Morocco is one of those places that seems both familiar and unfamiliar. We’ve heard of cities like Fez and Marrakesh, and most of us can imagine their crowded, maze-like bazaars full of merchants hawking rugs and spices. Perhaps we’ve eaten couscous or tagine in a Moroccan restaurant or watched “Casablanca” a few times. But, unless we’ve been there, what we know is just bits and pieces of a rich and varied country full of hidden delights.
Located along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of northwest Africa — and separated from Spain by just nine miles at the Strait of Gibraltar — Morocco has incredibly diverse topography, scenery and culture, with a mix of Berber, Arab, African and European influences. Inhabited for tens of thousands of years, Morocco has been occupied by Phoenicians, Berbers, Romans, Muslims and, during the first half of the 20th century, the French and Spanish. Independent since 1956, the Kingdom of Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, Islam is its predominant religion and, by regional standards, it is politically stable and economically prosperous.
The Atlas and Rif mountain ranges dominate much of Morocco, with the Atlas forming an east-west barrier that separates the temperate Mediterranean climate to the north from the arid desert climate to the south. During Edelweiss Bike Travel’s 13-day Morocco Tour, we rode along craggy coastlines, up and over rugged mountains, through deep, narrow river gorges and across desolate desert valleys. We wandered the medinas (old quarters) of Fez and Marrakesh, explored the blue-painted alleys of Chefchaouen, visited the largest mosque in Africa and rode camels across sand dunes for a night of camping in the Sahara Desert, visiting several UNESCO World Heritage Sites along the way. I’ve been on a dozen overseas motorcycle tours on five continents, and Morocco offered the best variety of roads, scenery, food and experiences of them all.
First, we had to get there.
The tour starts and ends in Málaga, on Spain’s southern coast. After the first night’s welcome briefing, bike hand-over and dinner, we geared up and made our way southeast along the Costa Del Sol, scrubbing the sides of our tires on the winding road up to Ronda, one of Spain’s best motorcycling roads. We spent the afternoon in Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, enjoying views from its massive, 1,400-foot limestone promontory and snapping photos of its tourist-friendly population of monkeys. A ferry ride across the strait took us to Cueta, an autonomous Spanish city on the northeast tip of Morocco.
Our second day started with a hurry-up-and-wait crossing of the high-traffic border, a process handled with aplomb by our multilingual guide Angela, who has led more than 20 tours in Morocco. After several miles on a manicured boulevard lined with resorts and shopping malls, we hugged the coast on a dramatic road high above the Mediterranean. After a seafood lunch overlooking the sea, we turned inland, twisting through the Laou River canyon that forms a deep rift in the Rif Mountains.
The richness of Morocco was on full display in Chefchaouen, a 15th-century town perched on a mountainside with many of its buildings painted various shades of blue. As we explored the narrow, winding alleyways of the “souk” (marketplace) in the medina, artwork, rugs, clothing, spices and trinkets spilled onto the cobblestone walkways and steep stairs, some corridors barely wide enough for two people to pass. At dusk we heard “adhan,” the Islamic call to prayer recited five times a day by muezzins via loudspeakers atop mosque minarets. With mosques scattered throughout Chefchaouen, adhan creates a loud Arabic chorus that can be heard citywide. The next morning I was awoken by the call to prayer well before sunrise, followed by howls from dozens of dogs.
Our itinerary included two nights in Chefchaouen at two different hotels, one at the beginning of the tour and another 10 days later after making a counterclockwise loop around Morocco. From Chefchaouen we rode southwest, out of the Rif Mountains and across fertile plains to Mohammedia on the Atlantic coast. Our group was large, with 17 participants, three guides, 16 motorcycles and one support van. After each morning’s ride briefing, we split into two groups and left about 30 minutes apart, meeting up at coffee and lunch stops. From Mohammedia, one group rode into Casablanca to tour the massive Hassan II Mosque, which has a 690-foot minaret that looms over the city’s waterfront. The rest of us rode farther down the coast to El Jadida, a port city that includes the walled village of Mazagan, a fortified supply depot built by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
For our rest days in Marrakesh and Fez, Edelweiss hired a local guide who gave us a walking tour of each city’s medina. With its dark, narrow corridors full of stalls displaying produce and meat, leather goods, metalwork, ceramics, rugs, jewelry, artwork, clothing, you name it — each one with a vendor enticing you inside (“Hello my friend, you buy something?”) or haggling with a patron — the medina in Marrakesh is a high-calorie feast for the senses. Our guide Ahmed knew the complex warren like the back of his hand, leading us to a museum of carpet weaving and artisans’ workshops. We returned that night to find the medina’s wide-open plaza brightly lit and full of people, food vendors and performers.
The riding experience kicked into high gear as we left Marrakesh, climbing into the High Atlas, summiting a 7,415-foot pass called Tizi n’Tichka and barreling down the Ounila River valley, its corridor of green surrounded by multicolored canyon walls. We spent the night in a small village at Riad Ksar Ighnda, built in the traditional “riad” style with mud-brick walls surrounding a large inner courtyard, this one catering to tourists with lush gardens, a heated saltwater pool and a bar stocked with ice-cold Casablanca beer. Accommodations on this tour are comfortable, mid-to-high-end hotels catering to English-speaking tourists (the most common languages in Morocco are Arabic and French). Nearly all serve alcohol and have swimming pools, both welcome indulgences at the end of full riding days. The tour includes breakfast and dinner buffets at the hotels, while lunches are at local spots along the route that offer more interesting cuisine.
Throughout the 1,800-mile tour we traveled on paved roads, though in some rural or mountainous areas they were of poor quality or under construction. Outside of cities traffic was light, but sharing the road with horse-drawn carts, mopeds, tuk-tuks, dogs, donkeys or camels was common. Big motorcycles are rare in Morocco; whenever we rode through villages my left arm got tired from waving back to everyone, especially kids, who waved to us.
The most dramatic scenery was through the Dadès and Todras gorges that cut into the Atlas Mountains. After winding our way through villages along the edge of the Dadès River valley, we enjoyed a picnic lunch hosted by our guides. Then the real fun started. We burrowed deeper into the gorge, its walls closing in and looming higher until we climbed a famous set of switchbacks that took us to the upper gorge. Continuing on, the gorge squeezed down to a single-lane slot before opening up again. The best part was turning around and riding back out the way we came! After a night in a luxurious hotel perched on a hill above Boulmane Dadès, we rode farther east and into and back out of the Todras Gorge.
Although the area of Morocco south of the Atlas Mountains has a desert climate, only a narrow sliver of the country near the Algerian border is technically part of the Sahara. We rode into the world’s largest desert on our eighth day, with most of our group riding north to Erfoud for a rest day by the pool at the Hotel Kasbah, and eight of us going to Merzouga for a two-hour camel ride through Erg Chebbi dunes and night in a Berber-style camp.
During our late fall tour we enjoyed day after day of sunny skies and pleasantly warm temperatures. As our route turned north, we rode through the Ziz River canyon, up and over the High Atlas and across a wide plain. The cool, sunny morning turned into a cold, foggy, rainy day as we traversed the Middle Atlas, over 7,145-foot Col du Zad, through cedar forested national parks and past ski resorts.
We dried out during our final rest day in Fez, where Ahmed led us on a tour of a ceramics cooperative, the foul-smelling leather dying district and other parts of the medina. That night several of us had camel burgers for dinner! Our route back to Chefchaouen took us back into the Rif Mountains on a road that could easily be mistaken for one in the Alps, and before we knew it we were crossing the border, ferrying across the strait and putting our kickstands down back in Málaga, our hearts and minds overflowing with new experiences, memories and stories. If you’re the curious sort who’s ready for an exotic adventure, put Morocco on your list.
Edelweiss Bike Travel’s Morocco Tour normally runs March/April and October/November. Visit edelweissbike.com for details.