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Don’t Miss these 5 Authentic Experiences in Morocco
One way to describe the feeling of experiencing Morocco is – out of our comfort zone – well it was for me anyway. Sometimes it felt that every step, every word, every sight was a challenge of the accustomed western norms, but could we really call it an “experience” if it wasn’t?
Morocco is a country that will prove the idea that getting out of our comfort zone is where life happens.
It’s easy to marvel at the differences in way of life around the world, take some photos, but being a part of it takes something more. And it’s not as complicated as our hesitant egos make it out to be when we’re convincing ourselves to stick to what we know and stay on the beaten path.
So here’s where you can start to get authentic and experience the real Morocco. And some of these tips can be applied generally to almost any travel destination.
As an aside: These tips are coming to you from someone whose nature is to avoid all that is uncomfortable but who has been able to push the limits of these boundaries, though not always willingly. Hope this article will help others find opportunities to do the same.
1. Eat at local restaurants (not always touristy places with English menus)
The first couple tips are all about food- why? Because food is culture and many traditions in Morocco, and around the world, revolve around food. To miss eating the way Moroccans eat (not just what they eat) is to miss something great.
That’s to say, you can eat a tagine or couscous in a hotel restaurant almost anywhere but until you sit down in a “hole in the wall” local place, pull the bread apart with you hands, scoop up some meat or veggies then lick your fingers of the flavourful sauce, you’ll have just grazed the surface of Moroccan food.
So keep an eye out (even when you’re not hungry) for places with lots of locals. Not cafés where there are just lots of men, but sandwich shops, kebab or grilled meat stands or with traditional tagines on humble display with people munching. You might have to adjust to later eating times to see the crowds, since Moroccans have what might be known as a Mediterranean eating schedule, dinner often after 9pm.
Also, some of the coastal ports have seafood “street kitchens”- open air restaurants – like in Agadir.
2. Try the hanging meat, freshly BBQed
Similar to suggestion number one but encouraging people who are not used to hanging carcasses out in the open takes special effort. Many of us aren’t used to seeing the animal we’re about to eat so close to the state it was when living. But freshly grilled meat – it’s something to be relished. So much of our food comes from supermarkets these days – when you get a chance to eat fresh… take it.
Along the roadside and highways, especially, there are eateries that look more like a butcher shop but you can see the smoke coming from the grill close by. You can order the meat ground (haché), cubed (en carreaux), or mixed with herbs and spices (called: ketfa) and they usually have bread and french fries as a tasty accompaniment.
Once we stopped at the roadside, we were packed in the car driving from Marrakesh to Casablanca in the middle of the day with no air conditioning, sweat beads dripping from our brows, as you can imagine. We sat down at this place with the smoking BBQ and I thought- how am I possibly going to eat in this heat? But there must be something in the food that makes the heat bearable and it was just so tasty -the heat was almost forgotten. Until we got back on the road…
3. Refresh yourself with fresh juice
I’ve never had better, fresher juice than in Morocco. Move over Florida oranges, Marrakesh makes a mean freshly squeezed. (Though I still only buy Tropicana in the UK and Canada)
And it’s not just orange juice. Beyond the many stands of Jemaa El-Fnaa, the main square in Marrakesh, and all over the
country there are juice shops with the tastiest avocado, papaya, banana and mixed flavors… Just look for a shop, like a small café, with a counter, a few tables and fruit piled high and hanging from the ceiling all around. My favorite is the less sweet avocado (“avocat” in French) or the mix of different fruits together (called “panashé”).
*One note on eating fresh in Morocco- be prepared. Bring medication related to digestion problems – don’t hope it doesn’t happen, don’t avoid all the tasty stuff and don’t forget the Imodium at home. It can ruin your trip, being sick and spending you time in the bathroom. Drink lots of bottled-only water too (for the heat and your stomach).
Finally- if you generally have digestion problems tread very carefully on the suggestions above, you know yourself best. I was “sick” the first 2 times I went to Morocco – the second time I was prepared though and it was fine.
4. Get a “gommage” at the hammam
Now moving on from food, there are some bathing and business practices which round off an authentic Moroccan experience.
“Hammam” is bath in Arabic, so a hammam is basically a public bath. While the spa versions set up for tourists are not so unfamiliar, some locations and some services may put foreigners in situations we don’t often find ourselves, like being scrubbed down by a half naked Moroccan with an exfoliation mitt and no shame. This is “gommage”. The ultimate body scrub.
After applying the special “savon noir” (black soap) and sitting in the hot steam, your skin will be softened up and ready for the treatment. Once you have seen the dead skin that comes off you’ll see why people do it – you feel like new. Old layers washed away. And it’s best to do before trying to tan (though not directly before – ouch) because it will let your skin tan from the bottom layer up, I guess you could say. Also the tanned skin may be exfoliated away otherwise.
Note: Don’t be afraid to say your limits to the person giving the gommage- cover up what you want to keep covered.
In Casablanca I can recommend Hammam Ziani. It’s got an authentic feel and is at a level in between the true local hammams where you sit/lay on the floor and the touristy high end spas. It’s comfortable, affordable, clean and service is ok. You still get the feeling you’re in Morocco. They also have a location in Marrakesh – I haven’t been there but reviews seem ok on TripAdvisor.
5. Be ready to bargain
Now this is easier said than done, and will come only with practice (unless you’re born with the “haggle gene” like Moroccan and other Arab cultures). But you have to haggle to get the real Moroccan feel to the markets – this is how they do business. Whether buying a wedding caterer or a t-shirt, it’s all about the gift of gab and the relationship.
The best advice I can give to get you into the mindset is not to think of the sale as a simple exchange but a conversation leading to a possible transaction. Nothing is sure until the money is exchanged.
Forget that they may be trying to charge you triple the price because you’re a foreigner, which may annoy you, and just work towards getting a good price. Don’t let yourself feel pressured for time or to make a decision – these things take time. Oh the hours we’ve spent in the souks in negotiation…
They will push and you may really want that wooden camel souvenir for your grandma but if you don’t like the price or the situation, move on. There will be more souvenirs… endless shops of souvenirs in the medinas. Also the “walk away” technique may just be the push the vendors needs to drop the price.
One final thing to remember when bargaining is that a foreigner is always foreigner to them. It’s highly unlikely you’ll get the Moroccan price for anything. Even Moroccan families travelling with a foreigner family member have to hide the fact in order to get the best price. That’s just the way it is – so consider how much you’d pay without regretting it and take home some great memories and a few trinkets too.
So there you have it. If you can dive into at least a couple of these Moroccan delights, you can be satisfied you’ve dug a little deeper and seen a side of Morocco often only reserved for locals.
And, one last authentic experience…
Haven’t got your fill of Morocco just yet? Check out our travel magazine Morocco issue in our free magazine app!