Blue walls, cacti gardens, sweet mint tea, simmering tagines, clanging karkabas — if that’s all I told you about Morocco, you’d be left with the pleasant image of an exotic place of sensory excess. An intricately tiled doorway into a world of wonder. A beautiful adventure.
Marrakech is pretty as a picture, yes. But only if you frame it very, very carefully. And only if you ignore how your presence as a photographer fundamentally changes the posture of your subject.
I thought I was “prepared” for our two weeks in Morocco. I scrolled through Instagram hashtags. I jotted down a short list of high-priority attractions to visit. I bought ankle-length outfits. I left space in my liquids bag for plenty of argan-oil acquisitions.
I had no goddamn idea what we were getting into.
Outside our comfort zone
Tourists are never just neutral voyeurs; our presence and behaviors have big effects on local communities everywhere we go (or don’t go). But Moroccans aren’t shy about making white Westerners extremely aware of that fact. Because in Morocco, tourists are commodities. And wealth is to be extracted from those commodities by any means possible.
Someone can only be an “insider” if somebody else is the “outsider.” Again and again, locals communicated to us loud and clear that we were outsiders. They’d let us pretend otherwise, for a price, but not for very long and not at all if we didn’t bring out the wallet. If you look like we do, you simply cannot pass as an “insider,” no matter what you wear, what language you speak, what you order in a cafe, or where you shop.
And although you’ll never be an insider, may Fatima help you if you linger anywhere outside in Marrakech for very long.
I’ll start with our home base. We ended up staying in a fantastic B&B-style place called Riad Argan that’s owned and operated by three young, kind-hearted sisters. We originally chose it for its location, which is only a few narrow, scooter-plagued blocks from Jamaâ El Fna — the “Big Square” and “destination for all magic.”
So, after we dropped our packs at the riad, we struck out for the Big Square, eager for a stroll and a chance to take in the scene. But in Morocco, you can’t just “take” anything. Everything has a price. Absolutely everything.
We figured out fast that the Big Square is best observed, at least initially, from above on a cafe terrace.
Eventually, we talked ourselves into heading down and walking through the crowd. On the Big Square, you really can get anything imaginable: mutilated monkeys and falcons that’ll sit on your shoulders, drugged cobras that wiggle to flutes, orange juice from visibly dirty stalls, and wares from lots and lots and roving sunglass salesmen.
Drummers gonna drum! This experience only cost us 20 dirham (2 euro), which we were happy to pay since Matt loves North African music. Not long after this, Matt got offered 300 camels for me. I was indignant it wasn’t 500.
We couldn’t pause by any street performer for more than a few seconds without being explicitly called out for money — with a big smile, of course. And I know what you’re thinking, just ignore ’em and move along! No. That is not what you can do. Say no, and the smile will hold for a couple more insistent asks until it dissolves entirely into badgering, shouting, and sometimes, grabbing. Get snared by a roving henna woman or a shoe-shine guy, and they’ll follow you across the square, swearing and hissing at you until you give in or they finally decide to move on to someone else.
In the grand scheme of things, of course a few euro here or there is no big deal — it’s part of the experience! — but the “tips” can start to add up when literally everyone asks for payment for every single glance in their direction. Beyond that, each demand for dirham was a tiny little dent in our psyches; it’s mentally hard and emotionally draining to be surrounded the way we were in the Big Square our first night. We were overwhelmed after only pass through and scurried back to our riad.
In the end, this nonconsensual grab-and-ink job only set us back 20 dirham, but the woman who did it chased us and tried to demand 100, which is almost double the price of a much more professional henna piece. She also called Matt “white meat.”
By day two, we recognized that the key to a more successful experience here would be to accept the reality of “pay to play” — but also to be careful about who, exactly, we chose to engage with. So, we eschewed the Arab souks in the Big Square and sought out stalls in the much-quieter Jewish Mellah, a part of town that truly does need some financial support. As we walked through, a man approached, took my hand, and filled it with spices. This sort of thing is common, but for whatever reason, I decided that I’d go along with this one. We went inside the stall, sampled teas and hand clays, and purchased a ridiculous amount of mint in a clear plastic bag … which looked an awful lot like a very large bag of pot. Super smart for carry-on travelers, I know.
At the end of the transaction, the shopkeeper threw a couple of small gifts into our bag, posed for a photo, and hugged us both. We left his shop feeling positive and appreciated. Saying “yes” was the right choice, because he ended up being the right guy for us.
A little boy was waiting for us outside the shop, and he started “guiding” us through the souk, toward the Jewish Synagogue. We weren’t exactly looking for the synagogue, but we recognized what was happening, and the boy was very small. So we followed him, handed over a couple of dirham at the end of his “tour,” and Matt shook his hand. But when a teenager noticed and tried to pick up where the little one left off, we resisted and ducked into the synagogue to get away from him.
And that was the first time we got an inkling of what our main survival strategy would be in Marrakech: GET INSIDE. As often and for as much time as possible. And yes, that would often require a fair amount of money.
After the synagogue, we scurried out of the Mellah, past rug dealers and fruit vendors, and headed for the Kasbah and the Saadian Tombs. There, we encountered our second biggest challenge of the trip: Instagram Princesses.
We hit the tombs at peak heat, and we nabbed a shaded bench at the end of the complex for a few minutes to gather our nerve before heading back out onto the street. Two dolled-up girls in flowing skirts and headscarves approached, and one spoke to us in British English. Both were clearly tourists, and we were shocked when the girl asked us, bluntly, “Can you please move? I want to take a photo on that bench with the wall behind me.”
Keep in mind, this was the only bench in a large alcove with plenty of wall space to pose against. But she’d clearly scoped out this exact spot, gone home to dress and primp for it (not a drop of sweat on her!), and then she and her friend had come back to take the shot. The only problem was that two red-faced, smelly Americans had trampled into the frame.
I was embarrassed and startled, and I got up indignantly as Matt reminded the girl that “Your photo is not the most important thing.” But she ultimately got her way, and presumably her photo, and we left the tombs rattled.
Morale wasn’t exactly high as we sought out dinner at Le Marrakchi, a tourist restaurant overlooking the Big Square that offers wine (a rare find) and belly dancers. It’s also a hub for young European tourists, two of whom leaned over us — and our food — repeatedly to take photos out the windows and of themselves. We glared at them, but princesses gonna princess.
Finding the “inside” track
By day three, I was pretty much over the sightseeing thing in Marrakech, but Matt nudged me into rallying for a stroll through the Arab souks off the Big Square. I was dreading it, but the experience was relatively low-key. Some of the vendors were generous and jovial with us, like the man in the Mellah had been, but only when we acted as if we were really planning to buy.
Afterward, our riad arranged a hammam for us at Rosa Bonheur, one of many spas that has adapted traditional Moroccan hammam services to fit prudish Westerners. Our experience was similar to this promo video, sans the soundtrack:
Anyway, we both felt AMAZING after our scrub downs and massages. It was the first time that we felt genuinely comfortable somewhere other than our riad. I felt so good, in fact, that it restored my confidence enough to attempt the Ultimate Instagram Hub of All: The Majorelle Garden.
After our experience in the Kasbah, I’d scratched the garden off my list; I didn’t have it in me to fend off a horde of wannabe British and French models. And the garden isn’t exactly a Moroccan thing anyway; it’s the estate of French designer Yves Saint Laurent, which opened to the public after his death. The garden is also populated primarily with cacti from North America, which sparked several bemused head shakes from Matt the Texan.
But ridiculous or not, the estate has become “a thing.” And regardless of how you feel about the fact that a French multi-millionaire came into possession of enough Berber jewelry and clothing that the estate is now also home to the city’s only official “Berber Museum,” it’s … nice. And very, very blue.
Anyway, it was a quiet, shady place to spend a couple of hours. (Pro tip: Go on a weekday during peak heat. Instagram Princesses avoid sweat and high sun like the plague.) But in truth, our preferred tourist attraction was Bahia Palace, a fairly small and relatively modern royal complex that packs in a lot of pretty tile work. It’s like a mini, quick-bite version of our visit to the Alhambra.
By day five in Marrakech, we were feeling better and more adept at walking through narrow alleys while shaking off unwanted “friends.” Our high spirits were really only possible because of our riad, which consistently treated us with kindness and offered so much comfort. We felt safe, welcome, and provided for: breakfast everyday at our convenience, offers of assistance with cabs and activities, and a relaxed terrace to retreat to whenever we needed a break. A riad is EVERYTHING for a Western tourist in Marrakech. A good one makes all in the difference in helping to help smooth over the rough edges of the city experience.
Afternoon call to prayer from the Riad Argan terrace.
After our time in the Old City, we relocated to Essaouira, a Moroccan port town with a laid-back reputation that isn’t exactly how the guidebooks make it sound. (A post dedicated to Essaouira is coming soon; it was an adventure in its own right.) After five days on the coast, we came back to Marrakech so that Matt could attend the World Association for Public Opinion Research Conference. (WAPOR decided to host this year’s event in a Muslim country in protest of Trump’s travel ban and other discriminatory American policies.) The event also brought us back together with our friends Trevor and Jane, who trained east to Fez and Rabat while we stayed in Old City and drove west to Essaouira.
For our second stint in Marrakech, we stayed in the New City (Gueliz), which is the portion of the city that was built by and for French colonials. It was jarring to see New City after having been based in Old City. We felt confused and, honestly, somewhat duped. New City is decidedly modern, with an American-style mall down the street from our hotel, giant traffic boulevards, and lots of local women wearing jeans. We began to wonder how much of the Old City was just an aggressive performance for stupid tourists like us.
We felt more like outsiders than ever, despite being in the part of the city that had been explicitly designed for people “like us.” It didn’t help that the hotel staff treated us coldly, and, after feeling fine for almost two weeks in country, we both got sick from New City food.
So, in between Matt’s conference commitments, we huddled in the hotel, somewhat agitated and ready to put the trip in the books. But Trevor and Jane helped us rally; they hadn’t yet explored Marrakech, so we played tour guide for them on the Big Square. And then we went back to Rosa Bonheur for a second round of hammams and massages; the host was surprised to see us again — yet just as welcoming as the first time, which made us feel like we’d at least done one thing right in Marrakech.
Jane and I also teamed up to do some girls-only wanderings, which included a visit to the Henna Art Cafe. We were aiming for the Henna Cafe, a government-sponsored henna school that runs programs to economically empower local women. But, the Marrakech henna world loves nothing more than to trick tourist women, even if just a little. Some confusion with the taxi driver put us on the path to the similarly-named Art Cafe instead. And you know what? It was lovely.
We had dinner on the terrace and then made our way to the studio room, where we picked forearm designs from a book. Two women artists filled up their pens and got to work on us.
It was a successful outing and a much-needed mental boost. Together, Jane and I had a great time at the the cafe, which is what henna is supposed to be about: gathering with your friends to gossip and get gussied up.
And, in the alleyway back to the taxi stand, a guy pointed at my arm, held out his elbow to me, and said, “Let’s go get married now!” So, maybe, just maybe, there’s more love for tourists in Marrakech than I thought.
I don’t normally do the “travel tips” thing, but here are a few pointers for visiting Marrakech, in case it’s helpful for someone out there.
- Skirts are worth considering if you’re a Western woman in Old City. Trust me, you’ll attract more male attention, comments, gestures, and interactions if you wear pants. Covering my shoulders didn’t seem to matter, so I tended to leave mine bare but I never wore spaghetti straps. Also, plenty of tourist women in Marrakech opt to dress as they always do at home; it’s up to you whether you want to alter your appearance in response to the local men or not.
- Taxi drivers vary wildly on their fares, though they like to point at Arabic signs in their windows and claim those are the “official” fare rates. Ask your riad for appropriate rates, then negotiate BEFORE you get in the car and stick to your guns. Taxis are much cheaper going into Old City from New City than vice versa; a return fare to New City is always higher and will double as you approach the midnight mark. *DO NOT ask restaurants to call you a cab. You’ll get super ripped off, like we did at the supposedly Western-friendly Kosy Bar.
- Don’t overthink the hammams. Ask your riad for a recommendation, and start with that one to get a feel for what to expect before you seek out others on your own. Tourist places will give you spa underwear; wear that and nothing else. Just go with it and follow the attendant’s instructions.
- Break a 100 dirham bill into 20s and keep them in your pocket to use as tip money to get you out of difficult situations on the Big Square. No one will believe you if you claim to not have any money in your pockets. Keep a couple of single dirham coins on hand for kids who charm you.
- If you’re a white man older than 30, you’re going to be a target for everyone. Be careful what you point at — or how long you linger in any given place.
- Don’t fall for the fake guides, especially the teenagers/young men in the souks. Be assertive and get mean if that’s what it takes to make them leave you alone. Never, ever start to follow someone, even if they are in fact walking the way you want to go. Shake them off, and then continue on your route.
- Lots of tourism sites will offer sanctimonious advice about how to “ethically” visit Marrakech. But try to keep an open mind and decide for yourself what you’re willing to support — and what you’re not. For me, the no-go list included the horse-drawn carriages and any animal attractions on the Big Square. But beyond that, shopping “ethically” in Marrakech is not nearly as straightforward as most guidebooks make it seem. Trust your gut and use your money to reward those who treat you well.
- Don’t be an asshole with your camera. It’s easy to feel entitled to taking photos when you’ve paid to be in a restaurant, attraction, etc. But ask yourself whether your photo is about documenting your actual experience — or is it just about bolstering your image as an adventurous fashionista? If it’s the latter, then don’t expect locals or other travelers to happily accommodate your ego. YOU are the jerk, not the person you’re dehumanizing in order to have your “moment.”
- Americans: Be kind to other American travelers in Marrakech. It’s a shell-shock for all first-timers, so don’t pretend otherwise. Ask others how they’re doing. Encourage them, offer advice if you have any, commiserate, or just listen. Don’t try to one-up, lecture, or tell someone to “buck up.” And for goodness sake, don’t pretend you’re Canadian. Trust me, it’s obvious.
- It’s okay to admit to yourself and to others that your experience in Marrakech may not be totally perfect. Most travel sites are insanely misleading about Morocco, and all the perfect magazine images of blue alleyways serve to create false impressions about what to expect in country. Of course it’s important to find the silver linings, but that doesn’t mean you have to sugar-coat the shit. Tell the truth: travel can be hard, especially in Morocco. A fellow tourist told my friend Jane in Fez, “This isn’t vacation. It’s travel.” The more honestly we talk about it, the more prepared others will be to follow in our footsteps.