Ride Morocco's wild surf

TAGHAZOUT, Morocco — Drive down Morocco’s southern coast and you’ll see a panorama of tradition: donkey carts and fishing skiffs, with the men in customary hooded cloaks and the women covered by headscarves.

That is until you hit the village of Taghazout. In this former fishing town, European girls in mini-dresses stroll alongside shirtless men in board shorts and no less than five surf shops grace the 500-yard main drag. Most of the newcomers arrived in the last five years — as word got out about Morocco’s consistent waves.

In recent years, Surfer Magazine has repeatedly singled out this North African nation for the quality of its waves, saying Morocco had “the best point break on the Atlantic” in 2007 and calling the Taghazout region “the Puerto Escondido of North Africa,” comparing it to the southern Mexico wave Mecca that frequently plays host to big surf contests.

Locals say occasional intrepid surfers have been making their way here since the 1970s, but recently their numbers have surged. Since 2005 or so, change has come fast, in the form of hotels, booze and half-nude foreigners. But in this once-conservative Muslim town, tolerance has not only proved profitable, it has also given rise to a uniquely Moroccan form of beach culture.

“Before surfing came, people here were all fishermen,” said Hafid Iddouch, 29, who helps run the Immouran Surf Association, a non-profit that gives free surf lessons to local kids. “Now, in Taghazout, almost 80 percent of the people work in surfing.”

The manager of a local trinket shop called Aladdin’s Cave, Mohamed Acheari, 24, puts that estimate at 90 percent or even higher. The influx of visitors is the lifeblood of the town, he said, adding that without it, “we’d be dead.”

His shop sells a typical array of tourist-bait — spices, ceramics, jewelry — but one of his most popular items turns out to be reproductions of an image that’s something of an unofficial town logo. In the picture, a figure seen from the side walks in a brightly colored djellaba, or hooded cloak, carrying a longboard under one arm.

Mash-ups like this abound. One door down from Aladdin’s, you can buy $300 Dakine surf boards, silkscreened Volcom loungewear and disks of Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax — “The Best For Your Stick” (that’s surfboard) — at a place called the Twareg Surf Shop. The store’s name makes a creatively spelled reference to a fiercely austere tribe of desert nomads.

Outside the shop on a recent afternoon, two young local girls in striped headscarves chased each other in circles, giggling in Arabic. The swifter one wore a T-shirt that read, “I ♥ boys that rock.”

Visit any one of the beaches up the road and there’s a good chance you’ll run into yet another distinctively local category of entrepreneur — men in their mid-20s leading bored-looking camels along the beach, looking for foreigners who’ll pay a few dollars for a ride.

But most visitors came here for the promise of a different kind of ride. “On its day there are a lot of really good waves,” said Marc Fennell, a South African surfer who has spent the last three months plying waves around Taghazout after stints in Australia and Indonesia. “In terms of this part of the world, it’s great surfing.”

The village boasts about 30 hotels catering to surfers, known as surf camps, and those who run them say the numbers rise each year.

“Literally the whole town is surf camps,” said James Bailey, owner of a popular hotel called Surf Berbere. “Real estate here has doubled in value, tripled in value.”

Bailey says locals have been mostly welcoming to the 20,000 or so surfers who each season pass through the region. Because the surf season runs from September to April, it has recently overlapped with Ramadan, the holy month in the Islamic calendar when even many of Morocco’s less observant Muslims choose to fast and pray. During Ramadan, Baily said even laid-back Taghazout tightens up, and the visiting Europeans try to follow suit.

“All the girls get told to cover up if they leave the building,” he said.

One of the managers at Surf Berbere, Matthew Newman, said tensions between the surfers and locals are infrequent, but they do exist.

“Sometimes you get a slight feeling like you’re kind of invading their little fishing village,” he said. "But maybe that’s just because I’m British.”