Carpets, Leather, and Spices, oh my! Exploring the Markets of Marrakech

When visiting Morocco, it is essential to stop by the souks to do a little shopping. Morocco’s markets are globally known for their unique artisan products, from argan oil to carpets to leather and more. Most cities have at least some level of market, but the some of the most notorious are in the imperial city, Marrakech. In fact, Marrakech is home to Jemaa el-Fnaa, an incredibly popular market square that has been featured by National Geographic and other big name travel magazines for its unique nature.

In the old Medina

Navigating the souks can be incredibly difficult. They are tightly packed, ever-changing, and full of people who are all going separate directions. Many people will recommend getting a professional guide, but in my opinion it is not completely necessary if you have a bit of prior knowledge.

That being said, I would start with downloading a map of the area to your phone. If you don’t have an international SIM card, losing access to internet and a back up map may result in disaster. Make sure to recognize some key landmarks to recognize your location from any direction as well. For example, in Jemaa el-Fnaa, Koutoubia Mosque is the tallest building in Marrakech and is visible in most locations in the square, giving you a general idea of where you are. After a bit of time, the markets will become more familiar and less daunting.

If you do become completely lost, try to avoid asking directions from young men and instead ask women and families. Rather than a safety issue (Morocco is a very safe country), asking for directions can be risky because many men earn commissions from taking you by one or two vendors or restaurants or may flat out ask to be paid for their guidance. Asking from other people can save you a pretty penny that could be used to buy more goods!

The narrow streets of the Medina

Another thing to keep in mind is to always bargain and never accept anything for starting price. Not only does it save you money, but it also considered customary to do so and insulting if you don’t. To get a sense of prices, make sure to look for the same product with numerous vendors. For a reference, the only thing I ever paid over 100 USD for was a camel hair carpet in Casablanca and I scored a sheep wool carpet, several camel leather poufs (for way cheaper than the knockoffs you can find on Amazon!), jasmine and gazelle fat perfume, and many other items.

For bargaining here are some key phrases in Arabic and French, the two most spoken languages in Morocco:

English ArabicFrench
HelloMarhabanBonjour
How much is this?Bikam haadha?Combien ça coûte?
YesNamOui
NoLaNon
Thank youShukranMerci
GoodbyeMasaalemaAu revoir

Of course learning the numbers is also important and it is easy to use those to negotiate a medium price. Keep in mind that if you decide against an item, you can say no. Some vendors are very talented at making you feel like you must purchase an item, but it not obligatory by any means.

Jemaa el-Fnaa by day

When shopping in the market, it also important to be wary of certain scams aside from asking for directions. Especially in Jemaa el-Fnaa, there are lots of performers that will demand money if you take photos, recordings, or even watch for too long. Around dusk, there are many snake charmers, monkey handlers, acrobats, and storytellers that will use this method. Another classic trick is the women who do elaborate henna artwork. Often times they will grab your hand to demonstrate and the next thing you know, they have completed your entire arm and are asking a high price. While they are incredibly talented and fun to watch, if you aren’t looking for a henna tattoo, try to steer clear.

According to most people I have consulted, pick pocketing and catcalling has also been a problem within the souks. I personally never had any issue with this, nor did anyone in my group so I am not sure if the issue is exaggerated or not. That being said, we still made an effort to dress within social norms and paid attention to keeping knees and shoulders covered.

Watching the streets outside the markets

So with all this information, what can you buy?

Carpets are a very popular buy in Marrakech and for good reason. However, most of the genuine carpets aren’t found in the markets themselves but in the cooperatives. Here, you will be offered mint tea or water and then shown many different types and shapes of carpets. There are Berber, Touareg, and other peoples’ style of carpet made of many materials, from camel hair to sheep wool to agave. Through a process of elimination, you will likely end up finding a carpet you love. Before buying, double check to make sure the co-op has good reviews, otherwise the shipping might take a long time or not happen at all.

Learning how to weave carpets

Leather products are also incredibly popular. Camel, goat, and sheep leather are all used to create purses, poufs, bags, shoes, and much more. Markets are a great place to find some of these items. In the leather making process, the hide is softened using traditional methods (part of this involves pigeon poop) and then stained with oil. This being said, leather may have some leftover smell from the tanning process so try to keep it separated from other fabrics until you can let it air out at home. Once I did get home though, I just left my leather products out in the sun for a few days and the smell went away pretty quickly.

Some of our leather goods

Morocco is also famous for a large number of herbs, spices, and other natural items. Argan oil is infamous for improving hair and is found in plenty of expensive shampoos, but can be found in Morocco in its pure form. Aside from hair care, it is thought to have a number of medicinal properties, such as improving heart health, lowering risk for diabetes, and improving skin as well. In addition to Argan oil, spices from paprika to turmeric to saffron (which is the most expensive spice in the world) are in numerous stalls, often piled in colorful cones. Saffron grows naturally in Morocco, therefore it’s a lot cheaper and a very popular purchase item.

The markets also hold plenty of other natural items. For art lovers, there are lots of natural dyes, including indigo, madder, chamomile, and henna. Some are even ground up and ready to mix into paint, while other come in whole pieces, such as indigo. Many of these dyes are used in the bright Moroccan buildings, such as Jardin Majorelle. There are other great gifts as well, such as perfumes and lotions. Many of the perfumes are made from gazelle musk, which curiously doesn’t smell bad. It’s added to jasmine to create a create deodorant as well. In some places, you can purchase the musk itself, which can serve as a perfume on its own. Honestly, there are so many natural items that are great gifts or items to take home.

Gazelle musk

Overall, the markets in Marrakech are magical. There are so many opportunities to find great buys and see such unique things, from the carpets to spices to leather. Especially with prior knowledge, the markets are the best place to experience Moroccan culture and lifestyle!

Juices in Morocco

Have you been to the markets in Marrakech? What did you or would you buy?

Going on an African Safari in Tarangire National Park

As a break from our volunteer work in Orbomba, our tiny group hopped on a bus and drove for hours from camp to visit Tarangire National Park. While the Serengeti or Kruger National Park receive plenty of tourists and are exceptionally well known, little known Tarangire has the densest population of elephants, which makes for an exciting adventure. It’s the 6th largest park in Tanzania and has accommodation in and out of the premises.

On our way we drove though Arusha, a city living under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. We stopped at a gas station and experienced drop toilets, which is essentially a toilet where you just squat and go. It was a rather comical experience, since none of us had seen them before.

On our way

On the way to the park are lots of artists showing off their finished works. I wish I had gotten a piece because they were beautiful and brightly colored. The road was gravel but had easy access to the park, making for a nice ride and into to the savannah. When we stopped to get our tickets and everything, there were some cool history kiosks and a tower to look out over the plains. There weren’t many creatures in sight, but one could maybe see zebras in the distance!

local artwork

Actually, one thing we were told before the safari is that you will be bored of zebras. Of course, I didn’t believe this in the slightest, but there are so many that they do become an overly common sight. Their stripes are beautiful and they have a strangeness to them, but they surprisingly do get old after a while. The larger herds were rather cool and we got hung up on a few since they refused to get off of the road.

Zebras

Of course you see plenty of other critters, from antelope to impalas. They mostly kept to themselves, away from the bigger herds. I loved the impalas, they were so skittish but so cute. Aside from four legged, hoofed, prey type animals, there is the opportunity to see baboons (not my personal favorite, they scare me), ostriches (which also scare me), iguanas, monkeys, and other small creatures. The baboons looked less attractive than they do in “The Lion King,” with their bare bottoms and sharp teeth. Their fur is stiff and sticks straight out. The ostriches were much bigger that I imagined, with their pale thighs and puffy feathers. They are surprisingly fast too. The iguanas are super cool, but move a lot less than the ostriches do. I didn’t ever realize they were that big!

A lone ostrich

However, some of the most memorable experiences had to do with the smaller creatures. Where we ate lunch was loaded with monkeys that were highly skilled at stealing food. The inattentive groups lost a few items and they were rather entertaining to watch. The other animal that we saw was the hyrax, which is a little rodent looking thing that is related to the elephant. Our guide, Lekihiti told us that it was his favorite animals and when asked why, he said, “well, it’s my favorite thing to eat.”

At this point, I should also mention the “Big Five” or some of the top animals to see consisting of lions, rhinos, cape buffalo, elephants, and leopards. In less moral times, the term was used to define the five most challenging animals to hunt, but now that most of them are endangered or barely existent, it is important to leave it at best five to see, rather than to hunt or harm. Rhinos especially have faced challenges from illegal poaching and hunting in general. Ivory is usually highly desired, putting these animals at a risk. This being said, make sure the tours you choose are ethical and willing to help with preserving the reservations.

Some of the other herds you will spot are wildebeest and cape buffalo. The wildebeest mingle among the zebras and are rather cute, but the cape buffalo scared me a little bit, making it easy to see why they are part of the big five. I believe I read a book when I was younger about how dangerous they are (similar to hippos) and have supposedly have killed more game hunters than other African animals. Honestly, if you google the “world’s deadliest animals” they are likely to come up. That being said, I feared them, but they were amazing to watch from a distance.

Cape buffalo

Besides the Cape buffalo, you will also see some of the other big five. While leopards and rhinos are sparse (I actually didn’t see any at all), you might have a chance to see a lion. They are rather sneaky and hard to spot, but if you are lucky, your guide might spy the top of a mane or some leftovers of a meal, hinting that they could be nearby. We saw one male, but it was pretty tricky to get a full view. Be patient, take your time, and you may have the best luck yet.

Brief tangent: Personally, an animal that deserves to be on the big five list, but isn’t, is the giraffe. These stunning creatures are long and lanky, with a certain amount of grace and a certain amount of awkwardness. They actually fit in surprisingly well to the environment, so it was super exciting when we could spot them hiding amongst the trees.

Our first giraffe

Last but not least, the highlight of Tarangire is certainly the elephants. There are so many of them that it’s hard not to miss them while driving along. My favorite spots to see them was by the watering holes, since here you can find them bathing and then covering themselves in dust. There were lots of little calves that danced behind their mothers and followed the herds around. The bulls were huge and lumbered closer and closer to our van. At one point, he almost touched it!

Elephants!

After all this excitement, we were pretty worn out and ready to return to camp. It was a fantastic park to visit and full of creatures that were carefully managed and cared for. If you are in the area, Tarangire is not a place to miss.