A trip to Morocco would not be complete without a stop to the mountainous blue city of Chefchaouen. While not bombarded by loads of tourism yet, hippies and seasoned European travelers have been visiting since the early 1960’s as a mystical untouched getaway, as well as in search of readily-available hashish. This seemingly utopian town is a must-see and must experience destination that is one of the most charming places on earth.
Many on the Moroccan tourist trail start in the international cities of Casablanca or Marrakesh, then make a stop to the Sahara or Zagora desert for a night or two of camping with Berber tribes and camels, then make their way to Fes or Tangier for some leather shopping. I would highly recommend Chefchaouen as your first stop after landing in one of the major airports and then making your way to the other destinations, as you could very possibly end up staying a week.
Chefchaouen bares uncanny resemblance to India’s Jodhpur Blue City but the history, traditions, culture and people are a world apart. The two respected blue cities were found both in the 15th century but the meaning behind the blue-washed cities are completely different.
A Little History of Chefchaouen
Established in 1471, this quaint city sits atop of Rif mountain with a 500 year old fortress at it’s city center built by Moulay Ali Ben Moussa Ben Rached El Alami to fight off the Portugese invasions of Northern Morocco. The earliest inhabitants were of Ghomara tribes, Moriscos and Jews who settled here after the Spanish Reconquista in Medieval Times.
The origin of the blue-rinsed city is a common debate until this day. A common version of the story is that the Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition brought the sentiment. The color blue according to Judaism states that dying thread with blue and using it during a moment of prayer would be a good reminder of the power of God. Painting the town blue would remind them to see the reflection of God which brings them closer to him. Another version of the story is that the color blue keeps mosquitos away. What most would agree though, is that the color represents the sky which reminds them daily to live a life of spirituality, no matter what religion they are.
The name “Chef Chaouen” refers to the shape of the mountain tops above the town, that resemble two horns (chaoua) of a goat. It translates to “Look up at the horns”, from the Berber language. The locals though refer to it as “Chaouen“.
Today, the population is approximately 43,000 people of Portugese, Moroccan and Spanish descent with Muslims, Jews and Christians living peacefully. Due to the influx of tourism, this village has begun to flourish bringing a more sustainable life to the residents. There is this timeless charm of seeing the color blue, and is certainly picturesque and incredibly photogenic for us travelers.
Getting There: Roadtrip!
I would recommend renting a car when traveling in Morocco, although a bus or plane are also good options. Chefchaouen is situated between Tangier and Tetouan on the northwest of Morocco. It takes about a 8-10 hour drive from Marrakesh (570 kilometers) or Essaouira (726 kilometers). I rented a car with my friend and made that drive in a day and a half, stopping by other cities along the way such as Al Jadida for lunch, drove past Rabat as it looked too chaotic to stop, and past Casablanca to preserve time. We spent the night in the former US Navy port city of Kenitra and continued on our journey north the next day while picking up a hitchhiker off the highway into his town of Ouezzane and then spending an afternoon with him and his wife and 1 year old baby, sharing a delicious meal and conversation all afternoon. We made it just in time for sunset to this magical, mysterious mountain scenery where we checked into a comfortable, warm guesthouse.
The thought of driving in Morocco may seem intimidating but was actually not. There are only 2 highways that run practically parallel to one another up the western coast of Morocco. It was a girlfriend and I in this rental car, with police stops every hour or so, just waving us the go-ahead sign. Not once did we encounter any type of harassment and was only greeted with friendliness and curiosity where we were headed. Besides driving through Rabat and Casablanca where it became a bit crowded, the highways were practically empty. This was in late February just before high season. The drive through the less traveled roads of the countryside was miraculous. At times when we stopped to use the loo, for coffee, or for photographic opportunities, people were so incredibly friendly. Moroccans and the rest of the Middle-East has been known for that hospitality, but it’s at it’s core when in the countryside.
Another cheap and hassle-free option is to take a bus from any major city to Chefchaouen. Check Supra Bus for their schedule. There are flights available if you are pressed for time, although I would most recommend driving there, leaving early in the morning and arriving their by sundown, or simply driving and stopping wherever fascinates you.
Chefchaouen sits on the mountainous region of the Rif, which has also been known to have some of the best Hashish in the region. Western hippies have been frequenting this village for the last few decades for weeks to months at a time to enjoy this freedom and luxury of good marijuana.
There are plenty of outdoor adventures to engage in, such as trekking in the Rif Mountain. The town is unpopulated and untouched, with a vast landscape of greenery. Another recommended option is for a 45 minute drive to Talassemtane National Park, conserved in 2004 as one of the last Moroccan threatened Fir Forest.
My favorite thing to do was to wander through the Old City Medina which was a small enough labyrinth that you virtually could not get lost, but enough shopping to last two days. They are known for their local handicrafts of wool, weaving, blankets, soaps, olive oil and leather products. After some shopping, make your way to the Grand Mosque and Ethnographic Museum.
The locals are extremely laid back and the shopkeepers will more likely invite you in for tea to chat than they will to push to sell you items. Prices start 30% lower than the other major Souqs in Morocco, with the room to bargain at another 10-30% more so I would save your shopping trip for Chefchaouen (and with as much luggage as possible!).
A tourist favorite is their local goat cheese, goat butter and local mountain honey. There are plenty of family owned restaurants for the traditional Moroccan Tagines although we opted for a Pizza night at Mandala restaurant. Sometimes, you just need a western fix after days of traveling abroad!
Traveling as a Woman
Many women are concerned about traveling in Morocco which I write a post on. While in the big cities, there will be more touts, shop-keepers and local men hollering, there are rarely cases of actual physical harm. It is safe to say that Chefchaouen, being the small laid-back town that it is, that it is even safer to travel as a woman here than the major cities. My friend and I had no issues here when shopping during the day or even walking late at night. As usual, use your discretion and common sense.
Where to Stay
Like the rest of Morocco, you could find low-budget guesthouses to luxury hotels with about 200 scattered throughout town. We stayed at Dar Zman, a lower budget yet cozy guesthouse, and I would highly recommend it. It was approximately $25 a night for our own room, with heater, hot shower, each room uniquely and beautifully decorated in Moorish design/architecture. Breakfast and snacks are included on the top floor overlooking the city.
We didn’t find a ton of night life, as it’s a sleepier town and perhaps many tourists and locals are laying on their couch high off hashish. There are a few local cafes and hotels to find a cocktail if you desire.
We did though, luckily stumble across this eclectic art gallery in the Medina called La Reve Bleu. The owner of the gallery, Mohsine Ngadi, is an artist who’s painted hundreds of pieces that he sells, as well as operates a cooking class, kitchen, tea bar and a space for travelers and locals to socialite late into the night.