A Journey Of 1,000 Mint Teas: Reflections On Traveling Through Morocco
Wandering around the Fez medina, I could feel the stares. “Where are you going? Want to go to the tanneries? I’ll take you. No money. Don’t worry!” the medina’s faux guides said as they chased me down the street.
“No, I’m fine,” I’d reply, trying to dodge them at every turn. Turning down side streets, stopping to look at a map, or admiring a view caused them and any nearby vendor to pounce and badger me, inviting me into stores, restaurants, and attractions.
There were moments when I would turn down streets only to have my spidey sense tell me to turn back. A few guys tried to corner me before I managed to slip into a store. Heck, even a little kid tried to pick my pocket. While other cities were not as intense as Fez, myvisit to Morocco required a thick skin and a watchful eye.
Before my trip, I queried a number of friends about their experiences. I’d heard horror stories of touts, harassment, pickpockets, and scams. While that is common everywhere, Morocco seemed to take it to another level. “Keep an eye out,” everyone warned.
After two weeks traversing the country (which is amazing — see this post, where I fawn all over it!) with Intrepid Travel on their Best of Morocco tour, I could see why people say Morocco demands extra diligence. Touts, scammers, and harassers abound and, while it wasn’t bad when I was with my group, when I was alone, it was intense. As I settled into the famous and secluded Café Clock in Fez to relax, I messaged fellow writers online to ask if I was overreacting or if they felt the same way.
“No, it’s not just you,” was the universal reply.
You’re unlikely to ever be in any real physical danger in Morocco, but the petty crime and harassment require you to stay on guard — more so than other countries. However, if you follow a few rules, you can leave unscathed:
- Don’t walk alone at night — While walking in well-lit and busy areas can be fine, be careful walking at night. You never know what lurks around the corner in the medinas. Petty crime is rampant here, especially against tourists.
- Don’t walk alone if you’re a woman — A woman alone will attract a lot of unwarranted attention from men, an increased chance of being followed, and the likelihood of groping. Even when I was with the girls on my trip, they got a lot of attention. I could only imagine how much worse it was when they were alone. And, as a female, especially do not walk alone at night!
- Dress conservatively — Morocco is a conservative Muslim country, and it’s not appropriate to wear skimpy clothing. Keep your arms, shoulders, and legs covered (especially if you are a woman) to avoid any unwanted attention and conform to local norms.
- Avoid flashy jewelry — A good universal rule, this takes on more urgency in a country where theft is common and people will see the jewelry as a sign of wealth and therefore try harder to scam you in stores or rob you on the streets.
- Don’t carry valuables — Since muggings and pickpockets are common, take the minimum you need when you leave your hotel or hostel. Don’t take your passport with you – leave it in the hotel! A few people on my tour carried it around with them and when my guide found out, he looked like he was about to have a heart attack!
- Avoid back alleys — The tiny alleys of the medina are beautiful to explore but sometimes they make you easy prey for scammers and thieves. Don’t venture too far away from the crowds.
- Watch for scams — If someone asks you into their shop for tea, they are going to use that as a pretext to get you to buy something and, thanks to the engrained psychological idea of reciprocity, you’ll probably give in. Don’t let anyone ask you to write a letter or read a postcard that their “cousin” sent to them in English/French/whatever your native language is. It’s a ruse to get you into their store and wear you down. Same with letting someone put henna on your hand. Once these vendors have you, they will be relentless about you trying on clothes, buying something, or giving them money. Say “no thank-you” and walk away.
- Say no to tour guides — The people saying “no money” definitely want your money. They will try to get you into their shops or take you places and ask for money for the service. Be firm and tell them no. It doesn’t matter their age or how helpful they are, if they start walking with you, they will ask for money!
- Always negotiate taxi prices up front — Always negotiate the price for taxis before you get in, as prices are going to be substantially inflated when you arrive at your destination.
While this is good advice for any country, Morocco is more intense than your average destination due to the sheer number of people who will give you unwanted attention. It takes a lot of energy to always be on your guard in a place where the simple act of asking for directions often leads people asking for money.
I was insulated because I was on a tour, but when I was alone or with just a few people, people came out of the woodwork, catcalled my friends, grabbed at the girls, and blocked entrances to restaurants in order to accost us. Even after a decade of travel, I found myself wishing I had a companion to share the mental burden and wanting to scream, “Leave me alone so I can just enjoy your country!”
Many people have asked me if they should go to Morocco alone. My honest answer is: I’m not sure. It was my first time in North Africa and it was an adjustment. I was glad to be on a tour and have a guide. If you don’t have a lot of travel experience or are a woman traveling alone, it might just be too much. I might suggest going on a tour first instead of exploring the country solo. It’s mentally exhausting and there are a lot of groping hands. Moreover, it is hard to get into the remote desert and mountains on the public transportation systems. I wouldn’t drive here either, as everyone races around mountain curves.
That’s not to say you could never travel solo here — if you are tough, you can — but overall, I would say it’s a country better suited for a tour. You’ll find it easier to get around and be insulated from the harassment.
Morocco was a battery on my senses — the food, the colors, the spices, the smells, andthe scenery were unforgettable. (Also the doors — they have such ornate and colorful doorways in Morocco. I have dozens of pictures of doors). I would 100% recommend to anyone that they visit the country, but make sure you keep an extra eye out (especially in Fez) and have a thick skin.
Editor’s Note: I went to Morocco with Intrepid Travel on their Best of Morocco tour. It was part of my ongoing partnership with Intrepid Travel. They covered the cost of the tour, flight, and meals.