I left Marrakesh 54 pounds heavier than I had been when I arrived. Somewhere between taking a carriage ride to the city’s main square, Djemaa el Fna, and weighing my luggage on the Royal Air Maroc baggage scale, I gave myself – and my bank account – over to Morocco’s mysteries, hungry to bring home a bit of the heady sensuality that hangs in its labyrinthine souks.
The booty? Two leather bags, six necklaces, antique textiles, pillows, slippers, spices, essential oils, scarves, tassels, a ceramic tagine, a tea set and teeny silver tea spoons, all magically tucked within the bulging seams of my suitcase.
I should have known better. No matter how savvy, how disciplined a shopper you fancy yourself to be, you are no match for Marrakesh. After all, they have been doing this for well over a thousand years. From the city’s early days as a desert outpost for caravans from Timbuktu, Marrekeshis have been honing the art of the sell. They know their wares and they know exactly how to shill them (often in a dozen or more languages). But settling into the staccato rhythm of bargaining is part of the fun.
We’ve put together a guide to walk you through what to buy and how to buy it. Study up on these insider secrets, and you will emerge poor in dihrams but rich in hand-crafted treasures.
Handbags, belts, luggage, shoes, poufs. Leather goods have been a hot item in Marrakesh since the 16th Century. The goods you see throughout the souks are still largely hand-produced in the city’s sprawling tanneries from the hides of camel, cows and goats. Prices on the higher-quality goods can be a quarter of what you would pay at home. But before you start the bargaining process, it is essential that you do two things. First, smell the item. Many of the lower priced leather goods get their suppleness via pigeon feces and urine treatments. The stench remains for months and is very difficult to get rid of, so tell the seller you want the same item without the smell. It will cost you more, but believe me, it is worth it. Secondly, dampen a cloth or tissue and rub it against the bag. Dyes used on cheaper items will often rub off, staining your skin and clothes. If the item passes these two tests, you are good to go. Let the bargaining begin.
Moroccan hair oil
Moroccan oil has become all the rage for hair and skin products. They shill the stuff for upwards of $20 a bottle at Barneys and Sephora. You can get the same stuff for a quarter of the price in Marrakesh. The oil, made from the argan tree, is generally pressed and treated in women’s cooperatives along the road between Marrakesh and Essouira. Avoid buying bottles on the street – they are often diluted with vegetable oil – and instead visit one of the city’s many traditional pharmacies. To be sure you are getting the real deal, open the bottle – it should smell of roasted nuts. Pharmacies also stock perfumes, dyes and spices, which make great gifts. You should be able to get fresh saffron and vanilla beans for a fraction of the price you would pay in your average grocery store. Be sure the saffron is a rich orangey-red and the potent spice should keep for three-to-four years.
If you want to recreate some of your favourite Moroccan dishes at home, you will want to pick up a tagine, a cone-lidded earthenware pot. There are countless stalls, booths and shops shilling them, but there are a few food safety issues to be aware of before you make a purchase. Look for plain terracotta-coloured tagines. They are the only ones that should be used in an oven. Next, be sure the top fits snugly on the base – only well-sealed tagines circulate the heat and retain moisture during cooking. Be sure to season the tagine when you get home, first soaking it in water and then coating with oil and heating in the oven for an hour or two. If you prefer the more ornately glazed tagines or ceramics, never fear, they make great serving dishes. Just make sure to ask whether the glazes are lead-free and beware of any ceramics glazed in metallic. They definitely provide a more modern take on the traditional Moroccan shapes, but the glaze can be toxic if it comes in contact with any heat. Use the pieces only for cold food like candy or fruit. Or, better yet, think of more creative uses for them – plant flowers or store jewellery in them.
From Technicolor kilims to unspeakably soft cream-and-chocolate Beni Ourains, Morocco is justifiably famous for its carpets. But you need to think of a rug as an investment piece. Expect to invest some time in getting what you want for a fair price. Our number one magic carpet rule? Wait until the end of your vacation to attempt the purchase. The haggling savvy you hone over the course of the trip will serve you well in this most challenging of negotiations. Be well rested, well fed and prepared to spend at least an hour on the adventure.
Before you enter the shop, put away that pricey camera and watch. Be friendly upon entry, but watch your words. Sellers use your appearance and introductory chit chat – Is this your first trip to Morocco? How long have you been here? – to get a sense of how high they should start the bargaining. Say that you have been to the city many times before and, if you can pull it off, that you are a student. Then settle in for some mint tea while the shopkeepers pull down dozens of rugs for your perusal. After narrowing down the field, you can start the bargaining. There are no hard and fast rules for how low to go, but I had good luck starting at a quarter or less of the price. If you expect to have to ship it home, ask that they include taxes, service charges and shipping in the final price. Be aware that you will often be required to pay import taxes on goods shipped from abroad. Sellers customarily help lower those taxes by filling in a much lower price on the import documents than you actually paid. We leave it up to your conscience as to whether you want to correct the error. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.