Marrakech, Morocco marked our first ever visit to the continent of Africa. Marrakech was also officially our 8th city to visit on our year long journey. Morocco was our 3rd country, and Africa our 2nd continent of the trip as well. Marrakech is a former imperial city that uniquely incorporates a “medina” which is a walled medieval city that dates back to the Berber Empire. Mostly, Marrakech is just a crazy place to visit. Good or bad, no matter how many articles you read or videos you see, it won’t do it justice. Marrakech has to be experienced to be understood. And we’ll warn you now, the average casual traveler probably will have no real interest in this destination. But those seeking adventure and madness, or at least a few real-life stories of the sort, should read further.

Article Summary:

Abélia Riad

Abélia Riad and the staff and service there was easily the highlight of our visit to Marrakech. Yes, even better than riding camels. We might have never found our Riad in the first place if faithful Zakaria had not met us and our driver, Mohamed, at the City Gate of “Bab Aylen”, to personally walk and escort us to Abélia. 

Your first logical question should be, what the heck is a Riad? The answer (thank you Wikipedia and Google) is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. A Riad is a traditional Moroccan “hotel” that is more like a giant open air house with multiple guest rooms than a traditional hotel. 5 Star resorts are for wusses. You wanna do Marrakech right? You gotta stay in a Riad. Abelia Riad is situated inside the medina, or medieval city wall, which makes it about as authentic as you can get.

We arrived at about 8:00 P.M. and there were people everywhere inside the city walls. Every 10 seconds, someone on a motor bike or bicycle would go wizzing past us, close enough to feel their wind draft. And all of this, mind you, is happening in narrow alleys no more than 15 feet wide. We were the only tourists in sight, and our rolling Away Suitcases were making a lot of noise along the cobbled streets. We weren’t sticking out at all…

This was admittedly one of the most unsettling and nerve wracking travel moments of my life. I’ve never felt more under a microscope in a place. Oh, and did we mention it was hot? It was sweltering. And we were moving at a rapid pace.  I just kept thinking “there are 100 of them, and 1 of me, how am I going to protect JJ if anything happens?”

After a brisk 10 minute walk, we made it to the even narrower alley where Abélia Riad was located. We ducked inside the ancient wooden door to a surprisingly ornate and intricately decorated interior.  The courtyard was completely open air with views of the sky and all of the floors and terraces above.

We do our check-in process on one of the sofas of the open-air courtyard. Zakaria serves us traditional Moroccan tea which is served very hot in a small glass. Apparently there is this unwritten rule that you must pour the tea from a very high angle, with a long visible stream of tea making its way to the glass below.  He goes over the map with us and gives us directions on how to walk to the square, and Souks, and palaces, and most importantly, how to make it back to the Riad. Try not to blink or let your jaw drop during this process.

We go up the narrow and winding set of stairs to our room, which had another ancient wooden western-style swinging door with a padlock on it.  Our room is small and meager in size, but beautiful. Actually, compared to our Inside Stateroom on the Norwegian Epic, it was a huge Palace. Most importantly, it had A/C, which we cranked up immediately.  We were admittedly so tired and hot and overwhelmed by our walk and the throng of people everywhere, that we just stayed in our room the rest of the night and even skipped dinner. We exchanged skittish and very un-assured glances back and forth, and could read each other’s contemplative minds over whether visiting Morocco was such a great idea after all.

Day 1 – Walking Tour of Jamaa El Fna (The Square), the Souks (Rahba Kedima Et Souks), Koutoubia Mosque, and Bahia Palace (Palais de la Bahia)

After missing dinner, we were very happy that breakfast was included in our stay. Now this is where a good Riad can really shine in unexpected ways. In the states, when a hotel says “breakfast included” you’re expecting the traditional, uninspired continental fare like bagels and boxes of cereal if you’re lucky. The Moroccans do it up right though. Zakaria, the same front desk attendant who had heroically escorted us to the Riad the night before, was now doubling as our waiter in the dining room which was on the third floor. He started bringing breads, and what looked like traditional Moroccan pancakes, and butters, and jams, and coffee, and juice, and then more breads like croissants, and yogurts. There was barely enough room on our 4 person table for it all, and we were wide-eyed and taking it all in, when we are asked “do you want omelet as well?”  Huh? Why yes, yes I suppose we do want an omelet to go with our giant breakfast spread that we have no chance of ever finishing at it’s current size.

Did we mention this Riad only cost us about $40 a night? Which now included this lavish breakfast fit for a king each morning? Things were starting to look up.

Feeling invigorated, and having our spirit and travel confidence restored by a hearty breakfast, served with incredibly warm Moroccan hospitality, we were ready to venture back out into this admittedly scary place called Marrakech.

The morning outside was surprisingly… quiet. Where had the hoards of people we faced from the night before gone? Where were the what felt like thousands of eyeballs staring at us?  We wondered. So we started to walk.

Jamaa El Fna (The Square)

JJ in the infamous “Square” of Jamaa El Fna

Jamaa El Fna (The Square), was our first destination. It was supposed to be a 15-20 minute walk with only 2 turns, with one coming at a dead end. Along the way, the few people out minding their shops or going about their days were largely unimpressed and uninterested in JJ and I. We were starting to like this side of Marrakech a lot better.

Jamaa El Fna is a huge open square filled with various “attractions” everywhere.  It’s sort of a hybrid between a flea market and a circuis. There are fruit and water stands, and people selling other various wares from carts or blankets on the ground. There are also various forms of trained animals, from monkeys on strings, to yes, snakes. Really, really big, scary, (used to be) poisonous snakes like King Cobras, with their masters playing flutes and hiding them in baskets and the whole Indiana Jones gag. It would be a double standard to complain about hagglers and scammers and then post a video or photo here of a huge snake (that’s had it’s fangs removed, the “used to be” poisonous part and schtick of the scam you see), but we’ll just link to this cautionary tale instead. You can read more about the pitfalls and scams of Marrakech’s square towards the end of this article.

The Souks (Rahba Kedima Et Souks)

Jamaa El Fna may be at the heart of Marrakech, but the “Souks” are it’s soul. The Souks are basically a giant, winding marketplace of sorts with alleys and rows and corridors of store after store after store selling belts to clothes to lights to carpets to souvenirs and anything you can imagine. There must be thousands of individual stalls selling millions of items.

The Souks in many ways are Marrakech. They are what any visitor will likely tell you about the most. We were warned by a well-traveled gentleman that we had met before arrival, that no matter what, under no circumstances, should we ever lose sight of each other in the Souks. Not because of any imminent danger, but simply because the chances of finding each other again would be slim! The endless winding stalls and stores really can be that confusing. It’s basically the equivalent to a Moroccan Mall Labyrinth.

Thankfully, we eventually found our way to the open air portion of the Souks where there were several restaurants with rooftop terraces. We liked the seclusion of some of these spots over the much busier square.

Cafe Rakba Kedima (Cafe Snack in the Souks) was one such option that we enjoyed. Their rooftop terrace had great views of the Souks and our order of mixed meat skewers (chicken, beef, sausage, and minced meat), was delicious.

Koutoubia Mosque

You can see, and hear, the Koutoubia Mosque from miles away, especially during prayer times.

Palace Badia

Badia Palace is one of the oldest landmarks we have visited anywhere. It’s easy enough to find from the Square and admission was inexpensive at 7€ each. The palace is honestly a shell of it’s former self, which you will learn upon visiting is due to the historical looting of it’s contents. While nowhere near the size, scale, or extravagance of say Louis the XIVth’s Palace of Versailles, this place must have been something else in it’s hey day.

Minbar of El Badi Palace

The jewel of the Badia Palace is the “Minbar” (a Giant Throne / Pulpit looking thing with 8 steps, carved out of wood and one of Morocco and Marrakech’s most prized possessions). It’s so prized that photos are not allowed. Fun fact: work began on this Minbar in 532 AD., and was not completed until 540 A.D.  So we were looking at a 1,500 year old piece of magnificent African art that was still in pristine condition and has stood the test of time. Impressive stuff.

Day 2 – Desert Agafay, Atlas Mountains, and Camel Ride – Day Trip from Marrakech

The Desert Agafay Camel Ride and Atlas Mountains Waterfall Hike tour was our favorite thing we did in Marrakech. (Read our full review of that tour here.)

From riding camels in the Agafay Desert, to hiking waterfalls in the Atlas Mountains, to visiting a traditional Berber Village, and eating delicious authentic chicken tangine in a remote Riad, it was definitely a full day tour and then some. We highly recommend this excursion and tour, and booking it through Trip Advisor (Viator).

Day 3 – Seek Air Conditioning and Authentic Moroccan Food

Again, did we mention it gets hot in the desert? 105 Fahrenheit is pretty scorching, even for someone used the humidity of Texas. We were pretty tuckered out still from our marathon camel riding, waterfall hiking day, so we decided to keep it leisure on our final day in Marrakech.

Le Salama was what we might call a “lively” restaurant, just off the square. The waiters might instantaneously bust out into a Moroccan dance party at any moment. Finally, a rare, but fleeting glimpse of what Morocco probably used to feel like.

Traditional Moroccan dishes you want to seek out at any good restaurant are chicken tagine (or beef, or vegetable), couscous, and harira soup. Le Salama made for a fun night with our new found Spanish friends, Elizabeth, Danny, and Angel’, who we had met on the Agafay Desert tour.

Tips for Marrakech

Scams and Hagglers in the Square

On the way to the square, our first would be haggler came out of nowhere. “Hey, Bruce Willis!” this man proclaims. He’s obviously referring to me, the tall, bald, American who looks and sounds nothing at all like Bruce Willis. “Here we go” (eyes rolling) is the look I give JJ.  He asks where I’m from, and I begrudgingly answer. “Texas! Oh yeah? I have a brother who lived in El Paso!” (uhuh, sure you do, I think to myself). He explains that the Bruce Willis thing is supposed to be a compliment, which, as a guy who tries to watch Die Hard every Christmas, I would normally take it as one. But I know better in this instance. So I let him ramble on and walk with us for a few more steps then attempt to politely shoo him off by saying “we’re good man.”  It was as if I let the air out of his balloon. All the slick talking comments and smiles turned into a very sour and angry, borderline malicious face that stepped back and exclaimed “you need to relax bro”. Slightly rattled, but undeterred, we did the best thing which was to just keep walking. Be forewarned, you will experience this, without a doubt, from snake charmers, monkey wranglers, vendors, and salesman all throughout the square.

As with every scam or sales pitch, the instigator is always looking for an ice breaker or a way in. They will ask questions and say anything to get you talking. The more you talk, the more ammunition you give them, and the more that leads to “let me show you to the square or the Souks” or “let me take you to my Uncle’s restaurant, best Chicken Tagine in town” et, al. And then if you are foolish enough to listen, who knows where they will actually lead you, and then they will threaten you to the point of violence if you do not pay their set fee for the privilege of them being your unscheduled, illegal tour guide.  Any experienced traveler knows to be ready for this, and to not take the bait, especially in or around the Square in Marrakech.

I’ll get off my soapbox in a minute here, but in our country, we don’t go up and start talking to complete strangers for no apparent reason. In downtown Fort Worth, for example, or even at a random gas station, anyone who approaches you uninvited is typically panhandling or going to ask you for money.  There are rare instances where people are honestly looking for directions, and we are always happy to help if we know the way. The point is, we aren’t expecting a tip or a handout for our services like they are in Marrakech. In fairness, Morocco is clearly a very poor country, and their people are surely just trying to make it in this world like anyone else. All the same, we had been in Marrakech for what felt like 10 minutes and the incessant haggling was already starting to get old.

Moroccan Math

While in the square, braving the scorching desert heat, we naturally got thirsty. With no shortage of water and juice stands nearby, we picked one out at random and approached cautiously as an enthusiastic Moroccan merchant flailed his arms wildly, motioning us in his direction. The stands are very tall, with stacks of fruit on the shelves, so they are standing pretty far above you.  This was a pleasant, inexpensive, and seamless transaction the first time because I had exact change in the form of a 10 DHS or Dirham coin to give him.

However, when we went back to that exact same merchant later in the day after walking nearly 8 miles all over old town Marrakech, through the square and markets and Souks, it was a completely different story. I walked up to the same guy at the same stand as he was flagging me down and waving his arms again like a crazy person and as if he recognizes me. I ordered 3 waters from him this time (since they are 10 DHS here as opposed to 15 at our hotel) and asked if he could change a 200 DHS bill. He says “no problem”, promptly takes my 200, then only gives us 2 waters and 90 DHS back. We should have received 3 waters and 170 DHS back. I asked for my water and the rest of my change and he handed us the 3rd water and maybe 4 more dirham coins. Moroccan math is a real wonder.

I told JJ to give him the 3 waters back and started demanding less and less politely that he give us our change or give us our 200 back.  He asks for his coins back, which I only give some of them to him, trying to play his own game, and he somehow musters up 160 DHS in paper currency and I think I may have 5 or 10 DHS in coins in my pocket still from him. We call it a draw, keep our waters, and whatever dignity we have left.

One of the morals and tips of the story is to try to have exact change and smaller bills or coins whenever possible in Marrakech. Go change larger DHS bills at a bank during the day if you have to. The second moral is always do the math on what you are owed and count your change carefully. Do not leave until it is right. The third moral is that these men in their stands feel safe and protected and at a higher level vertically from which to cheat and steal from you with.  Their stands give them the psychological confidence to feel that they are in a power or dominant position over people below them. Of course, little did this guy know that I was being nice, and had he not eventually given us our change owed, I would have done the Christian thing, and climbed up into his stand and beaten it out of him.  Moroccan men are not overly large for the most part. The snake charmers are the main exception to the rule that I wouldn’t mess with, since they have a bonafide built-in advantage! Word to the wise: never let anyone knowingly cheat you, steal from you, or blatantly lie to you, not in any country, especially right to your face.  If you do, they’ll own you mentally, and you’ll just let it happen again in the future by some other cheat, thief, or liar. Standing up for yourself is often uncomfortable, but always necessary when traveling, as well as in life in general.

Accomodations

If you’re not a very experienced and confident traveler, you should consider not staying in a Riad and should consider a nicer, name brand hotel (that will be more expensive, and has a pool! We would have killed for a pool in the 105 degree heat!). You can see all available hotels in Marrakech through our preferred international booking site, Booking.com.

Transportation

Be sure to arrange transportation and pickup at the airport through your hotel or Riad. Taxi drivers are notoriously shady in Marrakech and we saw multiple cab drivers fighting over fares and people getting in and out of various cars and looking very frustrated. Considering how difficult it was to buy 3 mere bottles of water, from a guy we had already dealt with earlier that same day, can you imagine what dealing with a taxi driver that could hold you hostage would be like?  If you must take a Taxi, Mexico rules apply.  Negotiate and settle on the fare before you ever get in the car, then hold on tight.

Even our airport transfer, which was very smooth and in a large newer Hyundai van with “Mohamed” as our driver, still made for an insanely wild ride. Riding in Marrakesh is up there with a Tuk-Tuk ride in Bangkok for me on that, and easily crazier than a New York cab ride. There are red lights, but those seem like mere suggestions for people to stop. It’s every man for himself and dog eat dog on the roads.

Language

The primary languages of Marrakech are Arabic and French. English is probably a close third, but still rare for most Moroccans to speak more than a few words. Then Spanish, surprisingly is a distant fourth. Hardly anyone spoke Spanish even though Morocco is so close to the south of Spain and shares the Mediterranean with them. For instance, our hotel owner of the Abélia Riad that we met was French, and he did not speak a word of English. Zakaria, our front desk person and main contact who was Moroccan, had to translate French to English for him, and we could tell Zakaria was still much more fluent in French than English. Even at the Palace Bahia, some of the signs had all three languages of Arabic, French and English. But others, on the older exhibits, only had Arabic and French. 

Customs

The primary customs of Morocco mostly apply to women and their expected clothing and behavior. Women are supposed to be covered from head to toe. With dresses, skirts, or pants all the way down to their ankles or feet, along with long sleeves to cover their arms, and the traditional Moroccan women wear head dresses as well. The ultra-traditional covered their faces up to their eyes as well.  These rules were thrilling to JJ since the projected forecast was a mere 105 degrees Fahrenheit for our stay.  Don’t get us wrong, we saw plenty of tourists breaking these rules and wearing everything under the sun. But JJ, wanting to be respectful and fit in more with the culture, had some shopping to do.

In our attempt to chase summer, we had packed primarily shorts and short sleeve shirts. Thankfully, next to the major Metro station in Barcelona, called Catalunya, we knew there was the huge Spanish department store called El Corte Ingles. That means “The English Cut” in Spanish. We had seen several of these all over our stops in Spain including Cádiz and Cartagena. Thankfully, JJ was able to find some very long skirts and loose pants and shirts at a reasonable price. Then we were all set for Marrakech.  This whole notion seems silly to write or think about as JJ is already a modest and conservative dresser, which I appreciate. But “When in Rome…” I guess, and all that Jazz.

Religion

Other customs are that since it is an almost exclusively Muslim country, there is virtually no alcohol or bars anywhere. You will also hear prayers blasting from the loud speakers of the various mosques within the old town walls, multiple times a day.  It’s almost spooky and unsettling, especially at night, the first time you hear an entire city bust out in “Allahu Akbar” chants, which simultaneously makes you hope they didn’t just chant “Kill Whitie” somewhere in there. But then you get used to it, and understand it’s all part of the Moroccan experience.  The overbearing Muslim culture seemed perhaps more magnified since we were unknowingly visiting during Ramadan.

I guess it shows our ignorance and insensitivity to the rest of the world as spoiled Americans who are used to everyone and everything catering to us (speaking our language, wearing our clothes, and practicing our predominantly Christian religion).  We really were ignorant and surprised at how embedded the Muslim Faith is in the Moroccan way of life. When we think of Africa, we imagine sandy deserts, pyramids, and camels, much in the same way that people who have never visited Texas think we all wear cowboy hats, ride horses, and carry six-shooters everywhere we go.  We don’t think of the actually very rocky, rugged desert that is the Agafay outside of Marrakech, or the snow capped Atlas Mountains in the horizon above the 105 degree desert heat. And when we think of Morocco, we think of the 1950’s sheik, almost 1950’s Cuban atmosphere, complete with dancing girls, men in funny hats and white robes, camels spitting on people everywhere, and the whole bit. We don’t think of women covered head to toe, and a whole city shrouded by a sort of quiet desperation to get out of the blazing heat, or the whole city busting a move to make it to the mosque on time for prayers. Just remember that the next time you’re in Marrakech and everyone is driving like a mad man and cutting everyone off, etc… don’t get road rage, just remember, they are only in a hurry to get to prayers. Agree or disagree, we think for this, we should respect the Moroccan people.

Currency

The Moroccan Dirham or DHS converts to about .093 Euros or .10 Dollars so it’s about 10 Dirham to 1€ or 1$ roughly (at the time of this article in May 2019).

  • 1.5 L water at our Riad was 15 Dirham. 
  • 1.5 L water at stands in the square are 10 Dirham 
  • We found a cafe / snack shop at the corner of the square with 1.5 L water for 6 Dirham. 

Morocco can be as cheap as you make it. 

Overall impression of Marrakech and Final Thoughts

If JJ and I are being brutally honest, which we strive to do on this blog, we were more than ready to leave Marrakech and likely will not be going back. BUT, we do believe it was worth visiting at least once and was easily one of the wildest and most adventurous places we have ever visited.

We made friends with Spaniards Elizabeth, Danny, and Angel’ who had come from Tangier, Fez, and Chefchaouen. They actually preferred Fez and Chefchaouen specifically, the most on their visit to Morocco. Chefchaouen is apparently a much smaller town with a more laid back vibe, and is known as the “blue city” in Morocco. This would have probably better suited our travel style. Yet for all of it’s Instagram-worthiness, our friends who went there still admitted it was a little boring. Marrakech, if anything, was the opposite of that.

The older JJ and I get, the more we find ourselves avoiding the big cities and instead preferring the more laid back, lesser known destinations. 

The thing about Marrakech is the sweltering heat that consumes everything you do, and the never-ending barrage of Moroccans trying to sell to you, or beg from you, or scam you, or not want to give you your change.  It’s as if their culture is trained from a young age, “if you see a light skinned person, ask them for money and you might get lucky” or tell them “the square is this way” and then expect a tip for leading you somewhere you already knew how to get to. We experienced this with Moroccans as young as 4 years old.

Over and over, we would be walking near the palace or somewhere and a man in a shop would say “the palace is closed, come look at my shop”. Then we would be in the palace, that was definitely still open, 15 minutes later.

Don’t get us wrong, the square, and markets, and Souks, and snake charmers are all cool to see for about a day. Unfortunately, the shine and excitement wore off much sooner than the end of our visit.  Marrakech is still worth visiting, for maybe a day or two max, but it is not for the faint of heart or for the inexperienced traveler.  Maybe if we had stayed at a 5-Star resort and done nothing but play golf and sit by the pool all day we would feel differently, but then that wouldn’t be experiencing the real Marrakech now would it?  At least we can say we did it, and lived among the people in our modest Riad that was very much inside the old city walls and all the madness of Marrakech that came with it.

Len and JJ’s Overall Rating:

Worth Visiting At Least Once

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