Cycling south: Essaouira to Agadir

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February 8th 2008
Published: March 18th 2008
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Kate riding south into Pt. ImsouaneKate riding south into Pt. ImsouaneKate riding south into Pt. Imsouane

This section of the coast finally earned our definitive "Big Sur of Morocco" desgination.
After nearly a week off the bikes "on vacation" in Essaouira, we resumed our southward journey down the coast with a very short 25km leg to the beachside village of Sidi Kaouki. This tiny town - barely more than a bus stop, and not even rating its own mosque - has only recently appeared on tourists' radar screens, and the road to it - a 30km loop west of the main N1 coastal highway - was only fully paved in the last few years. The driving force behind its development has been the international community of windsurfing fanatics; even more than in Essaouira, the winds here are predictably steady and strong, so much so that there is a huge wind farm generating electricity on the hillside just up the coast, financed by the German government and equipped with - naturally - wind turbines from Seimens.

We rode south out of Essaouira, past the new college and the airport turnoff, and took the rolling road down to Sidi Kaouki past the wind farm, eventually arriving at a empty dirt lot ringed with food stalls, a gendarme post, and a handful of French and German RVs. Welcome to beautiful downtown Sidi Kaouki!
Courtyard at the Hotel Sidi KaoukiCourtyard at the Hotel Sidi KaoukiCourtyard at the Hotel Sidi Kaouki

We had a great time here relaxing and dining by candlelight.
There is really no town center, but there is a healthy collection of auberges and guesthouses, including at least one high-end place with a pool, aimed at well-heeled windsurfers, and the Sidi Kaouki Surf Club, a cavernous cafe-cum-surf shop (constructed of wood, a rare sight in Morocco) with board rentals, cappucinos, and Bob Marley blasting out over the beach from the upstairs terrace.

It being the off-season - the wind doesn't usually start blowing here until March - we had our pick of accomodations, and chose the Hotel Le Kaouki based on its tranquil vibe and gracious courtyard, where we had a delicious lunch while watching the songbirds flit through the bouganvillea. Most of the hotel is without electricity, so in the evening the small staff lit dozens of candles in our room, the stairwells, bathrooms and throughout the common areas, even though we were the only guests. Our candlelit dinner, served beside an open fire, was magical, and it was a real temptation to spend another day here in Sidi Kaouki beachcombing, reading and relaxing...

As we rode south out of Sidi Kaouki the next morning along wide sandy beaches and through rolling hills above the unpopulated
Argan tree near Sidi KaoukiArgan tree near Sidi KaoukiArgan tree near Sidi Kaouki

Squint hard - you'll see goats balanced in the tree branches munching fresh argan nuts, which will eventually be extracted from their dung, roasted & pressed into delicious argan oil - no, really!
coastal cliffs, there were few - though emerging - signs of development, just as you'd expect from section of coastline only recently serviced by a paved road. In this area we passed through vast stands of thorny argan trees, stretching from the tops of the dry hills down to the coastal bluffs. Argan, found only (and increasingly rarely) in Morocco, is valued for the unique oil that is produced when its nuts - traditionally preprocessed in the gut of a goat and extracted from the dung - are roasted, ground, and pressed. The result, vaguely resemblng toasted sesame oil, is used for soap, cosmetics and as a flavoring oil (but not for frying or cooking). The international Slow Food crowd has discovered argan oil, and a movement to preserve the existing stands of argan trees and provide fair compensation and working conditions for the women who make it is gathering momentum: later in this area of the coast we saw many signs along the highway advertising women's argan oil cooperatives.

Our destination this day was Pt. Imsouane, another fishing village-turned-surf-mecca, famed for its amazingly consistent point break as well as a very respectable beach break. Like Sidi Kaouki, Pt.
Descent into Pt ImsouaneDescent into Pt ImsouaneDescent into Pt Imsouane

Unfortunately, even this exhilarating downhill conformed to the cycling maxim "for every descent there must be an equal and opposite ascent".
Imsouane is also on a recently paved loop off of the main highway, and we were fairly bushed when we turned west onto its northern leg after 70km of rolling hills, including one marked pass reaching 300m. Immediately we were gliding gently downhill through what resembled an immaculately landscaped argan orchard; abruptly, the road crested a rise and then plunged a winding 80m down the hill towards the ocean before leveling out and giving us one our most spectacular rides, seemingly suspended 150m above the surf on a one lane road that was barely scratched into the sheer cliffs. Pushed along the final 8km down into Pt. Imsouane by a steady tailwind, we agreed that the phenomenal views along this section of the coast merited it our definitive "Big Sur of Morocco" designation.

Unfortunately, what goes down is likely to require going back up. After a night in the only decent hotel - Pt Imsouane is in its awkward adolescence as a tourist destination and, like climbers, surfers have notoriously low standards for accomodation - we realised that to get out of Pt. Imsouane going south we were going to have to earn back most of the previous day's
Point break, Pt. ImsouanePoint break, Pt. ImsouanePoint break, Pt. Imsouane

Justifiably famous amongst international surfers, but can it survive the next wave of tourist development?
exhilarating descent. After 2km of climbing a 15% grade, the road took a turn and the hill got even steeper, reducing us to a combination of pushing the bikes and grinding in our lowest granny gears to get us back the final 8km to the main highway - where we soon got spanked again with another long grade back up the coastal shelf. The wicked descent back to the ocean didn't seem to provide much recovery, and when we rounded the corner into the tiny town of Tamri and saw the sign saying "Restaurant" all we could think of was "lunch break."

That impulsive decision was a fortuitous one, since we'd picked the only quality eating establishment in Tamri, and the only hotel to boot. (We never did find the "Bald Ibis Cafe" mentioned in the Lonely Planet.) A long lunch of salad and delicious chicken tagine - how many different versions of this dish have we had? - turned even longer when we ordered slices of their fabulous cbocolate gateau, enjoyed over cups of strong espresso with our voluble French hostess Marie The. We already knew that Tamri was somewhat famous for its nearby colony of rare bald
Camel herd on the beach, TamriCamel herd on the beach, TamriCamel herd on the beach, Tamri

Bald ibis were not the only exotic animal life we saw in Tamri.
ibis, and Marie The offered to show us how to find these elusive cliff-dwelling birds the next day if we were interested in spending a night in Tamri. Considering the quiet seaside locale, the cheap room with an expansive oceanview terrace and our still-aching quadriceps, we readily agreed.

One night in Tamri eventually turned into two as we explored the nearby estuary and dunes, and embarked on several ibis-viewing expeditions. Speaking no English whatsoever but convinced that her French, if delivered in sufficient quantity, could not fail to be understood, Marie The generously devoted her afternoon to shuttling us back and forth between several possible sites for ibis sightings over dunes and gravel roads at the wheel of her beat-up Renault, giving us a tour of the coast as well as a look at her new home, under construction in the local adobe-colored style on a remote hillside overlooking the sea. We eventually did sight the famous birds just after sunset as V-formations of several dozen individuals streamed up the coastline and came to rest at their nesting site in a large overhanging arch in the rugged cliffs above the breakers. Through the telephoto lens they appeared as just
The rare Bald Ibis, TamriThe rare Bald Ibis, TamriThe rare Bald Ibis, Tamri

Sighted in their cliffside nesting area along the coast north of Tamri, Morocco.
as ugly as we've seen in the books - they certainly haven't come to the brink of extinction based on their beauty - and with my blurry photos I was able to captured the bird's ratty visage if not the exact zoological details.

The section of the Moroccan coast most popular with surfers starts at Pt Imsouane and stretches down to Sidi Ifni, and we started to see more surf vans parked along the cliffs, scouting the breaks, as we headed south out of Tamri along rolling coastal bluffs towards Aourir, our next destination. Based on the descriptions in the Lonely Planet, we had originally considered stopping at the seaside towns of Taghazout or Tamraght, but they turned out to be seedy tourist traps, frantically attempting to capitalize on their newfound status as surf destinations by catering to tourists flying in to nearby Agadir. Other than the advantage of not being Agadir, Aourir didn't have alot going for it either, except that after checking into the excellent Hotel Littoral (a pool and beer in the restaurant!) we got to lunch with the locals at Aourir's big "destination" restaurant. This three-story affair built in Berber kasbah style was thronged by
Gnaouan dancer, AourirGnaouan dancer, AourirGnaouan dancer, Aourir

These musicians and dancers got the crowd whipped up with their ceremonial dagger routine.
middle-class Agadiri families taking a Sunday drive up the coast and generating traffic jams trying to get into this popular spot. The food was fabulous, a delicious chicken pastilla and a gigantic mixed salad laced with fragrant argan oil, but besides the fascinating people-watching the highlight was the troupe of enthusiastic Gnaouan musician-dancers who performed in the restaurant's courtyard. Playing flutes and percussion, singing, clapping and step-dancing on resonant drums, they wound up their set with a dangerous-looking dance featuring curved ceremonial daggers flourished in close proximity to their throats. While they continued to gyrate we joined the crowd pressing forward to tuck 20 and 50 dirham bills into their sweaty headscarves.

Our short cruise into Agadir a couple of days later, past the huge seaside summer palace built by the Saudi Arabian royal family and Agadir's ugly industrial port, was a bit of an anticlimax - the best part of the ride being the gorgeous 4-lane highway reportedly financed by the Saudis. We'd been avoiding Agadir, described to us by other travelers as a German tourist ghetto, by trying to resupply, take care of laundry, internet, etc. while in Aourir so we could blast on through with the
Easy beach break, AourirEasy beach break, AourirEasy beach break, Aourir

Casual surf tourists get the gentle treatment at this shallow protected beach north of Agadir.
minimum stopover. The reality was a bit different, both because we hadn't quite finished our tasks and because Agadir wasn't so much the heinous tourist hell-hole we'd thought it would be - though, prudently, we did stay away from the Agadir beachfront with its gauntlet of giant resorts by staying at the pleasant little Hotel Tiznine east of the center of town. Yes, we did hear alot of German spoken, and had menus handed to us with the English side facing up, but we have to admit to enjoying having a bit of the "travel made easy" experience once in a while, especially in light of the next leg of our trip south through Morocco's Souss-Massa National Park.

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Sunset near ibis nesting sites, TamriSunset near ibis nesting sites, Tamri
Sunset near ibis nesting sites, Tamri

The bald ibis wheel back up this coastline at sunset to return to their nests in the cliffs.

29th June 2008

Diversions, ahh, the spices of life
Hello, Reading about your Moroccan travels has kept me from finishing the task at hand, laying down the last two square meters of oak parquet at my retreat. I had the good fortune of spending two weeks in Morocco this past January. That trip, travelling light with only a 20L packpack and no set agenda, inspired me to return for another two weeks in March. The second journey was totally different then the first, as it was done primarily via bicycle. The first trip - Meknes, Fes, Essouria (also stayed at the same shoebox for ... only one night) and Marrakech was a weird but positive sensory overload. The second trip, much like your cycling trip, began first with the assembly of our bicycles, followed by the challenge of then storing the giant boxes for our return (ofcourse we paid a premium leaving the airport with our boxed bicycles - as the airport provides no storage facilities). After the storage issue was resolved with help from some graceful locals, it was a great feeling pedeling into the main square. We set out with the goal of making it to Taddert before sunset. We were not blessed with a tailwind and spent the greater part of the day fighting a very strong headwind, plus the climb. We visited the local hammam, and were fortunate to experience a very hard type of Moroccan massage. This was followed by a ... tajine ofcourse. The story goes on, but that would exceed the polite length of a comment. All in all, we ended up crossing the High Atlas range twice, crossing over the Tichka pass at 2260 and on the return, over the Tich'n Test pass. Morocco is truly a great country to cycle in. Wishing you a pleasant tailwind for the remainder of your journey. The next mornng we made the climb to the Col du Tichka (2260m). After a very rewarding freshly squeezed oj the ride to Ouzazate was very enjoyable. As we had agreed to meet some friends in Zagora we had a schedule that kept us from a more leisurely pace. The next morning, after a great dinner at Chez Dimitris, we headed out with Agdz as our goal. As you have also done this route, there is no need to describe the journey, climb and descent. We stayed at the Kasbah Itrane, after we had been told it was "the" kasbah. Later that evening we were led to the genuine kasbah. We had actually been fortunate to have made that choice, as when we were finishing our excellent tour, a group of some 40 French tourists arrived, whereas we had the Itrane almost soley to ourselves. The next day we rode along the river (highway) and cruised through Zagora and to find accomodation at the Asmaa in Amazraou. Some hours after we arrived our friends caught up with us at the hotel. As they did not have bicycles or the inclination to ride, we compromised and hired a 4x4 to take us into the dessert beyond M'Hamid the following day. This was a fortunate decision, as the next day demonstrated what an actual sandstorm is like. I will hopefully take the initiative and post some on the web (apparently it easier to do then ever before) with some of our experiences. After the trip to the dessert I was certain that the dessert thing is just not my cup of tea. Visually stunning? Yes. Overbearing, YES. The next we did not get back into Zagora until past noon and left riding into a very strong headwind. Needless to say I had no guilt flagging down a grand taxi whose driver had no problem bunjeecording my bicycle into the boot. Some ten k outside of Zagora to Ouzazate cost us only 200 MAD! We made a repeat visit to Chez Dimitris and left early the next morning by bus to Marrakech. I was fortunate to be allowed to sit in the very front seat and was thus able to get some great shots from a great perspective - and in great comfort. We arrived in Marrakech behind schedule with the bus to Essaouria being held for us and the others who had tickets for the onward journey. As it was Easter weekend, the bus and its boot were full. It was quite a stir (plus an additional 50 MAD per bike) to get our bicycles squeezed in. Upon arriving in Essaouria, we were faced with the task of finding a room. Unfortunately the Dar Afram was fully, fully booked. Good fortune prevailed (after twenty some odd payphone calls) and a room was found. The greatest thing about travelling by bicycle, is that you can drive it literally through the front doors of a hotel. Our room was very interesting, as it was height was greater then its length or width! Not wishing to totally forego the Dar Afram experience, we decided to dine there. During the course of the evening we met some South Africans who had decided to quit there jobs an take 6 mos to travel up the African coast finding good spots to surf at. When we me up with them, they were merely 6 mos behind schedule! They also have an excellent web site that accounts for there journey, . Getting in at 4am (actually not - as the hotel door was locked) and having to stand outside the large wooden door hoping hat
1st July 2008

Please expand!
Sorry it looks like puts a (OK, liberal) limit on the length of comments and cut you off. But it looks like you have alot of good info to share - please consider recasting your comments in a journal, expand the on the nitty-gritty and add some of your photos - not omitting any of those road details, riding conditions, etc. that fellow cyclists thrive on! Cheers - Steve

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