Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Guide to Casablanca

Guest post by MVQ on travel to Casablanca and Rabat in Morocco

Intro: If you decide to do a coastal tour of Morocco, then Casablanca is a good landing place and trains connect most cities so it is pretty easy and economical to travel around.

Some highlights/tips:

Getting there: The major carrier for the country is Royal Air Maroc and typically flights on this carrier are the fastest way into the country. Alternatives can turn what should be a 4 hour flight into a day long journey that can take you on a tour through Europe or the Middle East.

Flying from Nairobi to Casablanca, the choices are Air France (via Paris) for $1,000, EgyptAir (via Cairo) for $1,200, Emirates and Turkish for $1,500 and KLM for $1,800 and KQ/Alitalia via Rome for $3,000

Upon arrival customs is actually pretty seamless and the airport is fairly modern and easy to navigate. From the airport there are two options—a taxi or the train. The train into Casa takes about an hour and costs 35 MAD (~USD 4), while a cab will run you somewhere north of 100 MAD. I took the train and it is a pretty smooth trip—as long as you don’t miss your stop (don’t be afraid to ask people for help.) Depending on which train you are on and where you are going, to get into Casablanca you will get off at Ain Sabaa (for transfer to Casa Port) or Casa Voyageur. The ticket to Rabat is only MAD 5-10 more, and the distance from Casablanca to Rabat takes about an hour to cover by train. There are food carts on the train for all destinations where you can grab food and water so don’t worry too much about getting a snack from the airport.

Getting around: Casablanca and Rabat are both walkable cities (during the day) but please watch your things and only carry bags that zip (try to minimize what you carry around as pick pocketing is not uncommon.) When traveling long distances there are two cab options, the Mercedes cabs and the colored cabs (blue for Rabat, red for Casa.) I overwhelmingly prefer the colored cabs as they are metered (ask for them to “turn on the counter”,) cheap, and generally safe. One thing—the cab system is, err, “over optimized.” Cab drivers will pick up multiple fares along the way so don’t be alarmed if random people hop into the cab during your ride. This scared me at first but is common practice (and helps keep cab ride costs low.) For ~10 minute rides expect to pay less than MAD 20, for longer rides (~30 minutes) expect to pay MAD 50.

Language/ Communications: The principle languages in Morocco are French and Arabic. You can get by with English but this will be a challenge so get a friend or a phrasebook! Even for just a stay for a couple of days I recommend getting a local SIM card. The card costs MAD 30 (I believe) for 2G and MAD 60 for 3G (this enables you to get online.) There is no registration requirement for SIMs and the whole process of getting a SIM and credit takes less than 2 minutes. Maroc Telcom is the most ubiquitous provider and you can find a shop almost everywhere (train stations, strip malls, markets, etc.)

Lodging: You have the option of Riads and hotels. I didn’t stay in a Riad but as I understand they are very similar to upscale hostels. You will find that many are family run, and some of the best traditional restaurants are in the Riads. As for hotels, most major chains exist. In Casablanca I stayed at the Sheraton, which is walkable to the Casa Port train station (gare), and only three blocks from the Medina/ old city and the central commercial area. In Rabat I stayed at the Royal Tulip. The hotel was great—there is reliable internet, a nice gym that overlooks the Bouregreg river, and it felt very safe.

Food & Bars: Try your best not to buy food in the hotels. You will pay 10x the cost of buying food outside and there is always a food option nearby. Street food is decent and you can get a fish sandwich in the street for MAD 5-20 ($1-4) depending on where you are. Also, in Casa you can pick up a Beignet for MAD 2-5 (less than $1) In Rabat I recommend Villa Mandarine—they have the most amazing Tagine and (like in most places) you can get great cous cous on Friday nights. In Casa, I would skip the Pizza Huts and KFCs that are ubiquitous and try out a local restaurant near the marina. Rick’s Café is very popular, I didn’t go there but feedback is that it is very expensive and only worthwhile if you are a huge Casablanca (movie) fan.

Shopping/Site Seeing: Overall, Rabat is much more exciting than Casablanca! In Rabat I recommend the following:
• Medina: Check out the old city, pick up locally styled outfits and other souvenirs, and get a sense for the buzz of old Rabat. You can spend 1-2 hours exploring the windy streets and checking out stalls. If you decide to buy things always haggle—the starting price is typically 1.5 to 2x what you should actually pay. Never accept the first price!
• Oudayas: Across the street from the Medina, you can walk through the old fort and the iconic white and blue painted walls
• Beaches: Near the Oudayas are several beaches. Bring your bathing suit and enjoy the waves! You can get surfing lessons if you are more of an adventurer or just relax.
• Other destinations in Rabat: Royal palace, Grand mosque, Dar Es Salaam golf course, gardens

In Casablanca be sure to check out their Medina (very different from Rabats!) and the Hassan II Mosquee (when you tell the cab driver, say “moskay” they won’t understand “mosque” and can take you to the wrong place!

Summary: Morocco is a fascinating place and just visiting Rabat and Casablanca certainly doesn’t do it justice! You must get to Marrakech, Fez, Agadir, Oujda, etc. Wherever you go though, get to know the locals (they are generally quite kind and open), try the food (including the street meat!), and enjoy yourself!

Also Morocco in Pink from Digital African

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