Moroccan and rollin': Chefchaouen and the Rif

December 20th 2007
Published: December 31st 2007
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Chefchaouen, MoroccoChefchaouen, MoroccoChefchaouen, Morocco

The famous "blue town" of Morocco's Rif mountains looks like any other whitewashed town from a distance.
Chefchaouen (translated: "look at the peaks") is an extremely picturesque Berber mountain town perched on the western flanks of a 1800m peak (the same one whose eastern visage taunted us all the way up on the climb from Oeud Laou.) It represents the first gateway into the Rif Mountains as the highway heads south from Tetuan along the spine of the range into the heart of kif country. Kif, a comestible halfway between pot and hash, is ubiquitously cultivated by Berber peasants all across the Rif, and tacitly tolerated by the authorities as long as it doesn't show up in trafficable quantities.

Chefchaouen has pretty well integrated itself into the tourist and expat culture, being a standard stop for kif-smoking backpackers, artists and rich Europeans who have bought and renovated many of the old houses in the medina, causing a spike in real estate prices in the last 10 years. Chefchaouen is famous as the "blue town" of Morocco; its bluish whitewashed walls, a legacy of the medieval influx of Jewish immigrants escaping the Spanish Inquisition, are the subject of thousands of paintings, travel posters and tourist snapshots (of which we naturally had to make our own modest collection.) Chefchaouen
The blue streets of ChefchaouenThe blue streets of ChefchaouenThe blue streets of Chefchaouen

The narrow alleyways that serve as streets in Chefchaouen are full of all kinds of life. (Photo edit courtesy S. Gibbens)
is also on the edge of a Moroccan national park, and is a popular jumping-off point for tourist trekking expeditions through the Rif. This international orientation has smoothed off many of the rough edges in Chefchaouen and made it a comfortable place for us to hang out for a few days.

We chose the largely empty Hotel Madrid, outside the medina, as our base of operations; the rooftop terrace was handy for doing laundry and having a beer at sunset. The staff at the Madrid was cheerful and accomodating - not least when we discovered a half inch of water in our 3rd floor room at 4 in the morning due to a neighboring room's burst shower connection. Everybody just pitched in with the brooms and mops until the deluge was swept downstairs to drain out who-knows-where.

While we were in Chefchaouen we didn't spend ALL our time hanging out in cafes, but also did some nice walks around the local countryside, including a 1000m climb up to the pass below Jebba el Kabaa, the peak dominating the skyline above Chefchaouen. From this saddle point we were able to see the Mediteranean nearly 5000 ft below us and
A day hike in the RifA day hike in the RifA day hike in the Rif

The route to Jebba el Kabaa above Chefchaouen climbs 1000m past Berber villages and kif fields.
get a glimpse of Oued Laou again through the binoculars. On our walk along the steep doubletrack we were passed by a few Land Rovers with government foresters on their way to nearby villages, and by groups of shepherds and their dogs tending goat herds or gathering fodder from the higher elevations to bring back down to their flocks. We also passed many terraced fields devoted to kif cultivation; while bare at this time of year, the dead cannabis stalks were still quite obvious and here and there we could see (and smell) little green marijuana seedlings sprouting, out of season, above the rocky soil.

We finished the descent off the mountain just at sunset, and treated ourselves to a couple (OK, 4) beers at the fancy and very accomodating Hotel Andalusia that looms on the crest of the hill above town. Finding beer in Morocco has been challenging; while not too tough in tourist-oriented establishments like the Andalusia, very few of the ordinary cafes sell it (perhaps 2 in Chefchaouen), and when they do it's always with a distinct under-the-table sense of illicitness. (That illicitness explains the ubiquitous presence of broken green glass along Moroccan roadsides; no one wants to come home with those incriminating empty Heineken bottles.) The known beer bars in Chefchaouen wouldn't sell to Kate, and sometimes they even told ME they were "all out"; in those cases we'd send in Abdul, our neighborhood beer fixer, who always picked up a couple of bottles for himself as well.

After a few days of chilling in Chefchaouen we packed up the bikes and headed west on our way out to the Atlantic coast; we'd targeted the towns of Larache, or perhaps Asilah, another 40km farther up, as the northernmost extent of our trip along the Moroccan coastline. Our first day out of Chefchaouen was downhill and rolling but still pretty exhausting as we competed with the busy traffic for space on the narrow highway. Alot of the country we passed through is cultivated in olives; while not on the mega-scale of the Spanish olive industry - here in the Rif foothills the trees are planted in patchy orchards instead of Spain's topography-defying geometric grids - it was the first time we could actually SMELL olives as we passed by the donkey-driven oil-pressing operations and their mountains of spent olive mash.

Our destination of Ouezzane didn't earn very high marks from the Lonely Planet, but they totally missed the Motel Rif, just a few klicks out of town, where we got a fabulous room for just 200dh and had a pretty decent dinner as well. Our next day's ride to was a bit longer than we thought we could manage, so once in Ouezzane we piled our bikes into the back of a "grand taxi" (these Mercedes sedans are standard for intercity transport) and headed off to Ksar el Kebir, where we discovered they wouldn't accept our bikes on the train to Asilah. So instead we cycled to the city of Larache, where we caught our first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean and checked into the cheap and very comfortable Hotel Espana overlooking Larache's main plaza and with a just a peek of the ocean from our 3rd floor balcony.


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Crushing olives for oil, Ouezzane, MoroccoCrushing olives for oil, Ouezzane, Morocco
Crushing olives for oil, Ouezzane, Morocco

The process of crushing olives in a donkey-driven stone mill hasn't changed for centuries
Women painting a house, ChefchaouenWomen painting a house, Chefchaouen
Women painting a house, Chefchaouen

Everywhere around Chefchaouen you see people applying fresh paint or whitewash

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