I just arrived back from a long weekend in Marrakech, Morocco, that was absolutely glorious. I don’t even know where to start in describing the unique beauty that is Morocco. Marrakech (also spelled Marrakesh, both are correct) is one of the largest cities in Morocco, and it is a place unlike any other I have visited. I was expecting a bustling, urban, cosmopolitan city; this is not Marrakech. Instead, there is a loosely connected Old and New Town, petit taxis and rickety vespas everywhere, cacti and palm trees lining the sandy desert roads, and only a handful of tourists. Tourism increases throughout the year, but this last weekend of February tipping into March, I had the pleasure of seeing Marrakech without an overwhelming tourist population at my back. I absolutely love this city, but there are certain things I found notable and worth getting out there for my fellow travelers; knowing these things will go a long way in having an enjoyable trip without any bad culture shock!
1. Smoking and non-smoking sections are still an option at nicer restaurants in Marrakech. If you aren’t asked for your preference when seated, then it’s best to assume that smoking is allowed inside. This is quite surprising for those of us from the US (personally, the last time I remember a restaurant having a smoking and non section, it was when I went to Luby’s with my great-aunt and uncle as a kid). For asthma sufferers like myself, the best tip I have is to sit outside whenever possible, and carry your inhaler with you.
2. The main languages here are Arabic or French. Brush up on your French phrases such as, Combien ca cout? (how much is it?), bonjour, merci, sil-vous-plait, au revoir, and numbers. Many of the taxi drivers and shop keepers in Medina have some (very) basic English, and combined with feeble attempts at French and lots of hand gestures, communication isn’t a problem. However, be aware that English is not a main language here, and it is much appreciated when you extend the effort to speak in French.
3. Transportation is primarily either bus or taxi. There are a few different bus lines; I personally stuck to the Bus No 1 line for my entire trip. The bus costs only 4 Dh, about 30 cents USD. The bus runs to some of the major tourist attractions. The other attractions, you can take a petit taxi. I have never had the luxury of taking a taxi so often as I did in Marrakech; most places can be reached for under $6 USD (60 Dh). I have heard that there are meters in the petit taxis, yet never saw one. It’s best to haggle out a price before getting into the taxi, and then just pay that upon arrival. Another option is to take a caleche, or a horse drawn carriage, but these can be more expensive and take longer.
4. The exchange rate is finally in your favor, coming from USD. It’s currently at about 9.6 Dh to 1 USD. Revel in it. You can get fresh squeezed orange juice for the equivalent of 50 cents, a pizza for $2, and a ton of spices for $1.
5. Carry a touristy map with you at all times. If French isn’t something you’re fluent in, your accent is probably going to butcher the names of the places you’re trying to find. I harked back to my days of middle school French (an entire semester), and seriously wished I had paid more attention. However, the touristy maps have pretty much anything you would want to see clearly marked and labeled, so you can pull out the map and point to where you want to go if all else fails.
6. Dress modestly. Marrakesh, although it is the urban center of Morocco, is very conservative. There are a lot of differing opinions on this topic. My two cents is, even if it’s not your culture, you should be respectful. Ladies, it’s good to keep your shoulders and knees covered (I wore a maxi skirt or pants with a t-shirt every day, and it was fine). I encountered a few tourists dressed in shorts and a tank top, and they definitely received less respect from locals, which is unfortunate, but nonetheless a reality.
7. The weather is PERFECTION. February-March is a great time to visit, because it’s winter in Morocco. The strong heat of the summer hasn’t hit yet, but the days are just right. Early mornings are around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and it warms up to 75-80 F all afternoon, dropping to the 60s and high 50s in the evening. It’s considered cold weather for Morocco, and many locals will be wearing heavy coats with boots and jeans. For us tourists coming from the east coast in the US, or the UK, the weather is absolutely blissful, though.
Lola just wanted to sunbathe all day. This was a stellar idea.
8. When buying anything in Medina (the mind-bogglingly huge market that goes on for forever) it is expected to haggle. The price the shopkeeper tells you is never the price you should pay; try offering about a third, or half of what you’re willing to pay, and then work your way up from there. The same item will be in another shop a few doors down, so don’t be afraid to walk away. Be aware that the shopkeepers can be very pushy, though, and will not hesitate to grab your arm or follow you out of the shop and down the street if you choose to walk. Don’t let this intimidate you; smile, shake your head, say au revoir, and keep walking without acknowledging any more.
Anything can happen in Medina – a monkey can hop on your head! Just don’t pay more for the photo than you’re comfortable with. They don’t have any set prices, and while it’s not free, it shouldn’t seriously dent your spending money, either.
9. Be smart. Marrakech is a very male-dominated area. Some men are very respectful and helpful, others are not. Don’t acknowledge catcalls and rude comments that are tossed your way, just keep walking. Once you make a purchase, wait in the front or outside area of the shop if your purchase is being wrapped (there are no magic shows that you need to see in the backroom!) Be aware of the male:female ratio when choosing a place to eat; if it’s only men who are sitting out front (especially in the evenings), keep looking until you see a place to eat where there are at least a few women. These are peripheral issues; don’t stress over them, but be conscious and aware.
10. Alcohol is not available at most of the restaurants. Some of the bars/tapas places cater to tourists and Americans and will offer a few alcoholic beverages. Most places, however, offer cocktails “sans alcohol.” They’re still delicious, but there will be no buzz following your drink!
More to come on Morocco soon!