Surviving Marrakesh

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The following is a guest post by Kathy James of Walkabout Wanderer.

I have been to Morocco three times over the past 18 months, so it is pretty clear that I love Morocco. Coming from the UK, I can arrive in Africa, submersed in a completely different culture, in only four hours. However, my love for Morocco stems from more than just the interesting culture or the convenience in which I am able to arrive there.

Morocco has it all – sea, city, culture, mountains, and desert.

There is a crazy amount of sensory overload in Marrakesh, the starting point for most travellers in Morocco. Nowadays, however, cheap direct flights can be found to other areas of Morocco as well.

Marrakesh is chaotic and crazy. There is so much pollution and noise, but at the same time it is beautiful and full of cultures and amazing colours. Indeed, I have a love-hate (more like love-slightly dislike) relationship with Marrakesh, and I’ll try to explain some of that below. 

Having spoken to many Riad (traditional Moroccan house or palace) owners, travel tour companies, and street sellers who rely heavily on the tourism industry, I know that tourism has dropped significantly in the past few years. They say this is due to the media, terrorist attacks in nearby Tunisia, and negative feelings towards Muslims, the predominant population in Morocco.

Terrorism is a fear in many places, and especially following the recent terror events around the world and the previous bombing  in 2011 on Djemaa el-Fna, it is difficult to not have it on your mind. With that said, Morocco is a stable country and has a relatively liberal Islamic society. Obviously, an act of terror could happen, but it could happen anywhere and is not a sufficient risk in Morocco for you to put off traveling there. As a general rule of thumb, follow your country’s advice for each particular country abroad before travelling to any area of the world.

My personal opinion is that Morocco is safe to travel in. To help you stay safe in Marrakesh, I have put together this guide to assist you in a city where getting lost will be an hourly occurrence, people will try to get you to part with your money, and the culture may not be what you are used to. The guide can also be applied to most cities in Morocco.  The frequency of petty crime and harassment in Marrakesh will require you to be on your guard at all times. However my advice below will hopefully make Marrakesh just a little bit easier to handle.

1. You will get lost!

Marrakech’s medina is a maze, just like the one in Fes. You cannot always trust the signs to find your way to Djemaa el-Fna (the main square), as shop owners will change them to take you past their shops. Asking for help is going to cost you money or lead you into buying something that you may not want.

My tip is to embrace it, BUT also there are a few other ways that you can get back on track!

Use Google maps.  

I wrote about Google maps in my blog post; ‘Top 8 tips all travellers need to know’ .

Download the Marrakech local map in advance on wifi. Open the map on the area of interest, then tap the search box and scroll down past the search suggestions to a link “Download a new offline area”. It will allow you to download whole cities of map data for use offline.

When you get to your accommodation, always drop a pin (you have to be online) right away. Press and hold the screen, and a red pin will appear. Tap the pin, and the address will appear. Click the star, and that will save the location for viewing while offline.

If you find yourself starting to get lost, press the blue dot on the bottom right corner of the screen, and your location will appear. Sometimes it may take a while to find your position, especially when you are surrounded by tall buildings, for instance, but just give it a moment or two. Then, simply follow your way to the pin (shown as a star) or to Djemaa el-Fna, the central point of Marrakesh.  You can also save other places of interest by following the same procedure noted above for saving the location of your accommodation.

Within the Medina, the individual alleyways will probably not show up exactly, but it will at least give you a sense of direction.

An alternative to Google maps is CityMaps2Go.  Diana Chen has written a blog post highlighting the pros and cons of the app

In addition to these maps, you can also ask someone to show you the way back to your hotel or to a point of interest.  Expect to pay 10MAD if someone shows you back to your hotel or elsewhere, but only pay if you want to be taken there. If you do not wish to be taken there, but people insist on taking you, make it clear that this is not what you want.

In the Medina of Marrakesh, find the wheelbarrow men who are there to take people’s luggage. They are the best people to ask to show you the way. Alternatively, if you do not need someone to show you, then ask someone who is connected to a shop to give you directions. Another option is to telephone your Riad and ask them to come and show you the way. Most good Riads will do this collection and drop off service.

Keeping spare coins in your pocket is a good idea to avoid getting your purse out.

My final tip is to always, always pretend you know where you are going even when you are completely lost. Looking lost or worried makes you a target for touts and ‘guides.’ Try not to get out a paper map in public. Instead, go into a cafe and have a mint tea and then consult your guidebook or map. The Medina is a difficult place to map, so a map alone is unlikely to be much help.

Surviving Marrakesh | MVMT Blog

2. Watch out for scams

If someone invites you into their shop for some mint tea, stating that you do not need to buy anything, this is unlikely to be true. At some point, you will be given the hard sell. As humans, we have an inherent psychological idea of reciprocity, meaning that you will end up buying something little that you really do not want at an inflated price. Do not accept these ways of getting you into their shops. Simply say “no thank you” politely and walk away.  

“This place is closed today” – Beware of people approaching you to tell you that a certain tourist attraction is closed for the day. I’ve seen this scam all over the world. They will then tell you about a one-off event, market day, etc. and how they can take you there. If you follow them, you will be taken to an indoor market with inflated prices or be charged for their time to take you there. Even worse, the attraction you were going to probably wasn’t even closed.

Photographing people – Taking a photo of someone will cost you. If you want to take a photo of someone, be sure to ask them first, and most will if you give them a couple of Dirhams as a tip. With people like the water men, it is better to agree to a price beforehand. Be warned that if you take a photo of someone in the main area, then someone else may approach you asking you why you took a photo of them. Do not show them the photo as you may find yourself getting into a further discussion with them or having your camera disappear with that person. Always be aware of your other personal belongings.

Monkey Men – When walking through the main square, be aware of the ‘monkey’ men. If you get too close to them, you will have a monkey on a chain on your shoulder, and it will cost you money to have it removed. With that said, if you do want to have a photo with a monkey, always agree on a price first. The price will be inflated once you have had the photo taken and a lot of hassle to just walk away.

Henna – Don’t let the henna ladies put any henna on your hand before agreeing on a price. Be certain that you do want henna before even sitting down and browsing, as you will find it very hard to walk away.

Guide – People claiming they will be a guide for free definitely want your money. They will charge you a high price at the end or will take you into a shop where they receive high commissions, and you will get the hard sell.

However, hiring a local guide can be beneficial if you find someone who has been recommended to you. Ask for recommendations in your Riad and, on meeting, ensure you are going to see the things you want to see, and you are not spending most of your time in shops where the guides receive commission. This means you can refuse to go into shops if you have already agreed on it.

Hiring a guide will help keep the scammers/touts discussed above at bay. They also help you navigate the medinas and you will get to experience more than if you are alone.

Surviving Marrakesh | MVMT Blog

If you do not want a guide but find that someone is walking with you or hassling you, simply tell them, “We do not want a guide and we will go to the tourist police.” They will disappear quickly as the tourist police take a stand against tourists being hassled.

The easiest way of getting rid of unwanted guides and sellers is to say “La Shockeran,” which means “No thanks you,” and then walk away.

3. Haggling/tipping

It could be said that haggling is Morocco’s national sport, and you will certainly feel tired after doing it. My only advice is to embrace it and have fun, but be sensible as well. Have a figure that you want to pay, and do not compromise unless you feel you are being unreasonable. You can always move onto another stall as lots of places sell the same items.

Remember you can always pretend to leave, and they will call you back with a lower price. If they don’t, then you know you were getting their best deal. There is no shame in then going back.  

Always agree on a price before ordering food, taking a cab, or taking any type of service.  Once the price has been agreed to, Moroccan people will stick to that price. Do not accept that they do not have any change. They will always know someone nearby who does, as they are one big community.

4. Dress respectably

Things you wear in your own country can be quite inappropriate and insulting to Moroccans. Out of all the areas I have been to in Morocco, Marrakesh is the most laid back place. I have regularly seen tourists walking around with tiny shorts and strappy tops, but I would advise against this.

Surviving Marrakesh | MVMT Blog

Try and keep dresses at a reasonable length, and do not show any cleavage. You don’t want to be getting unnecessary attention, which you will, just as females would if they walked through a major city in Europe with only a bikini on. Guys, make sure your shorts are of a suitable length, and always wear a top.

Remember that when you leave Marrakesh, you need to dress even more respectably, covering your shoulders and wearing pants and dresses that fall below your knee. This is their culture. Respect it.

5. Avoid expensive jewellery

As in all countries where petty crime is high, you’re more at risk if it is seen. In addition to this, you are more likely to attract the attention of scammers, as jewellery is a sign of wealth. You will be charged more for things.

6. Crossing the road

The streets of Marrakesh are madness. Cars will not stop to allow you to cross at zebra crossings unless you are brave enough to step out first. Watch the locals, and walk out with them. When there are no locals to walk with, you will either have to brave it or wait forever. Look out for slower moving cars and then walk steadily across the road. Don’t stop, or you will find yourself stuck in the middle of the road with cars going around you. Where there are no zebra crossings, use this tip on any part of the road.

If this does not sound like your cup of tea, you can take a taxi to and from places. There are no taxis in the Medina and main squares, but keep an eye out for donkeys, carts, motorbikes, etc.

Surviving Marrakesh | MVMT Blog

7. Crime

Although there is crime in Marrakesh, it tends to be mostly non-violent, petty crime. As many locals are scared of the secret police, you will be safer in crowded places.

I never felt threatened in Marrakesh.

Surviving Marrakesh | MVMT Blog

8. Dealing with local men

I haven’t had too much of a problem with the local men. Perhaps it’s because my dark hair and eyes help me blend in better, or because I was either with a male or constantly looking confident in where I was going.

To females, the men there can seem a little intimidating, but not any more so than in most major cities. If someone approaches you with unwanted attention, be polite but firm. I would repeat “No thank you” a few times, and if they are persistent, then simply ignore them. Never show you are nervous even if your knees are shaking.

Some females I have met wear a pretend wedding ring, but I have found that simply telling everyone you have a boyfriend who is waiting for you at the place you are going to always works.

If you find that you are getting hassled a lot by a particular male near your accommodation and there is name calling, sometimes asking how he would feel if his mother and sister was having this type of hassle works. Respect is everything in Morocco.

9. Night

Do not walk alone at night. Walking in well lit and busy areas should be absolutely fine. However, it is easy to accidentally walk into a side alley and dark areas where petty crime is frequent against tourists. It can be uncomfortable walking at night due to the dimly lit streets and narrow alleys of the Medina. I would recommend that you do not walk alone in these areas at night.

Surviving Marrakesh | MVMT Blog

Ask someone from your Riad to walk you somewhere, or get a taxi at night. If you are at a restaurant, you can ask the waiter or someone known to the owners to walk you home for a price. 

10. Get to the airport in plenty of time

Although it is small, Marrakesh airport is one long wait. The check in queue is extremely slow. You are split into genders at security, and each person is frisked when passing through the metal detectors.

Immigration is an even slower process with officers working at the speed of snails – not feeling the urgency of possible missed flights.

Make sure you get to the airport in plenty of time.

Don’t let the above advice put you off from visiting this wonderful, colourful city. You may not have a problem with many of these areas. I just wanted to make sure I covered them all.

Remember it is easy to leave Marrakesh and a lot of tour companies arrange trips into the Sahara Desert and Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa. You can also take the local buses to the coast or to the atlas mountains, as well as to major cities and towns.

Please comment below if you have any other tips on surviving Marrakesh. Don’t forget to subscribe to Walkabout Wanderer’s blog (it’s free!) for more  posts like this and interesting travel stories.

Surviving Marrakesh | MVMT Blog