What You Must Know Before Your Trip to Marrakech
Oh, Marrakech. I can’t even begin to describe the contrasting emotions that the Red City has stirred in me — awe and distrust, amusement and resentment, discomfort and endearment. As I get on my connecting flight back to Spain, I think back to the many blogs I perused before my trip, convinced that I got all my bases covered. With ten years of travelling experience under my belt, it can’t be that hard. Well, you might have already guessed how that played out: nothing can fully prepare you for the frenzy that is Marrakech. Here are some tips that can hopefully help you make the most of your time exploring this beautiful city.
An offline map of the Medina is a must.
Seriously, I don’t know how any tourist can manage without it (unless your idea of fun involves the challenge of getting lost and finding your way out of a maze). The Medina is a walled and intricate system of alleyways that make up the old part of the city. This architecture is a beauty to look at from above, but it’s a totally different experience down below: dark corners, shady characters, wrong turns, and dead ends. The narrow streets basically block off your view, and finding an orienting landmark can be a struggle.
If that’s not bad enough, this has opened up opportunities for some locals to make some money off of tourists’ confusion. In fact, many scamming schemes start with a friendly and seemingly innocent offer for help from to find your way out. Avoid falling for this by having a map saved on your phone. Of course you’ll still get lost, but at least you don’t have to rely on goodwill and pure intentions. As luck would have it, that’s quite hard to come around in this part of the city. Make sure to take a portable charger with you for good measure.
You can download the map of the Medina on your phone by clicking here and choosing download offline map from the drop down menu on the right hand side (marked by three horizontal buttons).
Scams are everywhere.
Being scammed in Marrakech is not my proudest moment, but it happened. Although I did my research before going, I thought (rather naively) that this was the kind of thing that happens to other people, not to me. WRONG. The more obvious ones I managed to dodge, but the last one was so convincing that I didn’t even realize I was scammed until some minutes after. It has left a bad taste in my mouth for sure, but a part of me can’t help but be amazed amazed at the scammers’ mastery and understanding of human behavior. Here are things they may say or do that you should watch out for:
This way. If you have this undeniable lost tourist-look in your face (and even if you don’t), be wary of locals coming up to you to show you the way. It’s easy to fall for this especially when the only thing you want is to get to the big square once and for all, but of course they can’t possibly help you since they don’t even know where you’re going. Just ignore them and keep moving.
What are you looking for? This is another conversation starter in Marrakech that almost always ends up bad. Unassuming tourists trying to find their way out would often be approached by a normal-looking local eager to help, usually a young man that looks perfectly harmless. They’ll engage in small talk, ask you where you’re from, and will try to establish rapport by mentioning a famous person from your country or telling a funny remark. They’ll offer to take you there and will press for money afterwards.
Have you visited the tannery yet? A normal-looking guy came up to us as he pushed his motorcycle along, asking us if we have been to the tannery yet. It’s a cool place, he said. I live around there so I can take you myself, he added. We thought it could be a cool thing to see but realizing that we were getting deeper into the labyrinthine streets and with less tourists in sight, we listened to our gut and bailed out. He did not insist, but we almost fell for this. We’re glad we did, lest we would’ve been pressured to pay for a tour or buy products we didn’t want.
That place is closed. I’ll take you to a special market instead. Another common scam, this is unfortunately what got me. They’d even tell you it’s for free, which will make you think this must just be a nice local with good intentions. ... until he takes you to his shop owner/guide partner who will hard sell a product or will press you to pay for a tour you didn’t even want. My unfortunate experience happened on our way to the Bahia Palace. We were told it was closed on Fridays and that we should go and visit the special market in the Jewish Quarter instead. It was very much the same spiel as the tannery guy — he could take us there because he lived around the area.
He stopped in front of an alley that was supposed to be right ‘round where he lives (I still wanna smack myself in the face for falling for that) and pointed us to a shop conveniently located right across the street. We were greeted by the smiley shop owner, were offered tea and were given a quick tour of the shop (at which point it’s a done deal, so don’t accept anything they offer if you’re not interested in buying anything).
After taking some wonderful Berber tea and having a look at their products, we decided to get some sandalwood incense and jasmine soap. They offered a ridiculous price and acted angrily when we tried to take out some of the items in our basket. My instinct was to feel nervous and want to get out of that place pronto, which in hindsight was the perfect scheme to confuse the human mind. Long story short, I paid 25 euros for two items that should’ve only cost 10 or so. Looking back, we shouldn’t have believed that the place was closed (operating hours are, after all, announced in the website), we shouldn’t have drank that tea (at which point it was basically a done deal), and I should’ve been aware that their actions were meant to cloud my judgment.
Booking a taxi can be stressful.
If you think your (mis)adventures in Marrakech would only happen in the big markets and souks, think again. The haggling and craziness of it all starts right after you step out of the airport to flag down a taxi. What’s more, your riad is most probably located inside the Medina, which is off limits to cars after 11AM. Having to find your riad with your luggage in tow amidst the novelty and frenzy of it all can be unnerving. To avoid undue stress, I highly recommend booking a taxi beforehand. This service is usually offered by the riads for a fee (usually 10-15 euros). Alternatively, you can also book your taxi here.
Cash is (still) king.
Even for the amount of tourists flocking Marrakech every day, card payments are still usually reserved for only a handful of establishments. Transactions in souks, markets, smaller restaurants, and even some tours are still managed in cash. As it’s not possible to get Moroccan dirhams outside the country, your best option is to exchange your money right after arriving at the airport. The money exchange counter is hard to miss and you’ll see it right after going through passport control. Alternatively, there are also places where you can do this around the post office near the main square Djemaa al-Fna.