Travel: Chefchaouen and Oued Laou
In December 2007 I went to visit a friend who is living in Morocco for the year. She had already done the obligatory tour of Fes and Marrakesh with a friend. She had already seen Essaouria, Asillah, Tangier, and the Sahara. So, the problem arose as to where we should go together. One city stuck in our minds: Chefchaouen.
Chefchaouen is a city in the Rif Mountains famous for the winding alley-ways of its blue-painted medina and the copious amounts of hash produced in the region. It was founded as a fortress in 1471 by Moors displaced by the Spanish Reconquista. The city became home to a large community of Jews, also expelled from Spain. It is the Jews who gave the medina its famous blue color. Previously, the buildings were white and green, the traditional color of Islam.
Once we decided to travel to Chefchaouen, we had to conquer the issue of getting there from Rabat. Chefchaouen is nestled in the Rif Mountains, so there is no train service. We researched the bus schedules, but the bus departed Rabat at 3pm and left Chefchaouen at 7am the next morning; not a convenient schedule for us. After much discussion, we decided to drive.
I’m glad I was unaware of the traffic accident statistics in Morocco before I made the decision to drive. Nonetheless, I’m happy we did. We left Rabat in the morning (no way I was going to drive mountain roads after dark) and headed in the direction of Kenitra. Once we reached Kenitra, we turned in the direction of Sid Kacem. Then entire drive took about 4-5 hours. The pastoral scenes were beautiful. Once you get in the mountains, there is pretty much one road, so it is difficult to get lost. Driving gave us excellent photo opportunities. And, police and government officials are working hard to make the roadways safer. In fact, we were pulled over for speeding (76kmph in a 60kmph zone) on the way back to Rabat. I wrote a few tips for driving in Morocco for those who will brave the roads.
As I mentioned, Chefchaouen famous for the copious amounts of hash produced in the region. According to one article I read, it is estimated that Morocco produces half of the world’s hash supply. Just google the word Chefchaouen and the topic of hash or kif, which is the local version of hash, is likely to pop-up. The city seems to compensate for this fact by banning alcohol. Some tourists in Casa Hassan, where we stayed, were having a few beers in the lobby by the fireplace and the hotel staff asked them to keep it down. The tenor of Chefchaouen can be described by the advice the hotel staff gave us when showing us to our room “This is your room. You can do whatever you want to do in your room.” His eyes had the look of “hint-hint” in them. My point is that whatever your feelings are on the issues of drugs and alcohol, you can fit in Chefchaouen if you just keep those feelings to yourself. I saw some old men smoking kif in the medina. And, on the way out of town we asked directions from someone who offered to sell us some hash. But, overall, the town was very mellow and drugs, which are illegal, were never pushed on us.
We arrived in Chefchaouen in the evening and parked by Hotel Parador, which is one place it town, I hear, where you can get a drink. We took our bags and made the short walk to Casa Hassan, a beautiful riad in the medina near the main square (Uta El Hamam). Our room came with dinner at the restaurant across from the hotel and breakfast in the hotel. The food was good, so I recommend a stay at Casa Hassan if you’re in town.
The next day, we decided to drive some more. I wasn’t feeling well enough to take advantage of the hiking in the area, so we headed north to Oued Laou, a town on the Mediterranean. The drive was simple as there is really one main road. The landscape was particularly beautiful. We drove past the hydroelectric dam and saw mountain life from the seat of our car. We stopped to take pictures several times. At one stop, a group of boys ran towards our car. When I heard them shouting “Stilo! Stilo!” I felt relieved and gladly searched the car for pens and pencils to give them. The Rif is one of the poorest regions in Morocco. Next time I drive through there I am going to carry enough paper and pens with me to make Santa jealous.
We had the chance to drive through a farmers market. I believe it was Thursday. I was nervous as the road became nothing but dirt and the way was blocked with animals, pedestrians, and honking vehicles. I felt conspicuous, but no one looked twice at the two foreigners driving an SUV through the market. People travel so far to come there that they most likely expect to see anyone or anything when they arrive.
Oued Laou wasn’t far. We arrived to the town looked deserted with everyone being at the market. There was a funeral procession winding the streets. We parked at Hotel Oued Laou, a hotel that was built by the French in the 50s. It looked deserted, but a smiling man with mirrored sunglasses on came out to welcome us. We asked for lunch and he asked what we would like. “What do you have?” We went back and forth a bit before settling on fish tagine. We took a walk along the beach while we waited for our food to be bought and prepared. The stones on this part of the Mediterranean are gorgeous. I would have loaded a back pack full to take home if I thought it were fair. I chose a few choice stones and went back to the hotel. The hotel staff set up a table on the roof for us, the only apparent guests at the hotel. We had the place to ourselves and the food was excellent!
After lunch, we decided to say hello to the hotel staff and had a glass of anise tea with them. The people in the North speak Spanish, so my French was of less use than Vanessa’s Italian. But, we managed to talk to each other enough to share good intentions. If I had more time before dark, I would have driven further up the coast, but I wanted to get back to Chefchaouen before nightfall. If you have a chance to go to Oued Laou, stop by the hotel and tell Mehdi that Vanessa and Sarah said hello.
The drive back even more beautiful than the drive there. The townspeople were headed to the city from the market. We saw people walking along the roads, smiling, waiting for buses, discussing the deals they had made. We passed school children walking home. We gave one a ride to her town. It was beautiful to get to put a face to the people in the Rif. Each one was beautiful. We arrived at Chefchaouen just before sunset.
The next day, we explored the medina and visited the tower in Uta El Hamam before heading back to Rabat. The next time I go to Chefchaouen (there will be a next time) I plan on hiking, making another trip to Oued Laou, where I will stay the night, and then explore more of the Mediterranean coast further east. The rumor is that this part of the country, the under-developed Mediterranean cost, is being bought up for development. Given all the development currently underway in Morocco, I’m sure this is more than rumor. So, I suggest, if you can brave the dangers of the Moroccan roads, go and meet the Rif and the bit of Mediterranean it surrounds. Bring pens and pencils for the kids.
I found the following video of Chefchaouen and the surronding nature on YouTube.