It was after a night spent with a friend, who’d recently returned from a brief stay in the old town and was still flying with the memories, that I realised Marrakech was finally calling and I was ready to answer. My spur-of-the-moment decision meant that none of my usual travel companions were given enough notice to take the trip with me. If I was going to reach the number one destination on my bucket list, I was going to have to do it alone. This, of course, was cause for great concern:
“Have you learnt the customs of the country?”
“Do you know where you’ll be staying?”
“Is Marrakech the kind of place where girls can travel alone?”
Concerns such as these are paramount for women travelling alone. Although we can freely move through most lands, there are corners of the world where travelling solo makes a women less of an adventurer and more of a target. Solo expeditions have long been considered the domain for the fearless, male traveller. However, this is a hurdle women have come to understand is safe to overcome.
The echoes of my worried loved ones, who were uneasy upon the announcement that I would be heading to this expansive corner of the world unaccompanied, did not deter me. I saw myself as a strong and independent female and was bold and unyielding in both my conviction and blissful naivety.
Exactly four days later I was boarding a plane. I didn’t know then that this little trip was going to change the way I travelled forever. Had I been less determined and more practical, I might have done things differently. In fact I know I would have. I learnt that Marrakech is a beautiful place with an array of unspoken rules and regulations you must adopt in order for its secrets to be revealed.
As increasingly more women are daring to travel solo, it is essential to know how to get around in the seemingly less female friendly places. I found my way by getting out there and indulging in the privileges that travel and exposure to new places affords. Should you ever find yourself solo in Marrakech, this guide may be the perfect travel companion:
I arrived on a Wednesday during early afternoon when the African sun stood at its highest point to greet me. The fragrances were the next thing to meet my senses. A lavish mixture of heat, spices and aromatic odours that to this day remain unrivalled. Marrakech enchants you from the moment you step upon its golden land and revel in its brilliance.
“You are welcome”, said the friendly voice from the eighth taxi driver to flag me down. I’d gone with this gentlemen on account of his knowledge of the Riad in which I would be staying, Riad Les Jardins Mandaline
Rule One: Always book at taxi to meet you at the airport. Though taxi drivers usually have signage and are fairly reliable, some will pretend to know your destination. When they inevitably get lost and have to ask for directions, adding significant time to your journey, they will charge you for the privilege. Plan ahead.
“Miss, you are welcome!” The driver repeated in an attempt to wake me from my holiday haze. After soaking up a second more, I jumped in his taxi. The drive continued to bring strange sights and new sounds, from the seven sheep stuffed into a fellow taxi, to the lamb racing by on the lap of a motorbike driver. A quick dip into my guidebook reveals that this is entirely normal, especially at this time of year when people bring sheep home as part of the Eid celebration. Without realising I had landed just seven days prior to this wonderful event.
Rule Two: Get a guidebook. These are brilliant tools often written by people who have amassed a wealth of experience in the city, and have learnt some helpful tricks along the way. One in particular is the importance of learning the Arabic word for ‘no’ which is ‘laa’. If I had a Dirham for every time that word prevented me from being harassed by an insistent market seller, I’d have booked the fanciest Riad in town.
Rule Three: Make sure you are aware of important local events. When visiting any country be aware of events, both political and religious, that may alter your experience. A lack of understanding can result in offending locals. Treat yourself as a guest to the country and make every consideration to not offend your gracious hosts.
My taxi stopped on a busy corner, not far from the centre of town and I was immediately engulfed in the hustle and bustle of the streets. People were calling, children were running, Marrakech was at work. I was so enthralled by the welcome, I failed to notice my bags had deserted me in favour of a new fellow who was carrying them off in a wheel barrow. The pace was a little faster than I’d been expecting and, despite having just left a capital city, I wasn’t prepared for Marrakech madness. The taxi driver, who had been my only friend, signalled for me to follow my luggage and I made a hurried dart through the crowds after them. In Marrakech, something as simple as a left turn can bring an entire change of scenery. In this case I went from a hectic hello to a calm and quiet alleyway.
While the main streets are vibrant and bustling, leaving little opportunity for prospective villains to cause any harm, the backstreets can be dark and overshadowed by the sand-coloured houses. Although I found these passages provided perfect shortcuts that helped avoid the busy streets, you should always navigate them with wits about you, as the notoriously helpful locals won’t always be there to assist should a situation arise.
I followed the young man carrying my luggage hastily down the alleyway. I’m usually good with directions but in this particular instance I’d found myself in a Moroccan maze. We moved past derelict buildings and dusty doors and eventually came to a stop. I looked at the boy I’d followed and felt a little confused. Was this a joke? Did he know where he was going? Or was this just one of those instances I’d read about where a local leads you in the wrong direction intentionally, hoping to receive further payment to take me to my final destination?
Rule Four: Take the advice of locals but be aware of possible agenda’s. Locals will often direct you away from great destinations and guide you to attractions which are commonly considered tourist traps, and will of course request payment for this “service”. Locals can give great insights but always cross-reference your guidebook.
I was sure I’d fallen into my first trap until the boy smiled happily pointing towards the door while nodding his head. I couldn’t believe it, how could this dusty door be the entrance to the Riad I had been expecting? Using my first drop of solo bravery I knocked on the door and was met by a charming smile from a lady who appeared to be expecting me.
“Naomi? Hello. Welcome.”
This was it. I had not been led astray but taken directly to my destination with the welcoming enthusiasm I’ve only ever witnessed from the locals in Marrakech. After thanking and tipping my second swift companion I stepped inside. This was the moment I began to fall in love with this town. What lay behind those doors was a peaceful oasis with a pool overlooked by the sky and several beautiful rooms, one of which was to be mine.
Rule Five: Avoid chain hotels and restaurants aimed specifically at tourists. If your budget allows, Riad’s are the best way to experience Marrakech authentically and, depending on the time of year, you can get a pretty good deal. They are generally fairly small converted houses that have no more than 10 rooms. If that doesn’t quite suit your budget, a hostel is a safe alternative. During my time in the Riad I became friends with the few members of staff who worked there and got to learn some of the local secrets. I was shown first-hand how the signature mint tea is prepared and learnt of the lives of the locals.
By the second day I was out in the streets exploring everything Marrakech had to offer and that meant a day in the souks. These vast Moroccan markets are the ideal place to really experience the spirit and liveliness of town. You’ll find everything you need from handmade trinkets, to local produced clothes and some of the freshest fruit you’ve ever laid eyes on. Marrakech is famous for its leather tanneries and expertly crafted jewellery so set aside money to bring something home for your loved ones.
Here, colour hits you from every angle and your eyes are forced to dart from one amazing area to the next. This is the time when the word ‘Laa’ becomes useful as everyone will be trying to sell you something. For some this can actually be quite intimidating but you’ll come to learn that most of the locals just want to practice their English, tell you about themselves and hopefully sell a little something along the way.
Rule Six: Be clear, concise and polite. There’s no doubt about it, you will be approached many times on your travels by people trying to sell their wares, offer you advice, or strike up a conversation. Acting feebly will allow purveyors to endlessly hassle you. So be clear but never rude or insulting. This skill is especially essential when it comes down to the art of haggling.
Walking around I couldn’t help but notice that the female tourists who were dressed for the heat as opposed to the culture were having a difficult time with the local men. This can be an issue for solo female travellers as locals may consider them easy targets. Should anyone continue to bother you or touch you, the best thing to do is make a scene, at which point other locals will undoubtedly come to your rescue.
Rule Seven: Dress to suit the local culture. This is a mistake many female tourists make and it can often result in unwanted attention. It is important to be aware that Marrakech is conservative and dressing in a modest manner will reduce issues and show respect. Another trick I learnt from a local was to wear a ring on your wedding finger. Moroccan men are notoriously respectful of married woman and will ease off if you flash a ring. Despite the occasional pester I felt very safe during my time in Marrakech, although I wouldn’t advise walking out alone, late at night. Come 10pm the streets are no longer an array of noise and music but become quiet, so be sure to head home before that happens.
A big part of my experience was sampling some of the most sensational food I have ever tasted, whether it was lamb cooked in a tagine delivered by a flowing belly dancer, or spicy kebabs in a restaurant favoured by locals. You will find that Marrakech has a strong, French influence due to the colonization and this is especially apparent in the cuisine. If you want to enjoy authentic food, try the street food. While I must warn you, not all tourists react well to it, I sat and enjoyed a wealth of fresh seafood and succulent lamb and still believe it was the best I received during my time there, even if I did suffer from an upset stomach during the flight home.
By the last day, which was spent in a hammam, Morrocco’s answer to day spas, I had fallen in love with a reality my dreams had promised. I’d indulged in just about every experience this beautiful part of Africa had to offer and met many interesting locals I’d come to call friends. On the last night, I was invited to the centre of town, Jemaa el Fna to experience for the last time all the centre had to offer. This night was Eid and the crowds were out to celebrate with a spectacular show. Which brings me to my last rule:
Rule Eight: Indulge in the experience of Marrakech and soak up as much of it as possible. Be careful but not intimidated. In a place like this it’s important to have fun, the locals insure it, but always keep your wits about you. Be with locals, learn their ways and you may well come to love them. If you do, just like the dusty door to the Riad I called home, Marrakech will reveal its beauty to you.