Morocco is a country made for explorers of the great outdoors. Hike in North Africa's best mountain ranges, trek by camel into the sand dunes of the Sahara, surf along its beaches – and after you're done, scrub off your exertions at a traditional hammam.
Morocco’s diverse terrain means there are many outdoor activities on offer besides trekking. Birdwatching enthusiasts, cyclists, climbers and horse riders will all find options to challenge and excite. Another bonus: whether you’re skiing, surfing or camel trekking, between activities you can enjoy the Moroccan culture and hospitality.
Morocco is a birdwatcher’s paradise. A startling array of species inhabits the country’s diverse ecosystems and environments, especially the coastal wetlands.
Around 460 species have been recorded in the country, many of them migrants passing through in spring and autumn, when Morocco becomes a way station between sub-Saharan Africa and breeding grounds in Scandinavia, Greenland and northern Russia. Other birds fly to Morocco to avoid the harsh northern European winters. The lagoon at Merja Zerga National Park, near Moulay Bousselham, is the best site in the country for migratory birds.
A pleasant time for birdwatching is March through May, when the weather is comfortable and a wide variety of species is usually present. The winter is also a particularly active time in the wetlands and lagoons.
Guides & Tours
In addition to local birdwatching guides, the following UK-based companies offer Moroccan tours:
Wild Insights (www.wildinsights.co.uk)
Exploring the Sahara by camel – whether on an overnight excursion or a longer desert safari – is one of Morocco’s signature activities and most rewarding wilderness experiences.
Only consider doing your camel trek in autumn (September and October) or winter (November to early March). Outside these months, the desert experiences gruelling extremes of heat, plus sandstorms in the spring.
Prices start at around Dh300 per person per day, but vary depending on the number of people, the length of the trek and your negotiating skills.
The agency will organise the bivouac (temporary camp), which may be a permanent camp for shorter trips, and may offer Berber music and mechoui (slow-roasted lamb).
Organising a Camel Trek
Travellers with lots of time can organise a guide and provisions in situ. This benefits the local community and counters the trend towards young guides leaving home to look for work in the more popular tourist centres.
M’Hamid is probably the most hassle-free of the main desert gateways, although the choice is wider at Zagora and Merzouga. Try to get recommendations from other travellers.
It’s quicker and easier, involving less negotiations and waiting, to organise a trip in advance – either through an international tour operator or a company based in Ouarzazate or Marrakesh.
Visiting a hammam (traditional bathhouse) is infinitely preferable to cursing under a cold shower in a cheap hotel. They’re busy, social places, where you’ll find gallons of hot water, and staff available to scrub you clean. They’re also good places to meet the locals and, especially for women, somewhere to escape street hassle.
Every town has at least one hammam, often a modern, white-tiled and spacious affair. Often there are separate hammams for men and women; others open to either sex at different hours or on alternate days.
Some hammams are unmarked and others simply have a picture of a man or woman stencilled on the wall outside; locals will happily direct you. Most hammams are welcoming, but a few (often those close to a mosque) are unwilling to accept foreign visitors.
Bring your own towels (in a waterproof bag), a plastic mat or something to sit on, and flip-flops (thongs). Some hammams sell toiletries; look out for ghassoul (clay mixed with herbs, dried roses and lavender), kessa (coarse gloves), black soap made from the resin of olives and henna.
You’ll be given a bucket and scoop; remember to use the communal bucket when filling yours with water. Most hammams have showers.
Local hammam admission is typically around Dh10 (more in tourist areas), plus the optional extras of gommage (scrub) and massage.
A few midrange and top-end hotels have more expensive hammams, which normally require advance notice to heat up, and a minimum of four or five people.
Morocco is blessed with some of the world’s most beautiful mountains, and is a year-round trekking destination. In summer, head to Jebel Toubkal (North Africa’s highest peak). In winter, when snow closes the High Atlas, there’s Jebel Saghro to explore, while the Rif Mountains are ideal for the seasons in between.
Where to Trek
An ascent of Jebel Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak (4167m), is Morocco’s most iconic trek. The two-day hike starts at Imlil near Marrakesh; those wanting more can hire mules to make a Toubkal Circuit trek of up to 10 days.
Despite the sometime fearsome reputation of the M’Goun Massif, this four-day trek is suitable for most levels of fitness. The landscape is both varied and spectacular, from dry gorges to lush valleys, but be prepared to get your feet wet hopping or wading across shallow rivers.
Morocco’s lowest mountain range is ideal for springtime trekking, when the Rif’s oak forests are in their greenest leaf and the slopes carpeted with wildflowers. Trek through the Talassemtane National Park, past Berber villages to arrive at the audacious natural rock formation of God’s Bridge.
This trek of five to six days threads a path between the High Atlas and the Dadès Valley. The traverse of Jebel Saghro is arid but starkly beautiful, and is a prime winter trek when other mountain trails are closed because of snow.
The Anti Atlas is where Morocco's ripple of mountains finally peter out into the Sahara. In these much-overlooked mountains hardcore trekkers can take a week to tackle the volcanic peak of Jebel Siroua, or hike for five days through the villages of the Ameln Valley to Jebel El Kest.
Morocco is covered by a 1:100,000 and also a 1:50,000 topographical map series.
Some of the 1:50,000 series are unavailable to the public; travellers exploring wide areas are advised to stick to the 1:100,000 series.
Although marked in Cyrillic script, 1:100,000 maps of Morocco made by the Soviet military are as topographically accurate as any available.
The best place in Morocco to buy maps is Direction de la Cartographie in Rabat, which lists the maps it sells online.
Maps and photocopies are also available at other bookshops around Morocco, as well as at stalls around the Djemaa El Fna in Marrakesh and, as a last resort, on the approaches to the Atlas trekking routes.
Websites, including Amazon (www.amazon.com), sell maps such as West Col Productions maps of the Toubkal and M’Goun Massifs.
Clothing & Equipment
All year round you will need to pack strong, well-broken-in walking boots. You will also need a waterproof and windproof outer layer. It’s amazing how quickly the weather can change, so you'll also need a sunhat, sunglasses and high-factor sunscreen.
In summer (June to August) light, baggy cotton trousers and long-sleeved shirts are musts, and because nights can still get cold even at lowish altitudes, you should also bring a fleece or jumper.
When trekking during winter (November to March) always pack warm clothing, including a woollen hat and gloves for High Atlas trekking. You should be prepared for very cold weather wherever you trek in the country.
Whether you are camping or staying in houses, a four-season sleeping bag is essential for the High Atlas and Jebel Saghro from September to early April, when temperatures as low as –10°C are not unknown.
In lower ranges, even in high summer, a bag comfortable at 0°C is recommended. A thick sleeping mat or thin foam mattress is a good idea since the ground is extremely rocky. Guides can usually supply these.
Many gîtes (hostels) have cooking facilities, but you may want to bring a stove if you are camping. Multifuel stoves that burn anything from aviation fuel to diesel are ideal.
Methylated spirits is hard to get hold of, but kerosene is available. Pierce-type butane gas canisters are also available, but not recommended for environmental reasons.
Your guide will be able to offer advice.
The key decision, when planning a route, is whether or not to sleep in a tent. A good tent opens up endless trekking possibilities and will get you away from the crowds.
You can hire tents from tour operators and guides, and at trailheads.
If you would rather not carry a tent, in most regions you can stay in the villages.
Bring a basic medical kit as well as water-purification tablets or iodine drops or a mechanical purifier. All water should be treated unless you take it directly from the source.
To go above 3000m between November and May, as well as having experience in winter mountaineering, you will need essentials including crampons, ice axes and snow shovels. Again, this equipment is available for hire.
If you are combining trekking with visits to urban areas, consider storing extra luggage before your trek rather than lugging around unwanted gear. Most hotels will let you leave luggage, sometimes for a small fee. Train stations in larger cities have secure left-luggage facilities.
However much trekking and map-reading experience you have, we strongly recommend that you hire a qualified guide – if for no other reason than to be your translator (how is your Tashelhit?), chaperone faux guides (unofficial guides) – they won’t come near you if you are with a guide, deal-getter and vocal guidebook.
A good guide will also enhance your cultural experience. They will know local people, which will undoubtedly result in invitations for tea and food, and richer experiences of Berber life.
If something goes wrong, a local guide will be the quickest route to getting help. Every year foreigners die in the Moroccan mountains. Whatever the cause – a freak storm, an unlucky slip, a rock slide – the presence of a guide would invariably have increased their chances of survival. So however confident you feel, we recommend that you never walk into the mountains unguided.
Choosing a Guide
A flash-looking, English-speaking faux guide (unofficial guide) from Marrakesh is no substitute for a gnarled, old, local mountain guide who knows the area like the back of his hand.
Official guides carry photo-identity cards. Guides should be authorised by the Fédération Royale Marocaine de Ski et Montagne or l’Association Nationale des Guides et Accompagnateurs en Montagne du Maroc. They should be credited as guides de montagne (mountain guides), which requires study for at least six months at the Centre de Formation aux Métiers de Montagne, a school for mountain guides at Tabant in the Ait Bougmez Valley.
Accompagnateurs (escorts) will have had only one week’s training, and will not be insured to lead mountain trips; guides de tourisme (tourist guides) are not qualified to lead treks.
Official mountain guides, who can always show an identity card as proof of their status, have been trained in mountain craft, including first aid. In times of uncertain weather or in an emergency, they will be infinitely more efficient than a cheaper guide lacking proper training. If a guide is reluctant to show a photo card, it probably means they either don't have one or it has expired (they should be renewed every three years).
Some guides de montagne have additional training in rock climbing, canyoning and mountaineering. All guides speak French, and some also speak English, Spanish or German. Several young Moroccan female guides, who have succeeded in breaking into the previously all-male world of mountain guiding, are in high demand.
Hiring a Guide
There are more than 400 accredited mountain guides in Morocco, and many can be found through the bureaux des guides in Imlil, Setti Fatma, Chefchaouen, and Maroc Profond in Tabant (Ait Bougmez Valley).
At the time of writing, the minimum rate for official guides was Dh350 per day (per group, not per person). This rate can vary according to season and location. The rates do not include food and accommodation expenses.
Guides generally get free accommodation in refuges and gîtes, but you may be asked to cover their meals. If you walk a linear route, you’ll also be expected to pay for their return journey.
Negotiate all fees before departure and count on giving at least a 10% tip at the end, unless you have been unhappy with the service.
If your guide is organising your trip (rather than a tour operator), be sure to go through all aspects of the trek ahead of time. Discuss where each day will start and end; whether tents will be shared (most guides have a tent and/or sleeping bag); how many mules will be hired; who will be cooking (if there are enough of you, the guide may insist on hiring a cook, usually for about Dh100 a day); food preferences; water provision; and the division of food and equipment among the group.
Mules (and the odd donkey) are widely used in Morocco for transporting goods through the mountains, and you can easily hire one to carry your gear.
If you are relying on heavy local supplies, or are in a large group, hiring a mule makes especially good sense. As a rough guide, mules can carry up to 120kg – or up to four sets of gear. If the route is very steep or demanding, the muleteer may insist upon carrying less. He will have the well-being of his meal ticket in mind, although Moroccans are generally unsentimental about their pack animals.
Some trekking routes are not suitable for mules, although detours (for the mule) are often possible. If high passes are covered in snow, porters may have to be used instead of mules (one porter can carry up to 18kg).
There is usually a standard charge for a mule and muleteer of about Dh100 per day. As with guides, if you trek a linear route, you’ll also be expected to pay for the muleteer’s return journey.
If you would rather not carry a tent, you can often stay in refuges and in villages at either gîtes d’étape (basic homestays or hostels) or chez l’habitant (in someone’s home). Especially in remote areas, village rooms may not even have a mattress on the floor, although in places such as Imlil they often come with the luxury of a bed.
The bulk of trekking accommodation options in the High and Middle Atlas are gîtes. In the Rif and Anti Atlas, gîtes are uncommon, and accommodation is more often in local homes or in tents.
Gîtes provide basic accommodation, often offering little more than a foam mattress in an empty room, or on a roof terrace or balcony. They have basic bathrooms and toilets, although the better ones have hot showers. Given notice, the proprietor can rustle up a tajine.
The standard rate is Dh50 per person per night, although prices can vary according to season and location. Meals are extra (usually Dh30 to Dh50 per person), as are hot showers (usually Dh10 to Dh15 per shower).
The more upscale, privately owned gîtes typically charge up to Dh200 per person for half-board, while rooms at one luxury kasbah in Imlil cost up to Dh280.
Club Alpin Français operates refuges in Imlil, Oukaïmeden, Tazaghart, Tacheddirt and on Toubkal. Officially, bookings should be made in advance through the Oukaïmeden refuge. However, in practice you can usually find out if space is available at the other refuges in the Toubkal region by asking in Oukaimeden or Imlil. Refuges are often packed in July and August.
CAF members and Hostelling International members get the cheapest price for a bed. Members of affiliated and recognised alpine organisations (eg the UK’s Alpine Club) and children aged under 16 years are also eligible for discounts.
The choice of dry rations is limited in rural Morocco. You cannot be sure of finding much beyond powdered milk, a range of dried fruit and sachets of soup, biscuits, some tinned fish and dates. Supermarkets in larger towns and cities are a much better option, and if you take a mule, you will be able to plan a more varied diet.
Bread, eggs, vegetables and some basic supplies (eg tea and tinned tuna) may be available in some mountain villages, but you cannot count on it. Meals can also be arranged in some villages (Dh30 to Dh50 per person is standard), especially at gîtes and refuges, although they usually need to be ordered in advance. Again, do not rely on local suppliers as your only source of food unless you have made previous arrangements.
Change money in the nearest major town and ensure that you have plenty of small notes. If you do get stuck, euro notes may be accepted.
Many trailheads are off the beaten path as far as public transport goes. You might need to factor in the cost of hiring a grand taxi to get you to where you can start walking.
Morocco is being developed as a walking destination, but many regions are still remote – and susceptible to the cultural and environmental impact of tourism. Many travellers return home warmed and heartened by Berber hospitality, but as visitor numbers increase so too does the pressure on locals. In response, travellers should adopt an appropriate code of behaviour.
What to Wear
The way you dress is important, especially among remote mountain people, who remain conservative. In villages, wear buttoned shirts or t-shirts and not sleeveless vests, which villagers use as underwear. Above all, trousers should be worn rather than shorts. This applies equally to men and women.
The importance of dress in the villages cannot be overemphasised (as many a frustrated and embarrassed trekking tour leader will affirm). However much you might disagree with this conservatism, respecting local traditions will bring great rewards, not least by way of contact, hospitality and assistance.
Invitations for tea and offers of food are common in the mountains. By taking a guide, who may have friends in many villages, you'll open yourself up to even more offers of genuine hospitality.
While these offers are unconditional, it is worth bearing in mind that the mountain economy is one of basic subsistence farming. No one has large supplies, and in outlying villages there may be no surplus food. Offering your hosts some Chinese gunpowder tea and some sugar (preferably in cones) is a very welcome gesture. Dried fruits are also appreciated, as is a taste of any imported food you may have.
For this reason, it is important to be generous when buying provisions for yourself and guides.
In remote areas, people along the way will often ask for medicine, from disinfectant and bandages to painkillers or cream for dry skin (which many children have). Always make sure the guide explains what to do with what you offer – how often to take it and so on.
Vegetation at high altitude is highly sensitive. When camping, minimise your impact on the environment by not removing or disturbing the vegetation around your campsite. Sufficient fodder (barley) for all baggage mules and donkeys should be brought in.
Hillsides and mountain slopes, especially at high altitudes, are prone to erosion. Stick to existing tracks and avoid short cuts that bypass a switchback. If you blaze a new trail straight down a slope, it will turn into a watercourse with the next heavy rainfall, eventually causing soil loss and deep scarring.
Human Waste Disposal
It's important to avoid contamination of water sources. Where there is a toilet, use it; where there is none, bury your waste. Dig a small hole 15cm (6in) deep and at least 60m from any watercourse – an important point to remember, given how many trekking routes follow rivers and streams. Consider carrying a lightweight trowel: in the arid Atlas Mountains, digging without one can be difficult. In snow, dig down to the soil; otherwise, your waste will be exposed when the snow melts.
Use toilet paper sparingly, burn it when possible or bury it with the waste. Cover the waste with soil and a rock.
Don’t depend on open fires for cooking: cutting wood for fires has caused widespread deforestation in Morocco. Ideally, cook on a lightweight multifuel or kerosene stove and avoid those powered by disposable butane gas canisters. If you do make a fire, ensure it is fully extinguished after use.
Carry out all your rubbish; never bury it or burn it (Western-style packaging never burns well) or allow your guide to hurl it over a cliff.
Don’t rely on bought water in plastic bottles, as disposal of these bottles is creating a major problem in Morocco. Instead purify locally sourced water.
Don’t use detergents or toothpaste in or near watercourses, even if they are biodegradable. For personal washing use biodegradable soap and wash at least 50m away from any watercourse. Disperse the waste water widely to allow the soil to filter it fully before it makes its way back to the watercourse. Use a scourer, sand or snow to wash cooking utensils rather than detergent. Again, make sure you’re at least 50m from any watercourse.
Southern Morocco is popular for horse riding, from beaches such as Diabat to hills, mountains, valleys, gorges and the desert.
Specialist travel companies offer guided horse-riding tours, including Club Farah near Meknes and Unicorn Trails (www.unicorntrails.com), a UK-based operator offering four expeditions in the High Atlas, Sahara and Essaouira areas.
Ordinary cycling is possible in Morocco, but mountain biking opens up the options considerably.
For the very fit, the vast networks of pistes (dirt tracks) and footpaths in the High Atlas offer the most rewarding biking. The Anti Atlas, the Jebel Saghro plateau and the Draa Valley also offer excellent trails.
Travel agencies, hotels and shops hire out mountain bikes, for example in Tafraoute, but the quality isn’t really high enough for an extended trip. Adventure-tour companies cater to serious cyclists.
The following operators offer mountain-bike tours in Morocco:
Freeride Morocco Vehicle-supported mountain bike tours in the High Atlas from a Marrakesh-based operator. Offers set departures and custom trips.
Mountain Bike Morocco (www.mountain-bike-morocco.com) Marrakesh-based cycling operator, running mountain-bike tours in the High Atlas mountains, and bike hire.
Saddle Skedaddle (www.skedaddle.co.uk) UK-based tour operator operating vehicle-supported cycling tours of Morocco, for all abilities.
There is a growing climbing scene in Morocco, with some sublime routes. Anyone contemplating climbing should have plenty of experience and be prepared to bring all their own equipment.
The Anti Atlas and High Atlas offer everything from bouldering to very demanding mountaineering routes that shouldn’t be attempted unless you have a great deal of experience.
The Dadès and Todra Gorges are prime climbing territory.
Des Clark’s guidebook Mountaineering in the Moroccan High Atlas (2011), subtitled ‘walks, climbs and scrambles over 3000m’, is destined to become a classic. It covers some 50 routes and 30 peaks in handy pocket-sized, plastic-covered form, with plenty of maps, photos and practical information. Another excellent guide is Morocco Rock (www.moroccorock.com), which is particularly good on the Anti Atlas. The authors run an active Facebook community.
The Royal Moroccan Ski & Mountaineering Federation (www.frmsm.ma) has lists of climbing routes. A good local climbing tour operator is Climb Morocco.
Skiing is viable from November to April, although Morocco’s ski stations are somewhat ramshackle. For more information, including local ski clubs, contact the Royal Moroccan Ski & Mountaineering Federation (www.frmsm.ma).
Popular resort Oukaimeden, about 70km south of Marrakesh, has North Africa’s highest ski lift, and equipment for hire. There are other spots dotted around the Middle Atlas, most notably Mischliffen, near Fez, although some seasons the snow is thin on the ground. There's ad hoc equipment hire, but no ski lift.
Ski randonnée is increasingly popular, especially from late December to February. The Ait Bougmez Valley has prime routes.
Surfing, Windsurfing & Kitesurfing
With thousands of kilometres of coastline, the Moroccan Atlantic is a fine, if underrated, destination for surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing. Lessons, equipment hire and surf holidays are available.
Northern & Central Morocco
North of Rabat, Mehdiya Plage has strong currents, but reliable year-round breaks. Moving south, Plage des Nations and Témara Plage, both within 20km of Rabat, are also good for surfing. Sidi Bouzid and the beaches around El Jadida also attract surfers.
Oualidia is known for surfing, windsurfing and kitesurfing. En route to Safi, the Lalla Fatna area has some of Morocco’s best breaks: one of the world’s longest tubular right-handers has drawn some of the biggest names in surfing.
Essaouira has been singled out by some surfers, although the ‘Windy City of Africa’ is a better windsurfing and kitesurfing destination year-round. Nearby Sidi Kaouki is an upcoming destination for all three sports.
Near Agadir, the Taghazout area has some of Morocco’s best surfing beaches and numerous businesses catering to surfers.
White-Water Rafting & Kayaking
Although white-water rafting and kayaking are underdeveloped in Morocco, the rivers in the High Atlas near Bin El Ouidane have stunning scenery. Water By Nature (www.waterbynature.com) is a specialist rafting operator running tours in Morocco.