Meandering in Marrakech

I’m sitting in a comfortable, air-conditioned bus from Marrakech en route to Essaouira, a small coastal town. I’ve just been ripped off 28DH by the waiter in the Marrakech bus station café; less than $3 USD, so I’m not really bothered by it. Just another trick added to the list of things to watch out for. More on that list in a bit.

Let’s start with what’s awesome about Morocco

I loved it the moment I landed. I especially loved it when I walked into the medina for the first time… this overwhelming sense of “yes, I am so glad I came.” Part of that is totally inexplicable; I’ve wanted to visit Morocco for years. Perhaps I just love being somewhere other than a comfortable, safe, predictable country; I’ve lost my Western World virginity and I’m hooked (sorry Mom :-))

Typical night in the residential area of Marrakech

I’m captivated by the multi-layered sensory experience: the vibrant textiles; the scent of spices and cilantro and smoky street food; the exotic flavors of the tagines; sounds of motorbikes, children laughing, chickens cackling, the clackity-clack of cart-pulling mules, drums and flutes of the performers in the square, all overlaid at regular intervals by the haunting calls to prayer. Life moves on here as it has for centuries — no, thousands of years — within ancient walls that were built in the 11th century from mud in a valiant yet failed attempt to protect the city from invaders.

Did I feel safe? Absolutely. Even (and especially) at night, as the entire town comes alive and the lights are blazing. The cooler evenings are when the women come out to shop, the children play, and the street performers display their talents in expectation of payment. The only real danger here is getting run over by a motorbike.

Musicians in the main square

A couple places I recommend:

  • Nomad restaurant in Le Place d’Epices (the spice square). Head for the rooftop where you’ll get a 360- degree view of Marrakech and enjoy delicious contemporary Moroccan cuisine.
  • The Saadian Tombs are definitely worth seeing if you enjoy history and architecture, but be sure to go as soon as they open at 9 am to avoid the crowds and not wait in line.
  • The souks in the medina, of course! The ones farther north of the main square have better quality merchandise, and it’s also fascinating to see the craftsman at work in places like the Ironworks souk.

The broader context

Now let’s give the context for some of the frequent complaints on travel forums about Marrakech: yes, it’s a third-world country with a lot of poverty. Imagine the poorest community in your city, and then imagine that millions of rich tourists all came pouring in to peer at and photograph the people the residents who have no real chance of escape. Sort of like Disney World meets the Tenderloin in San Francisco. I can only imagine they feel a mix of dependence and resentment. Marrakech in particular is near the top of the global list of unemployment, and it’s the second most tourism-dependent city in the world. The descriptive word that too often comes to mind in the medina, sadly, is desperate.

So… if you don’t look like a local, expect frequent attempts to try to sell to you or scam you. Yes, it gets tiresome. However, some people get pestered more than others. Day 1, I was pestered a lot… because I was a bit nervous, uncertain, wasn’t sure where I was going, kept looking at my phone for directions, and made eye contact. They sense lack of confidence like dogs, so just be warned. By day 2 I was a lot more comfortable and walked like I knew where I was going (even if I didn’t.) And voila! People pretty much left me alone. It’s all in the attitude.

Here’s my list of tricks for navigating Marrakech as a solo female traveler:

  • If you don’t know exactly where you’re staying, try to arrange an airport pickup with your riad. If it’s in the medina, chances are that taxis can’t navigate the narrow streets and it’s nearly impossible to find an address; street names and numbers are not logical here.
  • Use, which you can use offline. Put it in “bicycle mode” to access the voiceover for directions, and use an earbud. When you have the little maps voice in your ear telling you to turn right or left, you can walk confidently and look more like a local. I do, however, recommend looking at the route from time to time, as it has a tendency to take you the long way.
  • Pretend you don’t hear people trying to solicit you. Many will try to “be helpful” and give you directions, after which they’ll ask for payment. I found it easier to play dumb or, say “Je sais ou je vais, merci” — ie. I know where I’m going, thank you (and yes, it really helps to know a little French.)
  • Don’t make eye contact unless you want to engage with someone. I found it helpful to wear sunglasses so that I could look around the medina with relative anonymity.
  • Don’t worry about getting lost in the souk maze. If you don’t get utterly lost at least once, you haven’t really experienced it! And GPS works fine here so you’ll find your way out.
  • The taxis will always try to overcharge you, usually triple the rate. Negotiate before you get into the taxi, and know how far it is to where you’re going. I found that a good rule of thumb is 10 dirham (about a dollar) per kilometer, but test it out for yourself.
  • Back to the restaurant scam: know how much change to expect. My server knew my bus was leaving in 5 minutes, but deliberately made me wait for him to give me my change. In fact, he waited until the very last second, and I didn’t realize until I got to the bus that instead of giving me 28 DH back, he only gave me 5. Oops. My bad for not checking.
  • And one thing that should go without saying but I’ll say it anyway: dress conservatively. This is a Muslim country so best to not draw unwanted attention. I also wore a ring on my left hand; don’t know if it helped or not, but worth a try. I didn’t get heckled at all, so maybe it did.
  • Above all, walk with confidence and you’ll be able to enjoy the best of this city.

Is it a pain in the ass to do all this? Sure. Do I really mind in the grand scheme of things? No. I just kept the bigger context in mind. And, as my next post will show, other towns aren’t this bad. Essaouira on the coast is utterly delightful and laid back with none of the above negatives.

UPDATE: I came back through Marrakesh on my way out of the country, and stayed an extra day. Seems like it’s best to hit the medina when it’s on the busier side; when it’s slower, I felt like there was a big “I’m a tourist please come try to scam me” sign on my forehead. I got so fed up I actually yelled at a guy, and just started saying “ne me parle pas” with a scowl on my face. And then googled “wine.” I ended up at the rooftop bar/restaurant of La Salama, and I highly recommend it! 2 for 1 happy hour is exactly what a gal needs after a walk through the medina.

A note on taking photographs

This is the first place I’ve been where people really, really do not want their photo taken… unless they’re performing, in which case they’ll expect payment. Even if you’re taking a photo of a wide, busy street scene and not of a specific person, you’ll get waved at and scowled at. You need to either stop, or you need to pay. On one forum, a clueless tourist ranted about the time they were attacked for continuing to take photos after the locals made it abundantly clear that they didn’t want to be photographed. Partly it’s because they aren’t zoo animals and I’m sure they’re exhausted by all these rich Westerners coming to photograph their way of life. But I also read that they can be superstitious. So… my last day in Marrakech I didn’t bother bringing my camera and felt like I enjoyed the experience more.

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