Marrakesh can make you put your guard up.
If you stop to look at a shop, don’t expect to just browse and definitely don’t ask how much something costs unless you’re willing to buy it. As soon as you do, the bidding war begins causing a sometimes tense situation to exit from. If the shop owner ever tries to give you anything insisting its a free gift, never take it. You will definitely leave having paid for it or having shoved it back into the guy’s unwilling, clenched hand while he attempts to tell you that since you touched it, you bought it.
If you get lost, asking directions from anyone can come at a cost. In fact, just looking at your map could get you swarmed with “helpful” people who offer to take you where you need to go, all the while pointing out mosques and hamams and then ask for money for the “tour” they’ve given you even though you still aren’t at your destination.
If you’re out checking out the sites, someone might come and volunteer their services as the official (“of course its free!”) tour guide of that place. He’s not and (of course) nothing is ever free.
If you’ve just arrived at the train station, someone might tell you your hostel has been is a dump/burned down/never existed and claim he can find you something better. Don’t believe it.
Individually, these incidents aren’t that bad but when they happen over and over again in the same day, the overall effect is to make you less trusting. Generally when I travel, I’m overly trusting. Go to this guy’s house for dinner in Nicaragua? SURE! Hitchhike to the market in Israel? I’M DOWN! But in Morocco, I had to let that go.
While Marrakesh is definitely a busting city full of hectic activity and a love/hate relationship with its tourists. I actually really enjoyed it there. The architecture, the history, the culture all overwhelmingly make up for having to become a little rough around the edges (for a little while).
You’ll definitely want to know where you’re going when you get there as you can’t rely on the altruism of strangers. When we first arrived, we had someone from our hostel meet us at the nearest bab (entries into the walled medina) and take us directly where we needed to go. When you look at the alleyway we had to go down to find it, its obvious we would never have found it without him. Definitely also get used to knowing which bab is nearest to where you want to be as sometimes its easier to go around the medina than through it to find your destination.
While I do recommend planning ahead, don’t splurge on a guided tour or airport pickup as its actually simple enough to do this on your own. Public transportation in Marrakesh is pretty decent and cabs are everywhere, just come knowing what you want to pay and agree on it first.
Another recommendation is to figure out how much things should cost before you walk into a shop. A tea pot for example, might be offered to you to at the equivalent of 50€ but in reality, you can walk away with it for 10€. The game you’re now playing is “how ignorant is this tourist?” Check out what things should cost ahead of time so you don’t lose.
Walking in a Cheap Food Wonderland
The food was wonderful, plentiful and affordable: the holy trinity of cheap eats. For the equivalent of about 2.5€, you get a decent sized meal of chicken tagine with potatoes, olives and tomatoes or cous cous and why not throw in the perfect cup of coffee or crazy sweet and refreshing mint tea for about 1€ more.
Ignore what you’ve heard and don’t be afraid of outdoor food vendors (within reason, obviously). We met one European traveler who had been in Marrakesh for two weeks and only ate at his hotel. Don’t be that guy! Honestly, I’d rather get sick (and you probably won’t!) than not try any Moroccan food out of fear. Food is like 50% of the reason I travel in the first place. Just beware of ordering things described only as “meat” as that could be anything (well, anything halal). Long story short, I’m pretty sure I ate some goat stomach and can confirm its not something I need to incorporate into my regular diet.
Bars are (obviously) uncommon in Marrakesh so your options at night are a little limited. Sure not to disappoint is a stroll over to Jamaa el Fna, Marrakesh’s central square. Go during the day and you won’t really get what all the fuss is about. Yes, you’ll find those famous snake charmers you’ve heard about (way less interesting in person) or get your hands painted with henna but when the sun goes down, its so much better. As lights go on, the square gets much more lively and becomes a sea of performers and food stalls. Sit down and have a drink here for some awesome people watching. Be very aware walking around though, part of the square is actually a road and its a miracle no one was mowed down by a horse or speeding motorbike.
If you´ve been to Marrakesh, how was your experience there? Did you find you had to change up your travel style a little?
Check out my tumblr for more pics from Marrakesh and stay tuned for more posts about Morocco.
Also, have a look at this week’s Sevilla Snapshots over at Sunshine and Siestas, featuring one of my photos. Thanks, Cat!