In April 2023 I had the pleasure (and the pain) of bikepacking the 700-mile Route of the Caravans, also called the Southern Morocco Traverse. I’ve been curious about Morocco for years now, having spent time in West Africa to its south and North Africa to its east but never setting foot in the most visited of all African countries.
No place in the world shares Morocco’s unique blend of Arab, Berber, European (French, Spanish, Portuguese), and African cultural influences. The region’s recorded history goes back to 1000 BCE! Throw in some impressive mountains, a long coastline, and a chunk of the famous Sahara desert, and you have the perfect setting for an epic bike trip.
This was a joint trip with my husband, henceforth referred to as “E” (though “Mr. Wild” is also a tempting nickname). As such it was a bit different from some of my trips because of that compromise thing required by good partnerships. While I’m interested in biking, biking, and more biking, he likes surfing and watersports and has a slightly shorter bike-related attention span than I do. So Route of the Caravans was my pick, the week of kitesurfing beforehand in Western Sahara was his pick, and the following month of leisurely touring between surf towns in Portugal was a compromise.
This trip report covers the 23 days we spent bikepacking in Morocco between Tiznit and Beni Mellal on Route of the Caravans. It’s a long post, mostly intended for people planning their own ride in the same area. If you’re just here to learn about our trip and see what Morocco is like, I suggest you scroll through and focus on the pictures. Morocco was a delightfully photogenic place in spite of, or maybe because of, its understated palate of pinks and browns. I took a ton of pictures and had trouble choosing which ones to leave out of this post!
About Route of the Caravans
This route was developed in 2014 by Logan Watts while on a ride in Morocco with his partner Virginia. They covered a very similar, but not exactly identical, route to the one eventually published on bikepacking.com.
Here’s an embedded version of the route (see the official route description for much more detail):
It seems they haven’t returned to scout the remaining sections or update any route info since 2014, thus this route has an air of mystery about it and leaves some adventure to be discovered by future riders. This is as it should be, in my opinion, when you’re exploring a new country by bike! Common sense and self-reliance are needed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m super grateful to Logan for publishing this route and never would have pieced it together on my own. But if you want to ride it, I highly recommend reading through the comments on the route page for more detailed and up-to-date info, as some things have understandably changed since 2014.
A very high-level sketch of the 700 mile route: It begins in Tiznit on the Atlantic coast, ascends into the Anti Atlas Mountains, then dips down to the edge of the mighty Sahara desert. After a desert tour of rocks, sand, and more rocks, riders follow the river Draa northward through more populated areas. Leaving the valley behind in the popular tourist destination of Dades Gorge, the route crests a high pass and returns to the mountains once again, this time the High Atlas. The mountain town of Imilchil marks the official end of the route, but I recommend following this route onward to Beni Mellal where you can catch a CTM bus to any city.
Impressions of the Route and Difficulty Level
We took a relaxed approach to this ride, yet even with our leisurely schedule I have to admit this route was harder than expected. The map and elevation profile definitely don’t tell the whole story. A big chunk of the miles are paved and the elevation profile shows long stretches of nearly flat riding. So why did we feel so wiped out most of the time?
To be fair, we weren’t especially well-trained when starting out, and we carried a bit too much gear thanks to our varied 2.5 month itinerary. But there’s more to it than that. A combination of very hot weather, extremely rough and slow-going sections of rock and sand, poor diet outside of major towns (complicated by Ramadan in our case), occasional tummy trouble, and the constant low-level strain of language barriers and cultural differences all combined to leave us feeling a bit worn down.
For the record, it wasn’t just us. We met two other couples touring the route while we were there, and both seemed to feel similarly. All of us had originally entertained thoughts of riding onward past Imilchil, and in the end we all separately decided to take the bus from Beni Mellal and fast-track to Europe. 🙂 The bikepacking.com description gives the route a difficulty score of 8/10, quite high for a route that’s over 30% paved, and I believe they didn’t even ride the hardest sections of the current route. I don’t say this to scare you away, but to make sure you’re expecting some “type 1.5 fun” and ready to roll with whatever the route throws your way.
If a bikepacking trip is like a meal, I usually like routes with a hefty main course of rideable dirt / gravel and smaller “side dishes” of pavement and gnarly rough stuff. The Route of the Caravans felt like all side dish and not enough main course. There’s a lot of pavement and more nasty hike-a-bike than expected, but less rideable dirt and gravel than I would have liked. Obviously I’m being a bit particular here, and we can’t expect every place to offer up the ideal mix of riding. But if you have a so-many-rides-so-little-time situation on your hands, I figure this is something you might want to know.
Because of all that, I would say this is a route to ride if you already want to visit Morocco and also want to bikepack. As a way to explore Morocco off the main roads, which can be difficult to piece together, it’s a fantastic resource. But I wouldn’t necessarily choose it as the sole reason to travel to Morocco if you’re not already interested in visiting the country, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it for your first bikepacking trip abroad.
I recommend most people allow more time than the route description’s 16 day suggestion. We took 17 riding days and 3 rest days between Tiznit and Imilchil. That’s 20 days, 4 more than recommended, and we skipped 50 miles and took easier detours in a few places!
Also consider that you’re not really done once you reach Imilchil. We took a rest day there (not strictly necessary, but helpful) and another 2 riding days to finish at Beni Mellal. That’s a total of 23 days. Even at this relatively slow pace we often felt tired and our rest days felt essential. My advice is to plan a generous schedule with extra time for rest days, tummy trouble, sightseeing, or possible side trips.
Could you do it faster? Maybe! If you’re fit, traveling light (we had gear for a 2.5 month tour), and ride in cooler weather you can definitely do better than we did. But I still think 16 days is ambitious, especially if you want to enjoy yourself.
Our ride started on April 9 and finished on May 1. That’s a little later than recommended, which explains why the weather was uncomfortably hot most of the time (though apparently March was hotter than usual this year too). The route description recommends starting in March to balance heat in the desert and snowmelt in the mountains. By the time we reached the High Atlas in late April there was zero snow remaining. I don’t know if this is typical for the region or perhaps they had a light snow year and warm spring.
Alternates and Extensions
Technically the route ends deep in the High Atlas at the town of Imilchil. But the nearest town with good transport (i.e. a CTM bus terminal) is Beni Mellal, about 2 days’ hilly ride through lovely countryside. Though the route from Imilchil to Beni Mellal is all paved, I thought it was some of the most enjoyable riding of the whole trip! It was a treat to experience the lusher and greener western side of the mountains after so much brown and arid landscape.
The route description talks up the possibility of a northern extension all the way to Tangier, but most attempts at getting hold of the draft have failed. I do know that the proposed route would continue from Imilchil to Fes, then on to Tangier via the picturesque town of Chefchaouen. This is a convenient route for anyone continuing to Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar, and it hits a few of Morocco’s sightseeing highlights on the way. We essentially took the same path via CTM bus with stops in Fes and Chefchaouen for sightseeing. For those who somehow still have the energy for more rugged Morocco bikepacking, you could try to piece together a backroads version or try your luck asking Logan for the draft route.
The famous Atlas Mountain Race routes (different every year) offer other options for piecing together a Morocco bikepacking trip. The 2023 route overlaps with Route of the Caravans briefly during an amazing ascent just north of Afra. If you want to ride directly from Marrakesh you could follow the AMR route until it intersects with Route of the Caravans (ROC), then head either north (more mountains) or south (toward the desert). The other end of the AMR route connects to the seaside town of Essaouira and could make a nice addition to the beginning of ROC, intersecting it east of Tiznit.
Journal and Route Notes
Here’s a section-by-section overview of our ride based on my daily journal notes, including lots of pictures and some important notes for future riders.
Before the Start
We started our trip in an unusual way, working in some sightseeing and a visit to Western Sahara before doing much biking. Here’s a bit of logistics beta for anyone interested in something similar.
- We began our trip by flying into Marrakesh, where we built our bikes and spent three days exploring the city. The souks were super touristy, but we enjoyed some smaller museums (culinary arts, carpet and weaving) as well as Badi Palace. Also dealt with straightening my derailleur hanger, which was bent during the flight, so I’d still have a spare for the trip (thanks Atlas Bike Shop!)
- CTM bus from Marrakesh to Agadir, explored Agadir for a day. Some parts of Agadir are nice and modern, others full of abandoned hotels with a weird vibe. We had a couple minor unpleasant interactions in Agadir and got the sense that it’s over-touristed in that unfortunate way that leads to friction between locals and visitors, but we enjoyed the walk up to the fort.
- Flight from Agadir to Dakhla (left bikes at hotel in Agadir, thank you Hotel Riad Salam!). Spent a week at Dakhla Evasion learning to kitesurf, then took overnight bus back to Agadir (could have also taken a flight, but I wanted to see a bit more of Western Sahara on the way).
- CTM bus from Agadir to Tiznit, where we started riding Route of the Caravans the next morning.
Tiznit to Tafraoute, 82 miles, 3 days (hard!)
The route leaves Tiznit through a trash heap, not the most picturesque start but don’t worry, it gets better. A hot dry headwind and some climbing made for slow progress and parched mouths. At one point we found ourselves on a very rocky track through a shepherd’s camp. The women waved, but the dogs were unusually vicious! We stocked up on water from a small shop in Anzi and pedaled a couple more miles down the road, finding a mostly hidden camp spot just past the next little town.
Day 2 was already scorching hot when we left camp at 8:30 am. The first few miles of pavement were nice and easy, but the second of the day’s two climbs turned out to be a monster. We pushed our bikes up the dirt road through a construction zone, over piles of boulders (with the help of a construction worker) and up, up, up… The scenery was spectacular, very atmospheric with pink-walled villages spilling along ridgelines and down hillsides. In hindsight, though the riding / walking was really tough, this was one of my favorite days.
At the top of the second climb the GPS track veered down a rarely used old path, overgrown and covered in large rocks. A local woman wordlessly pointed the way when we almost missed the turn, and waited to offer reassuring nods until we were firmly established on the right path. We walked almost all of that rough descent to the river (Oued Massa), which did have some water in it, though not enough to make the crossing difficult.
From the river another rough road climbed steeply in the hot sun. We felt totally cooked as we heaved our bikes up the loose switchbacks. At the top we reached a slightly more populated area and were able to pedal once again, finally choosing a stealthy campsite on some unused land at the edge of a village. The night was quiet and peaceful after evening prayers. In the morning we were spotted by some women gathering herbs, but they only waved and cheerfully called out “Bonjour!”
On our third day we tackled the big climb of this section. We expected a doozy based on the location of a red “!” icon on the map, but this climb was much easier than the one before (perhaps the icon is in the wrong spot?). It was paved and mostly gradual, and quite scenic. Near the top we transitioned to dirt and followed an amazing descent down 3000 feet, through hillside villages and winding streets and steeply terraced fields toward the town of Tafraoute.
During these first three days we averaged 28 miles and 3633 feet of climbing per day, in very hot weather. If it’s not obvious, that’s a lot of climbing per mile. When we woke on day 4 in Tafraoute we both felt totally toasted! We decided to take a rest day in Tafraoute after only 3 days of riding, to avoid digging ourselves into an early hole of fatigue.
Important notes for future riders:
- Around mile 10 we passed through a couple unlocked gates after failing to find good ways around them. As far as we can tell this was acceptable.
- The route file has a warning icon at mile 52 which suggests bypassing a tough climb if heavily loaded. We assumed this referred to the upcoming climb, the big one, but in hindsight I think this icon is in the wrong place. The tallest climb is gradual smooth pavement and worth doing (though the descent is steep and rough in places). But the little climb right before it is brutal! And the descent before that is too rough to ride in many places. This section, between roughly miles 34 to 50, is very slow.
- The place marked as a possible first campsite is, in my opinion, nearly impossible for most riders to reach on night 1. We reached it halfway through day 2! This is an unscouted section and I suspect the riding / hike-a-bike is harder than it appears on the map.
- Water is readily available from public spigots in many of the villages along this section. Look for the faucets jutting out of pretty tiled walls.
Tafraoute to Foum Zguid, ~180 miles, 4 days
We got a late start leaving Tafraoute after our rest day. Apparently the hotel staff were sleeping in due to Ramadan and didn’t show up to unlock the garage (where our bikes were captive) until 9:30am. Once on the road our first stop was the Painted Rocks, more impressive than I expected. I wonder if there are some good rock climbers in town.
Then we tackled a long paved climb before enjoying a nice descent down a valley past scattered rural villages. This section was pleasant and clearly not very touristy. Some women would pull their veil over their face as we approached, but on hearing my high-pitched “bonjour” or “salam alaikum” they would sneak a peek and offer a smile (E, being male, felt it was more polite to not greet them). We camped among some dry palm trees just past one of the villages, a nice spot except for the wind rustling the fronds all night.
On our second morning of this stretch I discovered a slight bend in my derailleur hanger, the one that was bent in transport and straightened in Marrakesh. It handled almost all the gears except the lowest two, so I decided to keep riding for the time being. We hike-a-biked up a steep rocky pitch and then descended on pavement to a long hot section of gravel. The occasional (mining?) truck offered a wave and a dust cloud, otherwise the road was quiet until Imitek. We topped up on water and food there from a nice shopkeeper and headed to the oasis marked on the map. It had water but felt too exposed right next to the road, so we hiked up the wash to a private spot for the night.
The next day was all pavement through Tata to Tissint. We stopped in Tata for a quick resupply and then, because Ramadan, pedaled out to eat lunch in a hidden spot off the road. The Route of the Caravans heads south of the paved road through a military checkpoint, but according to an earlier bikepacker and some reports on overlanding forums that route is closed to tourists. Oh well, we were enjoying a screaming tailwind and didn’t even mind the road miles.
Close to Tissint there’s a dramatic canyon where we almost camped, but were feeling too lazy to deal with dropping in and climbing back out in the morning. We ended up riding through Tissint and camping behind a little hill off the dirt road. Other than being a minefield of acacia thorns (tubeless tires recommended!) it was a great spot.
Our fourth day of this stretch was another really tough, rocky, HOT day of remote riding. I had a bad feeling as we dragged our bikes over fist-sized stones, already feeling faint in the hot sun at only 8:30am! Fortunately the road grew flatter and smoother after a few miles, just a bit of sand here and there, and almost no one around except a couple ragged-looking tents.
We were thrilled to reach the desert outpost of Foum Zguid and get a room for the night. The vibe in town was a bit different, touristy but adventurous, obviously influenced by the overlanding scene along the historic Paris – Dakar Rally route. When the restaurants opened around 8:30pm we enjoyed a nice dinner in the relaxed town square. Then we tried to get a good night’s rest before heading out into one of the most notable sections of the ride, the “real-deal desert riding” as the route description says.
Important notes for future riders:
- The area past the military checkpoint east of Tata is currently closed to foreigners, so you’ll have to ride the paved road from Tata to Tissint (roughly 45 miles).
- If you happen to need an ATM in Foum Zguid, there is exactly one. It’s not on the main street, so ask around.
Foum Zguid to Zagora, ~156 miles, 4 days
This next section, with its lunar landscape of Sahara sand and rock, is among the most memorable parts of the route for sure. It was also one of the most miserable. Coincidence? 😉 In hindsight I think we made it even harder than it needed to be, and I regret not being able to appreciate the wild landscape a bit more while there. Below I have some important suggestions for future riders who want to suffer a bit less than we did.
Leaving Foum Zguid the track was instantly a rocky mess, and continued that way for roughly (pun intended) 20 miles. We bumped and rattled along, finding occasional relief in a stretch of smoother singletrack apparently carved out by motorbikes. We saw no one on this section. Shortly before Lake Iriki the track joined up with a much nicer one appearing to come from the south. I’ve heard this way is less rocky and requires heading south from Foum Zguid on the main road before turning westward onto the piste, but I don’t have the details. (Side note: Dirt roads are referred to as a “piste,” the French word for track or path, in Morocco.)
The dry bed of “Lake” Iriki was heaven after the rocky road. If you’ve ever been to Burning Man you’ll know what I mean: it felt like having the Playa completely to ourselves. Here the auberges began appearing as small dots on the wide-open landscape. We could have camped anywhere (though shelter or cover were nowhere to be found) but needed water first, and it didn’t take much to be talked into dinner and a basic room at the Auberge L’Etoile Iriki. We were the only guests and Bachir was patient with his French, and we enjoyed one of the most wide-ranging conversations we managed to have with a local in Morocco.
If the previous day had been all about rocks, the next was all about sand. Shortly after leaving Lake Iriki the route began a contour around the northern edge of Erg Chigaga, the largest dunes in Morocco (“erg” means “sand dune”). We saw one 4×4 after another, all filled with tourists and many driven by guides, enthusiastically waving and cheering us on.
The fun fizzled quickly though, as it soon became clear the road was covered in sand for at least a dozen miles. Sometimes we rode, often we pushed, and always we cooked under the hot sun. I’m guessing this road was less sandy when Logan and Virginia rode through in 2014; the dunes are slowly creeping northward. We later learned of some better options slightly to the north – the whole area is a web of informal 4×4 tracks – and I’d suggest looking for them!
At least there were people in their 4x4s heading to the desert camps, so we figured we’d survive, but it was HOT! At times we could barely drag our bikes through the deep sand, and I would have been concerned about our situation if not for the occasional 4×4 or camp.
We stopped at one of the last desert camps to refill our water, then headed away from the dunes into a mild sandstorm. The landscape returned to lunar rock and we found a decent campsite beneath the only tree for miles. With the heat easing and the day’s work done, I let myself enjoy the surreal feeling of camping in this classic Sahara landscape.
On our final desert morning we tried for an early start, unsure how much sand was still between us and civilization. Long story but my derailleur hanger was still bent, and all the sand was wearing through my jockey wheel teeth due to the misalignment. I did an emergency hanger swap under a tree which thankfully stopped the damage, but we still had a long way to go. The area was a web of 4×4 tracks and we often lost the best path, which led to a lot of flailing around in deep sand.
For some unexplained reason the route takes a 10 mile detour to Mhamid before retracing those same miles and splitting north to Tagounite. We were planning to skip Mhamid and go straight to Tagounite, but at the split we couldn’t find the track to turn on. Tired of flailing about in the sand, we decided to stay on the main piste to Mhamid and then ride the road to Tagounite. This worked out well and I’m not sure why anyone would make the 20 mile out-and-back, honestly, as that section of piste is a sandy mess that wasn’t even fun the first time.
Mhamid is another desert outpost town, literally the end of the road, and popular with overlanding tourists. We stopped only briefly to collect ourselves while being pestered by some local kids, then kept cruising on the paved road to Tagounite. We took a basic little bungalow with shared bath at the campground, and prepared a grocery store feast to celebrate the end of the tough desert riding.
From Tagounite we followed the route about 50 miles north to Zagora on a mix of gravel and pavement. The kids in this area are clearly used to tourists and grew increasingly aggressive with their requests for money and “stylo” (pen). The last stretch into Zagora was rough gravel into a headwind and we were excited to finally get to town.
We took two full zero days in Zagora to rest, rehydrate, and catch up on a few practical matters before heading out for the final section of the route. Ramadan finally ended while we were there, and it was a treat to see everyone dressed up and celebrating on the streets. It was also a treat to finally buy a hot meal before sundown and to eat it shamelessly in public!
Important notes for future riders:
- If you find a smooth singletrack trail that bypasses a section of rocky road, TAKE IT as far as it goes! There are many connecting alternate paths (the Maps.me app is helpful for seeing them and keeping roughly on track).
- I think creeping sand has encroached on the road near the Chigaga dunes since the route was established. If Logan and Virginia had encountered the sand pit we did, they surely would have written about it! There are a number of parallel and informal routes through this section, so don’t be afraid to veer north and look for easier ways when things start to get sandy.
- Water: You can ask for water at the auberges around Lake Iriki and Erg Chigaga. If not staying there it may be polite to pay a little bit since their water is all trucked in. There are a few wells, mostly along the old Paris-Dakar Rally route which the GPS track does not follow exactly. If in need I would suggest flagging down a 4×4 (easy enough from Lake Iriki eastward) to ask for advice; the local guides presumably know the locations of the wells.
- The route includes a 20 mile out-and-back to Mhamid which I recommend modifying. Two options: 1) If you’re feeling energetic and have plenty of water you can follow the GPS track straight to Tagounite from the split. We didn’t find a track immediately at the split, but I think a few kilometers of cross-country would eventually lead to a decent gravel road. Or 2) Follow the main piste into Mhamid and then ride the paved road to Tagounite. This is what we did.
Zagora to Imilchil, ~235 miles, 6 days
We took our time through this section; it could certainly be done in 4 – 5 days. But we were leapfrogging with friends, playing it safe with camping spots, and generally not in a hurry.
Leaving Zagora the route follows backroads on the east side of the Oued (River) Draa. Though once a lush palm-lined valley, a dam in Ouarzazate now regulates the flow. We found the river mostly dry and the area a bit sad-seeming with parched palms and empty fields, though apparently they do release water from time to time. The map shows the eastern road as dirt but this stretch is now mostly paved. Eventually we crossed to the west side to Hotel Dar Ilyana, a really nice place I highly recommend. We wish we’d taken our rest days there instead of Zagora.
On our second day after Zagora we approached the start of the 50 mile loop heading west to Agdz. I have to admit we were getting a little tired of the Draa valley. The weather was still scorching hot and frequent villages made it hard to relax and enjoy the riding. In almost every village the kids would shout and follow us, or even join hands and block the road, only scattering at the very last second when it became clear we weren’t going to stop. We skipped the loop and headed straight to Afra.
North of Afra the route begins a really lovely climb into the mountains, sometimes rough and requiring hike-a-bike, but scenic and finally peaceful. The gain in elevation brought shades of green and the sweet relief of a cool breeze for the first time in… weeks? I was glad we skipped the loop and finally felt like we were bikepacking again, somewhere scenic and more remote. We made camp after refilling water at a small pool left in a dry riverbed, and had a peaceful night.
Descending from the mountains on day 3 was surprisingly tough, with lots of uphill mixed in. Once near towns again we took the parallel paved road to the east to save some time. We camped at “Camping Chabab Saghro” along with two other lovely bikepackers we would leapfrog with many times along this final section of the route.
The morning of day 4 brought a screaming headwind so we waited until noon to start our ride, still slightly off-route on the pavement into Boumalne Dades. It was a busy little town, almost overwhelming, so we did a quick resupply and kept moving. The first 18 miles heading up Dades Gorge were narrow, lined with auberges and restaurants, and busy with tourist traffic, making for stressful riding. We were struggling to find our groove so we stopped early at Camping Ait Oudinar, a very nice spot right before the hairpin switchbacks.
On day 5 we expected to ride to the beginning of the big final climb. Within a few miles we were up the classic hairpin switchbacks and traffic dropped dramatically, so we finally started enjoying the riding again. The weather was moody and there was a real sense of climbing into bigger mountains, the landscape gradually growing more rugged. The kids remained annoying and we didn’t feel comfortable wild camping, so when the wind and rain picked up we stopped early at Assaka Auberge. In hindsight we probably could have kept riding to the auberge at the base of the big climb; oh well.
On day 6 we finally stopped dawdling and got ourselves to Imilchil. The climb to the pass was rideable and busy with overlanders to take our minds off the hard work. From the top it’s all paved to Imilchil, starting with a screaming descent to Agoudal on smooth new asphalt. We thought Imilchil had an interesting vibe and we loved our friendly hotel (Maison d’Hotes), but I’ve heard multiple reports of cyclists having bad experiences there with aggressive kids and unfriendly adults. A boy in town peed “at me” (the only way I can think to describe it) which is basically the only incident of harassment I experienced in Morocco.
Important notes for future riders:
- If you need to shorten the route, consider cutting off the 50 mile loop between Afra and Agdz.
- The climb north of Afra is slow and you may not reach water before wanting to camp, so take plenty with you. We passed a couple streams closer to Tagmount.
- Once the route approaches the Oued Dades valley it may be easier to ride the paved road to Boumalne Dades if you’re in a hurry.
- After Boumalne Dades there are tons of shops and restaurants, and we regretted carrying so much food from town.
Imilchil to Beni Mellal, 83 miles, 2 days
Imilchil is officially the end of Route of the Caravans, but unless you want to hire a private van or figure out the local taxi system you’ll need to ride another couple days to reach a town with a bus station. We headed west to Beni Mellal, but first we took a rest day to rejuvenate our depleted legs.
Here’s the route we took to Beni Mellal, and I highly recommend it. It’s all paved, more or less, but narrow and very low-traffic. The mountain scenery is different than anything else on the route, greener and wetter, and tourists aren’t as common. It seemed like a fairly prosperous rural region, and the people seemed happy. We had one of our nicest experiences with locals on the whole route in this section when a family invited us in for tea. We wild camped one final night before the descent to Tagreft and enjoyed an amazing sunset. The final descent to Beni Mellal on day 2 was pure joy!
Getting to Tangier
We briefly considered trying to ride onward to Fes and then Tangier, but Morocco had taken a toll both physically and mentally. I might have ridden a little farther if time were no consideration, but we had to get home eventually and E was anxious to get some surfing in. Honestly I was ready to fast-forward a bit too. From Beni Mellal we caught the CTM bus to Fes, then to Chefchaoun, then to Tangier, taking quick sightseeing trips in each city. From Tangier we took the ferry to Tarifa, Spain, and began part 2 of our trip in Europe!
Logistics and Planning Info
Water is a major concern on parts of this route, especially if you start late like we did or get unlucky with a heat wave. Temperatures can soar into the 90’s F or even 100+ at lower elevations, and there isn’t much shade. Due to the heat, dry landscapes, and uncertainty about water sources, I’d recommend a capacity of at least 8 liters per person. We each used a combination of hydration bladder in frame bag, 1.5 liter bottles on down tube and/or fork blades, bottles strapped to a rear rack, and sometimes bottles or water bladders in a pannier.
Where there’s a village you can generally find water. You might get lucky and spot a communal well or spigot, or you can ask around. Many villages have at least one small convenience store selling bottled water.
Out in remote areas, be extremely cautious about inferring water sources from a map. Morocco is crisscrossed by dry streambeds that no longer carry water, or only flow very briefly during peak snowmelt. Wells and oases sometimes go dry. Ask for the latest information before relying on a water source, and always carry extra.
The tap water in Morocco is supposedly safe to drink, but we often filtered ours (using a Sawyer Squeeze and CNOC Vecto gravity bag) just to be safe. In a few places the tap water tasted horrible — very high mineral content I suppose? — and we felt more comfortable drinking bottled water. It’s available at every convenience store, often in large 5 gallon jugs.
We did carry some chlorine dioxide in case we came across water that seemed in need of purification (a step up from filtration – see Water Treatment for Bike Travelers) but never used it.
Moroccan food is not particularly varied, but it always hit the spot. Most guesthouses include breakfast, a hearty spread of bread with jam, butter, honey, and eggs or an omelet. Often you can order dinner at your guesthouse, usually chicken or veggie tagine, for between $7 – $10 per person (relatively expensive, but a convenient treat). We found the typical dinner time of 8:30 or 9pm a bit late for hungry bikepackers and would often snack on yogurt cups from the nearest convenience store while we waited.
Much of our ride occurred during Ramadan, which posed extra challenges and led to a few hungry afternoons. Fortunately the grocery and convenience stores remained open during the day. To be polite we didn’t eat or drink in towns, instead pedaling out and sitting by the road in a discreet spot for our break. After sunset we sometimes found an “iftar” (breaking the fast) meal, and if we were willing to wait even later (usually around 8:30pm) we could find a “real” dinner at a restaurant.
When cooking our own food we relied on bikepacker staples like couscous and ramen. Here’s an example of our typical menu, available in every midsize town:
- Breakfast: granola, milk powder, instant coffee
- Lunch: bread or tortillas, peanut butter or Nutella, Laughing Cow cheese wedges, avocado
- Dinner: couscous with cheese and tinned mackerel (sardines also common), ramen with peanut butter, veggies (tomato, bell pepper, or avocado) if available
- Snacks: nuts, figs, dates, potato chips, cookies (so many cookies)
- Town treats: yogurt drinks, yogurt cups, milk… basically any type of chilled diary available in small convenience stores
Stoves and Fuel
You won’t find the U.S. style canisters (Lindal valve) or stoves in Morocco, but you will find the European standards of Campingaz “Easy Clic” (less common), pierceable canisters (very common), and the tall butane canisters (fairly common).
We actually started with an MSR Whisperlite multi-fuel stove but couldn’t find anything besides gasoline and diesel to go in it. After discovering the hassle of cooking with diesel we eventually bought a canister stove, and then another(!) when we ran out of gas and couldn’t find more Easy Clic canisters. At one point we were carrying three stoves!
With the clarity of hindsight, here are my stove recommendations for bikepacking in Morocco:
- Option 1: Bring a remote-burner backpacking stove from the U.S. and one of these adapters to use with tall skinny butane canisters, easily found in many convenience stores and hardware stores in Morocco.
- Option 2: Bring a backpacking stove from the U.S. and one of these adapters for the pierceable canisters that are available everywhere throughout Morocco.
- Option 3: Buy one of the cheap pierceable-canister stoves available throughout Morocco at various souks, hardware stores, and even some grocery stores. They’re bulky and it sounds worrisome to bike with a pierced canister, but the canister is held securely enough that it seems to work. Ours lived in a dry bag on my fork.
For more info, see this post about gas canister adapters.
Roads and Drivers
We felt very comfortable on the lightly traveled roads of this route. Drivers were mostly polite and passed safely, which was easy for them since there was rarely oncoming traffic. The only place we felt nervous was around Boumalne Dades where traffic was heavier, but still no major issues.
If you need to get around Morocco without pedaling, CTM bus company is a life-saver. We took our bikes on CTM buses five different times and found it easy and simple. They charge a few dollars per bike depending on the route and usually pack them carefully underneath in the luggage compartment. In larger buses our bikes actually fit upright, but with smaller buses (or larger bikes) you may need to remove the front wheel. Do keep an eye on the loading process, as they don’t always know to protect derailleurs and other vulnerable parts.
Camping and Lodging
We felt comfortable wild camping in some areas (usually more remote areas or on the outskirts of small villages) but other places were too populated for our liking. Morocco is one of those places where you should always expect someone — shepherds, kids, guy on a camel — to pop up even if the middle of nowhere. Fortunately it was almost always possible to find an auberge, hotel, or campground nearby with prices ranging from around $7 (basic campground) up to $40 (nicer auberge with meals included).
For help finding wild campsites and cyclist-friendly lodging I highly recommend the iOverlander app. For hotels and auberges, at least in bigger towns, we had good luck reserving with booking.com. The prices often (though not always) seemed cheaper than what we were quoted on arrival, and it’s always nice to skip some haggling after a long day of riding.
Though rustic auberges are sometimes single-story, most hotels in Morocco feature steep narrow staircases. We usually weren’t able to take our bikes up to the room, but they were always accommodated somehow in a garage or lobby. Have a plan for how you’ll carry your luggage up!
Weather and Temperature
This was a very warm route for us. We packed full cold weather and rain gear, because how could we not for a 2+ month bike trip? But we only used the rain gear twice, rarely used the lightweight puffy jackets, and I didn’t wear my warm tights even once.
That said, this route does spend time in the high mountains and it gets chilly up there, especially at night. I would recommend carrying a basic set of warm and rain gear, especially when traveling earlier in the spring. I think a sleeping bag or quilt rated around 40 F would have worked well (ours were a bit warmer).
Most Moroccans speak various dialects of Arabic and/or Berber/Amazigh, but fortunately for travelers many of them also speak French. We got by on a combination of E’s high school French and my “survival” French learned while traveling in West Africa. A few people here and there speak some English. I suggest downloading the French and Arabic offline libraries in the Google Translate app.
A few phrases you’ll hear often:
- Bonjour: Good morning or good day in French
- Salam alaikum (or just salam, less formally): Hello in Arabic, a respectful overture since Arabic is less commonly spoken by tourists
- Ça va? (“sah vah”): A casual greeting in French, like “how’s it going?”. You can answer with something like “Oui ça va” or “Ça va bien” and then ask “Ça va?” back in return.
- Merci / shukran: thank you in French / Arabic
- Inshallah: Arabic expression for “God willing,” can be a great ice breaker when used by a tourist. Good use cases include saying bye to someone you like (“We’ll meet again, inshallah”) or politely shaking off an aggressive tout in the market (“Maybe tomorrow, inshallah.”).
- Yallah: Another flexible Arabic expression you’ll probably hear often. It can be used in many contexts, including “Let’s go!” or “Come on,” or even “ok / alright.”
The Moroccan currency is the Dirham. At the moment of writing the conversion is pretty easy; you can roughly divide by 10 to get the price in either USD or Euro. It’s also common to see prices quoted in Euros in the more touristy areas.
ATMs are available in cities and larger towns. We found them at least once a week on the Route of the Caravans, usually more often, and they almost always worked. Do be sure to stock up before the more remote sections though, even if you think there’s nothing to spend money on, as you may still encounter guesthouses in the middle of nowhere and they will only accept cash.
Prices varied a lot depending on location; big cities and touristy areas were much more expensive than rural villages. A full dinner might cost between $7 to $10 at a touristy cafe or hotel, while a simple “fast food” meal or local restaurant would be more like $3 to $5. Camping was often $6 to $10 per night for two people and a tent. A simple hostel or auberge cost $15 to $20, sometimes with breakfast or dinner depending on negotiation skills. Hotels could be anywhere from $25 up to very expensive.
Navigation and Mapping
We navigated the route using RideWithGPS, the paid version that includes offline use.
I also highly recommend the Maps.me app (with the region downloaded) for a more detailed look at where villages might be, which lines are real roads and which might be more like footpaths. It was especially useful in the desert section when trying to navigate the webs of 4×4 tracks.
Google Maps has an offline feature on both Android and iPhone, which is useful for finding larger stores and hotels but not super reliable in small towns and rural areas.
iOverlander is helpful for finding campsites and bike-friendly lodging.
Vibes from Locals
We found Moroccans generally very hospitable and open to visitors, far more than I would personally expect given how overrun parts of their country are with tourists from dramatically different cultures. It was common for people to wave, smile, and greet us as we rode through their villages, and if you’re lucky you may be invited in for tea. The vibe varied a bit from place to place; some areas of Morocco are over-touristed and tend to feel less friendly.
Most adults in Morocco were lovely, but many of the kids were not. At what age do these little terrors magically grow into warm, polite, hospitable adults? In the less touristy areas the kids were just excited to say hi, which was fine, but elsewhere there was constant begging (“bon bon! stylo! Dihram!”). Groups of boys would sometimes block the road in a stressful game of chicken (they always moved at the last minute when we didn’t stop) and occasionally threw small rocks. This made passing through villages stressful!
If you haven’t encountered this dynamic before, my recommendation is to not give money or sweets to the kids (here’s why). Begging is a common problem in economically challenged parts of the world that are popular with wealthier tourists, and we’ve co-created this problem to some extent, but let’s not make it worse. Instead I suggest finding ways to engage on a more humanizing level, like kicking a soccer ball around, using your pump to inflate a squishy tire on their bike, or practicing a few words of French or English together.
Morocco is an Islamic country, though it’s relatively liberal among its middle eastern peers (the key word being relatively). This is just my outsider’s observation, but Morocco seems to have an especially wide range of gender-based norms compared to neighbors like Egypt and Sudan. In the small villages of the Anti Atlas women would pull their veils completely across their faces as we approached, yet in the coastal cities women were out in jeans and simple headscarves or even with uncovered hair.
Kids liked to put their hands out for high-fives, and the more polite ones self-selected by gender, girls high-fiving me and the boys only touching E. To play it safe, male tourists should avoid physical contact with local women unless the woman initiates it. Female tourists should keep in mind that it’s unusual for men to touch women, so don’t expect handshakes except perhaps from men in the tourism industry (and never feel pressured to tolerate unwanted physical contact, as it’s definitely not a cultural norm).
As for how all this translates to clothing, E and I both felt most comfortable covering our knees and elbows while riding. Traveling during the holy month of Ramadan made this feel even more important. We both wore below-the-knee knickers and long-sleeve shirts most of the time (also helpful for sun protection). Sometimes in cities we wore knee-length shorts and t-shirts. I don’t think the locals cared, but I sometimes felt uncomfortable when I had the only visible knees for miles, even in more modern cities.
In touristy areas you’ll see people wearing all kinds of wildly inappropriate (for the local culture) outfits. But we bikepackers spend far more time in rural areas where tourists aren’t common and norms are more conservative. Out of respect for the locals, and a desire to avoid unwanted attention, I suggest more conservative clothes.
Thoughts on Solo Riding
I had the luxury of sharing this ride with my husband, but I’ve bikepacked and toured over 13,000 miles solo, including places like Egypt and Sudan with similarly challenging cultural norms for women. So for anyone thinking of riding Route of the Caravans solo, including women, I’ll offer a few thoughts.
Remoteness: Much of the route is not really that remote, however there are a few spots where you may not encounter other humans often and some of them can be very hot and dry (Tissint to Foum Zguid, F.Z. to Lake Iriki, and Afra to Kalaat M’Gouna come to mind). There’s good cell service throughout most of the country, but in the most remote areas we were without. As a solo rider I would want to carry a satellite messenger like the Garmin InReach Mini for those areas, as things can go wrong very quickly in extreme heat.
Personal safety: My understanding is that violent crime in Morocco is quite rare, especially outside cities, and that traveling alone poses little risk even for women. Still, we took usual precautions of choosing hidden campsites and keeping an eye on our valuables; I’ve heard the kids aren’t above stealing items from bike bags in some areas. In the less remote sections it’s hard to find a wild camping spot that won’t be discovered, but there are often affordable auberges and campgrounds nearby.
Sexual harassment: Morocco doesn’t have the best reputation among solo female travelers in general, though I have to wonder how much of this comes from women in over-touristed areas dressed in attention-grabbing ways (not that this makes it ok). I experienced no sexual harassment while riding this route and most men were very polite to me. Of course I was with my husband most of the time, which definitely makes a difference in how I’m perceived. But I’ve biked solo in Egypt and Sudan and had a similar experience, albeit with a few more awkward misunderstandings. I know of women who biked solo in Morocco (Heike from Push Bike Girl, for example) and had good experiences.
Bikes and Bags
Choosing a bike and bag setup for this trip was a challenge. There’s definitely no perfect bike for a route with so much rugged riding and pavement mixed together. The following month of mostly pavement riding in Europe didn’t make the choice any easier.
I ended up choosing my Salsa Fargo, with some updates like better brakes and carbon fork, over my newer and fancier Stella. I thought the Fargo’s drop bars and geometry might give me a slightly quicker ride on all the pavement. I also knew we’d be taking a lot of buses and felt better about the simpler and less expensive Fargo in case something went wrong. I ran 29 x 2.25 Vittoria Mezcal tires, a reasonable compromise. I’m happy with my choices given the extreme variety of the route, but often wished for Stella’s flat bars and hydraulic brakes on the more rugged sections.
E rode his Solace OM-2P with Pinion gearbox, Whisky carbon fork, and Maxxis Ikon 29×2.35″ tires. He’s usually faster than me on pavement (unless it’s a steep climb) so he felt no need to skimp on tires. He loves this bike, and after a few very unlucky mechanicals on our early trips together (how do you even snap a chainring??) I love any bike that he loves.
If you can, I highly recommend tubeless tires! And bring extra sealant. Morocco is full of sharp spines and thorns, often in exactly the place you need to pull off the road and set up camp.
Our packing list wasn’t as minimal as I’d like, but we needed a fair amount of stuff to cover the varying conditions, activities, and cultural norms of our 2.5 months in Morocco and Europe. This was firmly in the “long international trip” category of my bikepacking gear list system, and I often wished for a lighter load on the rugged climbs. We used a bag system similar to that from our Central Asia trip: Revelate handlebar harness and fork bags in front, rack and REI Link panniers in the back. I doubt we could have carried 8+ liters of water each without the rack and panniers.
Recommendation for future riders: have a plan for how you’ll carry luggage from your bike to your hotel room. Many buildings in Morocco have steep narrow stairwells, so the bikes will often live downstairs in a garage. If using panniers or bags that don’t detach easily, use an inner bag that you can easily lift out and carry.
What a route! Morocco surprised, delighted, and challenged us, and definitely did not disappoint. Big thanks to Logan and bikepacking.com for the route, and to countless Moroccans for the warm welcome. As with any good bikepacking route, we left feeling like Morocco worked its way into our hearts and minds in unexpected ways. Or maybe I’m thinking of the sand, which worked its way into everything too. Either way, Morocco, you’ll always be a part of us now!
Next up you can read about part 2 of our trip, a much chiller meander through southern Spain and Portugal.
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