By Dave S. Clark
If you’re traveling outside of the car-free walls of the old medinas, taxis in Morocco are a cheap, effective and readily available way of getting around. They aren’t always comfortable, they usually lack seatbelts, and you’ll likely get out smelling like exhaust fumes, but they work.
The first thing you’ll notice is there are two types of taxis, Grand and Petit (if you don’t know what those words mean en francais, don’t go to Morocco) The grand taxis, which are Mercedes Benz diesel sedans ranging from the 1970s to 1990s, are typically for going from one town to another, or for in-town trips with four or more passengers. They are also mandatory for some lengthy local trips, for example in Casablanca, if you’re making the 40-kilometre drive to the airport. In North America, we think of luxury and refinement when we think of Mercedes sedans. But in Africa, they are all about longevity and reliability. These 240D and 300D sedans are the backbone of transportation on the continent and play a large part in keeping it running as well as it does. In Morocco, that’s no exception. These Mercs don’t have sat-nav, rain sensing windshields, they can’t park themselves and many don’t have airbags. The two that we took didn’t even have seatbelts. One of them had removed all of the plastic vent covers in the interior and for some reason, blocked them up with wood. But they ran and they got us to our destination.
We took one grand taxi from the Casablanca airport to the Casa Voyageurs station so that we could catch a train to Rabat. The other was a ‘my-meter-is-broken-so-lets-negotiate-a-fare’ type of ride that I encourage everyone to avoid. But we were loaded up with our backpacks and heading to the train station from the touristy main square in Marrakech, and I was able to negotiate him down to 25 dirham ($3.40) from 50 dirham, when a regular fare should have been 10 to 15 dirham. It was literally the best I could find without getting into probably 20 taxis. More on trying to find an honest cabby later.
The grand taxi system for going city to city is actually kind of genius in my opinion, even though I’d never take one. Taxis gather at predetermined spots around every city, with each meeting spot like a sort of station for taxis going to another specific city. Fares are fixed and when a car is full of passengers, it sets off to that city. So it’s basically like a small bus that departs every time it has a full load. It seems efficient and logical. Unfortunately the ‘full load’ part is what prevented me from ever using them. The Benz doesn’t leave until it has four passengers crammed in the back seat and two passengers up front beside the driver. Every one that I saw looked very awkward and uncomfortable, with two back-seat passengers leaning forward and two leaning back on the seat in an effort to not feel like proverbial sardines in a can. Buses and trains are cheap, comfortable and available, so we felt no need to subject ourselves to that type of grand taxi ride. I never saw anyone who was obviously a tourist in a packed grand taxi. It is possible to pay for two seats and only occupy one to give yourself some extra space, but at that point, it’s probably still more cost effective to take the bus.
Then there are the petit taxis. They are small cars used solely for trips within town and for three passengers or fewer. The cars themselves varied a lot from town to town. In Chefchaouen, they were derelict old Fiat Unos, painted a darker shade of blue than the rest of the town. In Casablanca we had a couple late model Dacia Sanderos, that actually had basic safety equipment such as seatbelts.
Finding a good petit taxi driver in Morocco is like finding a good restaurant in a touristy city. If you get corralled into a restaurant on a main square or near the biggest tourist attraction in any major European city, you’re going to pay too much for mediocre food. If you hail a taxi in Marrakech’s Jamaa el-Fna or outside the main train station, chances are, you are going to get hosed. To find good taxis in Morocco, pretend you are going to look for that little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Italy. Why do you need to do this? Because there is a fascinating phenomenon in busy areas of Morocco. All of the tourists milling about make every taxi driver’s meter cease functioning. It’s like there is some kind of magnetic force is created when taxis come to any location where tourists have congregated. So because all of their meters are mysteriously broken, they must charge you anywhere between 50 and 70 dirham ($6.15 and $8.60 USD) even though typical fares on the meter would be between 7 and 15 dirham ($0.86 and 1.85).
Unfortunately, finding an honest cabbie who will run the meter isn’t always possible. On our first day in Marrakech, everyone ran the meter and it was great. It gave us a baseline of what to expect if the drivers were honest. Every day after that, we rarely found one that would run the meter and we got a lesson on how dishonest the drivers could be.
Here is what we found to be the most effective for getting taxis in Morocco.
1. If a taxi driver approaches you, waves at you, or whistles at you to get you into his cab, he is a scammer 100 per cent of the time. No exceptions. Don’t even acknowledge them. They will rip you off.
2. Find a taxi whose driver who doesn’t do any of the above things. Open the front door but don’t get in and ask if he will run the meter. If he accepts, tell him where you are going. Then get in the car and ensure he turns on the meter.
3. If he doesn’t turn on the meter, say you are going to get out if he doesn’t. We had a handful of drivers try to pull this stunt on us. They agree to run the meter before you get in then say it is broken or try to ignore you once you start moving. Don’t fall for it. Be firm or get out.
4. If you can’t find anyone who will run the meter, which is likely if you are in a touristy area, then bargain hard. Most metered fares were between 7 and 15 dirham. Don’t pay 70. Don’t pay 50. Offer them 10, 15 or 20 with a plan that they’ll counteroffer 20, 25 or 30.
The one thing a traveler has is the benefit of supply and demand. There are way more taxis around than there are people who are using them. If someone tries to rip you off, you can go to one of the other 20 drivers waiting around and bargain harder.
As for tipping, we absolutely didn’t tip anyone that didn’t run the meter. We were paying a fixed price that was already inflated, so there was no point. If someone did run the meter, we would round up to the nearest 5 dirham.