Backpacking Morocco: Top experiences
- Climbing on top of the leather shops for an aerial view of Fes’s tannery
- Watching craftsmen continue the work their families started 400 years ago
- Hearing the Call to Prayer from a hundred mosques in central Marrakech
- Sampling some of Africa’s best cuisine
- Watching the street life at night in Jemaa el-Fnaa
Jump to the list of posts from Morocco, or read on for my comprehensive Morocco travel guide.
Morocco Itinerary Ideas
Given how big Morocco is (and trust me, when you’re on hour 9 of a train trip across the desert you’ll see what I mean by “big”), the country actually makes it pretty easy to see a lot in a short time. Most of the best places to visit in Morocco don’t really require more than a day or two to explore. Just don’t try to cover too much distance or you’ll end up exhausted from long travel days.
If you only have a week to 10 days in Morocco, you’d be best off picking one region and fully exploring. Marrakech is the easiest base — you could still do a day trip into the Atlas Mountains and squeeze in an overnight camel safari.
If you have two weeks for backpacking Morocco, starting in Casablanca, you could reasonably cover the medina towns of Fes and Marrakech. This would give you enough time to spend a night among the dunes in the Sahara Desert, do a side trip into the mountains of the High Atlas, and finish your trip in the beachside town of Essaouira. You could do day trips or short overnight stops at a number of historical cities in between, including Meknes, Midelt, and Aït Benhaddou.
With an additional week you could start in Tangier and stop by Chefchaouen on your way south.
Alternatively, plan a themed itinerary. For example, you could visit all the Game of Thrones filming locations in Morocco. This will take you to some of the country’s most scenic corners.
Cheap Morocco tours with companies like G Adventures make it easier to cover a lot of ground on a short trip. They also may help solo women avoid unwanted attention. But they do keep you in a foreigner bubble and they can be party-heavy. (Note: I don’t work with G Adventures and have never taken one of their tours. It doesn’t fit my travel style. But others who are more comfortable on tours love them.)
Morocco weather and when to visit Morocco
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the country is mostly covered by the Sahara Desert, but — Morocco weather is hot and dry.
The best time to visit Morocco is in winter (November-March), when it’s pleasantly cool during the day and downright chilly at night.
It’s definitely worth avoiding backpacking Morocco in summer. The temperature skyrockets to well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit most days. With no air conditioning anywhere and frequent sandstorms, it’s pretty uncomfortable. Since the Sahara Desert is one of the best places to visit in Morocco, and it’s so miserable in summer, you really are best off avoiding this time. I visited in August and the only good aspect was there were almost no other tourists around.
When you’re making your Morocco travel plans, be sure to consider what month Ramadan falls in (often May or June). Traveling during Ramadan has its pros and cons but you should make an informed decision about whether you want that experience.
Language in Morocco
The most commonly spoken language in Morocco is Moroccan Arabic, locally known as Darija. It’s quite different from Modern Standard Arabic. If you’ve studied Arabic in school, you are unlikely to understand Darija well. For a full rundown of the similarities and differences, check out this article.
In Berber areas (such as at desert camps), the locals may speak one of several Berber languages. But since you’re unlikely to be in any of these areas without a guide, you don’t need to know much more than “thank you” and “hello” in the local tongue.
The most common European language spoken in Morocco is French, and it’s spoken pretty widely. The kids will all shout “bonjour” to you as you walk around. Most signage and menus have both Arabic and French text. If you speak French, you won’t need anything more than a few words of Darija to get around during your Morocco travel.
The flip side is that few Moroccans speak or understand English. Getting around with only English and rudimentary Arabic is very difficult. You’ll be at the mercy of people who work in the tourist industry (i.e. often touts), who usually do speak English (and Italian, and Spanish, and Chinese, and Russian, and every other language you pretend to speak in the hopes that they’ll leave you alone). Do yourself a favor and learn at least basic travel phrases in Darija.
Budget for backpacking Morocco
Backpacking Morocco is doable on a tight budget. You could travel in Morocco on a shoestring budget as low as $15 a day, but that’s pushing it. I was able to stick to that budget because I had a travel buddy to split rooms with.
$25-$30 a day would be pretty comfortable for solo travelers willing to stay in dorms, or for couples or groups.
The biggest things that can drive up your backpacking Morocco cost are camel safaris, mountain trips, or if you intend to do a lot of shopping in Fes. But the Sahara and the High Atlas are two of the best places to go in Morocco and are well worth the expense.
Dorm in a hostel: 100 dirham
Private room in a mid-range riad: $65 USD
Street-stall meal: 30-40 dirham
Cup of tea: 10 dirham
Museum or historical site admission: Often free!
Guide for the Fes Medina: 200 dirham
Day trip to the High Atlas: $20-$50 USD
Multi-day camel trek into the Sahara: $250+ USD
Train ticket from Fes to Marrakech: 215 dirham
Morocco visa requirements
Americans, Europeans, Canadians and Australians don’t need a visa for backpacking Morocco as a tourist. Israelis and South Africans, along with most other citizens of sub-Saharan African nations, do require them.
On flights to Morocco, you get your stamp at the airport on arrival. It’s fast and simple. If you take the ferry from Spain, you’ll be stamped into Morocco when you get on the boat. It’s completely hassle-free. The only downside is you end up in Tangier, which isn’t exactly one of the best places to go in Morocco.
When you leave Morocco, the immigration officer may request very specific information about what you did and where you stayed. If you stayed at very cheap budget hotels while backpacking Morocco, make sure to record the names in case you need to produce them.
Accommodation in Morocco
Morocco has plenty of cheap accommodation. Your comfort level when backpacking Morocco on a budget will depend on whether you want private rooms or are willing to stay in dorms.
In big backpacking hotspots like Fes and Marrakech, you can stay in backpacker hostels for about $8 a night. They’re cleaner than cheap hotels. The number of hostels in Morocco has exploded in recent years, and you can now stay in a central location at a nice place for that price. These are a great option if you’re backpacking Morocco solo.
If you want your own room, you’re better off looking for a cheap guesthouse if you’re trying to travel in Morocco on a shoestring budget. Budget guesthouses are often in old buildings, with questionable maintenance and security. You won’t find the true cheapies online — just show up and ask for a room. They tend to be run by cadres of men. Since I was traveling with a guy, this didn’t bother me, but it might have if I’d been backpacking Morocco solo. Still, you can get a grungy private room with a shared bathroom for about $15 a night. Sometimes breakfast is included. The place I stayed in Fes included dinner instead of breakfast, since it was Ramadan.
For couples or groups on Morocco holidays, the best options are the budget riads. These traditional guesthouses are beautiful and charming, but they’re not the cheapest option. Prices start around $60 for a double.
Food in Morocco
Moroccan food is one of the highlights in Africa. It’s fresh and full of flavor.
Moroccan food consists mostly of beans, veggies, and meats slow-cooked in tagines — similar to clay pots. It’s not hot-spicy, but it’s very flavorful-spicy, with lots of turmeric, cinnamon and nutmeg. Olives are another common cooking ingredient or side dish.
You take a wheel of bread (Moroccan bread comes in wheels), break off a piece and use it as a utensil to pick up the contents of the tagine. Even if you’re offered utensils, you’re better off eating with your hands/bread — it’s cleaner than barely-rinsed silverware.
For a less formal meal, street treats (under $1) include meat-filled pastries and deep-fried chickpea flour donuts.
If you are offered the opportunity to eat in someone’s home, TAKE IT. It will surely be one of the best meals and most amazing hospitality you’ll experience anywhere in the world. Note that your hosts will keep offering you bread if they see your hands are empty — when you’re full, stand up and immediately wash your hands to avoid having to eat more. If there are any men in your group, you will all be expected to eat with your male hosts (Moroccan women won’t eat with any foreign men present).
Drinks in Morocco
One of the biggest perks of backpacking Morocco is the constant supply of mint tea. Incredibly refreshing, caffeine-free and loaded with sugar, this beverage is available at cafes day and night.
You can buy coffee at any cafe or tea shop. It’s similar to Turkish coffee — grounds-y and very bitter. It usually comes with two sugar cubes on the side. Coffee is slightly more expensive than tea.
One downside to the traditional cafes is they tend to be very male-dominated. If Moroccan women visit them at all, they’re almost always with their partners or families. If you’re traveling solo as a woman you may feel more comfortable visiting tourist-oriented cafes — not because the local cafes are unsafe; just because being constantly stared at gets old.
Fresh fruit juice is widely available in cafes and as a street snack. Orange juice is the most popular. You can also buy cold cans of Coke and other soft drinks from any small shop.
Moroccans are pretty covert about their alcohol consumption, but many Moroccan men do drink. Big cities like Marrakech and Casablanca have trendy bars where women may feel comfortable (or not), but you won’t see many Moroccan women drinking.
Activities you can do while backpacking Morocco
There is a huge variety of things to do in Morocco. In the cities, the main activities are walking around the markets and medinas and taking photos of the colorful streets. Elsewhere, you can go to the beach, hike in the Atlas Mountains, or camel trek into the Sahara.
In the cities, it’s easy to go several days without spending any money. The markets are free to peruse, and many old buildings don’t charge admission. If you’re trying to stick to traveling Morocco on a shoestring budget, this is the way to do it. Just beware of kids/other touts who offer to show you something — they will expect a tip.
It’s worth hiring a guide (about $15 for a full day) in at least one of the cities to take you around the medina. I got a lot out of a guided tour in Fes — plus, the guide protected us from shopkeeper hassle for a day. Hire a registered guide (through the tourism information office) to ensure that your tour won’t just turn into a shopping trip.
Tangier has a beach, but it’s not particularly pleasant. The better option is Essaouira.
If you want to go camel riding in Morocco, it’s easy to arrange on arrival — everyone you meet will try to sell you a trip. You can negotiate prices down to about $25-$35 a day for Morocco desert tours.
Transportation in Morocco
Most people use a combination of buses and trains when backpacking Morocco. Both are fairly straightforward and safe, and both cost about $1 per hour. The buses will get you to your destination a little quicker. You can book tickets for both buses and trains online or at the stations. No need to book in advance — you can be spontaneous on your Morocco holidays.
The trains are not air-conditioned. Expect a long, sweaty journey. I traveled during Ramadan so I’m not sure if other times of year are different, but it was not possible to buy food or water once we were on our way (there were no vendors on the train).
Safety when backpacking Morocco
Backpacking Morocco is safe. It’s very unlikely that you’ll find yourself in a dangerous situation. There are, unfortunately, a good number of hassles to be on the lookout for.
The biggest hassle is being constantly at the center of attention. Taxi drivers honk at you while you’re walking down the street. Every shopkeeper tries to get you to buy something. You sit down in a park for a quiet moment alone and touts trying to sell you camel treks immediately surround you. All the attention can grate on even the most extroverted travelers.
People will lie to you to lure you to their shops. So if someone tells you the supermarket is closed, check it out yourself. If one person tells you this street is ‘dangerous,’ ask a second person — someone you approach, not whoever comes up to you first.
If someone offers to show you around, they will demand money for it. Agree on a price up front or be very firm in telling them you’re not interested — if they just walk in front of you for awhile, they may still claim they “guided” you. Unlicensed guides can get very aggressive if you refuse to pay them. This is also true if you take photos of belly dancers or snake charmers in Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech.
Pickpocketing is pretty common in the medinas. If you buy something, put your wallet away before stepping back into the streets.
Lastly, plenty of people will try to sell you marijuana. Think real hard about whether it’s a good idea to buy or smoke any — often, the ‘salesmen’ are actually police looking for a big bribe from travelers desperate to avoid arrest.
Morocco travel advice for women alone
I didn’t travel Morocco alone. I did venture out without my friend a few times, but I don’t have a full picture of the challenges of backpacking Morocco solo as a woman.
There was a decent amount of street harassment — especially from teenage boys. No one ever came close to me — it was just annoying, and a little embarrassing, when boys shouted lewd things across the street at me. I got much less of this when I was with my friend.
More common than street harassment is constant staring. It’s easy to ignore but it can wear you down. If you feel like you need a break, take one — go to a tourist-oriented cafe, hire a guide for a day, or spend an afternoon reading a book in your hostel.
Moroccan women dress very conservatively. Knowing what to wear in Morocco is important for cutting down on some of the stares and harassment. You don’t have to cover your hair, but you’ll get less street harassment if you cover your shoulders (or elbows, if you can stand the heat) and to your knees.
Overall, I’d rate traveling to Morocco as a woman at about a 5 out of 10 in terms of how threatening it was — it was nowhere near as bad as Egypt or even Italy.
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