Morocco: What to Expect from Your First Hammam Experience
Note: This is a guest post. Please enjoy.
If you’re going to Morocco, I hope you’re intending to go to a hammam.
A quick way to describe a hammam is the opposite of a sauna. Instead of using dry heat, hammams use steam to clean and detoxify your skin.
If you had a couple more sentences worth of time, I’d tell you that hammams are beautifully tiled, wonderful little oases away from the dust and heat of Moroccan summer that you’ll find scattered throughout the city of Marrakech. Your stay can range between 30 minutes and two hours (depending on your level of care), and you can spend anywhere from 1USD and 400USD (depending on where you go).
I lucked out by recommendation from a local merchant, who led to me his family hammam; the location of which, unfortunately, I had promised not to share. That said, Marrakech is full of hammams. I have no doubt if you wander around and share some tea with a merchant, you too will be directed to their favorite place to relax.
I wanted to write this post for a couple of reasons. First, if you go to the right hammam, the cultural exchange is inevitable. I mean. . . you’re sitting naked with other women (or men, depending on your sex). And second, I went to the hammam with my partner, Sean, so I am able to offer the experience from both a male and female perspective (which is important in a country that remains sexually divided in many of its legal and cultural functions).
The first step is to get nakey
Sean and I had a different experience here, which I find a bit funny.
FOR THE WOMEN: I entered the special, female-only section of the hammam with a cup of hot mint tea and waited for instruction. After a while, a little old lady walked into the room and asked me to get undressed.
Having traveled through the Middle East and other parts of North Africa, I always maintain the “get naked” instruction with a grain of salt. In other countries, I’ve made the mistake of getting ... too naked.
So, I removed clothing, trying to watch for shock or disapproval from the old lady vis-a-vis my degree of nakedness. I must have gone pretty slow, though, because the old lady started to get fed-up with my strip tease and just pointed at things for me to take off.
Conclusion: in Morocco “get naked” really means “get naked.”
"So," you might be wondering, “how does it feel to have your nether regions flying freely in front of an old lady with a toothless smile?”
Actually, it was pretty great; I was in Morocco pursuing my dreams, and this cute little grandma was telling me to hurry the fuck up and get undressed. It was clear that she’d done this for quite some while, and probably had seen every body type under the sun.
Once undressed, the old lady provided me with a pair of disposable underwear. Actually, it might be a stretch to say “underwear.” It was really a papery thong that fit around my waist with elastic.
And with that, I was ready for the hammam.
FOR THE MEN: No, you won’t be given a dental-floss thong for your massage. You get a papery pair of boxer briefs! Although I didn’t get to see them, Sean says they covered up all his manly bits, so have no fear.
Also, boys, women are not going to be scrubbing you down with loofas. It’s strictly same-sex. So yes, that means a big Moroccan dude might be working out those knots in your back.
The second step is to head into the steam rooms
This experience is identical for males and females, so I’ll keep it brief.
Both Sean and I started in a warm, tiled room (keeping in mind that for all parts of the hammam, men and women are kept separate). In a second, smaller room, I was instructed to sit in the warmth of steam. Intricate mosaics are a common sight throughout Morocco, but there’s a certain intimacy in sitting alone in a steamy room.
I laid down, apparently Sean did jumping jacks. Either way, it’s your personal time to get nice relaxed. Spend it however you choose.
After about twenty minutes of steeping, the old lady came to get me for a scrub down.
So, your scrub down might be a bit of shock...
I admit it. As a field biologist, my standards of cleanliness are a tad below average. So, I was in for quite the surprise when my old-lady friend scrubbed me down with a super coarse loofa. Apparently, the initial hammam phase is to get your pores nice and dilated so that the scrub / message / detox is like a deep clean I never knew I needed.
Despite the segregation of sexes, so that only females were in the room with me, I was taken aback by the degree of physical contact we shared. The old lady loofahed me where the sun don’t shine. And damn, she was thorough about it.
This would probably be a good time to mention this wasn’t a creepy experience at all. It reminded me of when my grandma would roll up her sleeves and get her gardening equipment; she’d gaze out at the weed-filled plot of land, then look me in the eye and say, “Let’s get shit done.”
This grandma was on a mission to detoxify my body, and detoxify she did.
After just the first round of scrubbing, I found myself covered in grey pieces of dead skin, skin that had been rolled into cylindrical shapes by the loofah. I must have looked horrified by what my body produced because the old lady laughed and said, “Spaghetti! You have lots of spaghetti!” Although most Moroccans speak a degree of French, which allowed me to travel around without any confusion, my old lady only spoke Arabic.
“Aie, aie," she kept saying, "so much spaghetti.”
She rinsed me off with warm water and continued her mission, scrubbing until the tile floor around me was covered in dead skin. I couldn’t believe it. How had I had been carrying that much junk in my body?
A beautiful, young Moroccan woman was getting the same treatment a couple of tiled benches over. I was very sad to see that her amount of “spaghetti” was a joke compared to what I had unleashed. I asked her how she managed to have so little ... output.
She laughed and said she went to the hammam three times a week with her sisters.
THREE. TIMES. A. WEEK.
It's not actually that surprising when you realize the loofah-scrubbing ordeal is about 4USD. If you’re trying to do the full experience with the half hour massage, double hammam, loofah fun, and whole-body clay masque, well, that's a still reasonable 30USD. Three times a week could definitely be within the realm of possibility.
After I was properly cleaned, the old lady covered me in a cool clay scrub. From tip-to-toe, I was slathered and left to soak in ... well, at the time I had no idea what it was. But I promise you, after it was washed off, I felt like I was floating. I'd never enjoyed being so clean.
And if you know me, that’s really saying something.
I later learned that the clay she covered me in, called Rhassoul, is mined from Morocco's Atlas Mountains and has been used in cosmetic and health antidotes for over 1400 years.
If you have the extra package, finish up with a massage
FOR WOMEN: I was given a nice comfy robe and led down a dark passage made of large limestone bricks, lit by soft red lights. In a small chamber, which was just big enough to fit a massage table, my masseuse covered me in towels and gave me a 30-minute argon oil massage.
I was handed a cup of warm mint tea afterward. Needless to say, I felt like a princess.
FOR MEN: Sean admitted that his masseuse dude was a bit intense on the massage, probably really making the distinction that he was really getting just that and nothing else. I, on the other hand, had a really nice gentle experience.
Sean did also get a haircut while he was there, which was a cool add-on to his experience.
Ultimately, going to a local hammam for an afternoon is a great way to cleanse during your travels and discover more of Marrakech. So go ahead! Unleash your inner “spaghetti,” drink some mint tea, and make some friends!
Note: Both men and women regularly go to hammams. If your man is being difficult about joining you on a hammam excursion, let him know that it’s totally normal! Worse comes to worse, ditch him and go have a good ol’ time by yourself.
ABOUT THE GUEST POSTER:
Chloe F is a passionate world-trotter in her early twenties. Born and raised in France, she's had many opportunities to travel ... and many more to make incredible connections with fellow humans (and animals) all across our globe. Her experiences include studying frogs on secluded waterfalls in South America and chasing whales along the coast of Mexico.