Moroccan public transport is, on the whole, pretty good, with a rail network linking the main towns of the north, the coast and Marrakesh, and plenty of buses and collective taxis. Renting a car can open up routes that are time-consuming or difficult on local transport.
Royal Air Maroc (RAM; t 0890 000800, w royalairmaroc.com) operates domestic flights from its Casablanca hub to major cities nationwide. You will usually have to change planes at Casablanca in order to travel between any other two points, unless both are stops on a single Casa-bound flight (Dakhla to Laayoune, for example). In general, flying is not really worthwhile except for long-distance routes such as to Laayoune or Dakhla in the Western Sahara, when they can save you a lot of time. A one-way ticket from Casablanca to Laayoune, for example, would set you back 1360dh (£101/$161) and take one hour and forty minutes (plus journey time to the airport, check-in time and delays), compared to nineteen hours by bus. Casa to Dakhla – 1124dh (£84/$133) one-way on RAM – would take you two and a quarter hours by air compared to 28 hours by bus.
Information on Morocco’s airports, including daily departure lists for some of them, can be found on the website of the Office National des Aéroports at w onda.ma. You should confirm flights 72 hours before departure. Student and under-26 youth discounts of 25 percent are available on RAM domestic flights, but only if the ticket is bought in advance from one of its offices.
Trains cover a limited network of routes, but for travel between the major cities they are easily the best option, comfortable and fairly fast, but sometimes subject to delays.
There are two main lines: from Tangier in the north down to Marrakesh, and from Oujda in the northeast, also to Marrakesh, joining with the Tangier line at Sidi Kacem. Branch lines serve Nador, El Jadida, Safi, Oued Zem and Casablanca airport. A high-speed line (LGV) from Tangier to Casablanca is scheduled to open in 2015 (for latest news see w tgvmaroc.ma), with extensions planned down to Marrakesh and Agadir, as well as eastward all the way (political frictions allowing) through Algeria and Tunisia to Tripoli.
Schedules change very little from year to year, but it’s wise to check times in advance at stations. Timetables are displayed at major train stations, and any station ticket office will print you off a mini-timetable of services between any two stations. You can also check schedules (horaires) and fares (tarifs) on the ONCF website at w oncf.ma, though you cannot buy tickets online. Except for sleeper services, tickets do not need to be booked in advance; you can just turn up at the station and buy one. There are two classes of tickets – first and second. Costs for a second-class ticket are slightly more than what you’d pay for buses; on certain “express” services (“express” refers to the level of comfort rather than the speed), they are around thirty percent higher. In addition, there are couchettes (145dh extra) available on the Tangier–Marrakesh and Casablanca–Oujda night trains – worth the money for both the comfort and the security, as couchette passengers are in their own locked carriage with a guard. Most stations are located reasonably close to the modern city centres. They do not have left-luggage facilities.
Bus travel is generally only marginally cheaper than taking a shared grand taxi, and around thirty percent slower, but also safer and more comfortable, though on some older buses leg room is limited, and for anyone approaching six feet or more in height, long journeys can be rather an endurance test. Many long-distance buses run at night when they are both quicker and cooler. Most are fitted with reading lights but they are invariably turned off, so you will not be able to read on buses after dark. Also note that the rate of accidents involving night buses is quite high, especially on busy routes, and most of all on the N8 between Marrakesh and Agadir.
Travelling during the day, especially in summer, it pays to sit on the side away from the sun. Travelling from north to south, this means sitting on the right in the morning, on the left in the afternoon, vice versa if going the other way. Travelling from east to west, sit on the right, or on the left if going from west to east. In fact, Moroccan passengers often pull down the blinds and shut the windows, which can block out the scenery and make the journey rather claustrophobic. Note too, especially on rural services, that some passengers may be unused to road travel, resulting in travel sickness and vomiting.
CTM and private lines
Buses run by CTM (the national company; w ctm.ma) are faster and more reliable than private services, with numbered seats and fixed departure schedules, which can be checked online. CTM services usually have reading lights, though you may have to ask the driver to turn those on. Some of the larger private company buses, such as SATAS (which operates widely in the south) and Trans Ghazala (which runs in the north) are of a similar standard, but many other private companies are tiny outfits, with a single bus which leaves only when the driver considers it sufficiently full. On the other hand, such private buses are much more likely to stop for you if you flag them down on the open road, whereas CTM services will only pick up and set down at official stops.
Most towns have a main bus station (gare routière), often on the edge of town. CTM buses usually leave from the company’s office, which may be quite a way from the main bus station, though in several places CTM and the private companies share a single terminal, and in some cases the CTM bus will call at the main bus station when departing a city, though not when arriving.
Bus stations usually have a number of ticket windows, one for each of the companies operating out of it. There is occasionally a departures board, but it may be out of date and in Arabic only, so you should always check departure times at the appropriate window. Bus conductors or ticket sellers may be calling out destinations in the bus station in any case, or may greet you as you come in by asking where you want to go. On the more popular trips (and especially with CTM services, which are often just once a day in the south), it’s worth trying to buy tickets in advance, though this may not always be possible on smaller private-line services.
You may occasionally have problems getting tickets at small towns along major routes, where buses can arrive and leave already full. It’s sometimes possible to get round this by taking a local bus or a grand taxi for the next section of the trip (until the bus you want empties a little), or by waiting for a bus that actually starts from the town you’re in. Overall, the best policy is to arrive at a bus station early in the day (ideally 5.30–6am).
On private-line buses, you generally pay for your baggage to be loaded into the hold (or onto the roof). The standard fee is 5dh, but this may be foregone on short hops. Note that you only pay to have your baggage loaded, not to have it unloaded on arrival, whatever anybody may say. On CTM, SATAS and Supratours buses your luggage is weighed and you are issued with a receipt for the baggage charge (usually 5–10dh, depending on weight and distance – allow time for this procedure). On arrival, porters with wheeled box-carts (chariots) may offer their services, but always agree a price before engaging one.
An additional service, on certain major routes, is the Supratours express buses run as feeder services by the train company, ONCF. These are fast and very comfortable, and run from Tetouan, Essaouira, Agadir and the Western Sahara to connect with rail services from Oujda, Tangier and Marrakesh. Timetables and fares for Supratours buses can be found along with those for trains on the ONCF website (w oncf.ma). Supratours services compare, in both time and cost, with CTM buses. They do not use the main bus stations, but depart from outside their own town-centre offices (detailed in the text). Through tickets to and from connecting rail stations are available (Essaouira through to Fez, for example), and travellers with rail tickets for connecting services have priority. It’s best to book tickets in advance if possible.
By shared taxi
Shared grands taxis are one of the best features of Moroccan transport. They operate on a wide variety of routes, are much quicker than buses (usually quicker than trains, too), and fares vary from slightly more than the bus to around twice as much.
The taxis are usually big Peugeot or Mercedes cars carrying six passengers (Peugeots are less common but have a slightly less cramped seating arrangement). Most business is along specific routes, and the most popular routes have more or less continuous departures throughout the day. You just show up at the terminal (locations are detailed in the guide) and ask for a place to a specific destination. The best time to arrive is early morning (7–9am), when a lot of people are travelling and taxis fill up quickly; lunchtime, on the other hand, is a bad time to turn up, as fewer people will be travelling, and the taxi will take longer to fill up. As soon as six (or, if you’re willing to pay extra, four or five) people are assembled, the taxi sets off. Make sure, when asking about grands taxis, that it is clear you only want a place (une place in French, plassa in Arabic, or hold up one finger) in a shared taxi (taxi collectif), as drivers often “presume” that a tourist will want to charter the whole taxi, which means paying for all six places. Women travelling alone may wish to pay for two places and get the front seat to themselves rather than be squashed up against male passengers.
Picking up a shared taxi on the road is more problematic, as they will only stop if they have a place free (if a passenger has already alighted). To hail a taxi on the open road, hold up one, two or more fingers to indicate how many places you need.
Fares for set routes are fixed, and drivers do not usually try to overcharge tourists for a place (though occasionally they try to charge for baggage, which usually travels free of charge). If you think that you are being overcharged, ask the other passengers, or check the price with your hotel before leaving. Occasionally, five passengers may agree to split the cost of the last place to hasten departure, or one passenger may agree to pay for two places. You pay the full fare for the journey even if travelling only part of the way.
If you want to take a non-standard route, or an excursion, or just to have the taxi to yourself, it is possible to charter a whole grand taxi (une course in French, corsa in Arabic). In theory this should be exactly six times the price of a place in a shared taxi if the route has a set fare, but you’ll often have to bargain hard to get that. Hotels can sometimes be useful in helping to charter grands taxis.
Some people consider shared taxis dangerous. It is certainly true that they are prone to practices such as speeding, and overtaking on blind curves or the brows of hills, and that they have more than their fair share of accidents. Drivers may work all day and into the night, and it seems a large number of accidents involve them falling asleep at the wheel while driving at night, so you may wish to avoid using them for night-time journeys, especially on busy roads (the N8 between Marrakesh and Agadir is the worst). Note also that with the seating arrangements, it is not usually possible to wear a seat belt, though if you pay for two places, you can get the front seat to yourself and put the belt on.
Trucks and hitching
In the countryside, where buses may be sporadic or even nonexistent, it is standard practice for vans and lorries (camions), pick-up trucks (camionettes) and transit-vans (transits) to carry passengers for a charge. You may be asked to pay a little more than the locals, and you may be expected to bargain over the price – but it’s straightforward enough.
In parts of the Atlas, local people run more or less scheduled truck or transit services, generally to coincide with the pattern of local souks. If you plan on traversing any of the more ambitious Atlas pistes, you’ll probably be dependent on these vehicles, unless you walk.
Hitchhiking is not big in Morocco, but you may resort to it on routes where transport is scarce. Fellow tourists may pick you up, and Moroccans may carry you for free, but usually you pay, around the same as a bus or grand taxi fare. This is especially the case in country areas, where local rides can operate in much the same way as truck taxis. As a rule, however, hitching is not really safe, and it is definitely not advisable for women travelling alone. We have heard of (Moroccan) hitchhikers being robbed on the N12 Tata–Bou Izakarn road, and it probably happens elsewhere too.
There are few real problems driving in Morocco, but accident rates are high, largely because motorists routinely ignore traffic regulations and drive aggressively and dangerously (most people pay baksheesh for their licence). The N8 between Marrakesh and Agadir is a particular accident blackspot. Do not expect other drivers to indicate or observe lane discipline, beware when coming up to blind curves or hills where vehicles coming in the other direction may be trying to overtake without full view of the road ahead, treat all pedestrians with the suspicion that they will cross in front of you, and all cyclists with the idea that they may well swerve into the middle of the road. All this makes driving a particularly hair-raising experience in towns, and even experienced drivers may find city driving quite stressful. The difficulty of finding places in cities due to lack of street signs adds to the problem. Be particularly wary about driving after dark, as it is legal to drive up to 20km/h without lights, which allows all cyclists and mopeds to wander at will; donkeys, goats and sheep do not carry lights, either.
However, with those caveats in mind, daytime and certainly long-distance driving can be as good as anywhere. Good road surfaces, long straight roads, and little traffic between inhabited areas allow for high average speeds. The usual speed limit outside towns is 40km/h (25mph) in built-up areas, 100km/h (62mph) on ordinary roads, and 120km/h (75mph) on motorways. There are on-the-spot fines for speeding, and oncoming motorists flashing their headlights at you may well be warning you to slow down for a police check ahead (radar speed traps are common). The French rule of giving priority to traffic from the right is observed at roundabouts and junctions – meaning that cars coming onto a roundabout have priority over those already on it.
By law, drivers and passengers are required to wear seat belts. Almost no one does, but if you follow suit and are stopped by the police, you may have a small fine (possibly unofficial) extracted. Given Morocco’s high road accident rate, it is foolhardy not to wear a seat belt anyway.
Piste and off-piste driving
On the pistes (rough, unpaved tracks in the mountains or desert), there are special problems. Here you do need a good deal of driving and mechanical confidence – and if you don’t feel your car is up to it, don’t drive on these routes. Obviously, a 4WD vehicle is best suited to the pistes, but most pistes are passable, with care, in an ordinary small car, though it’s worth asking local advice first. On mountain roads, beware of gravel, which can be a real danger on the frequent hairpin bends, and, in spring, flash floods caused by melting snow. The six-volume series, Pistes du Maroc (Gandini), are invaluable guides for anyone planning on driving pistes; they are available in major Moroccan bookshops or online (w extrem-sud.com/guides.php).
Driving a 4WD can be an exciting way of exploring the mountains and desert, off-tarmac, or even off-piste. Some companies lay on vehicles, driver and mess tent, organize food and cooking and will go wherever requested. For economical and practical reasons groups should number five or eleven, so you’ll probably find yourself exploring with strangers. UK-based AMIS specializes in this field.
Car rental starts at around 2000dh (£150/$240) per week or 400dh (£30/$47) a day (there’s usually a three-day minimum) for a basic car with unlimited mileage and insurance cover. You will be expected to leave credit card details, and fuel prices are high (see Equipment). Having a car pays obvious dividends if you are pushed for time, especially in the south, where buses and taxis may be sparse, but chartering a grand taxi and agreeing a daily rate will not cost that much more.
Many visitors rent a car in Casablanca, Marrakesh or Agadir, but it may work out cheaper to arrange car rental in advance through the travel company who arranges your flight. With international firms such as Hertz, Budget, Europcar and Avis, you can book from home by phone or online. Local car rental firms are listed in city “Arrival and Departure” sections in the guide. Deals to go for are unlimited mileage and daily/weekly rates; paying by the kilometre invariably works out more expensive. Local firms have the advantage that the price is more likely to be negotiable, though the condition of the vehicle should be well checked. Many hotels can arrange car rental at reasonable rates. If you can’t or don’t want to drive yourself, car rental companies can often arrange a driver for around 300dh (£23/$35) a day.
Before setting out, make sure the car comes with spare tyre, toolkit and full documentation – including insurance cover, which is compulsory issue with all rentals. It’s a good idea to get full insurance to avoid charges for bumps and scratches. Most car rental agreements prohibit use of the car on unsurfaced roads, and you will be liable for any damage sustained if you do drive off-tarmac.
Whether you rent a car or drive your own, always make sure you’re carrying a spare tyre in good condition (plus a jack and tools). Flat tyres occur very frequently, even on fairly major roads, and you can often be in for a long wait until someone drives along with a possible replacement. Carrying an emergency windscreen is also useful, especially if driving your own car for a long period of time. There are lots of loose stones on the hard shoulders of single-lane roads and they can fly all over the place. If you’re not mechanically minded, be sure to bring a car maintenance manual – a useful item, too, for anyone planning to rent a vehicle.
Fuel and breakdowns
Filling stations can be few and far between in rural areas: always fill your tank to the limit. Unleaded fuel is available in most places nowadays, but it’s always worth filling up when you have the chance as supplies can be sporadic. Fuel prices are generally lower than in Western Europe, at 10.33dh (77p/$1.22) a litre for unleaded (sans plomb or bidoun rasas), and 7.30dh (55p/86¢) for diesel (gasoil, pronounced “gazwaal”). In the Saharan provinces (basically the Western Sahara), fuel is subsidized, and costs about a third less. Fuel in the duty-free Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla is cheaper than it is on the Spanish mainland, but currently costs more than it does in Morocco proper, at around €1.24 for unleaded (sin plomo) and €1.14 for diesel (gasóleo). As in Morocco proper, unleaded fuel can sometimes be in short supply in the Spanish enclaves.
Moroccan mechanics are usually excellent at coping with breakdowns and all medium-sized towns have garages (most with an extensive range of spare parts for most French cars, and usually for Fiats too). However, if you break down miles from anywhere you’ll probably end up paying a fortune to get a truck to tow you to the nearest town.
If you are driving your own vehicle, there is also the problem of having to re-export any car that you bring into the country (even a wreck). You can’t just write off a car: you’ll have to take it out of Morocco with you.
Insurance must by law be sold along with all rental agreements. Driving your own vehicle, you should obtain Green Card cover from your insurers. If you don’t have it on arrival, you can buy it from Assurance Frontière for 950dh (£77/$113) a month for a car or camper van, at Tangier port, Nador port, or the land frontiers at Ceuta and Melilla; to renew it, the main AF office is at 59 Bd Bordeaux, Casablanca (t 0522 484156 or t 7).
Parking in almost any town, you will find a gardien de voitures, usually licensed by local authorities to look after cars, and claiming a couple of dirhams by way of parking fees. Alternatively, most of the larger hotels in the Ville Nouvelle quarters of cities have parking spaces (and occasionally garaging). It’s always worth paying for a gardien or parking in a garage, as new or well-looked-after cars attract a certain level of vandalism. Red-and-white-striped kerbs mean no parking is allowed.
Morocco has all the major attractions sought by bike enthusiasts, but if you’ve never taken a bike abroad before, seriously consider going with a group. H-C Travel in the UK (w hctravel.com), Moto Adventures in Andorra (w motoaventures.com) and Wilderness Wheels in Ouarzazate (w wildernesswheels.com) offer off-road and trailbiking packages. Taking your own bike is subject to the same bureaucracy as taking a car (see Entering Morocco by ferry). One way of avoiding that is to rent a bike in Morocco (see Local bus routes & Getting around). So far as road conditions are concerned, our comments on driving also apply to motorbikes.
Taking your own bike
If you take your own motorbike, you will need special insurance. Most companies, especially those based outside Europe, will not cover motorcycling as part of a holiday overseas, particularly when off-road riding is contemplated or inevitable (as it often is in Morocco). You’ll have to shop around and remember to take the policy with you, together with your bike registration certificate, biker’s licence and International Driving Permit. Even large insurance companies don’t give clear answers about “Green Cards” for motorcycling in Morocco and do not understand that you may encounter up to a dozen police checks a day.
When entering Morocco, try to arrive as early in the day as possible. If you are a lone traveller and speak neither Arabic nor French, you may be left queuing until those without queries have been dealt with. If the office then closes, you may have to return the next morning. In these circumstances, it might be worth investing in a tout who, for a fee, will take your papers to a friendly officer. It’s also worth picking up a couple of (free) extra immigration forms for the return journey.
What to take and when to go
If possible, don’t take a model of bike likely to be unfamiliar in Morocco. It’s worth carrying cables and levers, inner tubes, puncture repair kit, tyre levers, pump, fuses, plugs, chain, washable air filter, cable ties, good tape and a toolkit. For riding off-road, take knobbly tyres and rim locks, brush guards, metal number plate and bashplate. In winter, take tough fabric outer clothing. In summer, carry lighter-weight clothing, woollen jumpers and waterproofs. Drying out leathers takes a long time. In the south, the heat in summer can be overwhelming, making travelling a far from enjoyable experience.
Cycling – and particularly mountain biking in the Atlas and other areas – is becoming an increasingly popular pursuit for Western travellers to Morocco. The country’s regular roads are well maintained and by European standards very quiet, while the extensive network of pistes – dirt tracks – makes for exciting mountain-bike terrain, leading you into areas otherwise accessible only to trekkers or four-wheel-drive expeditions.
Regular roads are generally surfaced (goudronné or revêtue) but narrow, and you will often have to get off the tarmac to make way for traffic. Beware also of open land-drains close to the roadsides, and loose gravel on the bends.
Cycling on pistes, mountain bikes come into their own with their “tractor” tyres and wide, stabilizing handlebars. There are few pistes that could be recommended on a regular tourer. By contrast, some intrepid mountain bikers cover footpaths in the High Atlas, though for the less than super-fit this is extremely heavy going. Better, on the whole, to stick to established pistes – many of which are covered by local trucks, which you can pay for a ride in if your legs (or your bike) give out.
Getting your bike to Morocco
Many airlines – even charters – carry bikes free of charge, so long as they don’t push your baggage allowance over the weight limit, but the no-frills airlines will charge you. When buying a ticket, register your intention of taking your bike and check out the airline’s conditions. They will generally require you to invert the handlebars, remove the pedals, and deflate the tyres; some provide or sell a cardboard box to enclose the bike, as protection for other passengers’ luggage as much as for the bike; you are, however, unlikely to be offered a box for the return journey. A useful alternative, offering little protection but at least ensuring nothing gets lost, is to customize an industrial nylon sack, adding a drawstring at the neck.
If you plan to cross over by ferry to Morocco, things couldn’t be simpler. You ride on with the motor vehicles (thus avoiding the long queues of foot passengers) and the bike is secured during the voyage. At time of writing, bicycles travel for free on most ferries other than the runs from Tarifa and Algeciras to Tangier or Tanger-Med.
Bicycles and local transport
Cycling around Morocco, you can make use of local transport to supplement your own wheels. Buses will generally carry bikes on the roof. CTM usually charges around 10dh per bike – make sure you get a ticket. On other lines it’s very much up to you to negotiate with the driver and/or baggage porter (who will probably expect at least 5dh). If you’re riding and exhausted, you can usually flag down private-line buses (but not usually CTM services) on the road.
Some grands taxis also agree to carry bikes, if they have space on a rack. You may have to pay for this, but of course you can haggle. In mountain or desert areas, you can have your bike carried with you on truck or transit services. Prices for this are negotiable, but should not exceed your own passenger fare.
Bikes are carried on trains for a modest handling fee, though it’s not really worth the hassle. They have to be registered in advance as baggage and won’t necessarily travel on the same train as you (though they will usually turn up within a day).
Accommodation doesn’t present any special problems. The cheaper hotels will almost always let you keep your bike in your room – and others will find a disused basement or office for storage. It’s almost essential to do this, as much to deter unwelcome tampering as theft, especially if you have a curiosity-inviting mountain bike. At campsites, there’s usually a gardien on hand to keep an eye on your bike, or stow it away in his chalet.
Most towns have repair shops in their Medina quarters, used to servicing local bikes and mopeds. They may not have spare parts for your make of bike, but can usually sort out some kind of temporary solution. It is worth bringing spare spokes (and tool) with you, plus brake blocks and cable, as the mountain descents can take it out on a bike. Tyres and tubes can generally be found for tourers, though if you have anything fancy, best bring at least one spare, too.
Obviously, before setting out, you should make sure that your brakes are in good order, renew bearings, etc, and ensure that you have decent quality (and condition) tyres.
Problems and rewards
All over Morocco, and particularly in rural areas, there are stray, wild and semi-cared-for dogs. A cyclist pedalling past with feet and wheels spinning seems to send at least half of them into a frenzied state. Normally, cycling in an equally frenzied state is the best defence, but on steep ascents and off-road this isn’t always possible. In these situations, keep the bike between you and the dog, and use your pump or a shower from your water bottle as defence. If you do get bitten, a rabies inoculation is advisable.
Another factor to be prepared for is your susceptibility to the unwanted attentions of local people. Small children will often stand in the road to hinder your progress, or even chase after you in gangs and throw stones. Your attitude is important: be friendly, smile, and maintain strong eye contact. On no account attempt to mete out your own discipline: small children always have big brothers.
The heat and the long stretches of dead straight road across arid, featureless plains – the main routes to (or beyond) the mountain ranges – can all too easily drain your energy. Additionally, public water is very rare – there are few roadside watering places, and towns and villages can be a long way apart.
Despite all this, cycling in Morocco can be an extremely rewarding experience; as one of our readers put it: “I felt an extra intimacy with the country by staying close to it, rather than viewing it from car or bus windows. And I experienced unrivalled generosity, from cups of tea offered by policemen at roadside checkpoints to a full-blown breakfast banquet from a farming family whose dog had savaged my leg. People went out of their way to give me advice, food, drink and lifts, and not once did I feel seriously threatened. Lastly, the exhilaration I felt on some of the mountain descents, above all the Tizi n’Test in the High Atlas, will remain with me forever. I was not an experienced cycle tourer when I arrived in Morocco, but the grandeur of the scenery helped carry me over the passes.”
You’ll spend most time exploring Moroccan cities on foot. The alleys of the old Medina quarters, where the sights and souks are, will rarely accommodate more than a donkey. In the newer quarters, you may want to make use of city taxis and occasionally a bus. Be aware that pedestrian crossings don’t count for very much, except perhaps at junctions “controlled” by traffic lights. And even then, bikes and mopeds pay scant attention to traffic lights showing red.
Petits taxis, usually Fiats or Simcas, carry up to three passengers and (unlike grands taxis) can only operate within city limits. All petits taxis should have meters, and you should insist that they use them. Failing that, you will need to bargain for a price – either before you get in (wise to start off with) or by simply presenting the regular fare when you get out. If you are a lone passenger, your taxi driver may pick up one or two additional passengers en route, each of whom will pay the full fare for their journey, as of course will you. This is standard practice.
Don’t be afraid to argue with the driver if you feel you’re being unreasonably overcharged. During the daytime, you should pay what is on the meter. After 8pm, standard fares rise by fifty percent. Tips are not expected, but of course always appreciated. Taxis from airports usually run at special rates agreed among the drivers, in which case, they will not agree to use the meter.