“No, no, no brother! You pay more now!”
Here I was again… Back in the middle of an uncomfortable confrontation with one of the local touts, arguing about some form of compensation for something I never asked for nor received. This was different than other similar experiences I’ve had in Morocco though, and it was more than the change in venue – from calm cool Safi to the crowded and crazy Marrakech markets. This time my newfound “friend” was holding a venomous snake, which he kept thrusting in my direction throughout this argument.
What had caused this guy who, only a moment ago was quite affectionate, to start yelling at me over the crowd of Jemaa el Fnaa square? Had I stolen from him, or done something culturally offensive as a naïve traveler? Not quite.
I had taken a picture of his cobra with its head arched back earlier, which apparently indicated to the snake charmer that I was a big spender.
As I snapped away, he approached with a big smile and offered to show me his entire collection of cobras and vipers. If I wanted, he would even teach me his methods so that I could interact with them directly. Now, getting all touchy feely with poisonous reptiles in foreign countries isn’t really my thing, so I thanked him and began to go on my way. Besides, there were at least 5 or 6 of these snake charmers all spread throughout the square, so the picture was more just a matter of convenience rather than me being interested in this specific setup.
As soon as he saw me preparing to leave, the handler slung the snake around his neck, grabbed a nearby pouch, and thrust it in my direction.
“Thank you sir. That will be 300 dirhams.”
300 dirhams?! Did I just hear that correctly? Almost $30 USD for just a quick picture? No way I was going to pay that much. For reference, where I was staying in Marrakech was around $28 per night (including breakfast), so this request reeked of being a scam attempt.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out 20 dirhams, explaining that this was all I had on me (not true). Definitely not what this guy wanted to hear…
“This is nothing! I can do nothing with that amount! 250 then!”
We went back and forth a few times, but there was no way I was going to hand over anything more than the 20 dirhams I had already offered. After establishing that it was either this or nothing, the snake wielding tout grabbed the few coins on offer and began searching for a new, more susceptible, victim.
Quite a way to start off my first full day exploring the Marrakech markets…
I had arrived here just the previous day but, because the train from Safi doesn’t depart until mid-day, we didn’t end up pulling into Marrakech until well after dark. Luckily though, the owner of Riad Des Eaux et Des Espices, where I would be staying, was generous enough to meet me in the main square and walk me back.
This was a very good thing, because I can confidently say that there’s no way I would have ever found this place otherwise. Tucked back behind the spice shops of the Marrakech markets and along the streets of an old residential area, it’s a bit more off the beaten path than most of the tourist hotels and riads.
I had managed to negotiate my room down to $28 a night, which at that price is a total bargain for what ended up being a super affordable oasis within the always active Marrakech markets. Sure, there are cheaper options out there, but Riad Des Eaux et Des Espices just really ended up being the perfect mix of location, price, and comfort.
After my run in with that not so charming snake charmer, exploring a different area seemed like a good idea. I began to make my way through the various alleys and walkways, each leading to a different cluster of shops. One walkway led me down towards the spice merchants, where brightly colored spices were piled high and easily visible for curious customers.
In another direction I found a wide variety of fresh vibrant herbs and produce – still not what I would have expected for a country bordering one of the world’s largest deserts.
There were even a couple of smaller pastry stalls, each absolutely stuffed with a wide variety of sticky sweets.
My favorite section though was easily the olive stands, where shop owners are absolutely surrounded by large bowls and jars of assorted delicious olives. Everything they had tasted amazing, and it was difficult not to just spend the day sampling one type after another.
To get between all of the different areas within the Marrakech markets, there are a few main paths that everyone seems to follow. These walkways are jam packed with items for sale – handbags, sunglasses, electronics, lanterns, rugs, toys… Definitely something for everyone in the family.
The downside to all of this is, between the constant shuffling of people going to/from different parts of the market and all of the window shopping going on, these paths become heavily congested. On one particularly busy day, the 5 minutes to walk from my riad to Jemaa el Fnaa square ended up taking 15 minutes, so patience is a must here.
Once the sun has set, the Marrakech markets begin their transformation. The most noticeable is the Jemaa el Fnaa square, where the numerous snake charmers and street performers make way to a massive array of steaming food stalls. This is where you come if you want to eat fresh local food at an affordable price (more on this with my next post).
After a few walkthroughs to take note of tasty looking items that I at some point wanted to try, I began to make my way back to Riad Des Eaux et Des Espices. The main walkway through the crowded shops was now almost completely empty, showing only the occasional glimpse of the overstuffed market that had been on full display only a few hours ago.
I had discovered firsthand exactly how much a full day within the Marrakech markets takes out of you. I was exhausted, but my overstimulated head was still spinning as I thought about all that was left to explore.
Just no more snakes please… I think I’ve probably had my fill for this trip.