My last full day in Morocco was one solely dedicated to travel. Not the fun sort, just a long series of stuffy buses to journey from Chefchaouen, up north, to Marrakesh, for next day’s flight. So, it’s strange that there would be such highs and such lows, as a good 10 hours were spent reading, and gazing out the window at dusty road upon dusty road…
A low came in the form of having to change buses in Casablanca. Not something that would ordinarily incur such dread, but entering what I guessed was Casablanca’s bus station made me realise that this assumption would stay an assumption.
The signs were only in Moroccan Arabic.
If I had chosen to take French for GCSE I might have been in an easier position with regards to communication, but, no, 100% irrelevant ‘Classical Civilisation’ was chosen over it, and guesswork it would be.
The chaotic, crowded transport hub implied to me we were where I suspected, as Casablanca is Morocco’s largest city. But upon disembarking, I remained none the wiser, even after a good half hour of strolling under the harsh, midday sun. Getting a bus to Marrakesh was to be no easy feat, especially as if I walked anywhere near one of the hundreds of buses in the station, I was immediately surrounded by hordes of men selling tickets for everything but, it seemed, my destination. Thankfully, after a near break-down, a stern pep talk and another lap of the station I found eventual success. And after a mere half hour’s unexplained delay, I was off.
Getting to my hostel from Marrakesh’s bus station proved a further obstacle. The well-meaning taxi driver had given vague instructions when he ditched me somewhere outside the walls of the city’s medina. But the narrow, maze-like streets, tricky for even locals, remained impossible to navigate. Another regret from school: wasting time on Gold Duke of Edinburgh.
Fast-forward an hour of looking like the most clueless tourist that has ever walked (read: grumpily trudged) the face of the earth, and tears were worryingly close. Approaching breaking point, and with feet ever sorer and a bag ever heavier, I found God.
God, in this situation, turned out to be a TripAdvisor sticker. A beacon of hope, a symbol of safety. A sign that directions asked for would be both truthful and provided with tourists in mind i.e in English. A stunning rarity. The man working at the restaurant evidently felt so sorry for me that he offered me a lift on his motorbike. Not the ideal proposition from any sort of safety perspective, but it turned out an unusually swift, easy journey. And one which was to restore my faith in humanity, after various episodes that had proved Morocco to be not altogether kind to solo female travellers.
Upon eventually reaching the hostel, the staff were lovely, and went beyond the usual ‘pointing out landmarks on a map’ to genuine, engaging conversation. They even offered to share their dinner with me. I rejected on the grounds that I was so hungry I’d eat the lot, and wandered into Jemaa el-Fnaa, the hub of all activity in Marrakesh. Since nothing I had eaten thus far in Morocco had disappointed (even if it had been fairly samey) I picked the nearest restaurant, with a balcony overlooking the square. The tagine was phenomenally good, bettered only by the gorgeous view of the sun setting over the city’s marketplace:
For a city that I had, prior to this evening, had more of a hate-hate relationship with, this changed everything. Now full, relaxed and very happy, it struck me what a roller-coaster of emotion the past seven days had been.
Travelling alone in Morocco is both difficult and rewarding in equal measures. In just one week of exploring the vibrant, beautiful country I had learnt so much.
It is an incredibly patriarchal country, and for western feminists in particular, this can be a shock to the system. Men’s sense of entitlement there, combined with the fact you will stand out no matter what you do, means that unwanted attention is an inevitability.
At the friendlier end of the spectrum, this translates to incessant hassling on the streets and calls to purchase goods. If you’re chatty but firm when necessary, fine. If more introverted, it’s a little more problematic.
But, at the darker end of the spectrum, the cultural differences and perceptions of foreigners can lead to more worrying behaviour. When I wandered round Marrakesh’s side streets one afternoon, I was followed by a boy, no older than 10, who repeatedly pleaded with me to sleep with him. It would have been comical, had he not refuted my attempts to shake him off and stalked me all the way back to my hostel.
Anecdotes such as these are not completely avoidable, but there definitely are ways to minimise the chances of them happening. With that in mind, here are 5 key tips I picked up to help any solo female traveller take Morocco by storm:
Look the part
You’d think dressing modestly would be too obvious a suggestion, but apparently not for the sizable minority of tourists in Morocco sporting denim hot-pants and vest tops.
As a general rule I’d advise to always cover knees and shoulders, and to avoid bodycon and cleavage at all cost.
My friend always carried round a headscarf ‘in-case she felt uncomfortable’, something I didn’t feel the need to do, but a cardigan in my bag always came in handy. And sunglasses are effective at making you more powerful celeb and less clueless wanderer.
The staring really can be off-putting. It was very different to in China, where I pointed out, it is done in a more flattering, innocent way. So, if it really gets to you, go for baggy T-shirts and trousers over skirts and dresses. Sadly, but truthfully, the more ‘overtly feminine’ you look, the more you’ll probably be sexualised or objectified.
Morocco’s old towns are beautiful to photograph, amble through and haggle in. But though they remain buzzing till surprisingly late, they’re not an ideal place to get lost, particularly when some crafty Moroccans demand payment in return for directions.
The best thing to do is to screenshot Google Map directions to where you want to go, and back again. Also, use and abuse (in a nice way) the generosity of hostel or hotel owners. Ask them to recommend restaurants etc. and draw out or give a map to you.
Walking with a male friend is very effective if you’re tired of getting hassled in the streets. People assume (i.e hope) that you are married, and don’t dare cat-call. Not the ideal, but worth knowing. Get befriending.
And if you do find yourself alone one evening, as I did in Marrakesh, it’s worth asking for a hostel or restaurant owner to accompany you on a walk (back to your hostel, or at least from a smaller side street to a busier main one).
P.S The Sahara is a must, but it’s not worth venturing there alone: it’s far away and a big hassle. Ask pretty much anywhere in Marrakesh or Fez and you can get a one or two night organised tour to the dunes near Merzouga for a decent price. You’ll get transport, a decent hotel en-route, camel rides and more.
The old saying ‘fake it til you make it’ has never rung truer than in Morocco. Not sure of where you’re going? Stride confidently nevertheless.
The last thing you want to do is look like the obvious tourist that you are, partly because that’s uncool, partly because vulnerability makes you more susceptible to scams (read up on a common one here. Oh, and beware of ‘helpful’ passers-by telling you a road ahead is closed and offering to accompany you to safety).
It’s best to remain polite but firm in any interaction. If someone is trying to lead you somewhere the simplest thing to do is ignore them completely, but if you feel rude then calmly explain that you already have plans, you are off to meet a friend and walk calmly away. The longer you leave it or walk aside them, the harder it is to avoid giving money.
Use common sense
If someone seems like they’re asking for a lot of money, they probably are. The attitude towards foreigners is that they’re wealthy and not the brightest, so it’s hardly surprising that Moroccans, who are likely much poorer than you, will try and take advantage of this.
So, use common sense when paying. But, also don’t be embarrassingly stingy or haggle for hours. You’ll never get prices that locals do, and why should you? They could do with the money more than you.
That being said, remember that no price is fixed, so take everything with a pinch of salt. Cab drivers likely won’t use a meter, so agree on a price before getting in, and remain alert.
Plan itinerary thoughtfully
Morocco is incredibly diverse, and sticking to just cities or just one region means you won’t be seeing it at its best. Staying only in Marrakesh, or even just in Fez, is something I wouldn’t advise as a solo female traveller. The bustling markets and busy streets can get tiring for even the most strong, independent woman.
Casablanca is Morocco’s most cosmopolitan city, so head there if you’re looking for a slightly lesser culture shock. Better still, head to Chefchaouen or Essaouira. The former is a stunning, laid-back mountain town and the latter is a liberal, coastal haven. Both are gorgeous, atmospheric and provide a respite from the sometimes overwhelming cities.
P.S When arranging transport to and from these Moroccan gems, the best bus companies to go for are CTM and Supratour. Not only are they reasonably priced, they’re also designed with tourists in mind i.e have air con.
Ultimately, your Moroccan adventure is what you make of it. At times the cultural barriers can be immensely frustrating. But what’s the point of travel if not to experience other ways of life? It won’t always be an easy ride, particularly as a female travelling alone, but the sights more than make up for the hardships.
There’s not many countries that take you from dazzling mountain ranges, to vibrant souks, to stunning sand dunes in a matter of hours.