Cycling routes in Morocco

No, it’s not a blue screen effect: it’s just Morocco. Although you will be forgiven for feeling like you are on a movie set as you cycle through the extraordinary landscapes of the Atlas Mountains, Saharan outposts, colossal gorges and the luscious Rif Mountains. The lighting effects are also natural, as you watch the sun bounce off Mount Toubkal in the evening, illuminate the blue buildings of Chefchaouen and Essaouira or hit the walls of Todra Gorge as you cycle along the valley floor at sunrise.

You will most likely have a strong supporting cast on a cycling holiday in Morocco as most trips are in small groups, the protagonist being your local guide who knows how to get you to the best col or kasbah, hairpin bend or hammam. Roll cameras, shift gears and... action.

Cycling in the Atlas Mountains

The High Atlas

The Atlas Mountains form a spine down the centre of the country and are divided into three sections. The High Atlas in central Morocco, south of Marrakech, are home to Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa, and its eponymous national park. In the High Atlas you can cycle some spectacular mountain passes such as Tizi n'Tichka at 2,260m or the epic 30km descent to Zerkten, the latter not being for the faint hearted, nor the unfit. You also get to cycle through the Draa Valley, following Morocco’s longest river that has its source in the High Atlas and is formed where the Dadès and Imini Rivers meet. This is a stunning cycle as it is peppered with kasbahs and ksours (fortified villages) and it also passes the largest date palm oasis in Morocco.

Often cycled in sequence, with a night in a kasbah in-between, the High Atlas’ Todra and Dades Gorges are cycling highlights for many adventurers out there. The former is a 15km cycle along the river into a dramatic limestone gorge, and the latter is famous for its hairpin bends. This is the big action scene of the movie, really.

The Middle Atlas

Fitness is important for cycling holidays in Morocco, especially if you take on a two-week small group tour which leads you into not only the High Atlas but also the Middle and Anti-Atlas. The Middle Atlas is home to the forested slopes of Ifrane National Park, with a gateway town of the same name that was built almost as a copy of an Alpine town by the colonising French. That is about the only similarity that you get to the Tour de France, however, with traditional towns like Midelt on many cycling itineraries, as it is located between the Middle and High Atlas. Midelt is a traditional kasbah town between Fes and Meknes. It’s surrounded by orchards and farmland where you can get a chance to visit Berber artisan studios or hear traditional music.

The Anti-Atlas

The Anti-Atlas are popular with cyclists who delight at their more gently undulating terrain and landscapes rich with argan, olive and almond groves. Cycle in the shadow of Jebel Aklim, one of the highest peaks in the Anti-Atlas, through traditional Berber villages where mint tea and welcoming smiles are always on the menu. Or pedal through the dried river gorges around Ait Mansour where you will most definitely be able to get some good mountain bike action going.

On some cycling holidays you won’t have to do the steep Atlas climbs at all, as support vehicles will take you to the top of some of the biggies such as Tizi Mlil or Tizi n’Talrhemt Pass so that you cycle back down again through dusty, lunar-like landscapes and arid plains. Alternatively, if you want to take on a couple of climbs but leave the rest to the Lycra lobby, that is always fine too because you can just hop a lift in the support vehicle. These are holidays, after all.

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Cycling holiday in Morocco

Cycling holiday in Morocco

Take in the sites of Morocco by bike

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Urban trails in Morocco

For every incline on a Moroccan cycling holiday there’s an urban oasis brimming with souks, spices and cycling adventures, as well as some cycling routes out of town to escape the peak season crowds when necessary. Nearly all cycling holidays start in Marrakech, and seeing this bubbling cauldron of culture from a saddle is quite an introduction to Morocco. You can cycle to sublime spots such Koutoubia Mosque or Menara Gardens, although the famous Djemaa el-Fna Square is best negotiated on foot.

You can take a sleeper train from Marrakech to Tangier to start a very different leg of your cycling tour. This port city is where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, and it is consequently bursting with marine history. It also has some wonderful coastal cycling routes such as out to the Caves of Hercules, a massive archaeological cave system along Cap Spartel, with views out across the Atlantic from its 19th-century lighthouse. This is a good way to escape the growing number of cruise liners anchoring in town. When the passengers go back on board for dinner, you can explore the city’s fabulous medina, central kasbah, St Andrew’s Church and Grand Mosque in peace.
One of the most beautiful cities that you will visit on a cycling holiday in Morocco is Chefchaouen. It has a fascinating Andalucian heritage with blue painted houses which contrast delightfully with the utopian undulations of the Rif Mountains in which it is perfectly poised. Cycling tours often take a chill out day here, although those hills will be calling for those who can’t leave the saddle for too long.

Fes is frenetic to say the least, and one for enjoying on foot rather than on your bike; it is often a stop on a cycling holiday after taking on the Rif Mountains en-route to the Atlas. Like so many Moroccan cities it has a labyrinthine medina, but its car free streets mean that you can stroll past historic and sacred beauties such as the Attarine Madrassa, Moulay Idriss mausoleum and Karaouine Mosque. The town is also famous for its traditional artisans, in particular its tanners, jewellers and weavers.
Some cycling holidays end in Essaouira, where you can wash off all that Atlas dust in the Atlantic waves. The cycle to this traditional 15th-century fishing town makes for a fitting finale too, following a section of the Tamraght River valley which is dotted with turquoise blue freshwater pools. It’s aptly known as Paradise Valley, so pack your cossie in your pannier for paradise.

Saharan adventures

Desert, anyone? Depending on the season, your cycling itinerary may include a saunter into the Sahara although you will be swapping your hybrid for a hump, tackling the great dunes on a camel and heading to a Berber camp to spend the night. There are some dune free stretches for easier cycling, however, and some itineraries take you through the Rissani region, a desert homeland of the Alaouite dynasty which reigned in this area for 300 years. Here you will cycle past palms and ancient Berber buildings to the oasis town of Erfoud.
Many itineraries also include a cycle to the nearby mud-brick city of Ait Benhaddou, an ancient kasbah settlement that totally rocks, and one that is still very much off the tourist trail. Ouarzazate is a meeting point for those going from mountains for desert, and its mirage-like kasbah is famous for featuring in films such as Gladiator, Babel and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Roll credits...
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mario Micklisch] [Intro: Teo Romera] [The High Atlas: Lucyin] [The Anti-Atlas: Sebastian Lapostol] [Chefchaouen: Richard Murrin] [Essaouira: Klim Levene] [Ait Benhaddou: Just Booked A Trip]