Marrakesh, also known as “Red City” and “Daughter of the Desert”, is a former imperial city in western Morocco; a major economic center and home to mosques, palaces and gardens. Marrakesh is on everyone’s bucket list because the city is so exotic, mysterious and exciting. I had the pleasure of visiting Morocco, a North African country bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, which is also distinguished by its Berber, Arabian and European cultural influences, for five days. My boyfriend and I stayed in Marrakesh for the first night and the last two nights of our trip, while the second day, we had the opportunity to camp with the Berbers in the Zagora Desert. My trip in Morocco is filled with many stories and through different cities, and so to keep this post short and precise, I will be breaking up my Morocco blog into four parts: 1) Marrakesh, 2) Zagora Desert, 3) Aït Benhaddou, and 4) Cooking Class at Hotel La Maison Arabe. This post will be focusing on the Red City, Marrakesh.
Jack and I flew from Budapest, Hungary to Marrakesh Menara Airport via RyanAir. Our flight cost us around £65 per person ($113 CAD). Our hostel provides a shuttle service from the airport straight to the hostel for 150 Dirham (Dhs) for one group inside the car, which means that my boyfriend and I shared the shuttle for a total of 150 Dhs, and if there was someone who wanted to tag along, the money would be split between three people. It’s awesome. I booked the shuttle service via email prior to landing in Marrakesh and someone from the hostel was waiting for us right outside of the airport with “Rodamon Riad” sign in his hand. You’d definitely want to book a shuttle or have someone to come pick you up because 1) it’s very hot out. If you have a lot of bags with you, you’re going to have a hard time and end up walking for 30min to one hour until you get to the medina (quarter of a North African town, or a distinct city centre of Marrakesh), where most hotels, hostels and riads are. 2) You can easily get lost. Marrakesh is a very confusing place to navigate; even Google Maps and other GPS may not be adequate enough due to the many alley and confusing roads of the city. Having a safe journey to your accommodation is important because you can very easily get scammed in the city (a topic that will be further expanded later on).
For the rest of our trip, we did not spend money on public transportation (besides for our shuttle service to and from the airport). Our hostel was in the medina, and thus we were close to many attractions, so we walked to many places. We did, however, took one cab ride to our Cooking Class because we were running late and that cost us 200 Dhs…not worth it. Yes, I would recommend walking because it is a lot cheaper by probably 80%, but bare in mind that a lot of people will approach you, try to steal your belongings, or try to scam you and say that you are going in the wrong direction. Trust your GPS, even if it’s directing you in the wrong direction. Be smart and logical and use the map like in previous eras where there were no voices or suggestions to tell you where to go, so you’d have you figure that out on your own. I was lucky to have Jack because he was able to read the map very quickly and brought us to many places.
Money & Currency Exchange
1 Moroccan Dirham Equals (MAD) = $0.14 CAD
After we arrived, we tried exchanging our Hungarian currency to Moroccan Dirham Equals (MAD), or just Dirham when speaking in Morocco. However, the currency offices inside the airport did not accept Hungarian currency…but we were lucky we had our British pounds cash on us and were able to exchange our money. I would advise future travelers to exchange their currency before arriving to Marrakesh.
Also, I mentioned Moroccan Dirham Equals (MAD) instead of just Dirham because it is important to distinguish between the two. This will be important when it comes to converting your rates online. MAD is picked up easily as a Moroccan currency, whereas if you were to type in just Dirham on google, it will usually convert your currency to United Arab Emirates Dirham Equals, which does not have the same value as MAD.
You can expect things to be quite cheap in Marrakesh, however, bare in mind that because the city is a very popular tourist destination, many places will raise their price to make more money. A famous example of this is Jemaa el-Fnaa, a square and market place in Marrakesh’s medina quarter. A lot of restaurants and shops inside the square do raise their price to match foreign exchanges, such as Euros and British Pounds; often time, you can also see the price for goods at the shop or restaurants written in Euros and British Pounds, instead of MAD, in order to trick foreigners to believe that it’s cheap. However, the price for these goods may end up being cheaper by half or even more, so do not forget to bargain/haggle! It is not rude to haggle because it’s a custom in the city, just like in many countries such as Thailand. You’ll actually end up having more fun shopping when you are haggling and you will be surprised by how much discount you’ll actually end up getting. My tip is to first start big. For example, if the good is 200 Dhs, you can try reduce it to 50 Dhs. The seller will then say 100 Dhs, and then you can say 60 Dhs, and eventually both of you will end up at 80 Dhs or even less. 120 Dhs deducted! I used this method when I bought bundles of jewelry and souvenirs at the Souk, an Arab market or marketplace. I got a bracelet for 80 Dhs, instead of 200 Dhs, and a bunch of herbal oils for 150 Dhs, instead of 300 Dhs. It’s also important to stay respectful, polite, friendly, and playful. The merchants will likely give you better discounts if you are funny, instead of being rude and complain that things are expensive. Keep in mind that most of these merchants don’t make that much so they rely on raising their prices to foreigners to make a living. It’s okay to walk away if you find it too expensive and if you can’t haggle your price down to what you want.
Remember to also tip for your services! A lot of people in Morocco work for tips (receptionists, taxi drivers, shuttle drivers, servers, tour guides, etc). Some of them do get a little rude if you don’t tip them, which is normal, so try to not be discouraged and just tip however much you can afford. For example, I was traveling on a budget, therefore I cannot afford to tip a large sum, so I would just tip however much I can afford, even if it’s small, but at least it’s something.
In Morocco, and especially Marrakesh, you can expect Moroccans to speak three languages: Arabic, French, and English–and they are really good at it. The two dominant languages are Arabic and French so you can expect to see French imprinted everywhere, especially on restaurant menus. Jack and I had fun traveling in Morocco because we took French during high school and were able to use it. Even though we weren’t great at it, we were able to understand a lot of things throughout our trip and communicate it to the locals, as well. So, time to brush up your French!
Jack and I stayed Rodamon Riad Marrakesh Hostels, which is a hostel that has the design of a riad, a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. We paid $20 CAD per night per person. We also paid for the night we were at Zagora Desert, because we wanted to keep our luggage at a safe place rather than bringing them all the way to the desert! For the price of $20 per night, we stayed in the Superior 8 Bed Mixed Form En-suite. There was a bathroom in our room and you can also borrow a hair dryer from the reception. Our room was very clean and they seem to clean our beds every day. The staffs were beyond friendly and always tried to accompany our needs. Upon arriving at the hostel, the staffs greeted us by serving the traditional mint tree (free of charge). There is also a pool and a bar next to it. The hostel is decorated with the beautiful Moroccan Zelij (Moroccan mosaic tiles). The bar also serves food until a certain time. There is a pool table, many lounge areas and a rooftop.
Rodamón Riad Marrakech
Amssafah 32,، Marrakesh 40000, Morocco
Jemaa el-Fnaa is a large public square with small merchants, hawkers & entertainers, popular with tourists & locals. It’s located next to the famous Koutoubia mosque. We had our first meal here during the night time. We got to try the 10 Dhs orange juice (which is a highly recommended thing to drink in Marrakesh). The orange juice is known for being naturally sweet without sugar and is very refreshing. There were so many orange juice stalls at the market, all with the same price, so I am assuming that they were pretty much identical in terms of taste. However, I went to stall No. 1, which I read up somewhere online that it is usually the go-to.
We had our first Moroccan cuisine experience at Café Restaurant ARGANA, which is the restaurant that stands out the most in the market. Jack wanted to try this place since we could go up and have food with a full view of the market. The staffs, again, were so friendly. Both Jack and I got a tagine, which is a Maghrebi dish named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. Jack got a beef tagine and I got a chicken tagine. Our meal came to about 200-300 Dhs per person ($30-40 CAD), which is a given because it’s a very tourist-trapped restaurant. However, the experience was great, the view was great, so we didn’t complain.
Café Restaurant ARGANA
Jamâa el-fnna, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
The Souk is pretty much a marketplace, except it is mostly located in alleyways and confusing roads. You can easily get lost in the Souk and you can find more shops in the Souk, such as lantern shops, spice shops, and rug shops. Jack and I didn’t stay in the Souk a lot because we encountered a lot of people who tried to scam us, which I have mentioned in the beginning of this post. I would highly advise travelers to be aware of your surroundings and how you are carrying your personal belongings. I had so many experiences, especially in the Souk, where people, and even little kids, tried to steal my bag. I was lucky that my bag was attached on my body, unlike purses, and it was also a tough bag to open. This is the reason why I didn’t have enough courage to take photos at the Souk, despite how cool it was. I also need to emphasize that, despite my experience with thieves and scammers, not everyone in Morocco is like that. I still met so many friendly and polite merchants and people in the market and I loved the Souk. It was so fun haggling with the merchants and I got to buy so many unique items to bring home to my friends and family.
The only main attraction we go to visit besides the markets was Bahia Palace; a palace and a set of gardens located in Marrakesh, Morocco. It was built in the late 19th century, intended to be the greatest palace of its time. The name means “brilliance.” There is an entrance fee of 10 Dhs per person ($1.40 CAD) for foreign visitors and they money is collected right outside the gate.
I actually have a story to tell about our journey to Bahia Palace. We were on the right path to Bahia Palace (just 5 mins walk away from the entrance). I found a door and thought that it was the entrance, so we quickly stopped to look. The door was closed and we assumed that it was not the entrance. Immediately out of nowhere, a man approached us, spoke in English and said, “Bahia Palace is closed today.” We were obviously skeptical about him so we just tried to walk away. He then continued to say that he will show us another place that’s better than Bahia Palace. I knew that he was shady. I also knew that it was not the entrance of the palace because even if it was closed, there would still be massive of tourists nearby, anyway. So we walked away. Then we saw a group of foreigners and I thought it would probably be smarter to ask for directions from tourists instead of the locals at this point. When I approached them, they ignored me, and I could tell that they were probably trying to avoid the locals as well because they didn’t even looked at us. But then one of them saw our faces and immediately smiled and then all of them had a change of attitude and directed us to the entrance. So we found the right entrance, and I knew it was the right one because there was a long line of tourists paying at the gate and a lot of taxis nearby, too. The moral of the story is, trust your gut!
Avenue Imam El Ghazali, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
I definitely wished I had more time in Marrakesh to see other famous attractions such as:
- Majorelle Garden
- Saadian Tombs
- Ben Youssef Madrasa
- El Badi Palace
- Menara gardens
If you have the time to, do visit these places for me! I will 100% be back in the future. Despite my negative experience with local scammers (I even got scammed by the ATM machine there and could not dispute it because the machine did not print out a receipt for me…shady), I still enjoyed the rest of my trip and especially leaving the hustle and bustle of the city to Zagora Desert.