How to get from Spain to Tangier Morocco
Ever since I had to skip Morocco on a college Eurail pass trip, I have dreamed of hopping the ferry at the tip of Spain and stepping out in Tangier Morocco. Sure, these days you can get to Morocco from Madrid quicker if you fly.
That however would spoil all the fun of grabbing a couple of sandwiches at Madrid’s main Atocha train station, watching the scenery chug-chug by the window on the way to Algeciras, then boarding the ferry, only to arrive with the smell of sea and salt in your face not much more than 20 miles later on another continent.
The trip is not difficult and not that expensive, using the Spanish train system called Renfe and the ferry company called FRS. And you get to pass across the Strait of Gibralter, the narrow body of water that is the only entrance to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic. At the narrowest point, which is however not where your ferry crosses, the African and European continents are only separated by nine miles. That’s about how far it is from Washington, D.C., to Alexandria, Virg., where some people commute daily back and forth.
To realize my dream of landing on the shores of Africa from Europe, we skipped the plane and chose slow travel from Madrid to Algeciras, then to Tarifa (Spain), and then onward on to Tangier Ville, Morocco.
Getting to Algeciras to catch the ferry to Morocco from Spain
First, you need to get from wherever you are in Spain – we were in Madrid, because it was a simpler flight from the United States – to Algeciras, where most of the ferries depart (note the word “most.” More on that in a bit). For that, you will need to find the appropriate train using Spain’s Renfe train system.
Do yourself a money-saving favor and book using the Renfe website. The RailEurope.com site tends to be more expensive – sometimes significantly, so forget that alleged convenience or that of any other rail portal in English. Sure, the Renfe train website teases you by starting in English before the next pages go back to Spanish, but all you need to do is cut and paste words into your favorite online translation engine.
There are several trains going from Madrid-Atocha main station (“Puerta de Atocha” – quite a grand station) to Algeciras, but unless you want to stay a night in Algeciras (believe us, there is really not much there) or you don’t mind getting into Morocco late in the evening, you should opt for the morning train. We snagged one at 8:35 a.m. that arrived at about 13:48 in Algeciras — It was a mere 5 minutes late on our travel day and was a convenient and comfortable ride. Although our train had plenty of seating, we chose to book a seat to be sure. “Turista” class is also just fine for this trip and has power outlets to keep you juiced up.
Algeciras train station to the ferry terminal
The train station in Algeciras is in the city center and only about a half-mile from the FRS ferry terminal. It of course is quite efficient to walk. However, there are taxis if you need them. For walkers, signage leads you out of the train station toward the port (“Acceso peatonal puerto” or pedestrian access port), but then the signs suddenly disappear once you cross the first street. Just keep going straight with the station at your back — you will see the ocean and harbor ahead.
Here’s the big piece of advice: When you get to the main street just across the from the harbor where you must turn left or right, turn LEFT (although it seems counter-intuitive and the sign for vehicles points right) and then turn right to cross the street to walk through the gates toward the ticket counters, departure areas and ferry. Just keeping walk down the length of the buildings until you see a sign for “ticket sales.” If you bought your ticket online, you can check in here to pick up official printed tickets with your printouts.
Moving on from Algeciras to Tangier Morocco
This is an important step: Know WHICH Tangier you are going to: Either Tangier MED or Tangier VILLE. Yeah, really, there is not just ONE Tangier and they aren’t’ just side-by-side. The two are nearly an hour by car apart! Tangier Med Morocco is farther east and closer to the Mediterranean coast and the likes of Tetouan and Chefchaouen. Tangier Ville is farther west and closer to the Atlantic coast and the likes of Asilah or, farther south, into Rabat and beyond.
If you book your ferry into the incorrect Tangier, you’ll have a bit of a trek, taxi, or bus ride ahead of you. So, choose carefully between Tangier Ville and Tangier Med.
Picking and taking your ferry to Morocco
Once you know your destination, you can go to the FRS ferry website. It’s pretty clear with drop-downs for the routes on the timetable page for the ferry to Morocco from Spain. There, you can see, for example, that the ferry to Tangier Ville (only called simply Tangier there) goes from Tarifa. Wait! Your train goes to Algeciras!! No worries. FRS offers a free shuttle bus service coordinated by time with the departures of its ferries from Tarifa to Tangier Morocco – now, isn’t that convenient? That bus connects you from the ferry terminal in Algeciras to Tarifa, where you will catch the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco The bus stop is in the parking lot right outside the ticket office.
We arrived about 2 p.m. in Algeciras. We ended up with about an hour or so to spare since the bus for the 5 p.m. ferry out of Tarifa leaves Algeciras at 4 p.m. (i.e. an hour prior to the ferry). Plan your transfer times accordingly. The building there is not a bad place to wait.
Other questions about the ferry service are answered in detail on its frequently asked questions page. One can buy a ferry ticket on-site, but booking a bit ahead is always a guarantee you will get the time you want, especially during high season.
Of course, there are other ferry routes, depending on your destination. Another from Algeciras is Ceuta, Spain – Hold on, Ceuta is on a small point on the African continent to the east of Tangier Med but belongs to Spain! So of course, you can go from there into Morocco too.
Once you board the ferry, do what the veterans do and bolt straight upstairs to the Moroccan immigration and passport control by following the signs. (You will have gone through Spanish immigration in Tarifa prior to exiting the building and boarding the ferry, and you will need to put your suitcase through x-ray machines in both Tarifa prior to departure and in Tangier upon arrival.
You may also want to read All of the things to do in Asilah Morocco plus where to eat
Getting out of Tangier
Since Tangier Ville is a busy port, most people arrive there and move on straight away. Of course, taxis will be awaiting the shuttles and you’ll walk the gauntlet to move through them, with all of them begging for your business. We were headed to a riad in Asilah, Morocco, about 45-50 minutes south, and the riad was able to pre-schedule a taxi for us for about EUR 20. You can also catch Morocco’s new fast train (“Al Boraq”) in Tangier to Rabat or Casablanca. That glossy new station is about two miles from the port. And those taxis will be happy to have you pay for a ride there.
In the end we were pleased with our relaxing train-bus-ferry-taxi journey from Madrid to Morocco. We had scenery, we had lively characters, we had helpful people, and we felt as if the slower transition from Spain to Morocco was more pleasant than the slam upside the head that airplane travel can be. Plus, we had time in the train to practice our few words of Moroccan Arabic!