Backpacking around Morocco
Traveling around the North of Morocco means experiencing streets musicians, colorful medinas, hashish farms of the Rif Mountains and a lot of fresh air: Marocco is a great backpacking destination with cheap hotels, great food, good public transport and extremely helpful people around. Be sure to be able to experience some adventures and to take some unique memories home.
In March 2016, me and my partner started our ten-day budget backpacking trip around the North of Morocco. We were flying from Germany to Nador and traveled by bus to Chefchaouen, Fes and the breezy city of Essaouira. We were flying back to Europe from Marrakesh. It has been an amazing backpacking trip into the Moroccan lifestyle, but it was much colder than we had expected.
Arrival at Nador airport: Finding cheap hotels and public transport
It was already dark outside, when our plane landed at Nador airport. The airport is located close to the town El Aroui right at the Mediterranean sea. Never heart of Nador before? Don’t worry! You don’t miss out on anything, if you don’t stop there. We just caught a cheap flight with Ryan Air from the small German airport Frankfurt/Hahn. But we were probably the only tourists on the flight. Everyone else seemed to go there to visit family or friends. The whole airport in Nador was not set up for tourists.
First of all, the airport’s only ATM was broken and there was no other possibility to exchange money somehow. Not a great start for traveling around Morocco on a budget.
No public transport from Nador airport to the city center
There was no cheap way of transport away from the airport. No buses. At the official information desk, they told us, that the bus lines to Nador city and to the Spanish town of Melilla had been stopped in 2015. The minimum taxi fare for the 26 kilometers to Nador was 180 Dirham, around 18 Euros. That was the „night tarif“. It was ridiculously expensive. We first thought, that it must be a joke. But no. It wasn’t. And since we needed transport to the closest ATM around eight kilometers away, we didn’t have much of a choice. If you travel on a really low budget and have some Dirhams in your pocket or find the airport’s ATM working, you could probably walk a couple of kilometers to the next road to stop a cheap local taxi. The area around the airport seemed safe enough for a walk. Unfortunately, it was already quite late, when we arrived. And we needed money.
- Get information about Nador airport and tourist attractions of Nador: www.airportnador.com
Cheap hotels right at Nador bus station
In Nador, it didn’t take us long to find out, that we didn’t want to spent time in that town. We were not able to feel a special spirit. Just having ten days time to travel around Morocco, there was no reason for us to stay in that conglomeration of concrete buildings. Still, the beach town of Nador is located right at the Mediterranean sea, which has probably something to offer. We didn’t give Nador a chance. Probably also, because it was much colder there than we had hoped. But if you have to stay in Nador for the night, you will find some cheap hotels right at the bus station. It’s difficult to find the cheap places online, but they exist. And we had a really good pizza in one of the restaurants close to the bus station.
A Spanish-speaking taxi driver brought us from the airport to Hotel Geranio. The price fo a very basic double room with a bathroom was 140 Dirhams. We had a look at the room. It is probably not the kind of place, where you want to spend your honeymoon. But it was clean. And in some of the rooms, there were even working light bulbs.
Find general information about hotels and hostels in Morocco:
With a crappy night bus from Nador to Chefchaouen
We luckily didn’t have to stay in Nador for the night after our arrival at Nador airport. There was still a night bus going to Chefchaouen – the famous town in the Rif Mountains, that we always had wanted to visit. The more comfortable CTM bus would have left from Nador to Chefchaouen at 9.30 am. But there was still a private bus company going overnight, leaving at 11.30 pm. It was just no direct bus. And the connection is not working every day. You have to check at the bus station for connections.
To get to Chefchaouen, we had to go to Dardara first, changing buses in the morning in Targuist and then take a grand taxi for the last ten kilometers from Dardara to Chefchouen. The price: 107 Dirham for the complete bus trip from Nador to Chefchaouen including the grand taxi.
Bus and train timetables in Morocco
You almost never find the information about private bus companies online. Just the biggest and often also most comfortable bus companies CTM and Supra Tours provide information online. Private companies are usually cheaper than the bus companies CTM and Supra Tours. But if you want to use them, you have to check for timetables directly at the bus stations. To get an idea about travel distances, check out CTM and Supra Tours. But don’t worry, if you don’t find a suitable or direct connection: With the private companies, there is very often much more possible than many travelers expect.
Find information online about CTM and Supra Tours buses:
Black teeth and warm smiles: Helpful people at Nador bus station
We didn’t hesitate. We didn’t want to lose time in Nador. The bus to Chefchaouen arrived in time at the bus station in Nador. To be honest, the bus didn’t look and didn’t sound reliable. But the guy working for the bus company, who had sold us our tickets, was going out of his way to make us feel good. His teeth were all black, but his smile warm and honest. He explained us a hundred of times in French and Arabic, where to change the bus and how to finally get to Chefchaouen. He even called a friend, who explained the whole trip to us in English. We couldn’t help, but we liked him and felt, that we were able to trust the people around us, if we wanted to have a great backpacking trip around Morocco. I wondered, if Arabic travelers in Europe are experiencing the same help. I hope.
Rough bus trip to the Rif Mountains and Chefchaouen
At Nador bus station, old women were using hands and legs to get into the bus with a lot of luggage. The seats were hard. There was hardly any space to stretch our legs. The driver was spitting on the floor, the engine was extremely loud, but the sound of the traditional Moroccan music coming out of the old speakers put us to a dreamy stance. But we started to freeze within minutes after the bus had left.
We arrived at the bus station of Targuist early in the morning. We hardly had enough time for a mint teas until the connecting bus to Dardara arrived. Completely strange people at the bus station made sure, that we managed to change buses and that we found our seats. I was overwhelmed by the help. The trip was going across the Rif Mountains. The view through the dirty bus windows was amazing.
Bus trip to Chefchaouen: Stopover in Ketama
I had been really curious to drive through the towns of Issaguen and Ketama. Our bus had to pass these town on its way to Chefchaouen. Our guidebook was warning us to stay there for longer than necessary. Too many creepy creatures, it said. We just had a quick stop in Ketama, enough time to smoke a cigarette in front of the school. It took less than a minute until someone offered us hashish. Ketama is meant to be the hashish capital of Morocco. The town seemed slightly run down. A lot of men were hanging out in the streets. This is the place, where people involved in the drug trade go for bis business. Kilograms get bought and sold there. In between, we saw children going to school while the sun was rising.
Horrible grand taxi ride from Dardara to Chefchaouen
Around 10 am, we arrived in Dardara. Here, we were meant to take a grande taxi for the last ten kilometers to Chefchaouen. The ride was horrible, the grand taxi packed with people and bags of food. Inside, it smelled a bit like a farmhouse full of donkeys. We had to sit on half broken plastic stools in the middle of the minibus, while the driver was going crazy. We almost fall over in every curve. It was not much fun. But this way, we arrived right in the town center of Chefchaouen. Not at the bus station, which is located around 1,5 kilometers out of town.
Helpful tourist information in Chefchaouen
Chefchaouen is located around 600 meters above sea level. The sun was shining, when we arrived there. It was Thursday. Market day. Farmers were selling oranges, fruit and vegetables at small stalls in the streets. The oranges looked fantastic. We bought a kilogram for just five Dirhams. We just had to walk 200 meters to find a tourist information hut in the main street next to the main entrance of the old medina, the post office and several banks with ATMs. The guy working at the tourist information of Chefchaouen was extremely helpful giving us ideas about room prices and hiking trails around Chefchaouen. He really understood, what travelers on a budget are looking for.
Find more information about activities in Chefchaouen:
The weather in Chefchaouen: Sunny days, cold nights
In Chefchaouen, we had arrived at a good time of the year. The town was not busy at all. Not many tourists make it to Chefchaouen in the fresh air of March. At daytime, we were wearing T-shirts and flip-flops enjoying the sun and temperatures around almost 20 °C. But after sunset, we were freezing our asses off. The second day, we already bought some warm clothes, colorful cotton hoodies made of traditionally handmade material.
Chilled out cheap time at Hotel Goa
In Chefchaouen, we basically had the free choice of where to stay. All hotels and hostels had free rooms. There are a lot of hotels and hostels right in the heart of the medina. You will find them sooner or later by walking around. So, we took one hour to look at different places, check out the prices. Most very basic double rooms were available for around 140 Dirhams without breakfast.
We finally decided to stay at Hotel Goa, which is located outside of the medina. To find that extraordinary chilled out colorful place with the amazing roof terrace, you just have to walk the street next to the tourist information hut up the hill. There are yellow signs pointing the way. If you stay longer, you might get special room deals. We simply fall in love with the amazing view from the roof terrace and the very relaxed atmosphere, that attracted some crazy creative people and backpackers, that enjoyed the anarchy of the house. Every floor was painted by guests, that had stayed there during the last years.
Chefchaouen itself is a great place to relax. Discovering the white and blue colored houses of the medina at a slow pace is one of the main things to do in that mountain town. Small lanes offer motives for pictures. Seeing the Kasbah, go shopping in the relaxed small shops of the medina, Having lunch, a tea or dinner at the Plaza Uta el Hamman or a fresh orange juice at the terrace next to the small waterfall Ras el Maa is a must in Chefchaouen. Walking up to the Spanish Mosque from the waterfall Ras el Maa to enjoy a great views over Chefchaouen is, what every tourist is supposed to do.
Offers of Ketama “chocolate”
In Chefchaouen and around, many people will offer you some “chocolate” made in Ketama and the surrounding farms. In the area around Chefchaouen and Ketama, a great percentage of the world’s hashish is produced. Many guys offered us to visit some farms and the opportunity to buy a few kilograms of hashish. We laughed. Of course, we were curious just to see how the hashish is made. To see, how people earn their money openly with growing and selling hashish. But taking just half a gram out of the country would have scared the shit out of me. And even if people make you believe, that it is legal to smoke hashish around Chefchaouen, forget about it! It is not. Anyway, most locals might know, what they are doing.
Of course, the king and the government know exactly, what is going on in the area around Chefchaouen. But that doesn’t mean, that the farmers don’t have any problems at all. Or that Moroccan jails houses no western drug traffickers.
On a little hiking trip from the center of Chefchaouen up to the mountain el Kelâa, we finally saw part of the hashish production. Actually, we wanted to enjoy the views and the nature, but it all ended in the living room of some hashish producers.
Chefchaouen is where most treks and hikes into the surrounding region, the Talassemtane National Park and the Bab Taza circuit, begin. The hiking trail up to the mountain el Kelâa started close to the Atlas hotel next to the campsite Azilane.
To find the starting point of the trail, ask the locals for the way to the Atlas hotel. As it is a popular landmark on a hill, every person seemed to know it. There were quite a few people on the road coming from or going to some villages and farms in the mountains. We saw men with their donkeys. Women were caring for the goats on the hills. As soon as we had left the touristy town of Chefchaouen, we also saw villages with dirt roads and a lot of garbage lying around. Morocco has many faces, that are all worth to get discovered and being part of the trip.
Rif Mountains: Farmers waiting for “customers”
On the hiking trail from Chefchauen up to the mountain el Kelâa, again and again, there were suddenly men sitting or standing around in the middle of nowhere. One of them started to talk to us. We met him again and again on the road as if he was waiting for us. Well, he was waiting for someone to do business with. He offered to show us his hashish farm. We hesitated. We had heart the same offer several times a day at different points of the city. There are farms everywhere in the mountains around Chefchaouen. And we became curious. We just wanted to see the farm, which was supposed to be in walking distance. So we finally agreed on a deal to pay a few Dirhams to take pictures on the farm, have a tea with the owners and ask a few questions.
Hashish farm: It’s not the farmers, who earn the money
The house of the hashish farm, that we entered just half an hour later was almost empty. Just a few chairs, a table and a sofa. No luxury. No signs of big money around. We were clearly not among rich people. The atmosphere was friendly. I still wasn’t completely relaxed, but my partner did the talking in a mix of Arabic, French and English. The dried Marijuana plants were lying around in one corner. I probably had never ever seen so much weed at one time. They offered us tea just before they started to show us the production of their hashish. They said, that they would produce around 300 grams a day.
Taking the hashish in the belly across the border
They smiled. Other backpackers would come and buy big amounts, transporting it in their bellies across the borders. I understood the temptation. The prices for buying some hashish were ridiculously low compared to what you pay for worse hashish in European streets. In the end, it is not the farmers, who earn a lot with what they produce. It’s probably the people, who take the risk of taking it out of the country and resell it.
Sightseeing around the village of Kelâa
The farmers were talking about the whole business as if it was all easy and a big joke. Just, that I wasn’t able to laugh. After the chat in their house, the farmers also did a little sightseeing tour with us around their village. We had a beautiful view on the valley. There was a white mosque overlooking the valley and a leaning old minaret, the main attraction of the village. I was still a little thrilled because of the experience – and somehow also happy, that we had dared to do it.
It had taken roughly two hours to walk from Chefchaouen to the village Kelâa. And it had become too late to climb up to the peak of Mount el Kelâa. So we started to walk back the road to Chefchaouen. It didn’t take long until some young guys in a car stopped next to us, felt pity and gave us a free ride back to town.
Vice has been visited the hashish producers in 2013:
Read more about legal issues:
Chefchaouen doesn’t have much of a nightlife. Going for dinner is part of the evening entertainment. There are quite a few restaurants at the Plaza Uta el Hamman with decent food. They all served the usual couscous, tajines and sometimes also pizza. We enjoyed for lunch sometimes meal deals like a complete menu for 45 Dirhams.
We just had one really bad food experience inside the medina just a few meters from the main entrance. It was so ridiculous, that it was almost funny. First of all, we didn’t get the food, that we had ordered. They brought completely different dishes, that we didn’t want to eat. They seemed slightly confused. And the restaurant was not even busy. We were the only guests in there. The guys also forgot the drinking water, that we had ordered. We asked again. They had to buy it in a shop next door and chucked it on our table as if we had done something terribly disturbing. Moreover, the CD player was broken, the CD jumping for and backward. It was a bit nerve wrecking to listen to that shit during our meals.
Always double check the bills in restaurants
Finally, the guys working in the restaurant tried to overcharge us for the food as if we were completely stupid. We had to go through the menu and the bill with them to make it right. I felt super bad as we are usually very easygoing travelers, who are happy to learn more about different cultures and usually happy to give a tip for the service, but that was really not a cool experience.
In general, restaurant prices in Chefchaouen are not very high compared to other tourist destinations in Morocco. But a few times, we made the experience, that it is worth to carefully double-check the bill. Quite a few times, it had been too high. And the feeling of being ripped off is shit, even if it was always just a stupid unintended mistake of the restaurant staff.
Fes: All about leather
In Fes, it is all about leather. You smell it and you are able to buy it everywhere. Sandals, bags, purses and shoes made of leather. We were super unlucky, because the rain started with our arrival. We hadn’t expected it to be so cold outside. When we had packed our backpacks, we even took a bikini and swimming shorts with us, that we were not able to us during our whole trip. It was a challenge, that life in Morocco takes place in the streets. We haven’t really found a lot of places to warm up during the day. So we drank a lot of mint tea.
Fes: Visit of the Kairaouine Mosque
First of all, we tried to catch a glimpse of the Kairaouine Mosque in Fes, one of the biggest Mosques in Africa. The building is closed for non-Muslims, but it is allowed to look trough the open doors. A carpet maker offered us to get an overview from his roof terrace for ten Dirhams per person. It was basically a way to get us into his shop. Still, we got a nice view from the roof terrace, but we were not able to see anything of the Kairaouine Mosque. Instead, we got a little tour around his carpet factory, where some guys were working at the weaving loom. And a little introduction to the history of Fes.
- Read more about tourist attractions: www.visitmorocco.com
About a not so “free” viewpoint on the roof of a leather factory
One of the main sights in Fes is to see the tanneries. We were told, that there are lookout points at some roof terraces of leather shops. We had been walking through the medina labyrinth full of shops already for a while until we managed to find the lookout points. The main factory was closed for renovation at our time of visit. But a smaller one was open. Sooner or later, you will probably stand in front of a door of some leather shop close to Seffarine Square, from whose roof terrace, you will be able to see the factory work and smell the chemicals.
They advertise free entrance and free views from the roof terrace. Of course, they hope, that you buy something or at least give a decent tip. We didn’t have a lot of change with us. When we offered a few Dirhams for the view, the guy working there complained. It was not enough for him. I got angry, but stayed calm. You obviously cannot really expect, that anything in Morocco is for free – even if it is printed at a door. We just left. I’m sure, that there were more tourists with bigger purses coming.
- Read more on Tripadvisor about the tanneries of Fes: www.tripadvisor.com
By bus from Chefchouen to Fes
To get from Chefchaouen to Fes, we took the CTM bus. The ride from Chefchaouen took for hours. The price is 60 Dirham with a private bus company. CTM charges 75 Dirham for the ride. In Chefchaouen, the buses leave from the bus station 1,5 kilometers out of town. It makes sense to buy a bus ticket from Chefchaouen to anywhere at least one day in advance, because the seats in the buses get sold quickly.
In Fes, most buses arrive at the main bus station close to the gate of the medina Bab Boujloud. If you arrive at the CTM bus station in the new part of Fes, the „ville nouvelle“, you have to take bus number 19 to place Batha. The price for the city bus ride was three Dirhams and took around ten minutes.
Behind the gate of the medina Bab Boujloud in Fes, there had been already a few guides waiting for us to direct the way to their hotels. We told them, that we already had a reservation. We didn’t feel like paying anyone a tip to show us the way to a place, that we were able to find by ourselves. The medina of Fes is easy and small in comparison to Marrakesh. We got the feeling, that travelers find a lot of budget hotels and cheap restaurants close to the Bab Boujloud.
In Fes, we stayed in the Hotel Cascade, a real budget option for all those, who don’t bother about run down common bathrooms or to pay a little more for a bathroom inside the room.
Our room for 140 Dirhams was okay, but the common toilets and showers needed some serious cleaning. I really love to travel cheap, but sometimes, I don’t understand, why especially toilets and bathrooms are in a borderline condition. It was still okay for just one night. Inside the hostel, there was also a cheap restaurant with a roof terrace, that was managed by a very charming owner. The breakfast fo 20 Dirhams was definitely okay.
- Read more about Hotel Cascade: www.tripadvisor.co.uk
Looking for a warm place in Fes: Café Barcelona
In total, we just spend one night and two days in Fes. It’s probably worth staying longer and checking out the area around Fes with all the ancient leftovers. It’s meant to be an open air museum. But after a few hours in the rain with a bad weather forecast for the following days, we decided to travel south. We were cold. We were afraid of getting ill.
We were desperately constantly looking for some warm places in Fes. But all the restaurants and shop doors were standing wide open. Heaters don’t seem to exist in the medina. And all the Islamic schools and palaces, that you can visit, consist basically of some open air spaces. We were more than happy to find the Café Barcelona the second evening. Our bus to Essaouira was meant to leave at 0.30 am. We spent hours in the warm environment with a heater and beautiful furniture. Apart from the clock café, it’s one of the places inside the medina of Fes to experience life music among cosmopolitan young Moroccans.
- Read more about Café Barcelona: www.facebook.com
- Read more about Café Clock: http://fez.cafeclock.com
By bus from Fes to Essaouira – a long trip
Half past midnight, our bus left to Essaouira. We had alreday traveled to Essaouira in 2014 and had fallen in love with that beach town immediately. Now, in 2016, we wanted to go back and to enjoy again the easygoing vibe among locals, street musicians, artists and chilled out travelers. We basically wanted to travel south, because we hoped for more sun and warm temperatures. The bus ride took around 14 hours. The price was 150 Dirhams per person. We arrived around 2 pm the following day.
We could have probably been much faster, but the bus was constantly stopping to take more passengers. Sometimes, we were waiting up to one hours just to fill up the bus. But well, it was the only company directly going from Fes to Essaouira. And again, at the bus station of Fes, the guys of the private bus company were extremely helpful and made sure, that we didn’t miss the bus.
Great public transport: Check timetable at local bus stations
No matter, where you want to travel, it is always worth to check out the times and prices at the local bus stations. It’s often hard to find out anything about timetables and buses online. But concerning the destinations, there is usually much more possible than you might think. CTM and Supra Tours might have better buses, but offer usually just limited service concerning travel times and destinations.
We arrived in Essaouira at the main bus station, which is just a ten minute walk away from the gates of the medina, where most tourists and travelers stay. The sun was shining, but there was a strong wind, so that we had to wear again warm clothes. We were still happy to be in the sun. And very happy to be back to one of the most beautiful beach towns of Morocco.
It took us just a few minutes to find the Riad Inna, where we had already stayed in 2014. The prices have risen. We had gotten a good deal online, so that we just had to pay around 200 Dirhams for the perfectly clean and comfortable room per night. But the whole city seem to become more and more expensive, because more and more tourists and travelers discover the beauty of Essaouira. More and more foreign investors buy houses to change them into luxury accommodations for tourists as the locals told us. Still, it is possible to bargain about room prices at this time of the year, where most hotels have free rooms. We finally even rented our own two bedroom apartment for a couple of days with a view right at the main square for 250 Dirhams per day.
- The medina of Essaouira is part of the Unesco world heritage since 2001: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/753
- Read more about Essaouira:www.essaouira.nu/tourism.htm
Street musicians playing songs of Bob Marley
The vibe in Essaouira is still easygoing. Street musicians played songs of Bob Marley, while we enjoyed our mint tea at the main square. No shop owners hassled us. No one cared about our clothes or special dress codes. We saw quite a few women wearing even summer dresses or shirts without their arms covered. In might not be ideal or even a good advise to do so, but some tourists obviously feel the relaxed vibe in that city and don’t bother about traditional conventions.
About beggars in Essaouira
Still, in Essaouira, there are a lot of local people begging and happy about even one or two Dirhams. And I noticed quite a few musicians playing a few seconds on traditional instruments in front of cafés to ask the customers for money afterwards. Sometimes, there were two or three “Musicians” in a row playing. I have to admit, that it sometimes got on my nerves. But I would probably do the same being jobless in Morocco among “rich” tourists.
Essaouira: A paradise for kite surfing
We had time to look around and to stroll around the small lanes in Essaouira, where no cars are allowed. The fishing harbor was busy. People were smiling. Everyone was happy about a few friendly words in Arabic or a little chat. So we just spend the days there walking along the beach, which offers kilometers of white sand and massive waves and wind for kite surfing. For those, who don’t make it to the desert, there are expensive camel rides offered at the beach as well as quad biking. Some guys were playing soccer in the sand. It is a perfect place to chill out a few days on a trip around Morocco.
By bus from Essaouira to Marrakesh
To catch our flight back from Marrakesh to Frankfurt, we finally took the Supra Tours bus in Essaouira, which has its own bus station close to the beach. From the local bus station, there were buses leaving almost every hour for 60 Dirhams. But we were not so sure about the duration of the trip. If you wanna do the three hours ride to Marrakesh with Supra Tours for 70 Dirhams, it definitely makes sense to buy the ticket in advance. The company doesn’t run that often, but just stop once on the way for a toilet and lunch break. Every seat was occupied, when we took the bus at 11.45 am.
We arrived at the Marrakesh train station around 2.45 pm. From there, it was just a really short taxi ride to the airport. Alternatively, bus number 19 leaves directly at the train station to the airport for just a few Dirhams. This time, we didn’t want to visit Marrakesh again.
Afraid to miss our flight from Marrakesh Menara airport
The airport in Marrakesh was really busy. We seriously spent 2 hours in different queues and had to overtake a few people at the security check and border control, because we were afraid to miss our flights. We just made it in time to get our flight. It definitely makes sense to have a little bit of extra time, even if you just travel with hand luggage and don’t have to check in any luggage. You will have to queue anyway. The good thing was, that Ryan Air took it really easy with checking the size and weight of the hand luggage as we had bought a few things in Morocco. But you probably cannot rely on that.
- Get information about Marrakesh airport: http://marrakech.airport-authority.com/