When I told our housemaster that I was going to Essaouira he proclaimed how different the city was compared to Marrakech. He told me it was very "pacifique". Most travel reports I read said the same thing: Essaouira is a world away from Marrakech and there's almost no hassle. Well that's not entirely true.
In fact the first day I arrived I experienced more hassle than three days in Marrakech. First we were surrounded at the bus stop. Then on our first walk down the promenade we were approached by beggars, craft merchants, shoe shiners and purveyors of sunglasses - and they didn't want to take no for an answer. It wasn't quite the relaxing evening I'd been hoping for.
Once we settled in and stopped looking like the newly arrived the hassle seemed to vanish. The medina was no trouble at all and the merchants there were polite and restrained. Everyone in Essaouira is used to tourists, and the locals seem genuinely friendly and open to foreigners and their strange ways.
Travel with Small Kids
Essaouira is far better developed than Marrakech and the medina was pretty easy to navigate with a pram. The pavements along the beach area also very good, except on a stretch where they are building a new promenade. But by the time that's finished it will be smooth pavements from the top of the beach to the bottom. The traffic is also much lighter and less aggressive, making crossing the road a lot easier - one driver even stopped for us at a zebra crossing!
Essaouira has a pleasant micro-climate that averages around the mid-20s all year. The stiff wind that often blows in from the Atlantic has an additional cooling effect. Just because it is cooler than elsewhere in the region, that doesn't mean the sun isn't shining, and this far south it's very strong.
In winter there's the additional problem of the sun being low on the horizon. That means you'll get burned in places that don't usually see the sun (especially on the face) and you'll spend a lot of time shading your eyes from the sun. So bring sunglasses, and if you are sensitive to the sun expect to get burned even in winter.
The wind can be very strong and can have a significant cooling effect, meaning you might want to wear a jacket even when the temperature is above 20 degrees. The wind can also catch the sand on the beach and deposit it in your eye, so again sunglasses would be useful. You can understand now why there are so many sunglasses salesmen around the beach.
I found cash was generally preferred in Essaouira, but some places took credit cards. There were several ATMs from where I could draw my money from abroad, two of which were on the street leading out from Bab Sbaa, at the end of the beach nearest the medina. Basically find the clock tower and walk out the gate from there towards the beach.
What to Wear
On the beaches of Essaouira the local men strip down to their shorts and play football, the local women take off their shoes. It is a pretty conservative society, but they are used to tourists wearing little on the beach. It's probably best not to wander around the town in a bikini, though.
Essaouira isn't known for its crime, but any beach can be a tempting place for a casual criminal. Leaving your belongings behind on the sand is obviously asking for trouble, but also be careful walking by yourself or in quieter areas, especially at night or near dark. The medina, and the stretch of beach going south is the busiest and safest.
Most of the criminals probably come from outside, and the big events like the Gnaoua festival attracts a lot of them with reports of crime rising during that time. So be extra vigilant when the crowds are in town.
Wash your hands all the time, especially before eating. Take some antibacterial wipes with you, or carry an antibacterial hand gel.
Morocco is a developing country and many people end up with some kind of stomach problem here, although usually it's nothing more than upset stomach. Having said that our family took different approaches to the food, my wife eating whatever she wanted, me taking the ultra paranoid approach, and my son somewhere safely in between. None of us got sick. The only rule we did follow was no fish (especially shellfish), only drinking bottled water, and doing a bit of research on any restaurant we ate at (preferring ones that the locals eat at).
The rule they usually advise is: cook it, peel it or bin it. I started the holiday with the idea that if it's burned it can't hurt me - nuke it basically. But by the end of the trip I relaxed and was even eating salad. For the ultra cautious you should also avoid poultry products, including chicken and especially eggs, unless they are thoroughly cooked, I would never eat fish, and nearly every food poisoning account I read about in Morocco involved fish or shellfish. Fish is obviously a very popular dish in this seaside town, so you might not want to miss out, so research your restaurants carefully.
With tap water you should always boil it and check the bottled water to make sure it hasn't already been opened. Sometimes you can find your bottled refilled with tap water. Many people also brush their teeth in bottled water, and the ultra paranoid will keep water out of their mouth in the shower too. The problem with water is that even if it is good and clean, there can still be bacteria in it that you aren't used to and will give you a stomach upset. So if you aren't planning on staying for more than a holiday there's not much need to get your stomach used to the water.
My advice is to play it as safe as you feel comfortable, but don't let the fear of food poisoning ruin your holiday. Think about what you are going to eat - don't let yourself miss out on something amazing because it's a bit of a risk, but also why risk it for something that isn't all that special?
It's a small, provincial town and despite the tourist crowds opening times can be problematic. In particular there are few restaurants open all day, and you can find yourself struggling to find your restaurant of choice. There are always some snacks, shops and touristy pizza places open, but most of the best restaurants seemed to shut at 2pm and stay closed until at least 7pm.
Travellers of a certain age may remember guitarist Jimi Hendrix and his brief association with Essaouira and the village of Diabat, two kilometres south of the town.
In years gone by, direct access to the village and its small memorabilia cafe, avoiding a long detour by road, was by crossing the river Ksob over stepping stones, but in the wet season, the normally placid river became a wild torrent, and there were a number of fatalities when villagers were caught unawares by flash floods and swept out to sea and drowned.
The Moroccan government has now invested millions of dirhams in construction works to redirect the accumulation of flood water into giant relief basins, and a new road bridge now connects to the village.
However, many tourists prefer to walk along the beach to Diabat, crossing the river at its estuary into the sea. This can be safe at times when rainfall is minimal and the river is a narrow shallow stream, but it can rapidly turn into a deadly raging torrent, so if a thunderstorm seems imminent crossing by the new road bridge is advisable.
Update May 2013.......The new road connecting Essaouira to Diabat across the road bridge is still unsurfaced over one year later, the stones and gravel underfoot for pedestrians makes walking painful and unpleasant, motorised traffic disregards the 'drive on the right side' rule, as vehicles weave from side to side, attempting to avoid large stones protruding from the carriageway, for how much longer before tarmac is laid is anybody's guess!
- Hiking and Walking
Flood defences, Diabat, Essaouira.
A recently-erected "panneau" at the new access road bridge at Diabat displays details of the government investment on flood defences.
I might just be an old cynic, but from long experience of corruption in Morocco, my immediate reaction was to ponder how much of the released capital finance would find its way into the offshore bank accounts of corrupt government officials..........
On the day I visited the excavations for the giant relief basins, most of the workers and their machinery were enjoying a very long siesta, something just didn't seem right!
Update May 2013......Although most of the flood defence works have been completed, some are only partially complete, despite an optimistic assertion on the main notice board that the duration of works ( delai d'execution) was anticipated to be ten months, and once again, this year, I noticed the same long afternoon siesta in the hot sun being enjoyed by the workforce. It appears the ten month estimate by Moroccan civil engineering standards was only a guess!
- Hiking and Walking
Beware of street excavations.....
Step out of the taxi and fall down the evil hole!..................
These pictures were recently taken at the taxi rank, Place Orson Welles, Essaouira, two large holes had been dug out on the pavement adjacent to the taxi rank and then abandoned without any safety considerations for pedestrians. This problem is widespread throughout Morocco, and although it may not be too much of a danger for travellers during the long daylight summer, the shorter winter days and long dark evenings would present danger, especially if the street overhead lighting was dim or, as is often the case, non-existent during unexpected lighting failures, caused by corroded underground and overhead power cables.
I always make sure I pack a reliable pocket torch when walking around at night, some of these holes are deep, with sharp pieces of rusty steel reinforcement rods poking upwards, waiting to skewer the unwary!
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- Hiking and Walking
Sewage mist from the sea.
I noticed another warning and photograph of a mysterious sea mist causing stomach upsets in travellers and tourists in Essaouira. I've never seen this myself, on my many holidays in the town, but heard rumours that a main sewage pipe leading out to the sea was suspected of being the cause, if the wind was blowing onshore, but in April this year, all the Medina streets were being excavated to lay new waste water pipes, a major engineering development, and there was a large sign outside Bab Doukalla gate, apologising for the inconvenience, while the works were in progress.
Large diameter concrete pipes were diverting the waste water north beyond the town limits to a new treatment facility "Station d'Epuration" one kilometre further north along a piste from the new police station at the top of Avenue al Aquaba. The concrete pipes were laid along the side of the piste with inspection tanks at regular intervals, and at the Station the waste water was collected in open-air reservoirs, for purification and detoxification, before disposal, I think into the sea, although the pipes must have been underground, I couldn't see the exact location.
I spent a lot of time on this north beach, sunbathing, and didn't notice any unpleasant smell, so the new engineering works must have been effective........
Beware of juvenile thieves!
Eleven years ago, I was living in Essaouira, and my favourite place to relax and soak up the sun was the beautiful deserted north beach, which stretches as far as the eye can see, and beyond.......
One day, I was returning from the beach, and close to the access road, Avenue al Aquaba, a young boy approached me and asked for one dirham, so I rummaged in my jeans pocket, extracted a coin and handed it to him. Suddenly, another four boys appeared from behind some rocks and demanded money, I started to walk away but they surrounded me, and each taking turns, tried to snatch at my pockets, intent on robbing me. I had to produce my lock-blade pocket knife and threaten them, this had the effect of backing them nervously off at a distance, but did not disperse them.
Fortunately, a couple of local fishermen appeared over a rocky outcrop and shouted at the boys which immediately frightened them off, and they ran away. I thanked the fishermen and quickly made my escape.
I discovered later that these boys were street urchins from the peripheral bidonvilles (shanty towns) at Casablanca, their families recently resettled in the new housing estate, Lotissement Skala adjacent to the beach, while the slums were being demolished.
Ironically, at this exact location today stands a new police station, occupied by the khaki-uniformed para-military police.
After the experience of this unpleasant incident, which could easily have turned ugly, because of my determination not to be robbed, I now travel with a long walking stick, and only carry enough small change to buy an ice cream and cold drink in the supermarket, Aswak Essalam, beside the police station, but I still feel comfortable with my utility knife, which is only used to open tins of tuna fish and fruit.
This warning could also apply to almost any locality in Morocco, the European financial disaster has resulted in a significant drop in tourist numbers, essential to many local economies, and the signs of deprivation and desperation are evident everywhere.........
Beware the bus station hustlers !
Everytime I arrive by bus at Essaouira Gare Routiere, Avenue Deuxieme Mars (the main bus station), the same old scenario unfolds.......
The exit doors, especially the rear one are beseiged by both the wheelbarrow touts and the key-waving apartment rental ones.
In comparison with Marrakesh, these are "low level " touts, but can still be irritating to dismiss after a tiring bumpy bus ride over the stone desert on some of the old rickety buses. I always just ignore their presence and exit the main gate, turn right and follow the street which eventually leads to the main Medina gate, Bab Doukalla. The wheelbarrow touts want to transport tourists' luggage down through the Medina to whatever hotel is contemplated or pre-booked, because there is no motorised traffic permitted in the narrow streets, but to avoid this potentially rip-off situation, small blue taxis park up close to the bus station, activated by "bush telegraph" whenever a bus is spotted arriving at the bus station. These taxis can provide transport (for a pre-agreed price, not more than Dh20) to the taxi rank at Bab Sb`aa, just outside the Medina at Rue du Caire, from where it's only a short walk to the centre and the port at Place Moulay Hassan.
The apartment rental touts are rather more insidious, I have heard reliable anecdotal evidence that keys will be duplicated, so there will be no total security in any of these properties, personally I always stay in a hotel, much safer..........
Post script......the bus in the photo bears the logo " amazing trip "..........this one is typical of the many private companies' fleet, which I never travel on nowadays, with bald tyres and manic drivers, my nerves can't handle the way they drive on the dangerous mountain roads, I always use CTM, but Supratours are also safe.
The "amazing trip" might not be the safe one you expected !
Beware of the old fish!
Essaouira is a fishing port, and when the fishing boats have completed their daily sorties far out into the ocean, the catches are eagerly sought by restauranteurs and local merchants, buying the quality fish on the quayside................sole, cod, lobsters, prawns, sardines or anything else the boats have trawled up (even large beautiful shells, sold as decorative objects.)
However, the weather can be unpredictable, and sometimes the fishermen are reluctant to sail if there is a storm warning. This means no fresh fish is available, but some restaurants sell old stock to diners, heavily disguised by overcooking and dressed with herbs and maybe a "special house sauce", enthusiastically presented by waiters with disarming smiles.
Travellers with delicate stomachs beware, the fish itself will taste like rubber, and may or may not cause illness, Moroccans don't generally believe in freezing foods, preferring to buy fresh, on a daily basis in the souks.
Fortunately my stomach is accustomed to dodgy food and I never suffer gastric enteritis, but not everyone will be so lucky.
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