Buses and DIYs and TIMs, oh my!
When SaharaTrek was founded in 1999, there were only two ways to see Morocco: a big bus tour or on your own. Back then, a big bus tour was usually through a French company which wasn’t always happy to see American clients. Doing it on your own was a hit-or-miss proposition with maps that weren’t always accurate and vendors and accommodations that were happy when you wired them a payment for services but not as comfortable when you actually showed up. In that climate, SaharaTrek started as a reliable way for American clients to travel to Morocco on a private tour blending the organization of a big bus tour and the freedom of a DIY.
So fast forward to 2022. You can, with one click, book and hop on a big bus for a tour where you’re being shuttled around, with every minute of your day meticulously planned. You’ll stay at the best tourist hotels with plenty of parking for buses. You’ll eat at the best tourist restaurants that can handle busloads of people at a time. You’ll be herded through the streets at a trot behind a guide you can barely hear as you quickly see sights of generic interest. Everything is carefully planned right down to where your bus will shop (at the shop that gives the tour operator the most significant commission of course). And the only Moroccans you’ll probably talk to are your guide and the staff at the tourist hotel. You can still see Morocco on your own, and thanks to the internet, it has become much more accessible to plan than just having a road map and Lonely Planet guidebook available. You can go on Trip Advisor and choose from several local guides and drivers with widely different prices, Booking.com for your accommodations, and even have a rental car waiting for you at the airport. Everything is pre-paid by credit card before you even set foot in Morocco. Once there, you can buy a new SIM card for your smartphone, have your apps get you where you want to be, and even get recommendations on where to have dinner. With weeks worth of work and planning, faith in online reviews, and your custom DIY tour of Morocco is all set.
“No plan survives first contact with TIM” Moltke, 1880 (sort of)
No matter how extensive the planning is, once on the ground in Morocco, however, you’ll meet TIM (This Is Morocco). Big bus tours are exceptionally good at keeping TIM at bay as they run their well-trod routes with perfect timing like a Disney World ride (and a just as authentic experience). But for the DIY traveler, TIM will be waiting for you on your arrival and will be a constant passenger.
Sometimes TIM is just a laughable nuisance. Other times TIM seems especially vindictive and can ruin your trip. Examples abound of TIMs mischief abound, but we’ve narrowed them down to the most common.
TIM Rule #1: You can’t get there from here
Morocco is about the same size as California, but unlike California, transportation routes and options are very, very limited. There are trains, but only to about 6 cities. Busses are a nasty and time-consuming affair overall. Flights within Morocco are limited even though every map shows more airports than train stations. That leaves driving as the most time-effective way to see the country.
TIM Rule #2: It’s never as close as it seems
So you’ve checked Google Maps to time your drives and saw that it’s an easy four-hour drive from point A to point B, so you’ve planned various tours and activities throughout the day based on a four-hour drive. That is when TIM steps in. Unfortunately, four hours of driving doesn’t account for mule carts, scooters, construction, storm-damaged roads, or the ever-present Gendarme (police) checkpoints and speed traps.
Add one hour to your travel time for every construction zone or detour as you’re forced to abandon the main road and drive on gravel paths that will give Waze a nervous breakdown. Add one hour and $75 to your travel time for every speed trap. A quick note on the speed traps, it doesn’t matter what speed you were actually going. You will be stopped and fined just because you’re in a rental car. The Gendarme thank you for your donation.
TIM Rule #3: “A picture is worth a thousand lies”
Congratulations! You’ve successfully arrived at your accommodations after hours more of driving than you expected. The place you’ve booked has charm, history, and amenities but never has parking. So unless you plan on abandoning your rental car on the side of the road and hiking with your gear to your accommodations, you’ll need to find parking. We’ve got no recommendations on that at all, just best wishes.
So assuming you have successfully parked rather than abandoned your car and you’ve managed to make it to your accommodations, TIM will be there to greet you. Pretty pictures and rave reviews become fodder for jokes as soon as you get to your room. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes worse, and sometimes precisely as promised. Remember, the primary market for Morocco is Europeans, so rooms are based on what the Europeans expect and accept, not necessarily what Americans are used to.My favorite example was an almost brand-new property we visited (SaharaTrek visits every property we use for clients before we send a single one there). It was a lovely property with fresh paint, new beds, and all the room amenities you would expect. The beds were made-up with tight corners and clean sheets until we pulled back the sheets and found a pair of men’s underwear actually made into the bed.
TIM Rule #4: “On your left, the tomb of baby Jesus”
So you’ve got your car, drove to your destination (leaving a trail of “speeding” tickets in your wake), parked your car, and checked into your accommodations. Now it’s time to see the sights! With the GPS app on your phone, you navigate the labyrinth of streets, making more wrong turns than right ones. There’s a school of thought that says you learn more about a place by getting lost. That’s great if you got all the time in the world to get lost, but for most Americans, our vacation time isn’t the three months a year of a European’s vacation, so every hour spent wandering around trying to find your destination is an hour lost. If you do manage to find the right way on the first try, you’ll be running the gauntlet of vendors, beggars, and faux guides. Although Morocco has come a long way, its signage and explanations of historical and cultural sites still leave much to be desired. What little signs exist are in Arabic, French, and very bad English. Don’t expect a tour guide at the site, don’t expect handheld audio tours, and don’t expect elaborate sitemaps with explanations. Do expect to wander around on your own, not knowing what you’re looking at or what it even means (visualize a pet hamster watching a TED Talk).
To maximize your time and experience in Morocco, getting a licensed local guide to show you around is always best. Much like the rest of Morocco, guides are a hit-or-miss proposition. Some guides are fantastic. They speak flawless English, know everything about their history, culture, and traditions, and are excited to share them. They’ll look after your needs and pay attention to every detail. At the end of the day, you’ll feel like best friends. Other guides, not so much. The history and culture of their city are more of a means to get you to go shopping as they rush you through your tour and straight to the shops.
TIM Rule #5: “Is authentic Moroccan, made in China”
Moroccan crafts are genuinely some of the best in the world. The finest leather, extraordinary metal work, and beautiful intricate rugs are all handmade and crafted based on a thousand years of tradition. Then, Morocco opened its borders to the Chinese. Flooding into Morocco, the Chinese tourists took pictures and bought every handicraft there was. Only to take them home to China, where the factories began reproducing them with precise accuracy and a total lack of quality and authenticity. While in Morocco, if you’re up at the first call to prayer from the mosque, you’ll see the shop vendors opening their stands surrounded by shipping boxes labeled in Chinese. You’ll see the vendors feverishly opening the boxes and removing the stickers that say “Made in China” before setting their goods out for display and sale. Not that the origin of these “Moroccan” goods has any effect on the price you’ll pay, of course. But the lower cost and quality allow them to make a more significant profit and thus a higher commission to the lesser quality guides that just rushed you through a magnificent palace and straight into the shop.
TIM Rule #6: “Is like silver”
The perfect storm of Moroccan tourism is an unreliable guide, a disreputable shop, and a tourist with money. The guides and shop owners know that you’ll probably never return to Morocco, so they’ve got no problem with you leaving as much money there as they can get. Rule of thumb: if you’re not an expert in the big-ticket items (rugs, silver, etc.), avoid buying them and stick to the nicknacks. A perfect example is a tourist that recently returned from a DIY tour of Morocco and purchased a beautiful bracelet for $45. The shop owners swore up one side down the other that it was pure silver and well worth the price. So the next day, a quality professional guide escorted them to a reputable local shop, where she showed the owner her fabulous silver bracelet. The owner took out a silver test kit, and this beautiful $45 silver bracelet was made out of just a pot tin, worth about $5. Morocco thanks you for your donation.
TIM Rule #7: “A more better price”
Every major tourist city in Morocco has a government-run Centre Artisanal, where only authentic Moroccan-produced goods are sold at a fixed price. In the souks (markets), you are on your own to haggle and bargain over what may or may not be that perfect Chinese-made souvenir.
Negotiating prices in the souk is a well-practiced three-step dance to which you don’t know the moves. Step one: if you express interest in something, the shop owner will happily give you a price. If you don’t like the price and turn to leave, he’ll give you another price, but he’ll seem slightly less happy. Step two: if the pricing is closer to what you want to pay and you counter with an offer, the shopkeeper will give you another price but will seem sad about it. Step three: you counter with a lower price, and the shopkeeper will get absolutely furious, and then he’ll agree. If you agree, you MUST buy it at that price. Just walking away after agreeing is very much against the TIM Rules, and the Gendarme will fine you for speeding.
“Know the TIM and know yourself, and you’ll be victorious” Sun Tzu (sort of)
While the TIM rules may be harsh, knowing them will increase your chances of having a good time in Morocco because forewarned is forearmed, a penny saved is a penny earned, wait one hour after eating before swimming, etc. Some people love a big bus/small experience tour where nothing is the only thing you have to worry about. Others love the DIY adventure and getting lost and haggling for everything (except the speeding tickets). For those that want a quality, hassle-free, high-quality experience adventure of a lifetime, that’s where SaharaTrek comes in. Every accommodation has been visited personally several times. Every guide interviewed and known to us for years. Every driver providing our transfers is professional and will successfully navigate the roads and the ever-present Gendarme. We even know the reputable shops in each city and will guarantee that anything you buy and have shipped home to you will arrive exactly as you purchased it.For most people, Morocco is a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, and it’s up to you how you want to enjoy it. So put our 20 years of experience in work to work for you. SaharaTrek, give us a call, and let us show you Morocco.