One of the most exciting aspects of a trip to Marrakech is rooting through the souks for an elusive bargain. However, it can also be one of the most daunting as the labyrinthine alleyways start to all look the same and the road you thought would lead you back to the main square (Place Jmaa el Fna) turns into a dead end.
There are signs, maps and guides, but my advice would be to just lose yourself in the markets and follow these simple tips to stay on the right track (and keep your sanity!)
1. Load the map
If you have a smartphone, you can load the map of the medina eg. From googlemaps. You can also drop pins in key locations such as your hotel, the restaurant where you have booked or the shop you are trying to find. Even when you are not using the internet (wifi or 3G), the map is visible, can be magnified on your screen, and should show you where you are (using the GPS from your regular phone signal). Personally, I’d rather take out my phone to find my way than unfold a map conspicuously on a street corner…
2. Place Jemaa el Fna
This is the main square and the orientation point for any route description around the medina. Shopkeepers will happily point you towards it if you look a little lost. However, it’s not always named on internet maps. Drop a pin on Cafe Argana on googlemaps to denote the square.
3. ‘Road Closed’
A ruse of tedious longevity for those of limited other job prospects is to tell tourists that their chosen route is barred. This enables the ‘helpful’ local to direct said tourists round an alternative, possibly via a shop where they might get commission and probably for a fee. Moroccans are very helpful, hospitable people and may genuinely be trying to be of assistance, so use your common sense: if there are streams of people coming towards you, the street is unlikely to be closed.
4. Watch out pedestrians (insert punctuation as appropriate)
Although most of the Marrakech medina is pedestrianised, bicycles, mopeds, handcarts and mule or horse-draw carriages are a constant hazard for the dawdling tourist. Keep to the right, keep your wits about you and keep a hand on your purse/wallet. If you hear ‘balek!’, get out of the way!
Many hotels and restaurants will happily send their staff with you to see you on the right way. However, due to a crackdown on ‘faux guides’ (false guides) a number of years ago, some locals may be reluctant to be stopped by the police while accompanying tourists if they don’t have official guide’s papers. The action against unqualified guides has undoubtedly reduced the hassle-factor, but many very knowledgeable older people (who were unable to pay for official certificates) have now been excluded from the market. The upshot is: a good guide is unlikely to be touting his trade in whispers on a shady street corner. If you would like the services of a guide, ask your hotel or a friend to recommend someone.
Marrakech is a fascinating city and part of the thrill is total immersion, which occasionally means getting lost! A little common sense, a confident air and an awareness of what’s around you will mean your stay is infinitely more pleasurable than if you are timid, suspicious or scared. People are often happy to help, so don’t be afraid to ask. However, some people are opportunistic: Morocco is a developing country and tourism offers a lot of opportunities to earn money. People will expect to be paid for services they offer, but if you didn’t want or request the service, there is no reason to pay!
This article was re-published by Morocco World News in November 2014.