Cold Country, Hot Sun


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Africa » Morocco
January 3rd 2015
Published: January 9th 2015
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Morocco Express

Ferry from Spain to Tanger, trains to Fez and Marrakech, then a grueling 2 day trip to the top of Morocco and North Africa's highest mountain, Jbel Toubkal at 4,167 m. Back to Spain via comfy night train couchette from Marrakech to Tanger then the ferry to Algeciras before heading to Portugal and the home stretch of the trip to end all trips.

Looking Back Toward Sidi ChamharouchLooking Back Toward Sidi ChamharouchLooking Back Toward Sidi Chamharouch

Getting dark on the way to the refuge...
Morocco has an odd reputation as being a cold country which it most definitely is in January. It was especially cold high up at 3,200 meters in the Atlas Mountains at the Refuge de Mouflons where I spent the night before my summit attempt of Jbel Toubkal at 4,167 meters and subsequent grueling return hike to Imlil. There was definitely no sign of a hot sun or anything hot aside from all the tajines and fantastic coffees that I consumed.

It was easy to squeeze in a spontaneous, brief side trip to Morocco from Spain. Aside from Barcelona which was my first stop and the Xmas day ascent of Mulhacén in the Sierra Nevadas, Spain wasn't really doing it for me. After 9 days in Morocco I returned to Algeciras, Spain for one night before a long bus trip to Porto, Portugal. I'll spend 2 days here then 3 days in Lisbon before flying to Madrid then Miami which will culminate The Next Trip To End All Trips.

US$ ≈ 9 Moroccan Dirhams (Dh)

Marrakech

The heart of Moroccan tourism and justifiably so. Lots of action, warmer than most places even in January, abundance of decent, cheap hotels, great food, fun place, and close to many of Morocco's other tourist destinations. But one night was enough for me after the battering my body took on Toubkal and my desire to quickly get back to Spain and soon on to Portugal.

Accommodation and food My first night in Marrakech I arrived 2 hours late ~7:30 pm on the train and was planning to head to Imlil early in the morning so I did not bother going to the medina to look for a cheap place to crash. However, in hindsight it might have been OK since the transport to the hill towns departed from very close to Djemma El Fna. I left the station and headed in the direction of the medina but at the first hotel I passed, a schwanky one, I asked the doorman if he knew a cheap hotel nearby. He said to continue a bit down the street where I found Hotel Farouk and took my own room with passably clean bathroom but awesome shower for 250 Dh which included a basic but all you can eat breakfast of bread, spreads, juice, and good coffee. There’s also WiFi but really only stable in the lobby or restaurant which, incidentally, turns out very good margarita pizzas for only 30 Dh but unfortunately no cold, frosty ones to wash it down. Also decent cous cous.

After the climb I got back to Marrakech early enough to scope out a place close to Djemma El Fna on the recommendation of my Moroccan taxi mates from Imlil. Looked at few places but best and also cheapest was Hotel Imouzzer although like most places in the byzantine medina, it’s impossible to describe how to find it but it must be in some guidebooks because it was frequented by many Western backpackers. A severely spartan single went for 70 Dh but there was a cold water sink and mirror in the room. The toilets and showers are shared and are reasonably clean although the showers have restricted hours. No towels available nor, unfortunately, heat but the sunny roof top café is great to hang out and use the good WiFi because the rest of the place never gets warm in winter. On the flip side, the building design probably keeps the interior from broiling in summer. There’s no shortage of places to eat around Djemma El Fna but very good and inexpensive is Snack Toubkal where a breakfast of fresh squeezed OJ, great coffee, and omelet or pancake is only 20 Dh, extra coffee 7 Dh. They also serve very good tajine and cous cous set menus for 45-50 Dh. Fresh squeezed OJ served all over Djemma El Fna for only 4 Dh.

Transport Heading to Imlil I was fortunate that a minibus was leaving imminently as this type of transport does not leave until full or, more often than not, overfilled. The fare was 30 Dh but we had to quickly change in Asni so the whole trip took ~2 hours. Petit taxi from Hotel Farouk to the staging area for Imlil was 11 Dh. I’m sure there’s a city bus but these seemed to be perpetually packed to the gills.

Going back to Tanger for the ferry, it was a near miracle to procure a very comfortable couchette only 2 hours before departure for the ~12 hour overnight train trip (scheduled 10½ hours but none of my 3 trains or 2 ferries arrived on time). The train left nearly on time ~ 9 pm and arrived at 8:45 am. The price was 350 Dh which
Approaching Tizi n'Toubkal Close To Jbel Toubkal's SummitApproaching Tizi n'Toubkal Close To Jbel Toubkal's SummitApproaching Tizi n'Toubkal Close To Jbel Toubkal's Summit

One of my Moroccan travel companions from Casablanca.
is a bargain since first and second class are 310 Dh and 205 Dh, respectively. If you are taking this train... GO FOR THE COUCHETTE!

Imlil

Sitting at over 1,700 meters ASL, Imlil is much colder than Marrakech which is probably a relief in summer, not so much in winter. Lots of trekking options, guides, outfitters for gear and clothing rental, and donkeys to carry the loads but I was there for the sole purpose of getting equipment (crampons and trekking poles, ice axe not necessary although many climbers had them) for the 2 day climb to Jbel Toubkal.

Accommodation and food After the hard traveling and torrid pace all the way from Granada, Spain to Imlil overland in a mere 6 days, I splashed out at Riad Imlil for a very nice ensuite room with necessary space heater, WiFi, and breakfast for 250 Dh. After the climb I stayed again at the riad for a combination of dollars and dirham that amounted to ~$33 but also included dinner with soup, bread, tea, and the best tajine I had anywhere in Morocco. There are a few other basic places serving tajines and cous cous and I ate at one but found it underwhelming and overpriced. Also cheaper places to stay; Hotel Toubkal near the minibus stop/taxi stand is ~150 Dh/person with breakfast but may not have heat or hot water, both near imperative after Jbel Toubkal at least in winter.

Transport Going back to Marrakech I ran into my Moroccan mates and we split a grand taxi for 35 Dh/person which was a great deal and faster than the minibuses but a bit uncomfortable as 2 of us rode shotgun. Non-stop travel time to Djema El Fna was 1¼ hours.

Jbel Toubkal climb After a great night's sleep and filling breakfast at the riad, I got a very late start for the trek to the refuge at the base of Toubkal. I set out from Imlil ~12:30 pm and not knowing there was a shortcut trail up to Armed, I took the long and winding road to the upland village. Past Armed the trail merged into a rocky, dry riverbed and it was difficult to discern if there were any trail to follow. I caught up to a British couple and eventually we saw a sign on the other side of the river so made
Jbel Toubkal 4,167 mJbel Toubkal 4,167 mJbel Toubkal 4,167 m

Highest point in Morocco and also North Africa
a beeline for that. Turned out that was the trail and we made good time from there to the last village of Sidi Chamharouch at 2,310 m where the Brits headed back to Imlil. A couple of hundred meters above the village the trail was completely covered in compact snow and ice so I donned the crampons and cruised into Refuge de Mouflons as the last photon of light faded just before 6 pm. There are 2 refuges, the schwankier Mouflons and one run by a French alpine club (CAF). I slept at the more comfortable Mouflons for 130 Dh in a huge, arctic dorm but there were only 4 of us so slept great. Took my meals at the other refuge which ran 100 Dh for a nice dinner but a pretty poor breakfast featuring Nescafe. Half board at Mouflons is 319 Dh while at CAF is 235 Dh but the beds are purportedly comfier at the former.

Took breakfast ~7:00 am and was out the door into the well below freezing temperatures at 7:50 am. The trail started out pretty steep but at 9:15 am I reached a flat spot where I was able to attend to
Briefly Enjoying the TopBriefly Enjoying the TopBriefly Enjoying the Top

Very alpine yet in Morocco
my crampon malfunction with my ever accessible, multi-function Swiss Army knife. After that the trail was very easy until the traverse below the 3,940 m pass at Tizi n'Toubkal which I reached at 10:00 and took a short Snickers and hydration break. It was surprisingly mild at the pass, no wind, and bathed in sunshine. The route followed the fairly wide ridge to the summit and I topped out at 10:59 am along with several others. The views were incredible and it was still very warm so difficult to leave the summit. But I couldn't dawdle if I had any hope of making it back to Imlil before nightfall so I bolted from the summit at 11:06 am and reached the pass a short while later where I made sure my crampons were securely fit. Got to the freezing refuge at 12:54 pm and after some gear reorganization and re-hydration left for Imlil at 1:30 pm arriving at the village in a frazzled state at 5:00 pm.

Fes

Great medina, colder than Marrakech, and much more limited accommodation. Book in advance or arrive early to scope out a place to stay.

Accommodation and food Yunus, from my stay
Atlas Mountains, MoroccoAtlas Mountains, MoroccoAtlas Mountains, Morocco

This is Morocco!
in Tanger, called Cascade Hotel to reserve me a room for 80 Dh but when I got there ~7 pm there was no record of the reservation much to my shock and chagrin. It took a while to find a place as the first few places I looked at were either disgusting or wildly overpriced. Eventually a local took me to his cousin's house where a spare room was available for 200 Dh for 2 nights including use of the kitchen which I needed only to boil water for coffee. It was super quiet which is all I cared about. Near "Chez Rasheed," which is where seemingly all the foreigners eat, is a hole in the wall juice bar near the corner clothing shop serving hot-off-the-griddle Moroccan standard breakfast breads for 3 Dh apiece and the ubiquitous fresh squeezed OJ for 6 Dh. Also avocado milk shakes but I didn't see the attraction of those. Around the corner are a couple of very small, unassuming grills where a ¼ chicken, harira, salad, bread, killer hot sauce, and mint tea runs ~35 Dh.

Transport Trains to Marrakech departs every ~2 hours for the purported 7 hour trip. I took 2nd class for 195 Dh, left at 10:30 but arrived 19:30, 2 hours late which seemed to be the norm for all manner of transport. Bus 10 leaves irregularly from near the train station to Bab Boud Jeloud for 3.5 Dh or a petit taxi is 10 Dh. CTM buses for Marrakech leave at 7 am from a station near Bab Boud Jeloud for ~160 Dh theoretically taking 9 hours.

Tanger

Many travelers' arrival point coming from Spain. With the abundance of budget airline flights I met many people flying straight to Marrakech which is much closer to most of the attractions and waaay more interesting than Tanger. The plan was to avoid Tanger altogether and if the ferry from Spain had not arrived 2 hours late for the 1½ hour journey I almost assuredly would have been able to take the 10 pm night train to Marrakech then worked my way back north in stages.

Accommodation and food I rocked up ~11 pm at Melting Pot hostel in the medina without a reservation and took a bed in an otherwise empty 4 person dorm for the absurdly expensive price of 160 Dh which included a basic breakfast with good coffee but did not include a towel. As is common in the medina the building is kind of decrepit and falling apart. But the vibe is good and Yunus, the manager/owner, is very nice but to pay more than I was paying for a bed in much nicer hostels all over Spain for this quality of accommodation was a bit disconcerting. I could have gotten a room at the Ibis Hotel next the train station for ~€30 and saved being driven around aimlessly in a petit taxi looking for the Melting Pot. After breakfast at the hostel I wandered around the port area promenade where there are many coffee shops but the city seemed entirely devoid of sites.

Transport From Tanger Med port there is a Superbus to the train station approximately every hour for 25 Dh. When I returned to the port there was a new ALSA bus (city's public bus) to the port, but stopping a ways from the entrance to the gare maritime, for 7 Dh. Either bus takes ~1 hour for the trip. Taxis run ~300 Dh. From Tanger Ville train station to Fes there are frequent trains for 105 Dh in second class which is fine even though there are no assigned seats or passenger limits. Tanger is the originating station and there's no problem getting a seat. Best to bring food and drink for the 5 hour trip as there's no restaurant car and the attendant's food trolley contains only tea, horrid Nescafe, and junk food.

There is a bewildering array of ferry options between Spain and Morocco. I went with Trasmediterranea from Algeciras to Tanger Med port (€31.50 round trip, open return) because it was less than half the price of their next cheapest option which was Tarifa-Tanger (€66 round trip) although arriving at Tanger Med is a bit inconvenient and time consuming. There is also a boat from Algeciras to Ceuta but it is an extortionate €35 one way with no round trip discount unlike the other 2 routes. The trip should have gone smoothly except that the boat left Algeciras 2 hours late which forced a minor deviation to my plan. Going back to Spain, the boat left only 30 minutes late even though there were hardly any passengers. If going via Tanger Med, allow for a delay. If really pressed for time, take the route directly to the old port in the center of Tanger. There are other companies offering similar services on faster boats but more expensive.


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Gibraltar RockGibraltar Rock
Gibraltar Rock

On the ferry heading back to Spain from Tanger


9th January 2015
Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Great climb!
I love Morocco in the winter and especially those Atlas Mountains. How wonderful that you were able to summit without a guide and at your own pace. What a perfect way to end this leg of your travels!
10th January 2015
Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Thanks! Definitely the highlight and primary objective of my trip to Morocco but I'll have to return in fall or spring someday to see more of the country with the hot sun.
10th January 2015

Your trips are always so amazing...
especially your goal to climb the highest mountain in each country. TBers will also appreciate the logistical details you provide. I look forward to your Next Next Trip To End All Trips, but often wonder how you can afford to take off so much time. You still have some big gaps in Africa...is that next?
10th January 2015

Thanks for following the blog. Not sure what the next round will be but possibly focusing on mts. in Siberia, Mongolia, and Central Asia. Definitely not for a while, though.

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