Marrakech is fast becoming the destination of choice for those looking for a short break outside of the comfort zone of Europe. In 2017, over 2.5 million people visited the small city which has less than a million residents. That’s 20% more visitors than the previous year, and it only looks set to receive even more this year.
If you are one of those considering venturing away from the classic European city break, here’s a quick guide on how to get the best out of it, and not come away feeling exhausted and ripped off.
Be Confident in your research
I know some people like to holiday without looking anything up in advance. I am not one of those people, and given you are here, reading this, I can assume you are not either. Going in armed with a few directions, plans and bus schedules can make a holiday so much more relaxing once you are there.
I am not going to add my voice to those on the internet claiming the whole of Morocco is out to scam you. The majority of people there are friendly, happy to help and welcoming. However, there is a small but very vocal minority who have one aim, and that is to get a tip from you in any way possible. The easiest way to do this is to make you grateful to them, and if you come already knowing where you are going and how to get there, you’ve made their job a lot harder.
Therefore, they are willing to tell you everything you have found out is not true. The direction you are going is wrong, the place you are heading for is closed, the bus isn’t running or never existed, that restaurant doesn’t do good food. Trust him (and it is almost always a him), he can help you enjoy your trip even more.
Don’t waver! If you think you know something, trust in yourself. It’s easy to be swayed when standing on a hot, bustling street corner, where nothing looks familiar and you can’t even read the alphabet on the signs. But the worst thing that will happen if you ignore the persistent man at your side is that you do end up outside a closed shop. If you spend your whole holiday wracked with doubt about which way to go when, you will be completely exhausted by the end of it. Be confident, and also OK to make your own mistakes.
A great example of this is getting the bus from the airport. Taxi’s at the airport operate a sort of cartel, and while it should cost you 70 dirhams from the airport to the city, many will now refuse to take you for less than 200. Having to haggle on a fare you are sure to lose out on can be a very disheartening start to your trip. There is a regular bus, and even if you arrive knowing it leaves from just outside the terminal, it can be hard work to get there. On exiting the airport, you will completely surrounded by taxi drivers and guides and an easy route straight through to the taxi rank. If you stop for a second, you’ll spot an official sign, behind the crowd, almost out of sight. While the taxi stand is prominently marked, the sign to the bus stop has been almost entirely scratched off. It would be easy to change your mind here. Follow everyone else, pay the extortionate fee, believe the people saying the bus no longer runs. Don’t do it! Strike off by yourself and you soon find a second sign in pristine condition and shortly after that the bus stop.
If you do get completely lost (a very likely outcome at least once), don’t panic. I know it may sound as though everyone is out to send you the wrong way or guide you to their friends shop, but most people aren’t. If someone volunteers help, it’s probably best not to listen, but if you ask a shopkeeper for some directions, he will be happy to help. It’s always best to ask someone who can’t physically guide you, as you know they won’t be getting any commission from the place you end up or ask for a tip at the end.
Without intending to spread more panic among those who always need to know exactly where they are, google maps is not very accurate. The larger streets are fine, although when you enter the narrow winding alley you may find it hard to believe that it’s the main artery it appears to be on the map, but many of the small alleys are not on the map at all, let alone named.
Do not expect any signs that can be rotated on a pole to be accurate. You can follow the official hanging signs that dot the city, and some sights such as the Maison de la Photographie have fixed signs to the walls near them, and these are also fine, but any sign easily altered almost certainly will have been.
If you are staying in a Riad in the old city Medina, it is a good idea to look on their website for full directions and if they don’t have any, email and ask for some. Bear in mind that one alley may have 20 little dead ends off of it, all with the same name, and that don’t appear on any maps. You will need directions along the lines of “go past the Cafe de France, take the third left, then the second right through an archway down a small alley”. Just a street name will not always be very helpful.
It can sometimes feel like every person you pass has something to say to you, something to sell you, a direction to point you in, and if you let it annoy you, each call will be more aggravating than the last. If you stay calm, be happy to keep saying no thanks, and let the calls just slide off you, you’ll stop noticing them and have a much better time.
Unless you are actually part lizard, do not travel to Marrakech in summer. And summer here means from the end of May to the end of September. While the narrow alleys of the old city are often quite shady, the heat is still unbearable, with temperatures often approaching 40°C. It can be hard to keep your cool with the constant haranguing when you also feel like you’re being cooked.
With that in mind, it can get pretty hot even outside of these months, so try to time your activities and visits to suit the time of day. Do things that involve a lot of being outside, such as visiting gardens or doing a walking tour, either first thing or last thing, and try to spend the hottest time of day either inside eating, or in an art gallery or museum. The souks can also be pretty cool, so maybe the odd afternoon browsing isn’t a bad idea.
Stop often, sit in cafes, drink lots of sweet, hot, mint tea- keep cool.
Unless you are a well practised and confident haggler, there is only one way to ensure you enjoy haggling and that it to avoid thinking that the aim is to get the item for the cheapest possible price. Instead, think of it as trying to get the best value deal you can. Trying to get something for a rock bottom price can leave you stressed and worried about what is the lowest price, and how low you should put your first counter offer.
If instead you go in with two prices in mind- the amount you’d like to pay for it and the most you would pay for it, you’ll probably come out pretty pleased with what you end up paying. If you constantly worry that someone else might have been able to get it cheaper than you, you’ll not enjoy either the process of haggling or your final purchase. It is all about getting a bargain as far as you are concerned.
Having said that, if you do want to get low prices, head to the souks away from the Jemaa El Fna. They sell exactly the same things, or even better things, and are much more willing to haggle and give you a good price.
The jemaa el fna
You have probably already heard all the horror stories about the square that is undoubtedly the messy heart of old Marrakech, and I’m afraid a lot of them are true. However, it is also fairly easy to explore the square without being scammed if you are alert and pay attention.
Firstly, if you want pictures of the various performers in the square, or you stop and watch their show, you should be prepared to pay for that. You can’t call that being scammed, but simply a fair transaction.
If you want to enjoy the atmosphere of the square, without actually interacting with the showmen, the best thing to do is to not stop moving. If you loiter for a second near, even if not actually watching, a man with a monkey, you will probably end up with that monkey on your shoulder and facing having to pay up for an experience you did not want or enjoy.
Similarly, don’t be fooled into thinking the little old ladies offering henna tattoos are likely to be any less aggressive in their pursuit of you, and keeping hands in pockets can help reduce the chance of an unwanted henna tattoo.
My final plea is that people who do go to the square do not interact with those who bring animals to perform. It may seem exotic and instagrammable, but these monkeys, birds and snakes are kept in very small cages and it is only done for the tourists. Many things in the square are for locals- the story tellers who have huge crowds for their Arabic tales, the people sat behind typewriters, ready to write things out for the illiterate, the acrobats- and you can still thoroughly enjoy the buzz of the square without promoting animal cruelty.
Don’t assume everyone is trying to rip you off. While some days it may feel as though everyone you pass tries to guide you somewhere you don’t want to go, remember that it is probably only 25 people even on a bad day that is trying that. Most people are not, and you can chat happily to many shop keepers and local shoppers without fear.
Haggling is part of the culture here, and while many people accuse shop keepers of starting their haggling with unreasonably high prices, that is the point. You just need to be set in your mind about what you want to pay, and they will soon meet you there. Thinking in terms of being overcharged is to not understand the fundamentals of haggling, which is that each person ends up paying what they feel something is worth. If you are willing to pay over the usual rate, who are they to stop you?
Finally, relax! People will push and pull you from all directions, you will get lost, you will probably have language issues, but remember that none of that matters. Stay calm, be patient and don’t lose track of your own plans.
Featured image courtesy of David Rosen