Author: D Homer
Date of Trip: August 2015
If you find yourself in Spain, you should make an effort to get a tour of Tangier, Morocco. I would suggest a private tour instead of one of the large group tours. It is as close to being completely independent as you can possibly can be. We rarely hire guides and tour groups. However in Tangier, we felt a personal guide was the way to go. A guide could move us in, out and around, safely and quickly. The alternative is trying to read a book or phone while walking in large tight crowds. While you are at it, you may also want to consider Gibraltar. You do not need any guide in Gibraltar. Go take a look at a map, right now, and look at the area I am talking about. You will see why it makes sense to get both of them in at the same time.
We made a long weekend of it by adding Gibraltar to our activities, but this review is predominantly about Tangier and related transportations sources, hotels, and restaurants used. Our group of 3, hired Aziz Benami, tangierprivateguide, for the Tangier tour. It was just us and no one else. During our entire time with Aziz, we felt completely safe and secure. Our driver was excellent, he did not speed or ever drive dangerously. The vehicle was very comfortable.
I would like to say, that travel in this part of the world is pretty good. However, there are potential pitfalls you should be aware of. Public transportation here, like anywhere, can have its problems. Strikes, breakdowns, failure to make scheduled service times, etc. I have found it is not a good idea to make tight connections when using various common transportation systems. To many variables can affect your schedule. Even when using trains and busses, you should check to see if they have any scheduled strikes coming up. You can do this by going to sites such as StrikeInformer.com and madrid.angloinfo.com. We once made a train trip from Madrid to Algeciras, planned to spend the night and return the following day. The following day the trains were on strike. We had to spend an extra night. It didn’t really matter to us as we had no real place to be, but it was an extra cost for the 2nd night hotel room. If we had a non-refundable air line ticket I would have been upset. How about trip insurance, I generally get it through my credit card company. Heck, now a days, the US airlines have a hard time getting you from point A to B on schedule.
On this particular trip to Spain we rented an apartment for a month in Sevilla(VRBO). We then took the Valenzuela commercial bus line from Sevilla to Algeciras for 19.5E each, one way (E represents Euro). You can purchase this ticket from the bus station in Sevilla. Look up Valenzuela on the web.
I was unable to arrange the Tangier tour from Sevilla and return in the same day. As a result, our hotel was the Cristina in Algeciras. We chose to stay in Algeciras because we wanted to go to Gibraltar(UK), see the apes and eat in a pub. This is about the best hotel in the city of Algeciras. A double was 90E via Booking.com. My wife uses Booking.com exclusively and as a result, she receives a further discount, usually about 8% off their regular rates. In Algeciras, you do not want to pinch pennies and stay in a mediocre hotel, you will be very unhappy. Here you must pick the best hotel. It also happens that the Cristina is a 15 minute walk to the port where you will board a FRS shuttle bus to Tarifa, Spain. It is in Tarifa where you will actually board the ferry to Tangier. This ride to Tarifa is about 20 minutes and completely free with your FRS ferry ticket.
I will just quickly add, if you want to go to Gibraltar, which I highly recommend, this was our second visit, then from the Algeciras bus station, a 10 minute walk from the Cristina, you can purchase a one way ticket to La Linea, Spain which is right on the border of Gibraltar. This is about a 20 minute bus ride from Algeciras and it is a nice city air conditioned type bus that makes a few stops before reaching La Linea. The cost for this is 1E, one way. From La Linea it is a 10 minute walk to Gibraltar, which you do by going across the city airport runway. It is very cool and you will love it. Please, always pay attention to your bus schedules and what time the last bus returns. A taxi cab is about 30E from La Linea to Algeciras.
You can utilize either Algeciras or Tarifa, Spain, as you staging point for the 1 day tour. Generally, the 1 day tours of Tangier from Spain, leave from the port of Tarifa, in the very south end of Spain. Routinely, the route of Tarifa, Spain to Tangier is the most used by tour companies, including, should you decide to do, the group tour through FRS Ferries.
As I previously noted, if you choose to leave from Algeciras instead of Tarifa, FRS provides a shuttle bus free of charge to Tarifa, if you have a FRS ticket. The ride is about 20 minutes between Algeciras and Tarifa and of course the same on the return. They are pretty good busses, newer luxury type coaches with plenty of baggage storage. You just show your FRS ferry ticket to get on board and the same on the return. I was completely comfortable on this bus and would use again.
FRS conducts their own group tour of Tangier, but make sure you read the small print on their tour information page. You are require to attend all the sales pitches and if you don’t, your ferry return could be affected. Here is an excerpt from the FRS webpage on 8/30/2015, in regards to the basic 1 day tour of Tangier;
49 € adults / 39 € children.(Minimum number of persons: not required)
• High season surcharge (Holy Week and from 15th June to 15th September): 2.00 €.
The purchase of this product involves the visit to sales presentations included in this day trip as well as completing the FRS programme. Should any customer decline to participate in the programme, he/she shall authorize FRS to charge him/her the full amount for the ticket before boarding the ferry back to the port of origin, thus holding FRS and its partners harmless of any liability that the customer’s actions may bring about.
I suspect there have been few instances where a tourist did not participate sufficiently in a promotion that he or she did not earn their ticket home. However, this is an area I just did not want to be involved in as I had no plans of doing any excessive shopping. Been there and done that years ago in Marrakesh and Egypt. I did not want some tour guide judging my ticket home on my purchase participation. You may elect to chose otherwise. In fact, if you have never been to this area of the world, I suspect you will enjoy the shopping alternatives.
However, to avoid any of these potential problems, I chose the alternative private tour with the independent company such as Aziz BENAMI, at tangierprivateguide, located in Tangier. Aziz utilizes the same FRS ferry for transportation to Tangier from Tarifa, Spain. I believe I came across Aziz via Rick Steves material, this is who I used, and was very satisfied. Aziz had no forms to sign, contracts, nothing. No restrictions and no requirements. He even provided the ferry tickets. For me that was a no-brainer.
Aziz is very good with communicating with you. There were several occasions I telephoned him via his toll free number and also emailed him requesting information. He answers his phone and promptly returns emails. I was very impressed with that. Did I mention there is no adance payment to Aziz. With other tour companies, you may be required to pay in advance. With the Aziz private tour, you pay at end of tour. Yes that is correct. I made the reservation with Aziz and he prepaid the FRS ferry ticket. Allow me to say that again, Aziz prepaid our ferry tickets! We walked into the FRS office in Algeciras, gave them our reservation number, provided to us by Aziz, and they printed all of our tickets. Both outbound and return. If you are leaving from Algeciras, you show your tickets to the FRS shuttle bus driver and then you get on the bus and ride to Tarifa, about 20 minutes. At Tarifa, you obtain your Moroccan Immigration forms from the FRS counter, fill them out and with your FRS tickets walk onto the ferry. Aziz provided detailed info on Morocco immigration forms, you fill out the white form and give it to the onboard Immigration agent and get your passport stamped at the same time. You keep your yellow form for your return. This part is very important. If you do not get your passport stamped on the ferry you will be turned back when you get off the ferry. This will seriously delay you and most likely ruin your trip to Tangier. The ferry announces over and over to ensure you get your passport stamped, and there was a couple who did not. They were turned back. The FRS ferry ride was about 30-45 minutes long. From Tarifa to Tangier we were on time. The return was not the same. On the return the ferry was late which could have affected some other connections we had, however, we gave ourselves some extra time just in case this happened.
When we completed the last passport check Aziz was waiting for us with a sign with our name on it. Then off we went, with Aziz’s guide, driver and 4 wheel drive van.
The ferry service FRS provides is very good. They have very large vessels in which you can drive you personal vehicle on if you wish. Ferry service is their primary responsibility. They do it safe and are fairly efficient. You will get an occasional late ferry but this happens with a multitude of commercial transporters around the world. Times are changing now and it is important as a traveler you take more care in scheduling your transportation. I believe current times dictate more relaxed connection times. The penalty for otherwise is travel headaches. Maybe you spend an extra night somewhere to stage before you make a very important leg of your travel. That is what we do sometimes. Think about it, when you have thousands of dollars invested in a trip, don’t pinch on a couple $100 here or there or an extra day somewhere. Don’t take me wrong, I am personally one of the kings of economy travel, but we use good common sense to reduce our margins for error and as a result extra cost, time, and aggravation. What is that phrase, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.
Inside Aziz’s vehicle we were briefed on how the tour would proceed. I then tweaked it a little by advising we would not be doing a lot of shopping. This was no problem with the guide. Yes, I have heard stories about guides receiving commissions from items you buy in shops, but I have never been able to confirm that nor anyone else who had. But remember the guide wants to keep you as happy as possible. This is your private tour, you are the boss, within reason. The guide still hopes to make a tip from you if he does a good job, and if that is the case he deserves a nice tip. My guide and I, definitely got off on the right foot. He was fine with my changes. Try doing that in a large group tour, not going to happen.
The Aziz tour takes off on a tour of the outside of the Tangier. You go buy large homes owned by the King, and other royalty from the countries. While we were there, The Saudi King was there with his yacht. His yacht was about the size of the FRS ferry. You then head our towards where the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas meet. But first you stop and take a look at the camels near the beach. You want to ride a camel in Africa? Yup, you can do that in the Aziz tour. With many of the large tour companies you cannot. So before you sign up, if this is what you want to do, you need to ask them. While you are riding the camel, your family or friends are incessantly taking digital photos to provide you a permanent memory of some of the most fun you have ever had. Think about it, the mystique of Morocco, combined with riding real camels, on the dirt dunes near the beach. How much better than that can it get? You flip the camel herder 5E and you move on to get a glass of mint tea at the light house next to the ocean.
The lighthouse is the official point of where the two seas come together. Now here is the only place you will see the large tour companies. But guess what, they don’t have tea, they just get out take a look and get back in and leave. In the restaurant it will be you and a few local people who have stopped there for the same. You will have delicious mint tea and biscuits with home made cheese. It was wonderful, peaceful and cheap about 15E for 4 of us. Don’t be afraid of this tea. It is safe to drink it and it tastes so good. It is 100 times better than the Yak butter tea I had in tibet. My wife ordered me to drink it to as not to offend the monks.
You then move on, into the old part of the city. You are on foot here and it is really not conducive to the large groups because things are so tight and narrow in there. You will see stunning old architecture. The sights, sounds and smells of the markets and traders. Want to try a fresh date or fig, ask your guide first and then give it a try. You will pass bakeries that are still doing things the way it was done 100’s of years ago. You will see the spice market, fish market, etc. Most likely you will see an area where a portion where the newest, of the not yet released, James Bond movie was filmed.
You are soon approaching lunch. As I had mentioned, the guide had a place picked out in which he described it as a “traditional” Moroccan restaurant. To me this sounded alarms as perhaps being a “traditional tourist” restaurant and I wanted nothing to do with it. So as I said, we ended up in a small basic restaurant on the street. It was a place our guide stated he eats at on a regular basis. This place had a basic menu, where items were about 5E each. We ordered meat skewers. We had fries, and fried tomatoes. We added cokes. We watched them cook our meal over charcoal and a propane stove in the front of the restaurant. We sat in the back and watched the street traffic pass as we were waiting for our food to be finished. It was interesting watching them go to a neighboring stall to get our cokes. This was what I like to call a neighborhood restaurant, a place where the local people eat. A place where you as a customer can get the real experience of Tangier, not the fluffy tourist view. You sit and wait for your food, and then when it arrives, you can smell the delicious spices that were used wafting in front of your nose. You wonder, “is it ok to eat?”, then you take a nibble, and then you devour it like it is you last meal. Now this is the way to taste Tangier, not from some stuffy tourist restaurant. Our total bill was 25E for the three of us including the tip. You give them a 50E bill, then you watch them scurry from business to business coming up with the change for you. Then in about 10 minutes later they return with your change. It was a great experience.
Aziz provides a very good tour without all the extra time spent in commercial shops. In fact, this tour will take you to areas, the large operators will not. Why, because you are the only ones in the tour group, it is you and no one else. You pay a little more, but you get a lot in return. If you do not want to go shopping then you tell the tour guide no problem. If you don’t want to go to the restaurant they picked, you tell the tour guide. this is what we did. Our house is full of stuff and we have no more room. So we made up our minds we were not going to purchase souvenirs any more. No more carpets, scarfs, jewelry, lamps, perfume, body oil, booze, no more nik-nacs, you name it no more. On a previous trip to Marrakesh, about 10 years ago we purchased carpets and kinds of stuff. I personally carried those carpets home with me because I did not want to pay the DHL charges. When we downsized from a house to an apartment we kept the carpets but everything else went to Goodwill.
No more tourist restaurants. We make an effort to avoid these. When our tour guide advised us our lunch would be about 20E in Tangier, I said are you kidding, no way. I told him we wanted to go to a local place off the beaten path, that he eats at, and that is where we went. Total lunch 25E for 3 people, not 60E. So there you go, with a tour operator like that you are flexible in making changes to how you want it. You are directly hiring him for you and an no one else. If you are an experience traveler than a private tour makes sense. If you are a new traveler with deep pockets, you don’t care how much DHL charges you to ship your stuff back to the USA, want to spend time shopping, and not to concerned about personalized service, then you might consider the large group tours.
If shopping is what you want to do, then tell your guide. In fact if this is your first visit to this part of the world, I encourage you to do some shopping and find something nice for your home. A couple of the most prominent items are carpets, ceramics, and jewelry. I have bought a lot of carpets. Buying them is really quite easy. Getting them home is more difficult. These carpet shops are very adept of getting a huge carpet folded into a very small package. Small enough you can either carry it on, or check it as baggage. If you are going to check it, I would suggest purchasing an inexpensive duffle bag and placing your carpets in there. “Out of sight, out of mind”, will help prevent them from being lost in baggage processing. You can always use DHL, but you will spend about $300-400 for the service. It is a very good service. However, I am the best at being a cheapo-charlie, and I always try to do it the cheapest way possible no mater how much it might inconvenience me. I have carried or checked carpets from Thailand, Nepal, Tibet, Morocco and Egypt. I carried a 14 x 10 carpet from Egypt that is now the show piece of my home.
Purchasing a carpet, do some homework at your local carpet shop or on the internet. Learn something about them. When you get there, offer 10% of the asking price. They may laugh incessantly or maybe even act angry. If they know you are a serious buyer they will not walk away. If you offer them 50% of their asking price, you have already paid to much. Use your own calculator. Make sure you under stand the currency exchange rates. In Marrakesh they asked $16000 for 2 antique carpets I wanted. I left paying about $2400. These were 8×10 carpets. In Egypt I paid $1600 for 2 carpets, they wanted about $10,000.00 for. That particular negotiation took 2 days. Of course, the easiest way to buy carpets is going down to the local carpet store in Scottsdale and purchase one there. Heck, they will probably deliver it for you and you will never have to deal with DHL. But how cool is it to be able to say, you personally purchased that carpet in Tangier, Morocco, Africa! I guarantee you, there will not be many people you know who will be in the club.
Don’t buy jewelry in a large shop. Stop and look where the locals are going to buy jewelry, these are usually the small shops on the street. I spied a few while I was in Tangier. Then if you think you would like to do this, bust your move and go in.
We finished off with Aziz driving us back to the port. Prior to going over our yellow exit immigration form we paid him for the service 79E each. He then walked up up to Immigration and advised us how to get back onto the ferry.
The ferry loaded late and we arrived in Tarifa late. We then boarded the FRS bus back to Algeciras and because we were late we missed the 1900 bus back to Sevilla. We hung out for the 2100 bus and arrived back in Sevilla around 2330 hours. Long day on the return. If you want to spend a little more money then 2 nights in Algeciras would make this the perfect trip!
Feel free to email me with any questions.