Is it your first time travelling to Morocco? Then there’s a good chance you’ll end up in the old city (medinas) of Marrakech or Fes. These consistently feature in the popular itineraries, and for good reason, as it can be a lot of fun to get lost in these enormous mazes of little alleyways.
BUT… I must warn you: they are also easily the most stressful places in Morocco.
I’m not joking. Even if you’re an experienced traveller, you might have to endure way more hassle and deception in Marrakech or Fes than you ever had before.
Let me put it this way: if Morocco were the desert planet Tatooine from Star Wars, then these medinas would surely be Mos Eisley. In the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, “you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.”
Okay, maybe that’s putting it a bit strongly… but only a bit.
The famous medinas in Marrakech and Fes see fresh hordes of tourists every single day, and so they are absolutely filled with scammers, fake guides, and pushy salesmen.
I’ve travelled to over 60 countries and I can’t recall another place where there was this much annoying (and, at times, even aggressive) activity targeting unsuspecting tourists. But… knowing about the tactics beforehand can save you a lot of headaches.
Dealing with fake guides
When you travel to Morocco, expect that you are almost guaranteed to encounter fake guides in the Marrakech medina — and potentially in Fes as well.
These seemingly friendly locals will come up to you, walk alongside you, and then try to lead you somewhere to try and get money off you. Perhaps that doesn’t sound too bad – until you actually get into one of these encounters yourself. You’ll soon realise what kind of sharks they are!
The fake guides might try to do one of several things:
- Walk in circles with you until you’re confused and lost, in the hopes you’ll pay them to ‘rescue’ you back to the main square.
- Tell you that you’re SO lucky because ONLY today such-and-such market is open! Most tourists don’t even know about it! Wow! Incredibly, they can even show you where it is! (In reality, this is just a ploy to get you to follow them to a terrible tourist trap, or one of their money-making schemes.)
- Bring you to the leather tanneries, a confusing place with narrow passages. They’ll make sure you get completely lost, then extort you for money, or you’ll somehow end up having a business negotiation with an aggressive salesman you had no intention of having at all.
- Bring you to nomadic Tuareg salesmen from the desert who are ONLY here this morning. Wow, what a lucky break! But then it turns out it’s just a regular old carpet shop. You’ll be subjected to an intense sales script which you might find difficult to eject from in any sort of polite way.
- Claim that they’re from your hostel or riad to win your trust (not true), but then start running their manipulative sales routines.
- Insist that you pay them $25 USD just for walking with you for 5 minutes even though you didn’t need their help.
- Threaten you with violence if you don’t pay. (There are sadly many incidents like this, though I haven’t heard of anyone actually getting attacked.)
Anyway, you probably get the idea.
So let me give you one important tip: treat spontaneous help with a serious dose of cynicism. Don’t get sucked into anything, and always make clear that you don’t need any help whatsoever.
They might say “my friend, in Morocco this is normal. We friendly people, we help tourist.” They will show you their puppy eyes. This may sound harsh, especially before having experienced this yourself, but remember it’s all just an act. Some of these guys are hustlers working on commission, some of them are scam artists, and a few of them might get very nasty with you if they can’t seem to extract enough money. Ignore them as much as you can.
Avoid getting trapped in a sales pitch
Apart from the fake guides, another annoyance are the sales techniques used by many salesmen.
A common tactic is to goad tourists into a carpet or leather shop and then basically begin acting as though you are already certain to buy something.
They’ll usually hook you in by offering mint tea. Someone might tell you that it will be deeply offensive if you don’t accept the free tea—like an insult to their proud hospitality. This is not true; it’s just a way for them to hook you in while they can run a sales pitch.
You might be shown wares and asked to sort them by order of preference. They might begin writing down numbers on a piece of paper, basically starting a negotiation regardless of whether you have any interest in buying. They’ll likely start with a ludicrously high number and then work their way down to what is still way overpriced (the ‘rule of contrast’ sales technique).
If you want to buy a carpet or leather wares or other products, it’s best to independently research their prices beforehand. Chances are you’ll be quoted some crazy prices.
When you feel like you’ve been lured into a shop, feel free at any time to politely eject.
The same goes for taxi drivers, who will sometimes stop at souvenir shops and essentially force you to buy something. They might get as much as 50% of the money as a referral commission, which is why they can get very forceful and intense. Keep a stiff upper lip if you’re not interested in any of the wares, or just want to get to your destination quickly.
How not to get totally lost
The countless windy passages of the medinas can easily disorient you. It can be a lot of fun to get randomly lost in the medinas, but the more lost you look the more hassle you also tend to attract.
If you want a break from the medinas, you can often still just find your way out by yourself. In the Marrakech medina, you will eventually hit a city wall so long as you keep going in any direction. From here you can reorient yourself or take a taxi. So if you get lost, don’t worry too much and just stick to one direction, and you’ll eventually find your way out.
The Fes medina doesn’t have as clear boundaries as the one in Marrakech, so it’s more easily disorienting and more difficult to navigate. Most people get utterly lost after turning just a few corners. So before diving in, it’s a good idea to grab a map from your hotel or hostel. Alternatively, download the free MAPS.ME app on your smartphone and download the Morocco map. That way you can easily find your way out even when you don’t have a mobile data connection.
If you still get lost, look for any market street that has lots of shops, as these are like the rivers that run through the medina. Follow these downstream, so to speak, until you finally hit the main square or outer wall.
I should be clear that all of the above applies especially to the medinas in Marrakech and Fes. These are enormously popular tourist locations with fresh tourists passing through constantly, making these prime hunting grounds for scammers.
The same behaviors don’t happen everywhere in Morocco. I’ve had some wonderful interactions with locals throughout Morroco, so one doesn’t need to be cynical towards the country as a whole, but the touristy medinas are not the place where you will have genuine interactions with locals.
Exploring these places can still be good fun, but it’s best to just straight up ignore anyone who wants anything from you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
P.S. Check out the comments below for some reader experiences and a few more great tips.