If you have ever considered a Moroccan hammam, but have been hesitant about the experience, read on to discover exactly what to expect. And go for it! In Marrakech, I finally got the opportunity to try out a hammam, which I really had no idea what to expect ahead of time. All I knew was it was the same concept as a Turkish bath, which I also hadn’t experienced. I was a bit nervous about whether or not I’d enjoy it, and whether my modesty would make the experience uncomfortable. I’ve had plenty of massages in my life, from mediocre ones to great ones. Some have been a little different because they were in Bali or Thailand so they were extremely cheap and not as luxurious as others, with very little modesty involved. No happy endings have been offered (to my relief). Sorry I don’t have pictures from inside the hammam. The whole thing was not conducive to bringing my camera in a steamy, drenched room. I desperately wanted to do a vlog but just couldn’t pull it off.
Our guide in Marrakech recommended a hammam that was still traditional enough to give us the authentic Moroccan experience (which meant it was affordable), but still more expensive and luxurious than what a local public hammam would be like for us Westerners. I suppose he assumed the public hammam that locals go to would be too much culture shock for us. When the locals go to a public hammam, they bring their own hygienic kit and friends wash each other or they hire an attendant to do it for a few bucks. It is a weekly (at minimum) ritual where members of the same sex get together for socializing. It often involves a more elaborate procedure with different temperature steam rooms.
Although there are different combinations of treatments you can opt for at most hammams (just like Western spas), the most common option seems to be a 30-50 minute traditional hammam and a one hour massage. Perfect! Depending on where you book, the price could range anywhere from $20 to $300 at some of the most luxurious hotel spas.
Here’s What Happens During a Hammam
Hammam rooms are gender separate, and expect to be naked in front of others of your same sex. Just roll with it. For my first experience, I was led to a changing room and given a robe and a locker to store my clothes and purse. At each of the hammams I went to, I removed my bra but kept my underwear on. In each instance, they were either removed by an old woman or so sopping wet and loose, that they practically fell off. But you can ask the attendant what you should do. Sometimes they give you disposable ones along with some rubber sandals. Men typically wrap a towel around their waist. I donned my robe and sandals and was led to a small, steam room with dome ceilings with the other two girls from my group. There were marble benches lining the edges of the room and a water trough with two nozzles in one corner. The room was about 3 million degrees Fahrenheit and 4000% humidity and I felt like I may suffocate. But I started to get used to it and it was kind of relaxing having to take deep, slow breaths to stay alive. We were told to lie down on the benches and then the two ladies attending to the room left us there for what felt like an eternity, letting our pores open up.
Finally they came back and there were two women for the three of us. Typically I think you have one attendant per person. They spoke practically no English, so the interaction consisted of one word commands like “stand,” “lie down,” “turn” or they would just manually move you how they wanted you. One woman had me stand up. While I was standing there, trying to be relaxed, suddenly a bucket of lukewarm water came pouring over my head. And then another, and another. I don’t mean to make light of the form of torture at all, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the first thing that came to mind was, “So this is what waterboarding is like.” I tried to glance out of my peripheral vision to see when she was coming, but this was difficult to do with water and hair streaming in my eyes. I’d see a shadow move near me, and hold my breath for the next drowning. In no way do I mean to make a joke of forms of torture, nor do I actually compare my hammam to such inhumane treatment. It just kept popping up in my head.
After the dousing, I was rubbed down with an oil and left to lie on the bench for a while. After what felt like an eternity once again, I started wondering if they sanitize these benches. How many sweating naked bodies had lied there before me, their faces against the same wet marble? Finally, after we awkwardly waited in silence, stirring a bit in anticipation, hot steam condensing in boiling drops on our backs and chests, we heard the echo of women’s voices coming back. And since there were three of us and two of them, I had to wait even longer while the other two were attended to first. Since we were all naked, I didn’t want to be a creeper and look to see what was happening to better prepare myself, but I was curious the whole time. When it was my turn, I was rinsed again with bucket after bucket of warm water, and then a black soap was slathered all over me.
Next, my lady put on a sandpaper-like mit and proceeded to scour my whole body. She spun me around, lifted my arms, essentially rubbing raw every square inch of my exposed body. I actually pictured that it was coarse sandpaper and my that body was bleeding from every pore. It had to be. But upon glancing down, instead I was covered in gobs of skin – my own skin everywhere – like someone had grated fresh parmesan cheese all over my body. Awesome!
Rinsed again, bucket after bucket, all that skin sloughed off and I was squeaky clean and baby soft. At some point, she may have washed my hair too, but I can’t remember all the steps. I was wrapped in my towel, drenched underwear still sagging from my body, and led to my massage. The massage following the hammam was one of the best I’ve ever had. My skin was tingling from the treatment and I was completely loosened up from all that steam and relaxation. Following an hour massage, each of the women in my group was brought together to drink mint tea and relax for a while.
As strange as it was, I couldn’t help but wonder what a different hammam would be like. So I booked a more expensive one, which I highly recommend, called Farnatchi. The experience was gentler and more luxurious. It was just me and my sweet attendant, who again, spoke almost no English. It was such a gentle and vulnerable experience. I almost felt like a small child being bathed by her mother. She washed me, doing multiple layers of different types of oils and treatments, washed my hair for me, and even gave me an exfoliating mitt to take home. This time, however, I had my massage before the hammam.
Women: don’t wear makeup. That would be completely pointless. So would washing your hair first.
There are pros and cons to having the massage before or after the hammam. Having the massage first means you will get all cleaned up in the hammam, hair washed, not greasy, and there’s no real need to shower afterwards. But getting the hammam first gets your body totally loosened up, tingly, and even more relaxed for the massage. The downside: greasy body and hair that looks like hell when you’re done. Going back to the riad to shower is pretty much a given.
Bring an extra pair of dry underwear. I think that’s obvious.
Don’t go when you’re starving, for a couple of reasons. 1) It’s just distracting. You want to enjoy this without thinking about food. 2) You don’t want your stomach growling in a quiet room with your massage therapist. By the same token, don’t go with a totally full stomach where you feel all bloated and uncomfortable.
Pee first. All that warm water will get to ya.
Tip the spa or attendant approximately 10%.
Try to relax! This is not the attendant’s first rodeo. Let them do their thing and just enjoy it. It seems weird to let someone bath you like you’re a child, but it’s a part of their culture and they do it for each other too.
Read reviews of spas on TripAdvisor HERE.
Have you had a traditional hammam? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments!