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Chefchaouen: The Pearl of Morocco

Welcome to Chefchaouen, one of the, if not the, most mesmerising cities we’ve ever visited. A city high in the Riff mountains of Morocco with a winding Medina where every house is painted a shade of blue. It sounds kitschy but the result is a piece of paradise, a sort of heaven on earth. Truthfully, visiting Chefchaouen culminates in an intoxicating feeling of happiness when strolling the streets. Quite rightly referred to as the pearl of Morocco.

Contrary to out last post documenting our travels from Ronda, Spain to Chefchaouen, Morocco where we invited you to wait for this post to find out about all our adventures in Chefchaouen, in writing this post it has become apparent that we did not do much adventuring. So, while we will document some hiking expeditions, we don’t actually partake in them. If you’re here for adventures, maybe read some of our other posts. Otherwise, stick around for pretty pictures, what to do and see in Chefchaouen, history & culture!

Actual Adventures

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View of the Dachstein ridge where we got stuck
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This article will be more of a what to do in Chefchaouen type, because we’re pretty sure you don’t want to read about us walking through streets going “oohhh”, “ahhhh” & “sooo cute”. We will of course throw in a few personal experiences. There is a lot more to do in the area, what with all the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately for us, we spent too much time in Europe and ate into our time in Africa, and now our flight back from Marrakesh got cancelled and the only other one is a few days before we actually want to leave, so yeah, we’ve lost time. Anyway, here’s some initial impressions of Chefchaouen. You can see for yourself how mesmerising it is.

We arrive in Chefchaouen in December and the weather is perfect. Shorts and T-Shirts weather. Blue skies, sun shining, ideal. We can’t say if that’s the norm or not, being the beginning of winter. Apparently, it does snow in the area and although not typically in town, it does happen. There will be snow in the mountains during winter for sure. Regarding the other seasons, it will mostly be warm to very hot.

History of Chefchaouen

The city was established in 1471 by Abu al-Hassan Ali ibn Moussa ibn Rashid al-Alami. Back then it was known more succinctly as Chaouen, which roughly translates to The Peaks in Arabic. Fitting, considering the towering peaks flanking the city and its elevation at 564M above sea level. The purpose of the city was to defend against the invading Portuguese armies from the north; it was essentially a fortress. In fact, you can still see much of the city walls to this day.

The Moroccan empires once stretched into the Iberian peninsula where a great wealth of history is left over from the Moors, particularly in the south of modern day Spain, Andalusia. If you want to read more about the history of the Moors in Europe, check out our article about Granada, Spain.

Why the blue?

So it turns out that not a great deal of history is known about Chefchaouen. I’ve done a lot of research and it seems most sources are regurgitating the same information and most disappointingly, no one really knows for sure why Chefchaouen is blue.

There are a bunch of theories how it came to be blue:

  • Jews fleeing World War 2 painted it that way.
  • Jews and Arabs painted it in the 15th century after fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Villagers painted their houses to remind them of the sky and presence of God.
  • Villagers painted their houses blue to emanate a cooling aura in the stifling summer heat.

Although we might not know the origin of the hues, that is secondary to the fact that the tradition lives on. Even to this day city dwellers maintain the thousands of shades of blue and you will often see them arduously painting their homes and streets. The colour blue is a way of life, it’s enshrined in the inhabitants’ very existence.

Berbers, dress and culture

The pictures above show traditional Berber people of Chefchaouen. They are wearing the traditional dress of the Moroccan Berber, the descendants of the nomadic people who inhabited North Africa before the Arabs arrived.

Many Moroccans wear western style clothes. However, you will find a host of traditional clothes with influences from Berber and Arab cultures, for example the men often wear the pointy hooded robes known as Djellaba. You can find out more about traditional Moroccan clothes here.

Berber actually means “Non Greek Speaking” in Ancient Greek. The Romans also used the word to refer to the Northern tribes, Germanics, Celts, etc. Present day Berbers often refer to themselves as Amazigh. They live through Morocco and other countries of North Africa, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and so on.

The Arabs enlisted the Berbers for the conquests of the Iberian peninsula and bought Islam along with them. Afterwards, for many centuries, the Berbers individual identities were replaced by those of the Arabs, language, scripts and clothes. Eventually the Berbers were driven in to the mountains.

Nowadays Morocco is made up of mostly Berbers and Arabs and the communities appear to be very mixed, however, that is anecdotal. The French are credited with identifying the different cultures, establishing rights and allowing for institutions to study and promote the Berber history during their reign in Morocco. Furthermore, they were administered as a separate people – not that this is meant to paint colonialism in a favourable way.

Enough with the history and culture in Chefchaouen, what is there to do?

What to do in Chefchaouen

1. Explore the Medina of Chefchaouen

Let’s face it, the number one thing to do in Chefchaouen is to roam around the streets and fully immerse yourself in the idyllic blue walls, passages, courtyards and staircases. It’s hard to describe in words the way one feels in such a place, it’s harmonious, it’s elating, it leaves you awestruck. It’s a sort of beauty that might otherwise seem unattainable. But it’s not, it’s here, yours for taking, so relish it. Climb every staircase, peek around every corner, take photographs of hundreds of doors.

You can easily find solace from the crowds off the main streets. Besides, the best tip we can give is to get up early and enjoy the city whilst most tourists are sleeping and eating breakfast. The city will be empty apart from the few locals running errands and setting up for the working day ahead.

2. Find & pet the cats of Chefchaouen

Did this really need to be it’s own section you ask? Naturally. There are many cats in Chefchaouen and they are the best. What can be more heartwarming than these fluffy little felines against the magnificent architecture? And if you’re wondering, where is the cat in the second picture – look a bit harder!

3. Watch a sunset or three

Watching the sunset is the ultimate holiday experience. I always wonder why we chase sunsets on holidays but when we are home, we mostly ignore the best time of the day to be outside. A good sunset is the perfect grounding. The immense beauty is often inspiring and always humbling. A reminder of everything that is well and a glimpse in to a better future.

Anyway, there are a few great spots to watch the sunset, some harder than others to get to:

  • The Spanish MosqueGoogle Maps location – The Mosque was built in the 1920’s by the Spanish but was never used or opened. It requires a bit of a hike to get to. Exit the Medina at the East Gate. You will cross a road and then see a footpath going up the valley side. Follow it for around 20-30 minutes and you will reach the mosque with exquisite views over Chefchaouen.
  • Graveyard – Head to the West Gate of the Medina and exit. Behind is a large open cemetery on the hill side, just above the city. There are great views on the city over here. We also witnessed a local herding goats, the goats surrounded us including some super cute kids.
  • Jebel El-Kelaa Summit – For a more strenuous option, you could hike to the peak of Jebel El-Kelaa, the mountain that rises above Chefchaouen. There is an excellent guide here. This would be an excellent place to camp if there is space for a tent! It’s a long hard slog, don’t underestimate it.

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4. Go Hiking in the Riff Mountains

Chefchaouen is surrounded by mountains so naturally there are hiking opportunities. There are various tours you can take further into the Riff mountains to canyons and waterfalls or you can just start in the Medina and head into the mountains. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t have enough time in Chefchaouen to explore the mountains so we’re going to delegate to others for descriptions and timings, but we’ve done the research and picked out the best potential hikes that we’d like to do.

  • Jebel El-Kelaa Summit – Hike to the top of the peak behind Chefchaouen. Description here.
  • Akchour Waterfalls – The trail head is a 45 minute drive from Chefchaouen. Lovely looking tourist hike with lots of water and swimming opportunities. Description here.
  • Gods Bridge – Starts from the same location as the Akchour Waterfalls hike. High in the mountains with impressive rock formations and swimming opportunities.
  • Afasska – This hike starts from Chefchaouen and ends in the village of Afasska. Description here.

Hiking information is not greatly available on the internet in English. While there are some blog posts describing personal experiences, many of them are not particularly professional. Consequently, it might be worthwhile to hire a guide or at the very least do some extensive research.

Chefchaouen is located in Morocco’s marijuana growing region and because of this you will find many unscrupulous characters in the mountains who will try to sell you weed and tours. They can be persistent and aggressive. Therefore, it’s best to politely decline and travel together in a group.

5. Explore the Architecture of Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen is full of impressive architecture, and we are suckers for the Islamic style. The colours, the patterns, the intricacy. Apart from being a masterpiece of architecture in itself, Chefchaouen contains some striking examples which deserve more of your time.

  • Al-Hawta Fountain in Al-Hawta square.
  • Chefchaouen Kasbah – Which also contains the Ethnographic Museum, some gardens and a gallery.
  • A unique striking green courtyard located just off the main square.
  • The city gates and walls – There are various impressive gate buildings around the city walls.

If you enjoy Islamic architecture, checkout our post about Granada where we visit the incredible Alhambra Palace & Fortress Complex.

Not everything is peachy in Morocco

If you’ve ever spoken to someone who has visited Morocco you will of course have heard uncomfortable stories. Despite the smooth travel experiences so far, it’s not all peaches and cream. In an effort not to gloss over uncomfortable details we’ll air the dirty laundry. Of course it’s not to throw shade on Morocco, but if we don’t talk about these problems then we will have a less than slim chance of fixing them.

We won’t talk about the constant hassle of taxi drivers and market sellers, that’s been covered many times before and you should be prepared for that. I will add that upon reading these stories, I found myself not wanting to follow the advice of just ignore and walk away. It seems so brash. In most cases we do earn more and lead more privileged lives than many of the locals just trying to make a living.

However, on reflection, smiling and conversing with every guy trying to sell you something, purposely acting naïve, humouring people who maybe do just want to help, quickly becomes exhausting. Smiling and repeatedly saying no is easy, but when they start hurling abuse, it soon becomes tough. You will have to find your own approach to dealing with the madness of Morocco. There is no one-size fits all remedy.

Anyway, some of the more uncomfortable encounters.

Uncomfortable encounters

  1. Shortly after arriving in Chefchaouen while we are looking to purchase a SIM card a teenage guy tries to offer us a room. We politely decline and note we already have a booking. He gets very angry, starts spitting and mocking us. He walks off hurling abuse.
  2. On the way to the bus station to leave Chefchaouen a young boy, of no more than 11, hand in hand with his mother (who does not notice us) walks ahead in front of us. When he sees us, he repeatedly turns and with an evil stare, performs a throat slicing action towards us. It is horrifying and makes us feel like we are absolutely not welcome in the city.
  3. Some money goes missing from our bags in our hotel room.

A few final Impressions

FACTS FACTS FACTS

How to get to Chefchaouen

There are many airports in Morocco and as there is not really a nearby international airport, the airport you choose will mostly depend on the rest of your trip. If you plan to visit other cities such as Casablanca, Fez or Marrakesh you might want to fly directly there and take a bus to Chefchaouen. The closest international airport is Tangier. Check Skyscanner for flights.

For domestic travel we’d recommend using buses, they are modern, clean and punctual. CTM & Supratours are the main operators.

If you want to figure out how to get to Chefchaouen from Spain to Morocco, read our previous post.

Things to do 

We’ve described what to do and our experiences in Chefchaouen in the above post, to summarise:

  • Explore the Medina
  • Admire the Islamic architecture
  • Watch the sunset from the various view points around the city
  • Go hiking in the Riff mountains
  • Pet cats
  • Explore the Souq
  • Smoke some weed if ya into that sort of thing

Accommodation

We stayed at Casa Amina in the heart of the Medina, they welcomed us warmly with mint tea and a chat. They have a rooftop area to enjoy nice views over the city. They have dorms and private rooms, we took a private.

How long to stay

We stayed for 2 days and it wasn’t enough. It’s not enough time to fully appreciate the beauty of Chefchaouen. You can absolutely see all the sites in that time, but going at a slower pace is definitely recommended. Of course if you want to explore the mountains, you will need more than 2 days.

Pro Tip

  • Get up early and explore the city during the sunrise, you will have the whole place to yourself!

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