Before heading to Morocco, we read countless blog posts and travel forums about what to wear, how to act, and what to look out for. “Never look at a map in public!” “Don’t take photos of the stores or you’ll get yelled at!” “Smiling at someone will make you a target!” “Never accept the first price you are given!” “Everyone will try to scam you!” The list goes on.
While there is definitely some truth to some of these warnings, having now experienced Marrakech firsthand, I think the key to an enjoyable visit is to be adaptable. Realize that you might get lost, and don’t panic when it happens — or when someone offers to guide you back and then demands cash (Yes, this happened to us.). Know that you will probably end up paying “too much” for something, and be OK with it (unless it really is way too much, in which case, just say no. You know your limits.). And try to be comfortable with the fact that you are an outsider, you probably look like an outsider, and there’s not much you can do about that except to be respectful of the culture you are visiting.
We spent three days in Marrakech, and it was one extended case of sensory overload. The city is busy, loud, colorful, dusty, playful, chaotic and a whole bunch of other things, and we regularly felt lost in more ways than one. But that’s what makes it an interesting place to visit. We did our best to see all the main attractions, including the Jardins Majorelle, the Bahia Palace, Ben Youssef Madrasa, the Saadians tombs, the Koutoubia Mosque and, of course, the medina and its main square, Jemaa el Fnaa.
Out of all of these, I was most interested in spending some time in the medina (the old, walled city). We stayed at a riad not far from Jemaa el Fnaa, the main square, which we used as a starting point to wander. We got lost several times (I think it’s impossible not to), but it really is worth spending some time in. Seeing just how much stuff can be crammed into and hung outside of any given stall is incredible. When you also have to actively avoid being run over by impatient motorcyclists, it keeps you constantly on your toes.
The medina can be a bit overwhelming and intimidating when you are interested in buying something. Bargaining is expected, but it’s difficult to know what’s fair — whether you’re deciding on a price to counter with or deciding if you should accept the seller’s offer. We were taught (by a Moroccan) that you should start with a third of the initial offer and go from there. Most things, however, aren’t that expensive if you’re carrying U.S. dollars or pounds or euros, so unless you’re on a very tight budget, too much haggling probably isn’t worth it. We tested our bargaining skills twice: once on a little leather camel (which I will turn into a Christmas ornament — we collect them when we travel), and once on a trendy hat for Andy.
As may be obvious at this point, food is a big part of travel for us. When we asked our riad about cooking classes, they offered to let us help cook lunch one day. We got to decide what to make (a chicken and olive tagine made with lemon confit, zaalouk and a fresh Moroccan salad) and then eat it all after.
While we had a lot of memorable experiences in Marrakech, one of our most positive experiences was meeting a local for drinks. When we were planning this trip, we really wanted a local connection. We considered finding a place to stay through Workaway and had even decided on someone we were interested in staying with, (Mustapha) but when we inquired, he was all booked up. Lucky for us, though, he suggested that we meet up anyway for a cultural exchange. On our second night in Marrakech we met Mustapha at a big cafe on the main square. He is a 58-year-old high school teacher (of French, English and Arabic) who is extremely passionate about sharing his culture with visitors. We spent an hour or two chatting over a drink after which he invited us back to his apartment in the medina for some Berber whiskey (mint tea) on his terrace. He was extremely kind and hospitable and gave of tons of useful information for navigating his city and country. He taught us how to bargain, told us what good prices were for certain items, explained some local customs, and even gave Andy a lesson on riding a bike through a crowd. If you are ever in Marrakech, I’d encourage you to get in touch with him.
After spending three nights in Marrakech, we took a three-day, two-night tour through the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara desert. Stay tuned for another photo-heavy post on that adventure!