My ongoing border crossing into unrecognised countries and wacaday micronations continued as I backpacked overland from Morocco into Western Sahara on a bus. It is an overland border crossing that can also be done easily by air. Though by air, you will be questioned more on arrival. You are barely noticed when you bus border it south from Agadir into El Ayoun, also spelt El Aaiun and Laayoune. Morocco is Morocco but Western Sahara is claimed by Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
I had been away from African politics for so long, that I didn’t even realise that Western Sahara wasn’t fully recognised. I always thought it was a country and it was only when I looked at the World Cup qualifiers for proof that I realised FIFA don’t recognise it, and that the country’s Spanish ownership has been and gone. 1975 in fact was the last time the country really existed. The Sahrawi national football team represents Western Sahara now and they were in the 2012 VIVA World Cup (the football World Cup for unrecognised countries).
But my main motivation for this jaunt to Africa was to visit Western Sahara – mostly the capital city of El Aaiun but also to see the Atlantic Ocean in this unrecognised country. However, flying into Western Sahara is a lot more expensive than flying into Morocco, so I flew into Morocco first before weighing up my options to cross into Western Sahara.
Options – In terms of getting from Morocco to Western Sahara there are a few options.
1. Flight. There are direct daily flights from Marrakech (and other Moroccan cities) to El Aayoun. I ruled this option out for two reasons. Firstly it is too dear. You’re looking at minimum $80 US Dollars. Secondly you will be questioned on arrival at the airport why you are there, unless of course you are Moroccan or can easily pretend you are Moroccan. However I ended up flying OUT of the country though, so I also visited the airport in El-Aaiun which has to be one of the best organised airports I have ever been to – no delays, very welcoming, quick passport and bag check and smooth departure.
Again I ruled it out as my days of long term backpacking and hitch hiking are behind me. I also don’t like taking advantage of free lifts. Plus it will only get you so far. There are many cities between Marrakesh and El Aayoun so hitch hiking could take a long time. I was on a short time frame too.
3. Hire A Car.
Again I ruled it out because I just wanted to relax and not drive. It would be an option but also not cheap as you’d have to also fill up the car with petrol a few times.
4. Book A Tour.
There might be some mega Morocco tour companies that can incorporate a trip to Western Sahara as part of your trip but I personally didn’t see any, nor did I want to be part of a tour company on this trip.
And so you guessed it. A bus was the best option for me. After research I found out that two bus companies (at least) run direct buses from Marrakesh to El Aayoun. One was called CTM and they have a ticket office and bus station in Marrakesh. The other one is a joint venture by ONCF and [email protected]. They are based at a bus depot next to the main train station in Marrakesh. I liked the look of their buses and the timetable from Marrakesh to El Aayoun suited me as they had some great night bus options so this was the choice for me.
Booking Your Bus Ticket
At the start you realise that Marrakesh has a few different exit points for tourists. There is the main train station (which I was told by Google was 8.7 km from the city centre) an airport and a few bus stations.
To book my bus ticket with ONCF and [email protected], I headed a day earlier to the bus station. I arrived at the bus station around 16.00 and saw that they have the following bus times from Marrakesh to El Ayoun:
I opted for the early one. A history of backpacking in Africa reminded me that the first one will not leave on time and the scheduled arrival time will never happen so it’s always better to book the earlier one. I had also seen enough of Marrakesh for a lifetime and even a further 24 hours in the city seemed too much to me. So I booked it and was given my ticket. Seat 9 on the N2100 bus route from Marrakesh to El Ayoun.
There is no mention when booking that El Aaiun is a disputed region or part of Western Sahara or claimed by Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic so don’t mention Western Sahara at all when booking. Payment is in cash only. My ticket in December 2017 cost 360 Moroccan Dirhams (which is about 33 Euros). You can also pay in Euros or US Dollars but not on credit or debit card. You must also show your passport for identification purposes. So now I was all booked and all set and enjoyed my last 24 hours in Marrakesh before heading to the bus station. I stayed in the Kaktus Hostel here and did a food tour with Marrakesh Food Tours.
Leaving Marrakesh, Morocco
I arrived at the bus station for [email protected] bus to El Aaiun 30 minutes early. The bus was due to leave at 15.15. I was there at 14.45. However by 15.10 the bus still wasn’t here. I began to wonder was it really going to show up!
But at 15.11 my bus was here and can be noticed as it will say in Arabic and French – Marrakesh to Boujdour on the sign at the front. Boujdour is the final stop and is also in Western Sahara, and a great option for those overlanding into Mauritania. But I wanted to visit El Aayoun ( also known as Laayoune) so would get out earlier. There are a few stops along the way. The bus was comfortable and clean. I was first on board.
Boarding the bus the driver simply checks your bus ticket. There is no passport or bag check. But if asked make sure you don’t tell them you are going to Western Sahara. As far as everyone on the bus is concerned you are staying in Morocco. Western Sahara remains unrecognised by many countries and some that do recognise it will not recognise El Aayoun as its capital and only recognise the parts officially controlled by Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
My bus was predictably delayed as with most travel in Africa. We finally left the bus station at 15.35. I was in seat 9 with a window view on the left side. I expected the views to the left side of the desert to be better and worth it.
So although we left Marrakesh bus station at 15.35, we were still in Marrakesh at 16.45!! Yes i remembered i was back in Africa where time doesn’t exist! There was a second stop, at a petrol station on the edge of Marrakesh. This stop lasted 40 minutes and is what I would call another pointless stop. I was used to these ridiculous stops and time wastes during my long term backpacking stints but it still doesn’t make them any less frustrating. We finally left Marrakesh around 16.50. That’s 1 hour 35 minutes after scheduled departure from the bus station!!
I had fruit, chocolate, bread, water and orange juice with me. Bring some supplies as it’s a long trip.
19.30 – we arrive in Agadir. We have two stops in Agadir. The first is at a suburban bus station. The second is at the central Gate Routiere. It’s already dark so I didn’t see much of Agadir.
At both stops people got off and new people got on. There were also two guys selling fruit if you need it. The bus wasn’t full. I had an empty seat beside me on the entire journey. We left the second bus station in Agadir at 20.22.
Then another stop. At 21.30 we stop at a garage / petrol station that also has a swanky indoor restaurant and some snack kiosks. I realised we are still definitely in the “known part”, i.e. normal Morocco and not yet across into the part claimed by Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. We leave here at 22.15. I had enough supplies so I didn’t buy anything, but there are plenty of food and drink options here. It was probably around Tiznit or Guelmim.
The fact is to most of the locals here, we never really leave Morocco here. But to the nationalist zany backpacker like me who loves breakaway States, unrecognised republics and wacaday micronations I sensed the adventure and tried to work out at what point we had crossed the border. And there was a stop around 23.45 that I thought was the “border” but it was too early for that – I was wrong. No staff got on board to check but we stopped for thirty minutes by a dusty barely lit checkpoint, which reminded me of past borders. Our driver got off and chatted pointlessly to people. A few passengers got out to have a cigarette or a breather. 30 minutes later off we went. To my intents and purposes we had now left Morocco and entered Western Sahara but who knows. It was dark and I was still the only white person or tourist on the route.
Arriving in Western Sahara/ Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic
I still didn’t know (at the time) if it was before or after midnight that we arrived in Western Sahara because I was tired, there were no official passport checks or obvious borders, but when I look at the map, it must have been after midnight, unless we drove the last part really slow. After a brief roadside stop and almost veering onto a beach at one point, we made a stop in the city of Tarfaya (I believe). This was from 2.05 am to 2.20 am. The road had been straight and good all the way, though rarely lit.
The Actual Border (according to Google Maps) is at Tah, though I don’t even think we stopped there…
3.43 am we arrive in touristic Nahda. It’s just a petrol stop. There are a lot of hotels here which suggests to me this is a popular tourist seaside town or surf hotspot.
5.21 We arrive in Apapaya and 1 person got out. At this point I expected El Aayoun to be the next stop. It wasn’t long.
Arriving in El Aaiun, Western Sahara
Around 6.35 am we arrive in El Aioun, Western Sahara. This means the journey only took about 15 hours, pretty good for Africa standards (in all sincerity) and the time passed quickly. So I was pleased by the arrival time. Not too late to miss the morning or some sightseeing and not too early to be left stranded at 3 or 4 am in a new city with nothing open and nothing booked.
We are at a main bus station though I don’t really know where i am and i also didn’t pre book any accommodation. After leaving the bus station there was a hotel on the right. It was 6.45 am and it was shut. I also felt it might be a dearer option as it was near the station.
I then walked down the next street on the right Mohammed Salem Baida Avenue and found three hotels. The first was Atlas Hotel, the second was connected to Snack Ouzoudi Cafe (which was already open) and the third was Hotel Sable Dor. Two of them answered and said they were full. It felt like a sandy deserted ghost town and the fact they were full really surprised me!
But there was a lady cooking morning dough and two guys having a coffee or tea in Snack Ouzoudi Cafe so I joined them. I was introduced to Jamad who invited me for tea and is now my Facebook friend. I then met a crazy guy called Osama who insisted on being in photos so he is is some below. It was a surreal arrival into the city, the country for sure.
So I had my morning hot Morocco tea here at Snack Ouzoudi Cafe on Mohammed Salem Baida Avenue in El Aayoun with Jamad and Osama before heading down town where I found a hotel.
Exploring El Aaiun, Western Sahara
Once in El Aaiun it was now time to explore the city. I stayed at the Hotel Jodesa (excellent) in the downtown area, not far from the main square and roundabout. I will write more about the hotel and my time in El Aaiun and visiting the Atlantic Ocean part of Western Sahara. Here are just a few photos.
Here are some videos of my time backpacking in Morocco and El Aayoun, Western Sahara: