Six months into my travels, it was time for a rejuvenating Moroccan hammam. Hammams have a positive effect on body and soul that’s especially helpful for long-term travelers. I enjoy them and have written posts about my hammam (or hamam) experiences in Istanbul and Cappadocia Turkey, Novi Sad Serbia, and Sarajevo Bosnia-Herzegovina. Moroccan hammams are similar, but also unique.
Years ago, before starting a travel blog, I visited an ayurvedic (knowledge of life) spa in Kerala India. Those intense treatments use massage and “holistic and integrative medicine principles to balance doshas” or body composition – Vata (air and space), Pitta (fire and water), and Kapha (water and earth). During a vigorous Ayurvedic massage, “organic oil blends are infused with Ayurvedic herbs and heated to promote relaxation and detoxification”. The ayurvedic process “enhances spiritual fulfilment and relaxation”.
There are many neighborhood hammams throughout Essaouira. To determine where I felt the most comfortable, I checked out several different possibilities – fancy, upscale hotels, spas along the seaside, and hammams within the walls of the Medina. The Moroccan procedure is detailed below, but each hammam has distinct and unique characteristics. A fastidious premises and peaceful environment are common to all hammams.
The process begins in a heated waiting room or sauna – sometimes with a pool – and evolves to a warm stone treatment room, followed by tea in a cool relaxation area at the very end. A variation in temperature from hot to cold “stimulates blood flow and encourages the body to sweat out impurities”. Nights and mornings along Essaouira’s Atlantic coast are chilly and windy, so the soothing heat really felt great.
Purifying Body and Soul
The main idea of a hammam is purifying body and soul, but public hammams are also a place for “celebrating major life events“. Bathing rituals are often incorporated into weddings and births. I had a private hammam, somewhat comparable to a spa visit – but it was much more.
The word hammam means “the spreader of warmth” in Arabic. The New Knew
CoCooning Spa Medina
I decided to visit Cocooning Spa in the Medina for my hammam treatments. Feeling a bit sluggish lately, I got the works, aka “Total Relaxation Package,” and it included:
- Hammam and Black Soap Scrub
- Ghassoul (lava clay) Face Mask and Body Wrap
- Massage with Aragan Oil
- Manicure / Pedicure
It sounds indulgent, but was necessary to rejuvenate my travel-weary body and soul! Afterwards, I felt a calm sense of physical and mental renewal. The amount of dead skin that came off during the exfoliation was shocking – ewwwww. It was worth the experience just to get rid of that excess baggage. Most accommodations these days have showers, rather than bathtubs. Soaking in a bathtub is not only relaxing, but also a good way to maintain healthy skin. When traveling, I miss leisurely soaks in my tub.
The Moroccan process was slightly different, and the small Essaouira spa didn’t have a pool. Showers were used between treatments and timed with alternating hot and cold water. None of the staff spoke much English, but they did a fantastic, professional job. I left the apartment in a rush and forgot my iPhone, so photos are from their website. Sorry, no pictures of me shamelessly slathered in Moroccan black soap with a clay facial mask.
History of Moroccan Hammams
Moroccan hammams are similar to taking a sauna, followed by several intense “treatments”. As hammams became more popular, they turned into a “traditional, weekly ritual and gathering point where people would meet to socialize”.
Today, hammams are a “mixture of traditional rituals and modern practices that have the same goal – purifying your body from dead skin and your soul from negative vibes”.
Traditional Moroccan Hammam Process
“The Moroccan hammam ritual starts by sitting in a hot room for about 15 minutes, to relax and allow the pores to open. Then, a thin layer of Moroccan black soap (aka Beldi) is applied all over your face and body. After 10 minutes, you rinse off, and then dead skin cells are scrubbed away with a kessa glove. The amount of dead skin cells that come off during the exfoliation treatment is amazing. Afterwards, your skin is soft and glowing.
After the exfoliation, your hair is washed with Argan oil shampoo. Then, to absorb impurities and mineralize the epidermis, a purifying, cleansing ghassoul clay mask is applied to your face and body. After 15 minutes, you take a shower to remove the mask, and then a hydrating layer of vitamin E enriched argan oil is applied to your skin and hair. The final step is an invigorating massage, with you deciding the intensity – light to deep tissue.
“Since religion is the center of Moroccan culture, the first hammams were established near mosques and praying centers to facilitate the purification of body and soul before prayer rituals.”
Benefits of Moroccan Hammams
After it was over, I slept like a baby and felt rejuvenated and full of energy the next day. Hammam benefits are listed below:
- Physical / emotional detoxification – stress and anxiety reduction
- Beautifying body and face – removing dead skin cells, unclogging pores, eliminating toxins
- Skin nourishment / hydration – moisturizing and providing essential vitamins and minerals
- Anti-aging – allowing inner organs to breathe while toning and firming the skin
- Muscle tension and pain reduction
- Better sleep
- Boost to the immune system by activating blood circulation
- Improved body / mind connection, energy, and balance
Mint Tea and Fresh Squeezed Pomegranate Juice
Sipping mint tea in a cooling room is the grand finale of a Moroccan hammam. I’ve almost become addicted to delicious mint tea, and drink it every day. It’s made from gunpowder tea, a form of green tea that increases energy, improves endurance, and is especially beneficial to your health. It’s pure heaven when you add fresh mint, a touch of honey, and serve it with a few dates.
Fresh pomegranate juice is another favorite drink in Morocco. You can buy it in the Medina or at stands along the beach, and watch as friendly Moroccan vendors squeeze juice from the gorgeous scarlet-red fruit.
Egyptian Pyramids Next
This time in Essaouira has been beneficial in many ways, but also challenging. I visited Morocco years ago as a much younger woman. It was an entirely different experience of group trekking in the Atlas Mountains, followed by short, fast-paced excursions in Marrakech, Essaouira, and Casablanca. I fell in love with Essaouira and vowed to return.
During this trip, it took the first few weeks to get into the swing of the local vibe. Essaouira isn’t an easy place for a solo woman traveler, but my wanderings are about experiencing and understanding local culture, values, and way of life first-hand. The massive cultural change took me by surprise and was greater than I imagined.
I try not to belabor negative travel experiences in my blog posts, but acclimating to Essaouira came with a bit of discomfort. During extended travel, you often learn the most from challenges. Moroccan culture can be harsh for a western woman traveling alone. It’s depressing, and if you let it, can drive you a little crazy. I repeatedly learned how it feels to look different and be the “oddball” in the crowd. I could write a book about getting “gawked” at, and experiencing firsthand what discrimination feels like. In the end, I gave up trying to “explain” myself and simply tried my best to mix and mingle with the locals and mostly European tourists. For solo travelers, larger, more cosmopolitan cities are an easier place to acclimate and blend – small towns in Morocco or anywhere else in the world, not so much…
I learned many details about Moroccan culture and got yet another lesson in the importance of self-reliance, patience, and tolerance. As I’ve often said, living life totally within your comfort zone isn’t for me, and I try to avoid fixed habits and developing a fixed mindset.
In foreign countries, challenging situations are likely to happen and usually do. You must remain flexible. Expecting anything to be the same as you’re accustomed to in a comfortable, familiar environment is unrealistic and makes acclimation more difficult. Even with that thought etched in your mind, remaining flexible and “going with the flow” of a foreign country is complicated. The experience is often fraught with surprises and challenges that don’t make sense to a westerner. You’re clearly not in control of the unfamiliar environment. Whining and complaining aren’t helpful, so you have no choice but to remain strong, positive, and calm, and focus on learning about the cultural differences surrounding you. The affect – how you perceive yourself and the rest of the world – can be significant
In February, I leave Morocco and continue my travels in Giza Egypt. I’m excited to visit the pyramids! It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time! A taste of the Moroccan desert sparked my curiosity, and I’m looking forward to exploring the ancient pyramids and taking excursions in the Egyptian desert. I’m staying in a small apartment near the pyramids. Later, I may venture into Cairo, and if I like it there, stay a while. I’ll likely be missing the energy of a larger city.
More from Egypt…