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The first time I set foot in Africa, over 20 years ago, I hopped on a ferry from the Spanish port of Algeciras and stepped off into a different world, far more exotic than I’d ever seen before. Since that first trip to Morocco, I’ve returned several times; thanks to the wide selection of good value accommodation and the explosion of routes offered by low-cost airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet, it’s a cheap holiday. If you’re planning your first trip to this fascinating African nation, then let me share my tips on how to haggle – and other things I’ve learned while travelling in Morocco.
The Art of Haggling
You can be forgiven for thinking that haggling is about achieving the lowest price possible for what’s caught your eye. But although you’re expected to bargain, it’s better to bear in mind that the vendor most likely has mouths to feed and bills to pay. In a country like Morocco, there’s a good chance that he’ll need those extra few dirhams far more than you’ll miss them. That said, opt not to haggle at all and you miss out on one of the essential experiences that comes with travelling in this part of the world.
How to Get a Good Deal
Here’s how it works: once you have expressed an interest in something in the shop or stall, the merchant will offer you a price. It’s common for this to be inflated; to get an idea of how much you ought to be paying, make a visit early on in your trip to a fixed price retail store and get a feel for the prices and quality. If you’re keen to buy, and only if you’re serious, make the vendor a counter offer. This should be considerably lower than what’s just been suggested – over the next few minutes you’ll meet somewhere in the middle at a price you both believe is fair. To avoid causing offence, consider any price you suggest to be binding. If you can’t come to an agreement, keep it good natured and smile a lot, but be prepared to walk away.
Avoiding Unwanted Attention
If you’re wandering Morocco’s souks, particularly as a solo female traveller, you should expect to receive some unwanted attention. I’ve never felt unsafe; most comments are harmless, but if it’s likely to bother you then ask your hotel to pair you with a licensed local guide who can show you around. If you prefer to explore without company, dress modestly and be respectful to the places you’re visiting, particularly if you plan to step inside a mosque or madrassa, an Islamic religious school.
Marrakesh is a good city to cut your teeth. By a considerable margin, the place they call the Red City receives the largest number of foreign visitors, which means the tourist infrastructure is well established. Alongside the city’s many sights, there are plenty of cafés selling international food and a decent choice of accommodation.
Watch Out for Donkeys
Donkeys, mules and horses are one of the greatest hazards you’ll encounter in the souks. The narrow alleyways of the medinas in ancient cities like Fez are far too small for wheeled transport to make deliveries, so what needs to be brought in or out of the souks has to be carried on four legs instead. You’ll quickly learn to listen out for the calls of the men leading these creatures at speed through the narrow passageways and become adept at flattening yourself against walls or diving into doorways. If you don’t you, risk the wrath of the muleteer or worse, being trampled.
Follow Your Nose
Artisans traditionally cluster together within the souks, creating little enclaves. You’ll find a metalworking souk – characterised by much banging and clanking – as well as shoemaking, wool dying and of course the infamous leather tanneries. Leather is still softened and dyed the old fashioned way at Chouara Tannery in Fez. Cow, goat and camel hides are dunked in open air vats of white liquid filled with a pungent mix of pigeon droppings, quicklime and water. Afterwards, the colourful skins are stretched out to dry in the sun.
Unsurprisingly, such a sight draws curious travellers keen to learn more about these centuries-old processes. Traders overlooking the tanneries have been quick to exploit the fact that their premises afford visitors a bird’s eye view over the proceedings. Some will provide scented herbs as they escort tourists to the lookouts. It’s worth remembering that often such assistance comes at a price. It’s wise therefore to check with the shopkeeper and if necessary agree what you’re prepared to pay. In Fez, it’s possible to view the tanneries from above for free, but if you wish to stand among them at ground level, expect a charge for that close-up.
Photographing such scenes is a popular pastime but always be respectful of your hosts. If you wish to take a picture of a person, whether that be a colourful water seller festooned with bells in Marrakesh’s Djemaa El Fna or a mint tea seller in Tangier’s market, you should do them the courtesy of asking permission first. Some will be quite happy to pose free of charge; others make their living this way and a small contribution to their earnings will be appreciated.
Get Out of Town
While Morocco is undoubtedly a favoured city break destination, it’s very rewarding to explore some of the coastline and countryside as well. Essaouira, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, attracts surfers year-round and is an easy add-on to a trip to Marrakesh or a satisfying stand alone destination. Other tempting day trips from this southerly city include the beautiful foothills of the Atlas Mountains, the ancient city of Aït Ben Haddou which grew up to serve the trans-Saharan traders and the Atlas Film Studios near Ouarzazate where scenes from movies such as The Mummy and Gladiator were shot. The beautiful blue city of Chefchaouen in the heart of the Rif Mountains is achievable from Tangier or Fez, though it’s a long day. Closer to Fez are the Roman ruins of Volubilis and the historic city of Meknes, both worthy of your time. Where will you go first?
About the Author: Julia Hammond
Enthusiastic advocate for independent travel and passionate geographer, travel writer Julia considers herself privileged to earn a living doing something she loves. When not roaming the globe, you’ll find her windswept but smiling, chatting away to her two dogs as they wander the Essex marshes.