Marrakech is an interesting city but it assumes that you know a few things about its customs in advance. Therefore, don’t skip your homework and get to know at least a few things that can help you enjoy Marrakech to the fullest.
Unknown Marrakech… Things to Know before Your Visit
Marrakech… A dream destination for many travelers all over the world. An African city with strong cultural traditions. And yet, it’s open and acceptable of the foreigners eager to explore what was previously considered not a safe destination to travel to. Marrakech is a city that entices with its splendid riads, busy souks, traditional food, bright colors, and friendly people. So dreamy, mysterious, and alluring… However, Marrakech is one of those places that you need to know a few things about before embarking on an adventure.
But considering all pros and cons and many other things to know, Marrakech is definitely worth a visit even if just once in a lifetime. Often Instagram portraits Marrakech as a fairy-tale city, a place of absolute beauty and relaxation. But is it all true?
Get to Know the Real Marrakech
As much as I agree with other travelers’ viewpoints, I have to add that there is the real life behind every beautiful picture. During our recent short visit to Marrakech we spent most of the time exploring the city and talking to locals. With this experience under my belt, I can assure you that the real Marrakech is not only pretty décor and abundance of cheap exotic items in the souks. It’s a place with rich culture, real people with their real struggles and happy moments. A place full of unwritten rules and uncommon practices. A place that you need to know and learn a few things about way before your get off your airplane at Marrakech Menara Airport.
With that in mind and learned from my own mistakes, I have compiled a list of things you should know about Marrakech before setting off for your African journey.
HERE ARE 8 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT MARRAKECH:
1. Taxis Have “Standard Rate”…
Get to know about taxi “standard rates” in advance to avoid being ripped off from the moment you arrive in Marrakech. Although Marrakech is a very walkable city, at the end of the day you want to have a little break and give rest to your tired feet. Taxi comes very handy here. Whether you need to get around the city, venture to the desert, or Atlas Mountains, you find multiple taxi options. Not one, but a few drivers at once promise to take you to your destination in the most convenient and fastest manner. There is really no lack of taxi in Marrakech, which is one of the good things to know.
To be completely honest, “a few” is just an understatement. Before you even think about asking for a ride, at least five Marrakech natives attempt to escort you with all your belongings to their cars, parked just a few feet away. Walking a lot in the city, we could not appreciate such accessibility of four-wheeled transport. However, at times taxi drivers overwhelm and frustrate you. Other times they make it hard for you not to burst into laughter. And almost always they amuse and let you take a pick at unique culture and customs of Marrakech, something you don’t learn in guidebooks.
How We Learned about “Standard Rate” in Marrakech
Our first lesson to learn in Marrakech happened the moment we stepped out of the airport. While we were pondering our next actions and the best way to get to Mogador Menzah, a slim Moroccan quickly approached us. Without hesitation, he directed us to taxicabs taking whole front row of the nearby parking lot. On our “How much does it cost?” question, he just pointed at the waiting in anticipation of the passengers taxi drivers.
Assuming that our “guide” didn’t understand English, we followed him with intention to get the answer from his English or French speaking colleague. “200 Dirhams is a standard rate”, a tall man next to a small yellow cab informed us in a perfect English. Standard rate? All the way to the hotel this so-called rate nagged at the back of my mind. How it is possible to determine the standard price without a taximeter? It was a good question and one of the things I had failed to get to know about Marrakech in advance.
Later that day we asked two different people how much they’d charge to take us back to the airport just 1.5 miles away. After a brief silence, a little bit apologetically our city guide was willing to undertake this task for 150 Dirhams. A random taxi driver waiting for the potential customers at the main entrance of our hotel asked for 100 Dirhams. He also went ahead and presented us with a proper business card in case we needed his services.
Even if we still had any doubts about the non-existence of the fixed fares, these three significantly different rates for the same distance completely dispelled them. Moreover, we got to know that in Marrakech you need to be a skillful bargainer while hunting for the ride.
2. Know how to Haggle when in Marrakech
The bargaining does not stop behind the closed door of the taxicab. Quite the opposite, the haggling lessons to learn and know in Marrakech seem to never end. A short conversation with a taxi driver can easily serve as an introduction to a complex bargaining world of Marrakech. The climax of it is found in the famous souks of Medina.
Berber rugs, extravagant lamps, Aladdin-style slippers, colorful tagine pots and glassware, traditional Moroccan jewelry, and abundance of spices… Marrakech markets allure amateur and expert shoppers alike looking for exotic African souvenirs to take home. Wandering eyes of tourists overwhelmed by the richness and colorfulness of the Moroccan goods don’t escape adept merchants. They quickly try to pitch in everything from teas and harem pants, jewelry and oils. And here comes another Marrakech lesson to learn as quickly as possible. Magical beauty potions that seem to solve any problems you can think of come at a much higher price for the foreigners compared to the locals.
“Standard Rates” at the Souks
The “standard rate” is not very frequent here. However, you can still encounter some stalls with big numbers written on small pieces of paper and attached to the bottles and shelves. Seeing your hesitation, the smart vendors first offer you their signature herbal tea. (One thing you just have to know at all times, the merchants offer you the tea to make you inclined to buy from them.) Then they hurry to inform you that every product in the stall has its own fixed price aka “standard rate”. But just try to mention that the price is a little too high… Before you even turn to exit, that same “fixed price” gets dropped and “only as an exception for you”.
If you are still dissatisfied with the presented to you deal, do not be afraid to walk away. After another round of vigorous haggling, the merchants at the next stalls are willing to exchange their goods for significantly less money.
3. Tips are Expected
Simple as it is: tips in Marrakech are highly expected. Common practice of giving tips as a sign of gratitude and satisfaction with the services rendered has an additional value in this African city. Tipping somebody in Marrakech is viewed as an act of support of its poor and less fortunate residents. According to our city guide, for some people tips compound a big chunk of their earnings. By the time of our arrival I knew many things and tips on how to behave in Marrakech. This one, however, came as a surprise.
Born and raised in Marrakech, Yomnes, our guide, admitted that one thing he dislikes most about his own city is lack of jobs and opportunities to earn living. Making on average 75 Dirhams a day, he goes on to tell us that the average salary for middle class Marrakechi (as he calls himself) does not reach more than 3,000 Dirham a month. Most people don’t come even close to this number. So they work hard, haggling relentlessly, and expect tips often.
Getting to Know about Tipping system at Marrakech Menara Airport
I can’t think about a better example than that that we witnessed at Marrakech Menara Airport. Waiting for our departure, we noticed that every restroom had female attendant. Dressed in white from head to toes, these Moroccan women acknowledged every person with a friendly “Bonjour”. Assuming it was a custom, we stopped paying attention to these airport employees.
And only then we noticed how one woman threw a few coins in the air and caught them a second later as a nicely-dressed foreigner was leaving the restroom. We all can be from different cultural backgrounds, but we all know this universal sigh of asking and expecting tips. We could not believe our eyes. Was she the only one who was giving this direct hint?
No, this women wasn’t an exception. We saw similar patterns and got to know a few things about unknown Marrakech. While some ladies modestly accepted gratuity from the fast-passing passengers, others, loosing their patience, were tossing the coins. This way they demonstrated that the tips for making the restrooms ready for use were expected. Quite amused, we did not see any better way to part with our last few Dirhams than to give them to one of those women.
4. Transportation and Traffic Laws
Like people in most countries in the world, the Moroccans drive on the right side of the road. And like in most counties, the streets of the new city of Marrakech feature some standardized traffic lights (although notably less than anywhere else we have been so far). The question is, do these traffic lights serve their purpose? Yes and no. (And this is one of those things to know that you don’t find anywhere but in streets of Marrakech.)
The answer is “yes” in regards to the car and motorcycle drivers, who show respect to each other and abide the traffic laws. But when it comes to giving pedestrians their right to cross the street on the green light, that respect disappears in an instant. Dominating and ruling the road like kings, the drivers honk as soon as they think that the pedestrians proceed across the street too slowly. At times they simply continue driving without even stopping and acknowledging the walking pedestrians.
The old city of Marrakech does not have any traffic lights or any traffic laws whatsoever. In some parts of the Medina, its ancient streets are wide enough to let a modern car fight its way through a heavy stream of people to its final destination. However, motorcycles and carriages drown by donkeys remain predominate type of transport. In Marrakech you also learn quickly that bigger carriages drown by horses carry mostly tourists.
5. Get to Know What Language to Use in Marrakech
The official language in Marrakech is Arabic. However, if you are lucky enough to speak French, you might feel like a fish in water. It seems that in the Red City everybody knows and understands this language. It’s not surprising considering that from 1912 until 1956 Morocco was predominantly under French protectorate. Spain ruled over only a small part of the country.
Although the period of French colonization is long gone, the language remains in use and is considered Marrakech’s main unofficial language. With the increasing popularity of the city among the tourists from all over the world, the English language has also expanded its territory.Many local merchants, taxi drives, and hotel employees in Marrakech are encouraged to learn English as well.
6. Mint Tea
Marrakech (and the whole country for that sake) and its traditional mint tea are two sides of one coin. There is no way to visit the city without succumbing to the pleasant aroma of the tea. (We got to know about it when shopping in the souks of Marrakech.) The locals drink this sweet refreshing beverage everywhere and at any time. Households and hotels welcome their newly-arrived guests with a glass of the mint tea. The skillful merchants of Marrakech negotiate their best deals over a kettle of this traditional drink. Even a hammam session can’t be complete without this delicious herbal tea.
The mint tea in not just a drink. It’s a centuries-old custom, tradition passed on from generation to generation, a sign of hospitality and courtesy. It’s in the blood of every Moroccan!
7. Semolina for Breakfast
You read it right! Semolina, not typical breakfast consisting of oatmeal and coffee, is offered to guests and family members almost every morning. This one thing I didn’t know before our trip to Marrakech. Needless to say, I was slightly surprised to find a bowl of semolina on a breakfast table. Cooked with cinnamon and served with honey, semolina can satisfy any gourmand and easily become one of your favorite breakfast choices. However, despite the amazing taste and a full range of health benefits, semolina might be out of question for celiac travelers. Made from wheat, this glutenous grain is linked to causing stomach and other abdominal pain that, by all means, you want to avoid especially when traveling!
8. Bollywood Cinema Raving Fans
It’s a well-known fact that Hollywood holds strong positions as the world’s biggest movie producer. Yes, it might be true! Yes, Hollywood might be popular in the whole world but Marrakech. This was one of a few things about Marrakech we got to know from our guide.
Enchanted by bright dresses and magnificent Indian dances, this Moroccan Pearl of the South is very fond of Bollywood. The locals watch both classics and new arrivals of Bollywood cinema and like any raving fans follows the lives of its biggest stars. Our driver-guide didn’t hide his enthusiasm when naming such icons as Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aishwarya Rai, Kajol, Kareena Kapoor, and Priyanka Chopra as his favorite Bollywood actors. In matters of taste, there can be no disputes. Moreover, you can surely mention the newest Bollywood movies when haggling in the souks. Who knows, you might get the best deal ever!
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