Cyclists hunting for a balmy winter getaway could do far worse than southern Morocco.
Temperatures are mild enough that you can pack your t-shirt and shorts (there’s almost never any rain) and the area is easy to access with low-cost flights. An ideal way to do this route would be to fly into Marrakech and out of Agadir, with the option of tacking on a few extra days to ride the whole distance between cities or putting your bike on a bus to get over the mountain passes to Zagora and back to Agadir once you’ve reached Tafraoute.
Look out for the blooming almond trees in February, which bathe entire valleys in a coat of white and light pink blossoms. Also get your camera ready for nomad families and their tents in the desert and Berber women singing while they work in the date palm oases around Tagmoute. The area is popular with tourists so you won’t be short on chances to eat out and spend the night in campsites or hotels but most visitors come by motorhome and park their vehicles for weeks at a time to soak up the sun so thankfully the roads remain reasonably quiet.
Duration: 8-10 days
Terrain: A real mix. There’s a gentle climb out of the Draa Valley to start, flat desert around Foum Zguid and challenging hills leading up to Ighrem and Tafraoute.
Accomodation: Hotels in Zagora, Agdz, Foum Zguid, Tata, Tagmoute, Ighrem and Tafraoute. Campsites near Zagora, in Agdz, Tasla, at the R108 / R111 junction, Foum Zguid, Tata, Tagmoute and Tafraoute. Wild camping is easy just about everywhere, except in the crowded Draa Valley. You’ll need to wild camp between Ighrem and Tafraoute unless you do the journey in one day.
Road condition & traffic: Mostly quiet roads. Some could do with a bit of tender loving care while others have been newly resurfaced. Even the worst are nothing a touring bike can’t handle.
Climate: This route is a great choice for winter touring. Stay away from the hot summer season when a lack of shade and sweltering temperatures will make even the cheeriest cyclist seriously grumpy.
Highlights: The scenery around Tagmoute and Tafraoute is truly staggering, especially if you plan your trip for February when almond trees come into blossom.
Lowlights: The route can be desolate in parts so make sure your panniers are well stocked for some stretches.
Note: When we did this route in early 2007, a new road going directly from Zagora to Foum Zguid was under construction. It should be finished and could be a good second option. On the other hand, cycling the Draa Valley is beautiful and worth a few extra days if you haven’t biked it before.
Section 1 – Zagora to Agdz (110km)
The starting point for this trip is Zagora, a town on the edge of the desert and a good place to organise tours to see the sand dunes and nomad families that live in the area. If you don’t have time to ride here, get a bus from Marrakech.
On your way out of Zagora, make a stop at the busy souk to finish off any shopping. From the city limits, there’s a gentle climb up the palm-tree lined Draa Valley. In early spring the valley is lush and you’re likely to see women out washing clothes on the banks of the Draa river. The road doesn’t have a shoulder but isn’t overly busy either, although you do get the occasional flying taxi or truck so stay alert. Towns every few kilometers (notably Tinzouline and Tamezmoute) offer a chance to buy supplies.
There aren’t many official places to stop along this stretch, aside from a few campgrounds quite near to Zagora, and there are plenty of villages so it could be hard to find a hidden place for the night. Your best bet is probably to rise early and make Agdz in one day. If that’s too much to ask, just outside the town of Tamezmoute is Auberge Malik with great views over the river. It technically isn’t a campground but the owners were willing to let us pitch our tent. We had to negotiate a price – 30dh down from an outrageous opening offer of 100dh – with sparse facilities. We got water from the kitchen but the communal toilets were out of order so it was a trip into the bushes for nature’s needs. Not such a great option, but if you’re desperate….
A much better idea is the Kasbah de la Palmeraie campsite in Agdz. Set in an oasis, it’s run by a Swiss lady and her Moroccan husband. Facilities are immaculate and the pool is such a treat after a day on the road. To find it, go straight at the mosque in Agdz. Do not follow the main road around a corner and out the other side of the town. There is a sign indicating the road but it is hard to see as you enter Agdz from the south.
Agdz’s fruit and vegetable market is on your right as you enter the town from Zagora, just before the tourist market selling dates and rugs.
Section 2 – Agdz to Foum Zguid (145km)
Head north out of Agdz on the main road, taking a left turn shortly after the town for the R108 to Bou Azzer. Make sure you have enough food and water as there are only three small towns on this road and you’d have to detour off the main road to search for a shop. There were no shops, cafes or restaurants on the R108 itself, although there is surprisingly a campsite at Tasla. There’s a good climb into the mining town of Bou Azzer and after the tranquility of the past few kilometers you’ll be confronted with energetic locals waiting to sell you cobalt and other rocks from the area.
Descending from Bou Azzer, it’s a quick ride to the junction with the R111 to Foum Zguid. At the crossroads is Auberge et Camping Les Dattes, the best value campsite in Morocco at only 10dh for a tent, including a welcome mint tea and a shower. The owner is very friendly and his wife cooks meals. It’s only 25dh each for a very good breakfast: scambled eggs in a tagine with some flat bread to accompany the usual jam and butter, freshly squeezed orange juice, and the required coffee.
Carrying on to Foum Zguid, shops continue to be few and far between although you can usually find the basics if you’re willing to hunt around the villages. Saying “fin hanout?” should be enough to get a local to lead you to the shop, probably in someone’s front room. The scenery on this stretch is filled with large canyons as you weave your way mostly downhill, back and forth from one side of the river to the other. River would be a loose term here, since it probably only flows when there is a heavy rain shower. The road is typical for more rural Moroccan roads, just a bit wider than single track, so you need to know where other traffic is. It was fairly quiet. Sometimes the pavement is a bit cracked and in bad condition but this doesn’t last for any one long period.
At El Mhamid, the first real stop for supplies, you meet the N12, which takes you into Foum Zguid. We stayed at a campsite just on the edge of Foum Zguid, on your right as you are exiting towards Tata. Bargain here as the owners first asked 40dh per person but were very happy to accept 25dh including showers. The facilites are good, with properly hot water and even a western-style toilet in the shower room.
Section 3 – Foum Zguid to Tata (150km)
After tackling a few hills around Bou Azzer, there’s a break for your muscles with the flat terrain around Foum Zguid. There’s nothing on the road until you reach the one-horse town of Tissint. There isn’t much reason to stay here, although there is a hotel and a few cafes. If you need petrol for your stove, you can find a mechanic on the main street selling it from five-litre water bottles. At the end of the main street, there’s a police checkpoint. They’ll want to see your passports but they aren’t keen on cyclists camping near the police post. The population thins out quickly after Tissint so wild camping won’t be a problem, although you may have to pull off the road a fair distance to find decent cover. With luck, you may even be able to camp by some nomad families. Don’t pitch your tent too close for comfort but do go over and say hello. You’ll likely be asked in for tea.
Reaching Tata, you have a wide choice of accomodation options. There’s a simple but cheap municipal campsite which charges 20dh a night plus 10dh for a shower. The tenting area is a scruffy square of grass with little privacy but the facilites are generally good. The more expensive but modern and by all accounts lovely Camping Tata Titi, run by a Dutch couple, is about 8km outside the town, on the road towards Tagmoute and Igherm. There are also plenty of hotels in Tata.
Tata has a basic hospital, if you’re unfortunate enough to be feeling unwell.
Section 4 – Tata to Souk Tleta de Tagmoute (50km)
The journey to Tagmoute on the RP1805 takes you first through a swathe of bright green irrigated fields just outside of Tata, then up into the mountains where you can admire the layers of rock, forming patterns of swirls and waves across the hills. This is cycling paradise: a beautiful landscape and a whole road to yourself, not counting of course the occasional donkey or herd of goats trotting by on the side. The odd tree offers shade to have your lunch under and you may well see nomad families and their tents alongside the road. After a climb, the oasis of Tagmoute appears in the distance.
Do stop and spend the night at Camping Tagmoute, which despite its name only has a tiny area for camping. You can also take a room for 50dh. The real highlight of Camping Tagmoute is the courtyard, shaded by trees and filled with singing birds. It’s the perfect place to stop and relax for a day or two. Don’t eat dinner here. Our tagine was expensive at 100dh, not very big and rather bland. If you must dine at Camping Tagmoute, negotiate the price down a bit. Breakfast, on the other hand, is very good and you can get a taste of Amlou, a delicious nut butter made from almonds and argan oil. If you arrive in Tagmoute on a Tuesday, check out the souk.
Section 5 – Tagmoute to Ighrem (50km)
If the landscape between Tata and Tagmoute was inspiring, the rest of the journey to Ighrem is doubly so, passing through lush farming fields of wheat and date palms. In February, you may also be able to add blooming almond trees to the mix. You’ll almost certainly see Berber women out in their colourful clothing, singing as they collect firewood and work in the fields. The terrain is, however, challenging. After an easy 15km at the start of the day, a long stretch of switchbacks and steeply graded climbs follows. The road straightens out eventually but there is no real peak, instead a series of ups and downs that will have your calves pounding. This road has just been newly resurfaced so it should be in good shape. There is at least one village with a store before the steep climb begins and one nearer Ighrem as well. We saw two hotels in Ighrem but no campsite. Five roads come together in Ighrem so when you arrive you can have a much deserved break in a cafe or restaurant. It’s also possible to take a bus from here to all parts of Morocco. If you decide to carry on to find a wild camping spot, the road to Tafraoute offers plenty of potential.
Section 6 – Ighrem to Tafraoute (95km)
The hard work continues today. We will always remember this road as one of the most challenging we’ve come across and two days is ideal for a leisurely ride. Thankfully the beautiful scenery continues as well. When we were there in late February, thousands of almond trees were in full blossom, whole vallies turned white and pale pink by the flowers. Villages seemingly carved out of rock and perched on top of cliffs also had us amazed. The road was in good condition up until the town of Ait Abdallah, where it narrowed and became full of potholes and cracks. Still very passable on a touring bike, but we had to pull over whenever a truck or camper van went by. As you approach Tafraoute, you can enjoy a descent of over 10km into the town. There are lots of wells to give you water the whole length of the route. Ait Abdallah was the only town of any size and there were no hotels or campsites that we passed, until just outside Tafraoute. The best value camping in Tafraoute is the Municipal Camping, a few kilometers outside the town with a great view of the mountains. It’s cheap, always watched by a guardian and there’s a swimming pool. Nearby are a few restaurants and small shops. A couple minutes down the road is Tafraoute itself, a town bustling with activity, buoyed largely by a steady flow of tourists. As a result there are plenty of services, including the chance to buy a carpet or whatever other Moroccan souvenir you’ve had your eye on. There are at least two campsites in the town and they are frequently packed with motorhomes, turning people away during peak times.