Traveling in Morocco generally presents no serious health concerns. If there is one constant health concern, it's that of traveler's diarrhea, sometimes dubbed "Morocco belly."
General Availability of Healthcare -- No compulsory vaccinations are required to enter Morocco, though travelers arriving from cholera-infected areas may be asked for proof of vaccine, and it's always wise to be up-to-date with your tetanus and typhoid vaccines. Due to the aforementioned stomach distress, it's always good to bring along a course of anti-diarrhea tablets and oral rehydration sachets, although these are usually readily available from the country's pharmacies. Moroccan pharmacists are very well trained, and regularly act as the village doctor. They dispense a far wider range of drugs than their colleagues in the West, and can usually assist with most travelers' ailments. If you need the attention of a doctor, they can usually recommend one for you, and some even have a doctor on-site. Moroccan doctors -- private and public -- are very professional, with most having studied in France.
The level of hospital care in Morocco tends to be dictated by the location. Privately run polycliniques generally offer first-world facilities and can be found in most larger towns and cities. State hospitals are notoriously underfunded and are best visited only for minor injuries; however, they may be the only option if you are in rural regions. For serious illnesses or injuries, contact your embassy for advice.
Note: Almost without exception, you will have to pay upfront and in cash for any medical treatment and then make a claim on any travel insurance once you return home. Remember to get receipts for any treatment or medication.
Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT; tel. 716/754-4883, or 416/652-0137 in Canada; www.iamat.org) for tips on travel and health concerns in the countries you're visiting, and for lists of local, English-speaking doctors. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region or country and offers tips on food safety. Travel Health Online (www.tripprep.com), sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, may also offer helpful advice on traveling abroad. You can find listings of reliable medical clinics overseas at the International Society of Travel Medicine (www.istm.org).
Morocco Belly -- Traveler's diarrhea (locally known as Morocco belly) is the most common ailment suffered by Westerners while traveling in Morocco. As with similar destinations around the world, there's only so much that can be done to try to avoid an upset stomach. Some people religiously stay away from street food, others never order a salad and drink only bottled water, while others eat only peeled or cooked food. All of these are good ideas and recommended -- however, I've still seen the most cautious of travelers fall victim. It can happen simply because your body isn't used to the unfamiliar cuisine, or perhaps from a little bout of travel fatigue.
For many, however, traveler's diarrhea is a direct result of dehydration. Morocco's summer months are often oppressively hot -- especially for those arriving from more temperate climes -- and can sometimes be too much for the body to cope with. Even at other times of the year, Morocco's delightfully warm temperature can disguise the strong effect that the sun can have.
Once you arrive, increasing your daily intake of water is the most effective way to keep Morocco belly at bay. I always recommend two large bottles per day, which takes a bit of effort for those not used to drinking so much water. Most tap water is drinkable, but bottled water is available everywhere, inexpensive, and recommended. If you do suffer from a dose of diarrhea, it's important (especially for children) to replace lost body fluids and salts. Oral rehydration salts, available in any pharmacy, will help. Moroccans swear by a tablespoonful of ground cumin washed down with a swig of water.
It pays to adapt your diet as well. Steer clear from fatty foods, caffeine, alcohol, and dairy products (except yogurt). Eat plain boiled rice or plain steamed couscous, yogurt, and dried biscuits. For a serious dose of diarrhea, start taking an antibiotic and an anti-diarrhea agent.
Note: Mountain and desert trekkers should avoid drinking from rivers and streams, as cases of giardiasis are common. If you must, be sure to boil the water sufficiently or purify it with iodine tablets.
Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns -- The existence of malaria is officially denied by Moroccan authorities, but other sources report very occasional summertime cases in a few of the more northern reaches of the country. Personally, I've never heard of, or seen, anyone suffering from malaria in Morocco. Cover up from dusk until dawn and use good mosquito repellent, and you shouldn't have anything to worry about.
Morocco's Saharan ergs and the surrounding stony hammada are home to a number of scorpions and snakes. Although very few of the country's scorpions are venomous -- a notable exception being the decidedly nasty Androctonus australis -- the sting can still be extremely painful, especially if you are allergic. The same goes for the country's snakes, which other than the largely nocturnal and terrestrial Saharan horned viper, are mostly nonvenomous. The chances of coming across a snake, however, are slim. All snakes, without exception, are greatly feared by ordinary Moroccans, and no distinction is drawn between venomous and nonvenomous species. Snakes are invariably killed whenever and wherever they are found. To be safe, wear closed footwear when outdoors, and shake them out before putting them on. If bitten, try to stay calm and seek medical help as quickly as possible.
Rabies cases are rare but do occur in Morocco. Vaccination against rabies doesn't mean you're immune, and it's worth seeking medical advice if you're bitten.
High-Altitude Hazards -- More travelers are making day trips from Marrakech to the Jebel Toubkal trail head village of Imlil, which sits 1,740m (5,709 ft.) above sea level. Most people are fine at this altitude, but it's worth knowing your limits and realizing some people may be a little short of breath. For hard-core trekkers who don't wish to spend a day in the village acclimatizing, be aware that the Toubkal-Neltner refuge sits at 3,207m (10,521 ft.) and the Jebel Toubkal peak at 4,167m (13,671 ft.). Altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness (AMS), can occur as low as 2,500m (8,202 ft.), but serious symptoms don't usually occur until above 3,600m (11,811 ft.). The main cause of altitude sickness is going too high too quickly, and can generally be avoided by planning a sensible trek that allows for gradual altitude acclimatization. Given enough time, your body will adapt to the decrease in oxygen at a specific altitude. Trekking up to 3,000m (9,843 ft.), many people will experience mild AMS. The symptoms -- headache, appetite loss, extreme fatigue, and nausea -- usually start 12 to 24 hours after arrival at altitude and begin to decrease in severity around the third day. It's important to stay properly hydrated when mountain trekking -- experts advise 4 to 6 liters of water per day -- and avoid tobacco, alcohol, and depressant drugs such as sleeping pills. Remember the easiest and quickest way to lessen AMS is to descend.
Sun/Elements/Extreme Weather Exposure -- The weather extremes in Morocco can be surprising for some. During the colder months of November to February, the country can experience European-like cold spells bringing cold, wet, and sometimes snowy weather to many regions. Travel through those same regions from June to September, however, and Morocco fulfils its image as a land fringed by Saharan sands and harsh, barren mountains. It's during these hot months that travelers should try to limit their exposure to the sun -- especially during the first few days after arrival and at high altitudes -- during the heat of the day. Wear a hat and use sunscreen with a high protection factor (SPF 30+), and remember that children are more susceptible to heat exhaustion and dehydration than adults.
What to Do If You Get Sick Away from Home
In Morocco, you will have to pay all medical costs upfront and in cash. Before leaving home, find out what medical services your health insurance covers. To protect yourself, consider buying medical travel insurance.
Very few health insurance plans pay for medical evacuation back to your country of origin. A number of companies offer medical evacuation services anywhere in the world. If you're ever hospitalized more than 240km (150 miles) from home, MedjetAssist (tel. 800/527-7478 in the U.S.; www.medjetassistance.com) will pick you up and fly you to the hospital of your choice virtually anywhere in the world in a medically equipped and staffed aircraft 24 hours day, 7 days a week. Annual memberships are $225 individual, $350 family; you can also purchase short-term memberships.
Morocco is a relatively safe country in which to travel, and the majority of Moroccans are hospitable, friendly, and law abiding. That said, there are some issues that travelers should be aware of.
In April 2007, two suicide bombings took place outside the U.S. Consulate and the private American Language Center, respectively. There is some conjecture as to whether these were the work of an organized terror group with international links. In 2003, a series of coordinated suicide bombings also occurred in Casablanca, targeting buildings with either Jewish or Western connections. Both of these incidents provoked outrage and disbelief amongst ordinary Moroccans. Although most sympathize with the plight of their Arab neighbors in Palestine and Iraq, there is an accepted distinction between Western travelers and their governments' policies. Other than not coming to Morocco at all -- which would be an unnecessary overreaction -- travelers are best advised to keep up-to-date with current events during their travels. Before you depart, check for travel advisories for your home country.
Violent crime is generally minimal in Morocco, although there have been incidents of tourists being robbed at knife point in various cities and at nighttime on some tourist beaches. Most crimes that occur are acts of sexual harassment and nonconfrontational theft. Pickpocketing, purse snatching, and theft from vehicles are the most common. These are more likely to occur in the country's cities and large towns, crowded medinas, bus and train stations, and beaches, but it pays to be vigilant everywhere. Be particularly alert when withdrawing money from ATMs, and be aware of some of the common tactics used by petty criminals, such as distracting you with questions and small talk while an accomplice is deftly emptying your pockets or backpack. If your hotel offers a safekeeping area, use it. Otherwise, take away the temptation that might present itself by locking valuables in your bag or suitcase.
Westerners driving rental cars generally stick out and are easily spotted by thieves, so it goes without saying that you shouldn't leave anything of value in an unattended car.
Traveling by train or long-distance bus is generally considered safe, though it pays to keep one eye on your luggage at each stop. Women travelers should look for seats close to those occupied by Moroccan women. The country's taxis -- both petit and grand -- are considered generally crime-free, but may be poorly maintained and driven recklessly (a request of "beshwïya" ["slowly"] may or may not be heeded). Traveling on a crowded city bus can be unsafe.
Hustlers & Faux Guides -- Morocco's infamous hustlers and unofficial guides come in many different guises, from baby-face students to well-dressed gentlemen. Hustlers or touts tend to pounce on travelers who are looking lost or newly arrived, and will proceed to tell all sorts of horror stories such as that the buses aren't operating, the hotel is closed, your desired destination isn't safe, or you are walking in the wrong direction. These men are tricksters, con men, thieves, even drug dealers. Their sole mission is to glean you of your money, and they are a very unfortunate part of many travelers' tales. Leading you to particular hotels, shops, and sometimes even restaurants usually means some commission coming their way. Unofficial guides -- called faux guides -- are generally less intimidating, if not slightly more annoying. For most, guiding is the only profession they know, and the only reason they aren't officially qualified is for socioeconomic reasons. Some can be very entertaining and knowledgeable, but most are very persistent to get any business from you, sometimes resorting to a hustler's tactics. Although a stronger police presence in recent years (thanks largely to the establishment of the Brigade Touristique) has removed a lot of hustlers and faux guides from the streets, it can appear at times that they have found other ways and means to continue their profession. Travelers that I've spoken to recently related incidences where they encountered hustlers and faux guides on the trains, especially those traveling to Fes and Marrakech, and on the ferries coming from mainland Spain. Bus and train stations, largely unpatrolled by the Brigade Touristique, continue to be a hangout for many.
Getting rid of hustlers and faux guides can become a difficult and frustrating task. Some confrontations can become ugly, with the hustler becoming verbally abusive and accusing the traveler of racism toward Muslims. The best approach is to keep your sense of humor and initially ignore the unwanted attention entirely, followed by continuous, polite, and direct rebukes if necessary.
Drugs -- Morocco has strict penalties for those caught purchasing, using, or dealing drugs. This includes kif, as the local marijuana is called. However, kif is smoked by many Moroccan men, especially in the northwest part of the country. Historically, the Moroccan police took a fairly lenient attitude toward its consumption, but in recent years there have been sporadic but concerted efforts to curb its use, including the arrest of foreigners caught indulging. Spanish border police are also known to prosecute travelers (suspected as traffickers) caught in possession of kif as they enter the country from Morocco.
Police -- The Moroccan police force is still styled on the French system, comprising the Surété National, who wear navy blue uniforms and are responsible for enforcing the law in urban areas, and the Gendarmerie, who wear gray uniforms and are to be found in the rural areas and at major road junctions and town entrances. In some of the major cities, such as Fes, Marrakech, and Tangier, there is a Brigade Touristique, which has been specifically formed to curtail the actions of touts and faux guides. Generally, law-enforcement officers in Morocco are polite to travelers, although they often ask to see your identification, preferably a passport, and, if driving, obviously a driver's license. Their overall helpfulness, however, can be limited, especially concerning action over theft. Usually, they are quite happy to complete a police report for travel-insurance purposes, but actual efforts to retrieve the stolen goods may be laborious at best.