Experience driving in Northern Morocco
Experience driving through the backroads of North Morocco is nothing less than a total immersion in the exotic—all kasbahs, teeming markets and heady scents. It is a prime opportunity to be truly independent and have some fun. Morocco has an excellent network of good tarmac roads linking all the main towns and cities covering the north, a main pass over the Rif Mountains, in the north, and three main passes over the High Atlas Mountains and onto the Sahara Desert.
There is no greater experience, and starting point, that that of Tangiers. With only the Straits of Gibraltar separating Spain from Morocco you can forgive yourself for thinking that you have arrived into another world.
Over a recent Bank holiday we decided to go on a road trip from southern Spain to Chefchaouen, Morocco. Having prepared the car, collected the correct insurance papers and ensured we had our driving licences with us we arrived at Tarifa ready to be transported over to Morocco. The minute you roll off the deck in Tangiers you can hear the call to prayer, above the port sounds, as you are ushered into the customs area to have your papers checked. The whole Moroccan experience starts within a closed gated area, surrounded by custom men and guards, all happily brandishing guns and cufflinks. What was also notable were the number of ‘extras’ around, as if you are on a film set, who pestered you for papers and then want a tip for handing the papers over to officialdom. Welcome to Morocco!
With a great show of stamps and papers, and tips ‘paid’ the heavy cage gates were opened and we were released into the bright sunshine, free to travel the land independently and officially. The route out of Tangiers was confusing as our road map was indifferent to the number of road improvement schemes that were going on. So we resorted to following the sun and as we knew we had to go south we would keep the sun to our left, in the east. It worked!!! And in less than an hour after we had arrived in port our sturdy jeep was on the open National road heading south.
The Moroccan Highway Code is based on that of France, so you must usually give way to the right. At a roundabout you give way to cars already on the roundabout. The speed limits in Morocco are 40kmh in the cities, 60 or 80kmh and 120kmh on the motorways, and there are plenty of speed checks. Mostly you will see a policeman with a camera on a tripod though they can be hiding behind bushes! If you get caught the fine is about 40Euros. A full driving license is required for any rental whilst an International license is not needed. Road signs in the city centre are non-existent and it is worth setting out with a large map rather than having to resort to working out the direction in relation to the sun! Where there are road signs these are written in Arabic and French. Try to avoid driving after dark as there is still plenty of traffic on the roads, with pedestrians, cyclists, motorbikes and animals all behaving in a suicidal manner.
Moroccan roads quality can vary greatly - paved roads that give way to unsealed ones – so adjust your speed accordingly. Indicator lights are rarely used and you will find that you must try to anticipate the changes of direction that the Moroccans take with a carefree attitude. In rural areas look out for donkeys and flocks of sheep or goats! Service stations can be found at regular intervals though it is advisable to fill up before starting on any long journey. Self-service at the petrol stations is uncommon and so you should wait for an attendant, pay him in cash including a tip.
Once you have you have your head around driving then travelling around Morocco by car is a great delight. If you don’t feel confident to drive yourself a great alternative is to hire a car hire with an experienced English speaking driver, who can speak the local language and act as a guide as well. The driver will make his own sleeping and eating arrangements at each location. By having a driver, you are still liable for fuel costs. The additional cost of the driver is £35 per day.
For us the freedom of the road, to explore the western Atlantic Coast and then traverse across the Rif Mountains, was an absolute joy. Meeting with the proud Berber-speaking inhabitants, while discovering some of the larger towns, was easy. The greatest delight was the ease in which we could wander about without being hassled, we were not asked for any money in return for directions and everyone was genuinely helpful and charming.
Our first stop was the small fishing village of Asilah whose Andalucian style Medina proudly displays ‘art’ walls, full of colour and charm. The narrow streets are paved or limed and lined with houses displaying blue or green woodwork. Each August painters from all over the world are invited to daub a wall, within the Medina, whereupon the artwork remains for a full year until the next artist appears.
The road south takes you to one of the best beaches in the area, 7km of golden sand called ‘Paradise Beach’. It is not the most accessible of places and in hindsight taking the old man’s offer of a donkey and cart ride out to the beach, would have been sensible. But then we would have missed out on the delights of Thursday’s market, a traditional market where the local Berbers collect to sell and exchange produce ranging from oranges, to shoes to paint! And yet despite the obvious Berber style all around the countryside looked as if it could be Somerset. Rolling green, lush hills, lambs jumping about and feeding from their mothers, wild flowers everywhere – the countryside was beautiful. It was such a joy to be driving.
We headed away from the coast and traversed across the range of Rif Mountains much to the surprise of our host who warned us against the rough roads, the long journey and dangerous driving. The experience was so worth the challenge and after a long day, with lots of photo stops along the way, the blue haven of Chefchaouen appeared around the corner, as if by magic. The beautiful blue and white town hugs the ridges and valley of Oued Laou. Nestled between 2 mountains called Ech Chaoua (meaning the Horns) you will find steep narrow streets with white and indigo limewashed buildings, squares, ornate fountains and houses with elaborately decorated doorways. Once parked in the town you cannot easily get the car out again so the only way around is on foot. Our greatest pleasure was to leave the narrow alleyways behind and find a goat trail that would take us up and above the valley offering fabulous views back down to the town. After a couple of hours we arrived back, hot and sweaty, in the north-east corner and to the welcome spring of Ras-el-Ma. Replenished by the cool waters and a fresh orange juice food was then required, not any food but a lovely salad. Chefchouen is blessed with a great selection of café’s and restaurants, so we were not hungry for long.
The beauty of being on the road with your own car is that you can change your mind. Our final route back to Tangier was supposed to be on the highway, but a chance conversation with a local man resulted in us continuing on the rural roads out to the Mediterranean Coast where Oued Laou joins the sea. This road was outstanding, not because of its’ quality but because of the commanding views of high mountains, capes, deep canyons, rock formations, villages and isolated houses of the Rif that typify the region. Near the sea the road follows the fall of the land into a wide farmed delta, before the cool mountains waters mix with the salty Mediterranean. As we headed north again we reflected on the ‘diversion’ and how worthwhile it had been. Hot, crazy, noisy Tangier welcomed us back and our road trip to northern Morocco was over. Except for one final surprise – our car was scanned, not for drugs, but stowaways! Why leave? All we wanted to do was turn the car around and find the open road.