Traveling to Morocco? Here are ten tips you need to know before you go to Marrakech. Rule A1: bring a sense of humor. Thank you to guest author Daniel Brooks.
The Medina, the name for the old town of Marrakech, is a massive outdoor market. If it isn’t the world’s biggest one, it should be. The narrow streets go on and on, selling everything under the sun. The Medina is as old as the hills of the nearby Atlas Mountains whose red color Marrakech resembles. All the buildings in the city are two stories high and look similar to one another. The design of the city hasn’t changed for a thousand years.
Marrakech is the antidote for the isolated world of the “west,” where every man, woman and child is glued to a smart phone or laptop, doing more and more trading with a device instead of face to face. Marrakesh takes you back to a time when people talked to one another and we ripped each other off in style. The Medina is jammed with sellers trying to earn a few measly Dirhams off of the greedy tourists, their wallets stuffed with hard currency. Each stall is manned by canny Moroccans skilled in the art of selling.
Everybody in the Medina has an angle and the sellers have the upper hand. Each Newcomer learns the ropes. Expertise follows, with a certain pride. With haggling, prices in Morocco come down, giving the buyer a warm glow. Here are a few lessons I learned in Marrakech, the hard way.
1. Some smart guys in Marrakech position themselves in the old town at locations where the GPS on Google Maps lead foreigners to the wrong place. This happened when we drove a rental car to our hotel in the Medina. We found ourselves on an impossibly narrow street, partially blocked by people going about their daily business. Along the way we were obstructed by a donkey, a man fixing a motor scooter and a woman in a wheelchair partially blocking a narrow archway. Suddenly, someone came out waving a green towel, shouting. I was duly alarmed. The guy with the towel would not go away. He led us ever onwards, waving his towel as we drove through the narrow street, barely squeezing through. He was a real nuisance. When we finally arrived at our hotel, he demanded payment. I ignored him. Later on, we saw him in the same place, waiting for lost foreigners. He shouted out at me, “go away, dog.”
The trick: avoid driving into the old town of Marrakech. Instead, take a taxi, like normal people do. I had to learn by trial and error which streets are open to traffic and which ones aren’t. It was nerve wracking. Next time, I’ll rent a car after visiting Marrakech, not before. This was lesson number 1.
2. Some in Marrakech don’t wait for the GPS to take tourists the wrong way. When they see a foreigner walking around gazing helplessly at their phones, they shout out, “forbidden street,” or “dead end” and “GPS no good.” At first, it is impossible to ignore. If you stop, someone will lead the way saying, come, come. I take you. You will soon find yourself at someone’s stall, being subjected to a hard sell. Those who fail to buy anything will not be highly regarded. Or the person might demand money, grabbing onto your arm and bringing in others. We quickly learned to ignore anyone who shouts at us to “stop” or “dead end” and simply keep walking. That completes lesson 2.
3. One helpful guy told us, free of charge, how to get to the tannery, a must see. Someone he knew happened to walk by who led us straight to the tannery. There, we were met by another guy who took us on a tour. The hides at the tannery are treated with salt, pigeon excrement and other alarming substances, then laid out to dry in the sun. It stinks to high heaven. Authentic Berbers, standing in pools of filthy mud, do all the work. I could have lived without it. After a short tour, our guide took us to a shop selling overpriced and badly designed leather goods. We bought nothing. The sales staff were deeply disappointed and we felt guilty. When we came out, the tannery tour guide demanded 60 Euros for 10 minutes of work, saying he represented the tannery collective. When I haggled insistently, he got angry and had a friend chime in, shouting at us to pay, pay, pay. We finally got him down to 50 Dirham, about 5 Euros, an amount he found deeply dissatisfying. In Marrakech, everything costs at least 10 Euros, coming to 100 Dirham. Those who pay less should be ashamed of themselves. Later on, I found out at our hotel that the guide at the tannery is well known in Marrakech. Many would like to shut him down, but he persists. When in Marrakech, skip the tannery. This is how we learned lesson 3.
4. One day, we decided to visit a place called the Bahia Temple, dating from the 19th century, the best of its kind when built and ever since. Our GPS took us to a side door at the palace walls where a young guy was standing dressed in tight jeans that hung down dangerously low on his back side. One side of his head was shaven and the hair on his head was long and slicked back. This look is all the rage among young Moroccan men, especially the gravity defying jeans. He told us the Bahia Palace was shut down for a religious ceremony and would open at 2 p.m. His family had been guarding the palace for five generations. He offered, free of charge, to take us to the Jewish market, only open that day, a 10-minute walk from where we stood. Off he went saying, I take no money, believe me, and we followed him. When we arrived at the market, he asked for no cash. I looked around for all the Jews but couldn’t spot any in the vicinity. Our guide performed a feint. After walking away, he came back and said, smell these spices, as if it was an afterthought. There stood another guy who looked eerily identical to our guide, manning a spice stall. It was his brother. We didn’t buy anything, although the brother thought we should have. As we walked away, he yelled something rude at us. From there we went to the palace which of course was open all day. The entire tale was an elaborate fantasy. The Jewish market is open every day, there are no religious ceremonies at the Bahia Palace which opens at 10 am, the guy was not a guard. However, I believed him. That’s how we learned lesson number 4: when offered to be accompanied somewhere for free, don’t go. GPS isn’t perfect, but it works well enough. So does a map.
5. Foreigners are often expected to pay more, even if the price is shown on a menu. After paying, I would slowly count my change. It was often incorrect. Being offended by incorrect change doesn’t work. Being surprised does. The correct change was always handed over, politely. Lesson 5: count your change slowly and stay cool. Or forget about it and let the guy earn a few extra Dirhams. He and his family probably could use the cash.
6. The central square in Marrakech is called Jama El f’na Market. Everyone in Marrakech conspires to direct each and every foreign visitor to this place. Around the central square are a number of overpriced restaurants. The stalls sell costly fruit. Several buskers play all kinds of music, cranked up full blast. Those in the mood can pet a snake and have their picture taken. Other sellers are determined by age, origin and gender. Young African men sell t-shirts along with counterfeit watches and nothing else. Many of them attract the attention of European woman whose interest in watches is minimal. Middle aged Moroccan women offer bracelets and men past their prime pester the foreigners to buy leather goods, mostly belts. If you say, “no merci”, they will give up politely but not right away. One belt seller accompanied us, politely, for the duration of our visit to the area.
My daughter stopped at a tent where two black snakes were slithering around on the ground. After petting a snake and having a picture taken with it, the snake handler wanted 60 Euros. He was indignant when I offered him one Dirham, or 9 US cents. Several snake stall guys came out and began shouting at me in unison and the snake handler grabbed my arm, then someone else took ahold of my coat. 100 Dirhams later, I escaped. It was no picnic. After that, we stayed well away from Jama El f’na market. Herewith is lesson 6: avoid the snake handlers. Better yet, steer clear of the entire area completely, or at best visit the place briefly to get it over with.
7. One morning we took a walk around the outside of the center on a road called Avenue Bab El Khemis. Several locals shouted at us “wrong way” and “dead end”, pointing towards the central square. By now we were wise to them and we moved on serenely in the morning sun. This street had few foreigners and was a place where ordinary people live. People in the Medina spend much of their lives outdoors. No one seemed very wealthy, but everyone talked to each other. Kids were running around outdoors playing street games. Many of them were unsupervised by any adults but somehow knew how to stay out of trouble. There were no safety instructions in sight, yet no one was suffering from injuries or stricken by allergies. Few had smart phones. Instead, people mostly talked to one another, face to face. People were selling everything under the sun, frying fish, baking bread, peddling baked goods. They were chopping up massive legs of mutton, offering food, fixing things. Some simply sat, staring into space. So did we, over glasses of sweet mint tea, accompanied by several cats who lounged nearby. They too were fishing for handouts. When I come back to Marrakech, I will spend my time on side roads like this one. In this way we learned lesson 7: the further from Jama El f’na market in Marrakech, the less crowded, expensive and aggressive it becomes.
8. Motorcycles and scooters are allowed in all parts of the city, on every street no matter how narrow or crowded. Those riding the scooters are fearless and their machinery is loud, spewing out smoke. Somehow, it doesn’t detract from the street life. There are no collisions. Each scooter contrives to speed by within an inch of other bicycles, delivery vans, donkey carts, pedestrians and other scooters. Close calls are constant. Lesson 8 is this – walk to the right, hug the wall of the alleyways and give the scooters the right of way. It’s their city.
9. The Medina has many cats and fewer dogs. The cats are unafraid and are slightly less mangy than the dogs which is not saying much. Carts pulled by donkeys and mules are common and can be photographed for free if the owner is absent, along with the city’s felines and canines.
People are another matter. Many do not want to be photographed. I watched a woman from Germany who tried relentlessly to photograph a handsome young Moroccan in front of his rug shop. He didn’t want his picture taken. Finally, he came out yelling at the woman, telling her to stop. She would not give up. Finally, he shut the door of his shop, livid. That was a lesson. Number 9. No need to take photos of the locals. Cats, dogs, donkeys, they don’t mind at all.
10. If you name a price when haggling, the seller assumes the deal it is done, and the unwritten rule is to pay up. Not concluding the sale, once initiated, is frowned upon. My daughter saw a bracelet she liked. The price was 300 Dirham, about $30. She liked it but not the seller who was not especially agreeable as a human being. She offered 100 Dirham but changed her mind and walked away. The seller came running after her, agreeing to her price but she said no, by now afraid of him. He grabbed onto her, spun her around, threatened to kill her and showed her a ball of spit in his mouth, adding, I spit on you. Lesson 10, if you start to haggle, it’s usually best to make the purchase. Otherwise, don’t name any price at all.
I have every intention of going back to Marrakech. By then I will be a seasoned veteran of the rough streets of the Medina. When anyone tries us to lead us down a garden path, extract an extra Euro out of my pockets or make me pet a snake, I will know what to do. There is, however, hope. Perhaps the next time I visit, a few more lessons will be learned. That’s only one reason to visit Marrakech, and it isn’t a bad one.
Daniel Brooks hails from the Pacific Northwest in the US, and has lived for several years with his wife and daughters in Moscow, Russia.