It was just after 5:00am when the day’s first prayer call startled me from a deep sleep. It’s message amplified itself over the mosque loudspeakers, which seemed to be located directly behind my pillow. Surprisingly, it’s one of the many fond memories that we experienced during our two-weeks travelling through Morocco.
Snake charmers, monkeys and the chaos of the medinas and souks. Trekking the Sahara by camel. Crossing the Atlas mountains and sharing mint tea with a Nomad family. To this couple there are few greater things in life than being able to explore a new far off place that creates such a lasting impression and so many beautiful memories.
Here are 17 tips that I hope will help you as you plan your trip to Morocco.
1. Arriving at Marrakech airport
Make arrangements with your Riad (or hotel) to have a driver pick you up at Marrakech Menara airport. I’m sure most Riads and hotels offer this service and I’d highly recommend it. After our long flight from Toronto (23 hours) finding our way (especially at night) out of a confusing airport and fighting for a taxi was the last thing we wanted to wrestle with. And if you’re staying in the Medina (the Old City), you need someone who knows how to find their way to your accommodation. It can be extremely confusing (more on this later).
2. Chaos of medina
The medina in Marrakech is a labyrinth of complex narrow lanes and alleyways that will leave even the most confident navigator confused. I would highly recommend that you buy the services of a local guide to walk you around the medina. Your Riad will be able to organize a half-day or full-day tour with a professionally carded guide. We arranged a half-day tour on our first day in Marrakech so we could familiarize ourselves with the medina and more importantly be able to navigate our way back to our Riad. Depending on the time of year you travel, the temperature should dictate what time of day you take the tour and do your sightseeing. We typically went out first thing in the morning when the heat was bearable.
3. Your guide to medina
Your guide will likely take you to the typical touristy attractions. The leather tannery is one and the other is where they sell carpets. You’ll see how they produce leather and then you’ll be whisked into the leather store. Same with carpets. The merchants will gladly offer you mint tea and make you as comfortable as possible as they unveil carpet after carpet with the hopes that you’ll purchase one. Similarly with leather goods. Just remember you don’t have to purchase anything and if you do have your heart set on that leather handbag or Berber carpet, never ever take the first or second offer. The key is to negotiate until you feel satisfied with a fair price.
4. It’s hot in Morocco
Know when to plan your trip to Morocco. The temperatures are extreme in June, July and most of August, so plan your visit accordingly. We were there in late August where temps were in the mid-to-upper thirties which was pretty toasty for these two Canadians. Throw a water bottle in your knapsack before you leave your Riad and stay hydrated.
5. Does your Riad have a pool?
No, you’re not asking for too much. Air conditioning and a pool should be prerequisites during the hot season of Morocco. If you’re planning your visit in August as we did you’ll thank me for this tip. Temperatures can soar in Morocco which makes a pool an inviting perk. By mid-afternoon the pool in our Riad was a welcoming site. It was a great way to cool down from the heat of the afternoon sun. There are many beautiful Riads to choose from in Morocco, many with gorgeous swimming pools.
6. Getting lost
No matter where you are in the medina either in Marrakech or Fes, you’re bound to get lost at one time or another. Just remind yourself that it’s all part of the experience! Maps won’t help (that much), but if your Riad can provide you with something that you can take with you, it may help, so ask for one before you set out for the day. You will be confronted by many friendly Moroccans who are only willing to help guide you, but you’ll pay for it. Tip: don’t take it! This is a common scam in Marrakech where your friendly guide will take you on a wild goose chase. You’ll end up getting nowhere. Whenever you’re confronted, politely say NO (or better still, just ignore them) and move on. We paid once, and learned our lesson. If you get stuck, ask a shopkeeper for directions.
Unfortunately Internet is sketchy in certain areas of Morocco. If you plan on using Waze to find your way out of the media, you might as well put your iPhone away. WiFi doesn’t exist in these tight corridors. Internet is available at Riads, most restaurants and shops, but expect slow and interrupted connections.
8. Shopping the souks
I can hear the words now, “How much you want to pay?” Tip: never pay the first price the shopkeeper gives you. Here’s our strategy that we acquired over a few days practice. If you start to walk out of the store your shopkeeper will ask you what you want to pay. That’s when you can start to bargain and likely get a good deal. If you don’t want to pay what they quote you, simply walk away, don’t feel obligated to buy. Just a side note: this works well in Marrakech and Fes but bargaining in Chefchaouen was much less limited.
9. Keep your head up in the medina
Wandering through the souks of the medina is an experience you’ll never forget. However, safely navigating your way through the throng of people, whizzing scooters and donkey carts is a skill you’ll need to acquire at your earliest convenience. Tip: stay to the right and keep your head up or you may lose your camera, handbag or worse, an arm. Bikers come up behind you fast and furiously and you may step into one by accident.
10. Have small change on hand
Moroccans don’t like to have their picture taken, unless of course you’re willing to pay for it. In order to get some of my best ‘people’ shots, I gladly paid a few dirhams for their photo.
11. Photography in Morocco
In general, Moroccan people don’t like you taking pictures of them. Tip: simply be respectful. If you see someone you’d like to photograph, gesture with your camera toward them and if they say no then don’t shoot. But a lot will simply want to be paid (at your discretion). A lot of shopkeepers are open to photographs, probably hoping you’ll buy something. There are parts of the medina that you should simply put your camera away.
12. Jemaa El-Fna Square
At the heart of Marrakech’s medina quarter is Jemaa El-Fna. At this 17th century square the order of the day is chaos. I’d head there at dusk, ’cause that’s when the real craziness begins. Hoopla and halqa (street theatre) goes non-stop while snake charmers blast oboes, monkeys on chains, fortune-tellers and healers, henna tattooists, acrobats and jugglers are everywhere. The food stalls are hopping with locals and tourists alike. Tip: taking photos of just about anything will cost you and eating at a food stall could end up costing you more than what you thought you ordered. The food stall we ate at pulled a price out of the air when I asked for the bill. Tip: take a photograph with your iPhone of what you’ve ordered on the menu as reference so that there will be no price discrepancy once it’s time to pay.
Before you jump in a Moroccan cab, tell them where you’re going and ask how much it will cost to get there. Tip: take the drivers price and offer him half. This method worked for us. The drivers are friendly, cabs are for the most part in decent shape, some even have air conditioning.
14. Finding your way to a restaurant
Navigating your way through the medina is a difficult task during daylight. But when night falls it’s double-trouble. Our Riad would make the reservation and have one of their employees walk us to the restaurant. Not to worry finding our way back because they would show up again to walk us back to the Riad.
15. Not for the handicapped
Morocco is not a handicap friendly country. We found the medina’s in Fes and Marrakech a labyrinth of broken and uneven cobblestone alleyways. If you have bad knees, back problems or worse, this will be a challenge. And check your accommodation beforehand to make sure there is an elevator available or a ground floor room before you book. All the Riads we stayed in had stairs only.
16. Take a day off from sightseeing
You’re tired and you need a break from the chaos of Marrakech, so why not book a day pass at a luxury hotel. We spent the entire day chillin’ poolside at the Four Season Hotel Marrakech. After a few days of hiking through the medina, relaxing poolside for the day was an absolute treat. For 650 dirhams each, ($85 Cdn) we had use of the facilities and an amazing poolside lunch. Note: this may only be available during the low season.
17. Camels have bad days too
Trekking the Sahara on camel was one of the most exotic adventures we’ve taken. If you’re planning a trip to Morocco, I’d highly recommend a tour of the Sahara that includes a 90 minute camel trek that takes you through the desert to a Berber camp in the middle of the Erg Chebbi sand dunes. But camels, like horses can be spooked tossing the rider, like it did to me. I was adjusting my camera in my backpack when seconds later I found myself flat on my back. Luckily sand dunes cushion your fall. Tip: trekking is safe, just keep sudden shuffling and adjusting movements to a minimum. Hold on and enjoy the ride, you’ll love it.
If you’re planning a trip to Morocco and have a question for us, please reach out, we’d love to hear from you.