Morocco as a Solo Female Traveller
When Paula told me she was visiting Morocco for 5 weeks I asked her if she could write about it. I myself had just passed 5 weeks there and it hadn’t always gone smoothly. I was actually worried for her, wondering what Morocco would be like for a solo woman traveller. Here’s her story.
On my must-visit list, Morocco had been listed as number two, taking second to Italy, for as long as I can remember. Its main appeal was due to the contrast between it and America. Sadly, fear of the unknown and timing kept it being pushed back, then finally, after traveling alone to twenty-two countries I booked a five-week slot in my itinerary.
I have been following Frank and Lissette’s travels for a few years and I too have been traveling full-time since mid-2017, often unconsciously, I was following their footsteps. In October while planning my winter destinations and see-sawing between Bulgaria and Morocco, Frank posted his upcoming schedule announcing a 5 week solo trip through Morocco. Irritated with myself enough that I haven’t been to Morocco yet; I took it as a sign and blocked a five-week period – starting in Fez and Marrakech the finale. I waited for Frank’s first post from Marrakesh, and sadly, when it arrived I felt a wave of despair and wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into.
The view out the window was nothing as I expected and felt sorrow for those in the aisle seat. Passing over the Mediterranean Sea from Valencia, Spain the Rif mountain range was blanketed with green grass and numerous lakes that reflected the brilliant blue sky. Until that moment, my Moroccan visions only consist of dry desert and markets. Instantly I knew this country would be full of delightful surprises.
My host booked transportation for me from the airport and as soon as the van door opened upon arrival at the medina, a porter whisked away with my backpack through the alleyways. The old city was bursting with activity and I had to side-step people, watched my toes as donkeys pulled carts and dodged motorbikes to keep up. It was a little overwhelming and I thought it best to hire a guide for my first outing. It ended up being a good idea, since I was able to absorb the 9,000 street medina with someone who knew their way. I made the mistake though of booking the guide through my riad – thinking they would give me a decent price. I was wrong and paid 400 dirhams (an equivalent of $40). He was not worth ten bucks an hour.
The next day with earbuds firmly in place, I set out on my own. I had heard that shooting video is not welcomed by the locals. Being respectful is usually the key, so I gave it a go. I shot clips everywhere: Fez, Chefchaouen, Rabat, Casablanca, El Jadida and Marrakech and not once did I get told “no video.” If I came upon an individual that I wanted to photograph or film, I always tipped. That is what they want out of it; money. On the rare occasion that I took a photo of something, like a horse and cart, and didn’t see the proprietor, he would be quick to make himself known to me, holding his hand out. No one does anything or allows anything for free in Morocco.
“La shakraan,” which means “no thank you” became my go-to phrase, that is, if I actually replied to vendors seeking my business. And I was surprised by the number of men who replied “oh, you speak Arabic” . Um, no. Those two words along with my earbuds were my best defense against unwanted solicitors.
Deeper in the medina I came across a “tour guide” who wouldn’t take my “La La La” (“No No No”) as an answer and decided to follow me, explaining things along the way. It is against the law to be an unlicensed guide – if there was an officer nearby a threat of turning him in would have been enough to make him disappear. As luck would have it, we were the only ones in the alley. I walked swiftly and alternated from telling him “la shakraan” or just plan ignoring him. It was soon obvious that I was walking on one of the 40,000 dead-end streets, so I turned around and thankfully my unwanted companion left me and my blood pressure returned back to normal. Well, as much as it could be for being lost. About two hours later – yes I was deliciously lost for that long – my path once again collided with the “guide.” This time he asked if I remembered him and I replied that I did. He then said “I remember you too, you’re the no-no lady”. Laughing I said “yes I am and the answer is still – no.” That was the end of him.
The mountain village of Chefchaouen, known as the blue pearl, is a highlight not to be missed. I stayed four nights and for me, it was the right amount of time. On my first day, early in the afternoon, I met a fellow traveler from South Africa. It was his first solo trip and he asked if I wouldn’t mind dining with him later, because he wasn’t comfortable walking alone after dark. I too have the rule of not wandering about after dark so I was happy to have a dinner buddy and to be able to see some nightlife. With plans made, he excused himself by saying he met a local vendor earlier and was invited back to smoke a joint. Well, my mama bear instincts took over and I advised him in all the ways that meeting up with strangers to get high in a foreign country was a bad idea. To my relief, he saw the error of his thinking.
Later, we descended the stairs and made our way to the restaurant recommended by our host. Before I continue with my story, let me add – Chefchaouen is not known for fine cuisine. Chefs do not aim to be better than the other guy, but live by “okay is good enough”. Anyway, my travel survival strategy is to not make eye-contact or engage in conversations with vendors. Unfortunately the greenie found it rude to ignore people. Stall after stall men approached us, eagerly welcoming him back and trying to get their “friend” to purchase. “I’m going to eat, but I’ll see you later” he kept telling them. This pleasant phrase caused not only him problems, but me too. The next day I kept being asked “where’s your friend?” There was no alternative route, so my companion agreed to let me be “in charge” in dealing with them. The result was immediate. It only took a firm “La La La” as we walked by before they spoke to us and we were no longer asked for business. The following days we were greeted with pleasantries. Except the guy who wanted to get him stoned – he disappeared inside his stall each time we approached, knowing he wouldn’t be getting one over on the young tourist.
There are a few trails into the mountains above Chefchaouen and we were cautioned against using them, because pot farmers do not take kindly to trespassers. A popular trail, especially in the evening, goes up to the church for a fantastic overview. Through town on the way there, you will pass many stands selling fresh squeezed orange juice. While fresh juice is very tasty, I must caution you – glassware is not washed properly, only being rinsed out in cold water. Asking for a straw may cut down the exchange of germs, except the straws are lightly rinsed and reused also. UGH! Africa is tough on a germaphobe.
Back on the CTM bus, which is ridiculously cheap, I headed to Rabat. Bus seats are pre-assigned, the padding is worn to nothing and there is no toilet. Exiting the station I asked the petit taxi driver how much it would cost to reach my riad and was pleasantly surprised that the taxi’s are fitted with meters. The roads were busy, so the trip took twenty-five minutes – at a cost of 25 dirhams, which I rounded up to 30.
There are so many army and police officers around, it is easy to feel safe in Morocco. Everywhere I went I would see two army men flanking one policeman. I always walk everywhere I go within a city and in Rabat I noticed security was spread about every ten minutes. Sure they’re strutting around holding rifles, but heck, as long as I wasn’t the target it didn’t bother me.
If you are traveling solo, or as a couple, the Airbnb apartment I rented was fantastic. It is designed as a petit riad and is located inside the fortress wall, overlooking the river – which allows views of some extraordinary sunrises. The medina is across the street from the fort and it only takes 40-minutes to walk to Hussan’s Tomb and to the ancient city, Chellah. The kitchen with it’s minimal counterspace is the only downfall, but the memory foam bed, balcony, view, affordability and location more than make up for it. I stayed seven nights and I wish I booked an extra week.
Next up – Casablanca. Think of the most dingy-dirty metropolis you have been and double it; then add in kamikaze drivers and women beggars sending their young children after you, with the instructions – do not come back empty-handed.
It was an hour walk from the bus terminal to the private room I rented for a week, so I grabbed a petit taxi. The driver wasn’t sure where to go, so he called my host for directions. The cabbies do not work on a meter, so the driver quoted me 50 dirhams, double the cost of Rabat’s fare for the same amount of drive time. I wasn’t in the mood to negotiate nor walk, so I sucked it up and paid the price.
I have a pretty high tolerance and can adapt to most places; there are some basic requirements I need and cleanliness is one of them. I also prefer to cook over eating out, so a kitchen is a must. The apartment had a table, but it didn’t have a countertop next to the stove and the cookware wasn’t clean, in fact, there wasn’t any dish soap.
I roamed Casa and determined I was in a version of hell. I logged into my Airbnb account and changed my check-out date to three days earlier, giving me enough time to get back to the bus station to buy an onward ticket and refund for unwanted nights. The next day I woke up feeling like a truck ran me over, due to the bed being harder than the floor. I had nausea, I think my yogurt was spoiled. Thankfully, it was the only food poisoning I had during the trip and it happened in a city I didn’t want to explore.
Two hours away from Casablanca, my nightmare ended in El Jadida, a seaside town that is non-touristy and reminded me of villages in Tanzania. The GPS stated I only had a fifteen minute walk to my destination, so I didn’t bother taking a taxi from the station to the rooftop studio.
I had a love-hate attitude towards the studio I booked for a week. Situated on the edge of the original town outside the medina, I was able to live like a local with the bonus of staying in a newly constructed room with the privilege of the whole roof that included a cabana and view of the Atlantic ocean. The family was friendly and left me alone, the kitchen was good enough, but the pitfall came with the bed. A child’s single mattress (Lightening McQueen to be exact) was placed on the floor, which they referred to as “Moroccan style.” My boyfriend had a good laugh at this term and called it “homeless style.”
There is not a whole lot to see or do in El Jadida, but walk the city, beach and the medina. The Portuguese cistern is the main attraction, but for 60 dirhams is a complete rip-off. The most disturbing thing about this town, and Morocco in general, is the garbage that is everywhere. Throwing things in a bin is not something they do.
I really enjoyed this town, so much so, that I stayed an extra week. There was no way my 50-year-old hips would handle a second week laying on a cheap mattress. I upgraded to another apartment but had to give up views and water pressure for comfort and sleep…. sigh.
My final destination, Marrakech, gave me the most anxiety – thanks Frank, haha (read Franks post here). The national bus lines do not run between the two cities, so I had to purchase my local bus ticket a half-hour before departure – instead of the my usual two-days prior to guarantee a seat. The packed bus from El Jadida emptied to a third at the halfway point, to drop off patrons and a rest stop, before continuing onwards for another two hours.
The community of Bab Doukkala is located midway between the new city and the popular main square Jemaa el-Fnaa; it is also only a fifteen-minute walk from the bus terminal, making it a prime location to see the city’s highlights. Another great thing about it is that the merchants here are not in your face badgering you to come inside their shops. It is also near the Ensemble Artisanal center that offers a large selection of stores that sell their goods at a very reasonable price. If haggling isn’t your thing, shop here and pay the listed price. (I stayed here. Very nice experience)
I wandered alone all over Marrakech, traversing my way through a variety of different areas and I never felt unsafe. I even broke my rule and went out in the evening, strolling Bab Doukkala. I passed on the opportunity to be dropped off at Jemaa el-Fnaa after a tour to Ait Benhaddou (which was the number one highlight of my trip) because it’s a madhouse that swells 100x at night. No thanks.
The only awkward moment I had during my trip was at the Hammam and that was only because I was mostly naked with a stranger scrubbing me down from neck to toes, getting every nook and cranny on my front and back. In truth, the spa was very professional and clean, tailoring to tourist. It was the perfect way to get rid of five-weeks of grime. I will include this experience in future trips to Morocco, and in fact, start my trip with an added message, for only 60 dirhams more, to ease the travel stress out of my body.
In the end, Marrakesh ended up being my favorite city out of the six and the one that I have chosen for a repeat performance. Destinations are like anything else – one persons trash is another’s treasure. Morocco is like anywhere, the people you encounter will either make or break your experience.
Many thanks to Paula for contributing this enjoyable post!
Related: My Best (and Worst) of Morocco
Related: Is it safe to Travel?
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