Travelling in North Africa – Andalucía to Tangier

This post is a reasonably definitive and unbiased guide to travelling between Málaga (Costa del Sol) to the ferry ports of Algeciras or Tarifa and onwards to Tangier (also referred to as Tangiers) or Tanger Med (also referred to as Tangier Med) by fast ferry or standard crossing – depending on your chosen departure point. 

I do not usually do table of contents in a blog post but seeing as this is mostly a utilitarian posting here are the bits so you can jump straight to the bit you are interested in (navigation is manual):

  • Introduction 
  • The City of Tangier 
  • Morocco’s Mediterranean Coast 
  • Beware: Conflicting Information 
  • The Starting Point 
  • Driving your own Car from Malaga to Algeciras 
  • On the Bus (Malaga-Algeciras) 
  • By Train (No Direct Services from Malaga to Algeciras) 
  • Ferry Options in Algeciras 
  • The Non-Fiction Version of “Ferry Services at Algeciras Ferry Port” 
  • Missed the last bus and stuck in Algeciras? 
  • The Tarifa Option 
  • Passport Control Tip 
  • “To Comply” or “Not to Comply” 
  • MAD Currency Exchange 
  • Travelling from Tanger Med to Tangier and vice versa 
  • My Travel Advice 
  • A word on Kif in the Rif 
  • The Kif of the Rif

The post also briefly mentions the basics of getting between Tangier and Tanger Med which seems to be the subject of some confusion on some posts that I have read and also touches on the importance of being taxi savvy in Tangier.

The City of Tangier 

Tangier (/tænˈdʒɪər/; Arabic: طنجة‎ Ṭanjah; Ṭanja; archaic Berber name: Tingi or Tinigi; Latin: Tingis; French: Tanger; Spanish: Tánger; Portuguese: Tânger; the major English-language dictionaries also accept the spelling Tangiers) is a major city in northern Morocco with a population of about 850,000 (2014 estimates). 

It is located on the North African coast at the western entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Spartel. It is the capital of the Tangier-Tetouan Region and of the Tangier-Asilah prefecture of Morocco.

Morocco’s Mediterranean Coast 

This extends for nearly 500km, from the Spanish enclave of Ceuta east to Saïdia on the Algerian border. Much of it lies in the shadow of the Rif mountains, which restrict access to the sea to a very few points. Despite a rash of stalled tourism developments dotted along the coast, such beaches as there are here remain mostly low-key and charming; for a seaside stop head for the fishing harbour and holiday resort of Al Hoceima, or to the lively summer resort of Saïdia on the country‘s (closed) border with Algeria. 

To the east of the Rif is Oujda, a pleasant, relaxed city within a day‘s travel from the scenic Zegzel Gorge, and there are further gorges cutting into the Middle Atlas, near the once important trading centre of Taza. Between Al Hoceima and Oujda is the Spanish enclave of Melilla, an attractive town offering an authentic slice of Spanish life; the dunes and lagoons spreading around nearby Nador are among the richest birdwatching sites in Morocco. 

The Rif mountains themselves are even less on the tourist trail than the coast – and with some reason. A vast, limestone mass, over 300km long, up to 2500m in height, and with forests of towering oak and cedar, the Rif is the natural boundary between Europe and Africa. Traditionally isolated from central government and the authorities, and with an infamous economy based almost solely on the cultivation of cannabis, or kif, the Rif is also considered the most wild and remote of Morocco‘s mountain ranges. 

For some dramatic Riffian scenery, travel between Chefchaouen and Fez, via Issaguen (Ketama) or between Al Hoceima/Nador and Taza, via Aknoul.

For more read the Lonely Planet Guide.

Beware: Conflicting Information  
This is a journey that I have taken many times and I am amused by the amount of conflicting information that is available on the subject. It very much depends on the source of the information of course. If you are reading the timetables from the ferry companies, or the bus schedules, or the taxi price guides or the tourist board sponsored blogs then you get “a version” of reality but it does not intersect in any meaningful way with my personal experiences. 

There are some excellent posts buried deep on obscure message boards that cover pieces of the puzzle and some useful stuff on Hip Travel Guide, Tripadvisor, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet but for a definitive view of what the issues are you need to surf for hours and are never quite sure what to believe. The posts are peppered with unverified reviews and commenters – some have which have been exposed as boosters for the companies / operators / hotels being discussed. The basic stuff is really difficult to find for some reason. 

The Starting Point

By using Malaga as the start point this means that the same things apply to those who will start the journey from further along the AP-7 (Tolls) / A-7 (No Tolls) namely from the following locations:  Torremolinos, Benalmádena, Fuengirola, Marbella, Puerto Banus, Estepona and all points in between and beyond.   

Driving your own Car from Malaga to Algeciras

This is a journey of 145km which by car is circa 1 hour 45 minute journey at non-peak times. If you take the AP-7 then there are tolls, there are no tolls on the A-7.     

On the Bus (Malaga-Algeciras)

The journey by bus takes different amounts of time depending on the ticket you buy. The options are RUTA – 3 hours; DIRECTO – 1 hour 45 minutes and SEMIDIRECTO – 2 hours which are self explanatory even for a non Spanish speaker. 
The thing is the DIRECTO sometimes does stop in Marbella, in my experience, contradicting its name but handy too because the buses do not have toilets and there is no opportunity to stop if you get caught short on the DIRECTO service, at least not on any of the buses that I have ever taken. 
You have 5 minutes at Marbella to find the toilet and get back to the bus – it will not wait if you are not back in time. The timetables and schedules are accurate and reliable with the exception of the DIRECTO journey time which is closer to 2 hours in duration. 

The journey is painless with the exception that there seems to be a Mormon mission on the route which means that you can end up listening to some very loud, young, American Mormon missionaries paying back their college fees by doing their divine duty. Unlike most loud teenage conversations this consists mainly of quoting passages from the bible and debating their various merits. It is a surreal experience.     

The bus ticket options and times which can be found on the Avanzabus website. Buy your tickets in advance – it is a busy route and showing up does not guarantee you a seat on the next bus. The bus station is beside Maria Zambrano Station in Malaga. 

Here is another resource for bus information:

By Train (No Direct Services from Malaga to Algeciras)

There is no direct train service or no indirect service that will shorten your journey times. Here is a RENFE combined train and bus option via BOBADILLA to illustrate – 5.5 hours:

There is a frequent commuter train running from Malaga Centro or Maria Zambrano Stations as far as Fuengirola but you will still have to disembark at that point and get a bus to complete your journey. 

If for some reason you must take the RENFE option then you can find all the details on their website.

Ferry Options in Algeciras
ALGECIRAS to TANGIER “MED” / TANGIER “MED” to ALGECIRAS: Daily services are available through two companies, Acciona Transmediterrea and FRS and the timetables give you multiple options, allegedly. 

The timetables are fiction however. Which is fine if you are not bothered by being five or six hours late and do not mind spending that time hanging around Algeciras. If you are tight on time then assume you are not going to make it for the meeting that you thought you confirmed after giving yourself wriggle room based on the FRS timetable. 

The Non-Fiction Version of “Ferry Services at Algeciras Ferry Port”

Here is how it actually works:
  • Crossings are regularly cancelled / “consolidated”; 
  • Do not try to find out why that is – you will fail and will only succeed in irritating yourself even further – the customer service desk will refer you to the company and the company staff at the hatches will tell you they do not have any information at that time – they will suggest that you buy a bus ticket to Tarifa and take the next sailing from there if you are not in a position to wait for the next sailing out of Algeciras; 
  • The cancellations, as far as I can see, result from one of two reasons normally – at least in my case (weather was never a factor); 
  • The first is the least frequent – namely that the port is on lockdown after some sort of an incident. On two of the seven occasions that I experienced these cancellations the port was overrun with law enforcement – police vehicles, helicopters hovering, searches taking place; 
  • The second is the more frequent and that is that the ferry is not full and based on the bookings for subsequent sailings the ferry company is looking to optimise its foot passenger and cargo ratio per sailing and is waiting for a full ship before departing. This happens in peak and off-peak tourist season, so beware;
  • When you do board the vessel as a foot passenger you can expect up to 90 minutes to elapse before departure while the cars, trucks and cargo are loaded; 
  • If you do choose to get the free bus from Algeciras to Tarifa then note the following – the trip is not 20 minutes, it can take up to an hour;
  • Also you will be directed out to the car park in front of the port to get said bus which will be described to you by colour – best to check the A4 information pages pinned to the windows of the many buses in the car park before boarding one based on “colour” alone – sounds simple – but I’ve seen it happen. People on holidays are like lemmings; 
  • Also if you booked in advance by credit / debit card via the FRS website then you will be advised that you can call an FRS toll free number or send an email to the Customer Service department and get a refund on your cancelled ferry; 
  • The refund service works fine and you will get your refund. However, unless you speak fluent Spanish then make it very clear that you are seeking a refund and only cancelling the outbound Algeciras-Tanger Med portion of your trip if you have booked a return ticket;  
  • On two occasions when I secured my refund the over zealous customer service agent also cancelled my return ferry ticket from Tanger Med to Algeciras. Not good if you are booked on the last ferry out of Tanger Med and it is full.    

The ferry service takes approximately 70 minutes on the fast ferry and about 120 minutes on the standard crossings from departure time which as mentioned is variable. 

Missed the last bus and stuck in Algeciras?

For your return ferry from Tanger Med to Algeciras then bear in mind that the last bus leaves at 10.30pm. If you have no car then a taxi is your only option – rate estimates vary but late at night Algeciras to Malaga can cost you EUR€200 on the meter but EUR€150 can be negotiated. Go out of the port to negotiate this fare.  

If you find yourself in Algeciras for longer than expected after the last ferry or bus has left town, you’ll find plenty of budget accommodation options in the neigbourhood around Avenida de la Marina. In the busy season, you can expect to get a double for €28 a night. There is guide which gives general advice to those unfamiliar with the area and some other comments on Tripadvisor about safety. 

The town is mainly comprised of Spanish and Moroccan residents with a small permanent ex-pat community. Although I have never had a negative experience there, the area around the port at night can be a little intimidating for the less experienced traveller. It has also been suggested to avoid the neighbourhoods of Saladillo, Bajadilla or La Piñera. Even though it’s full of friendly people, you might get in trouble if you look foreign.  

The Tarifa Option

The TARIFA to TANGIER and TANGIER to TARIFA daily services are available through FRS Iberia and the crossing takes roughly 45 minutes. 

By car it is a 161 km or circa 2 hour drive from Malaga to Tarifa. All your other options are as per the details above regarding getting to Algeciras and taking the shuttle from the port there to Tarifa. 

For some reason google maps wants you to drive across but the crossing in the actual boat is 45 / 55 minutes over a distance of circa 39 km.   

Unlike the FRS timetables for Algeciras the ones for Tarifa are reliable. 

Passport Control Tip

Yes there is passport control if you are not a Moroccan national. On the outbound journey from Spain to Morocco it takes place on the boat when travelling to Tangier from Tarifa – find the desk and get it done before disembarking. Otherwise you will have to get back on to complete this before going back down to the car deck and up the gangway to the exit tunnel. 

The leg from Morocco to Spain has passport control in the ferry terminals – Algeciras and Tarifa – after disembarking the ferry. Its slow. Be patient. 

Disembarking the ferry in Tangier don’t be afraid to say no to persistent men offering you taxi’s or tours or “kif”. It is likely that you will be offered a carpet in the same breath, be polite but firm and move on unless of course you are in the market for any of the aforementioned items.

“To Comply” or “Not to Comply”

Also on a couple of occasions a very unofficial male asked to view my passport in the exit tunnel in full view of customs officials and law enforcement. I complied but to be honest he seemed to me to be putting on an act which was then assisted by an english speaking gentleman who then kindly offered me a taxi and a tour as a return favour for him being so helpful with the non-English speaking official. 

Thing is there are circumstances when clearly you know if you are being scammed. Sometimes it is not quite as clear. My advice – when in full view of customs officials and police in the customs area of a ferry port – and a chap asks to view your passport then comply. By “in full view” I mean standing next to them. Please do not take this comment as meaning if you are standing in a square which is being patrolled by a policeman then give your personal documents to anyone who asks for them.    

MAD Currency Exchange

Don’t forget the moroccan currency is the dirham – symbol MAD – for conversion rates from your currency check here;

Travelling from Tanger Med to Tangier and vice versa

By car or taxi or shuttle bus the N16 coast road is a circa 50 km drive. The A4 route is 70 km. 

By taxi the journey is about an hour by the N16 route and fare is directly proportional to your ability to haggle. I have heard of rates from EUR€20 to EUR€60 – EUR€30 is realistic. 

The latest information supplied by FRS regarding the free shuttle services operating from Tanger port – service is every hour from 10am until 0.00. The coach is white and all that is needed is your FRS ticket.

My Travel Advice

If you are not driving then get to Algeciras and then get the shuttle to Tarifa and take this option to Tangier – why? – here is why: 
  • The ferry timetables are more accurate;  
  • The ferry crossing is quicker; 
  • The ferry is smaller so the cars and cargo loading delay is shorter; 
  • The ferry is nicer;
  • Tarifa port is friendlier and less hassle than Algeciras port;  
  • On arrival there is no need to worry about getting from Tanger Med to Tangier on arrival in Morocco;
  • Book everything advance;  
  • A good general resource on these and other services in the Andalucia region is here
  • And finally – do not get caught buying or smoking hash. 

A word on Kif in the Rif

Smoking hashish in Morocco is commonplace but illegal. If you are visiting Morocco and you’re hauling a backpack, you will probably be offered hashish (a form of marijuana) several times on your first day there. Many young people who travel to Morocco consider the easy availability of hashish (or “Kif” as the locals call it) as a major reason to visit. 

While hash (kif) is smoked by a significant percentage of the male population in Morocco, it is illegal. While this article does not wish to encourage any illegal activity it is a fact that many people do use hash when they are in Morocco and they should be informed of some issues surrounding the smoking of “kif”. 

The Kif of the Rif 

The Rif mountains (Northeast of Morocco) is where most of the cannabis (marijuana) is grown and processed into Hashish. People have been using kif in the Rif mountains for centuries. According to the Lonely Planet Guide the word “kif” stems from the arabic word for ‘pleasure’. But the casual use by a goat herder has been overtaken by a multi-million dollar industry. 

Nowadays, if you are traveling in this area you are assumed to be interested in buying drugs. Towns like Chefchaouen are a haven for stoned backpackers. Needless to say it’s a mellow town with a good atmosphere and one of the safest places in Morocco for visitors. But there are plenty of towns where the drug business is all business and the scene is far from friendly. 

Ketama in particular is by all accounts a rough and dangerous place with plenty of scams involving drug dealers and police, so be careful if you decide to travel here. For an inside guide to this region in search of the best “kif”, see the Hip Guide’s article on the Kif in the Rif.

The usual penalty for smoking or buying Hashish is ten years imprisonment. Since cannabis is unofficially Morocco’s biggest foreign currency earner it is obvious that the government can hardly afford to make a serious crackdown on the business. 

Those who are most often fined or penalized are therefore the traveler smoking on a street or being careless when buying off an undercover policeman in a marketplace. If you ever find yourself in this situation, see if you can pay a fine on the spot rather than agreeing to go to prison; Moroccan jails are not pleasant places.

For more on the “Kif” issue read this.

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