Backpacking Morocco: Marrakech on a Shoestring

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In 2005, the year I met SVV, my friend Megan and I were studying in Holland. Megan, daughter of an Air Force officer, had lived all over Europe growing up, and I had previously lived in Scotland and traveled much of Western Europe, so when our fall break rolled around, we wanted to do something different. And that’s how we came to find ourselves in Morocco.

We invited SVV to go along, but he declined our offer and went to Berlin and Prague instead. I’m pretty sure he still regrets that decision. It’s probably a good thing, though, as we wouldn’t have had room for him in any of our $5-a-night hotel rooms. (Our relationship might not have survived such cramped quarters!)

We didn’t even have a bathroom; we had to bathe in a cold water bucket in a closet located down the hall.

As was customary back then, we had a pretty aggressive itinerary that covered Marrakesh, the Sahara, Fes, Chefchaouen, Tangier and several towns in between. If I were to do it all over again—when I do it all over again—I’ll spend a solid chunk of time in Marrakesh, rather than a mere four days, and travel Morocco a bit more slowly.

Whirlwind trip or not, we had a blast. Our days were spent perusing the souks, wondering how we could possibly ship back containers of Moroccan furniture to the States, where neither of us had an address or permanent home. We also got suckered into visiting (and eventually buying from) a number of carpet shops.

We drank a lot of mint tea. As in, every time we had a free moment, one of us would look at the other with a knowing glance—“MINT TEA?”—and off to a cafe we would go. And we took silly photos like this one when we were inebriated by the mint tea.

We met locals who took an interest in us (“how many camels for this one?”—little did they know the camel would become my spirit animal) and sought to teach us basic Arabic.

We visited mosques. Lots of them. What we did not do, unfortunately, is take many pictures (I blame my shoddy Nikon Coolpix, which couldn’t take a steady shot to save its short life). All the more reason to go back—and soon.

We took a horse-and-carriage ride around the city, which was pretty humorous, as when I think horse-and-carriage, visions of a chilly ride through Central Park come to mind—or maybe scenes from a Jane Austen novel—but never Morocco.

Marrakech is a magical city and one deserving of more time and attention than we could give it. I just hope I get the opportunity to go back and right all our wrongs.

COMMENTS
  • February 11, 2011
    SVV

    Cramped quarters our relationship can take. That hostel is bigger than our apartment in Aarhus! A dingy African animal-inspired bedspread? Probably not.. 🙂

  • February 11, 2011

    What a great girlfriends getaway! And I’d say you did pretty well with that “shoddy Nikon Coolpix”. 🙂

  • February 11, 2011

    Picture 2 reminds me a lot of Alhambra in Spain, which makes sense, as it’s RIGHT THERE. I so wish we could have hopped over to Morocco during our visit there (then I could have checked another continent off my list!), but alas, we didn’t leave time/money for it.

    Also, and perhaps this is better for an email, but I’m already HERE, so whatever. A couple weeks ago, my mom was like, “Tell me about these Sacramento bloggers! They look like so much fun!” And so I was telling her about you ladies and she was like, “Now, is Camels and Chocolate part of this group? She just looks like a DOLL!”

    So there you go, doll!

    • February 11, 2011
      Kristin

      You just made my day. If you’re reading this, HI SARAH’S MOM! I adore your daughter and granddaughter-to-be!

      Also, I just had lunch at Panera in Vacaville and felt like I was cheating on you. If you hadn’t have been working like normal people, I would have forced you to meet me there.

      Also also, if you happen to be in Sac tomorrow let me know. I’m heading downtown to a crafts show of Scott’s mom!

  • February 11, 2011

    Beautiful photos! We drank a lot of mint tea in Tunisia too. It was delish.

  • February 11, 2011

    A place that’s definitely on my list. I like the looks of that market place. Think I could handle some mint tea.

  • February 11, 2011

    Ha, more reasons to go to Morroco. Long time ago, I had a Nikon Coolpix. It was only good for outdoor (bright sun) pictures. I will not buy that type of camera ever again. Now, I have a Canon and am very happy with the results.

    • February 11, 2011
      Kristin

      Oh girl, you have no idea! I went through two Coolpix that year before I finally “lost” the second one and switched over to a Canon PowerShot and, eventually, a number of Canon DSLRs. (I already owned a non-digital Canon SLR but didn’t want to carry it everywhere in Europe with me that year–plus, it still took film!) Even my desert photos from the Sahara came out blurry–in brilliant sunlight! The worst part is that you could never tell on the LCD screen; it wasn’t until you got home from your trip and uploaded all your shots to your computer that you were smacked in the face with the terrible quality of them!

      • March 7, 2011

        That’s what I learned from sales people when shopping for a camera. The “sell” is that it looks great on the screen, but with a few point and shoots, the shot is essentially grainy when uploaded or printed.

  • February 11, 2011

    I’m so attracted by Arab countries, I’ve only visited the UAE so far but I’m planning to spend a remarkable amount of time between ME and North Africa to fully soak up in their culture.
    I totally understand you will want to spend more time in Marrakesh and travel slowly. I just had a hectic tour in the Indian state of Rajasthan, 10 days and I changed city every day. Although I truly loved it, next time I will definitely spend more time in each place to dig deeper in their society.

  • February 11, 2011

    My trip to Morocco was absolutely dazzling! I loved every single second of it, but my favorite part was getting lost in a souk for 2 hours, oh and getting addicted to Moroccan mint tea. I will absolutely return one day. MUST visit the Sahara!

  • February 12, 2011

    Great photos! I would love to visit Morocco, especially Casablanca since I love the movie. How was the authentic Moroccan food?

    • February 12, 2011
      Kristin

      Delicious! The only problem was that they serve tajine and cous cous for every meal, so after the fifth or so day, I was ready for a change. Oh! And we were there during Ramadan, which posed problems actually finding food!

  • February 12, 2011

    That nighttime market looks so exciting! I can only imagine what sort of edible treasures it would hold!

    • February 12, 2011
      Kristin

      So many edible treasures–you really can’t even imagine! Though we saved the pigeon pastry dusted with powder sugar for Fes. (It was every bit as disgusting as it sounds.)

  • February 12, 2011

    Awesome photos , I like the one with Megan and the guy the best, that one is worthy of framing 🙂

  • February 12, 2011

    Stunning images of Morocco!

  • February 12, 2011

    Great photos. You make Marrakesh look so wonderful. My experience with the city was nasty. The souks smelled of chicken shit and the people were pushy. The only good thing about Marrakesh was the tangine. The food. The rest was just the usual grabby Arab mentality. Attack the tourists for money. Treat them like shit if they don’t buy anything. Nah.

    • February 12, 2011
      Kristin

      Sadly, I found the harassment overwhelming everywhere in the country. It was even worse, I think, as we were two Western women traveling without male companionship. It’s so stressful and draining to constantly have to fend off the “salesmen” who are so aggressive and, quite literally, chase you down the streets. One time, on a local bus from the Sahara to Fes (something like 14 hours), we were the only non-Moroccans, and it was Ramadan so the bus stopped for a dinner break once it was dusk. We stayed on the bus, and five kids hopped on while the bus was parked and started poking and hitting us and trying to pull things out of our bags. There were several Moroccan women who just sat there and watched, their faces unchanging, as we were harassed (and probably pickpocketed) by these annoying kids.

      While I’m disappointed you didn’t have a better experience in Marrakech, I can definitely relate. So many people had just raved about Fes, and Megan and I arrived to much the impression you had of Marrakech. We were duped by a guide from a Lonely Planet book who wasn’t actually a guide, we were ripped off by sellers, we were chased through the streets, the whole town smelled of the tanneries, and overall, we had such a terrible time, we wound up leaving after just two days and going to Chefchaouen instead.

  • February 12, 2011

    Great photos! I especially like the first picture of the stop sign. It’s the things like that–familiar and yet so different–that I find fascinating when travelling abroad. 🙂

  • February 12, 2011

    Oh I’d love to go to Morocco! Did you find it cheap overall? $5 a night hostels suggest so! And all those food stalls in the souk… yum.

  • February 13, 2011

    Oh, Kristin. Yes, that sounds more like the Morocco I experienced. I’ve been to several countries in Northern Africa, and it’s pretty much the same everywhere. If I went back to Morocco (very unlikely), I’d stay out of the cities altogether and head for the Atlas mountains.

    Rebecca, I suppose the souks are interesting if you have to buy a souvenir, but I found them rank, dirty, and full of overbearing salesmen. Their trick is to reach out of shake your hand . . . and then not let go. If you don’t take their hand, they say that you are a rude westerner who doesn’t respect their customs (of allowing a salesman to hold your hand until you buy something just to get him off you).

    But have a tangine. 🙂

  • February 13, 2011

    Kristin – love that photo of the young man tinkering with the pots. Marrakesh is high on my list.

    Christopher – I agree the market-culture of Morocco is similar to other North Affrican countries, like Tunisia and Egypt. Sometimes I think it’s all a game, and we’ll just have to learn the rules. Very impressive how multi-lingual the sellers are, though – and not just basic salesman-stuff, either. I’ve often heard one salesman conversing in 5 or 6 different languages within 15 – 20 minutes.

  • February 13, 2011

    Looks like yo had a blast there Kristin. It’s always so nice to see huge smiles on people in their travel photos, smiles tell the true story!

  • February 13, 2011

    Hi Kristin,
    Despite the bad experiences it seems you had a fun time in Marrakech! I’ve read lots of wonderful things about the place including Mint tea which I happen to be drinking at the moment. 😀

  • February 15, 2011

    Love the camel comment! I actually received a camel offer myself in Mauritania — from a 14 year old boy (though I guess I was only 19 at the time)…

  • February 16, 2011

    Oh yes, perfectly timed post! I am flying to Marrakech in about 5 weeks and I am already sooo excited to go! My camera is ready and I will fly with an empty backpack for all the beauties to bring home 🙂
    Thanks for sharing, have a wonderful day! xox, Kristina

  • February 16, 2011

    I just mentioned in a post how I’d like to visit Morrow, if only for the food.

    … a cold water bucket? You are a hardcore traveler. I can’t say I could ever do that.

  • February 17, 2011

    I was just in Marrakech a few weeks ago! (And am actually right now wearing the scarf I bought there!)Thankfully, our riad had a private bathroom. 🙂 It’s a beautiful city, but let me tell you, I feared for my life (and the lives of others) trying to drive in and out of the medina, and I was only a passenger. Egads!

    Love the photos. It’s making me wish I was on vacation again!

  • February 18, 2011

    I love your pictures even if you did take them with your “crappy” camera 🙂 I loved the souks and carpets too. Next time I go back I want to bring home some of their lamps and tajines. They are like $15 dollars there and at the shops in downtown NYC there are like $80 or so!

  • February 18, 2011
    BFF

    Kristin, you haven’t included enough pictures of my beautiful sister here. Also, when Megan and I were youngsters living in Turkey, we took horse drawn carriage rides all the time. They like their horse drawn carriages on that side of the world. And carpets, obviously. Our entire family is drowning in them.

  • March 2, 2011

    So you bathed in a bucket, where did you ahem…”use the bathroom”?!

  • April 26, 2011
    anila

    Which hotels did you find for $5 a night?? My aunt and friend and I are considering going!

    • April 26, 2011
      Kristin

      It was six years ago–I have no idea! Honestly, we had the Lonely Planet Morocco and just stayed at the cheapest places. Check a guidebook or look on Trip Advisor?

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