Budget traveling Marrakech: What to expect in the Medina
Budget traveling Marrakech.
Are you thinking of budget traveling Marrakech soon? Want to experience this crazy, chaotic, weird, energetic, sense pulsating, color engulfing city?
Marrakech is fast becoming a superfusion of modernization and tradition steeped in history that can now be distinguished by New town and the historic Medina (old town) which is making it a hotbed for tourism. And, I loved it!
Regular readers will know, as a budget traveler I see and write things from ground level about the things myself and other backpackers experience on trips.
There are so many posts out there that will tell you what to see and do but not many of them cover what actually goes on a daily basis. And, having spoken with other budget backpackers, this post will cover what to expect within the Medina.
- * Language: Arabic, French.
- * Is English Spoken: Moderate.
- * Currency: Dirham: (Closed currency.)
- * Backpacking Marrakech is: Fair, but can be done on a tight budget.
- * Check live rates here: XE.com – GDP to MAD
- – It’s a shame to say but females can get objectified in Morocco, especially western female tourists.
- – Remember to be respectful of their beliefs even if you don’t agree with them. You’re the one that’s chosen to go their country.
- – Dress accordingly and respectably.
- – Prayers are played over loud tannoys at different times of the day.
- – Although Arabic is the main language, French is also widely spoken – It’s good to learn a few French words before you go.
- – Be prepared for long-waits in passport control at Marrakesh Airport – So make sure you go with adequate time.
- – Marrakech can basically be being split into two parts for travelers; New town and the Medina (old town.
The New Town:
The Medina (Old town):
While holidaymakers and travelers choose New Town to stay in, Marrakesh’s main appeal is within the walled city; the Medina. This is where all the real action is, the heartbeat of the city, and prime for anybody budget traveling Marrakech.
The Medina is a densely packed, walled medieval city dating to the Berber Empire, with maze-like alleys where thriving souks (marketplaces) sell traditional textiles, pottery, and jewelry. A symbol of the city, and visible for miles, is the Moorish minaret of 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque. – Source google. Want a history lesson on the Medina?… Check out: History of Marrakech
The first time you step into the Medina you’ll think you’ve been sucked into a whirlwind; with everything going around you it can be overwhelming. That first time, you’re going to feel like you need eyes in the back of your head and your brain will go into overdrive trying to process everything.
However, don’t panic, just soak it all in let the chaos and the charm engulf you. After a day or so, you’ll actually start to get used to it. Not only that but after a few days of walking around (unless you have you a very bad sense of direction) you will even start recognizing the streets and the lane-ways and be able to navigate around the souks.
The main square: Jemaa el-Fna
The main square will serve as your main point in the Medina. It’s where everything starts, access points and entrances to the souks, palace’s, mosques, restaurants, cafes, ATM’s and will be your reference point to get your bearings right.
TIP: head to one of the terrace cafe’s to get an oversight of the square. Draw a mental map in your head of where things are and use it as a navigation tool. Or simply use google maps.
Scattered around the square are large and well-known cafe’s and restaurants like Cafe De France (You can’t miss it.) These restaurants and cafes will act as good reference points. Hostels, Riad’s and tour companies will use them to direct you and even serve as pick up points for tour companies.
(My view from Cafe de France)
Everything you need will be within touching distance of the square. I’ll be honest, as I’ve not traveled for quite some time, I actually thought I would get lost in the medina with the lane-ways and souks, it sounded so complicated but I used a few reference points from the square I was fine.
Jemaa El-Fna – Let the craziness begin:
Before you even start thinking about getting your bearings the first thing you’ll experience is everything that’s going on around you. This big ball of electric energy and vibrancy will capture you, and even though you might want to get out, you will come back for more.
The square is where it all goes off! – It’s like an assault course you have to go through with all the snake charmers, henna artists, musicians, street artists, hawkers, bootleggers, beggars, street performers and market stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs swarm all over the square.
Trust me, even as an experienced traveler it blew my mind and I’ve been to South East Asia! All of your senses will be on heightened alert with the colors, the mix of trance-like flutes, music, voices, and aromas of different food all around you – Everything you will encounter is all part of the budget traveling Marrakech charm and experience.
But, don’t think for a second you’ll be able to take a leisurely stroll or take pictures without getting hassled. All the vendors, hawkers, and merchants are always on their game. They sniff out tourists and cameras from a mile away and will be on you like a rash.
These guys are the experts; not just at snake charming but sniffing out tourists and cameras. They have different tactics to get you too. Some will approach you and innocently ask you where you are from while leading you closer to the snakes and offer to take a close up picture of the snakes. Other’s will sneak up on you like a stealth ninja; and bam! Before you know it, you have a snake around your shoulder and they’re taking a picture.
No matter what their tactic is, they have one end goal; to get a tip from you. And, of course, they will ask for a ridiculous tip but stay firm.
I’ll be honest on my first day, I was still a bit all over the place trying to process everything around me, I was sucked in by the vibrancy of the square and I made a schoolboy error. I should have known better but my guard was down and I got snagged.
I pulled out my camera too close and before I knew it my friend had a snake around his neck and the guy had my camera taking close-ups of snakes. The one that got me wanted 200 Dirhams as a tip, I stuck to my guns and only offered him 15 Dirhams. After a little back and forth, he took the 15.
TIP: You have to be savvy and stay firm – they will initially ask you for a ridiculous tip but keep to your guns and offer minimal. (Remember this isn’t haggling, these guys just try to get the most out of you because you’re a tourist and they think you’re obviously rich.)
In saying that, once you’ve been there a couple of days, half the fun is trying to dodge them, getting in snaps without them noticing you; it’s a fun game to play.
And, if you have a recognizable face, after a few days of seeing you, they actually start leaving you alone. They have fresh faces to go after and not bothered about you anymore. (I actually got a little sad when they started to leave me alone.)
Beggars/hawkers/ vendors/ kids:
It’s not just the snake charmers you have to watch out for on the square, you’ll be approached by beggars, vendors, hawkers, and kids too.
The beggars are not too much of a problem just don’t make eye contact and a simple ‘no’ or just wave them away and they will not bother you.
The bootleggers and hawkers will approach you trying to sell you anything from sunglasses, hats, tissues, (yes random I know) selfie sticks to fake I-phones – Again they’re not too much of a problem, a simple “no thanks”, “I’ve already got one”, or “No Merci.” does the trick, Unless you want to buy something that is.
Market merchants and vendors will try to entice you to buy a souvenir – With these guys, the best thing to say is “Maybe tomorrow” – They will reply with “Maybe?” – Which you come back with a nod, smiling and say “Maybe” – They know you’re brushing them off but not being rude in just saying no. Remember they are just trying to make a living.
Now, the ones you do have to be wary of; the kids. They are not easy to shrug off, they will follow you, some will even try to reach into pockets or bags (I’ve seen it.) Do not fall for their charm or puppy eyes. They will pretend not to speak English but once you deny them, they will start speaking in English throwing profanities at you. Even if you do give them something small, most will throw it back at you saying it’s not enough. When the kids harass you, even the locals, hawkers, vendors will step in to get them away from you; And for once they won’t even ask you for a tip.
TIP: Keep your valuables close, although it’s relatively safe, there are some pickpockets around, especially the kids.
You’ll come across some locals who will offer to help you, show you places, give directions, offer to be your guide, even offer to take you to your accommodation. Do not accept any offers from them, although in most cases, they will take you to the correct destination, they will ask for a big tip. And, more importantly, walking guides are illegal.
When day turns to night the fun and games continue as the street food stalls join in. All of them come armed with reps vying to get you to eat at their stall; these guys will try everything to persuade you.
And, when I say persuade you I mean they’re all over you. They’re well trained and will come out with jokes, puns, insults or accents from wherever you’re from. These guys are just doing their job, they’re trying to get your attention so don’t take them seriously and don’t get offended. In-fact have a laugh with them, it’s just good banter. I got told to stop shopping in Primark (you’ll understand if you’re from the UK) by one, another promised me a 5-year guarantee of no diarrhea. He wasn’t being nasty,, he was just having some fun while doing his job.
Pretty much everywhere you go, not just in the Medina or in Marrakech but all over Morocco, you’ll get offered hashish. You can literally be walking down the street and it will be offered to you by anybody you pass. Some might approach you, some might be more obvious than others, some even walk past you whispering “hashish” in your ear. AN old man even offered it to me, I’m not joking if the stray cats could talk they would try selling you hashish too.
Lane-ways and alleyways:
The lane-ways and alleyways can be just as frantic as the souks. Nearly all of are lined with shops, souvenir stalls, grocery shops, food stalls, small hole in the wall food stops, cafes, juice bars and backstreet hammans.
Some are busier than others, the busy ones, sometimes they can be like rush hour traffic. People will whizz by you on mopeds, and don’t be surprised to come across standoffs and arguments with Donkey/mule/Ass owners and other transporters. The saying stubborn as a mule must stem from here!
Getting lost in the lane-ways can be quite easy for the first few days. You should pick out some memorable spots, things that stick in your mind to help you get around and after a few days, you’ll be an expert at navigating them.
Food and drink:
Marrakech can be a foodies heaven! There are so many options from traditional tagines, international cuisine, to modern fusions. If you love your food, you’re going to be in for a treat in Marrakech. You might even come across some delicacies like sheep’s head, or crunchy crickets but the only thing you won’t find is pork. – Side note, Moroccan lamb is to die for.
Don’t just take my word for it Kate and Kris from ‘What Kate and Kris did‘ had an amazing food experience during their time in Marrakech, they provide some amazing visual examples here.
Moroccans are big on their pastries and desserts, so if you have a sweet tooth prepare for your mouth to water.
Best of all, for us budget traveling Marrakech, most places are relatively cheap. Around the Medina keep an eye out for small hole in the wall joints for the cheapest options but even restaurants are pretty cheap. The night food stalls in the square are typically more expensive than places in the lane-ways.
Tea – Moroccans love their tea, mint and jasmine tea, you won’t be able to escape it. It’s served everywhere, in hostels, cafes, restaurants, even shopkeepers will entice you with tea. I have to say, watching a local serve tea can be quite mesmeric, they try to get as much distance from the glass and teapot as they pour it. I found out they do this for the bubbles; the more bubbles the more flavor in the tea. In some places you might be offered Moroccan whiskey – Don’t get too excited, it’s not alcohol, it’s just another name for the tea.
Talking about alcohol, with this being a Muslim country Alcohol is not readily available. It’s not illegal and some places will serve it but you have to be careful because it might turn out to be non-alcoholic. There is a couple of bars and hotels within the Medina that serve actual alcohol but it will be pricey. Also, some hostels will sell beer, cheaper than the hotels and bars however for the cheapest option head down to ‘carfour’ –
Carfour is a large supermarket close to the New town, it’s about a 20-minute walk from the main square. And, it’s the cheapest place to buy alcohol and your groceries if you want to.
Water – Drink bottled water. Just like Bali belly and Delhi belly – Morocco’s belly is a thing.
There are plenty of accommodation options within the medina, including hostels and Riads. Most are off the main square and hidden within the lane-ways. They might seem confusing to get to and from at first but the lane-ways are not actually that complicated.
I opted to stay at Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge, it was recommended to me by a friend and constantly voted the best hostel in Marrakech. The place was one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in, friendly staff who will come and pick you up from wherever your transport drops you off. They make guests feel at home and go out of their way to get to know you. This was a sociable hostel but not a party one (except for New years eve.) Don’t forget to read my post on different types of hostels.
Morocco has a closed currency, you can’t exchange money into Dirhams before you arrive so your best option is to take money out of ATM’s once you arrive. However, I would advise on checking with your bank in regards to any fees and charges that may incur. If you are going to incur high charges, then look at investing in a travelers cash card.
Within the Medina, you’ll find ATM’s clustered around the big Post office towards the open end of the main square as you head to the big mosque. There are plenty of ATM’s and although I had no problem in taking money out, there were other travelers who found the ATM’s didn’t have enough money in them. So keep an eye out but if you find that’s the case just simply try another ATM.
TIP: Take out the maximum you can at the ATM so you incur the least charges. 2000 Dirham was the maximum I could take out, and as I was quite frugal with my money it lasted me all week.
Another option is to take some native money and exchange it while you are in Marrakech. There are plenty of places to exchange money however you will have to shop around for the best rate and lowest commission fees. I took some English pounds with me, and after some shopping around and advice from the guys at the hostel, the best place I found was a little exchange place behind the big main post office under Hotel Ali. (It’s very well known, so just ask people in your hostel about it.)
Everywhere you turn you will see a tour agency or operator. Do some research before your trip on what excursion you might want to do. If you’re long-term backpacking, it may be cheaper just to do your excursions independently.
Hostels will also offer tours but most will work with another agency. Do be careful on the type you book though, most tour companies do the same trips and sometimes will just cram everybody together on a big bus.
I was quite lucky as I booked my Sahara desert trip from home, people who booked from the hostel were packed together with other tour companies on a big bus. Their experience was ruined because there were just too many people and missed key parts of the whole trip.
Everything around the Medina is within walking distance but if you want to venture out further and need to take a taxi, then there are a few things to bear in mind. Whatever you do, agree on a price with the driver BEFORE you sit in the taxi. The taxi’s in Marrakech are notorious for ripping off tourists. They will quote prices triple to what they actually should be. Haggle with them to get the price down, they will be stubborn and you will need to be prepared to walk away if they refuse to lower the price.
No taxi ride in Marrakech should cost more than 50 Dirhams. It only cost me that to get to the airport from the main square.
TIP: Talk to the workers in your hostel about where you want to go, ask them how much it should cost to get there or get them to organize the taxi for you.
You may have noticed I’ve not talked about the souks – You can read my post about the souks here.
My overview of budget traveling Marrakech:
When I agreed to go to Marrakesh to meet my friends, I have to admit I was a little skeptical. It was a place I wanted to visit but wasn’t high on my list, however, I can honestly say I loved every minute of my time budget traveling Marrakech. From dodging snakes charmers, eating some amazing food, to letting its vibrant energy engulf me; I loved it.
I would definitely go back, budget traveling Marrakech just made me want to travel it properly, more long-term and experience the rest of the country, which I only got a glimpse of. Beyond the madness and chaos, there is just so much charm, color, and vibrancy. The locals, not the hawkers and vendors but the others are friendly and so welcoming…Morocco, I will be back!
The highlights for me budget traveling Marrakech was just the whole experience in the Medina, I’ve traveled and lived in South East Asia and experienced some madness out there but compared to Marrakech. S.E.Asia is diluted.
I know this post was very long but I hope it’s helped you if you’re thinking of budget traveling Marrakech. I also hope it hasn’t come across as a negative post, it’s not meant to be. This is just to make you aware of what to expect.
want to see more pictures of Marrakech? Then head over to my Marrakech gallery
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