Beautiful weather, gorgeous ceramics and divinely intricate mosaics, as well as beaches and mountains; Morocco had been inticing me for a good while. Along with my primary venture onto the African continent, this trip also marked my first thoroughly solo trip and the first time I joined a travel tour group.
I was nervous about the whole thing up until the moment I stepped foot into the hotel. What if the transfer driver isn’t legit? What if I don't click with anyone once I arrive? What if my roomie is strange? What if I have to spend eight days hating every moment and I’ve paid for the privilege of doing so?!
Okay, so before I even go on about what you should expect from a travel tour and the country that is the fourth largest producer of marijuana in the world (Rif Mountains - rifa - who knew?!), I have to say that joining a tour was the BEST decision and I’m so glad I did it on my own. I was absolutely gutted to leave the new friends I’d made (but thankfully, I have lived on in the form of photos of me sitting at the breakfast table and new welcome meetings, I’ve been informed). I know for a fact I wouldn’t have had the same experience had I joined with a friend.
Choose the right tour company
This is very important. There are so many out there, and they each offer different categories and styles of trip. I wanted to strike the balance between people who are sightseeing enthusiasts like me, but also happy to chill with a drink in hand. This is exactly what I got from my trip and I’m so pleased.
Talking sweepingly, there is Contiki (drunken Aussies), Intrepid (golden oldies, judging by the groups we passed in our hotel), and G Adventures among many many other tour operators. G Adventures provide different types of tours, from ‘Classic’ open age tours to more budget-friendly gallivants; I went for a G Adventures YOLO tour for 18 to 39-year-olds. The groups are no larger than 14, the accommodation is fairly basic but still good, and there is a good mix of core activities, optional activities and free time in each city and town.
I discovered my initial worries about the tour were completely unfounded from the moment I knocked on my hotel room door at 10.30 on the Saturday night. I was so late because of BA delays on my first flight resulted in me missing my connecting flight (sorry hilarious air-steward Frank, but 15 minutes ain't enough to make the second flight). The girl sat next to me and I worked out we were both heading to Casablanca, albeit on different G Adventures tours and, once armed with handwritten boarding passes for a 7pm replacement flight, we headed out to Madrid city centre for sightseeing escapades and tapas, guided by my friend who lives there. I literally was twenties in transit! It was the most random afternoon, but it was a fantastic way to start to my adventure. I may have missed Casablanca, but I was advised that apart from the Casablanca mosque - the only one in the country that allows non-Muslims to enter - I hadn't missed too much.
In our group, we definitely had a few of the typical tour group types: the hilarious roomie (f-ing loved my roommate - all you'd hear was us two cackling intermittently at the front of the tour bus, and we had nightly jam sessions and debriefs of the day), a fun couple, student travellers, the one that was actually happy to go home and, out of our 14, we made a core group of 10 who, while we split in the day, spent the evenings together each night of my trip. We had some great times from hilarious dinners, watching the sunset from the Rif Mountains (and my roomie’s and my hilarious attempt at watching the sunrise), people-watching from our Chefchaueon hotel and getting eyebrowed by local kids.
On the note of saying ‘my trip’, be sure you know what kind of trip you're booking, too; as I’d booked a northern Morocco tour, and all but two of us had booked a northern and southern tour, I had to leave the group halfway through, which I was gutted about. We spent my last day in Marrakesh doing what I fancied - Majorelle Garden and Sky Bar - despite them having the opportunity to do it the next day, which I really appreciated. We still videocalled after I came back to London, and some of the group sent me photos of photos of me enjoying southern Morocco, which I absolutely LOVED, but next time, I will be booking a full tour #fomo
Our guide, or 'CEO' as G Adventures calls them, was brilliant. He was a wealth of knowledge and gave us many recommendations for our free time, too. He often made reservations for us, should we have needed, but also left us to it as per the tour itinerary.
Another note: check out your transfer times and, for the love of God (or Allah, as we were in Morocco) PACK TRAVEL SICKNESS TABLETS. This is something I didn't do and had to bum a couple off of one the nurses on the trip for the super-long ride to Marrakesh. My roomie and I also luckily bagged the front seats on the first journey despite getting on last and they kind of became our unofficial seats, which definitely helped our stomachs. We passed the time chatting, sleeping, listening to the guide and intermittently bursting into "A Whole New World."
Research the culture
Wherever you go, it is a good idea to be aware of the culture. Morocco is a Muslim country and, while their current king seems pretty progressive, there are many things that differ in Morocco when compared to our Western lifestyle. While I may personally disagree with the gender roles and expectations within the country, I had chosen to visit there, so I had to be respectful.
I want to make it explicitly known that, while I can't speak for other’s experiences, I am absolutely fuming (raging) at how much scare-mongering there is about visiting Morocco online, especially as a solo female. I was so apprehensive, as were many of the female members of the group, and we experienced nothing but kindness, politeness and incredible customer service from the big cities to the small towns. From them setting aside myself and roomie a breakfast when the buffet was all out, to trusting us to come back to pay later when we didn’t have small enough denominations of cash, or letting me off altogether at the airport, this would hardly happen in the UK. A few of us even got into an Adele sing-a-long with our Chefchaouen hotel receptionist. Of course, you'll have the classic tourist issues, like drivers trying to overcharge for a taxi ride, or trying to coerce you into buying stuff, but as long as us women were dressed in the way they consider respectful - shoulders, knees and cleavage covered - we had no problem with the locals, even in the medinas. Wearing a t-shirt, hippy trousers, a floaty skirt or a thin shawl/scarf over a vest top, we walked around, even solely as a group of three girls sometimes, went to bars (though it felt pretty weird for us to be the only females in there, and so so strange to only see a sea of men sitting on the restaurant terraces after sunset), and everything. Of course, it was a bit of a piss-take that the guys were able to stroll about in their boy scout shorts while we sweated with increasingly pasty legs, but it made for a good drinking game of spotting those flaunting their shoulders and knees. In fact, the most ‘accosted’ we got was by a rather persistent eight-year-old rose seller who attached her little body in a vice-like grip to one of the group and we weren't quite sure how to appropriately remove her...
While, of course, the country has an overall Muslim culture, it really does change from city to city, town to town. As we drove past agave cacti, orange and banana fields on our way from Casablanca to Tangier, our guide explained how in Tangier, which sits at the midpoint between the Atlantic and the Med, and is pretty close to Gibraltar, they speak more Spanish than French (alongside Arabic, of course) due to their close proximity to Spain. He also explained that a Moroccan breakfast was traditionally mint tea (absolutely BANGING FYI, and that's coming from someone who barely drinks hot drinks), lamsaman (a roti-style pastry that again was sooo good) and olive oil with bread, but you'll now increasingly see other more European bits, like croissants, as part of the spread. On our way from Tangier to Chefchaouen, we enjoyed a full history of Morocco, which was pretty interesting. We drove through the pine and cypress trees and a hella amount of weed in the Rif mountains (we did get offered “hashish” quite a few times - "in cookies for the ladies, as it's lighter" was met by an onslaught and hasty backtracking on one of the seller’s parts), and also passed so many donkeys, goats and a crazy amount of hitchhikers. The most eventful drive was definitely between Chefchaouen and Fes, where a police stop, the unexpected discovery of old vomit and a photo op between the Rif and Atlas mountains ensued, alongside our usual hydration stop.
The medinas - the old towns, home to a series of winding alleyways where families live and sell things - were incredible. Now, prepare to get lost AF. On our first venture into a medina, heading towards Tangier's Kasbah and seaside, my roomie and I got lost on a five-minute walk to grab some magnets (not magnums as the majority of our little group heard). We legit ended up on someone's property until the stray cats saved us. We relied on more solid landmarks in Chefchaouen, which we smashed with our orienteering skills (and haggling!) on our second day, but we got so lost on our first. We knew the rough direction we needed to head in, but ended up way too high, by the wall. And don't get me started on the 19,000 alleyways of Fes medina. We had a pretty good tour from a local (who seemed to know everyone), but even so, we weren't toooo adventurous when five of us ventured back in ourselves.
Our day in Fes was a pretty good, filled with culture and, of course, the standard tourist Fes hats photo op, which five of us bartered even more successfully for than our guide thought we could (though wearing them did earn us more attention than usual!) We learned all about the power of seven in the Islamic culture, explored the exterior of palaces, the Quranic school and the Jewish quarter (Mellah), visited a huge tannery to see how the leather is made, as well as a ceramics factory and saw how silk scarves are made from the agave cacti - you literally pull apart the plant and thread appears! I found the Berber, Arabic and Islamic culture so intriguing. As I mentioned before, I may not necessarily agree with it all - particularly their views on women - but it was a real eye-opener. And, actually, the whole trip wasn't as much of a culture shock as I thought it would be; in fact, Ubud, Bali, was definitely more so.
Try new things
Going on a tour means you’re in a much better position to try new things than you would be if you were going solo, or with a partner/buddy, I think. Included or optional tours provide the perfect opportunity to experience things you would find harder to gain access to as a normal traveller, and even if you choose not to go on those, you can safely get good recommendations from your guide.
At home, I'm neither a fan of olives nor beer, but I loved both these things in Morocco. They grow olives in the country and I couldn't get enough of the green ones - they were fabulous! Casablanca beer (served all over the country, despite the name) is so different than the stuff we usually get in the UK - Heineken this isn't (though we had to settle for it one night in Chefchaouen as they had run out of all the others - there was only one place, Hotel Parador, close to the Kasbah, that sold alcohol in the whole town). We ventured twice from this beverage when drinking: once to have a different, cheaper Moroccan beer in the most sex-dungeon-esque Fes bar, lit up like the red light district, where us five were the only ones there, bar a couple of locals and a performing duo, and also in the Sky Bar in Marrakesh. As seedy as it sounds (and it was), the evening at the red bar was hilarious. The duo were singing and playing the piano, and the former slowly started to make his way towards the guy in our group after a particularly vigorous clap after the first number, much to our amusement.
Right, so, this section would be incomplete if I didn't relay my traditional hammam experience. Only four of us opted to have a go at this practice, which our guide explained as a place where women and men go once or twice a week, apply black olive soap to their skin and scrub it off to get rid of any dead skin. It is also a social thing; men and women are in separate sections, but mothers and fathers will often use it as a place to scope out potential suitors for their kids and, ya know, just have a good ol' chinwag. Now, never in my adult life have I lay in the lap of an old, topless, Moroccan woman as she scrubs at my neck and I desperately try not to laugh while making (hazy, due to the lack of contact lenses) eye contact with my buddy receiving the same treatment. And, well, I'll be honest, no amount of pre-hammam chat can prepare you for the moment you are slid across bathroom-style tiles of a hot room in your swimmers by said old, topless Moroccan lady and your foot accidentally hits her naked boob. Nothing can prepare you for the wave of cold water that they throw over you at the end, either. All that said though, there is something pretty calming and humbling about having your hair washed with a bucket, shampooed, conditioned, combed with a flamingo-patterned Tangle Teezer, and plaited with your friend, all while trying to communicate through smiles and gestures with someone has just scrubbed your whole body. I have never had this baby soft skin like ever, and when we returned to the boys, it was comforting to hear their experience was just as crazy - and theirs included assisted stretches, too...
Don’t hold back when it comes to food
When talking about drink like above, obviously food comes hand in hand and, boy, did I have a lot of it. Bread was a natural staple at every meal, their salad was to die for (I don't even know what it contained, but it was like a mezze of veg and tasty spreads), and they had this incredible houmous-like bean soup, kefta tagines and so much more. The food is so cheap, too; for a normal meal, you’ll pay the equivalent of anywhere between £3.50 and £7. My favourite meal was an all-out, expensive, elite meal (£21) on our first night in Fes, just as you enter the medina, where we had a three-course meal, consisting of Moroccan salad, chicken pastella (deliciously spiced chicken, wrapped in a crispy crepe-style pastry, sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon) followed by a coconut cake-biscuit dessert. We watched a magic show, fire-eating belly dancers, a traditional band, a fake bride, and they pulled up members on the stage. This meal was in stark contrast to my last one in Marrakesh... let's just say meaty "veggie soup", a four cheeses pasta for me, and a whole lot of lols (and potential food poisoning).
Unfortunately, when it came to vegetarian dishes, there was often limited choice: vegetarian tagine or couscous. Often, the menu would boast an array of options, but you would find that they had run out - quite like the beer situation - even in some pretty good restaurants. It just seemed to be a thing. However, we all very much enjoyed the mint tea, from our very first dalliance with it in Petit Socco in Tangier, to the mint and lemonade that tasted like just like a mojito that I tried to seek out at every opportunity.
Just enjoy your time
For both joining a travel tour and heading to a country with vastly different cultural expectations, my main piece of advice for anyone would be JUST EMBRACE IT ALL. When else are you in a position where you’re with a bunch of random people from all over the world who you may never see again (though I hope to see some of them!), or able to be in a hot country and not have to shave your legs even once? Don’t care what you look like, how you come across or about problems back home - just go and have fun and do everything on offer!!