Surviving the Souks in Marrakech, Morocco

Cafe-Epices-Marrakech

When I first booked my flights to Morocco, everyone gave me words of warning –“Have you been anywhere like Morocco before?”,“I feel you won’t like it”, “As two young girls, you will get a lot of male attention”.

Although I couldn’t specifically remember going to a country notorious for “haggling” I felt my travel experience leant me some insight into what it might be like. Having said that, and despite bringing along a copy of The Lonely Planet Morocco guidebook, I feel I would have benefitted from more practical advice, particularly for The Souks in Marrakech.

The Souks are markets located within the walls of the city, known as the Medina. The stalls are down narrow, winding roads that are like a maze. Although no cars taxis or buses are allowed down them, you will often find yourself having to quickly move out the way to allow the constant stream of motorbikes and bicycles to pass.

 If you are planning on going to Marrakech soon, here are my top tips on how to survive the Souks:

Get a map

The map provided in the Lonely Planet book is not comprehensive enough and only features the main roads. When we got lost the first day (expect this to happen to you frequently) we managed to get a free and more detailed map from a local coffee shop which helped a lot. However it was not until a few days into our holiday that we realised that if we cached Google Maps on our mobiles an arrow would appear which would show us where currently we are and which direction we are facing. A real life saver! A word of advice though – if you have a smartphone and decide to use this app, remember to turn off your data so that you don’t face expensive data charges. Also, ensure you have enough battery life to get you from A to B.

Arriving at your riad

When arriving at your accommodation organise someone from your riad to meet you either from the airport or taxi drop-off point – and try to get there whilst it is still light.

A couple who was staying at our riad had to fork out 100 dh for a less than five-minute guided walk by some local youngsters. If you do negotiate a price with them before hand, don’t be surprised if they demand more upon payment. There is a crackdown on such “guided tours” though with plain-clothed police officers patrolling the streets. Be aware though that if you are using a paper map and you stop momentarily, a local young boy will probably come out from the middle of nowhere to try and direct you. We found that often it would be hard to “lose” them, and so we did our best to make it clear that we were not paying them and did not need any help.

Be prepared to wander aimlessly

If you have hours to spare then I suggest discovering the Souks by walking around it, in any direction, absorbing all the chaos. Eventually you will need to make your way back to your accommodation so try and remember the route from a certain place, such as the Djemma el-FNS (the main square) which is signposted down many main streets.

“Djemma el-FNS”, Marrakech Main square

Djemma el-FNS, Marrakech Main square

 Expect to be given the wrong directions

Everyday we would have locals shout after us, instructing us that we were walking in the wrong direction. Just ignore them. Often we would be returning to our riad or heading outside the medina to a tourist attraction, and thanks to my GPS tracking knew exactly where we were.

If you do need directions ask a shopkeeper, but be aware that those given are likely to be inaccurate. We learnt the hard way. When we arrived at the airport we asked the bus driver whether it stopped at the coach station, where we we needed to catch a bus to Essouira, a coastal town about 2.5 hours drive away from Marrakech. He repeatedly told us that he would ‘communicate with us when to get off’. When the bus reached its final destination he directed us towards the other side of the nearby square. It ended up being a 45-minute walk to the coach station, which wasn’t ideal in the heat hot and whilst rolling along a set of mini suitcases. It was only when we returned to the airport by bus that we realised that the bus route did in fact pass the coach station. The bus driver had either not understood our request or simply failed to let us know where the best place that we should have got off. Either way, I was a tad annoyed.

Haggle, and enjoy it

In Morocco it is acceptable (and recommended) to haggle. Having limited hand luggage space for the return flight and not being the best ‘negotiator’ we only brought back a few spices and a peppermint tea pot. However, we were advised by the guy who worked at our riad to always offer half of what the shopkeeper proposes. Although you will probably not get as good a deal as a local, you should be able to walk away satisfied with an agreed price that you are willing to pay for the good.

Espices-Market-Marrakech

Dress modestly 

Being an Islamic country local woman are covered up, including with a hijab. It is likely that you will pestered by local men (on many occasions they would shout the word ‘sex’ in our faces) but if you generally wear dresses below you knee and wear capped sleeves you should be able to reduce the chance of being approached.

Dressing in Marrakech, Morocco

Dress-Code-Marrakech-3

Dress-Code-Marrakech

A useful word to know is “imshee” meaning “go away”. Don’t be afraid to use it; I wish I had when my arm was continuously being touched, and one-time even my bottom. It is best to take any unwanted comments light heartedly. Often they are just trying to get your attention for you to buy something.

Beware of black henna

Henna tattoos are very popular in Marrakech, however take care when getting one done. Woman in the market may attempt to randomly grab your arm and use black henna on you, which isn’t good for you. Instead I recommend going to the small spa next to the Aqua Cafe in the Djemma el-FNS and costs 60 dh. Here’s the design I opted for:

Henna-Marrakech-Morocco.jpg

When asked how I enjoyed Marrakech, I respond that it was challenging. I am glad I visited the city to experience the culture and food but it was also exhausting at the same time. Even though many people misled us a lot, we did meet some genuine and lovely people.

I would, especially, like to say a huge thank you to the shop keeper who left his stall to help us find our riad in Marrakech. We had been wandering around the Souks for over 40 minutes and were getting nowhere. I hope the pizza that you forgot you had ordered wasn’t too cold!

Everyone should experience Marrakech at least once in their lifetime. If you planning a trip to Marrakech soon, just make sure that you are prepared.

Been to the Souks in Marrakech? How did you find it? Tweet me your suggestions on how best to survive them – @sotremendous

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