A very un-Moroccan city. That’s how I would describe Chefchaouen, by far my favorite corner of this lively North African country. I wasn’t even sure I’d go at first – I had already done quite a bit of traveling around Morocco and, to be honest, it proved to be a bit exhausting.
It wasn’t even the mid-June heat. It was more the atmosphere. Casablanca was nice and relaxed, calm, a city by the sea that had a feel more reminiscent of France than North Africa. But Casablanca was a bit on the boring side. Marrakesh would fix that problem – the chaos of Morocco’s gem and biggest tourist draw is unlike any other. While it was far more interesting, I was constantly accosted, with my pale skin and blond hair the only thing less conspicuous than if I had put a giant “tourist” sign on my forehead. I stayed a week in Marrakesh, longer than most travelers do, I’d say, and much of it was spent hiding in the calm, peaceful confines of my gorgeous riad.
So I had a choice to make in my remaining days in the country: stay in Rabat once I get there, head straight to Fez, where I’d eventually catch my flight out of Morocco, or take a quick trip up north to a city – or rather town – situated in the Rif Mountains that I had heard good things about. I thought these good things related to the fact that everything is painted in pretty shades of baby blue. It turns out there’s more to Chefchaouen than that.
Here are a few of the ways Chefchaouen is different from other cities in Morocco, and why I loved it so much more than the rest of the country:
1. Chefchaouen is still a bit off the beaten path.
I didn’t think this was possible. In 2014, with the internet age in full swing and travel resources abound, it’s hard to find anywhere that is still a well-kept secret. In Ethiopia I had picked out a city off the beaten path, only to find once I arrived that there’s a reason not many travelers go there. Chefchaouen, on the other hand, had every bit of charm and even more beauty than the rest of Morocco, but without nearly as many tourists as Marrakesh or Fez. As a result, prices were a bit lower, the food was better and the people seemed more genuine.
2. In two days I only got accosted twice.
In a place like Morocco, that’s a miracle. In Marrakesh I literally couldn’t make it more than a block without about three different people asking if I wanted a taxi, to buy something from their shop, a tour, directions or to ask where I was from (the latter two seemingly innocuous approaches being ways to strike up a conversation so they can then sell you something you don’t want).
It was a bit easier to get around other cities like Fez or Rabat without someone trying to sell me something, but not by much. It’s actually so frequent that you feel you can’t trust anyone who approaches you, regardless of the situation. Chefchaouen was a nice break from this feeling. At one point, after reaching the peak of a hill overlooking the city and the site of a mosque donated by the Spanish, I was approached by a man seeming to want to chat. Although my body language said “go away”, I allowed him to strike up a conversation and he ended up trying to sell me absolutely nothing. We talked for a few minutes, then he simply wished me a nice day and walked back in the direction of his village a few kilometers from Chefchaouen. What a wonderful change that was.
3. I didn’t get harassed at all.
Ladies, that’s not to say that you’ll never get harassed here – it’s still Morocco after all. But in two days, I never did. This was in stark contrast to Marrakesh and Fez, where despite being covered from my shoulders to my feet, showing nothing even remotely close to cleavage and sometimes even donning a scarf to cover my neck, I still got the occasional “hey sexy”, “hey baby”, “ooh yeah, I like that” – not to mention the creepy stares. Twice on my awful trip into the Sahara, I was pulled in by one of the Bedouin guides – a man I had not even had a conversation with – and kissed on the cheek despite my obvious disgust at having a total stranger’s lips on my face. In Chefchaouen, I felt I could walk down the street without being disrespected based on my gender.
Let me be clear to anyone, especially women, thinking of going to Morocco but being put off by this: It’s relatively safe, even more so than many parts of the U.S. I never felt I was in any danger, as I was always in public places (aside from my riads, and the owners of the places I stayed – male and female – were always respectful). That said, the treatment you’ll get from many Moroccan men absolutely does wear on you, and you have to have some pretty thick skin. As always, take the necessary precautions: spend a bit more if it means staying in a safer neighborhood; take taxis at night; never be afraid to call a man out loudly if he crosses a line (I’ve heard people will not hesitate to come to your rescue); walk with your head high and a look as though you’re ready to kick someone’s ass if need be. But don’t let this keep you away if it’s a place you really want to visit.
4. Most people speak Spanish
This is only a benefit for me, because my Spanish is far less pathetic than my French (which is, in turn, better than the five or six Arabic words I know). I found it a tiny bit easier to communicate in Chefchaouen due to this region having been occupied by the Spanish in the 20th century.
5. You can get lost and not worry about how you’ll find your way back.
I was worried at first when Nieves, the woman I had rented a room from on Airbnb, guided me through the medina. We had arranged to meet at a hotel so she could accompany me to the house, since directions would have been next to impossible. Here you can’t exactly tell a person to turn left at the blue house, then right at the blue house and another right at the blue house.
“You’ll find your way, no problem” she explained, as we wound around the twists and turns of the high blue-washed walls. “Just remember, left at the hat shop, right at the fountain. If you get lost, just head downhill until you reach Hotel Parador.” This seemed to have worked – I never got lost. Me. The very person who, as anyone who knows me can tell you, has the worst sense of direction on the planet.
In short, I love cities I can randomly wander through without having to worry about finding my way back or accidentally stumbling into an unsavory part of town. This is one of those cities.
6. And the obvious – it’s absolutely gorgeous
It’s amazing what a few splashes of paint can do for a place. For one thing, it makes it seem cleaner. Or maybe Chefchaouen is actually cleaner than Marrakesh or Fez – I’m not entirely sure. I’ve also seen studies showing that different colors have different effects on the brain, and blue no doubt offers the calming sensation I so desperately needed after a week and a half traveling throughout this country.
Chefchaouen’s blue walls date back to the Jewish residents of the 1930s, who supposedly saw the color as an answer to the Islamic green. What also struck me as interesting is that the paint jobs are far from perfect – and it almost seems as though that’s intentional. The colors are not painted on with perfectly straight lines, nor has any effort been put into keeping the paint from washing down onto the concrete and stone pathways. It gives the walls of the medina and its buildings a carefree sense of imperfection that I found, well… perfect.
Whether you’re heading to the more popular spots of Marrakesh and Fez and have a few extra days or you’re looking to visit Morocco but don’t want to deal with the frenetic pace and harassment that often comes with it, I can’t recommend a visit to Chefchaouen enough. I also stayed in the most charming room at a great price and great service, so feel free to email me if you’d like a recommendation.