Just to quickly clear things up as some folks are confused, I didn’t hate Marrakech at all. If anything, I loved it so much, there was a brief moment where I nearly extended my trip. The only reason I didn’t was the six-room riad I resided, was completely booked. Sooooo, yeah.
Anyway, now we’re on to part deux. The second and final “Things to know before going to: Marrakech”. This time around, we’re talking hammams, where to exchange those dolla-dolla bills yo, THE souk you must hit up, how to souk it up, riads, location, and so much more. To be completely honest, there may be a part three because there I have so much to gist you.
Hammams. Ok, so I’ve experienced hammam treatments twice before my visit to Morocco – once at the Shangri-la spa in Toronto and again at the Aisawan Boutique Spa in Vienna. Both visits were absolutely amazing, but neither compared to having it done in Morocco. I can’t advise on the best place to go for one, as hammams are innately apart of this culture. There are neighborhood hammams for both men and women, and many times you’ll see natives with their tote bag brimming with what they’ll need. Keep in mind, this is nothing like your gun shy, keep on your bra and panties for privacy. You’re N-A-K-E-D. No towel. Nothing. So if it’s something you want to experience, but are too shy, get over it. You’ll be in a public place with women of all shapes and sizes, or alone with just your masseuse.
To break it down for those who don’t know, hammams are the Islamic version of the Roman bath. It is custom in Islam to conduct ritual purification before prayers; so many times people will do hammam before attending the mosque on Fridays. You’ll even notice most hammams are located near a mosque. My hammam essentially had three parts: warm, hot, cold. We started in a stone room that gradually rose from steamy warm to steamy hot, as I sat upon the stone benches. The bather first doused me with warm water that aided in a faster perspiration process, but also ensured my body temp stayed level. She left me in the stone room for some minutes then returned to cover my front with some clay. She left, returned some moments later, rinsed my front, put clay on my back and hair, left, returned, rinsed…then came back to do the similar action with the black soap. She had me stand up as she slathered me from head to toe before exfoliating the hell out of me. I don’t know what sort of glove she used, but I saw my dead cells roll off. Literally, they looked like spindly rolls of earwax just flowing down the drain. Imagine this all happening in a very steamy room with a mixture of sweat and water dripping down your face. Plus, you’re completely naked, and feel slightly vulnerable as you’re taken back to a part of your childhood, you most likely don’t remember. The only difference is that you’re an adult being bathed by another adult. At some point all your insecurities go out the window as one stands, legs hip-width apart, and your bather cups your breast to exfoliate it.
We then moved to a cool room, where I lied on a table and experienced the deepest, most amazing massage I’ve ever had. It felt like with each knead every ounce of cellulite was being removed, and my buttocks got perkier. It was definitely deeper than a deep tissue massage, and by the end I didn’t want to get up. In fact, I wanted to sleep right there on the table. So, if your hotel offers in-room… take it.
Where to go is a huge question I debated before arriving. Initially I planned on taking one day to treat myself, but found it hard to find a place that allowed non-hotel guests, but were also reasonable. There are many ritzy establishments, but their prices also showcase “luxury”. With hammam being so popular, why spend the extra cash for an experience that may not be any better than where you’re staying. So I asked a Moroccan based blogger, Amanda from Maroc Mama, her thoughts. She said, “There are so many hammams in Marrakech Les Bains is fine, but it’s pretty pricy and I wouldn’t say it’s better than others. Heritage Spa is another good one and Hammam de la Rose. If your riad has a hammam in it, I’d opt for that as it will be most comfortable and won’t involve hassle getting there or back. Prepare to be quite tired afterwards!”
From [insert your currency here] to dirhams. Moroccan Dirham is a closed currency, so it’s illegal to import or export Moroccan Dirhams and you will not be able to exchange money before traveling. There are tons of spots to change your money, even in the airport. I found the best place was Hotel Ali in the main area, but if you need to have cash once you’re on ground, change some, not all, upon arrival. As for Hotel Ali, the best way to get there is get to Jemaa el-Fna. Near wear all the horses are lined up, you’ll see the post office. Stand directly in front of the post office. There will be an option to take the right street closest to all the horses, or take the left street that goes down to all these different shops. Take the left street for less than a minute and on your right hand side you will see a sign for Hotel Ali. Walk all the way through this very short tunnel, which will lead you to the other side near the horses. Before completely exiting, there will be a bureau d’exchange. There is actually two – one on the end you walk in, and another on the end you walk out.
Make sure to to keep the receipt you are given. You can return whatever money you were sold with that receipt.
Don’t be a souk-er. Get it? Like, don’t be a sucker. Whatever. Souks. The place where you can find everything you didn’t know you needed or wanted until the very moment you saw it. It’s not even impulse shopping. It’s better shopping for the things you use everyday.
Every stall, or souk, will try to sell you something. But everything each souk is selling isn’t built with the quality you’d expect. So even assuming that could get you buying something that is watered down, like argan oil. Pure argan oil is just glory in a glass bottle. Because argan oil is so sought after in Morocco, the government has even provided certificates to coincide with authentic ones. Now, I don’t know if some certifications have been forged or not, but everywhere I went that sold argan always dropped, “We’ll provide you with a government certificate to prove it’s genuine.” That means nothing to me as the proof is in the pudding. But since you can’t open the bottles at the stall, and there are no returns or exchanges [I feel like I don’t even need to say the return/exchange portion, but I can already see some tourist being like, “Hey! Remember me. I bought this yesterday and it’s not what you said. Can I get a refund?” Nah, dude. Like what? No. But I say it, just to reaffirm, you’re not getting a refund or an exchange.], Amanda of Maroc Mama gave me insight on how to tell what’s real. She suggests,“looking for oil that is in a bottle you can see through. When you shake it, bubbles should not form on top. If they do, the oil has been cut with another type of oil.”
There were a few stalls trying to play fast and loose as they spit a confusing game, but quickly Hanan (my riad host) and I found a stall we loved. So much so, we asked him for his information to share:
El Khadir Brahim Ben Brahim
Rahba Kedima N° 154/156 (all the stalls have numbers, so this is a great guide)
[The best deals were deep inside the market area, so don’t be afraid to go on this windy trailed adventure.] To give an idea of what is available, and how much you can look to spend, all of this was purchased for a little less than 300 dihrams (roughly $30).
Haggle. This souk did not sell shoes, so I found a shoe stall when exiting. These [below] are two of the three pairs purchased. One has already been shipped out to it’s recipient. I know I paid a bit too much for it, but the original price for all three was 650 dirhams. I stood firm on not paying anything more than 300. He gradually lowered his price to 600, then 500, then 450, then 375. Because I stood firm in my haggling, he gave me the three pairs for 300 and gifted me a key chain for not giving in. This will not work every time, but make an offer you would be willing to pay, and see where it goes.
Remember, I said, “make an offer”. Not insult them by offering pennies.
Not all riads are created equal. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. While walking throughout the city, you will notice tons of signs for riads. This doesn’t mean you’re embarking on the glamorous oasis of lush greenery and photo-worthy terrace views. The best way to find your ideal riad is doing a hotel search. I found mine through a Gilt Travel purchase made in October (2016). It had good reviews and offered amenities that kept money in my wallet. Others take to Instagram or social media to find what they are looking for. The perfect picture is great for photo ops and all, but a good eye can create social media worthy photos anywhere; tell me more about their service. This is a place I’m going to rest my head for however many nights, so hospitality is definitely key.
And not all riads are conveniently located in walking distance of where you want to be. While in Marrakech, you’ll see a distinct divide from where the medina is housed and the new city. Most everything you want to visit and see is behind these historic red walls, yet many hotels live outside. If being in close proximity of your room and the medina is key, make sure to map exactly where you are staying.
Walking can be a trek inside, so unless you’re accustomed to the heat and enjoy hour-long walks just to get to point A, within the red walls is where you need to be. Otherwise cabbing it everywhere will become your only option, quickly eating away at the funds brought.
For those who prefer the picture-perfect suites, there are many luxury establishments in the old city…. So don’t worry about having to choose between living local or being boujee.
Make the most of where you’re staying. If it’s a life dream to visit a place like Marrakech, but first-world ideologies are tying you down, ask your hotel/riad/travel forums before going. I was fortunate enough to stay in a place that when I asked, they were able to help. Many places are more than happy to recommend a native who can help you navigate the city, or a company that offers the service you request. If the hotel provides someone in-house, often times there will be a fee involved, but nothing insane.