Chefchaouen, also known as “Chaouen,” “Morocco’s blue city” or the “blue pearl of Morocco,” is a small city in northern Morocco known for its blue clad medina. The medina in each Moroccan city refers to the old town inside the city walls where the streets are narrow, maze like and often unmarked – mostly walkways where pedestrians and motorbikes can pass but not many streets passable by car. Chefchaouen is beautiful, simple, quiet and honest compared to the big city of Marrakech. It is rumored that the city obtained its abundance of blue painted buildings due to its Jewish heritage, as many Jews and Muslims fled here during the Spanish Reconquista. Chefchaouen was also occupied by the Spanish in the early-mid 1900s so there is a unique cultural mix to the residents, architecture and lifestyle here. An alternate, more simple theory to the color choice is that it repels mosquitoes, we heard both explanations from different people during our stay.
Chefchaouen is not a very easy destination to reach, we flew into Tangier (the closest airport) and had a prearranged private car pick us up from the airport and take us straight to our hotel in Chefchaoen, about 2 hours away. We reached Riad Zaitouna Chaouen around 2 am, but the hotel attendant, Zohair, still offered to prepare us mint tea on the roof upon arrival; so very accommodating. We were really happy with this riad; they prepared a wonderful breakfast spread on the rooftop in the morning and Zohair even took time out of his day to personally guide us around town!
Our first mission of our only day in Chefchaouen was finding an ATM or moneychanger. We were quickly approached by an older gentleman who instructed us that the “black market” was the best way to change money and he would happily take us there. The “black market” was not a backroom/dark alley deal, but rather a permanent storefront with posted exchange rates, similar to any moneychanger you’d see at the airport. We all obtained some Moroccan dirhams (9.5mad per $1usd). After we got cash, the gentleman, of course, wanted to show us his rug shop – we went with him and checked it out, got some information about their products and then got away to explore the town. This is true in Chefchaouen, as it is in every Moroccan city, people want to get you in their shop and not have you leave until they sell you something. We luckily got out of this rug store pretty quickly since we knew we were on a time crunch, but it is really easy to get stuck in these type of situations, so you have to be pretty adamant or just straight up leave.
Every twist and turn through the blue-clad medina leads to a vibrant, picturesque adventure. Every doorway and storefront is unique, and interesting, and worth viewing – you could spend days here soaking in the small town charm and beauty. We only had until the end of this single day – basically 12 daylight hours in Chefchaouen, so we were trying to make the most of it. Zohair had mentioned a waterfall so we started up in the general direction and actually crossed paths with him, he stopped whatever mission he was on and led us to the “waterfall.” The waterfall was barely a trickle today, Zohair mentioned that there is a dammed reservoir that is used to regulate the flow of water and somedays it gushes down while days like today it is not really mentionable. However, this waterfall is basically on the way to another attraction, the Spanish mosque.
The Spanish mosque, while an interesting collaboration of cultures, is not all that impressive. You can peek through the barred windows but there’s not much going on inside. The location however is a fantastic sweeping view over the medina. Many people advise to visit during sunset, however we really enjoyed the fully lit vantage at midday. While walking around the mosque, we were approached by a couple of guys who introduced themselves as farmers and asked us if we wanted to visit their kif farm a little further up the hill. We were intrigued by the offer but politely declined – I never thought I would proclaim “I was once offered cannabis while visiting a Spanish mosque in Morocco.” What a mish-mash experience! We enjoyed the view from the mosque for 15 minutes or so before beginning the descent, it’s not a long or difficult hike, but due to the dust and rocks, closed toe shoes would be preferable.
On our way back into the medina, we passed a fruit stand squeezing fresh orange juice, so we stopped for a glass and peered out over the “waterfall” area; it was a relaxing break after the hot hike. Then we headed back to Riad Zaitouna where we snagged some pastries for a little picnic in the lobby with mint tea prepared by Zohair. If you’ve never had Moroccan mint tea, it is sweeter than sweet tea in the south of the U.S. (didn’t know that was possible!) and has a massive herbal mint kick with an underlying mellow green tea. The pastries we gathered from the stall across from Riad Zaitouna and they were very interesting in flavor and texture, there was one crumbly chickpea biscuit that was a crowd favorite but all were worth a try!
We were ready to hit the shops in search of Moroccan garb and rugs, we’d been told that prices were much lower here on all goods than in the big city, Marrakech. I’m not a haggler which is required in this marketplace setting, I did my best at bargaining for a couple of kaftan type dresses – which may have actually been menswear (oops?). We ended up in a rug shop where the shopkeepers were not too pushy and the inventory selection was immense. The two men working the shop went through their whole demonstration regarding the differences in design from simple, muted color, fuzzy, wooly carpets to tightly woven, multicolor, elaborately patterned pieces; they indicated the differences in geography, gender and culture of the weavers visible in the intricacies of each rug (don’t ask me to distinguish now). Even if you don’t want a rug when you arrive, you’ll want one after their presentation. And honestly, if you ever thought you wanted a Moroccan rug, this is the place to get it – even for a large size (8x10ft) with elaborate pattern, you can haggle to under $150usd which is really crazy because you can hardly find a simple, mass-produced rug of that size for that price in America! The shopkeepers accept credit cards and can arrange shipping; however, they can also roll these carpets magically small to be transported as a carry-on parcel if desired.
After shopping, we met Zohair near the center of the medina since he’d offered to lead us to one of his favorite local restaurants for dinner. The goat tajin and bread were delicious, everything else was so-so; but it was our first time to wander outside of the city walls and glimpse regular Chefchaouen crowds leaving work and school, kids joking with each other, moms herding their young ones – I love these glances into everyday life, a reminder that even though there are many differences between us, we are all still quite similar. Zohair dined with us and we appreciated his worldview and background story; despite dropping out of his schooling and never having been further than a couple hundred miles from his birthplace, he speaks multiple languages and immerses himself in global news. We feel fortunate to have made his acquaintance and our time in Chefchaouen was maximized by his guidance.
Zohair was going to lead us to Hotel Atlas after dinner to watch the sunset over the city, but he was running late to meet up with a friend, so he called his brother to guide us up to the hotel. This was no small task as Hotel Atlas is quite a climb up through the city and outside the medina wall. We should have gathered that this would be the case since we’d heard of the great, sweeping views over the city from the hotel’s vantage point. The sun actually set as we walked, about 35 minutes up from the middle of the medina, but we still enjoyed the view of the town lit up at night as we sipped a mint tea. Zohair’s brother did not speak English, he declined to enter the hotel with us and we thought he was heading back to town, but when we exited Hotel Atlas 30 minutes later, he was waiting out front to guide us back down to the riad, such hospitality! Back at Riad Zaitouna we collected our things and waited for our ride to pick us up – we’d arranged a private driver to transport us from Chefchaouen to Marrakech, a 7 hour drive overnight from 9pm to 4am, we’d sleep as much as possible then wake up in a new Moroccan city for continued adventure…
Of note, as you plan your trip to Chefchaouen:
- It is quite cooler in temperature than the south of Morocco so prepare accordingly
- It is more quiet and relaxed than the big cities, though you will still get hassled by shop owners to come in and purchase merchandise
- We enjoyed the rug demonstration/education at the shop we entered, I was with a couple who already wanted to find a rug so it worked out well; if you aren’t intending to purchase then prepare to be persuaded relentlessly
- Prices are cheaper here than in the larger cities – that goes for Moroccan rugs, caftans, djellabas, and other souvenir type products; still plan to haggle prices down significantly
- If you get lost in the streets of Chefchaouen, the locals will guide you to your correct destination and, at least in our experience, would not accept a tip for their assistance. Beware that this is NOT the case in the bigger cities where locals try to get you lost, confuse you and badger you for money
- Chat with locals, they enhanced our visit quite a lot here
- Be sure to catch a sweeping view over the city from the Spanish Mosque or Hotel Atlas
- Chefchaouen is picturesque but doesn’t have a ton to offer besides it’s blue beauty, do your research to determine what length of stay is right for you, if any, as mentioned it is not a simple destination to reach; the single day was plenty for our group and we were glad to have made the effort to visit