It all happened quite quickly for us. Somewhere between trying to figure out when the cold overcast skies would open up over Paris and watching past episodes of The Daily Show we learned you could ride a camel in the Sahara. One inexpensive flight a few days later and we were crossing the tarmac of Menara Airport with the snow topped Atlas Mountains to our left and a very welcome sunset to our right. We had no idea what to expect from Marrakech, but so far it was off to a pretty a good start.
The fact you can fly to Africa in only three hours from Paris is mind-boggling.1 Even crazier is that you can take a short ferry ride to it from southern Spain. Yet for some reason Africa has seemed far from reach, like some exotically forbidden 3rd world continent where sad babies hope to be sent 25¢ a day and rebel terrorists shoot Ebola from AK-47s while riding on the backs of wild lions.
Marrakech could not be further from all that. Sure there are sad looking babies, but here they speak five languages and sell delicious cookies. And the closest thing to a wild animal is one of the ten hundred thousand stray cats running freely throughout the city.
Since this was our first visit to Africa we decided to reduce some of the uncertainty by booking three nights in advance at the Purple Camel Hostel and arranging for an airport pick-up.2 Like most things in Marrakech, this wasn’t what it seemed.
After getting our bags we were greeted by someone holding a sign for Purple Camel. Given all we had read online about people trying to scam you in Morocco we where on high alert, which promptly subsided after a friendly back smack from our driver as he ushered us to a large van. As we got in, two other travelers appeared out of nowhere and did the same. They said they weren’t going to our hostel so we figured the van was carpooling airport pick-ups.
The center of Marrakech is about a twenty minute ride from the airport. Upon arrival, the driver got out. When we went to follow, he motioned for us to stay put. He then got on his phone and disappeared. About a minute later he returned, got back in without a word and continued driving.
Driving in Morocco
Driving in Morroco can be jarringly disorientating. If you’ve ever driven or been driven in an Asian country, like India, you’re prepared for it, but if you haven’t, you might think your life is in danger. Here’s a good writeup on the insanity of it and a video showing what a confusing mess it can be. Also, be aware as a pedestrian there aren’t really any defined crosswalks so if you get stuck, your best bet is to follow close behind a local.
After going in circles for a few minutes we stopped again. The two other travelers were quickly hurried out, introduced to a man and led down an alleyway. We were unsure if anyone would ever see them again. The driver got back in and asked if we knew the address of our hostel. This was strange since we thought he had been sent by our hostel. I handed over a piece of paper where I had illegibly written down the address.
In a few minutes we arrived at the same location we had stopped the first time. We were hurried out and found a random man off the street placing our bags from the back of the van into what looked like a homemade wheelbarrow. The driver showed him my piece of paper. I asked the driver if this guy was from the hostel. The driver ignored me and said to follow the man, who was now rolling away with our bags.3 We tried our best to keep up as he wheeled through the endlessly winding alleyways of the Marrakech medina.
What is a Medina?
A medina (Arabic: مدينة) is an old part of a town or city in countries of North Africa. They are usually surrounded by a wall and comprised of many narrow, maze-like streets leading to palaces, mosques, shops and homes. Many are either partly or entirely car-free.4 Historically, some medinas were intended to confuse and slow down invaders. Presently they confuse and slow down tourists – the modern day invader. The medinas of Marrakech and Fes are both listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Starting to question where we were being taken and simply hoping for the best, we were very glad after one final quick turn to see the man and his homemade wheelbarrow standing below a sign with a purple camel on it. After much haggling over the price of his services (we eventually paid 20MAD ) we settled into our hostel, relieved to have arrived.5
The Purple Camel Hostel is a no frills accommodation costing around 90MAD a night with a 10-person and 12-person dorm, as well as one 4-person suite. It has as good a location as you can get in Marrakech and, like pretty much everywhere else in Morocco, offers a free breakfast and rooftop terrace. Other hostels may have livelier and cooler atmospheres, but since some had reviews touting bed bugs and Purple Camel seemed to have a mission to be bug-free, we chose them, especially given our past experiences.
The next three days were an amazing experience, albeit exhausting. Having people constantly ask for money, incessently dodging mopeds and donkey carts, not being able to look at something without being pressured to buy and never receiving a fair fixed price on anything can get very tiring, very quickly.
That said we were blown away by the locals. We arrived expecting everyone and anyone who came within a foot of us to be working an angle. In the end our distrust only made us feel a little like dicks.
On one occasion a man passing by said hello and asked what country we were from. When he found out we were American he welcomed us to his country with a large smile and continued on his way. Another time we were walking down a dark alleyway where a group of young men were loitering about. As we passed one of them asked, “C’est bonne visite?” and when we answered yes, gave us a friendly smile and a thumbs up. A third time, coming out of our hostel, we passed a man who stopped to ask where we were from and, after welcoming us to Marrakech and flashing a large grin, went on merrily singing down the street.
As an American you often get advice from people back home to never let on where you are from when traveling aboard, especially places with predominantly Muslim populations.6 But all that seems to have a lot more to do with the politics of the world than the people of Morocco.
Instances of unwarranted distrust like those mentioned above highlighted just how unaware we were about the customs and beliefs of the Islamic Nation. In this regard Marrakech proved to be a welcome introduction into this world – one whose tenets guide its members to embrace visitors from all backgrounds. While being exposed to this may not have been an earth shattering wakeup call, it was a nice reminder that things are not always what your expectations, presumptions or local news outlets make them out to be.
A Brief Introduction to Islam
Islam (Arabic: الإسلام) is a monotheistic religion that, like Christianity and Judaism, traces its roots back to Abraham. It is the second largest religion in the world and the fastest growing. The word Islam translates as “submission” and in the religious sense means submission to the will of God. A follower of Islam is called a Muslim, which means “one who submits”.
The Islamic faith is primarily based on the Qur’an (also spelled Koran or Quran) – a holy book considered to be the verbatim word of God (Allah in Arabic). The Qur’an was dictated by the angel Gabriel to Muhammad, who is considered by most Muslims as the last prophet of God.7
There are several sects of Islam, the major ones being Sunni and Shiites.8 Its main concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam and following Islamic law (known as Sharia in Arabic), which are a set of moral and religious codes guiding the Muslim way of life.
The more you know.
But you don’t have to take my word for it…
Although on our first morning in Marrakech, we did receive a wakeup call of a different kind.
The first time we heard the call to prayer (adhan in Arabic) was strange, confusing and surprisingly calming. At the ripe hour of dawn, the large megaphones stationed atop the mosques of the city spread this chant throughout every alleyway of Marrakech and right into our dorm room at the Purple Camel. Coming from the West the phrase allah akbar holds a lot of different connatations, but heard through the hypnotic echoings of the adhan it arose as part of a unifying experience that reminds an entire nation to stop and be grateful, no matter what your beliefs are. For us, it also meant it was time to get up.
Our time in Marrakech was packed with sites, sounds, and the aromatic toxic fumes of mopeds whizzing by. We marveled at the Koutoubia Mosque, walked through the portals of Bab Agnaou, imagined the splendor of El Badi Palace, wandered the halls of the Ben Youssef Madersa and were astounded at the number of repair shops for the aforementioned whizzing mopeds.9
Marrakech is a very walkable city, and although we unfortunately did not make it the Saadian Tombs or the Majorelle gardens, we were able to visit a lot of its major sites in a single day (with plenty of room to spare for getting lost). Three full days should be more than enough to meet most visitors’ city wandering and souk shopping needs.
Most of our time in Marrakech revolved around Jemaa el-Fna. While the infamous souks deserve a post all their own, it is worth talking a bit about this original masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
Jemma el-Fna, whose name is said to translate to “assembly of the dead,” could not be a more lively place. It is home to a daily Moroccan performance that commences with a quiet morning and soon shifts by afternoon into a pseudo-tourist trap of cobra snake charmers, hand grabbing henna tattooists, funny hat wearing water sellers and awkwardly dressed monkeys.
A Note on the Animals of Marrakech
If you are an animal lover, Marrakech, and Morocco in general, may come as a bit of a shock. Unless you’re the almighty stork10 life can suck. It’s not unusual to see a stray dog being kicked, or even laying dead on the road. Likewise the endangered Barbary macaque monkey is paraded around Jemaa el-Fna on a chain as bait for tourists. Seeing a tiny monkey dressed up as a baseball player is adorable, but considering how short a life span these captive animals have its hard not to feel bad. You will also undoubtedly feel equal measures of happiness and sadness on account of all the mangy stray cats prowling around, especially the tiny stray kittens.
Of course if you think all this is horrible, just imagine what it was like when the square featured drugged lion cubs.
If you would like to help in some way or learn more, the charitable group SPANA aids the working animals of Morocco, offers shelter to abused, neglected and abandoned animals, and provides free medical treatment for sick street animals. They also assist in adopting stray cats and dogs.11
As the sun sets on Jemaa el-Fna, the square surges to life and the real hoopla begins as large groups encircle musicians, traditional storytellers, magicians, bottle lassoists and the occasional boxing match.
At night dozens of makeshift restaurant tents manned by persistent hosts who have a superhuman ability to spot you from afar fill the square. By midnight the festival ends and it all disappears, just to start all over again the following day.
Our favorite meal in Marrakech, and the one by which all others in Morocco were judged, was at a cafe surrounding Jemaa el-Fna. We had some delicious harira, chicken tajine, chicken couscous, and flatbread, all for the delightful price of 142MAD, and a 20MAD tip. (This seemed fair, but in case you’re wondering how much to tip in Moroccon restaurants, hotels and the like here’s a great guide.) One thing we learned about Moroccan meals is that there seems to be a direct correlation between the number of chickpeas your meal comes with and the level of deliciousness it possesses.
Traditional Food in Morocco
If there is one thing we had during our time in Morocco it was our fill of tajine. Tajine, which gets its name from the conical clay pot it is made in, is a stew consisting of anything from meat, chicken, fish, fruits, vegetables and any number of spices like saffron or cumin. Another staple of the Moroccan menu is harira, a simple Moroccan tomato and lentil soup that often comes with chickpeas and pretty much anything else the house feels like throwing in. And then there’s the always fun to say couscous. When spiced right these tiny semolina wheat balls of goodness make for a great meal, especially when combined with chicken. Last but not least is the incredibly dense, always on the table, throw-away-your utensils-and-just-use-this-flatbread instead, khboz. And just like that you’re eating like a true Moroccan.12 There are plenty of other local foods to be had while in Morocco (like a refreshing Moroccan salad) but these are the ones you will find impossible to avoid.
Jemaa el-Fna lived up to all we heard Marrakech would be – intense, vibrant and a shock to the senses. We enjoyed eating an erratic dinner of tajine and couscous at the bustling food tents, as well as calmly sitting atop one of the several rooftop terraces overlooking the square with a tin pot of hot mint tea between us. Of course we also made sure to have a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
After our three days of exploring, eating and souking our way trough Marrakech we could no longer ignore the call of the Sahara. However, we did return for one more night following our camel trek.
Instead of going back to our hostel we thought we would take advantage of the great exchange rate and booked a five-star riad on Priceline (who knew they had Priceline in Africa?) for under 30 bucks. We took our first cab of the trip to get there, which involved a whole lot of haggling with what seemed like an association of cab drivers whose business model was not all that dissimilar to that of prostitutes and pimps.
We first negotiated a price of 40MAD (probably too much) with one guy who was obviously running the show. He then motioned to one of his many drivers in waiting to take care of us. This ride once again involved a whole lot of suspicion on our part as to whether we were actually going to ever make it to our destination. When we pulled up to the front of a random indiscreet building and our driver said we had arrived, we were hesitant to believe this was a five-star anything, especially since the tiny sign for the riad was barely visible even when standing beneath it.
But after ringing the bell, being greeted by a smiling attendant and led inside, we were met with exactly what we had imagined Marrakech to be.
The name of the riad we stayed at was Jardin d’Abdou. It included the best free breakfast we had while in Morocco, plenty of hot water for showers and was a nice respite from the activity surrounding Jemaa el-Fna, which is about a 20 minute walk away.
What is a Riad?
A riad is a traditional Moroccan house, built around a central, open-roofed courtyard. The word riad derives from the Arabic word for “garden” and refers to the courtyard, which is usually comprised of fountains, citrus or palm trees and tile work. Surrounding it are a small number of large, richly decorated rooms on two or three levels. There are no windows to the outside, rather all elements open up onto the courtyard. This inward-facing design maintains privacy and controls the often unbearably hot weather by ingeniously utilizing the water basin, its tile work and open-air aperture above for a harmonious cooling effect. The tiles are often elaborately painted with Arabic script from the Qur’an and are repeated to represent the infinite of the supreme being. Overall riads create a tranquil atmosphere embodying the Islamic ideals of inner reflection.
Moments after setting our bags down in our room the attendant brought us a complimentary tray of mint tea and cookies which we enjoyed poolside in the courtyard.
As we would learn later during our time in Fes, a key concept in the Islamic faith relating to everything from the clothes women wear to the way cities are built, is that of the unseen. This was no more evident than in the palatial home converted to a palatial hotel in which we enjoyed our thé à la menthe. On the outside it was plain, seemingly no different or special than any of the other buildings throughout the city. However, behind its doors and thick clay walls, unseen from those passing by, was a unique and beautiful place.
And so it was with nearly everything we experienced in Marrakech. For all our suspicions, presumptions, concerns and doubts, there were helpful drivers, smiling locals, mesmerizing chants and glorious riads to counter. We had no idea what to expect when we got off the plane in Marrakech. What we ended up finding was a vibrant, intensely alive moped-filled city where all are welcome, especially stray cats.
It takes almost two hours just to drive through New Jersey.↩
We met several people who did not use a pick-up service and either caught a taxi (which should cost from 20MAD to 50MAD depending on where you stay) or took Bus 19 to the city center. Here’s a video showing where to catch the bus and a map of its times and route.↩
Our airport pick-up ended up costing 100MAD total for the two of us, which in retrospect was probably too much but we were happy to pay for the convenience. We did not need to give our driver anything and paid for the service upon arrival at our hostel.↩
One of Fes’ two medinas, Fes el Balis, is considered one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world.↩
Here is a video from Purple Camel to help visitors find the hostel on their own. It also does a great job of showing how disorientating our first foray through the medina was, made all the more confusing since it was nighttime.↩
“If anyone asks, tell them Canada.”↩
Islam recognizes several prophets who came before Muhammad, including Noah, Moses, David and Jesus.↩
The Sunni make up 75%-90% of all Muslims. The Shiites comprise 10%-20%, and, though smaller in number, presently occupy most of the lands of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi-Arabia, Yemen, and Persian Gulf states.↩
Although considering how recklessly and abusively everyone drives their mopeds in Marrakech, there’s probably a large demand for fixing them.↩
Moroccans consider storks sacred, believing they bring good luck. It is a punishable offense to harm a stork or its nest in Morocco, and could carry a three-month prison sentence. Marrakech at one time even had a stork hospital. Best see these holy birds atop El Badi Palace.↩
Though there were also quite a few locals eating at the McDonald’s nearby the medina, so who is to say a meal there isn’t just as authentic an experience.↩