Ride Morocco – The California of the Muslim World

RIDE Morocco - THE CALIFORNIA OF THE MUSLIM WORLD

ride morocco
Chefchaouen's main square. A city in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco. It’s known for the striking, blue-washed buildings of its old town.

As luck would have it, COVID-19 struck at the moment I finished cycling in Asia and took off from Europe to cross Morocco. 

Fortunately, I managed to ride through the entire country before, so to speak, ‘the music stopped’.

What I didn’t know is that I would end up spending in this country the next 18 months of my life, obtain my permanent residency identity card and discover it inside-out. 

Morocco is also the birthplace of Bankeronwheels.com!

In June’21, Morocco reopened after having contained most of the pandemic in an exemplary manner (take note European governments) that allowed me to leave, for the time being. 

After I left, I was immediately struck by the 6 things that I got used to and that I will dearly miss.

Here is a teaser of what awaits, should you choose Morocco as your next destination!

Get you jabs, learn a few words in French or Arabic and enjoy the ride in this exotic, yet geographically close country.

#1 Ride high (ABOVE 3,000 METERS)

Riding at a high altitude is possible in Africa.

Morocco has several places were you can reach 3,000m (and above) but you will need self-sufficient gravel equipment. 

Roads are not paved up there and you may only see a couple of shepherds for the entire day

Europe‘s highest mountain pass is Pico del Veleta in Spain (3,380) but it’s nowhere as exotic

For road cycling, you can choose the absolute classics like Tichka pass (2,260m), relatively close to Marrakech with great roads.

 

The section I enjoyed most - peaking above 3k and called 'close to the sky' on Strava

#2 THE CALIFORNIA OF THE MUSLIM WORLD

landscape 2
Climate near the Coast
landscape 4
Flatlands between Moyen and Haut Atlas (in the background)

Of all the places I’ve been to, the climate is closest to California, I think, in that it’s very mild and Mediterranean near the sea and quickly changes once you cycle inland.

Morocco also has the same size, population, and similar landscapes (read below!) as California so my comparison may be somewhat relevant. 

Near Rabat, where I lived for over a year, the temperature is always within 18-27 C range (I never bothered looking at weather forcast and think about clothes for my rides).

The climate can become quickly dry and challenging once you go inland

I frequently had my nose bleeding in the desert, which only happened to me in Morocco (not even in Australia). 

And some parts of the country combine the two – you can have dry argan trees a few hundred meters away from the coast (Essaouira) protecting you from humidity, which is perfect for a long term stay.

The great thing about Morocco is that it almost never rains (even though some regions are quite humid) which is always a logistical challenge on a bike.

Prepare for cold nights in the desert, though. And if you cycle outside of peak season, snow will be part of the game in the Atlas mountains.

Best season to ride: Spring or Autumn

 

#3 (RE)DISCOVER authentic FOOD

You probably know Tagines and Couscous quite well.

Morocco’s cuisine is much more than that. I really miss the seafood (Japan has exclusivity on importing some fish). 

Quality of life is just different if you can pick olives, oranges, mint or spices from tress in your own botanic garden

Watermelons weren’t far away from my place either. 

Or you can prepare the occasional Amlou.

What I didn’t know is that I will discover real food

Rare are Europeans for which it will be a re-discovery since this quality of food wasn’t seen in Western Europe (apart a few spots in southern Europe) for decades.

Real honey, rural butter that has a somewhat cheesy taste, fermented Raid, delicious eggs that are more difficult to break due to a strong shell membrane (or amazing turkey eggs!) 

We all have some health issues e.g. allergies and mine went all away, for the first time in my life.

I am a big fan of Japanese cuisine if staying in a fully developed country but access to raw food is priceless. 

Both Asian and African cuisine have one thing in common – they are much more seasonal than ‘year round’ imported food that we got used to, especially in Northern Europe. 

You will enjoy it no matter when you go!

#4 RIDE FROM SEA TO DESERT VIA THE ATLAS

Haven’t been to Utah, California or Arizona, yet? 

Somewhat similar terrain and canyons await you in Morocco (with better food).

Landscapes are very diverse. Not the extreme variety of New Zealand or Peru but, by far some of the best in this part of the world.

The variety of fruits and vegetables are best proof of this diversity.

From humid Alpine mountains (Middle Atlas) where you can find monkeys, through Mediterranean climate in the Rif suitable for growing cannabis to the dry High Atlas. 

Finally, the driest of all of them, the anti-Atlas range, hosted the first edition of the Atlas mountain cycling race in 2019.

Each mountain chain has its merits but my favorite parts are the Rif and northern part of High Atlas.

 

Atlas-Mountains-map

#5 WITH A BIKE YOU EXPERIENCE A CULTURAL IMMERSION

grafitti

I first heard about exceptional Moroccan hospitality from a girl that cycled with me in Tasmania.

She loved Australia, but said Morocco is a real gem, just two to three-hour flight away.

Morocco is a muslim country, but the Berbere culture in the Atlas brings another dimension to it.

It also has some colonial heritage from the Spaniards in the North, and the French.

To really know the people, ask them to stay in their homes in deep atlas and villages. 

While having a tent to enjoy the night sky in the desert is almost mandatory, to get closer to the people (and have a warmer bed) learning a few words in French or Arabic can help.

That said, kids nowadays speak better English than French, in some parts of the country. 

 

#6 USE SOME MOROCCAN WISDOM

essaouira

There is a good analogy from investing as it relates to handling the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe.

I found that a number of Western governments, often  pressured by their electorates, have been very short-sighted and acted like amateur speculators

Often playing with our lives.

Waking up in the morning and looking at Japanese candlesticks, our governments have been relying on short-term data (that was often lagging and inaccurate) and constantly adjusted lockdown policies.

Acting under high uncertainty involves applying precautionary principles and acknowledging its own limitations.

Asia had cultural advantages (top-down social structures,  mask aka care about your neighbor culture and SARS experience with pre-established protocols). 

The US had a technological edge.

Morocco had wisdom. It will probably be one of the textbook cases on how to handle a pandemic without First-World resources.  

It was wise to close borders for almost the entire pandemic, leverage internal infrastructure to restrain movement and not look to revert policies every other week. 

Even when own citizens pressured to open borders to travel back for Ramadan. 

How many countries let their citizens fly from abroad (or even arranged special flights) for religious or national holidays importing new variants?

Wisdom is to behave like a long-term investor that doesn’t feel the pressure to trade every day based on meaningless charts.

Wisdom is to behave like a long-term investor that knows own weaknesses (here lack of infrastructure to handle the pandemic).

The only chart that matters is the one showing long-term consequences of your acts (please do compare it to your country).

SAFETY - Morocco's Real and Apparent Threats...

A safe Emerging country

safety 2
People are extremely friendly
monkey
Threat from wildlife is usually limited

Relative safety SCORES

People
4/5
Wildlife
3.5/5
Food
4.5/5
Road
2.5/5
Theft
3.5/5

People are generally very friendly but the usual travel rules apply.

Some cyclists have reported slightly aggressive behavior in some villages in Africa, but generally this doesn’t apply to Morocco, based on my observations. 

Terrorist threat is overblown. Morocco is a police state and relies heavily on tourism. Whether you notice it or not, rest assured that you are constantly being monitored (old-school way, without the Chinese tech, yet). Any suspect behavior in villages is usually reported.

Wildlife can be a threat in that wild dogs are quite common in rural areas. I do have a belt with me that I started using back in Tibet. 

I didn’t personally experience any dangerous situations, though. 

Theft can be pretty common in tourist areas (think Medina in Marrakech or some neighborhoods in Fez) or some parts of the country where you probably wouldn’t venture anyway (Sale near Rabat) but rural parts of the country are fairly safe. 

As usual, I haven’t used a bike lock and haven’t had any issues. 

Food is very safe based on my experience. 

During my entire stay, I did not have any stomach issues while having had such problems in Asia on a few occasions. 

Road safety can be a serious problem in Morocco. 

However, I didn’t notice an elevated level of threat when cycling across the country, compared to other emerging countries. 

And you probably won’t notice either, unless you decide to stay there for a few months.

As a general rule, the threat is quite limited in rural Morocco but very much present around cities

I found this to be the case when I stayed in Rabat for over a year and heard stories from other road cyclists. 

It’s not all anecdotal (see the cycling section), since the road fatality rate is 9x higher than in the UK

Bottom line: Morocco is not an ideal casual road cycling place (yet) for weekend warriors living in large cities.

And if you're still worried about safety, get yourself a Beagle 🙂

doggy
Kotomi and Buddy Boy, who can scare off some people (Souissy, Rabat)

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Said
Said
20 days ago

Tu sera toujours le bienvenu

Amine
Amine
20 days ago

Commence big up

Todd
Todd
8 days ago

Delightful highlights!

As a fellow cycle-tourist, I’m envying you a bit – yours is perhaps one of the best stories I’ve encountered about “what I did during COVID”. In my case, after waiting for 3 months in Barcelona, I saw borders in the Med would be a nightmare, so I returned to the States via very limited flights through Germany. But damn if “I lived in Morocco for 18 months” wasn’t the type of story I *really* wanted from this pandemic. I can’t wait to read further tidbits and insight as you continue.