Transportation in Morocco

by Karen

We used a wide variety of transportation in Morocco, from buses, planes, trams, vans, trains, and even camels. 😉

It is actually fairly easy to get around in Morocco between cities. The major cities are linked by train and bus (coach) routes, both of which are cheap and very comfortable. Getting to the desert cities, you may need to either rent a car (cheap, and negotiable if you rent locally, I met a Bulgarian couple who rented a car for 25€/day), or hire a driver. Gas is also relatively cheap in Morocco, much of the it comes from Saudi Arabia, and the countries’ monarchies have close ties.
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Trains
ONCF (www.oncf.com) is the primary railway system in Morocco, similar to Amtrak in the US. The trains are very comfortable, clean, and fast. Tickets are easily purchased at kiosks in train stations, and you can purchase them on the day of your travel. You can purchase either First Class tickets or Second Class (Economy). The tickets are relatively cheap, we rode in First Class for all our journeys, and it never cost more than $30/person per ticket.
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For longer journeys, like Fes-Meknes-Rabat-Marrakech, First Class seats are divided into compartments of six with a sliding glass door.
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For shorter journeys, like Rabat-Casablanca, the seats are reminiscent of airplane cabins, but with much more ample legroom.
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The one downside is that there’s a chance the stations may not be announced, so always ask an enployee if you’re not sure or check the platform signs. Our journey times were:
45 mins – Fez-Meknes
2 hrs – Meknes-Rabat
1.5 hrs – Rabat-Casablanca

Buses (Coaches)
We took the bus once, from Marrakech to Essaouira, and it ended up costing about the same as a train ticket. The bus we took belonged to the Supr@tours company, and was about a 4 hr ride. You will need to purchase a separate ticket for each piece of luggage going into the hold, which is just 5Dh. It was a nice clean bus, nothing special, similar to a Greyhound or Megabus.

Personal Drivers
For 5 days, we hired a personal driver to take us out into the desert (it was actually a part of our itinerary). While we’re not entirely sure how much it cost (I’m guessing it was expensive), part of our trip costs went directly into his stipend for food, gas, and lodgings, and did not include tip. The van we rode in was comfortable, although sometimes the driver liked to roll down the windows, letting dust & pollution flow into the van.

This might be a good option if travelling to remote & unfamiliar areas. You can also hire a taxi to drive you out, but again, you’ll need to negotiate on price, and consider that taxis are making 2 trips–one to drive you out, and another to drive themselves back home (so figure your tip accordingly). It generally would take us anywhere between 4-6 hours to get between the desert towns.
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Trams
Of the cities we’ve visited during our Morocco trip, only Rabat & Casablanca had trams running through the cities. Rabat’s looks much newer, and covers all major attractions and landmarks, and also has tram stops in front of their two major railroad depots. Casablanca, to be fair, is a much larger city, and is still in the process of building new stations and lines. One way tickets are less than $1.
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Airlines & Airports
We flew in via Marrakech on easyJet, and flew out from Casablanca on Air Arabia Maroc. Both airlines were comfy, and check-ins were very easy. Booking online with Air Arabia was a bit of a hassle, since the price kept fluctuating with every refresh, and my credit card kept being rejected. Eventually, I was forced to use a 3rd party travel site notorious for cheating its customers in order to book the tickets. But fortunately, everything went smoothly at the airport, even though we had to check-in via ticket counter.

One thing we noticed: both easyJet (at CDG) and Air Arabia (at CMN) did not weigh our bags. For all the hype they drummed up about baggage weight & size restrictions, it seemed like nobody cared. For reference, we are using the 55-liter Osprey Farpoint backpacks.

We’ve learned (from reading various guidebooks) that for the cheapest airfares to Morocco, always fly out of Paris, or anywhere in France. Contrary to popular belief (and to our surprise), Spain or Portugal are not the best places to fly into Morocco, due to lack of cheap flights and choices. Morocco is a major vacation destination for many French tourists (think Florida or Bahamas for the US), and there are always cheap deals from Paris airports. easyJet and Ryanair usually have flight deals to Morocco.

The major (cheapest) airports in Morocco are Casablanca, Fez, and Marrakech. Some (pricier) flights may also go to Agadir, Rabat, and Tangier. Marrakech’s airport is somewhat small and can be chaotic as everyone is funneled into the same arrival room. Casablanca’s airport is pretty westernized. Both airports are quite far from their town centers, it took us almost an hour for either direction.
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Scooters/Mopeds
Just sharing an anecdote: a Maltese couple told me how they were able to rent a scooter in Marrakech for 20€ for the entire day, no license or verification needed, and despite the fact that the driver had a visibly broken ankle (limping & bandages). You can drive in the streets & alleyways, just try not to hit pedestrians or donkeys. 😉
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Cats of Morocco

by Karen

There are a lot of stray cats in Morocco. A LOT. Imagine going to New York City and replacing all mice and rats on the streets with cats.

Why so many cats? One of our guides said that stray cats were considered “community cats,” and that some were well-fed and “watched over” by people in the neighborhood (not directly taken care of). The cats mainly hunt rats and mice for sport, but prefer eating leftover scraps from litter. Apparently the cats are less prone to rabies than dogs, which is why you very rarely see stray dogs (or dogs in general) in Morocco, since many are killed off. The cats peacefully coexist with people, never shy away, and somehow know their boundaries.

There were many cats of all shapes and sizes, some bony and mangy, others quite fat. A rescue shelter would have a field day. It’s only a matter of time before the cats band together and form an army and take over the country from its human overlords (like pigeons in America).

Look, but don’t touch!

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Camels! In the Sahara!

by Karen

We were dropped off at our hotel in Merzouga at the edge of the Sahara Desert. Then we proceeded to ride our camels out for an hour, watched the sun set, and rode a bit further to camp, where we ate dinner. We were joined by couples from Bulgaria, Malta, and France, and I was able to chat with them throughout the night, getting their perspectives in traveling around Morocco. Unfortunately, Mark wasn’t feeling too good, and ended up throwing up his dinner. 😦

On the flip side, we both were able to take a peek at the night sky and see a ton of stars. I climbed a sand dune next to our camp (it’s a lot harder than it looks), and just perched myself on the top. The view was breathtaking.

Anyway, camels. Sahara. Wow.

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Thanks, buddy, go get some rest!

Ourika Valley, High Atlas Mountains

by Karen
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Ourika Valley is nestled within the heart of the High Atlas Mountains, about 45 mins east-ish of Marrakech. Most people usually visit as a day trip, then return to the city. It’s mostly hiking trails, beautiful (lush!) scenery, picturesque villages, and waterfalls that draw tourists to the area.
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We pretty much spent our 1.5 days hiking up mountains and enjoying the scenery. The afternoon we arrived at our hotel, we decided to check out the waterfall. It was a bit underwhelming (and overcrowded), having already seen magnificent waterfalls in Iceland.
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The hiking was strenuous, but good, it was about a 3hr hike roundtrip. Our guide from the hotel, Ahmed, didn’t speak any English at all, but we managed to be able to understand each other.
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To get to the trail, we had to catch a local “bus”, which was essentially a van with as many people squeezed in as possible. It was a fun adventurous ride, albeit watching your driver take sharp turns along cliffsides and driving onto oncoming traffic can cause quite an adrenaline rush.
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At the bottom of these cliffs was a large riverbed, which at the moment is quite dry. The river usually fills up during the winter rains. But for now, the dry river provides for nice cafe seating.
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Our second day was the big hike. The hotel owner recommended us to take this trail, which would give us excellent views of the valley, and allow us to visit a Berber village. He was right; despite the altitude sickness and heat, the valley was gorgeous, and not something we’d expected to see in Morocco, land of deserts and dried-up rivers.

It took us approximately 4 hours to reach the village. We took many breaks along the way, and I was quite embarrassed about how out of shape I was (our guide was 60, and he was running up the mountain!)
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The owner of the hotel had even arranged a cooking lesson for me from one of his chefs, since I mentioned that I loved to cook. I was able to eat the result, a tasty tagine of kefta meatballs.
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In all, we enjoyed our stay in Ourika Valley. It was a nice mixture of relaxation and hiking, and wish we could’ve stayed an extra day.
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Tagines

by Karen

Tagines are a traditional Moroccan dish, named after the vessel they are cooked in. It’s pretty much the Moroccan equivalent of a crock pot. They are sold everywhere in markets, but I’ll have to settle for a $10 crock pot when I get back, because tagines are heavy and huge! It looks like a giant cone-shaped vessel, and typically made out of clay. The lid is a dome that seals in the moisture while your food cooks, and when served, the contents are still sizzling. Meat & veggie tagines are commonly served at Moroccan restaurants. However, it takes a while to cook these dishes, so expect to have a long dinner when ordering one of these.
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The owner of our B&B in Ourika Valley was kind enough to hook me up with a cooking lesson from one of his chefs on how to make a tagine dinner. He showed me (roughly) how to make a Kefta Tagine, which is like a seasoned meatball dish.

Ingredients
– 1 tsp cumin powder
– 1 tsp salt
– 1/2 tsp pepper
– 1/2 tsp ginger powder
– 1 tsp tumeric powder
– 1/2 “teacup” olive oil
– 1 onion, minced
– 2 tomatoes, peeled & diced
– 1 bunch of parsley, chopped
– 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
– 1 sprig of rosemary (optional)
– ground beef, rolled into balls
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The chef used a small spoon (looked like a teaspoon) when measuring out the spices, so I don’t have the exact measurements (the ones above are estimates). He also used a heaping spoonful for most spices, so I assume it’s to taste. Also for olive oil he eyeballed it, but he said about “1/2 of a teacup”, so make of that what you will.

Directions

Dump the chopped onions & spices & oil into the tagine and heat it on high. You can just put the tagine on an open flame (gas stove) or use an electric stove. Mix it all up, then dump the parsley & cilantro in. Wait a few mins, then dump the tomatoes in.

Stir, and let cook for about 10 mins with the lid on. Keep stirring every so often.
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Take your rolled-up ground beef and carefully place it into the stew. Cover and let cook for about 10 mins, then reduce the heat to medium-low and let sit for about 45 mins.

You can add a sprig of rosemary for flavor.

Voila! Kefta tagine!

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Essaouira – A Quiet Little Seaside Town

by Karen

I’ll be honest, Marrakech was wonderful in all its sights and smells, people, foods, and activities, but it was somewhat mentally stressful. Yes, we had culture shock, and we always had our guard up. We’d been pickpocketed (thankfully for us, both attempts were unsuccessful), chased after by “local guides”, and harrassed by market vendors. Getting lost in a labyrinth of neverending dark alleyways with no street signs, landmarks, lights, or noises can be very scary. We could never truly relax. And on that note, we were off to the next place on our itinerary, Essaouira!

(The bus from Marrakech to Essaouira is 140DH, runs 8x/day, and is a 3hr ride, with pit stop. You’ll also need to buy a separate ticket for your luggage, 5DH per bag.)
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Essaouira is a complete breath of fresh air, both literally and figuratively. It sits right on the Atlantic coast, with great views of the ocean and sunset. It used to be a fortified city in the 18th century, and the town itself is still surrounded by remnants of its walls and towers. On the pier, surrounded by brightly-painted blue rowboats and fishing vessels, is what remains of the Essaouira Ramparts, with beautiful views of the town itself, and providing soldiers a tactical vantage point to fire upon enemies invading its waters.
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Essaouira is also refreshingly small. At least the town within the city walls. Whereas Marrakech was a jumble of streets, Essaouira only has two major streets, both completely parallel to each other, with the smaller side streets in a gridlike pattern (more or less). You could get lost, but it would be very easy to find your way again. You could also easily walk the whole town within two hours.
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Because of its small size, there really aren’t many attractions in the area. This is a place to unwind, relax, catch some sun, and enjoy the ocean breeze. There is a very big beach that gets crowded in the summer. The Ramparts are the only main attraction here. There are a lot of tourists in town, but the atmosphere here is very chill, relaxed, and calm. The street vendors are not aggressive. We felt extremely lazy here, and we were totally ok with it.
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On the pier, there is are several fish stalls where you can order a plate of fish, and they grill it right in front of you. All the stall prices are fixed, so there’s no danger of being cheated. The fish is also fresh, as the fishing boats come back to harbor around noon with the day’s catch (so it’s best to go at lunchtime!). The sardines are probably some of the best I’ve ever had. On the flip side, we will probably stay away from street food for the rest of our stay in Morocco, as the aftermath of the experience is not something we’d want to try again!
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We stayed at Riad Chakir Mogador, conveniently located next to one of the main streets. It was nice when we’d buy stuff and think “Oh, let’s just go drop this off at our room,” or if there was an emergency, “Oh, let’s go back to our room and use the bathroom.” It’s probably bigger than the riad we stayed at in Marrakech, but a lot cozier and homey.
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Some people stay in Essaouira for a few days, others stay for weeks. We’re only here for 2 nights, but wish we could’ve stayed a 3rd, just to unwind a bit more. 🙂
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Moroccan Cuisine photos

via our Facebook page:

Unfortunately, I think our stomachs have shrunken down considerably since we started our trip. Which is a shame, because there’s a lot of good-looking food we’ve had to skip.

Here’s some Moroccan food porn. Usually the appetizer is a salad or Moroccan lentil soup & bread, the main course is a tagine, and dessert is seasonal fruit.

@ http://www.facebook.com/pages/p/190184244496819