Chefchaouen was the place from where we had seen the most incredible photos, from where we had heard the most beautiful sensations, from where we had the most expectations, which make it difficult for the places to fulfill.
Because we wanted to travel slowly and be in Chefchaouen for quite some time, we had long since arranged to do a volunteer job in a hostel for two weeks, in exchange for free accommodation and food, which will greatly help the economy of the trip.
Before reading further, a clarification: what is this post?
This is a story of our experiences and is 100% subjective. If what you are looking for is practical and useful information for traveling in Morocco, with statistics and specific advice, you can find all that and much more in this post Morocco: practical guide for travelers (by clicking here).
The first impression – not always – is what counts
When we arrived, the sun had set and the night was near. It was raining and it was colder than for which we were mentally or physically prepared, even after putting on all the available clothes we had (cold in… Morocco? What madness is this?). In addition to those small details that were not a great welcome, we found that our volunteer work at a hostel did not work for us. To make a mental image of how our first night in the hostel was, we had to spend several hours trying to sleep on the rainy terrace, with all our clothes on, sharing a single bed without blankets, while drops of icy water poured through the attempt of a bamboo roof and fell on our heads. (If you want to know more details about why this and two other voluntary work attempts did not work in Morocco, you can read it by clicking here).
The next day, we left that place and booked a room through Airbnb despite the changes it meant for the economy of our trip. It was a private room in a house where the owner also lived, an American who had settled in Chefchaouen a few months ago. The apartment had a kitchen, where there was only one knife (literally). The bed in the room was new, but it was the worst bed I’ve slept in my life, hard as a stone, so hard that it made your body hurt. Even so, despite everything, the house had a conventional roof, the rain did not come in and with that we were more than happy.
That said, you can get an idea of how our first 24 hours in Chefchaouen were like and what I intend to demonstrate with this introduction is that the famous saying that says “the first impression is what counts” is not always true. As you can imagine, our first impression was not the best…
And not only the first. After that unfortunate night and the attempt to volunteer at the hostel, we spent another twelve days in Chefchaouen. Of those twelve days, two I was sick, and when I say sick I mean VERY sick. I had what they call “traveler’s diarrhea,” the typical illness that comes when we travel to places with lower hygiene conditions than we are used to and the body is not yet accustomed to local bacteria. During those two days, thanks to the vomiting and diarrhea, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t get out of bed because I didn’t have the strength to walk (yes, from that bed that hurt). When I got over it, exactly the same thing happened to Omar (luckily it didn’t happen to both of us at the same time). When the two finally recovered, it rained almost non-stop for five days, an ugly, thin and cold rain.
Even so, with everything that happened to us, which could have left us a bad memory, the opposite happened and Chefchaouen was the place we liked the most (or at least one of the two, it is VERY difficult to compare it with Essaouira), of our entire three month trip through Morocco. So imagine how many positive things it will have to have compensating for all that…
And why? What does Chefchaouen have that makes it so special?
Well, it would be easier to tell what it DOES NOT have. I don’t know if I can say that I traveled a lot during my life, I would not know how to define what is a lot or a little, but let’s say it like this: nowhere in the world, of all the places I had the opportunity to visit, did I feel something similar to what I felt in Chefchaouen. Walking through the streets of her medina is pure magic, there is no other way to explain it, it is something impossible to imagine before being there.
And the blue… oh, the blues of Chefchaouen! Blue, and more of it, in quantities never seen and in all surfaces. It is peace, calmness, harmony, it is like flying in the sky and floating in the sea at the same time. These were the thoughts of the Jews who arrived in Chefchaouen in the 1930s. It is said that the blue color was chosen to symbolize a new beginning, characterized by freedom and well differentiated from the green color, which is the color of Islam. I think it was a more than right decision and they certainly achieved their purpose: Chefchaouen IS freedom. And it was only when I was there that I realized how much I wanted to be there… so much that we have probably been connected from some other life.
Chefchaouen was also one of the most authentic and quiet places we were and this was a surprise. Chefchaouen is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Morocco and maybe that’s why I imagined it would be a sea of people, that it would be difficult to find empty corners where to sit, that everything would be very expensive. I imagined constant noise, vendors offering me their products without stopping. And it turned out that this pre-concept could not be further from reality. It is true that there are shops and vendors on the main streets, but nothing compared to what I imagined. And I don’t know if it was the rainy days and cold weather or a mystical coincidence but Chefchaouen’s medina seemed to me most calm and silent, as if the slightest noise was going to break the peace that reigns between its walls. It is a medina that invites you to sit in each of its corners and simply stay there, looking at it, living it, feeling it.
And what can be done in Chefchaouen?
Chefchaouen did not seem like a place to “do” things, but rather to “be”, in the broadest sense of the word, to be everything we want.
In my case, in Chefchaouen I found a place to be curious and explore every alley, those where few people arrive, walking softly as if I had cotton on my feet, so that my presence would not alter the environment in the least. To be an explorer, to walk a thousand times in its streets, to feel that I would love to walk them another thousand times and know that I will always discover something new. To be a photographer and take in my memory and camera bits of this city always with me. To be a writer and try to put into words all that many centuries of history have to tell me.
In short, if you go to Chefchaouen, don’t look for great attractions. The medina of Chefchaouen and the act of walking through its streets is an attraction in itself, it is a living museum, with real people, living the same way as they lived many centuries ago…
In relation to living as many centuries ago, something very interesting to do is going to the souk. The souks are the typical markets of the Arab countries and found throughout Morocco. For me, just walking and getting lost in the souks, seeing the products, listening to people talk in a language that I don’t understand, is a plan that fascinates me and never fails. There I could see the purest forms of trade that (still) exist, and in many cases, are directly from producer to consumer. In the case of Chefchaouen, the market days are Monday and Thursday and it is impressive to see how the surroundings of the medina (where the souk is held) are filled with the agricultors of the area, who descend from the Rif mountains to sell what they have grown. It doesn’t matter if they have six eggs, three onions or one hundred kilos of oranges, each one sells what they have and is a scene worth seeing. In addition, it is the best scenario to interact with the locals in their daily rituals and where the best prices are found (to get them, do not hesitate to haggle, ¡always!).
And speaking of time travel, a little bit of the history of Chefchaouen
The city of Chefchaouen was founded in 1471 on top of a small Berber settlement, the original people of many areas of North Africa. Its founder was a muslim exile from Al-Andaluz married to a Spanish woman converted to Islam. Legend says that, after the departure of the Al-Andaluz couple, she felt so nostalgic that her husband promised her that the nascent city would be similar to Vejer de la Frontera, his wife’s hometown. Hence, they say, comes the similarity between both places (I still did not have the opportunity to see it with my own eyes, but it is on my list…)
The city prospered with the fall of Granada in 1492 and the expulsion of all Muslims and Jews from Al-Andaluz, many of whom sought their new home in Chefchaouen.
For a large part of its history Chefchaouen was considered a sacred city, so it was forbidden for outsiders, especially Christians. Only from 1920s, when the Spanish protectorate was established in northern Morocco, the city opened its doors. The Spanish remained in Chefchaouen until the independence of Morocco, in 1956.
The blue color, so characteristic in the present, was introduced by the inmigrant Jews who arrived in the 1930s (I can hardly imagine how it was before…)
How many days do you need to visit Chefchaouen?
This is an impossible question to answer. It depends on each traveler, what you are looking for and what you want to find, how you want to connect with the place and the type of trip you are doing.
There are those who go for a few hours, as an “excursion” coming from other cities, there are those who go for a day, there are those who go for two, three, and so on to infinity and none of these options is right or wrong, but, as I said at the beginning, it depends on the possibilities and what each one considers sufficient.
I can only speak from our experience and from our thirteen day stay in Chefchaouen; thirteen days, compared to the eternity that I would like to spend there, sounds very little…
Bonus track 1: the surprise of the surroundings
Before arriving in Chefchaouen, 100% of the photos I had seen were of the medina and of course, blue. I had no memory of having seen a picture of the surroundings where the ancient city was located, so it could well have been in the middle of a desert or by the sea for that matter. So it was a huge surprise to arrive and see the entire landscape, which was one of the most incredible we saw in Morocco. That combination of blue medina and nature so grown together gives Chefchaouen, once again, a unique and magical touch.
The city of Chefchaouen is located in the Rif mountain range, and the medina extends gradually over the mountains, as if it had been leaning itself there little by little. Thus it has taken the natural shape of the surrounding landscape and it looks like a blue patch in the middle of the green vastness.
That close connection, makes it very easy to move from the city to the nature. For example, walking about 20 or 30 minutes from the medina, you will reach the mosque of the Spanish, from where you have the best views of the medina and its surroundings and from where you can see some unforgettable sunsets.
Bonus track 2: travel with a project
Since we started living traveling we work on the road. But we do not always do it in exchange for money, many times we do it in exchange for other things that also serve us, such as, accommodation, tickets, travel insurance, etc. Chefchaouen was the first destination in which we put this into practice and we loved the experience. In exchange for our Assist-365 travel insurance, we made videos and texts of different themes, showing interesting things we learned while traveling. In this case, we made a small video guide to visiting Chefchaouen, which will soon be available to watch on IGTV, in which we wanted to share all the incredible things about this city, which we love so much. The experience of being not only traveling and working, but working to produce something related to the place that for thirteen days, was our home, was very enriching.
And as I always say, never travel without travel insurance, because either the destination country demands it or not, it is an enormous tranquility for you.
PostScript 1: If you want to help us to continue with this project, please share it!
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PostScript 2: how do we continue?
If you want to read what happened at the next episode of our trip, you can click on the photo below…