Morocco on a Shoestring

I’m finally feeling better. At least, better enough to write a blog entry. It’s been a tough 2 months to say the least. It started out with a conference in Norway, followed by a teaching stint in Kyrgyzstan, a 4-city trip in Morocco, and a 3-city trip in Turkey. Before leaving for Morocco, I had guests in Copenhagen that I felt only right to show around. I have not been in the office for a month and a half since the crazy travels started. I miss working.

Three weeks ago, Andrew and I spent 5 full days in Morocco visiting Casablanca, Fes, Chefchaouen, and Marrakech. It was hectic. We spent one full day in each of these cities and almost a day (in sum) of traveling. It might not look like it in the map, but the distance between cities is huge and it takes a least 3-4 hours to get from one city to another.

We were supposed to meet up with two of my college friends and then go to Turkey together, but that did not happen. While they decided to do a 6-day Private Tour via Morocco Sahara Holiday for 549 EUR (582.60 USD) per person (check out their tour here), we decided to keep our budget within 500 USD for two people (250 USD per person). And surprise, surprise (or maybe not :p), it worked +/- a few dollars! We pre-booked our hotels using Expedia, ate local cuisine, and took public transportation. It was an amazing experience that did not leave a gaping hole in our wallets. We got to interact with the locals and saw how Moroccans are in Morocco. Public transportation was quite comfortable. Comfortable enough that if I had an option between sitting in a car or sitting in a train to get from one Moroccan city to the next, I’d sit in a train. Trains allowed me to walk around and stretch my legs. Rest rooms were available, food and drinks were carted off every so often, and seats can be transformed to beds when traveling after rush hour (For more information on traveling in Morocco, check out my blog entry on Moroccan commute).

Our first city for the trip was Fes. It’s the second largest city in Morocco and was the capital city of modern Morocco until 1925. To get there from the Casablanca Mohammed V International Airport (Station: Aeroport Med V), we took a train from the airport to Casablanca (Station: Casa Voyageurs) and from Casa Voyageurs to Fes (Station: Fes). Since the trip from airport to Casablanca only took 30 minutes, we decided to buy second class train tickets. It was not bad. There were no reserved seats and just one big space at one end of the compartment to store bags, but the seats were comfortable and there was enough space for everyone’s bags. The travel from Casablanca to Fes, on the other hand, was a different story. The trip was estimated to take 3-4 hours. So we decided to buy first class train tickets. We were so happy we did since, for reasons we cannot fully understand (because they were in French), the train took 6 hours to get from Casablanca to Fes.

Fes

Upon arriving in Fes, we needed to get to our from the train station to the medina (the old town, city center) and find Dar Al Ouali, our hotel in Fes booked via Expedia. We took a cab, haggled it down to 20 MAD. The cab driver agreed but asked us if he could pick up one other passenger. That did not sound so bad for us, so we agreed. He never found that one  other passenger.

With Google Maps on our smartphones, it was not difficult to find our hotel. It was crazy inside the medina. The streets were narrow, souks lined the streets, and there were people everywhere! My first impression of it was a very colorful, very lively, and slightly more organized version of Divisoria in the Philippines. The Moroccan lamps were eye-catching, the leather jackets hung like they were not genuine leather, and stomach growled to the smell of tangine and couscous.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were met by a receptionist who knew very little English. She called the hotel owner and it was him who checked us in. The hotel is a riad, a traditional Moroccan house with a garden or a courtyard. The courtyard was the size of a normal living room. There were four floors and a rooftop room that guests can use to hangout. Our room was on the second floor (thank goodness for that, because the staircase was pretty narrow). We had a double sized bed, a ensuite shower area with toilet, airconditioning, free towels, and a small TV. Half the room was carpeted, and the carpet looked old. Other than that, and especially for the price that we paid for it, it was not bad. And it came with a traditional Moroccan breakfast, which was one of the things I have learned to look forward to in Morocco. Breakfast was amazing. 🙂

The hotel owner, recommended that we eat at Restaurant Salon de thé Hiba Chez Hakim (or Restaurant Hakim, for short). It is his favorite restaurant in the medina. Since the owner knows him, he asked us to mention his name so that we get treated well. And so, like the obedient tourists that we were, we went there, mentioned his name, and yes, we were treated well. Andrew and I both ordered the tangine set menu with Moroccan mint tea, and we both loved it (enough to return to the restaurant at another day). I should say that one should NEVER leave Fes without having a tangine and a cactus fruit.

The hotel owner also recommended that we rent a tour guide for 3 hours for 200 MAD. The tour guide was local and trained by the state, so he should be knowledgeable. He also should not try to rip us off. What we were NOT told, however, was that the tour guide does not keep time and if we exceed 3 hours of touring, we get charged 500 MAD (for a 5-hour tour). Our tour guide was pretty good. He showed us the architecture in the Fes medina, described the history and what the government is doing to preserve that. He took us to the famous mosques, explained what made them famous and willingly took our photos. We went to the tanneries, the carpet maker, the cactus scarf maker, the carpenter, an embroidery shop, and the argan oil maker. In each of these places, someone would explain how the good was created and then showed us samples of finished products. I especially enjoyed the visit to the carpet maker. The owner was very warm and welcoming. He served us tea, had us sit down and rolled carpets in front of us while explaining the difference between carpets. We then get to decide (by swiping our hands back and forth) whether we want to keep or reject a carpet, just like they do in the movies. After the tour, our guide brought us to an extravagant looking restaurant for lunch. We enjoyed the views but not the prices. After lunch, he picked us up from the restaurant and brought us back to our hotel. It was only when we got to our hotel that he asked for additional money because they tour went beyond 3 hours. Since we were unwilling to give him 500 MAD, we agreed on 250 MAD.

NOTE: We tried buying leather jackets. They’re more expensive near the tanneries. The one from the tannery started at 8000 MAD while the one just beside our hotel started at 800 MAD. The one from the tannery was made of camel skin but the lining was not very well done. The one near our hotel was made of sheep skin but the lining was very good. According to online guides to haggling, you should start at 1/4 of the opening price. So if the opening price is 800 MAD, you should counter with 200 MAD. Very slowly go up (slower than the salesperson). Ideally, you should end up at either 1/3 or 1/2 the opening price.

Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen is my favorite city in Morocco. Since it was at the foot of the Rif mountains, the weather was cool. To get there from Fes, we had to take a cab from the medina to the CTM bus station. The day before we were scheduled to leave for Chefchaouen, we had our hotel owner buy us tickets for CTM, to reserve our seats. At the CTM bus station, we checked in our luggages (I think it was 5 MAD per bag). The bus stopped halfway to Chefchaouen for lunch and a toilet break. The lunch place only accepts cash, which, unfortunately for us, we did not have enough of. Good thing we came prepared with sandwiches of our own and a couple of bread that we packed from last night’s dinner.

We stayed at the extremely charming Casa Annasr, just 5 minutes walk from the CTM bus station. From Casa Annasr, we had to walk uphill for 20-30 minutes to get to the medina. Breakfast was not free and cost 50 MAD per person. Our hotel room was amazing. The bed was comfortable and the ensuite bathroom was squeaky clean. In fact, our rooms look like it was newly renovated. The hotel is owned by a family: 2 brothers (we assume). The older brother is bossy and short tempered, but the younger brother is very friendly and accommodating.

The medina in Chefchaouen was blueeeeeee, and we spent most of our day walking and exploring and looking at what the souks had to offer. It was lovely and relaxing. We had lunch at Sindibad Restaurant (which had pretty good desserts!) and dinner at Aladdin Restaurant. The latter is highly, highly recommended. It’s a bit pricey for a Moroccan meal, but the food is delicious (and servings are huge), the view is amazing, and the ambiance is great. Right before dinner, we went inside the Kasbah Museum which only opened at 3pm (Opening Hours: 9-12, 15-18.30). There’s really nothing much there, except a breathtaking view of the medina from the tower. For that, it is worth the wait. 🙂

Marrakech

From Chefchaouen, we took the Supratours bus to Souk el-Arbaa and then the ONCF train from Souk el-Arbaa to Casablanca and then from Casablanca to Marrakech. It was a long day of mostly traveling. We left Chefchaouen around noon and arrived in Marrakech very late in the evening. Our train to Casablanca was delayed and we thought we would not make it to Marrakech. It turns out the train to Marrakech waited for us.

Upon arriving in Marrakech, we again took a cab to the medina. We were staying at another riad called Hotel Riad Dar Tuscia. The hotel was nice and breakfast was free. This was our most costly hotel, and I could already feel some sort of foreboding for the next day, when we tour the city. Marrakech was a city like many cities. The souks were organized into categories, the items were costlier (compared to Fes), and the salespeople were meaner. We visited a couple places of interest and rode a camel. Lunch was at Jemaa El Fna. Food was not exceptional, and it was expensive. I did enjoy (and highly recommend), drinking a fresh orange juice from one of the fruit stands. It was heaven! Just perfect for the hot summer weather.

Casablanca

Our last stop was Casablanca. By then we were extremely exhausted from all the traveling. It was not fun to travel through desert sands so much. If I were to do this trip again, I’d pick 2-3 cities and stay longer in each city. If I had a longer time in Fes, I would have loved to explore the souks some more (and maybe eat more cactus fruits). If I had a longer time in Chefchaouen, I would have liked to see the waterfalls that everyone is raving about.

We stayed at Manzil Hotel. Also booked using Expedia. In fact, all our hotels and flights were booked via Expedia while all bus and train tickets were bought in Morocco. Manzil Hotel was in an industrial zone. It was near the train station though, so it was easy to find it. Rooms were clean and spacious. Breakfast was not free. We didn’t really get to see much of Casablanca. By this time, we were so exhausted all we wanted to do was go home. I do recommend seeing the largest mosque in Africa, Hassan II Mosque.

This is what I have to say at the end of the trip: it was fun, but extremely exhausting. I’m pretty sure our friends who travelled to more cities that we did are more exhausted. Here’s a summary of our expenses. Not bad, eh? You can download our full itinerary here. If you have questions, holler! 😀

Item Description MAD USD
Breakfast 2 days 200 20
Lunch 5 days 470 47
Dinner 5 days 590 59
Fes Hotel: 2 nights 532.4 53.24
Chefchaouen Hotel: 2 nights 819.4 81.94
Marrakech Hotel: 2 nights 283.6 28.36
Casablanca Hotel: 2 nights 488.7 48.87
Tavel: Airport to Casablanca 42 4.2
Travel: Casablanca to Fes 348 34.8
Travel: Fes to Chechaouen 150 15
Travel: Chefchaouen to Marrakech 610 61
Travel: Marrakech to Casablanca 296 29.6
Travel: Casablanca to Airport 42 4.2
Fes Cab 40 4
Marrakech Cab 40 4
Casablanca Cab 40 4
Tour Guide Fes 250 25
TOTAL 5242.1 MAD 524.21 USD
Notes: Items in red are the actual amounts.

First written: November 22, 2016 | Published: December 18, 2016 | Copenhagen, Denmark

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