“Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Traveling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks and pigs and chickens call
Animal carpet wall to wall”
-Crosby, Stills and Nash – Marrakesh Express
A blanket of fresh snow covered the ground in Oslo as I whizzed down the highway toward Gardermoen airport bound for Marrakech. I had just finished enjoying a week in beautiful Flå, two hours north of Oslo. It was a calm, relaxing time with wonderful hosts and breathtaking scenery. This calm was soon to be replaced by what can only be described as “beautiful chaos.”
I touched down in Marrakech and walked onto the tarmac to a frenzied crowd of people from all over the world. Unbeknownst to me the week I had booked in Marrakech was the same week that the United Nations COP22 conference on climate change was occurring. The airport was complete madness and a perfect trailer for what was to come. I’m a proud Canadian, raised to the stereotype that most of my friends were – we apologize too often, and use our manners more frequently than we curse – also a common occurance. Something I’ve struggled with in my travels is how rare this behaviour is in other cultures, and landing in Morocco it became immediately apparent that these pleasantries were to be dispensed with in order to get anything done in a reasonable amount of time. Inside the airport there was no real queue, and certainly no form of organization. The staff at Marrakech’s Menara Airport couldn’t have possibly cared less. They moved at a snails pace, ignoring the shouting people, the fights that broke out, and the incredibly rude people that simply jumped the entire queue and pushed to the front. Suddenly, a fight broke out – a German man shouting at a Moroccan woman, and she was having none of it. Then, the unthinkable happened. He punched her. Right in the face. Several others jumped in before police removed both of them a short time later, and the crowd was growing more and more restless. We were starting to fear a full scale riot and together with some Chinese students chose to forego the line and hop a barricade in hopes of escaping quicker which in the end, we did. All in all, a 3 hour customs clearance process. On the other side? No baggage. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this happen since leaving home, so I went through the motions and headed for the Medina to pick up some sick new Moroccan threads to hold me over until my bag arrived.
To skip to the end of this article and get the TL:DR version of my Marrakech tips, please click here. Or if you’ve got some time, read on.
If you travel to Marrakech, here’s your first tip – don’t bother with a taxi from the airport. Actually, if you can avoid taxi’s all together you’ll be better off. They are the number one scam in the country and thankfully they will soon be augmented by awesome services like Uber. I highly recommend you take the bus number 19 from the airport, it’s 30 Dirhams for a one way ticket or 50 for a round trip. They’ll drop you off right at the Medina where you can arrange to meet your Riad owner. If you do take a taxi, it’s no more than 100 Dirhams to go from there to the Medina. You’ll have to bargain with them, but don’t get scammed – that’s the price and if one driver will not take it the next will.
Accommodations in Marrakech range from budget hostels to very expensive 5 star hotels, but the typical Moroccan accommodation is called a “Riad”. Riad’s are basically small hotels built in a square around a courtyard. Most have rooftop terraces, some have private bathrooms for each room and some have shared – depends upon the price. As you walk to your Riad you may very well wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into, some of the streets are lined with donkey carts, decaying walls, and generally look pretty shady. But fear not my friend, behind these decaying walls are often very beautiful homes with calm surroundings for you to escape the chaos of Marrakech as needed. The first Riad we stayed in was an interesting place, not a place I would recommend for the faint of heart but most definitely an interesting addition to this paradoxical place. Riad Calypso is owned and operated by Roman Payne, a Novelist, as he reminded me several times every day. The success of his first book brought him the funds to buy his Riad, develop a nasty narcotic habit, and become a complete narcissist. The man is, without a doubt, bat shit crazy. His antics throughout the week proved both entertaining, annoying, and for some of the guests I imagine quite frightening. Calling his staff at 3am to yell at them about fixing air conditioning, continually overbooking his four rooms because he couldn’t keep track of who was coming and going, walking in on guests in the middle of the night, and blowing hash smoke in my face on several occasions – in another life I would have left this place immediately, but something about it just seemed to add to the experience. Plus it was cheap, I think I paid around 20CAD per night, maybe even less to be there – so we tolerated his nonsense, laughed about it and when we finally grew tired of it we left a day early and headed for the Atlas Mountains.
Marrakech is split into two distinctly different cities – the walled in “Old Town” Medina, a wonderful albeit completely chaotic district full of shops or “souks” selling everything from hand made camel and goat leather sandals, shoes and bags to epicurean delights like fragrant spices and street meat. Sometimes the smells are overwhelmingly good, other times they are putrid. The air is often thick with smoke from mopeds burning oil, this proved to be more of an issue than I thought it would. We frequently darted into restaurants with roof top terraces to escape the pollution that was quite literally burning our lungs. Fortunately these roof top terraces were plentiful and served the most amazing Moroccan Mint Tea, sometimes with a side of Msemen Crepes (a really tasty crepe made with semolina flour and fried in oil, served with honey, jam, or sometimes nutella) for around 20-30 Dirhams (2-3 Euro). After a quick break, we’d get back at our wandering for the afternoon. We must have walked through 200 Souks but rarely bought a thing, instead enjoying talking with the shop keepers and occasionally bargaining for something small that might fit in our backpacks. It was complete sensory overload, and while sometimes overwhelming it was wonderful.
At night the Medina square would fill up with food vendors, entertainers and story tellers – as well as huge crowds of tourists, scammers, snake charmers and more. We would refresh at our Riad before heading out for dinner each evening, trying a variety of restaurants and street carts. My favourite restaurant by far was called Tajin Darna, you can’t miss their big orange sign overlooking the square. We must have eaten there 5 or 6 times in the 10 days we spent in Marrakech. The couscous T’Faya is awesome, almost as good as my own 😉 T’Faya is a sweet onion, raisin, and almond caramelized topping served with carrots and a range of other vegetables as well as your choice of meat over couscous – it is one of my favourite dishes and to eat it in Marrakech made it even better. We would share a couscous and try a new tagine most nights. Dinner rarely cost more than 12-13 Euros and was almost always fantastic. After dinner we would wander around the square and back into the souks which became even more interesting at night. Eventually we would retire to our riad for a terrace cocktail before attempting to sleep while listening to our crazy Riad owner rant.
After a week in Marrakech we’d had enough of the chaos and finally got my bag back so we could head out of the city into the Atlas Mountains. We chose to head to a wonderful Riad in Imlil, about 90 minutes from Marrakech. We stayed at Kasbah Imlil located above the main town with tremendous views of Mount Toubkal and the valley below. On arrival we immediately felt our stress from the chaos start to disappear. Our awesome host Muhammed met us at the door and ushered us upstairs to the roof top terrace to serve us mint tea and nuts while he prepared our room. As we were the first guests to arrive we had our choice of room and selected one with a balcony overlooking a farm below and the mountains straight ahead. As luck would have it, we arrived at Imlil in time for the 2016 Super Moon which led to some pretty incredible night time views from our balcony and terrace. We met the other guests, a lovely couple from Amsterdam and two very well travelled friends from Copenhagen. We stayed up late enjoying dinner together and talking about politics, travel, and life in general. The following day we hiked to the summit of one of the smaller mountains in the valley cleansing our lungs with the fresh mountain air. We ended up spending three nights here before heading back to Marrakech for three more days as we began to miss the chaos (and the amazing food).
Our first night back was eventful. We checked into a really nice Riad and decided to go to the grocery store for some beer and groceries to make our own charcuterie rather than braving the medina that night. We spent the evening watching Alec Baldwin kill it as Trump on Saturday Night Live, snacking and drinking in between running up to the terrace to check out the super moon. Late to bed, around two in the morning I woke up feeling something on my neck. I swatted at my hair thinking it was just a loose piece and fell back to sleep. A few minutes later I woke up again and grabbed my phone to shine the flash light on the bed. “You’ve got to be effing kidding me!” Bed bugs. This has never happened to me in all of my travels, and I checked the bed as I do every time just to be safe. Fortunately for us, we found only two and we hadn’t set anything on the bed – all of our clothing was in vacuum sealed bags and stored away from the bed. We quickly stripped down and showered, put the clothes we were wearing into another vacuum bag and vacated the room. No one works at these Riads during the night so we were on our own and either had to find a new place to stay, or sleep on a couch in the common area. We chose to sleep on the couches and woke up to the inn keeper coming in. He quickly refunded our money, made us breakfast and called someone to come fumigate the room. He was very apologetic, and said the previous guest had spent two weeks roaming the Desert staying in “questionable” places along the way. He likely brought the bugs with him. We left for another Riad and spent our last two days there, uneventfully.
I’ve dreamed of travelling to Morocco for many years, and it totally lived up to my expectations. Though there are many options for tourists, this is a travellers destination and not for the faint of heart – and I think that’s what I liked about it the most. Around every corner there is something new to see, new aromas to smell, new food to taste and vivid colours everywhere you look. It’s complete sensory overload, total chaos and so much fun. If you’re looking for some adventure, look no further.
Marrakech Travel Tips (TL:DR Version)
-No matter where you travel in the world you have to watch out for taxi drivers. They are just trying to earn a living, but they see you coming a mile away and will (generally speaking) do whatever they can to make an extra buck off of you. In Marrakech I experienced the worst of this, and in a city where you must bargain for everything the taxi system is no exception. From the airport they know you’ve just arrived and will want to charge you in Euro’s, and a minimum of three times the actual price. There are no meters. If you can avoid cabs, do so. Uber will arrive soon and will change the game as it has elsewhere.
-Walk confidently across the streets. If you hesitate you’ll never get across. You’ll need to dodge cars, bikes, mopeds and donkeys. Use your head, but be confident and just go – pay close attention, but know that they will stop for you.
-Don’t just take pictures. You have to ask people if you can photograph their shop, them, their pets, their donkey, their car… anything. And expect to pay for it. If you are taking a general photo of an area, or a stray animal and someone tries to force you to pay, see above for the mom voice tip.
-When you land, go to the Maroc Telecom booth and get a sim card for your phone. You should travel with an unlocked smart phone, it’s the way to go. The sim card is free and for 50 Dirhams (5 Euro) you can add 5GB of data. They have a bunch of options if you need less. Here’s why: Google Maps works great as long as you have a data connection. So does google translate if you don’t speak French or Arabic. Wifi is available everywhere, but if you have a sim card you are far less likely to get scammed. All over the Medina people will tell you “Big square, this way” or “Souk’s this way, follow me.” If you’re looking at a restaurant menu suddenly you’ll have guys telling you about a better place, with a nicer terrace – just follow him. Don’t. Ever. Get a sim card, get google maps and learn how to use it. These people will either take you to a shop where you’ll be pressured into buying something so they get a commission, they’ll take you to a crappy restaurant, or they’ll try to strong arm you into paying for their “guide services” which we witnessed others going through several times. Be self sufficient – but hold onto your phone tight.
-Haggle. On everything. Everyone needs to earn a living, but don’t kid yourself into thinking they’ll ever sell you anything without making a profit. They have customers all day, every day. If they don’t sell to you they’ll sell to someone else. Figure out what you are comfortable paying and make sure you check the quality. There are differing versions of all these items, some are better than others. Check the seams on clothing and leather goods. If you’re buying a lamp and it feels like tinfoil that’s because it is. Walk further into the Medina and find the metalworking section where you can buy it from the guy making it and get a brass one. If you believe you’re getting a gold plated lamp for 25 Euros then you should probably buy it because you deserved to be scammed 😉
-Buying booze is difficult and it’s not available at most restaurants either. If you like to have a drink you should stop at the Carrefour Market (there are a few of them) to grab a bottle of whatever you like. They have a great selection of Moroccan wines, beers and whiskey as well as imports from all over the world at reasonable prices. Be aware that some old school Riads prohibit alcohol as well.
-Three days in Marrakech followed by three in the mountains would be the perfect length of visit. More than three in Marrakech and you might go insane, more than three in the mountains and you’ll be bored with the less than stellar food options. Three in each would be about perfect.
-Skip the camel rides. We checked it out but didn’t go. Maybe kids would like it, but they just take you to a field on the edge of town by the airport and lead you around on a very tired looking camel. The pictures of people riding through the Sahara toward some sort of Oasis are a gross exaggeration of what you’ll actually get.
-If you buy something in the souks, keep your hands on it throughout the purchase process. If you like the one you’ve selected don’t let them wrap it. Just pay them what’s agreed upon and ask for a bag or put it in your own. There is a common trick, especially with carpets – you’ll get it home and unwrap it to find that you have a much cheaper version of what you selected. One lady that I spoke with told me this happened to her when she bought a carpet and when she refused to let him wrap it he doubled the price 😉
-Don’t let these warnings stop you from visiting Marrakech. It truly is a city of beautiful chaos and absolutely fantastic food, culture and people. These are warnings I would give to you about any other place I’ve visited. In all of my travels the only place that I’ve really had any security issues at all was Paris – and everyone loves Paris. Keep your wits about you, pay attention and be respectful of others while demanding respect for yourself and you’ll have a great time. Marrakech is a city that is constantly changing and I will absolutely return again in a few years to see how it’s reinvented itself.
Again from Beautiful Norway and until next time in sunny Vietnam,