What to do with painful muscles the day after a long hike/ride in Chefchaouen, Morocco? Visit a hammam! I heard about the Moroccan bathhouse experience and decided to try it for myself. Not only did I get to relax in a wonderfully warm atmosphere—which did wonders for my quadriceps—I got to get thoroughly, thoroughly clean. Here are my recommendations for when you visit a hammam.
I didn’t go to the hammam completely unprepared. Before I went, I googled hammam etiquette and what to bring and how much I could expect to pay. As a grateful visitor to Morocco, the last thing I want to do is give foreigners a bad name. I can’t find the exact article that I read now, but you can find many, many articles that talk about Moroccan hammams. My experience was a little different than most of the articles I’ve read, a little less fancy, so I’ve written this “bare-bones” guide for visiting the local hammam in Chefchaouen.
The article has the following sections:
- Hammam overview
- Which hammam did I go to?
- How much did it cost?
- Layout of the hammam
- How to wash
- What did I bring?
A hammam is a public bathhouse where you go to get clean. To my understanding, cleanliness is very important in the religion of Islam, so it’s not just a hygienic experience but also a ritual of cleanliness. In that sense, I found it very similar to what I’ve read about bathing in Japanese onsens—it is important that you scrub everything and scrub it well. Additionally, the women treat it as a chance to get together and relax away from the men, to bond and exchange gossip.
Which hammam did I go to?
The most famous hammam in Chefchaouen is in the center of the medina, across the plaza from the Kasbah. This is not the hammam I went to. They wanted to charge me 100 dirhams, which is probably 10 times larger than what local residents pay, so I left. But this hamma is the one in the picture at the top of the article.
Instead, I was led to a cheaper hammam a few corners away by a wonderfully friendly local named Hassan, with whom I had chatted that morning. I don’t know for sure where the cheaper hammam is, since I just followed Hassan through the narrow alleyways, but it might be somewhere near here. You’ll probably have to ask around to find it, and the locals might try to send you to the main hammam near the Kasbah instead of the one I went to.
How much did it cost?
Most internet articles say that a visit to a hammam, not including a massage, should be around 10 or 20 dirhams. As I noted above, the Hammam Al Blad wanted 100 dirhams just to use the hammam. The lady running the cheaper hammam asked me for 50, but I told her I didn’t have that much and pulled everything in my pocket out – a total of about 38 dirhams. She grumpily picked the 20-dirham bill and the big coins, leaving me a few half-dirhams, but she ultimately gave me my buckets and let me in.
Layout of the hammam
The hammam I went to was laid out as follows:
- Changing room/“lobby”
- Cold room
- Warm room
- Hot room
When you first enter the hammam door, you walk down a short hallway until you enter a dimly lit room (actually, the whole hammam is dimly lit) with a few benches and hooks on the walls. This is where I was first greeted by the lovely grumpy bath attendant who took my money. Once I paid, the lady gave me a big bucket with a mini-bucket inside. I then stripped down to the underwear I wanted to wash in (no bras, ladies), tossed my bandana and shampoo into the bucket and then passed from the cold room to the warm room and finally into the hot room.
Each of the rooms had tiled floors and small stalls on the left and right edges, kind of like shower stalls without doors. Bits of daylight filtered in from small, moss-lined holes in the ceilings, lighting the rooms enough to see but not enough to see clearly. Heat and steam pervaded everything, and I quickly began to sweat. Tiny plastic stools were lined up along the walls of the warm and hot rooms, and groups of women were arrayed in both rooms, scrubbing themselves and each other. Most women were in the hot room, but there were a few washing in the warm room, too.
I didn’t stay in the hot room long. I had followed a woman there (perhaps another attendant?) and she filled my bucket from the hot-water spigot for me while I danced from foot to foot. (The floor was HOT.) As soon as I had my bucket, I retreated to the warm room to give my toasted feet a break. There, I swiped a small stool near a wall and surreptitiously eyed the trio of older women next to me to figure out how to wash.
How to wash
Many online articles recommend bringing special soaps and scrub-gloves to a Moroccan hammam. I’m a bit of a minimalist, plus I hate buying stuff I don’t need, so I just took a bandana and shampoo and it worked fine.
The washing procedure it pretty simple. Using your scrubbing device, pick a portion of your body and scrub your skin extremely thoroughly. Perhaps you don’t need to scrub your skin raw, but you should be scrubbing pretty dang hard. This is ritualistic cleansing, remember? After you’ve scrubbed a patch of skin, dip your mini-bucket in your big bucket of water, and then rinse the patch of skin you just cleaned. Move onto a different body part, and repeat. When you’re not using it, keep the mini-bucket floating in your big bucket.
You should clean every single inch of your body. It seems that women will often offer to scrub your back, and you are expected to return the favor. This didn’t happen for me, so I tried to scrub my own back (with some success). The only part of yourself it seems you shouldn’t scrub is your crotch. You pull your underwear down to your thighs while sitting in order to scrub your good ol’ buttcheeks, and you scrub the skin of your inner thighs, but don’t scrub the crotch itself. On a related note, it seemed that the women in this hammam kept their undies on whenever walking around, so that’s probably also a good rule of thumb.
At first I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to shampoo my hair while sitting on the little stool by the wall – was it okay to have the soap suds on the floor there? I asked the ladies next to me, who didn’t understand what I was asking, so I just shampoo’d where I sat then walked over to the drain on the side of the room to rinse my hair. After a minute of this, the bath attendant found me and told me just to rinse my hair while sitting on the stool. So that was cool. Later I saw a lady brushing her teeth where she sat, so it’s apparently also fine to do that.
The women next to me seemed to scrub their bodies several times, then washed their hair and brushed their teeth. I wished I’d brought a toothbrush – when I left the hammam, everything felt clean except my mouth.
When you’re done washing, rinse any big soap-suds or clumps hair from where you were sitting, grab your bathing items, and walk back out to the cold room. I’m still not sure how the towel procedure should work on the exit – should you leave the towel in the cold room? Bring it with you to the warm/hot rooms? Also, it looked like the bath attendant was going to give me a towel before she saw I had brought my own, so perhaps a towel was included in my fee? I’m not sure what the recommended procedure is, but what I did was just drip-dry a little in the warm room before walking back out to the lobby/changing area and drying off with my towel there. No one yelled at me, so it seemed fine. 😉
What did I bring?
The items I brought to the hammam:
- Spare change of underwear
- Plastic water bottle with the top cut off (explanation below)
I brought the plastic water bottle to scoop the water from the bucket onto myself. But, since they gave me a mini-bucket with my big bucket, I didn’t actually need it.
The only things I didn’t bring but wished I had was sandals/flip-flops (because the floor was so hot) and toothbrush plus toothpaste (because it would have been nice to have a clean mouth with my clean body).
And that’s it! No need for fancy soaps or fancy scrubbers, just some good old-fashioned elbow grease and hot water.
Here is a summary of my tips for visiting the public hammam in Chefchaouen:
- Try to get a local to bring you to the hammam. In hindsight, it probably would have been best to talk to a woman outside of the hammam and have her come with me, because then I wouldn’t have been charged the “foreigner tax”. Unfortunately, the only locals I knew at the time were men, so I was on my own.
- Bring sandals or flip-flops. The floor can be hot.
- You don’t need special soaps or scrubbers. Obviously, you are welcome to buy them and bring them – they’re not that expensive and they will add to your hammam experience. But your trusty old bandana will work as a scrubber just fine.
- Smile. I think scrubbing in the hot room (which had more women) and smiling at the women more would have led to more interactions with the women. Instead, I scrubbed quietly on the side of the room and just observed.
- Clean thoroughly. Again, remember, this is less of a practical cleaning and more or a ritual. So clean it all. 🙂
- Observe. The best way to learn is to watch what the other women are doing. This post might only be valid for the hammam I went to in Chefchaouen, so be sure to pay attention when you go to a hammam to see if things are different!