city I would fly into.
Planning Your Visit
Based on my research and feedback from other photographers who have previously been to Morocco, it is ideal to spend a minimum of three weeks in Morocco to be able to spend enough time to see both the historic locations as well as the Sahara Desert. Due to the fact that the Sahara Desert is located so far to the southeast of the country, anything less than three weeks is going to put quite a bit of pressure on your schedule and you might need to potentially sacrifice some of your time in other locations. A two week schedule is possible, but would be a tight fit, especially for travel photography needs. For me personally, knowing that I only had a total of 10 days of actual time spent in Morocco, I knew that the Sahara Desert was out of question, so I excluded it from my plans early on.
When planning my driving route, I decided to take the famous “O” route, which is essentially a loop that you can start from any of the large cities such as Casablanca, Marrakech or Fes. Since I started in Casablanca, I decided to take the southern route towards Marrakech, then Ait Benhaddou, driving towards Tinghir, then Fes and lastly stopping in Chefchaouen before heading back to Casablanca. Below is the summary of the route that I made using Google Maps:
And here is how I planned out my schedule:
- Day 1: Casablanca
- Day 2: Marrakech
- Day 3: Marrakech
- Day 4: Ait Benhaddou
- Day 5: All-day Drive via Tinghir / Errachidia to Meknes
- Day 6: Meknes, Fes
- Day 7: Fes
- Day 8: Chechaouen
- Day 9: Chechaouen
- Day 10: Casablanca
As you can see, it is a pretty tight schedule, spending quite a bit of time on the road and leaving little to see each location. Unfortunately, considering that I only had a total of 10 days, that’s the best I could do. However, if you have a few extra days, you can relax your schedule quite a bit and spend less time driving and enjoy shooting more. Personally, if I had to do it again, I would add at least 3-4 days to my schedule to make it a 2 week trip. Even by extending it to two full weeks, I would still cut out the Sahara Desert out of the schedule though – if you want to enjoy the desert, you might want to add another week to spend a few days in the desert.
Where to Stay in Morocco
Depending on which city or town you are planning to travel to, you will have a number of different options to book your stay. In larger cities you have a number of great branded hotels that you can stay at with excellent service, but if you prefer to spend less, you also have other options including Airbnb, hostels and houses converted to properties called “Riad”. Riads are quite popular in Morocco and you will find plenty of them, even in large cities. A Riad is simply a Moroccan home with a garden or a courtyard in the middle, typically featuring 4-12+ furnished rooms. Some Riads are much larger, sometimes connecting multiple buildings and spanning 30+ rooms. The great thing about them, is that they are quite affordable and due to their small size they offer excellent service.
Having stayed in both hotels and Riads, I personally enjoyed staying in Riads far more than hotels for a number of reasons. First, aside from better overall care and attention from the hosts, they give you a chance to experience real Morocco. Expect to be treated with mint tea and water, and if you need any help or directions, you can trust your hosts to give you reliable information, and potentially even find you a local guide, if you need one. When I arrived to Marrakech, I got lost while looking for the Riad in the tight streets of the Medina (the main historic district of the city). After calling the Riad I had previously booked, I was told to stay where I was, while the host quickly got on his motorcycle and escorted me to his property – larger properties and hotels simply can’t offer such personal care and attention. Second, Riads are more flexible than hotels, so if you have any special needs such as ability to accommodate larger parties of people, or perhaps negotiate a better rate, you can easily work it out with the hosts. And lastly, good quality Riads might also offer unique photographic opportunities, as each one of them is designed and furnished differently. This proved to be an important advantage in Marrakech – the host was even kind enough to offer another property nearby to photograph, and when I asked about sunrise / sunset opportunities, I was escorted to a different Riad that overlooked the city at sunrise the following day.
One potential disadvantage of Riads, is that they might not provide consistent experience, since it is a matter of location, price, service quality and the overall condition of the property. For example, some lower-end Riads might not have basic amenities such as air conditioning / heater and TV, and some Riads only offer shared bathrooms. On two occasions I stayed in Riads that didn’t even have available power outlets in the room, which was not ideal. So if you want to have a good experience, I would recommend to make sure that the Riad you are planning to stay at is rated highly on sites like Tripadvisor, Hotels.com, Booking.com, etc (most of the good Riads can be found on such websites). Just make sure that you book your stay early enough, especially in larger cities like Casablanca and Marrakech.
The two main spoken languages in Morocco are Arabic and French, but in some areas Moroccans also speak fluent Spanish. If you speak English you can get by in larger towns and cities, but don’t count on people understanding you in smaller villages and towns. I didn’t have any issues when staying at larger hotels and Riads, but when we traveled to smaller towns, the language barrier was a bigger issue. Thankfully, I had cellphone coverage most of the time to be able to type what I wanted to say in English into my phone, so that it translated it to the locals in Arabic.
Speaking of phone and Internet service, there are plenty of different providers, but the two that I found to be the most reliable across the country were Maroc Telecom and Orange. Just don’t buy any service at the airport, because you will end up paying far more.
Having been to the Middle East a few times in the past, I had pretty high expectations for Moroccan food. I wondered how the blend of the Moroccan cuisine with the Spanish and French would taste like and I thought that it was going to be full of pleasant surprises. Having previously heard of the Tagine and its popularity in Morocco, I was going to try different kinds of Moroccan Tagine dishes before moving on to other type of food. Within the 10 days of travel in Morocco, I ate out every single day in different restaurants recommended by the locals, as well as based on high ratings from TripAdvisor, and my overall impression of the Moroccan cuisine was not particularly great.
To my disappointment, I found the overall taste of the Moroccan food to be rather bland, especially for the Middle East. The highly acclaimed Tagine dishes were mostly steamed vegetables with some meat, broth and spices, reminding me of the Uzbek “Dimlama” (which to be honest, tastes far better in comparison). It was hard to believe that after all the hype about this national dish (it is present practically in every restaurant), I couldn’t find a single one that tasted amazing. I tried many different kinds at different price points, with the most expensive one costing over $20 USD in Casablanca. The best Tagine I had tasted was in Ait Benhaddou (meatball Tagine) and it was at a local restaurant full of flies and sanitary issues (recommended by the locals). Surprisingly, it was also the cheapest Tagine dish I paid for! Even then, I can’t say that it blew my mind. Later on, I heard someone refer to Tagine as “dorm food”, which after thinking for a while, I found to be an accurate description – it was hard to believe what some of the restaurants wanted to charge for a dish full of vegetables and a bit of meat. After trying out about 6-7 Tagine dishes in different parts of Morocco, I just gave up on it, as there were other options that were much better.
I also expected to see a lot of kebab dishes in Morocco. Again, to my disappointment, most of the kebab places served tiny pieces of meat on small skewers and the real Middle Eastern-style kebabs grilled on coal were found outside of all bigger cities, mostly on highways. Such kebab hotspots were located right next to butcheries and I found those to be the best places to eat in Morocco.
Other dishes I enjoyed eating in Morocco were mostly blends of Moroccan and European cuisine, and restaurants that served such food were mostly available in large cities like Casablanca, Marrakech and Fes. But they were much more expensive and were primarily targeted at tourists.
Moroccan currency is Moroccan Dirham, but it is a closed currency, which means that you will not be able to exchange money beforehand in your local bank. As a result, your only option will be to exchange your money after you arrive to Morocco. Many people make the mistake by hurrying to exchange money at the airport, pretty much as soon as they get out of the plane. This is surely a mistake, because the rate fluctuates heavily from one currency exchange office to another. The very first currency exchange I encountered offered 8.40 MAD for 1 USD, which I knew was a rip-off, since a quick search in Google before arrival showed a much higher rate of 9.20 MAD for 1 USD (or thereabouts). Simply walking towards the exit of the same airport was already advantageous, since another exchange office offered 8.90 MAD for 1 USD. Right at the exit door, the last exchange office offered the best rate of 9.10 MAD for 1 USD, which is where I exchanged my money. I would recommend to avoid exchanging all the cash you have at hand, and rather exchange smaller amounts like $200-400 USD, depending on how much money you need. Many locations offer credit card terminals and you will be able to take advantage of your credit card when paying for services in hotels, Riads and fancier restaurants. Also, always make sure that the exchange office doesn’t charge commission and always count the money before you move away from the person who is exchanging you money, especially if it is done by someone other than the exchange office representative (see further down below on dishonesty, cheating and other issues in Morocco). You will find that many hotels and Riads also offer currency exchange – they are always happy to buy American dollars and Euro.
Safety and Security
Being a popular tourist destination that enjoys visitors from all over the world (especially from Europe and Asia), Morocco has established itself as a relatively safe country, depending on where you go. Larger cities such as Casablanca, Marrakech, Tangier and Fes obviously have bigger issues with general crime, but most of the crimes are of non-violent type, as most people don’t possess any firearms. For example, the US Department of State report on Casablanca states that most common crimes are petty crimes (panhandling, pickpocketing, theft from unoccupied vehicles, etc) and that the criminals typically focus on high-traffic and high-density areas with lots of tourists, targeting people who appear to be unfamiliar with their surroundings.
Because of this, I would recommend to try to blend in as much as possible and instead of roaming the streets and wondering where to go next, know exactly where you want to go by following precise directions or occasionally referring to your phone for directions. I would also avoid asking locals for directions, mostly for the reasons stated in the next section. When it comes to clothing, don’t wear shorts and if you are a female, be respectful and avoid wearing skimpy clothing, even if it is hot outside. I have seen a number of females get harassed on the streets for wearing short skirts and other clothing that was too revealing. Don’t forget that you are in a Muslim-majority country, so I suggest that you respect their religion and traditions. Personally, unless you have a lot of travel experience in foreign countries, I would avoid sole travel in Morocco altogether (especially for females), as it reduces your chances of becoming a target. Be firm and if you get attacked or harassed, make a lot of noise to attract the attention of other people. If you do travel alone or in small groups, try to stay in busy streets and alleys, and avoid walking at night.
Dishonesty, Scams, Cheating and Lying
This brings me to what I feel is the biggest issue in Morocco, something that can easily spoil your experience and that’s the dishonesty, scams, cheating and lying you might experience from some of the locals, especially in busy areas and larger cities. I was quite disgusted to see this in Casablanca, Marrakech and Fes, and after a few occasions, I simply didn’t want to come back to those places again in the future, as it became too much for me to handle. It all started from the airport – I tried to shop at the airport and see if I could buy a sim card for my phone. No matter where I walked in, each time I asked for the price, I was given a blank piece of paper, with a different number on it. One place quoted me 170 MAD, while another location with the same provider and plan quoted me 120 MAD. Both were outrageously expensive when compared to the rates I got on the street. But this didn’t particularly annoy me, as much worse experiences awaited me later.
The problem with some Moroccans in busy places, is that once they identify a target tourist, they do whatever they can to extract money out of them. I have a pretty thick skin when it comes to not being taken advantage of, but I have heard of all kinds of things from other people who have been to Morocco (including people who shared their experiences with us on the way back in the airplane) – from dishonest taxi drivers that drive people to wrong locations and trying to extort money out of them, to local “guides” that intentionally detour tourists through specific shops to make them buy things they don’t need. And these are simple cases. Once sex, drugs and alcohol are involved, things can take off to a whole different level, involving local police that also wants its share of money, thanks to high level of corruption. As I walked on the streets with my camera, locals in Casablanca, Marrakech and Fes harassed me many times, offering me their services that I didn’t need or care for, or asking if I needed directions. These weren’t “friendly” encounters either, as I know the difference between a person who is there to truly help and who is there to take advantage of me.
On one occasion, when I got lost in Marrakech Medina trying to find the Riad I was staying at, a younger individual tried to guide me through the streets, while I continuously told him that I did not need his help – the help was already on its way. He had a good command of English and he perfectly understood what I was saying. As I tried to drive away without paying for the service I didn’t ask for, he got aggressive and hit the car. In other places, where I was specifically told not to pay for street parking near a restaurant, when I started driving away, a local came over and demanded money from me, because he apparently “watched” my car while I was dining. As I refused to pay for something I didn’t ask for, he also got pretty aggressive. In this case, it was just easier to give him the money and leave, as I didn’t want to get into an altercation.
Getting short-changed is also a common practice and something I experienced first hand on a few occasions. For example, say an item costs 14 MAD. You give the seller a 20 Dirham bill, they hand you the item and move on to the next customer. That’s it. Unless you insist that they give you the change back, you can forget about it. Simply standing there and waiting for the change doesn’t help, as they completely ignore you. In some cases, especially when dealing with taxi drivers, they say they have no change to give back and drive away!
When walking in busy hot spots, such as Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech, you really have to watch out for pickpockets, snake charmers, henna tattoo ladies, monkey handlers, scam artists and even singers. Snake charmers draw tourists quickly and before you know it, they have taken your picture with the snakes and now you have to pay. Henna tattoo ladies often grab the hands of females walking by and immediately start drawing on them, even if they don’t want it. They are basically forced to pay afterwards and if they dare not to pay, they will smear the henna ink and make a huge mess that won’t wash off for days. Monkey and parrot handlers are also to be avoided. Come anywhere near them and the next thing you know, you have a monkey on your shoulder. Those poor monkeys are handled so badly – they are downright abused by their owners. I watched from the side a little bit and after seeing one monkey getting forcefully pulled and beaten because it was not cooperating, I left in disgust.
As I was getting ready to leave the square, I saw a small band playing music. I raised the camera and took one picture and before I even had a chance to take another one, there was already a guy with a hat in front of me, demanding payment. I literally ran out of cash by then and I told him that I didn’t have any money left. He stood there, raising his voice this time and demanding payment. I tapped on my pockets, showing “No money, sorry”, which really tipped off the guy. He shouted “go out of here, no money, no show” and blocked me with his body. I turned around and walked away.
By the way, make sure to stay away from all group gatherings – you will see plenty of them in Jemaa el-Fnaa and some of them might look very exciting to peek at. Some will have people screaming and yelling, others will be demonstrations of some amazing product that whitens teeth, heals skin, etc. However, this is where pickpockets and scam artists gather. I have seen such things in other countries and I knew that it is a bad idea to approach or even worse participate, so I didn’t even come close to those, no matter how exciting they sounded from the distance. Most of such events took place after dark anyway, and they didn’t present any good photographic opportunities in the first place.
Dishonesty and lying practices left quite a bit of bad taste in my mouth. It just kept on going – from getting double charged for parking services at the hotel in Fes, to a currency exchange situation in Casablanca airport hotel that made me downright angry. On the last day of the trip, as I was anxiously getting ready to go back home, I needed to exchange $20 to pay for gas for the rented vehicle. When I came by the hotel clerk at the time of check-in, I looked at the currency exchange rate table that was displayed on the wall, which showed 8.97 MAD as the exchange rate for USD. I handed the girl $20 USD and with simple math in my head, awaited a bit short of 180 MAD to be handed back. After receiving the money, I counted only 160 MAD. I asked the girl what happened, and the response to my question was that the rate on the table was incorrect, that it was outdated and the “new” rate was in fact 8 MAD for 1 USD. Without much thinking, I demanded back my $20 bill and walked away. After checking in into my room, I decided to go out to get more stuff from the car and as I walked by the front desk, I noticed that the girl was no longer there – she was replaced by a male clerk. This time, I approached the man and asked if the exchange rate was the one on the currency table. He responded “Yes”, so I handed him the $20 bill and got 180 MAD back. As I walked away, anger took over me and I decided to go back and talk to the guy. I told him about what happened 20 minutes earlier, and to my surprise, he tried to tell me that the rate indeed changed earlier – he was trying to protect his co-worker. This infuriated me even more, since what he told me made no sense at all! Why would he be willing to give me the rate from the currency table if it was different – was he just trying to be nice by giving me more money? I don’t think so! His response to this was that he would have a “conversation” with her in the morning. What a bunch of baloney. If you are trying to lie, at least try to be good at it!
When I asked other locals about these dishonesty and other practices, I was told that it is a “big city problem”. I wholeheartedly disagree – I have been to big cities like Istanbul (which is way bigger in comparison), Amman and many others and I have never seen such treatment of tourists. I have also been told that the tourists themselves corrupted people of Morocco, but again, there are plenty of other places in the world where the flow of tourists is very high and yet such things don’t happen.
In general, I found Moroccans to be very unwilling when it comes to getting photographed. If you try to photograph people on streets, they often block their faces or yell at you, publicly demonstrating their disapproval. That’s understandable, as there are so many tourists from all over the world in Morocco armed with cameras, continuously “hunting” for subjects. If you get photographed every day, you will probably get annoyed by it eventually. In some cases, it is the matter of culture or religion that also prohibits people photography, which we have to respect.
However, in most cases, I found it to be simply the issue of payment. Moroccans are so used to getting paid for their pictures (thanks to all the tourists that have done it before), that they pretty much always expect payment. Some will happily pose for a picture, but only if you agree to give them enough money afterwards. Some will even tell you their price per picture!
This is an issue for me personally, as I don’t like the idea of posed shots for money – I would rather photograph people who are willing to be photographed, or just document the moment through street photography. To those who cooperate for a portrait, I am always happy to offer their photos (which many happily accept), but I refuse to just hand them out the easy money, not for something they didn’t have to work for. I would be willing to pay someone for a short portrait session, as they are taking time from their schedule and rendering a service, but if it is just a single snap of someone in a public place, I’m not giving them money. That’s just not right. Speaking of portraits, not a single image in this article was posed or paid for. I either asked for permission before taking a photo, or quickly snapped an image in a public place. If any subject demonstrated unwillingness to be photographed (which did happen in a number of occasions), I lowered the camera immediately and moved on.
The ugliest case I witnessed took place in Chefchaouen. An American was capturing a nicely dressed Moroccan man having a conversion with someone on the street using a large telephoto lens, about 10 feet away from the subject. As I was passing by, I thought to myself that this might not end very well – and it sure didn’t. The next thing I heard was the Moroccan yelling at the photographer, asking how many pictures he took of him. He told the photographer that if he didn’t show his images on the camera, he would call the police and get him in trouble. The response was “five pictures”. Next, I heard the man ask how much he will pay for the five photos. The photographer offered 5 Dirhams. The Moroccan man laughed, pointing his hand towards his rear end and saying that the five Dirhams he offered was as offensive as him “passing gas”. He told him that unless he paid 30 Dirhams for his photos, he wouldn’t let him go and involve the police. It was a pretty ugly situation! I am not sure how it ended for the photographer, but I would be willing to bet that he probably just handed him the 30 Dirhams to stop the harassment and move on…
Rental Car Considerations
Having done a bit of research on rental car services, I knew beforehand that it was best to rent from a large and reliable company, one that preferably has presence in multiple towns in Morocco, in case anything happened to the car. So I booked my rental with Avis, which was available right at the Mohammed V International Airport in Casablanca. I also read up that no matter what companies you rent from, they might find their ways to extract money for damages that were already present in the car, such as bumps, scratches and interior cigarette burns. Because of this, I made sure to use my phone to do a video walkthrough with the renter before taking the vehicle out of the parking lot. As I was doing it, I was told numerously that “it is not a problem”, but I didn’t care and I recorded the video anyway, just in case. At the end of my rental, I made sure that the staff signs off on the vehicle and if they tried to charge me for anything, I had a video to back me up. I would recommend that you do the same.
Overall, my rental experience was pretty bad. Despite Avis being a large, international brand, I was given a very old car that started showing problems as soon as I arrived to Marrakech – the car electronics went down. Thankfully, I was able to take the car to a mechanic in Marrakech, who was able to temporarily fix the problem. There was no option to get another vehicle, since all vehicles with automatic transmission were already rented out. After the mechanic supposedly fixed the problem, the electronics issues came back in two days, but I was already in another city and there was no way I was going to go back, as I was on a tight schedule. The car drove fine, but none of the information on the dashboard worked, including the speedometer. Thankfully, I had a GPS unit that I brought with me from the USA with more or less accurate calculation of current speed, which is what I used to make sure that I didn’t exceed any of the imposed speed limits.
Speaking of GPS, while I was happy that I had it with me, it proved to be pretty useless for looking up addresses. I paid Garmin for the whole map of the Middle East that included Morocco, but ended up relying on my phone to get me to the correct locations. In most cases, the Garmin GPS wouldn’t even find locations and addresses, which was unfortunate. I used it primarily to get from one city to another, and relied on my phone’s data services to get to hotel, Riad and restaurant locations.
Don’t take a drone with you to Morocco, period! This was a lesson learned the hard way for me. I didn’t have much time to prepare for my trip to Morocco, so when I was packing my bag, I decided to take the small Mavic Air drone, just in case I encountered something worth taking a picture of, or capturing in video from above. On the second day of the trip when we were in Marrakech, I fired up my phone and started checking the drone laws of Morocco. Turns out they are completely banned in the whole country! Whoops! Well, I thought I would simply not fly the drone, but it turned out that the customs would not only seize the drone at the time I would fly back, but also potentially detain me for having the drone in the first place. This is not something I wanted to deal with, so as soon as I had my first chance, I found a DHL office and got the drone packaged up to be sent back to the USA. The DHL clerks were happy to help and they prepared the customs form for me, looked at the drone and said it was no problem to ship back. The package was supposed to arrive in 2 days.
Well, it has been several months since I came from Morocco and the package never arrived. It was seized by the customs office and they kept it. Don’t make the same mistake and simply leave the drone at home! Without a doubt, this was my own fault and I admit that I should have looked up the laws before taking the drone with me. I am not mad at the Moroccan authorities either, as they are simply doing their jobs. I am just happy that I didn’t have to deal with any problems at the airport – it would have been far worse if I were detained and missed my flight.
Based on the above information, you might get a feeling that Morocco is not a country I would recommend visiting to our readers. That’s very far from the truth, especially when it comes to photography. While it does have its issues, photographically, it is one of the best places in the world one could visit. I came back with many great images and as you go through this guide, I hope you will be able to appreciate how many opportunities await those who are willing to do it.
I will be posting detailed information on each location this week. The first section will be on Casablanca and Marrakech, followed by Ait Benhaddou, Fes and Chefchaouen. Stay tuned!