Essaouira for under $5 (that’s £3 or 41dh, folks)

Essaouira Skala and Port

I was asked by the bloggers at fivedollartraveller.com for tips on what budget travellers can do for less than 5 bucks in Essaouira. Considering that a reported 7 million Moroccans live on less than $3 a day, this posed me with some ethical considerations. Before I am criticised for encouraging the kind of cheapskate tourists anyone in the industry can do without, let me have my tuppence-worth (that’s 3 cents to my American readers)…

Most tourists enjoy a standard of living significantly above that of the average Moroccan. This is something that those of us blessed with the time, opportunity and means to travel should recognise. Most people in low- and middle-income countries don’t want charity; they want the means to earn a fair wage in a job which gives them some satisfaction and allows them to provide for their family and/or plan for the future. Tourism can assist in this aim, but the presence of tourists and expats can also drive up the cost of living for the locals while wages stay static. Faced with the impact of the eurozone crisis on some of Morocco’s key tourism markets, this is the situation many Moroccans face today. Recent industry statistics indicated that while tourist numbers have risen, average spend has fallen.

My hope is that visitors to Morocco seek an authentic experience which gives them an insight into local life. For this reason, I list the following experiences for under $5. Whether you spend $5 or $500 on your travel experiences, I would urge you to spend them locally and wisely and to spare a thought for the millions of Moroccans living on less than a few dollars a day.

The lunch: The Swiri special – grilled sardines

Souiris (as the locals are known) insist sardines are best eaten at lunchtime fresh off the floukas (little blue boats that chug 6 hours out to fish mid-Atlantic, fish for 5 hours and chug 6 hours back, arriving back around midday). Buy them ready-salted in the fishmarket for around 5dh a “packet” (5-6 fish), pick up some lemon, tomato and cucumber from the veg souk (1 lemon, two tomatoes and a cucumber should be around 5dh), and a couple of breads (1dh each) and head over to one of the many BYO restaurants on the other side of the main souk street to have them grilled. This costs around 5dh per chuwaya (metal fish grill). My fave is the Tamilalte kitchen – there’s even a little roof terrace. Throw in a soft drink or pot of mint tea and you have lunch for two for under $5.

sardine and salad lunch in Essaouira

The authentic experience: Get yourself squeaky clean

You’ve been on the road for weeks and feel like a good scrub? You need a hamman! Ask around for the local neighbourhood hammam – larger ones will have separate men’s and women’s rooms; smaller ones will have a segregated timetable. Pick yourself up a kiss (sadly only a scrubbing mitt), some beldy soap (made from the leftovers of argan or olive oil production) and some ghassoul (stony mud to make your hair shine) from the spice market: 5dh of each should be more than enough. Entry should be around 10dh and you may need to pay 2dh for the cloakroom and a couple more to hire buckets and scoops. Once inside, wearing only your underpants, collect some water and thoroughly sluice the area where you plan to sit. There are often rooms of differing heat; the normal practice is to sit in a very hot and steamy room for some time to open the pores, then wash yourself with the gloopy resin soap and stew a bit longer. Meanwhile, apply the ghassoul mud shampoo to your hair.  All while wearing just your knickers.  Then rub yourself in a direction away from the heart with the mitt. Alarmingly, your dead skin cells will detach themselves in strings, known colloquially as ‘spaghetti’.  Yuk! You never knew you were so dirty! If all of that sounds like hard work, you can employ one of the ladies to apply all the gunk and give you a massage for around 50dh. In Essaouira, authentic local hammams can be found on Rue Agadir and at the back of the fish market (the so-called Orson Welles hammam because Othello was filmed there).

The drinks: Enjoy the Atlantic sunset

Sunset over the Atlantic is something special. If you fancy enjoying it with a beer in hand, head to the Barca bar next to the chichi Chalet de la Plage restaurant at the medina end of the seafront. A beer should only set you back 20dh and even for two people that will leave you a little change to support local artists: the Berber buskers who pass by (at low tide) to strum their D-I-Y instruments at your feet and the cow-cow (peanut)-seller who will throw in his skat-rap for free when you by a wrap of toasted peanuts or almonds (normally packaged in some poor kid’s algebra homework).

Berber barbers near Essaouira

The excursion: Breakfast at a Berber market

Local towns are known by their market day and L’aarbaa (Wednesday) Ida-Ougourd is a short bus ride from Essaouira. The fare in a “Mogador Diamond” minibus or the regular Lima Bus will set you back 5dh one-way. Once there, wander around the market checking out the Berber barbers (in tents) and ingenious upcycling of country folk before finding a café for breakfast. The strong-stomached can buy a few dirhams of freshly slaughtered meat or offal and get it grilled. Buy your own tea, sugar and mint (a couple of dirhams of each) and have it prepared for you. Add a couple of rounds of home-baked bread and a shallow dish of local argan oil and you have yourself a vegetable-free rural Moroccan breakfast!

Of course, for a few dollars/pounds/euros more, you can upgrade any of these experiences and still not break the bank. While you enjoy your less-than- a-fiver bargains, please spare a thought for those less fortunate than yourselves. If you would like to donate what you’ve saved to local charities, please consider a donation to my crowdfunding campaign for local kids’ education.

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