I did a lot of research before traveling to Morocco and what I read about the Jemaa el Fna scared the hell out of me. One blogger described it as a chaotic and terrifying place where monkeys and cobras roam the market, where aggressive vendors yell at tourists, and pickpockets creep in your shadow.
But, as it turns out, the Jemaa el Fna is a fantastic place—perhaps the most memorable place of my entire trip. Everywhere you look there are heaps of colorful spices and dried fruits, tagines and decorative hamsas, camel-skin lamps and argan-oil cosmetics. Vendors compete for your attention selling famed Moroccan orange juice, kabobs and mint tea. Snake handlers and monkey wranglers show off their animals and offer once-in-a-lifetime photo ops. Simply put, the Jemaa el Fna is everything I imagined Morocco to be.
Yes, it’s crowded. Yes, vendors are aggressive. And, yes, you do need to carefully guard your wallet—but the same goes for many places in the U.S. In reality, the Jemaa el Fna is just an interesting market with some interesting characters trying to sell you their interesting wares.
If you’re skittish, as I assume the aforementioned blogger might be, it’s important to remember that everyone in the market is just trying to make a living. As you walk around “just browsing,” you will be approached by vendors and they will make every attempt to sell to you. It is, after all, a market.
For example, if you walk by the man selling olives, he will try to sell you olives. If you admire an artisanal lantern, the vendor will ask you to name your price. And if you walk past a woman selling henna tattoos, she will grab your hand to give you a “sample” and then charge you for it. Okay, the henna lady is a little too aggressive for my taste. Just pull your hand away, give a polite but firm “no thank you” and move along. No harm done. As long as you keep this in mind, the Jemaa el Fna can be a fun and exciting place.
The Jemaa el Fna is an ideal location for taking photos. But before you start snapping away, you should know the rules of the game. Basically, you will often need to pay to take a photo in the market.
If you want to take a picture of someone’s goods, you should buy something from them first and ask if you can take a photo. For animal wranglers and anyone in costume, you will likely be told the photo is free. They will pose with you, take your picture, and then surround you to demand money. Now, you will need to negotiate a price. Don’t be alarmed by the seemingly harsh tone—it’s just the way business is done in Morocco. And don’t get upset because you feel tricked. Just remember to keep things in perspective: paying 8 Moroccan dirhams (about 1 US dollar) is an amazing price for the pictures you are getting. And once you pay, everyone goes back to smiling and laughing. To avoid the drama altogether, try negotiating a price beforehand. (I paid about 1–2 dollars per photo op.)
The Jemaa at Night
At night is when the Jemaa really comes alive. Large crowds form around musicians, storytellers and games, and the market fills with steam from bustling food stalls. This is the perfect time to escape to a rooftop café for a mint tea. From there, you can enjoy an insanely pink sunset and an amazing view of the market.