Riding Morocco with Eric Porter
Photos by Ross Bell H+I Adventures
How did we end up riding mountain bikes in Morocco? It started with a conversation between Euan Wilson, owner of H&I Adventures, and me about the wildest places we’ve ridden. After going back and forth with our list of coolest places, including Iceland, Nepal and Patagonia, we started to talk about where we hadn’t been. Morocco ended up topping the list as a place that we had both dreamed of riding but hadn’t yet. My friend Forrest had gone there a year ago to snowboard in the Atlas Mountains and spoke highly of the country, the people and the terrain as well. Euan had been there on a quick trip with his wife but no riding. This was going to be our spot. Our trip would be an exploratory mission, with two weeks to ride from village to village through the High Atlas, a mountain range in the middle of the country topping out at 13,671 feet, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Sahara Desert on the other. The mountains are packed with snow in the winter, but they are completely dry all summer. When we traveled over in May, there was still plenty of snow up high, enough that we couldn’t ride over some of the high mountain passes.
As soon as I landed in Marrakech, I realized this was unlike anywhere I had been before. This is a Muslim country, which means no alcohol for the most part, prayer calls over the loudspeakers five times a day, sometimes as early as 4 a.m., and the covering of skin by both men and women. The rules aren’t as restrictive as in many countries, though, and they never felt like a burden to us as visitors. We simply respected the culture, as that was part of the experience that we came to Morocco for. The best cultural practice that scared me at first was the mint green tea. This was served almost anytime and anywhere when we would meet new people. As a frequent world traveler, I know better than to drink the water in foreign countries. I know to wash my hands as often as possible or sanitize, and generally do my best to avoid food and drinks that I don’t trust. My trip to Guatemala a year ago left me with parasites that gave me trouble for months after. Morocco throws all that to the wind. The only saving grace is that the tea is made with boiling water, but I still never trusted the glasses, since it wasn’t boiling by the time it was served! We drank tea with locals in the street market, on a mountaintop, mid-trail, on the side of the road, in a kasbah with dirt floors—you get the idea. We drank tea 6–10 times a day. The procedure is very traditional. First, you make loose-leaf green tea. Then you add sugar, and more sugar, and a little more sugar, and then mix in fresh mint leaves. You pour it back and forth from the teapot to the traditional glasses, which are shot-glass size, and back into the pot multiple times. Then, you finally serve it with a tall pour into a small glass. I’m not normally a tea person, but as they say, “When in Rome.” I did grow to love the Berber whiskey, though, as they jokingly called it, and let my guard down for germs, since I really didn’t have a choice. For the record, I made it home without any digestive-tract distress, so it was well worth the risk!
So, what’s for dinner? Our options are tagine or more tagine! Sounds good; I’ll have the tagine! The food in Morocco is nothing short of amazing, although the variety is somewhat limited. The funny part to me was thinking about how the newest food trend in America is eating local, which was never an option in these small villages in the High Atlas Mountains. They simply eat what they can grow in the valley, which is lamb and chicken for protein, and carrots, potatoes, beets and grains, like couscous or rice. The main dish is called tagine, and this is what we ate for dinner every night—and many times for lunch as well. It’s all the items I listed above, cooked in a special clay pot with sauce, which reminded me of a Midwestern U.S. slow-cooker pot roast, although with very different spices and flavors. It was a love/hate relationship with this dish by the end of the trip, as Westerners have grown accustomed to so much variety in our meals. With Italian one night, Mexican the next and Japanese the following, we are quite spoiled. I embraced the tagine, and I miss it now that I’m home! It’s a way of life that makes so much more sense than the way that we get our food all around the world so that we can eat what we want in the U.S.
The oldest human remains that have been found to date were in Morocco at 300,000 years old. The Berber people, also called Amizigh, are an ethnic group who inhabit the country and region and have been living here for over 10,000 years. They are a nomadic people known for traveling across the Sahara on camels, as well as through the Atlas Mountains. Amizigh means “free people,” and they live by that. They are subsistence farmers known for amazing agricultural practices and water management, since it can be extremely dry during the summer. As we rode from valley to valley crossing over passes, we were continually amazed by the terracing of crops and houses and the system of canals that brought water from the snowmelt and mountain springs down to the desert.
Considering the current first-world discussions about purpose-built mountain bike trails being sustainable and erosion-resistant, it was interesting to be spending all of our time riding trails that were hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. These paths have been used by the Berbers to get from village to village, crossing over the high mountain passes, and they took time to find the best routes. These are some of the best trails I’ve ever ridden, and the most unique as well. A typical ride will start out on dirt roads climbing uphill until you hit singletrack, then continuing up the mountain. At times, the trails might be too steep to climb on a bike, but it’s good to remember that they were designed for foot traffic or mules. Some amount of hike-a-bike will be required, and eventually you will end up in the high mountains with views in all directions. It’s often hot in the sun, but once you get up in elevation, you will typically need a jacket to stay warm, much like in Colorado high-country. One of the bigger ride days involved using mules to shuttle our bikes to the top of the climb, which was a welcome relief on this particular trail. It was steep and loose with a ton of switchbacks that topped out at one of the higher passes at well over 10,000 feet.
The trail dropped down the other side, wrapping around the valley to the left, where it eventually opened up to an even bigger valley with views of the highest peaks in Morocco. The back of all these valleys was always lined with bright-green crops terraced across the hillside, so beautiful that it didn’t seem real. The trails were typically fast and flowy on the way down, with tons of perfect turns, rollers, rocks and roots to jump, making the trail into a playground. As we rode through all of the different zones each day, we couldn’t help but compare the trail to our previous travels. There were sections that felt just like Durango, Colorado’s high-desert trails, with juniper trees lining the trail and similar color and texture dirt, with smooth and fast trails surrounded by high snowy peaks. Other sections reminded us of Nepal, with the small earthen buildings and high-alpine subsistence farms. One trail on the first day in the Atlas was barren and rocky, and we got socked in with clouds, reminding us of riding in Chile, one of our favorite places. The uniting factor among all of these trails was the feeling of being completely remote and self-sufficient, and knowing that there was no room for error, as an injury would lead to a long and difficult rescue. Needless to say, we were on full alert and kept the riding level well within our abilities.
The only thing breaking up these amazing sections of trail were the villages that we rode through, which was an experience in itself! This, more than anything else, gave us the feeling of being in a time machine. There are no roads through many of these villages, which means no cars, no traffic, no noise. Even if there are roads in some of the villages, they are at the back of mountain valleys, so it’s not like they are busy with traffic and people. On the contrary, they are quite remote. The buildings are typically made with mud and sticks. They range from simple walls and a ceiling with dirt floors to huge kasbahs, which are big groupings of buildings surrounded by walls, where multiple families and generations live, working together to have a good life in this harsh mountain climate.
We stayed in a variety of places as we traveled through the range, including gites at the primitive end, one of which had light bulbs hanging from wires and felt like it could be a CIA black-ops site (we’ve seen too many movies) and beautiful Moroccan riads, the Moroccan word for “hotel,” complete with swimming pools and beautiful gardens. Gites are a number of rooms surrounding a courtyard, and several people share each room with only a cot on the floor and a wool blanket to stay warm. To clean up, you would use the hammam, which is basically a room with a bucket of water heated by a wood fire, which you use to wash yourself. There are also more luxury hammams that are quite nice, but we never ended up experiencing one of these due to our travel plans and goals. The gites are the most affordable, as they are where locals stay when they travel much of the time. The riads were pretty amazing and operated similar to a bed-and-breakfast, with a communal dining area and more private rooms complete with beds and showers. We were traveling with locals and felt like we got the full experience. As we rode through these towns that you can’t drive to, we got to witness a side of Morocco that isn’t often seen and felt the warmth of the local residents who were so welcoming. We drank tea, ate food grown next door to where we were staying and rode the ancient trade routes through the passes.
We finished our trip by riding down and out of the Atlas Mountains as they transition to the Sahara Desert. The ride went back and forth from a wide-open desert with sweltering heat to lush-green oasis with palm trees and water, which is where the people would live. Local kids would ride up to us and try to give us high fives. I always made sure to reward their enthusiasm by riding wheelies, which are internationally appreciated! After the final ride of the trip and a long shuttle, we ended up in the middle of massive sand dunes, and they looked exactly how I imagined they would from watching movies as a kid. To complete our Moroccan travel experience and get a feel for how the Berbers have traveled for centuries, we rode camels through the dunes, which gave me a new respect for their method of travel. The camels’ feet move effortlessly through deep soft sand, enabling long-distance travel that would not be possible otherwise. We felt like our bikes enabled the same amount of mechanical advantage over hiking when we were traversing through the mountains.
The riding community in Morocco seems to be growing, although the mountain biking community is lagging behind the road biking community. We saw more road cyclists than expected, but mountain biking is just starting to become a possibility. The bikes are expensive to import, and the only dirt to ride close to Marrakech is on roads. It’s a bit more of a mission to get into the Atlas to ride the real trails, and even then it seems to be mostly big full-day rides, not much that could be done in a short period of time. I would imagine that the area will see more riders in the upcoming years, though, as the community is starting to realize that it’s a great way to bring in money through sustainable tourism. I would go back to ride these trails and visit the country at a moment’s notice. It was truly an unforgettable experience.
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