Lessons From Islam – The Ups & Downs Of Travelling In Morocco During Ramadan

What’s backpacking if not an adventure? Arriving in strange cities at horrendous hours with no solid plan, waltzing into hostels in search of a room, dining with people you’ve just met – chatting away like you’re long lost pals, and getting lost often, yet somehow always managing to find your way.

Learning all about new countries and cultures is an integral part of backpacking, but I think most will agree, in the end, the biggest reward you takeaway from travel – is what you discover about yourself.

So, when my girlfriend,Anna & I discovered the week prior to flying out, that our backpacking trip to Morocco would be spent during the Islamic practice of Ramadan, we didn’t let it discourage us. And neither should you.

Marrakech medina
Lost in Marrakech’s Medina
Moroccan spices
Colourful spices in Marrakech’s Medina
Cobras in marrakech
Snake charmers try to get tourists passing by to handle snakes – yuk!

Picture this, you’re sitting in a hostel in Granada, Spain, recounting your days’ adventures at the Alhambra with a group of fellow travellers… bragging a little – you manage to work into the conversation that you’re flying to Morocco in a week or so…

The dude you’re bragging to says; “Yeah, I was planning on going to Morocco too, but it’s Ramadan there now, so I cancelled”

You say; “Yeah, we’re not really phased too much that it’s Ramadan… umm, I gotta go take a pee”

Thirty seconds later, with my laptop open, I’m punching… “what is Ramadan?” into Google’s search box.

For the benefit of those, like me who don’t know, Ramadan is the obligatory Islamic month of fasting. Seeing how Morocco is a Muslim country, it turns out Ramadan was going to have a major impact on our impending travel, and we had a bit of research to do before flying into Marrakech.

Markets in morocco
The buzz of the medina that quickly fills when ramadan breaks at night time.
textile weavers in fez
In fez I was invited to sit in this textile weavers chair and try my hand at weaving cloth

What we discovered, is Ramadan is a pretty intense practice. Basically all eating & drinking is completely forbidden during the day – for an entire month!

Some businesses close up shop for the entire time, while many of those who remain open have strange trading hours. Food can be difficult to come by, and understandably, tempers can flair.

Considering Morocco’s searing temperatures… we experienced upwards of 48 degrees Celcius (118 Farenheit) at times, I think you’d agree, Ramadan is no small commitment.

So, as a western traveller in an Islamic country, there are a few things you need to know prior to arriving in Morocco during Ramadan.

First and foremost, DON’T PANIC, as a foreigner you CAN buy and consume food in daylight hours during Ramadan.

The Moroccan’s abstain from eating or drinking anything during the day, but that doesn’t mean they expect foreigners to fast too (although with your backpackers diet of fast food & two minute noodles, perhaps you could benefit from the ‘When in Rome’ philosophy for a day or two…?) Just saying 🙂

Most of the research we did prior to leaving, made out that we’d be abused and accosted if we took a swig of water, or snuck a tiny morsel of food in public during the day. We found this to mostly be false.

I’m not saying it’s all plain sailing, it’s not always easy finding food during the day, McDonalds, major hotels and western cafes (if you can find them)… but when we did stop for lunch, we were never made to feel uncomfortable for eating or drinking in public.

That said, out of respect for those fasting, we didn’t go traipsing around inside the Medina with a kebab hanging half out of our mouths either.

On one 11 hour bus trip, travelling south from Marrakech to Merzouga (a tiny town you might want to visit if you dig the idea of spending a night in the Sahara desert) trying in vein to discreetly open a bag of crisps, somehow, we managed to tear a gaping hole in the side of the bag, unleashing the delicious smell of vinegar with a dash of sea salt, the aroma quickly flooded the entire bus.

As the only foreigners on the bus, we cautiously peered around the bus, expecting a bevy of awkward stares and perhaps even a few cranky remarks from the other passengers. We didn’t receive a sideways glance.

Ceramic is a big trade in morocco
Ceramic bowls and plates at every turn
Evening prayers in morocco
A huge crowd gathers for evening prayers during the religious period of ramadan
Travelling through morocco by bus
The 11 hour bus ride from marrakech to the sahara desert

Morocco is dry during Ramadan, alcohol is not available even after Ramadan breaks at night.

Credit where credits due, the Moroccan’s are a resilient bunch, as if fasting during daylight hours for a month isn’t dedication enough, abstinence from alcohol and sex is expected for the entire month also.

There’s no relief from this one though folks, no alcohol free periods between certain hours like fasting.

We didn’t so much as see a single bottle of beer, or glass of wine during our entire trip to Morocco. Apparently major hotels serve alcohol, but as were all backpackers here, we can safely assume you won’t be booking into the Ritz Carlton.

That said, if your birthday or some other celebratory occasion falls during Ramadan, some supermarkets sell booze to foreigners between specific hours. Note; you’re required to present a passport proving that you’re not a local.

Chefchaouen morocco
Deep blue colours in the town of chefchaouen morocco

I’ve heard the Moroccan people are a friendly bunch, does that still ring true during Ramadan?

It’s true, the Moroccan people are extremely friendly, kind & generous. But travelling during Ramadan is not without its challenges.

We couchsurfed our way around Morocco, and time and again, our gracious hosts poured uber friendly, super generous hospitality upon us.

Sitting at a restaurant with one of our hosts, sharing Morocco’s famous dish; the tagine, was like a window into the social and generous nature of the Moroccan people. The tagine at it’s roots is a deeply social dish, resting at the centre of the table, everyone present tears a chunk from a loaf of fresh bread, and dunks it into the tagine with their hands scooping out the delicious contents.

Though, there were a few situations where shop keepers tempers boiled over in the Medina in Marrakech.

Between fasting and extra prayer obligations, you can probably understand there’s not an abundance of free time to deal with demanding, English only speaking tourists. So why open at all if they’re not able to provide reasonable service?

Well I can’t say for sure, but I think the answer lies in distraction. Distraction from rumbling bellies, distraction from sore, scratchy throats & dry cracked lips.

Fair play, I say.

So, how did we handle any tense situations?

Simple, we thanked him or her for their time and walked away, chalking it up to the rigours of Ramadan… and refused to let it tarnish our Moroccan experience. Besides, it was the exception rather than the norm, and once outside of Marrakech, we didn’t have anymore run-ins with hot tempered locals.

Don’t let a few grumpy shop keepers discourage you from discovering the wonders of Morocco.

desert camel safari morocco
Camel safari, spend a night in the sahara desert, our camels were named Bob Marley And James Dean
typical moroccan dish
A delicious moroccan breakfast prepared in our riad in fez

So in a nutshell did Ramadan have an big impact on our trip to Morocco?

Well, there was the noticeable absence of other travellers, the quirky opening hours, and there were the few inevitable tempers that boiled over.

All things considered, I wouldn’t change it.

Honestly, I feel it enriched our time in Morocco, often providing a great angle to spark a conversation with a local, It was fantastic to be submerged so deeply into another countries ancient traditions. We learned a ton about the Moroccan people, and how Ramadan effects their day-to-day lives by talking to the people we stayed with, met on the streets and spoke to on long bus rides.

At times the days can be challenging, but when Ramadan breaks at night time, life in Morocco comes alive & carries on more or less like normal.

A few tips for those travelling in Morocco During Ramadan;

  • In the bigger cities like Marrakech, it’s common to see not only foreign women, but also local girls on the streets in singlets and shorts. As it is a highly religious period, women are expected to cover up more than usual. Once outside of Marrakech a little more diligence is good practice.
  • Anna often kept a shawl or sarong handy to cover her shoulders if she feel it was warranted when wearing a singlet.
  • It’s not a bad idea to keep a few snacks along with a bottle of water in your day pack to get you through the day.
  • Like all countries you visit, be mindful and respectful of the local customs and traditions and you should enjoy an incredible experience that you’ll treasure for a lifetime.
  • Oh yeah, Photographers beware, you are expected to ask permission before taking photos of people or their belongings (I got myself into trouble a few times for snapping without asking)

For christmas 2011 Marc bought one-way plane tickets for himself and his girlfriend Anna to Bangkok. Surprise! They both drunk in the delights of South East Asia, before mixing it up and heading to Europe for the second time, then onto Morocco. Marc and Anna, love to eat $1 pad thai noodles in Bangkok, taking spanish lessons in Barcelona, and Marc is particularly talented @ crashing motorcycles in Northern Thailand Marc writes to inspire other ‘would-be’ and ‘some day’ travellers to stop making excuses & start taking action Life is short, and travel provides an amazing sense of clarity & perspective on the purpose of life, and what it is that’s really important to you.

You can follow Marc on Art of Absence and connect socially on twitter at @ArtofAbsence. Facebook and Google +

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2 thoughts on “Lessons From Islam – The Ups & Downs Of Travelling In Morocco During Ramadan”

  1. Thanks for the information and glad you had a good time during Ramadan! I’m considered going there during Ramadan this year, mostly to experience the atmosphere in a Muslim country which we don’t get so much of in England!

    Just to let you know, Muslims have to refrain from food, drink and sexual intercourse only during the daylight hours. At night, anything goes! Except alcohol of course, which is forbidden at all times.

  2. Great Article! Great Pictures!
    I’m so glad you liked Morocco. I wish you could come back here and visit even more fascinating cities !

    Here is also some other few tips for those wishing travelling to Morocco:
    -Morocco is at its most beautiful in spring (mid-March to May) when the landscape is green and lush, making for spectacular mountain hiking. Morocco is also lovely in Autumn (September to October) when temperatures are very pleasant.
    -Popular Morocco destinations : Marrakech with its famous square, Fes with its old Medina, Ride camels in Merzouga desert, Chafchaouen (The small blue town ), Ouarzazate ( See the old Kasbah Of Ait Ben Haddou)…

    All The Best!

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