Surf Season Year-Round in Morocco
I called Santa Barbara, on the central coast of California, home at one point in my life. To be candid, it was the first place I truly felt at home. The senses are on high alert when one spends any amount of time in such a place: the salty sea air tickles your nose; the cool fog riding the sea breeze induces a rash of goose bumps; bright bougainvillea wrap the eaves of homes and even brighter jacaranda trees line the streets; fine Rhone varietals and succulent Chateauneuf-du-Pape knock-offs are nurtured in the county’s many wineries. I spent seven years on the central coast enjoying near-perfection while at university and later as a working stiff.
During this time, I met many surfers and considered some of them friends. I never imposed myself by insisting my surfing buddies to teach me to surf. Knowing my ability to frustrate even the most patient of teachers, I always lived vicariously through them and their tales of treks south through Mexico and “hella epic” breaks. Those who know me can attest to my whimsical nature. If I get a bug up a nether region, I am likely to act first and consider the consequences later, economic or otherwise. This is how I found myself as the proud owner of a new wet suit, used long board, and rack for my car. I was determined to teach myself.
For several weeks, I arose in the predawn mist to pack my board and suit and made the quick commute to the beach. I was out of my league. Much of the time, the waves were too large for my humorously long surfboard, the break was crowded with significantly more experienced surfers, and I was out of shape. Nay, overweight and out of shape. I came to learn that learning to surf is 95% paddling, 4% coughing up seawater and 1% falling off your board as you attempt to pop up.
While I never ended up standing up on the surfboard, I still found that I enjoyed being in the water. Sitting on your board outside the breaking waves, bobbing up over each coming swell and slowly sinking into its trough, you feel the power of the ocean. A morning cup of coffee has nothing on a cool wave crashing over the nose of your board as you paddle out through the breaks. At the same time, I didn’t invest my time and money to sit on a board and watch others catch wave after tasty wave. To avoid arduous details, suffice it to say that I grew frustrated and reluctantly sold my board and suit to friends. I was destined to remain a boarder of only wakes and snow.
Fast-forward several years: I am now living in Morocco with my wife. Hidden among the thousands of pages of travel and guide books on Marrakech and Morocco, my wife noted a two paragraph section in one of them, “Honey, it looks like there are surf schools and camps on the Moroccan coast.” My ears perked. “Oh yeah? Maybe we should plan a long weekend on the coast,” I nonchalantly commented as if it didn’t matter. I was excited. I had never forgiven myself for giving up surfing. I got joy out of floating on a board and I knew that if I had spent more time or perhaps money on a class, I would have been hooked. Since then, I secretly held that I would give surfing another shot. Now was my chance, half way around the world in the developing world.
Our travels took us across continental Europe, between the Czech Republic and Morocco and back again. Our long weekend to the coast seemed destined for a list of things we wish we could have accomplished while living in Africa. At one point to save money, since my wife’s company paid only her airfare, I stayed behind in Marrakech while she went to stay in Prague for an eight-week stint. I spent time with our friends in Marrakech and a group of Americans friends mentioned they were planning a trip to the coastal town of Taghazout for a three-day weekend. It turned out their friends visiting from NYC had booked a week-long surf camp and I was urged to come along.
Marrakech to Agadir is a relative straight-shot southwest. The four of us boarded the comfortable and modern SupraTours bus, ready for the five hour ride. With direct tickets at roughly 9€, the price was right. The trip would normally last approximately four hours but it seemed the bus company helped sustain a miniature economy of a rest stop decked out with groceries, cafés and toilets, with an extended stopover after only two hours on the road. The trip was quite easy and straightforward, from the point of purchasing tickets to our arrival in Agadir at about 10:00pm.
I should point out a few points to making travel in Morocco via bus easier and hassle-free. First, although odds are you could walk into the bus station on the day of your journey and purchase seats on most buses without a problem, I still recommend purchasing tickets the day prior (or earlier if you are sure you will be traveling) to guarantee seats on your preferred bus. Next, carry-on luggage is included in the cost of the ticket. But keep in mind that space under and above the seats is minimal, with room for a small backpack or purse. With this in mind, arrive at the station with plenty of time to purchase a separate ticket for checking your bags to be stored below the passenger cabin. It’s a simple and inexpensive step, at only 10Dh (approximately 1€) per bag, to ensure your bags make it safely to your destination with you. Finally, there are no bathrooms on these buses, so plan ahead: Take the opportunity before departure or at the rest stop to” take care of business”.
Taghazout (tah-gah-zoot) is a small fishing village along the Atlantic coast, a short 30 minute drive North of Agadir. Some hotels and surf camps provide transportation to and from Agadir in the cost of a stay (though it is just as easy to arrange for a grand-taxi to ferry you along the beautiful coastal highway). We disembarked the bus and were quickly escorted by one of the many locals offering their assistance, for the price of a commission, to a waiting grand-taxi. The driver was relaxed, donning a thick hooded djellaba, leaning against the grill of his circa 1980s diesel Mercedes. There was a scent in the air not like the typical tobacco we had grown accustomed to. It seems our driver was likely enjoying a “Moroccan cigarette” and his glassy eyes and disinterest in giving us the hard sell on the fare proved it. At 120Dh (12€) for four passengers on a 20km trip, transportation on this adventure was proving to be economical.
With the driver’s preferred smoke and coastal geographic features named such things as “Hash Point” , we quickly came to understand how such a sleepy coastal village would evolve through the ages- from quiet fishing community to a refuge for the hippy-set in the 1960s and 70s to the stony surfer’s community it is today.
We entered the village via taxi along the coastal highway, the only street in town, and were immediately struck by the unique storefronts. Unique to Morocco, at least. Looking like something closer to Pismo or Cocoa Beaches of the States, Taghazout’s main thoroughfare was lined with storefronts advertising surf lessons, rows of wet suits hanging from awnings and boards lined up like soldiers ready for action. Instead of indiscernible Arabic calligraphy or the ubiquitous Coca-Cola-red, café umbrellas and windows of taxis were plastered in stickers of O’Neill, Rip Curl and Da Kine. Instead of knock-off Ray-Ban sunglasses, eyes were shaded by surf-style Von Zipper and Spy sunglasses.
After recovering from our brief reverse culture shock, we arrived at the door of the surf house just on the outskirts of town. Dfrost Almugar Surf House is a newly refurbished four story home with private rooms and bunks for the solo travelers. The house flaunts an astonishing oceanfront location, large common areas and a patio overlooking the crashing waves.
Among the surf houses along the coast in Taghazout, it seems Dfrost tends to attract a more relaxed clientele in town to enjoy peace, quiet and surfing. Our fellow guests during our short stay included Brits, Germans, Spanish, and the Dutch. The owner of the house is Dutch and we learned that Taghazout plays host to a high Dutch population. Other surf houses in the area, we heard, host more of a party atmosphere with liquid and herbal relief as a highlight of a guest’s stay.
We shuffled through a half-dozen guests, shaking hands and making brief introductions on our way to our rooms. The house was quiet, with most everyone lounging with computers or books and recovering from the day’s earlier surfing excursions. We were notified, prior to leaving Marrakech, that Taghazout is a dry town. So we planned ahead. The weight in my backpack was 50% alcohol with a six-pack of Stork Biere and a bottle of whiskey. It seemed a welcome sight to both the three I had traveled with on the bus, as well as the two having spent a week in a dry town. Granted, the surf house did provide a refrigerator full of beer, though a can of beer in a dry town comes at a premium. Memories of time spent in Santa Barbara came flooding back as we retired to the couches, lit by candlelight, on the back patio. Beers in hand, words were briefly and quietly exchanged between minutes of mediation to the sounds of crashing waves.
One can’t complain about the ability to wear shorts and flip flops at night during winter.
The first morning after our arrival, I awoke to thunderous shaking. It took me a moment to gather my wits about me and remember that I was no longer in our flat in downtown Marrakech but in a small room, mere feet above crashing waves. It sounded like a decent swell had picked up overnight and might make for a nice day in the water. I climbed the stairs to the ground level patio and found it quiet and empty save for the intense sun-rays beating down already at 8:00am. I grabbed hold of the rail along the patio’s edge, fixed my eyes to the horizon and took a deep breath. Salty sea air in the morning was an invigorating change of pace. I looked out upon the water for several more moments and realized something was moving further out in the swells. It was a young boy floating on an old inner-tube. Instead of a leisurely morning float, he was pumping his legs and with every fifth kick, his neon green swim fins would crest through the water’s surface. I watched intently as he approached a set of buoys, floating in a line, and began his work tending his fishing nets. To see the old and the new mesh together was a fascinating experience; a local economy still based on the fishing tradition and the newfangled surf tourism industry of today.
And it’s not completely an influx of outsiders, étrangers, buying up property and moving the locals out. There is a symbiosis of sorts, quite similar to many tourist destinations in the developing world… but with a twist of its own. Certainly, history has shown a peoples’ ability to adapt to and create an economy based on the influx of visitors. Tourists. In the same vein as Marrakech, some of the small alleyways and walkways were filled with what I referred to as “amateur shopkeepers,” at least when it came to their haggling skills. I immediately felt like a professional. The hard sell has been tested, practiced and refined for millennia in the souks of Marrakech. The skills are passed from one generation of shopkeeper to the next. There is a glimmer in the eyes of the salesmen in the shops behind the large square of Jemma-al-Fna; each shopkeeper sizes up the next browser considering their strategy.
I can see them thinking, “Shall I clearly quote a set price in dirham and once they have found their preferred items I shall act indignant and demand the same number of Euro?” Or perhaps, will the shopkeeper employ what I fondly refer to as the “Laugh and Stomp?” This technique, laughing and stomping around the room upon hearing or reading your offer, has been employed as a defense to my mad haggling skills on more than one occasion. The efficacy of this defense lies not in verbalizing their disdain for your offer so much as the simple act of seeming offended. Perhaps some sensitive soul would fall for this whereas I stand up straight, point at them and laugh in return. Not so effective as it is entertaining.
Not so in Taghazout. I mean no disrespect or to belittle their haggling skills by comparing their techniques to those of salesmen in Marrakech. I mean to only imply that the purchasing and negotiation experience for the buyer is certainly less stressful and definitely more likely to be in their favor. But I digress…
While many Taghazout locals have seen their fish sold to the new restaurants that have also been opened by locals just next door to the kitschy souvenir shop selling plastic surfboard key-chains, the younger generation seems to have blended in, even assimilated to, the surf culture around them.
A prime example would be that of Rachid. He grew up around the up and coming surf tourism in his hometown of Taghazout and learned to surf. Rachid learned to surf very well. He is now a professional surfer, with sponsors, with photos of him riding waves peppering various surf magazines. I was delighted to be reminded of California when I noticed him wearing turquoise and neon orange Von Zipper sunglasses versus the more prevalent ultra-chic Dolce & Gabbana knock-offs sported on nearly every Marrakchi male’s head. 80s-nerd-surf-chic has come full circle, it seems. Rachid, now working at Dfrost Surf House between riding waves, is a guide, surf lesson teacher and all around phenomenal ambassador for Morocco.
So the town, the locals, fresh seafood, housing and the company are obviously top notch for a fun getaway to the coast. How was the surfing? Rad.
We went out as a group on our first full day in Taghazout with Rachid as our guide, suited up in wetsuits and used boards (all provided by Dfrost) and made our way to Banana Beach. After hearing that the surf break we were going to be learning on was next to Le Roche du Diable (Devil’s Rock), I showed only the slightest trepidation. Focus Garren, focus. Be a man.
Upon arrival at Banana Beach, we unpacked our things and made our way to the beach. Since we are all pale-skinned Americans, we took our time to slather ourselves in 80spf sun block and they slipped into our wetsuits. I used a shoehorn. After so many self-administered pep talks and vague tips expressed by the more seasoned surfer at the house, I was excited to hit the waves. Rachid had us practice our paddling and popping up motions while still on terra firma… and we were ready to go.
The water was cool and surprisingly clean. The waves were relatively well formed and smaller, hopefully making it an easier prospect than Santa Barbara. I paddled out as hard as I could, only got knocked in the face a few times by breaking waves, and made it to the calm, slowly rising and falling water past the break zone. I turned my board around to view the expansive coastline; there were rising hills of tundra speckled with trees and brush, jagged points jutting out into the ocean and my friends floating alongside me. That moment alone made the trip well worth it.
After studying the waves for a few minutes (I was actually just looking pensive while hoping I wasn’t going to drown) I found my wave and paddled hard. I picked up speed, or as much as I could riding a monstrosity of a longboard, until I felt like I was no longer moving in the water. Static. I could hear the wave beginning to break behind me until WHOOSH… forward motion. I was still paddling but moving significantly faster than before. I caught the wave. I thought, “I’m doing it! I’m doing it!” Now I just needed to pop up. What did Rachid say? Which leg goes how far up to what point on the board?
* * *
I took my time removing the sand from my ears and coughing seawater from my lungs then regrouped.Try, try again.
I ended up standing up and successfully riding on the very next wave and had a blast with Moroccan surfing. I couldn’t have asked for a more ideal locale and group of people with which to experience it. Good times and tasty waves.
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