The old cities (medinas) of Marrakech and Fes are among the highlights of Morocco, and it’s fun to get lost in these massive mazes of little alleyways.
But… they are also easily the most stressful places in Morocco.
Let me put this in a geeky way… if Morocco were the desert planet Tatooine from Star Wars, then the 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…
Because the famous medinas in Marrakech and Fes see hordes of fresh tourists every day, they are filled with scammers and fake guides. Expect a lot of hassle, particularly in Marrakech.
However, armed with a bit of knowledge, you can avoid many of the headaches…
Dealing with fake guides
You are almost guaranteed to encounter fake guides in the Marrakech medina and, to a lesser extent, in Fes. 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. That sounds fine maybe, until you actually get into one of these encounters yourself and realise they are absolute sharks.
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! But he can show you where it is, wow! (In reality, this is just a ploy to get you to follow them, after which they can take you anywhere.)
- Bring you to the leather tanneries, which is a confusing place with narrow passages. They’ll get you 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.
- 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 carpet shop. You’ll be subjected to an intense sales script which some people may find difficult to eject from.
- Claim that they’re from your riad (not true) to win your trust, 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.)
Treat spontaneous help in the medinas with a serious dose of cynicism. You will save yourself a lot of time…
Don’t get sucked into anything, and always make clear that you don’t need any help whatsoever. They will say “my friend, in Morocco this is normal. We friendly people, we help tourist.” They will show you their puppy eyes. It may sound harsh if you’re reading this before having experienced this yourself, but it’s really all just an act. Some of them are scam artists, others are hustlers working on commission, and a lot of these guys get very nasty if they don’t get to extract a lot of money from you.
Keep in mind this advice applies specifically to the medinas in Marrakech and Fes. I’ve had wonderful interactions with locals in different parts of Morocco, but the touristy medinas are not the place where you will have genuine interactions with locals.
Taxi drivers will sometimes stop at souvenir shops and ‘force’ you to buy something. They might get as much as 50% of the money as referral commission, which is why they can get very forceful and intense. Keep a stiff upper lip if you don’t want to buy anything.
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 basically begin interacting 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 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.
How not to get lost
The countless windy passages of the medinas can easily disorient you. It can actually be a lot of fun to get randomly lost in the medinas, though the more lost you look the more hassle you also tend to get.
In the Marrakech medina you will eventually hit a city wall if you keep going in any direction. From here you can reorient yourself or take a taxi.
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 just 5 or 10 minutes!
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 smart phone and download the Morocco map pack. That way you can easily find your way out using GPS even when you don’t have a mobile data connection.
If you still get lost, look for any street that has lots of shops on it, as these are like the rivers (so to speak) that run through the medina. Follow these downstream until you finally hit a main square or outer wall.
I feel like a post like this can seem overly negative, so finally I should mention that travelling in Morocco is amazing! You’ll clearly be able to tell from my guide to travelling in Morocco that I had a fantastic time there.
The above information will hopefully help you avoid some of the hassle and annoyances, but know that Morocco is generally also an easy country to travel in. Marrakech and Fes are a bit stressful, but other places are much more laid back.