As many of you may know we have spent the last few years working towards having a seasonal business, so we can escape the UK during the winter months. We work hard during the run up to Christmas, selling plenty of Pirate’s Grog, and then as soon as January sets in we pack our bags and hit the road. But this year we wanted to do things differently…and surf Morocco!
After lugging our surfboards around Ecuador and Colombia last year, we decided to utilise our van and go on a road trip! A good friend had talked about the amazing lifestyle of living out of a camper in Morocco and chase the perfect waves that grace the North African coastline, this was enough to tempt us in and with just one week to get ready, Gaz began fitting solar panels, lights and setting up camp… inside our van.
We wanted to remain free to roam wherever the wind (or waves) took us so mapped out a rough route and booked a ticket with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Santander. For around £300 you can secure a spot for a medium sized van, and two people with an overnight stay in a cabin. (To hear more about the ferry trip read our review here.) As we planned to return the same way, we hot stepped our way through Spain to hit the south coast of Portugal – where January temperatures were just about bearable – expect to wrap up warm at night as temps plummet to around 6 degrees, but if you’re lucky you might be able to crack out the bikini for a few hours of midday sunshine when temperatures can hit 20 degrees.
So this is where our surfing journey began…
Sagres is situated in the Algarve, and boasts one of Europe’s most consistent coastlines for waves. From wide open beaches, to nooks and crannies hidden in amongst the many picturesque bays that define the coastline. This means that no matter what the swell or wind direction, there’s usually a few decent waves to be had. And, there’s waves for all levels, with plenty of beach breaks on offer, beginners will have plenty of fun, whilst intermediates and long boarders certainly won’t be disappointed and so long as there’s some decent swell, advanced surfers will be able to tear it up.
Be sure to pack the right equipment though. You’ll need a 4/3mm wetsuit for morning and sunset surfs, during the day you might get away with a 3/2mm. No need for booties or gloves – pretty awesome considering you’re only a drive away from blistering cold London!
Vanlife: Free camping in Portugal has been widely accepted for many years, however over this winter period (2016-2017) many popular free camping spots have been cleared out by police and you can face a fine of up to €200 (although the paperwork is in Portugese so many campers we talked to said they didn’t sign it and nothing much will come of it).
Top Tip: Beware of the tolls – they can be quite expensive if you cover the full length of Spain. We spent approx €50 on tolls during this part of the journey.
Getting To Morocco
Although we enjoyed Portugal it was still a little cold for our liking, so after a week of acclimatising to vanlife, we decided it was time to hit Africa! We hit the road again and carried out the 5 hour drive to Southern Spain. There are two ferry points but with only 30 minutes between them, and ferries leaving to Tangier from both ports, it doesn’t matter which one you head to. Tarifa is a small town with plenty of surf and kitesurfing shops, whilst Algeciras is a much bigger port town so although ferries run more frequently form here, you might prefer to make the journey over to Morocco from Tarifa.
Vanlife: If you need any extra supplies there’s a Decathlon (camping shop) and Ikea (homewares shop) as you drive past Seville. Many European goods are hard to find in Morocco so it’s worth stocking up here. We grabbed some camping chairs, a fold away table and some storage boxes.
Getting There: 5 hour drive from Sagres, via Seville, to Tarifa (situated next to Gibralter), 1-2 hour ferry from Tarifa or Algeciras to Tangier in Morocco (you can buy the ferry ticket on arrival for around £150 return for a van and two people – we travelled with FCS).
Surf Morocco Top Tip: Get a copy of The Alchemist and read it as you carry out the journey to follow in Santiago’s footsteps.
Our first major stop on the route southwards along the west coast of Morocco, was Safi, the infamous big wave surfing spot. A big swell was approaching and so our mission had become about spectating, rather than surfing! (Note – we did stop and sleep over in Kenitra to break up the journey.) Safi is just north of Essaouira, a major stop on the route, and although it’s a detour on smaller dirt roads it’s worth seeing if the swells there!
Vanlife: Morocco is fast becoming the destination for vanlifers, due to the relaxed rules about parking and overnight camping. You will notice as soon as you enter Morocco, each town will have a designated parking attendant that will usually charge between 5 and 20 dirhams (£0.40 – £1.80) to let you park either for the day or over night. It’s good to pay these guys as they will keep a watch over your van and you know both yourself (and your surfboards on the roof) will be safe at night.
Getting There: 3-4 hours from Tangier to Kenitra for an overnight stop. 6 hour drive from Kenitra to Safi.
Surf Morocco Top Tip: Whatever Google Maps provides as the estimated journey time, add on a third. Yes, we didn’t quite believe it either but it’s true. Many of the roads along the coast or in land, into the mountains are windey and therefore take much longer than expected.
Essaouira, nicknamed the windy city, has a lot to offer. The strong “Alizée” trade winds make the city’s crescent beach popular for surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing, but there’s plenty of activities of the non-watersport variety too. From exploring the medina which is a treasure trove of small streets packed with artisan goods, perfect for picking up presents to take home and indulging in the city’s great bar and restaurant scene. In terms of surfing, the wind hindered our mission and after a quick drive 30 minutes south to Sidi Kaouki to check the waves, we decided the elements were set to beat us on this occasion. However for a quieter more relaxed experience we’d highly recommend a couple of days surfing at Sidi Kaouki if the weather permits.
Vanlife: There’s a large parking area full of campers if you drive along the beach road (you can’t miss it) The dunes prevent a morning sea view out of the back doors but it is a great place to meet other vanlifers.
Getting There: 3 hour drive from Safi, or if you’re skipping Safi and driving straight to Essaouira from Kenitra, expect around a 7 hour drive.
Surf Morocco Top Tip: One of our favourite activities was the Hammam – a spa experience that involves getting vigorously rubbed down with a hand-mit before being slathered in Argan oil, before finally being rinsed off. Far better than any exfoliation technique I’ve experienced in western cultures. There are plenty of spas offering this service but we chose Azur Art&Spa, which we highly recommend.
Now I debated whether to include this spot or not…. because Imsouane is heaven. Why? Because there’s no crowds, no development, beautiful long beaches and here’s the best bit… it’s longboard friendly and boasts one of the longest rides. I caught some of my best and longest waves here, with around a 2-3 minute ride from the back wall into the bay you won’t be disappointed if you hit Imsouane on a good day. During half-term the wave did get busy as it’s a famous spot within the longboard surf community and don’t expect any luxury’s here, it’s all about manual flushing and home cooking. But when you wake up in the morning and flip open those doors, you’re reminded that this is a very special place.
Vanlife: This was our favourite vanlife spot and we made lots of good friends here. There’s a bar that sells cans of beer and has a pool table so be prepared to knock bedtime back from 9pm to 10pm! There’s only one toilet option – head to Sunset cafe and buy a coffee to use their toilet – but it’s pretty basic so if you’re in a camper with a toilet you’ll certainly appreciate it in this spot!
Getting There: It’s a 3 hour drive from Essaouria. Don’t miss the right turn after about 2.5 hours, as you need to take the windey road down to Imsouane beach for about 30 minutes.
Surf Morocco Top Tip: Avoid western holiday weeks and schedule more days than you think you need as I promise you’ll never want to leave this place. Don’t stay at the campsite (the guys an arse) just camp out on the paved road running along the cliff top for 5 dirhams per day!
Taghazout is Morocco’s surfing mecca. If it’s a surf camp you’re after you’ll be spoiled for choice, but with surf camps come crowded waves and busy streets. We didn’t spend much time surfing in Taghazout, why would we? When you have a van you can surf anywhere and avoid the crowds. Its’s great to dip into if you’re in need of a beer or a (low-key) party, but there are plenty of ‘secret spots’ within an easy drive from Taghazout, so get your explorer hat on and go and hunt down some empty waves.
Vanlife: You can sleep on the roadside in Taghazout for around 20 dirhams but as mentioned above, there’s really no need to unless you’re having a few beers. Head North or South and within 10-20 minutes you’ll find cliff top spots gagging to be camped in.
Getting There: It’s less than a 2 hour drive from Imsouane to Taghazout. But don’t rush, the coastal road is epic so take your time, stop and brew a coffee whilst you take in the amazing views and scenery, and you never know you might just find a perfect wave with no one in it!
Surf Morocco Top Tip: Head to the Banana Village Souk on Wednesday afternoon to stock up on, well, everything! With just a few quid in your pocket you’ll come back with bags so full of fruit and veg you can hardly carry them. There’s spices galore and plenty of trinkets to take back home including jewellery, clothes and rugs. Another must visit place is Anchor Point to watch awesome surfers battle for the best wave. Broken boards are guaranteed on a big day.
Marrakesh is the fourth largest city in the Kingdom of Morocco, and the capital of the mid-southwestern region. With cheap flights from European cities it has been explored by Western travellers for many year and is perhaps most famous for it’s souks. Although the souks can get a little hectic and you have to be prepared to get your best haggle on, it’s an experience unlike any other. The sounds, smells and colours will blow you away, with mountains of spices, twinkle lanterns and the general hustle and bustle of market life, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Vanlife: There’s a few campsites on the edge of Marrakesh but if you want to spend a night or two in the medina it’s best to arrange a stay in a Riad and park your van in the 24 hour secured (walled) parking just outside the medina on the south side.
Getting There: A 4-5 hour drive from Taghazout into Marrakesh. The roads into Marrakesh aren’t as bad as expected in terms of traffic volume (compared to Rabat!) but you do need to keep your wits about you and be a confident driver.
Surf Morocco Top Tip: Head to Bazaar Cafe and treat yourself to a slap up meal. All the Tagines are to die for, and there’s wine and beer available.
Atlas Mountains, Morocco
The Atlas Mountains begin just 45 minutes drive out of Marrakesh, although in total they cover 2,500km across the northwestern Africa, spanning Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. We headed for Imlil, which is situated at the bottom of the highest peak in the Atlas range, Toubkal. This mountain town had many similarities to those at the foot of Snowdon, which I visited regularly as a kid. There are plenty of hikers there prepping for their expedition into the mountains, but if you’re looking for a gentler option there are many 1-5 hour guided walks, or simply sit back and enjoy the views. If views are what you’re after then head straight to Kasbah du Toubkal. This little gem is termed as a ‘Berber hospitality centre’ rather than a hotel, and as a result provides a very real and unique experience for those wishing to understand a little more about Berber culture. It features as one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World, set on a hilltop 100 metres above Imlil, with stunning views of the highest mountain in North Africa, it’s easy to see why this place has gained a great rep.
Vanlife: We parked our van in one of the carparks in Imlil and trekked up the mountain to get to Kasbah du Toubkal with our bags carried by mule! There’s some large lakes nearby that work as great camping spots if you’re not looking to spend on accommodation.
Getting There: 2-3 hour drive south of Marrakesh to Imlil, but there are many other great places to discover in the High Atlas Mountains as well.
Surf Morocco Top Tip: Our stay at Kasbah du Toubkal was pretty amazing (see the review here), and to make it even more special – Gaz proposed under the stars, on our private balcony over-looking the mountains with a beautiful Sapphire ring. Yes, I’m a lucky lady ;)
On our way north we made a few stops at our favourite places and so I wouldn’t recommend heading form the Atlas to Chefchaouen in one day, unless you’re up for a 12 hour drive. Chefchaouen is conveniently located just a couple of hours from Tangier where the ferry departs from, so it makes the perfect place for a final stopover. It’s named ‘the blue city’ because most of the walls, doors and just about everything else in the city are painted a beautiful blue wash. It’s also famed as being the ‘home of hash’ with Morocco producing around half of the world’s hashish – read more about that on Vice. Aside, from that, there’s a real magical vibe in the air in Chefchaouen (or maybe everyone is stoned!) but expect to wrap up warm if you’re visiting in Jan, Feb or March.
Vanlife: Free camping isn’t as obvious or readily available here as other spots, mainly due to the sharp incline of many of the roads – you are in the mountains after all. But it is possible to find a quiet-ish road side spot and camp out for the night, alternatively there’s a (basic) campsite at the top of the town, which is easy to find, just follow the signs.
Getting There: It’s a long way from Marrakesh or Taghazout so it’s best to revisit a couple of your favourite spots on the way back up. We were still chasing the surf so stuck to the coastal roads, but Morocco has so much to offer, I’m sure if you head inland there will be more wonders to discover.
Surf Morocco Top Tip: Pick up some last minute presents, get lost amongst the narrow blue streets, and be sure to head out for that last Moroccan supper of tagine and cous cous.
Head back to Tangier Med to catch the return ferry back to Spain, using your pre-paid return ferry ticket. Once in Spain there’s plenty more surf breaks and stops to talk about but let’s save that for another day…
Surf Morocco Top Tip: Keep it a secret! Morocco’s beauty is in the lack of Western development and that their culture is still so rich and traditions are thriving, so let’s keep it that way! The country is very advanced in eco policies for example plastic bags have been banned and small cotton replacements are used throughout all the shops in Morocco, plus, the wheels are in motion to build the largest solar farm in the world, which will provide electricity for more than 1 million people by 2030.
But best of all, the Moroccan outlook is something that should be protected and aspired to by the rest of us. ‘Inshallah’, meaning ‘God Willing’ is said when referring to future events. For example, ‘You can pay tomorrow, Inshallah’, could be translated to ‘no worries, you can pay tomorrow instead of now’. It invokes a very relaxed, peaceful and trusting way of life. Things will happen when God wills them to and until then, let’s just enjoy.