“Where is all the sand?” I thought to myself when I landed at Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, Morocco. It turns out that much of Morocco is actually very dense with forests and vegetation. The Mediterranean climate is much more comfortable than one would imagine when contemplating a visit to North Africa.
“Bienvenue en Maroc! Welcome in Maroc!” I frequently heard while walking down busy streets. Not knowing whether I was French, English, or American, they were sure to cover their bases and make sure I understood that I was welcome in their country.
The hospitality in Morocco was something that was really difficult to believe being an American. In my 26 years of living between the United States and Canada I have never had people stop me on the street just to chat, ask to go have tea, or invite me into their home to meet their family and have dinner. I wished my friends and family back home were able to experience it. Instead, they were worried, waiting for my occasional emails to let them know I was safe.
I heard all kinds of questions and warnings before I left. “Why would you want to go there? Aren’t you worried about terrorism? Tell them you are Canadian!”
Ever since 9/11 Americans have been extremely weary of anything Muslim. The truth is, most North African and Middle Eastern countries are actually safer than popular European travel destinations that parents willingly allow their children to visit. Violent crime is virtually non-existent and even petty crime is limited. The only horror stories I heard before leaving had to do with Tangiers, a port town across the Gibraltar Strait from Spain. I was only passing through Tangiers on my way back home so I wasn’t concerned.
Yes, there was a fairly large suicide bombing in Casablanca in 2003, but it was much smaller than the attack on Madrid the following year. And I haven’t heard anybody warning people not to go to there.
My trip was a short one, only a week long, coinciding with CSULB’s spring break. I spent about 20 hours on four flights to get to Casablanca but once I was there, I was immediately in love with Morocco. I will admit, Casablanca is a rather new city built by the French when they landed their forces there last century, and has little to offer tourists other than a large airport and a beautiful mosque. Hassan II Mosque is the second largest mosque in the world, behind only Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. It is also one of the few mosques in the world that allows non-Muslims to visit.
After only one night in Casablanca I took a train to Fes, the former capital of Morocco. Fes is one of the four imperial cities of Morocco and life inside the walled Medina of Fes el Bali has not changed much for around 1,200 years. The Medina is filled with souks (shops) that sell everything from tasty fruit and vegetables, clucking chickens and freshly butchered lambs, to beautiful fabrics, rugs and hand woven clothing. The walkways are extremely narrow and when somebody walks through with a donkey loaded with goods, you better hug the wall and get out of the way! An official tour guide is a cheap and easy way to make sure you don’t get lost. They will take you to the most important things a tourist wants to see including the leather tanneries and several shops where you can see artisans working their crafts.
While staying in the youth hostel located in the Ville Nouvelle (French built “New City”) I met quite a few fellow young travelers. We organized a fairly large group to go have a nice dinner in town and talked about our plans. I did not have much of a plan so I tagged along with three people from England to a small town called Chefchaouen located in the Rif Mountains.
It was quite a journey to get there due to many of the busses being sold out during the busy Moroccan holiday week, but we managed to make it after spending five hours on a hot bus without air-conditioning that broke down along the way. It was only about $4 so we couldn’t complain too much.
On our way we met a very friendly Moroccan man named Youssef. We were hesitant to trust anybody as we have heard stories of people befriending you only to receive tips. We were lucky though. Youssef turned out to be a great friend. He helped us find some very affordable rooms in a beautiful guesthouse and took us out for tea. While there, he asked if we would meet his family that night and eat dinner with them. We were happy to oblige and ended up spending the following evening with them as well. He was even nice enough to take us on a hike up one of the large hills so we could experience a beautiful view of the entire village and most of the Rif valley. We were very sad to leave Chefchaouen and our new friends.
Morocco may not be your typical spring break destination, but I can not describe how much I recommend it, especially to young travelers who are willing to spend time getting around. It is not as easy to navigate as Paris, London, or Rome, but the rewards are worth it. Everything is extremely affordable (I spent only $400 on everything except my plane tickets) and you will never forget the friends that you inevitably will make. My only warning, and it has nothing to do with safety, is that knowing French is helpful. You don’t need to be fluent, but a grasp on the language, or knowing Arabic, will make life much easier and more enjoyable as Moroccans will strike up conversation with you often and being able to talk with them was one of my highlights.