Marrakesh – an oasis of palm trees, spices and colours as well as a labyrinth of dusty streets and stalls! A visit to this sun-kissed buzzing city can become one of your most charming experiences or…one of the worst and it is not all down to the mighty luck, as local charmers may try to convince you. Unsurprisingly a lot depends on how much thought and preparation you put into it and on going there with an open mind and heart.
However you were lucky enough to stumble upon my helpful collection of tips and observations about the city, its people and their habits – so please read below to keep the Devil’s bad charms away:
Airport tips – first things first! Four main things you should know about your arrival in Marrakesh:
- arm yourself with patience for your first contact with the laid-back culture of Marrakesh – a long slow queue (probably around 1 hour) will most likely wait for you at the Border check , especially around lunch time when half of the staff go on their lunch breaks – so plan your meetings/trips accordingly
- there is a currency exchange bureau at the airport, as you come out of the border checks and it is advisable to exchange some money there (ATMs can run out of cash, especially at the weekend) – when I visited, 1 euro was about 10 dh and 1 pound sterling around 12.8 dh
- airport taxi drivers are crooks and will try to overcharge you to a ridiculous extent – a ride to the city centre is only about 5 km (3 miles) and should not cost more than 30 dh, although with airport drivers 50dh can be considered a very good deal. Don’t be fooled if most taxi drivers will ask for 100 dh (sometimes a lot more) – just negotiate or tell them you’ll take another taxi or the bus.
- Yes, there is a bus that goes to the city centre every 30 min and it costs only 30 dh one way or 50 dh return ticket. Depending on the location of your hotel it might work out cheaper to take the bus and then a taxi from the city centre to either Gueliz or Agdal areas. This is because sometimes airport taxi drivers agree on the prices and you won’t be able to get a deal below 150 dh.
Dress … not to impress, if you are a female tourist
If you want to be respectful of the local culture avoid showing your shoulders, belly and knees (try wearing trousers or skirts over the knee), although a deep cleavage is also frowned upon. However tourists of all ages and all cultures, dress of all sorts in Marrakesh and locals and quite used to that. The main difference is that if you are wearing slightly revealing clothes according to local customs, as a single female traveller or a group of girls, you might get a certain amount of attention, chatting up, critiques or even harassment, while if you are with a man this is less likely to happen.
Avoid sea food and tap water
It is not unusual for foreigners to get food poisoning in Marrakesh or at least some stomach problems, mainly due to sea food dishes (quite obviously, sea food has to travel to Marrakesh, which is not a coastal or river city, and due to a combination of hot weather and improper storage it can easily go off) and tap water (which is OK for locals but not so much for foreigners that are not used to the combination of local minerals and bacteria in it). My advice would be to buy only bottled water and always check that the bottle is sealed, even in a restaurant, as sometimes waiters looking for some extra cash refill bottles with tap water. Needless to say you should avoid ice cubes in your drink if you know you have a sensitive stomach.
To take or not to take photos of locals and their animals
For whatever strange or paranoid reasons, locals hate being taken photos (neither of them nor of their animals) and if you are an avid photographer (like I am) that might get you into trouble or bring mountains of frustration!
Sometimes you can be told off or verbally aggressed just because somebody or his car, horse or donkey got into your street photo! It happened to me to be on a tourist bus, taking pictures of a really busy junction when one nervous driver started shouting at me because his car (together with other at least 50 cars) got into my shot of the road, which I found a bit extreme! Another time a young man commented aggressively when I took a picture of an old woman selling bread rolls in a souk corner.
However you might get away with it by asking the subjects for their permission and giving them some money (10-20 dh or more if they seem poor, depending on your budget and generosity).
Also don’t forget to “pay” them with a “thank you” (“Merci” in French, which is something everybody will understand) if you photographed them, their animals or their merchandise – saying thank you is a must!
Download a map or buy a travel guide with map before you go
Finding a map of Marrakesh can be a tricky thing, especially if you land there at the weekend (weekend in Muslim countries is Friday – Saturday) when the Tourist Information Centre is closed. It is also that most hotels won’t provide you with maps and some travel agencies in Medina may have them for sale but they could ask for as much as 50 – 80 dh when in reality a map should not cost more than 10 dh.
However if need be, you can look for a newspaper shop, they usually have them. We, for example, bought a medium-large one for 20 dh from a newspaper shop located few meters from the Tourist Info Centre, which is behind the Koutoubia mosque tower (see map below).
Stay away from Medina walking tour-guides and … negotiation tables (unless you really don’t care about money)
Medina, the old walled town is buzzing with activity and a colourful mix of people from street entertainers, stall sellers, charmers, artists (and fraudsters), beggars and of course professional walking guides. This latter group is an interesting one – they’re usually well dressed, can speak 6 – 7 languages and only ask for small amounts to take you round the tangled souks of Medina. This can be tempting as Medina itself is a labyrinth of narrow streets and random stalls, shops and eateries. But in most cases these cunning guides will only take you to their friends’ expensive shops where you can end up spending fortunes – carpets, expensive jewellery, antiques, clothes, leather products, Argan oil cosmetics are all very tempting but prices are usually 5 – 10 times more than in other places or than what locals pay.
You can guess that you are in a scam shop when you ask for prices and you are told that undisclosed prices are all negotiable at the end, based on what and how much you buy. The shop manager will direct you to place all your desired goods on a “negotiation table” (quoting local customs) then he will tell you a total price, usually 10 time more than what you should pay. Then he will try to induce you to bargain, offering only very small discounts and appearing outraged when you try to discuss a more reasonable price. If you enter the game he will then try to force you to give him “your top price” with a sharp authoritative voice. Don’t get fooled though – better leave the place as most likely you’ll find the same product somewhere else and much cheaper.
If you still want to take a guide, stress from the beginning you are absolutely not interested in any purchase and you only want to see the souks and Tanneries (interesting place to visit where they tan leather) and see what he says 😉
Ladies watch out for Henna artists!
The main square in Medina is packed with insistent Henna artists who will entice you with wonderful designs! Be aware that not all of them are professional and you might end up with something that looks more like a child’s drawing than a work or art. Also negotiate the price before having anything done in order to avoid scams where you would be charged tens or hundreds of pounds/euros/ dollars for a mere temporary tattoo (apparently the scammers have their own ways of getting the money from you).
Also follow the links below if you want to learn more about Money matters and prices in Marrakesh and about things to do and visit.
About money matters, customs and prices in Marrakesh (will come soon)
What to visit and do in Marrakesh (will come soon)