A Virtual Visit to Chefchaouen
Chefchaouen. The Blue Pearl. Or, as the locals prefer, just Chaouen. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, this city by any other name would look as beautiful. Imagine an entire city swathed in cobalt blue. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, since Instagram is bathed in images of Chefchaouen. There is even an alley there colloquially called “the Instagram spot”.
However, as the old saying goes, “the pictures don’t do it justice.” There is no substitute for an in-person visit to Chefchaouen, but if you can’t make it because, oh, I don’t know, maybe there’s a global pandemic or something, I offer you a virtual visit. Come with me as we explore this amazing city in the Rif Mountains of Morocco.
Most people approach Chaouen by bus from Fes or Tangier. It’s a twisty, windy journey up into the mountains, about 2 hours from Tangier and 4 hours from Fes. The bus only costs roughly $5, so it’s by far the best way to get there. If you’re fancy you can of course hire a car or drive there yourself. Just be aware that Moroccans are no respecters of lanes, so drive defensively. You’ve been warned.
As soon as you step foot in Chefchaouen you will be impressed with how the city is built right into the side of the foothills. If you have any mobility issues or can’t climb several flights of stairs, you should probably stick to the virtual visit. The old city, the medina, is mostly walking traffic only, and stairs are everywhere. The small and winding blue alleys will give you the sense that you have been transported to an alternate reality. (You will especially feel this way if you indulge in the local cash crop. To be clear, I did not indulge in said crop, but plenty of people visit Chaouen for this express purpose. Don’t be shocked when you are approached with an offer to sell you some of it.)
Chaouen is small enough that after a few hours of wandering, you will find your way around. And it’s a wonderful place to get lost. Leave your map and phone in your room, and just enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of this unique and beautiful place.
Exploring the Medina
At the heart of the medina in Chefchaouen is the Kasbah, or old fortress. For just a few dirhams, you can buy entrance to the gardens and a small museum. Once inside, climb the tower for some gorgeous views of the city and the grand mosque. Outside of the Kasbah is the main square where barkers will try to coerce you into their cafes. Go ahead, you won’t be ripped off, and it’s a nice place to people watch and relax. Sometimes there are musicians who perform in the square, adding to the festive atmosphere.
My favorite café in Chaouen can be found here, Hamsa. It is a lovely café, best visited for breakfast or an afternoon snack. Climb up to the rooftop and enjoy the views while you sample their hummus, Moroccan salad, mint tea, and msemen (a delicious flatbread often served with honey. Try it. You’ll be hooked). Oh, and if you are in Morocco during orange season, order the orange juice. It is the best orange juice you will ever have.
Once you’re full of yummy snacks from Hamsa, follow one of the alleys just a few steps. You will land in the enchanted world of La Botica de la Abuela de Aladdin. It is a sensory wonder of sights smells. Buy some of the solid perfume and handmade soaps. Their facial creams and serums are amazing, too. I left my husband in the square while I ventured to the shop and afterward he asked me how I liked it. My response was, “That place makes Lush like friggin’ Wal Mart!” (Sorry, Lush, I do love you but…) I mean, seriously, look at this place:
Ras El Ma
Now that you’ve bought 50 pounds of soap and have no room in your luggage for your underwear, it’s time for a little hike. You need to go to the local water source, Ras El Ma. It’s a mountain stream that runs through part of the medina. Cafes line the shores as well as community laundry areas. This is also where you can catch the trail up the hill to the Spanish Mosque. (You will catch sight of the laundry areas and the mosque in the Way Away video linked below.)
Once you’ve had your fill of the sound of falling water, head back into the medina and just wander. Get lost. No, really. Get lost. You will be rewarded with sights like this:
Chefchaouen rewards the curious. If the rug seller offers you tea, accept. He will regale you with tales of life in the Sahara and explain the symbols woven into his wares. If a particular alley beckons, follow it. If a cafe smells mouthwatering, go in and order something. The pace here is leisurely. The vibe is casual. The people are friendly. And if you can’t visit Chefchaouen, here are two videos I highly recommend. I’ve followed Flying the Nest and The Way Away on a lot of their adventures, and they are fun and savvy young travelers. Take a virtual journey to this magical city, and someday, when the world returns to “normal”, make a point to visit it for real. Chefchaouen has been here for about 600 years. It will be here for a while longer…