Morocco is an exotic destination located in northwest Africa that is on the bucket list for many people. The textile, the colors, the diverse landscape between the beaches, mountains, city life, and the countryside with Olive trees framing the north and Argan trees framing the south. Many come solely for the purpose of tasting the Moroccan food with their variety of aromatic spices: a mixture of Arabic, African, European, Middle-Eastern cuisine, since geographically, the country sits as a connector through the Tangier port, which sits in the center of 2 continents. It is considered the middle east, located the most west, with dozens of cultural and historical influences. Lastly, most envision the romanticism of Morocco as with picturesque camels and Berbers walking during sunrise & sunset through the Sahara desert.
I have wanted to travel to Morocco since I heard about this country over 15 years ago. As I began to travel to other countries, it had always been on my mind but I hesitated to go, alone at least (which I don’t hesitate with most countries), because of some of the notorious reputation Morocco has had for visitors and women especially, with many rumors coming from people that had never even traveled there. It also takes a special kind of traveller, an adventurous type of soul to fully enjoy a trip there. The Middle-East in general is portrayed solely in a negative light in Western Media, so I can see where all the fears were been derived from. Having been to a handful of countries in the Middle-East, I am here to dispel some of those negative preconceived notions of traveling and life there, while giving you precautions of what to expect, what to pack, and how to make the most of your trip.
Cities do vary throughout Morocco on crime and annoyance level. The safest I felt was in Essaouira, Chefchaouen, Marrakech, the countryside and smaller towns, while I have heard Tangier and Fes are sketchier and have higher annoyance levels from touts.
Drop Islamophobia & Embrace Yourself in the Culture
The answer to whether or not it is safe to travel to Morocco as a woman, solo or with friends, is a complicated answer. The short answer is yes, you will be overall safe but as in every day life, there are no guarantees. The fact is that America has had more mass shootings than anywhere else in the world (and in history) is a telltale that the rest of the world isn’t all so scary anymore, to put it into perspective. But Americans have become somewhat immune to this, whether turning on the news or twitter channel and hearing of “another mass shooting today”. Just the way that Californians are less fearful of Earthquakes while on the other side of the coast, Floridians are more use to tornados.
Yet, when we have an Islamic-related crime in America, people tend to freak out way more than when it’s a “mentally-ill” Caucasian male committing the same crime. Needless to say, Islamophobia is very real in America and that goes right along with fears of traveling to the Middle-East and unfortunately towards the people as well.
While I answered yes to it being overall safe to travel to, is it an easy country to travel through? Depends which cities you are in, but no I wouldn’t rate it not on the ‘easy scale’. If you are looking for a comfortable, safe, easy destination for your next trip, I would recommend going to Switzerland, Japan or Taiwan. But if you are looking for an adventure, a challenging yet rewarding destination to go to.
If you have a yearning for:
- A cultural immersion so different than your own
- Want to taste new spices and Moroccan culinary delights
- Indulge in the best Hammam spa getaways
- Amazing shopping experiences for clothing & furniture
- Explore gorgeous Moorish architecture & design
- Meet some of the warmest people in the world
Then.. I would highly recommend going to Morocco. Yes, even as a solo female. I did it and I loved every moment!
Arriving in Morocco
As I arrived in the Marrakech airport, I was surprised by how clean and organized it was. I didn’t know what to expect coming out of the airport. I wondered “would it be like India’s beyond-packed airports with hundreds of cab drivers/tourism companies swarming at you for business?”
Surprisingly, it was practically empty outside the airport with a few cab drivers smoking cigarettes by their cab not aggressively approaching for business, ‘whew!‘ This would be a foreshadowing of the laid back life in Morocco.
My airport pickup awaited outside for me with a sign, with classic arabic hospitality, taking my luggage to his van and welcoming me to his country. Welcome to The Magical Kingdom of Morocco. We drove 25 minutes into what they call the Red City of Marrakech, where I booked my first 2 nights’ stay at Riad Sidi Omar. The main options for hotel accommodations are either to stay near or among the souks where Jemaa el-Fnaa Square is (a Marrakech landmark) in the Medina Quarter (built in 11th century), or 10 minutes away in the newer part of the city, where you find the modern 5 star hotels like the Mandarin Oriental or Four Seasons, Louis Vuitton stores and the hot restaurant & nightclub scene. You could also mix it up and split your time between the two.
Staying at a Family Owned Riad
I wanted the Old City experience and found great reviews on Tripadvisor and Hostelworld for Riad Sidi Omar, a Riad ran by the same family for generations. As I walked through the Souk to get to my hotel, I began to feel the eyes of men looking, and the shouts of “Where are you from!? Japan? China?”. As a seasoned traveler, it didn’t bother me so much. But as your first time, it can be scary and intimidating. It’s pretty standard when traveling to most places outside of the US. While it’s irritating and ignorant, don’t take it personal. Because I had mental preparation of this, I wasn’t so bothered by it. Is it much different than the white guy at the bar telling me he likes California Rolls after hearing I’m Chinese, or that he loves Asian girls?
After meeting Omar and Jawad, the brothers who manage and live at the Riad, they made me feel right at home. They assured me that Marrakech and most of Morocco is a safe place to travel through. That gave me some assurance hearing it from people that actually grew up here. I set out to wander the souks on my own and into the main square Jemaa el-Fnaa where one encounters what most imagine of Morocco: the snake charmers, the food stands selling a variety of bizarre foods like snails, skewers, goat heads, as well as mint tea stands, among more performers with monkeys & donkeys.
On this particular week, I was able to witness a peaceful union strike among teachers near the big postal office. On the first day, I did feel some annoyance from men trying to sell me things and some catcalling. I would then realize that Jemaa El-Fnaa is where most the touting is in all of Morocco.
By day two, I realized that once you stop and talk to them, whether to visit their stores, or to ask for directions, they would switch their aggressive tone. 99% of the time, the men became less intimidating and extremely helpful. In talking to other people that lived in Morocco, we seem to come into agreement that these men are not taught how to talk to tourists, and think that the best way to get their attention is from shouting since there are so much competition around. That put things into some perspective, because shopkeepers were shouting at men as well to come into their stores. Most the local men and women were genuinely curious where all the travelers were visiting from, because for many of them, they could not afford to travel outside their own country because of their financial situation. They also felt flattered that so many visitors want to visit their country that they love and so proud of.
Many in Morocco, as well as other developing countries, are considered ‘uneducated’ in terms of finishing middle-school or high school, but are self-taught, street educated and more internationally informed than many Americans. They are curious to learn about our culture, just like we are curious to learn about theirs, hence why we travel. I began to enjoy my conversations with these shop owners and their family members that came around always offering tea (they do not ever charge you for tea when offered in their stores).
Note: If any children or adults begin to follow you or offer to take you to your hotel or to be your tour guide for ‘free’, tell them no thank you and walk away. Most likely, they will ask you for a ‘tip’ at the end. But if you were to ask a shop owner for directions, they will not ask for any money.
When being catcalled or bothered, once you ignore them once or twice, they typically move on and will leave you alone. Crossing the line from verbal harassment to physical harassment is much more rare. It is important to mention though, that men are men, and many find foreign women exotic and do seek out pre-marital, or even marital affairs. It sounds crazy doesn’t it? Well not so much, since this happens everywhere in the world, in today’s time and as long as human society have existed!
Street Smarts, Experience & Grit Needed
I would not recommend traveling solo to Morocco as a first timer, but it’s not impossible either. If you are prepared, an experienced traveller, and/or a strong individual with street smarts, you should get by in Morocco just fine. I virtually had no issues traveling solo for 8 days on a loose agenda and is hands down one my favorite trips to date. I felt safer traveling there than in India (if one were to make the comparison). If you have friends to go with, sure it would be better, but don’t let that stop you from making a trip of your own. On the safe side, you can take an organized tour through companies like Intrepid or numbers of other ones found on Tripadvisor but that would cost you a lot more.
As with anywhere you travel to, whether in your neighborhood or abroad, the more confidence you show, the more that you act like you know what you are doing, the less people bother you. Walk with your head up, do your research before stepping out the door. Hold your ground, bargain and enjoy yourself.
Traveling to the Arab World as a Woman
The misconception with Muslim countries or in the Arab world, is that women are second class citizens and that they are all treated poorly. It is the case in some areas more than others and obviously differs from family to family. And while this does happen as the western media are never shy to show, it is not always the case. Arab men tend to be more protective of their families and their wive(s), but it does not necessarily translate to all being controlling or harmful. I actually feel a lot safer traveling through the Middle-East because of this reason, as long as you are dressed and act respectfully. If you do that and are still mistreated, then that is beyond anyone’s control, as that happens here in the US as well.
Do Dress Conservative
Now that brings a more complicated discussion, because in an ideal world, a man should treat a woman equally and respectfully despite how she acts or dressed, right? Yes. But let’s also bring in another perspective. In America, if a woman walks into the office, job interview, or even to a party in an inappropriate outfit, they will likely be treated (or judged) differently than if one were respectfully dressed for the occasion. Now let’s put that into perspective in when you visit a more conservative culture, like in the Middle-East and most of Asia where the belief of what is ‘appropriate’ differs. To them, wearing a spaghetti strap and shorts is dressing too risque. And quite frankly, you won’t find most Middle-Eastern men in tank top and shorts either.
I have heard females complaining about sexual harassment, then I see their travel photos of their short shorts/skirts and understand why that happened, even if it is not right, nor do they deserve that. This is what preparation is for, in which case brings what we call ‘luck‘ when traveling and in life.
The Quran does not state that the woman cover their face and body completely with a burka as you may see in Saudi Arabia or some parts of the Middle-East (not as common in Morocco), but it does suggest that a woman do not show curves or dress revealing which could entice other men sexually, who are not their husbands. You may not agree with this view, but you are a guest in their country, in their culture. Similar views go in other religions like Mormonism or Judaism, where orthodox women even in the US and Europe are covered up as well. It may not look as obvious as Muslim women, but instead of a hijab, orthodox Jewish women wear wigs to cover their real hair (hair can entice men too apparently). When you talk to some of these women, they have chosen to do so in respect to their religion, their husbands and families. It is easily misconstrued that the men have mandated that all the time.
Suspend your Judgement and your Prior Beliefs
Traveling far to another country to learn about their culture is what makes it so rewarding. But “ethnocentrism” is still so common, even without realizing it, I know I can be guilty of it at times. At times we go to poor countries, and we think “oh how blessed are we not to live that way”, but many of them are much happier than we are, so who is to say which way is the right way?
We as humans are used to what we know, in the place that we grew up, in the religion/culture we were brought up. So we begin to think that that is the ultimate truth. While many go abroad to travel, I find that many still act and speak in ways that make them seem superior.
They bring their own beliefs of what is ‘right’ to another culture. It is difficult to suspend your own belief system, for that is all you know. This is the case often of Westerners visiting the Middle-East. There is inevitably the ‘white-privilege‘ and ‘feminist approach‘ thought process of “Oh look at these poor muslim women, covered up like that. If only they could be free like us.”
Without actually engaging in conversations with these women one-on-one, it is unfair to judge that they are all unhappy because of a few stories one has heard. Many of them are in fact happy, because they are grateful for their health and balance of their family and kids, and because they are devout to their God and religion. Their society does need more improvement in human rights and women’s rights, but it does not mean that they are not happy now, as women’s rights in America did not even begin to advance until starting 60 years ago.
I challenge you to let go of your beliefs, and try to talk to as many women as possible without judging. This can happen on the plane, in restaurants, in spas, in the guesthouse you stay at.. anywhere!
Is It Safe to Travel to Morocco as a Woman?
I had heard mixed reviews through the years, some very extreme opposites on whether or not it is safe to travel as a woman there. As years went on and my desire to see this country for myself could wait no more, I began to do more research in the past year. I began to read dozens of travel blogs and forums written by women who had gone. Some stated that it was the most unbearable place they traveled to due to aggressive verbal harassment on the streets and touts bothering them to buy things.
On the other hand, I read just as many stories from men and women of all ages, stating that Morocco became their favorite country and of how amazing the hospitality was of the people there. With enough research, I concluded that while the men may catcall in the bigger cities, that they are for the most part harmless.
What I was most concerned about was the murder and rape statistics. Sexual harassment, whether verbal or physical, can happen anywhere. Just a few years ago, I was chased by a male near Union Square in San Francisco (who I don’t think was homeless), and it wasn’t until I ran into the department store screaming that he stopped. I have not had that happen to me anywhere else in the world. As I did my research for Morocco, I learned that murder and rape among tourists were very low compared to many other countries in the world, especially compared to the US. Many developing countries, like Thailand, Morocco and Cuba thrive on tourism, so repercussions from the government for crimes against tourists are taken very seriously.
That was enough for me to confidently book my roundtrip flight to Morocco early this year and set on my journey, which felt like a pilgrimage I needed to do on my own. My one-way flight from LAX to LHR (London Heathrow Airport) cost only 20,000 miles on American Airlines and then I booked a $60 flight on Ryans Air to Marrakech.
By chance, I had found out via social media that Katie, a traveller who had quit her corporate job in Recruitment whom I had met a few months before over Korean live sashimi & sushi through Dave, had been house/pet-sitting in the coastal beach town of Essaouira, Morocco for the past 2 months and would be free to meet for part of my visit there. We ended up renting a car and taking a roadtrip over the weekend from Essaouira to Chefchaouen, which was absolutely awesome!
Try to Blend In, to be Left Alone
What I have learned in my travels is that men find blonde women most exotic as it’s different from them, so I am left alone a bit more being an Asian traveller. If you are a blonde female, I recommend covering your hair and wearing sunglasses just to avoid the attention. That is the advice I give for anywhere you travel, the more you blend in, the less you stand out.
Dress conservative, I can’t emphasize this enough. While you may not agree with their religion or their customs, by dressing what is considered revealing to them, is a disrespect in their culture, and also makes you “a different kind of female” to them. This is not ‘right’ by any standards but that is the reality of their thinking so it is better to follow if you want to avoid attention. The best example I can give is if you were visiting a friend’s family home who tends to be more conservative, naturally, you are going to dress nicer, and more covered up, so that you are showing respect for their family and their home, and their family will in turn respect you more. But how often have we seen that scantily clad female at the wedding who’s dress is a little too short? Now translate this into visiting someone’s country. While I would identify myself as a feminist in that I believe in equal rights for women, when I am in someone else’s country, I respect their customs.
“Whenever you go on a trip to visit foreign lands or distant places, remember that they are all someone’s home and backyard.”
Even if it is hot in temperature, it will not be that much of a difference to cover your shoulder with a light scarf or a t-shirt. What I noticed too was that you would never see the men hollering at their own women, the local women were left alone. I also noticed men bending over, stopping to chat respectfully with beggar woman, bringing them food and giving money. The Quran like most religions suggests to give back to charity and help those in need.
While Middle-Eastern men, among many other cultures have been known to be chauvinistic, for many of them I also find chivalrous, in which the two notions can easily be crossed into slippery slopes. When I had asked the brothers at my Riad to walk with me at night or direct me some place, there was never any hesitation, not only as their guest, but also to make me feel safe. The same goes for any other time I needed directions in any part of Morocco, people were extremely helpful. Position yourself as a friend or a relative, as an equal for more respect. Of course you cannot control their minds, but dressing scantily clad or showing up to the streets intoxicated is not going to gain you that respect.
Most Hospitable Culture
Everywhere you go, arabic tea is offered, usually along with bread. Everyone makes you feel at home and that you are welcome. For many with friends from the Middle-East or have traveled there, whether in Morocco, Jordan, Dubai or even Saudi Arabia, the Arabic Hospitality is known to be the best. There is a Bedouin tale that even if the murderer who killed your family member were to arrive in your home, you should still feed them and provide the warmest hospitality, because they are your guest. Once the murderer leaves the tribal area though, that is a different story.
Ways to Make your Experience Safer:
Meet with Expats
Visit the Marrakech Henna Art Cafe, run by an american expat who has retired in Morocco and started this small business for fun. There is a strong emphasis on supporting local women by hiring them to design henna art, and in selling their crafts at the store. There are also events they put on weekly, and is a good place to meet other travelers and expats.
Take a Day Tour
While I’m not personally into organized week tours, I do enjoy day tours when visiting a city. I recommend Marrakech Food Tour, owned by husband and wife Amanda & Youssef. Amanda is an American expat who met Youssef over 11 years ago on a visit to Marrakech with her family. I did a private shopping/city tour with her during the day, and a food tour in the evening tasting 6-7 different authentic restaurants and thoroughly enjoyed it. Through conversations with Amanda, you will learn another perspective on Moroccan & Marrakech culture through the eyes of an American raised in Michigan, who have converted to Islam and have lived in Marrakech off and on for the last decade and is raising her family there.
Safer Cities to Travel To
Chefchaouen: Blue City in the Rif Mountains of Northern Morocco was my favorite place to go for relaxation, exploration and for shopping!! I could have easily stayed a week there. They are also known for their ‘Kif’ which is hashish. You would rarely encounter catcalling here and do not need to bargain as much as prices are started 50% off than in the bigger cities.
Visit: Le Reve Bleu Art Gallery & Cafe owned by artist Mohsine Ngadi. A cool spot we stumbled upon in the evening after everything else closed, where we met locals meshing with expats, were offered mint tea while exploring art, listening to Bob Marley and an insight into the local hippie art community. He also offers cooking classes.
Essaouira: Coastal Beach town, 1.5 hours away from Marrakech that you can easily get to by renting a car or by Supra bus (they run hourly from the bus station). Very laid back town, also with a huge art scene, delicious fresh seafood, and less hassle through the Souks, and great shopping.
Visit: My friend Zak who owns an art gallery Le Coin des Artistes. He’ll invite you to a cup of tea and tell you about his country!
Eat: There are dozens of seafood stalls near the beach. They seem to all come from the same source, just make sure to negotiate to about $10-15 max for a plate per person.
Zagora Desert: For a lovely camping experience that can be easily arranged by your guesthouse/riad, a day/overnight organized tour. They would pick you up early in the morning and drive you in a van 7-8 hours south to the Sahara desert. Along the way, you would stop at Ait Benhaddou which is the movie set where Gladiator, The Mummy, Alexander, Babel was filmed and meet locals selling their artisan crafts. Once at the desert, you would ride camels during sunset into the campsites lead by men of the Berber tribes. Extremely hospitable and minimal sleaze.
When I had met with Katie, we rented a car and drove from Essaouira to Chefchaouen. Along the way, we stopped along smaller cities like El Jadida for lunch. We drove right passed Rabat as it looked crowded and unappealing. As sun went down, we decided to stay in Kenitra for the night. The next day, we picked up a man hitch-hiking home to Ouezanne, where we ended up having lunch and tea at his small apartment with wife and baby for four hours. The smaller towns and countryside, as with anywhere else in the world, were much safer and calmer than bigger cities.
Cities with More Annoyance
Tangier: I didn’t bother visiting Tangier as I had heard this is where there are the most touts, although it has gotten a lot better in recent years. Considering it’s at the crossroads between Europe and Africa, the port can get very chaotic with trade, and visitors crossing daily.
Fes: Former capital, with a lot to see. I did not visit but some do for shopping and for quality leather products. Otherwise, it’s a bigger city. If you don’t have the time, stick with Marrakech, Essaouira and Chefchaouen.
Rabat: Capital city of Morocco with a few monuments to see. If time is limited, I would avoid. We drove through here but didn’t bother to stop. It’s a big city and the people seemed more in the hustle and bustle.
A Few Tips on How to Prepare/Pack
Clothing: Bring light, cotton clothing which cover your shoulders and chest, and pants/dresses below the knees. Pack a warm jacket for evenings, especially in the desert or beach as it can get very cold.
Pack: A flashlight, for camping and when you walk at night. Stomach meds, especially if you will venture to street food, as I loved the snail stand in Marrakech!
Book your first night or two Hotel Stay, and contact your hotel to arrange an airport pickup, as this is crucial when arriving to a new country.
If Morocco has been on your Travel list, I say go now. Do avoid the month of Ramadan as most businesses are closed, which is usually around August, but check ahead of time. The best time to visit is March-June, September-December. Check temperatures before going as it can get too hot, or too cold in the desert during parts of the year. If you have any other questions, feel free to drop me a line as I am here to help and want your experience to be as lovely and memorable as mine!