Nov 19, 2006

Final Thoughts and Travel Suggestions

So after leaving Fes, we went to London where J hosted us for a few days in her serviced apartment, and Woe joined us from Toronto for the weekend. It was a fairly low key affair, we didn't do too much except for a one day bus tour of Salisbury, Stonehenge and Bath.

It was interesting to note that one day for a car and driver in Morocco cost only about 25% more than the price for 1 person on the bus tour.

I've actually switched over to the new Blogger Beta, and went through the old articles and inserted photos, so if you haven't read up on them, they're a little more interesting with the photos. I've also uploaded a couple more from the UK onto my flickr. I've had some people ask about travelling to Morocco, so I've put down some thoughts here.

So the original fantasy trip would have been a budget trip from Spain, across Gibraltar to Morocco, then across the northern coast of Africa to Egypt via train or ferry. However, given the amount of time we were going to spend in Spain, and wanting to spend some time in London, I pretty much decided to cut down the scope to Morocco only. Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya also require visas for entry, so staying in Morocco avoided having to deal with that.

The next decision was really what to cover. There's a fairly wide range of things to see and do in Morocco. We wanted to stay with some people for some time, and elected to stay in Casablanca for four days, leaving us a week to travel. It really isn't much time to cover Morocco, but it is enough for an interesting trip.

The original plan was to cover the major cities, Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Fes and Marrakech, and possibly all the way down to Essouaira. These are all connected by train, and the train system is fairly easy to use and reasonably priced (but more expensive than say, India). This would have been a fairly easy trip to plan on the fly. We had bought a first class ticket from Casablanca to Fes a day in advance, with no problems. It might be more difficult in high season. This was the compromise plan, which was compromising my being able to go with the limited time budget.

However, after a few email exchanges with Jeff Wilson of ExperienceIt! Tours, I realized that I could in fact cover a lot more variety of geography, see the Middle and High Atlas and the Sahara, all within a week. This was something I'd much rather do. I originally decided against this, because these areas aren't well serviced by trains, and buses are prone to delays. On a 1 week trip, a bad delay on the edge of the Sahara could mean I'd miss my flight home. The alternative we got was the private grande taxi. Although I have a few minor complaints with this experience, I'd certainly recommend this route if you want to cover a lot of area with a limited time. The main drawback of the route we took was that more time was spent on the road than really exploring. More on the grande taxi later.

If you want to cover the more remote areas like the High Atlas or the Sahara, I would not recommend local buses unless you really don't care for comfort and you have a lot of time on your hands in case of contingencies. The bus we saw in Erfoud looked old and beat up, more of a school bus than a coach you'd find in North America or Europe. The majority of the other western travellers we saw out there were either on private cars, or organized tours in 10-seat vans.

The 2002 edition of the Morocco Lonely Planet I had covered a bit on trekking in the High Atlas, but I probably would not have managed it on my own. It's definitely a true backpacking affair, with tents and sleeping bags and now showers. In most of the small villages out there, there are no hotels or even hostels. If you want to be housed, you'd have to find a local Berber family who would be willing to house you. And out there, not everyone speaks French. The driver told us that the suggested way would be to hire a local guide, but I really have no idea how you'd find one, other than to search for one in Fes or Marrakech.

The other interesting thing I saw were organized bike tours. Some of these actually had SUVs that would pick people up along the way so that they wouldn't have to cover the entire range by bicycle.

Of all the places we stayed (Casablanca, Fes, Erfoud, Merzouga, Tinghir, Marrakech), I would suggest that perhaps Erfoud and Tinghir could be cut out, but that basically means you take a long drive, without seeing anything to get to Merzouga and the desert (which is cool, but the dunes of sand get repetitive pretty quick, although it's good for peace and tranquility), and another long drive to Marrakech.

Casablanca is good for about a day, it's not really a tourist city with a lot of tourist sites. In fact, most of the tourist nightlife is in the Corniche, which we didn't really cover much of. We felt like we covered Fes pretty well in a day with our guide. You might stay longer if you wanted to do shopping. After a day in Marrakech, I felt like there was potentially a bit more that we could see, but I was still fairly satisfied. Of the 3, Marrakech was definitely the most interesting in terms of atmosphere, and Casablanca the most dull and modern.

We didn't notice too much happening in the mountains, except for the scenery you see while driving through and little stands and villages where locals sell honey, fossils, or minerals/gemstones. The main draw would be the trekking. The villages are mostly Berber, and even the french out there seemed a bit limited. Having an Arabic or Berber speaking guide was the way to go.

Of course, there's tonnes of areas we didn't cover (a bunch of the main cities, the Rif mountains and the north (although it sounds like the main draw there is the weed), and the balmy south.

In Country Transportation
I already mentioned that the trains are pretty good (for the cities they connect), and that I like the grande taxis. We didn't actually go on any buses, but the ones I saw made me uneasy, and I'm willing to go the ghetto route. The other way seems to be organized groups, which is the way we saw most western travellers doing it. I think you can book a van at some of the hotels, or book a tour in advance. Depending on your personality, you might like to go with that; it's not really my thing.

My main complaint on the taxi was that it seemed like the driver had his own agenda and suggested shops, and if we wanted things our way, we had to really push for it (although we did get our way in the end, which you're just not going to get on a tour bus). In retrospect, a solution might be to offer a "tip" up front and make it clear that you don't want to be taken to the average tourist spots.

It's a bit expensive, but if you have two or three people, the cost is not overly extravagant. As I mentioned, compared to the price of a bus tour in London, it's actually pretty cheap. You get the benefit of being on time, setting your own schedule (although at some points, your schedule might be dictated by weather or safety, i.e. avoiding driving through the treacherous mountain roads at night). The route we took covered a good deal of ground, and to be honest, we did spend a lot of the daytime in the car. I'm not sure if it's possible to arrange for the driver to drive at night, I haven't tried that.

In City Transportation
The petit taxi are very inexpensive. The drivers seem to mostly be native Arabic speakers, but there's a range of how much French they know. Occasionally you'll find one who can speak some English. About half our taxi experiences involved some kind of rip off, from taking the scenic route, to not resetting the meter and trying to blackmail us with the high meter reading. Keep in mind that the extra we paid (or refused to pay) was in the order of $0.50 to maybe $2-3, but the fares themselves are in that range.

First I would recommend that you make sure the cab driver resets the counter before you close the door and the cab starts moving. In our case, we had noticed the counter, but the cab was already moving and the cabbie, good naturedly waved it off and said it was fine. Don't let this happen to you. The other thing to be aware of is occasionally taxi drivers will take a second (or third) passenger if your cab is not full, and if the passenger is on the way. In this way, they make a bit of extra money, since the meters handle this. The first passenger pays for the full cost of his trip from when he got on to when he got off, the second passenger pays for his/her portion of the journey. The cabbie hence gets double for the section covered by both. I'm skeptical of this, since if the cabbie has to make a detour, someone ends up paying extra, but it's part of the system.

Originally, I didn't plan to stay in nice hotels, but in the end, the 3 star hotels were worth it for the washroom facilities which were quite useful. Within the bigger cities, it seemed like there was plenty of choice in terms of food, and the hotel dining is not recommended (unless you're at one of the 5 star places, they supposedly have very good food). Out in the boonies, the main restaurants are in the hotels, and the ones we had were pretty decent. The alternative restaurants in the towns/villages looked risky. Especially out in the boonies, I recommend sticking with at least a decent hotel. You either eat at the restaurant so to avoid any problems, or you take your risks and enjoy the convenience and luxury of the clean and private bathrooms when the gamble goes the wrong way.

The unfortunate side is that most reasonable clean restaurants in the boonies cater to tourists, and they all feature a variety of tagines, couscous, omlettes and brochettes (kebabs) that get repetitive after a while. The more adventurous street food is more interesting, but you know how that goes.

We didn't book any of the hotels personally, so I'm not sure about the price. In Marrakech we were housed in the Riad Omar, right by the square. I'd recommend staying at a nicer Riad close to the center of the medina just once during the trip, the experience is worth it. Note that most Riads are older buildings, and while they may be decorated nicely and air conditioned, there will be issues like poor sound insulation or poor drainage. If you need privacy, you ought to specify it. I noticed the Riad Omar had some suites that were not facing the main atrium and hence were much quieter.

The nightlife in most cities seem to be centered around hotel bars and discos in the nicer hotels. And in almost all the cities, these tend to be in the hotels in the ville nouvelle instead of in the medina. If you want to stay up, you should stay near these places. Our timing was low season, so the two bars we tried checking out were both pretty dismal. I recommend just not planning for this. Walk the medina till it closes, and then go to bed.

Yes, these are an intrinsic part of Moroccan life and not to be missed. I put it off until the end of the trip, and by that time I was a little weary and not too adventurous, so I skipped out on the public bath experience.

If you've been to another developing nation, Morocco isn't too much of a shock. If you've only lived in develop nations, it could take a bit of getting used to. Note that the main languages are Arabic, French, and in the rural areas, Berber. It seems like you can get almost anywhere with Arabic, and all but the most rural places in French. At tourist destinations, you'll find that a number of locals know Spanish, and a good deal know a few words of Japanese, at least enough to try to sell you something. I highly recommend on brushing up on the French. It's absolutely worth it. You'll find a decent number of English speakers in tourist areas, but even there you may occasionally find English useless. Once you're out of a tourist hotspot, English is rare.

If you're Asian, you'll likely get pestered unceasingly with "konnichiwa" and "arrigato", especially in more commercial tourist areas. I've noticed that I got less attention travelling alone than when I was with Jason (greater spending power between 2 people?). You'll also notice yourself being stared at a lot, especially from kids. I got used to being a novelty.

My impression of most Moroccans are that they carry themselves with a very stern and almost angry face, but that is merely a facade, and most everyone I've talked to was warm and welcoming. If you find yourself lost, often you can smile and ask a stony faced old man, and he'll break into a smile and give you all the help he can. You'll find a lot of people will approach and talk to tourists. I started out suspicious of everyone, but it seemed to come down to some people wanting to sell you bring you to a friend or family member's store, sell you drugs, beggars or just want to have a friendly conversation. Of all of these, I found the drug dealers the most amicable. They'll start up a chat, and after getting friendly, they'll offer drugs. If you turn them down, they'll let you go in a most friendly way. Beggars, Conversationalists and salesmen are much more difficult to get rid of, and it's hard to tell the difference between latter the two. I have been wary about pickpockets trying to distract me with conversation while working, but I have usually had my hands in my pockets and never run into problems here.

Getting In and Out of Country
For the sake of expediency, we flew in from Malaga to Casablanca, and for cost, we took EasyJet from Marrakech to London on the way out. Orbitz featured some really cheap fares from Malaga on Regional Air Lines. However, you can't actually buy them on Orbitz, and in reality these fares no longer exist. It's actually quite pricey to fly from Malaga to Casablanca.

I talked to a number of people who drove down to Gibraltar and took the ferry over. Apparently the ferry cost of a car with two people is almost equivalent to two people travelling without a car. I found that hard to believe. It's also possible to bus down to Gibraltar and take the ferry, but I've had numerous people recommend me against taking the ferry from Gibraltar to Tangier, unless you know what you're doing. Apparently there's a lot of frauds at the station, and it's easy to get onto a fake taxi or what not and get ripped off.

The best prices for flights to Morocco from North America seems to be via some European city where you can find a discount airline that flies to Marrakech, Tangier, or Casablanca. There's a number of discount airlines in Europe. EasyJet and RyanAir, based in the UK, seem to be really big ones, and Atlas-Blue is a discount airline that services Morocco (mostly Marrakech) to a few other European cities including Paris. Note that the discount airlines usually offer flights from a secondary airport, so, for example, if you travel to London Heathrow, you'll need to transfer over to Gatwick or Stansted which takes a significant amount of time. I'd recommend staying a day or two in the European city of choice just to make it worthwhile. This part does take a deal of research, especially if you end up planning a multi-hop vacation (but I think it's worth it).

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