Categorized | Adventures, Africa, Morocco

10 Tips to Survive Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech

Posted on 10 October 2011 by David


Tips for your Travel:

1) Relax.  If it’s your first time to Marrakech, you will immediately notice that this town has some of the most aggressive touts in the world.  They will hold on to your arms/shoulders/other body parts to stop you in your tracks, follow you for blocks, and never take ‘No’ for an answer.  Our recommendation is take all this with a sense of humor.  If you are too uptight, you will never enjoy the experience.  It can be difficult to ignore them, but just remember you can’t change their behavior, but you can change your reaction to them, hold your ground and tell them firmly you’re not interested, and then just go about your own business.

2) Be street wise.  While scams happen everywhere in the world, some of the most common scams in Marrakech involve giving directions.  The old part of Marrakech, where most tourists visit, is composed of a number of small alleyways that seem to come together in no obvious pattern or logic.  Many alleyways have dead-ends.  Many shops look the same in the souk with no names or street numbers outside.  It’s very easy to get lost in the medina.

When you get lost (and sometimes, even before you do), someone will almost certainly approach you and try to offer you directions.  They may say they work for a riad nearby (or even the riad you are staying at…”don’t you remember me from breakfast this morning?”), and they may offer you directions for “free.”  Whatever you do, ignore them and do NOT show them the address you are trying to get to.  There are too many stories about tourists being purposely led down the wrong path, and before you know it, you are isolated in an unfamiliar territory and even more lost than before.  Then, all of a sudden, “free” is no longer free, and to get out of the situation you may have to pay an unreasonable amount (I have heard $50 Euro) just to get rid of the scam artist, and then you still have to find your way back.  We heard about this scam before we arrived, and on our first day, someone tried to use this scam on us (unsuccessfully of course!).

3) Don’t assume anything is free.  The bread given to you when you sit down to eat?  Not free.  Someone offers to take your picture?  It’ll cost you.  A snake charmer holds your hand and insists on taking a picture with you?  Take out some coins.  Getting directions?  Definitely not free.

We are not recommending ignoring everyone you meet, but if you are open to these activities, at least agree on a price beforehand.

4) Bargain, bargain, bargain in the medina.  And then bargain some more.

5) Arabic is the first language;  French second; Spanish third, and English fourth.  So if you speak Spanish and not Arabic or French, you’re in luck!  You will find more locals speak Spanish than English in Marrakech.

6) Pay attention to the size of the cab you are getting into.  There are two types of cabs in Marrakech: the petit taxi which a small hatchback and the grand taxi which is typically a really old beat up Mercedes.   Both are in the same color and unless you pay attention, they may look the same to you.  Keep in mind that the petit taxi   costs less than the grand taxi.  So if you take a grand taxi from the medina to the hotel one night, expect to pay more than if you hail a petit taxi back from the hotel to the medina the next morning.

7) Agree on a price before getting into the taxi, and don’t be afraid to haggle down the first price offered by the cab driver.  None of the cabs we rode used (or even had) a meter.  The official cabs from the Marrakech train station is at least 3x more expansive than the street cabs.  Walk a block away from the train station to hail a cab instead.

8) If you speak English to bargain the price, it’s much better to write down the price you intend to pay in numerics and show it to the local.  Again, English is the 4th language in Marrakech.  Fifteen to you will conveniently sound like fifty to them.

9) Google Maps does not give you accurate directions in the medina mostly because not all the alleys have been fully incorporated into their maps (yet!).  Same is true for Bing, Yahoo!, and MapQuest map services.

10) Absolutely try the orange juice from any of the vendors in medina.  It’s the best tasting orange juice we have ever had no matter which stall we tried.

Adventure Log:

After Peru (adventure log and tips here), we ventured into Marrakech in Morocco.  The highlight of our trip to Marrakech is no doubt Djemaa el Fna, the main square in the old town of Marrakech.  From snake charmers, monkey handlers, African drummers to food vendors that sell snails, spiced tea, lentil soups and kabobs, the square has something unique to offer everyone day and night.

We stayed at Riad Andalla which is within walking distance of the square.  This offered us many opportunities to walk past the medina at different times of the day.  The medina wakes up when the African drums start beating around 8am.  During the day, most activities occur in the souk (traditional market) where one can spend hours meandering the narrow alleyways of Marrakech looking for authentic Moroccan souvenirs.  In the main square, vendors selling orange juice and dried dates will wet your appetite as well.  Despite all this, above all, the most captivating moment at Djemaa el Fna is in the evening, when the square transforms from an open market with few food vendors to a full blown food extravaganza with a variety of live entertainment.

Want to ride a horse carriage?  Check.  Get a henna?  Check.  Take a picture with monkeys on your back in front of the snake charmers?  Check.  Belly dancing show?  No problem.  How about having a five-course dinner at different food stalls all in the medina for less than $6 USD each?  Of course!  May I offer you a street game with fellow tourists after dinner?  Whatever fancies you, Djemaa el Fna has it or something similar on the table.  We, in fact, were so mesmerized by the atmosphere in the medina that we went back almost every night for dinner or to people watch.

If you haven’t been to Djemaa el Fna, we highly recommend it.

Have you been to another medina that you love?  If so, drop us a note.  We would love to hear about it!

2 Comments For This Post

  1. Adam Douglas Says:

    Be careful of the henna artists. Most of them use a cheap & synthetic concoction that contains things like (PPD) that people are allergic to. It is possible that you could have a reaction to the ‘henna’ they put on, and it could cause blisters and in some cases permanent scarring. Para-phenylenediamine (PPD) is frequenly used in black henna and is bad for you. Check out snopes if you don’t believe it:

  2. Nicholas Andriani Says:

    Outstanding article. Have a sweet-soft spot for el-Fna as being the first stop along my first trip across the globe and still remains one of the most bewildering maddening and wild places of all in all the right measures. It’s all captured very well here, love your article.

    Be sure to check out the old bazaar along al-Muizz street in Cairo. It’s this great 1km stretch of markets and mosques which are contained within old medina walls and the street of Muizz itself is the original city, and still original layout of the city, that blossomed to become Cairo. In other words, the entire block, building after building of thousand year old markets and monuments and kuttabs and madrassas and mausoleums and water fountains and buskers represents the true nucleus of Cairo. Wild site.

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