Get a guide for the Marrakech medina

When I hit the ground in Marrakech, Morocco, last week, I wasted no time in passing through the gate and heading into the medina (the old part of the city). After all, I’m a seasoned traveler, and I know how to read a map. If I did get lost, I reasoned, I could see the Koutoubia Mosque from just about anywhere in the city — it’s the tallest building around (by law) at 77 meters high. Less than an hour later, I was in a covered, narrow alley and couldn’t see natural sunlight, let alone Koutoubia’s minaret. My map, which only showed streets, was worthless. Even on the streets, the map was little help, as there is a dearth of street signs.

Suddenly, I realized I shouldn’t have dismissed the hotel manager’s suggestion that I hire a guide for the day.

Several hours later, I found my way outside the medina, only to realize I was on the wrong side of the city, and walked around the outside back to my hotel. My wife was furious. I was irritated. And, I realized what my plan for the next day would be. It involved the experience of a local pro, Mustapha. I don’t regret paying the $25 for his extremely helpful services.

I know what you’re thinking … it’s what I thought. Guides are scammers. You feel that you can navigate a city on your own. If you’ve read any travel literature on Marrakech, you know that the guides exist only to bring you to the souks (shops) that pay them the highest commission. So, you’re being guided right into a high-pressure sales situation. In reality, all these perspectives hold a bit of truth.

As soon as I walked into the medina the first day, I was pestered pretty regularly by many “freelance” guides, some of whom claimed to work for major hotels. He was incredibly persistent, offering to take me around the city. Here’s a hint. If you don’t meet your guide in the hotel, he doesn’t work for one. As you get deeper into the city, they drop the hotel charade but have plenty of other stories. One explained that he just wanted to practice his English. In fact, when I responded to him in French, he kept going in English. I knew the situation but applaud his tenacity (now, at least). Avoid these guys. They will take you directly into the souks, and that’s all you’ll see.

When I met Mustapha at the Hivernage Hotel and Resort, he was clad in a jacket and tie. His English and French were heavily accented but more than sufficient. And, he smiled. He asked what I wanted to see. I listed off places like the Saadian tombs, Bahia Palace and Jemaa el Fna (the medina’s main square), and he dutifully noted them. When I finished, he added, “And the souks?” Yes, the souks …

Immediately, I saw a difference. Mustapha hailed a taxi and got us a good price. We went directly to the spots I wanted to see, and his explanations brought them to life. It turns out that I was near every major attraction on my list the previous day, but I never would have found them. With my guide, it was quick and painless. He also pointed out the differences among the people who walked by, providing some insights into the ethnic groups of Morocco. Buildings without exterior windows or balconies, for example, were from Berber inhabitants, while those with windows and balconies facing the streets were built by Jewish settlers. I never would have figured this out on my own.

The little touches were nice, as well. As we approached the Saadian tombs, Mustapha saw a large tour group approaching. Instead of taking us to the window to pay our admission fee, he nodded in its direction and led us straight into the building. He took us to the prized places quickly. When I turned around, I saw a large crowd behind me. I would have spent plenty of time waiting but instead had a prime position for as long as I wanted. On our way out, we went over to the window and settled up. If I had tried to pull this off on my own, I don’t think I would have gotten far (had I even thought to try).

When I saw what looked like rather ordered graffiti on the walls throughout the medina, all I had to do was ask. Mustapha explained that there are 32 political parties in Morocco, and each is allotted a specific space on the wall to use for campaigning. I didn’t understand the message at all, but at least I got the drift.

As we navigated Marrakech’s winding streets and narrow alleys, I did notice that fewer of the freelance guides approached us. A few of the bolder ones did make the effort, but Mustapha dismissed them quickly. Also, he let me know how I could break the rules. Most of the hard-core locals don’t like having their pictures taken, but he’d give me a look when their heads were turned, so I could get the shots I wanted.

Of course, you know where we wound up …

A good portion of our day was spent in the souks, which are intricate mazes of small shops located all over Marrakech. I don’t enjoy shopping, so I was bored to tears, but I did find some of the presentations (and that’s what they were) insightful. My wife enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I do think that these were Mustapha’s favorite spots — that’s just the cynic in me. But, since there was a trusted relationship, you didn’t feel worried using a credit card or having goods sent to your hotel (or shipped home) later. Morocco’s is a selling culture. You just have to accept that when you step inside the city’s walls. The trick is to find any advantage you can. In this regard, having a guide helps. A lot.

When I let Mustapha know that I was finished shopping, he brought us by Jemaa el Fna for some photo opportunities and then promptly back to Hivernage. The time had come to pay the piper, and like every interaction, it was a negotiation. I asked how much, and he replied that I should pay whatever I liked. Eh, I kicked the rate quoted by the hotel up 20 percent. He earned it.