What to know about cycling southern Morocco

  En route to Essaouria where the Atlas Mountains meet the Atlantic coast.

En route to Essaouria where the Atlas Mountains meet the Atlantic coast.

In February 2016, I headed to Morocco for my very first cycling trip. Starting in Marrakesh and heading south over the Atlas Mountains via the Tizi n'Test pass, I traveled to Tafrout and onwards to the southern Moroccan coast—requiring two climbs over the Anti-Atlas range—before reaching Sidi Ifni, turning north to Essaouria, and returning to Marrakesh at the end of the month. It was a challenging, rewarding, amazing journey; here are a few things I learned en route.

  My route through southern Morocco, compiled after-the-fact.

My route through southern Morocco, compiled after-the-fact.

 

February was a terrific time to tackle southern Morocco. Days were dry and warm—a comfortable 24°C on average and a bit cooler in the mountains—and nights hovered around 7°C. Nights could feel a bit long, with about thirteen hours of darkness, and mornings could stay chilly. With the exception of a few days on the coast, wind was never a factor, and I only experienced two days of light rain during my three weeks in the country: both back-to-back south of Essaouria.

  One of WeatherSpark's super-useful annual temperature charts. February was a brilliant time to go, but November through March offer good weather (albeit a lot of darkness).

One of WeatherSpark's super-useful annual temperature charts. February was a brilliant time to go, but November through March offer good weather (albeit a lot of darkness).

There aren't many roads in southern Morocco, so the ones there are stay well-maintained and well-signed. Most signs are in Roman and Arabic alphabets, though more rural sections may only sign in Arabic (I used National Geographic's Morocco Adventure map, which I neither loved nor hated; Google Maps was a little more up-to-date, though an offline map wasn't available for download when I was there). The road from Marrakesh to the base of the Atlas can be harrowing and unpleasant—it's a steady, though gentle, uphill ride, with big trucks and narrow roads—but in general they're very enjoyable. Some roads have shoulders, though the shoulder can be a bit jagged and uneven, and for those seeking an off-road (and very slow-going) adventure, many routes offer a parallel piste, typically a rocky goat track, free of cars.

Built by the French in the early twentieth century, the ride over the Atlas is well-paved and well-kept, with occasional road work making things a little bumpy. In February of 2016, snow melt wasn't an issue at all heading over the Tizi n' Test pass. Traffic is light and typically courteous throughout southern Morocco, though drivers do speed and often take the center of the road when whipping around corners. RVs are plentiful—especially on the coast—and their passengers (often retired French couples) are kind and helpful. The stretch south of Agadir is a nightmare, traffic-wise, but gets better as you head further north.

 Beautiful, well-kept roads are quite common.

Beautiful, well-kept roads are quite common.

In general, upwards of 90% of my route was paved with rough asphalt. Smooth asphalt (which rides about 30% more quickly) made up another 5%, and less than the remaining 5% was anything resembling gravel or unpaved roads.

As for terrain, Morocco can be very hilly. Climbing the Atlas and Anti-Atlas ranges are grueling ordeals. The coast and the desert have many ups and downs, but there's plenty of time to freewheel throughout the country. I rode Morocco on 35mm tires with a compact double (50-34 chainring) and felt both were adequate for the roads and climbs.

Southern Morocco is exceptionally beautiful. The Atlas and Anti-Atlas ranges resemble America's Sierra Nevada, the long inland stretches resemble Joshua Tree National Park or any dry, sparse desert, and the coast offers all the beauty of southern California's without any of the development (though this is beginning to change). The long ride from Essaouria to Marrakesh is monotonous, but desert can get that way sometimes. Moroccan architecture is lovely, though please note that it is totally forbidden to photograph any operational mosque in the country (the Tin Mal Mosque, which is no longer in use, is totally okay). Almost every door in Morocco seems to be a work of art.

  The Tin Mal Mosque, now-defunct, is okay to photograph. Operational mosques are not.

The Tin Mal Mosque, now-defunct, is okay to photograph. Operational mosques are not.

Moroccan food is delicious, fresh, healthy, cheap, mostly organic, and mostly local. As a vegan, my options were limited to mostly vegetable tajine (vegans should note that this may still be stewed in bone broth): a filling and really wonderful helping of couscous and vegetables (typically potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes) with bread. Omnivores will, of course, have more options, generally a selection of meat-based tajines. Moroccan salads (super-fresh tomatoes and onions) generally accompany meals, and Moroccan tea (sugary and minty) is phenomenal. Breakfast is typically a basket of bread with various dressings: honey, argon oil, olive oil, yogurt, and olives.

Grocery stores are very difficult to find in smaller towns; small shops will sell snacks, dried grains, and drinks, but not much in the way of produce. Markets are how most Moroccans get their food. Finding lindal-valve (screw-on) gas canisters for a stove proved impossible, and fuel for an alcohol stove was also difficult to find with a language barrier at play. The food at restaurants, though, is so cheap and so filling and so delicious that all but the most budget-minded travelers will want to eat out most days.

Campgrounds that cater to tent campers are virtually non-existent. Most “campsites” are large parking lots for RVs, and campsite hosts will look at a cyclist looking to tent-camp with a mix of confusion and pity. Pitching a tent at one of these spots shouldn't be a problem for a negligible fee (under five USD). Guesthouses and hotels are very affordable, though some fancier spots can be much more pricey. Owners are very happy to haggle a discounted rate for a longer stay, or upgrade you to a larger room at no charge if the hotel has a lot of vacancy and you ask very nicely.

I had no trouble wild-camping while in southern Morocco. It can be difficult to find a secluded spot in flatter, drier areas, or any spot at all in going over the mountains or passing through cultivated farmland, and the ground is more often than not exceptionally rocky and littered with thorns. Note that grazing lands are unfenced and a shepherd may come upon your tent in the early morning no matter where you are, but I wasn't bothered by anyone while there. Camping on the beach is particularly lovely.

  Camping in front of a bed-and-breakfast for about 50 dirham (5USD).

Camping in front of a bed-and-breakfast for about 50 dirham (5USD).

  Wild camping on bumpy soil in the mountains for 0 dirham.

Wild camping on bumpy soil in the mountains for 0 dirham.

At no point in southern Morocco did I feel even marginally unsafe. I'd heard reports of rock-throwing children in the northern half of the country, but the kids in the south were harmless. Asking for food or money is common, so carrying a little local bread to share is a nice gesture. All the Moroccans I met were warm and friendly and welcoming. Of course, I am perceived as a straight white male, so I can't personally speak to traveling as a member of the LGBT community, a person of color, or a female, and as always I imagine it does present greater risks. Though it's respectful to cover one's legs and upper arms in Morocco, no one seemed to give me a problem if I was cycling in shorts on a hot day—though I did make every effort to slip on a pair of pants when stopping at a restaurant or guesthouse before entering.

  Approaching an unexpected and thrilling descent on the way to Tiznit.

Approaching an unexpected and thrilling descent on the way to Tiznit.

As a self-supported cyclist with a tent and stove and map, communication was never absolutely essential. When attempted—as a native English speaker with only limited Spanish (in other words, an American)—it could be difficult outside of Marrakesh and other touristy areas, or when talking to those who don't work in tourism. People in mountain villages often spoke Berber; folks elsewhere commonly spoke Arabic. French was more widespread on the coast, and Spanish southward of Mirleft. On a few occasions I was able to speak limited Spanish with someone who also spoke limited Spanish. Picking up a few Arabic words of greeting before setting off is nice for saying hello while cycling along.

Southern Morocco is not a popular cycling destination, so coming across fellow bike travelers isn't common. I met a group of five cyclists in the Atlas headed in the opposite direction, a pair just shy of the Tizi n'Test, and a lone cyclist headed from Poland to Dakur south of Essaouria, but otherwise didn't see any other bike tourists during my three weeks in Morocco. A few Moroccans on fancy road bikes zip up and down the coastline on day rides.

For Americans and passport-holders of about 70 other countries, entering Morocco is easy and visa-free for up to 90 days.

Cycling around Morocco can be very cheap. I didn't really track—or worry about—finances while visiting, but probably spent under 500USD during my month there. That included cab fare to and from the airport (my only transportation expense), maybe one large meal and one breakfast and one stop for tea per day (though sometimes less), an unexpectedly high number of stays in hotels or guesthouses (maybe about two-thirds to three-quarters of the time), and some loose tea to bring back for myself and friends. A budget-minded cyclist willing to wild-camp every night and eat one meal out per day could certainly get by for under 10USD per day.

Questions about cycling southern Morocco? I'd be totally happy to help answer them if I can. Corrections or differing experience than mine? I'd love to hear them. Either way, just drop a line in the comments below.

 Enjoying a sunset on the empty beaches of Morocco's southern coast.

Enjoying a sunset on the empty beaches of Morocco's southern coast.