Tag Archives: Marrakesh

Ten useful tips for travellers in Morocco

I have been to Morocco three times now, and I feel I’ve seen enough of it to share a few useful tips for first time travellers to this country.

Despite my previous post, where I talked about how annoying it can sometimes be to be pestered by the locals, I would like to stress that I actually love this country, and I will keep coming back. But it does help to keep these little tips in mind!

1. Bargain over everything

bag shop Marrakesh
Me and Valentina bargaining over some bags

Yes, it’s OK to bargain over the price of a taxi. Or the amount you paid for your street breakfast. It is positively expected that you will have a lengthy ‘discussion’ over the price you are paying for anything you buy in a stall or shop, and it is just as much of a given that you will walk away having paid two or three times more than the locals.

On our latest trip to Morocco, my friends and I met an retired American man who spent six months every year in Morocco, and the other six in America. “I can get a bread for half a dirham, a tomato for another half a dirham, and I’ve got myself a  tomato sandwich for a dirham,” he told us, as we were paying 100 dirham (somehow??!) for our own breakfast, which wasn’t even that lavish. One dirham is around 7p to you and me…the same taxi that we paid 50 dirham for that morning cost him 11 dirham, he added. You just have to know how to push.

The only exception, it seems, is when the price is written down. “Fixed price”, they call it. I have never been to a Moroccan supermarket, but I imagine there isn’t much bargaining to be done there. Neither can you really bargain in expensive restaurants and the like. Everywhere else, it seems to be fair game!

2. Never agree to follow men on the street for directions,
even if you are mega-lost

When you first arrive in Marrakesh, prepare to be majorly overwhelmed. The place is a maze that doesn’t even make sense to the locals, and no matter how detailed the directions you are given by your hostel or riad, if you are staying inside the old city there is no chance you will find where you are staying within the first hour.

And guess what looks like easy money to young Moroccan men who can speak a smidgen of English? Tired and lost-looking tourists! Unless you are in a very central area with millions of other tourists around, the local boys will descend upon you like vultures. Don’t even think of following one of them for directions!  They will lead you around in circles for ages and then demand money when you finally get there.

Instead, try to ask women or old men, even if it means communicating with hand gestures. If you can speak French – use it! If you don’t, maybe brush up on your travel phrases before going. Some shop owners can be quite helpful as well, but try to avoid the young males. Consider ordering a good map before heading to Marrakesh, and also keep the phone number of the hostel handy. We have had to be rescued by the hostel owners once when we simply couldn’t find our way, and were being harassed left, right and centre by local boys trying to offer ‘help’.

3. Don’t buy sweets from a cart in the main square

main square Marrakesh

They don’t taste as good as they look! At all. In the evening, you will see men rushing around with these carts filled with local sweets, offering boxes of 12 for 50 dirham (just over £3). But they tend to be a bit stale and stodgy, and are probably best used as a table decoration than food (although we ate all the ones we bought on the first night there anyway).

Instead, find some chebakiya if you want some proper Moroccan sweets. They are the cheapest ones by far, and the tastiest! A big box, even in the most touristy area, shouldn’t cost you more than 30 dirham. You can find it being sold inside the main markets (souks) by dedicated merchants, or in smaller portions with tea in the main square in the evening. It’s essentially a pasty rolled up in the shape of a rose, deep fried until golden and covered in a syrup made from honey and rose water. It is divine! Although also very sickly, and definitely not at all good for you.

4. Bring some Imodium

eating Morocco
Me and Valentina really not looking forward to our dinner

The food in Morocco varies, but it is certainly not for everyone’s stomachs, and although it is nothing as bad as I would imagine India to be, you are quite likely to get a case of the traveller’s tummy at some point during your trip. You can buy Imodium in Morocco if you forget to bring it – all pharmacies should sell it, it has the same name and it isn’t particularly expensive.

Some tips I found useful to try and avoid having to resort to drugs include asking for no ice in your drinks, watching that anything with eggs is really well cooked, even if you prefer them runny, and same goes for meat. Also, probably best to stay away from the orange juice stands in the main square. But to be honest, if you eat street food (or ever end up in a Moroccan or Berber kitchen, for that matter), you will be exposed to a much larger variety of dirt and grime than you are at home. That’s simply a fact you will have to live with, unless you would rather splash out on a five star hotel with a five star restaurant for your whole stay. But that’s not my style!

5. Brush up on your French

People do speak English in Morocco, and many of them speak far more languages than you and I are used to in our insulated UK-based lives (probably not the case for those readers based outside the UK…) When we were climbing in Todra Gorge, many Berbers surprised us by being proficient in Spanish, and some Italian, on top of French, Arabic and English. But you will be better off if you remember some basic phrases, so you can ask for directions, and not confuse your right with your left when you are given them. Or make sure the waiter knows you definitely want your umpteenth cup of tea sans sucre!

I swear I spoke more different languages (that I didn’t even know I could speak!) during my week in Morocco in December than over the course of the whole year prior to that. And that’s considering the fact that last year saw me trying to hold a conversation with my climbing partner’s Italian grandma in Italian. Which I have never learnt.

6. Don’t be afraid of staying in hostels

But maybe bring a sleeping bag liner. You can get them mega-cheap from Sports Direct and they really give that extra sense of comfort when you are not quite sure if the sheets have been washed.

sleeping MoroccoNow, I have never stayed anywhere particularly posh in Morocco, as I’m the type of traveller who actually quite likes slumming it a little, plus the more money I save on accommodation, the more I can spend on other (probably unnecessary) things. But I firmly believe you will have a nicer experience staying in a hostel-style riad in the old city (the Medina), rather than a posh hotel in the new city. If you are not the hostel type, you can still find riads for a very cheap price. I wouldn’t pay more than £15/pp per night at most, but the hostels are easily a third of that price.

Just read the reviews on hostelworld.com and you should be able to pick something suitable. They usually have lots of private rooms for a low price, too. We stayed at Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge and I thought it was really good value for money, and even included breakfast. It’s also very centrally located and easy to find from the main square, Jemaa El-Fnaa.

7. Have extra space in your luggage…

…because you will want to buy stuff! A lot of stuff. Stuff you don’t really need, or rather, never realised you needed desperately right until this moment. On my last trip, myself and my friend Valentina somehow managed to walk up to a lady selling beanie hats, just to look, and walked away with eight. Eight hats!! Three of them she just gave to us for free, because we clearly failed to haggle as hard as we should have done. (My beanie has come in useful lately though, after London plunged into subarctic conditions.)

“But hats don’t take up that much space in your luggage,” you laugh…Well, I also felt compelled to buy a framed painting for my flat, and something I can only describe as a Jedi cloak as a present for a friend. Which he loved, to be fair. Last time I went I came back with a Moroccan teapot and six tea glasses, following some epic haggling where I told the vendor I was a poor Bulgarian student. I even put on an accent, and all!

8. Travel outside Marrakesh

travel moroccoThere is so much to explore! I have been to Morocco three times, and each time I discovered new adventures. The first time I went with two friends to try out surfing near Agadir, and then visited Marrakesh for the first time. I actually covered this in a different blog (a loooong time ago), so if you want to give this a read here is the link.

The second time a group of us went to conquer Mount Toubkal – the highest peak in North Africa at 4,167m. We succeeded, but we were comically unprepared for the adventure, having only brought a printed version of someone else’s blog to guide us up the mountain. No guides. No map. No compass. And only a couple functioning head torches between nine of us, which came in rather useful when we got lost in the dark on the trek back down, having completely mistimed the whole descent!

9. And at the end of it all…have a hammam!

But I would splash out on a private one, rather than going to a public one. I’ve never actually been to a public one, but the private ones I’ve had are sooooo good! Especially after days of climbing or trekking up and down the Atlas Mountains. Last time we actually had two in one trip!

You are best off booking one of these in advance though, especially if you are going during quite a busy season, because we struggled to find one last minute in Marrakesh on our second night. In the end we managed, and I highly recommend the one we went to: Les Bains d’Azahara. It’s very reasonably priced, and though it is a little bit away from the main touristy areas, it is easy to find. The most basic hammam costs 150 dirham (under £11), while a package with an hour-long massage is 400 dirham. It’s super relaxing and really worth it!

The only thing I would warn you of, is that however careful you are to ask for the men and women in your group to be be placed in separate rooms, that is very unlikely to happen. Every time I’ve had a hammam in Morocco I’ve ended up in the same room as at least one of my male friends, which means that you are probably going to see a number of your friends sporting very skimpy disposable pants. You could always make a fuss about it, but I chose to just enjoy the hilarity of it. If anything, it will bring you and your friends closer. Or at least give you some good blackmail material!

10. Lastly, when you head home, print your Ryanair ticket…don’t rely on your phone!

Moroccan airports are some of the few globally where you still cannot simply show a bar code on your phone instead of printing off your ticket. They don’t have the technology yet, I think. Don’t worry if you aren’t able to print the return ticket before you get to Morocco though, as there are internet cafes in most places.

So on the penultimate day of our latest trip to Morocco, over the New Year’s holiday, we went to an internet cafe to print out our tickets. Imagine our shock when the check-in page told us the flight had already flown?! We looked at the date on the desktop, and with horror realised it said 5 January, not 4 January, as we believed it to be. For a few horrible seconds we genuinely thought we had somehow missed a day?!…..then it turned out the Medieval computer system had the wrong date setting, and the lady manning the store didn’t know how to change it. The check-in page was taking the date from the desktop (for whatever reason), so it wouldn’t let us check in! Eventually though, we managed to print off our tickets using her computer, which didn’t seem to be plagued with this problem.

I hope these little pointers help you on your next trip to Morocco. What else would you like me to write about? What destinations are you planning to check out this year? I would love to hear from you!

Also, for my Italian readers, check out my friend Valentina’s blog, where she has covered some of our adventure in Italian.

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Climbing, cous cous and cold beds: a very Berber New Year

Have you ever massaged your food during the cooking process? Well, it was certainly the first time I ever witness such a thing, but apparently that’s the traditional Berber way to cook cous cous! Something Valentina and I found out at 10pm on New Year’s Eve, in a Berber kitchen in the middle of the Moroccan mountains, hungry and tired after a day of climbing and wondering what on earth was going on…

I don’t remember whose idea it was to go to Morocco for an end-of-year climbing holiday, but I loved it straight away, having been to the country a couple of times before and loved it both times. I originally suggested going somewhere like Costa Blanca, which apparently is a great place to climb in the winter, but the price of the tickets and the difficulty getting there, considering we were all going to fly from different places, had put us off. Morocco seemed to work for everyone, and more importantly, it is warm this time of year, and cheap all year round!

So, after painstakingly working out a day when we could all arrive within not too many hours of each other – me flying from Germany, Valentina from Italy, and Gianni from London – we finally had an itinerary.

  • Arrive in Marrakesh on 28th December
  • Travel eight hours by coach to Tinghir on the 30th
  • Climb in Todra Gorge for three days
  • Head back for Marrakesh on 3rd January, 2016!

That meant New Year’s Eve in the mountains, which was exciting and unpredictable, and we all loved the idea!

There is a saying in Russia, the way you welcome in the New Year is the way you will spend it. Well, we welcomed it in with a group of Spanish climbers, in a Berber house, having finally sat down to eat a HUGE dish of cous cous after – I kid you not! – three hours of cooking it. Which involved the said massage – something that had to be performed once after the cous cous was first rinsed, and again after it was cooked the first time. While it was steaming hot.

Now, apologies to all Berber people, because I am probably insulting you here, but isn’t cous cous the quickest thing in the world to cook? Boil water, cover the grains, leave them to stand for five minutes, done! Ok, ok, so apparently there is also this special non-instant cous cous that needs cooking for longer. But I saw the packaging, and it was exactly the same as the stuff we get over here (probably imported from Morocco)! And even if it had been, three hours?!!! Really??!

Let’s backtrack for a second. New Year’s Eve, 31st December, was our first day of outdoor climbing in Todra Gorge. We did not know what to expect in the slightest and had no plans for the evening. From the previous night’s attempts to discover evening entertainment or even acceptable food in Tinghir, a village where we were staying, around 15km away from the gorge, we discovered there was none. So we hoped a plan would materialise once we arrived at the crag, met some climbers and inevitably became great friends with them within half an hour (that is, after all, the way the climbing community works, right?).

And that is kind of what happened. We met two groups of climbers that day – three boys from Ireland and four climbers from Spain, and all of them invited us to join them for celebrations in the evening. They were all staying in Todra itself, which presented a problem if we wanted to go back to our hotel at night – unfortunately, Uber does not work in the Moroccan mountains, and the walk back to our hotel from Todra would be a grueling 3 hours in the bracing cold of night (well…colder than the balmy 22 degrees of the midday sun!). But we decided we should still come and party there, instead of staying in the town where we knew no one.

We chose to stay with the Spanish lot for one main reason – they were hanging out with a Berber man called Sufjan, who was also a climber, but couldn’t climb himself due to an injury. He provided topos for the area (more on this topic in a separate blog!), and also regularly housed climbers in his family home, where the Spaniards were spending New Year’s Eve. They invited us to join them, and we thought the experience was not to be missed. Well…I guess one thing is sure, we will never forget our Spanish/Berber New Year’s Eve celebrations!

After we finished climbing, we got a lift back to our hotel from one of the Spanish guys so we could shower and change, while he and Sufjan went grocery shopping in the town for festive dinner and some Moroccan wine – a novelty in a country as dry as Morocco. Not that wine is impossible to come across here, but it has to be bought from hotels and it is expensive by local standards (though apparently a bottle of the wine we had actually only cost €7). Anyway, around 8pm we got picked up again at our hotel and drove to the Berber house.

When we arrived it was past 8.30pm and Valentina very aptly predicted that the food would not be ready until midnight. I was convinced some vegetables and cous cous could not take so long to cook. After all, Sufjan had “forgotten” (skimped out on??) the meat, so we were in for a vegetarian meal! I was wrong. It really did take three hours. And on top of that, we were made to do all the work in the kitchen – either because we were women, though there was another girl there not participation, or because we expressed an interest in the Berber cooking tradition.

The cous cous was cooked in an aluminium contraption consisting of a pot at the bottom, in which the vegetables were boiling, and the cous cous in an aluminium sieve on top, with the steam from the vegetables rising to cook it over time. Except the device didn’t really work, so Sufjan used an old torn up plastic bag to seal the gaps between the two dishes, to allow the steam to seep through to the top. That I will also never forget. Then, at the crucial moment, the gas stove ran out of gas and we had to use a portable gas cylinder, except the dish would not balance on it without spilling over, so we had to crouch on the floor, holding it up from either side with a towel, to avoid burning our hands. It was around 10.30/11pm by this point. Simply epic.

Now you would think three hours of cooking would produce stunning results, with subtle flavours and delicate aromas, but unfortunately it did not. Which makes me that little bit more amazed at how long it all took. Because it was literally a mountain of cous cous, covered in boiled vegetables and a bit of broth, flavoured with a tiny bit of salt and cheap saffron. Luckily, Sufjan had some spicy sauce, which made it all more bearable. Apart from this masterpiece, we had the usual bread, which comes with every meal in Morocco, fruit and pastries for dessert, and one bottle of wine between nine of us. This was particularly surprising, since we chipped in €10 each for the groceries, an amount that usually goes a very long way in Morocco. But that’s a lesson learnt – do your own food shopping, no matter how little time you have and how badly you need a shower instead!

But it certainly wasn’t all bad, don’t get me wrong. For one thing, I managed to start working on one of my New Year’s resolutions right there and then – to go back to learning Spanish – as we spent the entire night speaking exclusively in that language. I understood…some of it. We also met some wonderful people. One of the Spanish climbers was blind (!), but climbed harder than us and was planning to do a multi-pitch with his friend the following day. The girl in the group had been climbing just over a year, but could comfortable flash a 6c lead outdoors. They were a cool and impressive bunch, and I’m really glad we met them!

And did you know what the Spaniards do as the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve? They take a small piece of fresh ginger, chew it and swallow it while making a wish. It’s supped to bring good luck and good health. That was probably the most flavoursome thing we’d eaten all night! And we washed it down with a couple of shots of Mezcal, a distilled alcoholic beverage which comes from Mexico, made from the maguey plant. The blind man brought a bottle of the stuff with him, and at 41% alcohol it kept us toasty in the late hours. Because Berber houses don’t really have heating, apart from some coal burners or an old camping stove, and it gets pretty chilly in the Moroccan desert and mountains that time of year, so we had to resort to everything we could to keep ourselves warm.

We ended up staying in that house, as there was no way to get back to our hotel room, and spent the night dreaming about a hot shower and sheets that didn’t smell of goat. But looking back, I already cherish the memory of that experience. The simple joy of waking up in the mountains and taking a walk up to the bottom of a sheer sandstone cliff, glowing orange in the morning sunshine, ready for a day of climbing, cannot be spoiled by a cold bed and a badly cooked cous cous dish. Nothing compares to starting the New Year that way, and I’m grateful that this was the way I walked into 2016.