Let’s just say that Epcot’s Morocco has nothing on the real thing, and Mackenzie Nelson will tell you that from firsthand experience in Tangier, Chefchaouen and Tetuan. She’s currently studying abroad in Cannes, France, and found an international student excursion group called We Love Spain that was organizing a trip to Morocco. With its reasonable price and a desire to take advantage of relatively cheaper travel in Europe versus the U.S., Mackenzie was sold.
The group’s journey began in Seville, Spain, and headed over to Gibraltar by bus. After taking a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar, she arrived in Ceuta and then on to Morocco. This short yet full trip included camel rides on the beach and shopping in local markets. (Yawn, right?!)
I asked Mackenzie some questions about her trip because Morocco is on my bucket list and I wanted her best tips and tricks:
Q: How did you prepare for this trip? How could you have prepared better?
A: Preparing for this trip was different than any other weekend vacation I’d taken. Morocco is a different continent and different culture than anything I’ve ever been exposed to before, so I researched a lot about the language, food, living conditions and women’s place in their society. Visitors aren’t advised to drink their tap water, women typically wear modest clothing, and there’s way more bugs in Morocco than France.
In hindsight, I wish I would’ve looked more into the types of electrical outlets they use. I was fortunate because they use the same ones as France does, but I could’ve been without a phone charger and would’ve been out of luck! I also wish I would’ve looked more into their language, Arabic. English is rare in Morocco, but luckily, the country’s second language is French, so I was able to communicate somewhat effectively because of what I’ve been learning the past few weeks in Cannes.
Q: If I have 48 hours in Morocco, what are 5 things I absolutely must do?
1. Whatever you do, drink their mint green tea.
It’s called the “Moroccan Whiskey” because they drink it so often. It’s served boiling hot in a glass with mint leaves in it and is absolutely the most delicious drink I’ve ever had. I got one for 4 dirham, their local currency, which converts to 0.04 of one euro!
2. Barter with locals when shopping in the marketplace.
Prices weren’t really “set” in the places I went to, and oftentimes, the vendors would offer a much higher price because they anticipated I would try to talk them down. It can be uncomfortable, but usually you end up with a great product and they make a profit!
3. Participate in some kind of activity where you get to interact with animals.
While Morocco isn’t the typical African desert filled with elephants and lions and giraffes that many people imagine, it has its own beautiful culture and creatures. Riding camels in Tangier and playing with monkeys in Gibraltar are memories I’ll never forget. Be safe, but really look for opportunities to see animals that you wouldn’t normally see in the States!
4. Walk through the local market.
I’m so grateful our tour guide took us through Tetuan’s non-touristy, everyday market. Moroccans buy their food for the day every single morning —nothing is preserved and designed to last for storage like Americans are used to — so seeing the fruits, vegetables and meats at the local market was an incredible opportunity to view everyday Moroccan life. It was a little unnerving (I saw a live chicken get its head chopped off!), but it was an eye-opening experience that forced me to think about the way the world works outside of my usual perspective.
5. Interact with locals and learn some Arabic.
Obviously, be safe and alert, but take the time to connect with others who lead completely different lives that you do. Everyone I talked to was kind and gracious; I heard “Welcome from America to Africa!” more times than I could count. Arabic can be seen as a tricky language because it’s associated with a lot of evil radicalism that’s been imposed on the world, but it was so beautiful to lean in and learn something new with people who were willing to teach me.
Q: What surprised you most about Morocco?
A: I was surprised by how safe I felt. Half of the time, I was with a large group of other students being led by a tour guide, but even when walking around through the shops or when interacting with locals, I never felt scared or uncomfortable. I took the same safety precautions that I would when traveling anywhere: never being alone, always having my hand on my purse, etc. But when going through the market or being approached by shopkeepers to buy their products, I felt like I was respected. I never got the sense I was being followed or watched, and even when I’d turn down vendors’ advances, they would understand and wish me well on my way. The people there were really incredible.
Q: What are three items you brought on this trip that anyone traveling to Morocco should also pack?
A: When you’re traveling anywhere, bring a really high-quality portable charger. I invested in an expensive one before coming abroad, and I’ve used it so much, it’s paid for itself time and time over. You never want to miss out on a great picture or be stranded without any means of communication, so make sure your phone doesn’t die!
I also recommend purchasing and bringing bottled water, since you can’t drink Morocco’s tap water. And don’t forget sunscreen and bug spray. You’ll only realize you should’ve brought them until after it’s too late!
Q: What’s the food like there? Any recommendations?
A: The food was incredible. Mint green tea was out of this world, as I mentioned. They’re also famous for couscous, which was the best I’ve ever had. I really enjoyed their lamb and the way they prepared their vegetables, too. Truthfully, I couldn’t always identify what I was eating at first glance, but I was never disappointed.
Q: Best moment from this trip?
A: I don’t know if I could pick the best moment from this trip; so many incredible, once-in-a-lifetime things happened! But, riding a camel on the beach, then dancing around in the ocean with my new friends was one of those really joyful moments that you wish would never end.
Q: What would you have done differently?
A: The only thing I would have done differently is try harder to take it all in. When we were on the bus, driving from destination to destination, I was constantly journaling about my experiences and how they made me feel. But looking back, I don’t remember much of the scenery we passed along the way because my head was always down, writing. I’d just make an extra effort to stop and be still as much as I could.
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