From a scary taxi ride through Casablanca to a truly magnificent piece of North African architecture, my visit to Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca was wonderful. This mosque is the second largest in the world after Mecca and is one of the few mosques that allows non-Muslims to enter.
Budget travelers are constantly looking for the best possible places they can visit on the cheap. Here are five exotic places around the world that are still affordable for the budget traveler. Read on!
Everybody knows it for the Panama Canal, a must see engineering marvel, but Panama offers much more for budget travelers seeking an exotic trip. Plenty of great beaches in places like Bocas del Torro or for the more adventurous, explore the Darién Gap (with a guide of course, this is one extremely dangerous place). It’s easy to spend several weeks in this exotic country without ever staying in one place for too long.
Panama is served by many North American carriers at reasonable prices. The roads are much easier than Costa Rica but the main means of transport over large distances is by small plane. You can fly to most places in the country on Air Panama or AeroPerlas for $50-100.
Thought by many to be an expensive tourist trap five hours off the coast of California, Hawaii is actually a great trip for budget travelers who enjoy doing their own thing. Amazing beaches with the best surf in North America, scuba and snorkeling opportunities everywhere and plenty of diversity with rain forest and volcanoes for nature lovers.
The most visitor friendly island in Indonesia, Bali may be small in size but not in stature, despite not being the cheapest place in the world to fly to. Flights can cost up to around $1,000 but amenities once you are there can be had at very reasonable prices. Don’t worry, big hotels are available for those who need pampering, but for travelers that require less your dollar can go a long way in Bali.
Apparently in order to be considered “exotic” you need ocean and rain forest so close to each other in the same country that you can literally feel as if you are in another world in the same day. Not only does Costa Rica allow you to do that, you can literally walk from a gorgeous beach where you might not see another person all day, to forest where you will be surrounded by monkeys and sloths. Costa Rica has to be the ecotourism capital of the world and luckily for budget travelers, prices are still reasonable. A bus ride across the country costs less than $5 and there are many hostels for around $10 per night. Tourism is huge though and there are plenty of resorts and tourists traps but you can still easily get by spending $3 for dinner eating with the locals at a small soda.
Morocco stands out on this list because it’s not known for its nature although it does have plenty of that to go around. Fancy a camel ride across the Sahara? No problem. The majority of travelers are here for Morocco’s immense culture though. It’s a taste of the middle east in North Africa. Imperial cities like Fez are home to life in the medinas and souks that has been relatively unchanged for a thousand years. Food lovers will be in heaven enjoying chicken or lamb tagines meticulously steamed for several hours.
Inspired by the roaring #1 New York Times bestseller with more than 1 million copies in print, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die Traveler’s Journal is perfect for giving–it’s specially designed for people who love to travel and want an elegant place to record their experiences. Scattered throughout the journal are traveler’s lists (“Unforgettable Destinations for the ‘Been There, Done That’ Crowd”and “10 Experiences Guaranteed to Give You the Shivers”) and quotes that will spark insight and provide writerly inspiration. At the back of the diary is helpful nuts-and-bolts info: time zones, conversion charts, telephone codes, mini-translation guides, and more.
This is the first in a series of posts about what to pack for specific destinations. I noticed an unbelievable amount of Google traffic searching for information on what to pack for Morocco, one of my favorite previous trips. Since I never touched on what I packed for Morocco, I decided to write a post about it. Occasionally I’ll revisit this topic for other destinations that require certain types of clothing or gear.
Morocco is a very unique destination. Located in North Africa but still carrying the vibe of the Middle East. Morocco is full of culture, languages, sights, great food, amazing landscapes, and best of all, relatively safe. This makes it a popular destination for independent travelers and backpackers flock to the various areas around the country.
Morocco is not your every day tourist destination though. Being a conservative Islamic republic, you should be mindful of Moroccan’s customs and be respectful in your dress. This means that, despite the often warm temperatures, you should not plan on walking around in shorts and short-sleeved t-shirts. This goes for both men and women.
For men, jeans, khaki’s and cargo pants are acceptable and long sleeved t-shirts, thin jackets, or lightweight casual button-down shirts are recommended.
Women can generally follow the above recommendations but just be mindful to not wear tops that expose cleavage or have short sleeves. It may not be considered risque in western culture, but these items are generally unacceptable in Moroccan culture.
Recommended Packing List:
4-5 shirts (or blouses) – preferably long sleeved
1 jacket or sweater
2 pairs of comfortable pants
swim suit – if you’re visiting the beach
hat – especially if you’re visiting the desert
enough socks and underwear
comfortable sneakers or hiking shoes
toiletries – don’t go overboard, but shopping for your typical toiletries in Morocco might be difficult
digital camera – smaller is better
Morocco isn’t particularly dangerous, but places like Tangiers do suffer from slightly more than normal amounts of petty theft. If you are spending time in any medina areas and want to take photographs, a small camera is a better idea. Remember, this is where Moroccan’s live and work and aren’t necessarily tourist areas, despite the popularity of them.
Ask anybody who has backpacked for any amount of time what the highlight of their trip was and they’ll likely tell you about a place that you’ve never even heard of.
That’s right, I’ve never met anybody who said the Eiffel Tower was their favorite part of their trip to Europe. Nothing against the Eiffel tower, it’s wonderful, but often the small, out of the way places that you never planned on visiting are what really make your trip.
For me, it was Cinque Terre, Italy in 2004. It was my first backpacking trip and I was all by myself. Made my way from Paris to Venice and met three Americans who were studying in England. They were in my hostel and we decided to go out for dinner. We ended up spending the next day together exploring the neighboring islands before heading to Florence which so happened to be both of our plans.
After a couple of days in Florence they invited me to Cinque Terre. “Where?” I asked.
I looked it up in my Lonely Planet. At the time, there was just one paragraph that said that the olive farming villages of Cinque Terre had no hotels and you had to find a local to rent you a room.
It sounded interesting, but the last thing I wanted to do was be stuck in some place I didn’t know with nowhere to sleep. I was also convinced I needed five days to explore Rome.
Somehow they talked me into it, and after a brief obligatory stop in Pisa, we ended up in Vernazza, one of the villages of Cinque Terre. It was there that an old lady met us at the train station and offered us a room. Thanks to my Pimsleur Italian level I audio tracks and a lot of body language, we secured a room for the night.
The village was beautiful, located right on the water and offered the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen (keep in mind I live at the beach in Southern California and it’s hard to beat our sunsets). We had an amazing and affordable dinner at a restaurant up on a cliff that overlooked the ocean. The sky was lit with nothing but bright stars. No lights from any nearby metropolis polluted the sky.
The following day we hiked between the villages along a path that had previously been used by the olive and grape farmers. Some of the hillside had been carved specifically for the harvesting and that way of life hadn’t changed for many of the residents of Cinque Terre.
These days many Cinque Terre has become quite the hot spot. Located on the Italian Riveria, it’s surprising that it took this long for it to become such a great spot for tourism. Now, nearly every body I speak to who has backpacked Italy has told me they stopped in Cinque Terre. I haven’t looked at the latest Lonely Planet guidebook for Italy but I would bet that there is MUCH more than the same short paragraph that I took a leap on five years ago.
I had a similar experience in Morocco when I visited Chefchaouen. While I had read a bit about it in the guidebook, it certainly wasn’t the destination that bigger cities like Casablanca, Fez, and Tangiers were made out to be, but it ended up being the highlight of my trip for both its beauty, and the wonderful locals who invited me into their home for a great meal.
My point is that you never know what is out there when you are traveling. Your guidebook is a necessity but you can never expect that the author visited every square mile of the country.
There are still many of places that have yet to be bombarded with tourists and in the case of Cinque Terre, they soon might be, so go see them while you have the chance!
Talk to other backpackers at hostels or ask a local their opinion on places you can visit to get a real feel for the culture. You’ll be surprised with what you may find. Just because a guidebook doesn’t listen a place, or doesn’t provide you with a lot of information, doesn’t mean it won’t be the highlight of your trip!
Have you found a great off the beaten path destination in your travels? If so, post a comment and let us know where and how you came across it!
Here is a short article I wrote for Dig Magazine, CSULB’s monthly publication. My day-by-day travelogue is posted here on Have Pack, Will Travel.
“Where is all the sand?” I thought to myself when I landed at Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, Morocco. It turns out that much of Morocco is actually very dense with forests and vegetation. The Mediterranean climate is much more comfortable than one would imagine when contemplating a visit to North Africa.
“Bienvenue en Maroc! Welcome in Maroc!” I frequently heard while walking down busy streets. Not knowing whether I was French, English, or American, they were sure to cover their bases and make sure I understood that I was welcome in their country.
Enjoy my travelogue about my week-long journey through Morocco. Such an amazing place full of life, language, and culture. Morocco ranks very high on my list of places I would recommend backpackers visit.
I awoke early to the street traffic outside my hotel window. The plan for the day was to head to Hassan II Mosque and take a tour. That’s right, a non-Muslim entering a mosque. It’s rare, but Hassan II Mosque allows visitors at certain times to take a tour of the unbelievably large and beautiful structure. It’s truly a marvel to see and is one of the most impressive religious sites I have ever seen. As a matter of fact, it is the second largest mosque outside of Mecca.
I’ll leave all the interesting facts up to you read at its wikipedia page. You can also watch this video I shot in HD (you’ll have to click the link to go to the vimeo page to watch the HD version. It will only play in SD embedded in my blog).
I decided to walk to the mosque since it was early and I got lost in the medina. What a site it was though. The walkways are very narrow and cramped with vendors bringing their produce through to get ready for the day. Plenty of live animals waiting to be sold and butchered, eggs, potatoes, and more were making their way to the market.
After about 45 minutes of walking north through the medina, I ended up right back where I started. Apparently I wasn’t going north the entire time. I opted for one of the plentiful and affordable taxis. I believe it only cost 10dh which is less than $2.
After my short tour of the mosque, I headed back to pick up my things at the hotel and made my way to the train station. I managed to find my train just as it was about to leave the station. I boarded and took my assigned seat in the correct compartment thanks to one of the attendants. I probably wouldn’t have been able to decipher my ticket without him.
The compartment had six seats and I was the fifth and final passenger to sit there. There was a Moroccan man dressed in western attire and a couple wearing traditional djellabas. I said “bonjour” and sat down excpecitng a quiet six-hour train ride. I was surprised to hear the couple start speaking to each other in English with British accents. After talking to them for a while I learned they were British-born Pakistani and purchased the djellabas during their holiday in Marrakesh.
We talked a lot during the train ride and the Moroccan man chimed in with some information on Fes as he was from there. Soon enough, he offered to set me up with his friend who was a guide (considered a requirement for navigating the medina). I had heard the warnings of unofficial guides and was reluctant to trust him. He assured me he was official and would show me his id card that they are required to show. Eventually I agreed so he called him on his cell and asked him to meet us at the train station.
He was waiting for me when we arrived and was very friendly. He showed me his id, tucked it in his pocket and we got in his car along with his driver. He offered to drop me off at a hotel and then pick me up the next morning for our tour. The only problem was that he refused to take me to any of the hotels I asked to go to based on my guide book. He had an excuse for every one whether it was dirty or used by prostitutes. I began to realize he was hustling me and asked to be dropped off at the hostel. He reluctantly agreed.
When we arrived it was closed. I assumed he only agreed because he knew they would be closed at that moment. I knew I needed to ditch this guy and luckily for me a tall backpacker came walking up. The guide was talking to his driver over by the car and I mustered up enough French to tell the guy that I needed to get away from this guide and to pretend to be my friend. He told me that the book said the hostel opened at 6:30 so we had an hour to spare.
I went over to the guide and told him I was going to get food with my friend and that I wouldn’t need him anymore. He insisted on meeting me back at the hostel to make sure I found somewhere to stay. I didn’t have any way to change his mind and left, hoping he would be gone when I returned.
I learned the backpacker’s name was Dominique and he was from Germany. He spoke a French a bit better than me but his English was very good so we opted to use it. We walked to a cafe and did as all Moroccan men do in the afternoon. Sit on a cafe patio and drink mint tea for an hour or so.
The hostel was open when we returned and sure enough, the guide was sitting there drinking tea with the owner. He got up, and told me the place was all full and he would take me some where else. I asked the owner if this was true and he said yes, but gave me an odd look. The guide started speaking Arabic to him and even though I didn’t understand most of what they were saying, I could tell he was pressuring him to turn me away.
I went up to the guide, gave him 100dh and thanked him for his help but that I was going to go on my own. He gladly took the money and agreed to leave but not before he gave me his phone number so I could call him tomorrow if I needed the tour after all.
Once he left, Abdullah, the owner, came to me and apologized. He said that the guide is official, but he works off the clock to make more money and basically was threatening him to turn me away. He was glad I understood his hint and stayed. His bed situation was pretty unorganized and he had a difficult time finding beds for Dominique and I but eventually he put us in a private room that we split.
After hanging around the hostel for a while I heard three English travelers being turned away by Abdullah because he didn’t think he had enough beds for the lone male (the rooms are not co-ed). As they were about to leave I told them to stay for a few minutes and I spoke to Abdullah. I reminded him that there was an open bed in one of the male dorms because Dominique opted to share my room instead of taking the last bed. The three of them were glad we figured out a solution because it was dark at this point and it would be difficult finding someplace to stay.
I chatted with them for a while and asked about heading out to dinner. They agreed and so did Dominique so we headed out to a restaurant that Lonely Planet recommended. It was definitely marketed to tourists as everybody there was American, but the food was wonderful and the price wasn’t too bad.
Once back at the hostel we sat outside on the patio for a few hours chatting. The weather was wonderful and it was nice to have conversation that wasn’t challenging due to language barriers.
I learned that Lauren, Lizzie, and Rob had hitchhiked all the way from England. Coming from America, this was one of the craziest ideas I had ever heard. Apparently though, it is a fairly common thing to do in Europe. They weren’t homeless travelers or anything. They were all university students and did it for charity. They had people sponsor them financially and then the money went to charities of their choosing. I thought it was not only brave and adventurous, but very respectable that somebody would do that to help others.
We headed to bed after a while and decided to tour the new medina on our own the following morning and then take an official tour of the old medina in the afternoon.
It was an extremely long day that had its ups and downs but when it was all over, I was quite pleased I was safe and made some new friends along the way.
Four flights and 18 hours after departing Los Angeles, I finally arrived in Morocco. I landed at Casablanca airport and immediately walked out of the terminal to get a taxi into town.
The first thing I noticed is how green the area is. There were lots of trees and vegetation. It was much more beautiful than the barren desert I had imagined.
This would be my first experience utilizing my French here in Morocco. I’ve been to Paris and Quebec, but both times I was not very fluent (I’m still not fluent, but I can get around well and carry on a basic conversation).
“Combien aller au terminal de CTM s’il vous plaît?” I asked.
“Deux cent cinquante (250dh),” he said.
The sign said 230dh but I didn’t care to argue. The difference was less than $3 and it’s a long drive. The guy I spoke to grabbed my bag and then took me to another man. It turns out that the second gentleman was actually the taxi driver and the first guy just wanted to help with my bag to get a tip. I gave him a whopping 10dh (about $1.50). I could already tell that everybody here will try to nickel and dime you to death. The thing is that they are literally getting nothing more than nickels and dimes from you. It hardly seems worth the hassle they go through just to get some pocket change but, c’est la vie… en Maroc!
I was astonished how beautiful the countryside is. So many fields, trees, hills, etc. My favorite sight was all the kids playing football (soccer to us Americans). It seemed that every mile down the road you’d see at least one group of kids playing in a random overgrown field, behind a building, or even in the street.
When we got closer to town I started to notice the beautiful French architecture. It really was impressive. But soon enough we entered the city and were caught up the traffic that seems to come second nature to all large cities. Actually, the traffic probably wouldn’t be so bad in Casablanca if the drivers just followed the rules of the road. I guess in Morocco they’re really just guidelines. Every taxi I took centered their car over the lines that divided the lanes. They would also pass other cars in the middle of intersections and while going around traffic circles. Everybody loves to honk his horn as well. The funny thing is that they wave and smile when they do it, unlike here in the ‘States where we tend to point a special finger in the air and yell obscenities.
After about thirty minutes we arrived at the CTM station. He assumed I was departing on a bus and dropped me off near the departures. This confused me though because I wasn’t sure exactly where on my map I was. I began walking in the direction of the hotel I chose form my guidebook but it was difficult to pinpoint my exact location. They are slowly changing the streets from their French names to Arabic ones. So even though my map was made only a few months earlier, some streets weren’t correctly labeled on it. For example, the king recently renamed two of the biggest squares in Casablanca. He changed Place Mohamed V to Place des Nations Unies and the old Place des Nations Unies to Place Mohamed V. Yet some people still refer to the new Place des Nations Unies as Place Mohamed V so things can really get confusing. Can you tell?
Eventually I landed on Rue Abdallah and found the hotel I chose, Hotel Touring. The owner was very friendly and put up with my French. The best part was that the room was cheaper than listed in my book. I paid only 125dh (about $17) for a room with a shower. The owner told me, “Votre chambre est sur la premiere étage.” Well I forgot that in France (and apparently Morocco) the first floor is what we consider the second floor in the States. They say “ground floor” for the lowest level. So I said, “c’est sur la premiere étage? Merci!” and then proceeded to pass the stairs and walk down the hall. He quickly came out and said, “non! Premiere! Premiere! Vous comprendrez?” So I embarrassingly walked back to the staircase and thanked him. This small hotel even has a small prayer room facing Mecca for the employees and guests to pray in. My guidebook called it a mosque but it isn’t much more, to me at least, than a small room large enough for three or four people to say their prayers in. Pretty neat though.
I dropped off my things and decided to explore the area. I was extremely thirsty so I set out to find a bottle of water. I stepped into a cafe and one quick glance at a can of Coke Zero made my mouth water so I purchased it.
Out on the street I heard somebody yell, “pas sucre!” which means “no sugar!” in French. A man with some missing teeth came up to me and kept exclaiming, “pas sucre! Pas sucre!” while pointing to my can. I don’t believe that diet sodas have been very popular in Morocco until recently. Looking at most people’s teeth can reaffirm this.
“Où vous êtes de?” he asked.
“Je suis d’Aux Etas Unis,” I answered.
He exclaimed, “Oh you speak English! I am learning. Can we talk?”
In America we certainly don’t stop people on the side of the street very often just for conversation but he didn’t give me a choice. A bit odd, I thought, but what the heck.
Eventually I realized that he just wanted to practice his English. He started out with the basic formalities: “How are you? Do you like Morocco? Where do you live? How old are you?” The conversation quickly died when he ran out of things to say in English. I watched as he searched his brain for something to say. Eventually he came up with, “I like horses.” I decided we didn’t have much else to talk about and told him I had to leave.
A few minutes later another man stopped me, also commenting on my Coke Zero. His English was much better and he gave me his address to come visit him and his family if I had time.
While these encounters were very friendly, I realized I would never get anywhere if kept getting stopped every block. I threw the can of soda away and oddly enough, nobody else stopped me to chat.
I found pay phone (they’re located in small shops with several private booths for customers) and called two friends who I had made on CouchSurfing.com, a social-networking website for world travelers. They had offered to meet up and have some dinner with me while I was in Casablanca so I called to see where and when we should meet. The place they chose was easy enough to find on my map but it was quite far, so I opted to take a taxi. The fare was 10dh (about $1.50) and took me across the entire city. What a steal. In New York City you can’t even get into a taxi without immediately paying $2 or $3!
I arrived at the Twin Centre in the heart of the city and waited around for my friends. The Twin Centre is two skyscrapers and looks huge in the Casablanca skyline but pale in comparison to even the smallest towers in large American cities. At the bottom is a three-story mall that connects the two buildings. It is a popular place for young people despite having very few interesting stores.
I waited for over an hour because my clock was set incorrectly. It turns out that the entire world doesn’t observe day light savings time on the same date. Whoops.
Eventually I met up with the three guys I chatted with online, Abdel, Hichem and Mostafa. They brought two other friends so we had quite the group. I felt very flattered and welcomed by them. How many people arrive in a city on the other side of the world and have five people waiting to spend time with them?
We introduced ourselves and we began to walk down the road. I didn’t ask where we were going but instead enjoyed the conversation. Hichem was quite versed in English and I later found out he works for Reuters News Agency and has traveled quite a bit. After walking for quite a while I noticed the minaret for the Hassan II Mosque. I had planned on coming back the following morning to see it during the day but I was pleased to be introduced to it by my new friends.
Built overlooking the ocean, the Hassan II Mosque is truly magnificent. It is the second largest mosque in the world (some say third, I can’t figure out the truth), behind only Mecca, and holds 25,000 worshipers. It is also the only mosque in Morocco, and one of the few in the world, that allows non-Muslims inside.
While we were enjoying the view, the final call to prayer began. It was loud, but beautiful. I asked my friends if they wanted to pray and told them that I didn’t mind waiting somewhere for them.
“No, but thank you for asking. We pray and attend mosque often, but in Casablanca, we aren’t very traditional.”
It was dark by this point and the light at the top of the minaret, which shines towards Mecca, was glowing brightly.
We continued on our walk and eventually ended up at a small cafe that they frequent. We sat down and they ordered me some mint tea. I had heard about it but was afraid it would be too sweet for me. Boy, was I wrong. It was amazing! My mouth is watering right now just thinking about it!
We must have sat there for at least two hours talking about our travels, language differences, what we do for work, and our educations. The thing that struck me the most about them, with the exception of the well-traveled Hichem, was how curious they were about America and the rest of the world. They told me that they don’t get to travel often because it is very difficult to get a visa to most places. I think that is something Americans take for granted. We can go nearly anywhere without a visa yet much of the world does not have the same luxury.
It was quite late by this point and I was starving for food. I was enjoying the company very much, but I had expected to eat dinner much earlier and I was beginning to feel sick. They decided to finally get up and we continued to walk around the town. Soon we came upon another small café and sat down at a table outside. They asked what I wanted to eat. I had no idea so I said I would have whatever they are having but that the only meat I like to eat is chicken. They all ordered some chawarma. I had no clue what was in it but it was pretty tasty.
After eating we decided it was time to part ways. The only problem was that I had no idea where we were. I figured I would just grab a taxi but Mostaffa told me he lives near the area I am staying and would walk back with me. I thought that was incredibly nice of him and of course I accepted. Mostaffa’s English was not the best compared to the rest of the bunch, but he was very eager to talk and practice. I found out he was a huge fan of rock and roll. Mostly the classics like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and even Johnny Cash. He told me that he plays guitar and can play a lot of Dylan songs. It was one of those moments where I realized that even though we can live on opposite sides of the planet, practice different religions, and have cultures that are vastly different, we still have many things in common. It’s funny how music can bring so many people together.
Along the way we walked through part of the medina where many of the locals live. I was surprised to see quite a few young people out playing football in a cement park. It reminded me of the basketball courts in New York City. Even though I don’t play, I found myself wanting to just go run around with them and kick the ball a bit. Immediately the ball came flying at me due to an errant kick. I kicked it back towards them but it hit a telephone pole and came bouncing right back to me. I guess I’m not the most talented soccer player!
Eventually we arrived at the street for my hotel and I realized where I was. I thanked him for his generosity and told him I hoped to see him again.
Even though there wasn’t much in Casablanca for me to see as a tourist, I found myself overwhelmed by the kindness of these strangers who welcomed me to their city. I was certain that had it not been for them I would have had a disappointing night in Casablanca. While it is likely one of the only Moroccan cities most Americans can name, there aren’t many reasons to visit. I was glad my new friends gave me a reason to be there, if only for a day.