If you are a woman traveler, it is only natural that you look up the safety of the place that you travel to as a first priority. Morocco by far might have found spot in dangerous travel destinations after the recent murder of two foreigners in its soil by ISIS militia. While it is easy to say that being impulsive is great for executing travel plans, in this case, whatever we read about Morocco and safety concerns especially for women while travelling through Morocco weren’t exactly what we were hoping for.
News about women tourists being attacked, robbed and beheaded in the mountains of Imlil by ISIS militants, tourists being spammed and pick pocketed, nasty advances by men in crowded places – experiences from tourists all over the world could be found in all the travel forums. I wouldn’t deny that we might have thought several times over before booking Morocco if we had read all those articles before.
But is Morocco dangerous for women travelers as it is presumed to be?
Here are a few must know things that we learnt during the 2 week odyssey to this North African Kingdom that is worthy of being shared to anyone who would want to visit this beautiful and exotic country.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Morocco is Safe, Conditions Apply
Yes, even for women, Morocco is safe. No tourist destination is entirely immune to safety concerns. My general theory is that even when you stay at home or travel outside of your home you are always subject to some amount of risk. What is required is a general awareness of what are the things that could possibly go wrong and be prepared with some back up plans.
Morocco is a developing tourist destination and tourism is one of their prime sources of revenue apart from export of olives and argan oil. While the country has been trying leaps and bounds to reduce travel risks and attract foreigners to their land to pump the economy, it is inevitable that there are scammers and pick-pocketers as you would find in any place where tourism is the breadwinner. The thumb rule is not to trust anyone. We know this is hard but there are very few options left when you know you can be scammed by the most innocent smiling faces.
People may invite you over to their house, offer mint tea and demand cash in return. At Marrakech we had kids who would cling to us and not let go demanding money. All we did was keep walking(dragging them along) and not look at them or respond, while yes, my heart kept pounding against my rib cage until she let go of my hand; only to repeat the same with another person. We also noticed that women travelling alone attracted a lot more trouble than men or women accompanied by men.
The square of Marrakech and the medinas of Fes and Rabat are famous tourist destinations and the lights, glitz and glam of the place can have you spell bound. It is important to not lose track of surroundings and present the right opportunity to pick pocketers waiting to swoop in and rob. The square and medinas transform by night fall and it is best for tourists unaccompanied by guides to not stay for long into dark.
There are limited hiking and trekking opportunities with the most famous one being the Todra Gorge hike followed by the summit to Touqbal National Park in Imlil. Any hiking opportunity in Morocco is considered safe if you travel with someone who knows the language and place and can be trusted to avoid unfortunate incidents. If you are a small group of only women, it might be safer to just avoid this hike overall.
Always remember – anyone who is offering freebies or trying to help out may not be your friend. We had taken it to the point where we misunderstood a gentleman who was offering to help us with the right train back to airport as potential scammer looking for quick money.
Things changed when the same gentleman, who was also a returning tourist who loved Morocco, saved me from a real scammer who came dressed in suit and tie looking like any airport official, demanded and took my passport and walked away and was about to demand money for filling up a form which I already had in the first place – all of this at the Casablanca International Airport. After arguing with the scammer and getting back my passport the gentleman from the train station looked at me and made one statement – “This is Morocco. Do not trust anybody. “
2. French is King, Arabic and Berber Follows
Being in a foreign land and not being able to use English to communicate makes you realize how vulnerable one can be. Of all the things we had read and learnt about Morocco, we had not realized that Morocco was a French Colony and their official language was French. Arabic and Berber follows suit and are the languages used for communication in Morocco.
Everywhere we went, the menus and signboards were completely in French. Unless the menu offered something that was obviously familiar like ” crêpe à la banane et au nutella “, google image translate became our best friend. We were looking at menus and placing orders through the translate app. When it came to bargaining, we would write or say numbers or type them on a calculator and communicate. What we did realize at the end of our 2 week travel is that a language is not needed for communication. Signs would do too!
While learning French for a holiday is hard, it may be come in handy to learn a few basic words that may help with directions and help if lost. Saying NO is hard. Saying a firm NO politely is even harder. The only word we remembered to learn was “La Shukraan” meaning “No thank you” in Arabic and I lost the count of times it was used at the people who were trying to sell things or “just trying to help two lost looking girls”. Remember the name and address of the place that you stay in at all times and keep the contact number of your guide or hotel reception handy to call back for help whenever required.
3. Women Do not Hang Out in the Cafes or Markets
While Morocco is way ahead of other Muslim countries where women have more restrictions, even in the city of Casablanca, we were surprised to find only men sitting at all the cafes, restaurants and smoking away while reading newspaper or chatting away with fellow men. There were no women to be found anywhere except for uber posh cafes.
And guess what, a fine lady I know who visited Morocco 30 years ago saw the same – only men in cafes! Let us safely assume progress happens real slow in Morocco.
The scene is a lot different in more upscale towns and cities like Marrakech and Essouira but we definitely invited a lot of glares and questions when on the first day we chose to lunch at a restaurant near the train station in Casablanca. We figured later that the key was to find posh restaurants and cafes where there was more touristy or upscale crowd and not visit the regular places. So if you are a woman solo traveler or a bunch of women only travelers, keep away from the regular cafes unless accompanied by men.
The vibrant markets of Morocco are an attraction to any woman and you would find many of them very welcoming during the day time. However, even in these markets you would find that towards night fall the crowd is predominantly male. Dressing modestly like locals can avoid a lot of attention but it is impossible to completely cover your identity and avoid glares and comments while walking into places like these – even local women face these issues and it is going to take a while to change.
4. Safety Concerns for Women Travelers in Morocco
Safety of Women travelers in morocco is one of the most debatable topics and one that may direct you to cringe worthy stories on the internet.
Every single forum we had researched prior to the travel had mentions about the extent of catcalling, verbal and physical harassment that female tourists might endure while in Morocco. The reality was a lot better than what we had imagined reading all those scary articles – most likely because we were travelling with an established group like Intrepid and having guides who were very familiar with the locals.
Yet nothing prepared us for the attention we received for just being from India; or “Indiana – women” as they called us.
On Day 1 when the guide told us that Moroccans are going to love us because they watch a lot of Bollywood(India’s Hindi Film Industry)movies, little did we imagine the extent of fanbase for Bollywood in Morocco to be this large. We would walk through the streets and be greeted by Namasthe and enquiries if we were from India followed by “We love India”, “We love your skin color”, “We love Sharukh Khan”, “Do you know Mithun Chakraborthy” and so it went. Street musicians would gleefully break into playing some of the most famous tracks from Hindi films as soon as they spotted the black haired, brown skinned, definitely Indian looking us in the crowd.
While catcalling is supposed to be prominent in Morocco against women, we got called out as “Simran” or “Kiran” – names of characters of leading heroines in two of the most famous Hindi movies. At a rose garden, we were offered roses “for India”. At the Rick’s Café, despite not having a reservation on a full house day, we were welcomed inside and offered a table by a very welcoming front desk staff with a “From India? Namasthe… Khoobsoorat”. At the airport during our final immigration, the officer checked our passports, broke into a smile recognizing the country and broke into a happy Hindi song! Need I say we were surprised at how a faraway land, unknown to most Indians, there lies a country that loves its colorful and vibrant movies! Despite this, we had not come across any other Indian during the 14 days we spent in Morocco.
Apart from everything mentioned above, Morocco does pose some serious safety issues for women travelers. Solo travel is possible but not advised. It is always better to tag along with a group. It is very normal to have a dozen marriage proposals by the time you walk out of any place. The society is still very patriarchal and will take a lot of time to change.
While in the medinas, if you are female, you are invariably going to be subjected to a lot of catcalling and comments. The best choice as we figured is to pretend you heard none of it and keep walking, head held high. The slightest response – in amusement or fear – often flared the interest and would call for more comments and eve teasing – often in languages that we barely register. Just remember this is very normal and as long as physical harassment is not involved remain calm and do not retaliate to comments or provocation.
5. Olives,Oranges,Tagines and Couscous … and Mint Teas
Any meal in Morocco would begin with a hearty serving of Mint tea and olives and freshly made breads. The olives were of the finest quality and most of the cuisines were cooked in argan oil which is known to have health benefits and anti-ageing properties. Because we went in April, most of the trees had ripe large oranges on them. Fresh orange juice became our staple food and we never got tired of the number of times we had freshly squeezed orange juice served all over the country. Each time we believed the orange juice we had was tastier than the last place that served it. It always got better in taste.
Tagines and Couscous are the highlights of Moroccan cuisine and a part of their regular diet. Tagine refers to the meals that are cooked in the earthenware dish with two parts – a flat and circular one with low sides and a dome shaped cover that rests over the food while it is cooking. Coucous is pumped semolina grain cooked with different vegetables or meat. The distinct flavors infused into these with the combination of the stew from meat or vegetables and lemon zest and spicy aromas are what make these the culinary delights from Morocco. The food quantity per serving is pretty large and we almost ended up sharing one meal between two.
In the urban towns in Morocco, we found refuge in a lot of french restaurants and pastry shops. In urban towns like Marrakech, the food options were unlimited and we could find cuisines from all over the world, upscale pubs and bars and coffee shops.
Fact : Water is not served as a part of the meal in Morocco. Tap water has a distinct chlorine taste and is not safe for drinking. Buying drinking water is the safest choice while you are in Morocco. Because Intrepid follow sustainable and eco-friendly tourism, we had formed a kitty and paid X amount of money into the kitty to meet our tipping expenses and buying large cans of bottled water that was shared by everyone in the group.
6. All Roads Do not Lead to Rome – Not even Google Maps
If Google Maps has been your best friend in finding directions, you may need to temporarily suspend that habit while in Morocco. Not only is internet choppy and unreliable in most of the places, google maps may not lead you to the right place as you think it would. Per our guide, Moroccan’s keep changing the architecture and structure of their buildings and entry points. Every house and building we saw had several insanely beautiful ornate doors and apparently they keep adding more and close some often enough for google maps to not keep track of it all.
Unlike how maps can aid you to get out of most shopping markets, using these to find your way out of the maze like medinas and markets can almost look like a joke. Google might not even recognize there are routes in those medinas where in some places the path way is only wide enough to fit exactly one person. Avoid deserted roads and alleyways and seek help from reliable sources if you are lost. There are also several reports of locals trying to pose as helpful guides in front of confused tourists only to demand money later, if not rob them entirely.
7. Dress to the Season, and to the Crowd
While Morocco is way liberal when compared to most of the Muslim countries, it is still a Muslim country and there are sentiments associated to how women dress. More than often, how you dress adhering to a country’s culture also decides on the way the locals treat you. Women should avoid wearing clothes that reveal too much skin and stick to simple and preferably comfortable and loose clothes that provide maximum coverage to avoid attracting attention to themselves. Long walks are a part of exploring Morocco. So wearing a comfortable pair of shoes is recommended. Hiking shoes go a long way for most of the rugged terrains in Morocco from the deserts to the cobble stoned pathways through the market. Even popular beach towns like Essouira and Casablanca are unlike the typical beach destinations where you can freely wear some summer wear and walk unnoticed.
The weather in Morocco is also unpredictable compared to the rest of Africa. While we went expecting super-hot temperatures in April, Morocco was just recovering from winter and had a windy climate with temperatures that stayed between 5 degrees to 20 degrees. Splash a lot of sun screen before beginning the day because each day would involve a lot of walking in the sun and carry a scarf at all times. Mosques are out of bounds for all non-muslims and the fasting time during Ramzan leads to closure of most shops and eateries and is considered the holy month.
Remember to pack the following before heading to Morocco
- Denim jacket : I cannot stress how handy these were in terms of helping to cover short sleeves, protecting from the sun and dealing with cold and windy weather. They added a swag factor to almost everything we wore and was the best thing we carried along.
- Hiking Boots : Whether it was in the rocky bed of the mountains in Todra Gorge or Imlil, or in the sand dunes of Sahara, or in the streets on the medinas, the hiking boots were the most comfortable pair of shoes to be in to walk every day.
- Flip Flops : Add a pair of light flip flops to your luggage and you should be covered for beach towns like Essouira. You can also choose to not carry one and instead buy one of the colorful leather shoes from the markets in Morocco.
- A small Day Bag : Use of small purses and side sling bags are strongly not recommended. Theft and pick pocketing is common and it is safest to hang the backpacks to the front and hold your hands over it while navigating the crowded and narrow streets of medinas.
- Scarf and Sunglasses : If you thought sunglasses were only for the bright sunny days, wait till you walk to the sand dunes of Sahara where without a sun glass you are left with no defense against the sand storms. Long scarves are mandatory to shield you face, mouth and ears from sand attack and go a long way to protect your hair the sand and skin from the blazing sun.
8. Watch thee pockets
While reading about Morocco, most travel bloggers and tourists quoted how dangerous can Morocco be in terms of pick pocketers. Pickpocketing is not a problem that is only tied to Morocco and can happen in any crowded place. Your probability of being pick pocketed in France, Spain or Prague is proportionately larger than it ever is in Morocco. As with any crowded touristy destination, the general rule of thumb is to be careful about ones belongings and be alert about the surroundings.
Here are a few guidelines that may help avoid being pickpocketed in Morocco(or anywhere) :
- Pick pocketers are known to operate in groups. They normally target solo or middle aged/older travelers who are easier to distract. While one of them may distract you into talks or giving directions or trying to sell something, another member of the gang could be creeping stealthily behind your back and working through your bag/purse/pockets. It is safer to travel with established groups or join with other folks for the same reason – especially when visiting the overcrowded medinas and souks.
- Hang your bag pack to the front and cover it with both hands. Using a slash proof bag can reduce the chances of being robbed. Avoid taking handheld purses or side sling bags that can be easily snatched. Keep spare money and gadgets in the innermost layers of your bags.
- Always leave extra money and passport in the hotels. Most hotels provide safe boxes for depositing your belongings.
- Absolutely avoid jewelry and expensive watches. The flashier you look, the more are your chances to becoming a target. Keep a low profile and avoid attracting a lot of attention with jewelry and branded accessories.
- Do not get distracted with the phone. This goes universally. It is no secret mobile phones are the greatest distraction of modern days. A few seconds of carelessness using the phone can lead to being robbed or even losing your phone if not secured well.
9. Embrace the Rugged
It is no secret the Morocco isn’t for the faint hearted or the dainty. Walking an average of 8kms a day became a norm during the 14 days in Morocco. The weather would vary unpredictably from place to place. Towards the end of April we were greeted with cool weather conditions in most of the places. The higher altitudes of Todra Gorge had mild snow flakes and the lower altitudes saw rainy and wet conditions. Some high altitude mountain passes also had low temperatures and windy conditions. Hikes to Imlil and Todra are long and can be gruesome.
The accommodation in Morocco, unless you choose the luxury line of hotels, can be pretty average. In most hotels the shower area was entirely separated from the shower area. The bath area seldom had any hook for hanging clothes or even placing soaps/shampoo. None of the hotels provided complimentary toiletries – which I think is great in terms of reducing the plastic waste. Wifi is a luxury available only in the hotel lobbies and almost never in the room.
Drinking water is a precious commodity in Morocco and never gets served for free along with your meals. Food in morocco is largely cooked in argan oil and ranges through few of the most popular known cuisines like tagines and couscous. Food is generally mild and less spicy and the portion sizes are large.
10. Cash Vs Card – Tips for Shopping in Morocco
Morocco is a mekkah for shopping lovers. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you I wanted to pack all of Morocco and bring them back if I had a way. The carpets, scarves, shoes, leather accessories, colorful and ornamental lamps and the unbelievable collection of colorful ceramic plates can send your mind reeling and not knowing where to begin or what to buy.
Here are a few things to know about shopping in Morocco
- Bargain, bargain, bargain. The markets view all tourists as cash cows and unless you bargain you are most likely going to buy things paying 3 times the original price.
- Rugs and Textiles : Morocco is famous for its colorful carpets and textiles. You may be color blinded by the wide selection of carpets and designs. Some places even agree to ship your carpet at an extra cost but it may simply be cheaper(and reliable) to carry it yourself in the airline at a standard fee.
- Cash or Card : Most stores accept card or cash. Carrying cash will help in random purchases in smaller places and road side stalls and eateries where card will not be accepted. There there is also tipping involved everywhere – restaurants, porters, drivers. Carrying change will help avoid tipping more than necessary.
- Lamps and Ceramics : Among the things that will fascinate your eye the Moroccan lamps and ceramics will top the list. These are also highly fragile and breakable. Carrying these back require some care and a lot of extra packing. Some co-op stores were also willing to have these shipped if orders were placed in bulk. However, you will also realize that co-ops charge a price higher than the regular stores and there is very less room for bargaining.
Shopping Tip : The first sale of the day is very important to Moroccans. That kind of sets the beginning of the day and shopkeepers will rarely refuse the price you quote – just be reasonable. We went into the Marrakech square on the last day during the opening hours and managed to bag almost everything at the price we quoted – a lot of accessories, magnets and ceramic plates.
11. Guided Tour Vs Self Arranged Travel in Morocco.
While it is worth bragging to the world that “I travel without any travel agent because I am so damn good at it”, there are few few places in the world where travelling with a group puts you in a safe zone and gives you a better chance at knowing the local culture, people and unknown places more. Morocco is one such place where guided tours are preferred for safety reasons especially when it comes to solo or group woman travelers.
I would never want to imagine navigating the intricate maze like patterns of the medinas in Morocco all by myself always knowing that there are eyes following every move – and it is not always just about the men jeering or catcalling. It is also the fact that if something happened to you down there, there is very limited chance of anyone getting to know about it for at least until a day later – if you are lucky enough.
Most reliable tour companies like Intrepid and GAdventures rely on Berber guides who are very familiar with the terrain and locals. This come in handy when you are in the remote corners of the country and in the thick of market places alike. Music and dance plays an important part role in Berber tradition and our evenings were set alight singing in chorus and dancing to the beat of drums with the nomads to the music that would extend into the late nights. We always knew we were in safe hands and that was one thing less to worry about knowing they were always a phone call away if we needed help.
Guided Tours like Intrepid also focus on responsible tourism by attempting to reduce the amount of plastic by using large drinking water cans that was being shared by the group. Think 14 people in the group buying multiple bottles of water each several times a day versus 14 people filling the same bottle for 2 weeks from the large water cans – the world could certainly do better with less amount of plastic and every small step into responsible tourism counts.
As they say, do not judge a book by its cover, do not judge a place only by the reviews that are plenty available in the internet. It is more likely that people would talk about negative experiences than positive ones on the internet forums. There is good and bad in every place and Morocco is no exception.
Travel is about knowing and learning and immersing yourself in a culture that is entirely different from what you are used to, stepping outside of your comfort zone and learning on the go. It is a brush of reality, and a taste of wisdom.
Casting aside all safety concerns while travelling in Morocco, the cultural diversity, the vibrant colors and people of Morocco, the vast expanse of Sahara and experiencing the nomadic life style offers an memory of a life time and should be on every travelers wish list.
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