Marrakech souks: A budget travelers insight.
This post in an extension to budget traveling Marrakech: What to expect.
The Marrakech souks are as famous as Moroccan tea. While the Medina might be the heart beat of Marrakech, the main square; (Jemaa El-fnaa) might be the vibrant ball of electricity, the souks are the pulsating epicentre of it all.
Stepping into the Marrakech souks; which are the largest and busiest souks in Morocco, is like stepping into an enchanted world. The smells, the hustle bustle, the noise, and vibrant visual delights around can put you in a mesmeric trance and be quite overwhelming the first time (or even the second time.)
The Marrakech souks are like no other, a unique experience however, in saying that this post is not about me over-glamorising them. This post is to give you an insight into what to expect in them.
Where are the souks, how do you get into them?
Getting into the souks is the easy part! It’s the getting out that’s the hard part – at first.
The Marrakech souks are a labyrinth of interconnecting lanes and ally’s, which are filled with stalls and shops practically compressed into each other. At first glance they seem to just mesh into one and it’s quite easy to lose yourself in them. However once you have your bearings, navigating them becomes a little easier.
As I mentioned in my previous post Budget traveling Marrakech: Inside the Medina, everything is in touching distance of the main square. The main entrances to the souks are found from the corners and side of the square.
However, you should know that although the main entrances are from the square, some of the souks are interconnecting, so you can enter one and leave in a completely different one. And, they all have little side entrances too.
Now, you might be panicking a little, thinking that you’re going to get lost in them, or that they seem too overwhelming – Well, yeah you’re right…at first they will be. The first time I stepped into one, I didn’t know which way to turn, and with all the chaos that goes on in them, it just made it harder to even think.
However, don’t worry – No need to panic, here’s a simple ways to help you navigate through them.
Navigating the souks:
- Follow the general flow of the crowd: Following the crowd is just like letting the current take you, eventually you’ll find land, In this case you’ll find a way out.
- Leave breadcrumbs for yourself: Not literal ones, but pick out some noticeable signs, or something you will recognise and use them to backtrack.
- Go with somebody who knows their way around. My first few days I was with friends who had been in Marrakech a few days before, so they were my guides inside them.
- Familiarise yourself with certain stalls, use them as landmarks and after a few days you’ll pass them knowing where you are. There will be some places that just stand out to you.
- Once you’ve been in Marrakech, in the Medina and in the souks a few days, you’ll get used to the layout, so even if you walk into one entrance you’ll know the general direction of another from inside.
- Also after a few days, you’ll know which souks sell what, which are quieter, and which ones you’ll be harassed in more.
- After a few days you’ll also find yourself constructing a mental map in your head. A couple of the souks have little courtyards to separate them before joining onto another. You can use them to help navigate around too.
What’s sold in the souks?
Pretty much everything you can think of. One of the reasons why so many tourists flock to souks, is because there is such an abundance of choice. Yes, a lot of the stalls just like in most heavily populated markets around the world do sell much of the same but there is also so much uniqueness on offer. It’s funny because if you’re in one shop and they’ve run out of something you want, they’ll just run over to another stall, grab it from them and come back to sell it to you themselves rather than pointing you to the other stall.
In the Marrakech souks you’re going to find a mixture of authentic Moroccan craftsmanship and handicrafts, you’ll feel Moroccan history as you venture through.But, at the same time you’ll also see cheap knock offs, items that have been mass-produced for tourists and cheap souvenirs. It really is a mixed bag but one thing is for sure your senses are going to explode.
Most common things you’ll find in the Marrakech souks:
- Textiles: Authentic, hand-crafted Moroccan items such as handmade carpets, rugs and all types of fabrics. However you need to keep an eye out as some are just some cheap factory made items mass-produced for tourists, who can’t tell the difference between authentic or not.
- Pottery and ceramics of all shapes and sizes: Vases, bowls, cutlery, cups, teapots, all with intricate Moroccan designs.
- Colourful spices, Moroccan tea and herbs.
- Handcrafted ornaments and trinkets of all sizes.
- All kinds of Moroccan lamps and oil lamps (Genie not included, trust me I rubbed a few but nothing.)
- Historic weapons: Guns, knives, blades, swords, daggers, spears, shields.
- Sunglasses and hats.
- Hand made Moroccan slippers, made from leather and locally called ‘Babouches’.
- Traditional medicine.
- Amazing Moroccan artwork, made from traditional paints and dyes.
- Fake and knock off clothing and shoes apparently from designer brands (wink, wink.)
- Cheap souvenirs to take home with you.
- All types of electronics from old to new.
- Bags of all kinds, homemade and hand crafted from all kinds of materials.
- A whole lot more: Whatever you’re interested in; it will be here.
Casually looking around/window shopping.
There are certain things that don’t seem to be allowed in Marrakech; and walking around peacefully seems to be one of them. So, if for a second, you think you’ll be able to leisurely walk around the souks without being bothered; you’re quite mistaken.
In the busier souks, every stall you walk past will entice you to look in their stall or shop. Some will be more aggressive than others, some will try to entice you with a tea, they might try telling you a fable, others will compliment you, some might just try to strike up a conversation. If you have a beard, no matter where you’re from you will be called ‘Ali Baba’ – Don’t get offended nor take it seriously, they’re jut trying to get your attention. I was called ‘English brown Alli Baba’ all the time.
However in saying that I’m making is sound worse than it is, yes you will get hassled by some, some of them are very persuasive but there are other souks that are quieter. Some will let you walk by, even peer into their stalls without batting an eyelid but one you step into the stall and show some interest they will on you. To us westerners, we prefer to be left alone and shop on our own accord but to these guys it’s what they know.
If you aren’t interested in buying anything, don’t be afraid to say NO. Some stall owners can be quite persuasive but a firm ‘no’ will dispel your interest. However if you feel just saying no is quite rude then just like with the merchants on the square the word ‘maybe’ works just as well but with more interaction.
Here’s how it usually goes – You say, “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 by ignoring them or just saying no. Remember thy are just trying to make a living.
Haggle, Haggle, Haggle.
However if you are interested in buying something, you’re going to need to haggle if you don’t want to get ripped off.
Now, I know for a lot of people haggling is a daunting task and some of you may never have had to do it. For most of us that come from western countries, haggling is a foreign concept. We’re used to walking into a shop and buying something at the stated price, sometimes we shop in different places to find the cheapest option, and sometimes there are discounts. However we don’t do what seems to be arguing over something.
I only learnt to haggle after I started to travel, and at first it was a daunting experience, I didn’t know how to do it nor did I know the ‘rules’ to haggling. You see there is an art to haggling and I’m sure even when I started I still got ripped off. However it’s a learning curve and over the years I’ve learnt to play the game.
And, that’s exactly what it is; a game! Some people think haggling needs to be serious, or some think they shouldn’t haggle because what’s a few pennies, they can’t be bothered with the hassle.
Haggling is not being rude, It’s part of the culture, haggling is expected and if you don’t want to haggle, well you’re just going to get ripped off, it’s as simple as that.
Playing the haggling game in the souks.
So, when in the souks, haggling is essential if you don’t want to get ripped off, and even more essential for us budget travelers.
I will be writing a comprehensive post on the art of haggling quite soon. However for now, below is a basic method that works for me and a lot of travelers I know.
- Don’t be too serious, ask them to name a price.
- Smile, shake your head and offer just less than half of what the price given was.
- They will laugh and refuse it, they will stick to original price.
- You shrug, shake your head and put item back saying it’s too much and start to walk away like you’re not interested.
- They will call you back with an “Ok, Ok, new price’ – which will still be substantially too much but less than original price.
- This time you stick to your original offer, – you will go back and forth a few times.
- Once they’ve gone down quite substantially, they will stick to their latest offer in which you offer a little higher than your original price.
- There will be a bit more back and forth and eventually you will agree a price that suits you both.
- You will then agree on a price, they will try to be sneaky and up the price but you shake your head or laugh – they will laugh back and the price you agreed on will stick.
It can get a little more complex sometimes, there can be multiple items involved but sometimes it can be even easier and just simple. The important factor is never take the first offer, and also do shop around before you commit.
Visiting the Marrakech souks can be hard for budget travelers.
What I mean by this is, we budget travelers obviously have a tight budget. We are quite strict on our spending habits and we only spend when we need to. So, when visiting the souks there is going to be an urge to spend, and like I said before there is always something in the Souks that you will want to buy.
So, if your eye does catch something that you just have to have, you’re going to need to be on your haggling game. No matter how cheap something seems it’s going to make a difference if you haggle.
Things to keep in mind when in the souks.
- They can get very overcrowded, although generally safe, keep your valuables close.
- Like everywhere else in the world, the more you look like and act like a wide-eyed tourist, the more you’re likely to be targeted. Try to blend in.
- Don’t be afraid to get lost in them for a few hours. Remember getting lost is half the fun.
- Taking photos are quite difficult unless you’re willing to pay the shop keeper a tip a take them.
- Some will have signs saying ‘no pictures’ some will tell you straight up that you can’t take a picture.
- Shop/market owners are savvy, some are quite persuasive, some will try striking up a friendly conversation just to get you into their shop. Some will even offer you a tea as you’re looking around, it’s their ‘in’ but it’s ok to take the tea, especially if you’re thirsty.
- However in saying you can have some great fun and banter with the shop owners too.
- Be mindful of your budget, it’s quite easy to start over spending, especially if you get on a roll with haggling. You might think as you’re haggling you have enough budget left, that is until you get home and realise you spent way more than you thought.
- If you do buy things, think of the practicality of it – Are you going to carry on traveling? How will you carry what you’ve bought, will it fit in your backpack, do you have space? (It might sound stupid, but I meet so many travelers who over buy then wonder how they are going to carry things around.)
- Be mindful of asking for directions, some people will tell you the wrong direction on purpose.
- Don’t accept any offers from anybody offering to guide you if you don’t know them.
- Take a break, there are lots of cafe’s dotted around the souks.
- Most importantly don’t forget to have fun.
My overview of the Marrakech souks.
I can honestly say, even though I didn’t buy that much in the souks I had so much fun in them, I had lots of friendly banter with store owners in the Marrakech souks.
Over the years, I’ve lived in Bali where the streets of Kuta are lined with markets. I’ve been to huge night market in Thailand and Vietnam and experienced other open air markets in central America but nothing compares to the energy, colours, smells and atmosphere generated through the Marrakech souks.
Apart from getting a bit weary and tired of people trying to entice you – this is an experience not to be missed and one that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
If you missed my post on what to expect in the Marrakech Medina, you can check it out here, just clock on the picture below.
I would love to hear from you guys, especially if you’re planning on, or have already planned to budget travel Marrakesh soon. What did you think of the post? Did you find it useful? has it helped you? Let me know in the comments below.
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