A watchtower in the old city wall above Chefchaouen at sunset

The Blue Pearl of Morocco, Chefchaouen

Ducking under the curved archway and walking into the alley felt like entering a cave. Cemented walls and stone walkways retain cool night air long into the afternoon. Instead of the dark brown and gray hues of most caves, this one is powder blue and seems to glow a bit in the filtered light. We emerge to the street awash in calming hues of blue. As evening approaches it feels like we are walking into a fairy tale. This is Chefchaouen, the blue pearl of Morocco.

The blue alley outside our house. A kitten sits in the corner.
The street leading to our apartment in Chefchaouen.

Blue-colored slacked lime covers the walls and streets of the twisting maze of alleys. Each arched door is unique, detailed with tiny flowers, studded metal decorations, or just solid blue. I must have hundreds of pictures of blue doors at this point.

Having visited Juzcar, the blue smurf town of Spain, we wondered if this would be similar. It is not. The faded peeling paint of Juzcar with broken Smurf statues and cartoon paintings is not even in the same league as the allure of this medina.

“It’s like the bottom of a pool!” we heard one visitor exclaim. Locals are often seen sweeping the streets and sidewalks here, as in much of Morocco, keeping them free of debris. Here where they are all painted blue it does feel like walking inside a pool at times.

Homes are mopped seemingly daily in Moroccan fashion. Soapy or chlorinated water is splashed onto the tile floors. The floor is then scrubbed with a hard-bristled push broom. Lastly, a large squeegee is used to dry the floor by pushing all that soapy water and all the dirt that goes with it directly out the door and onto the street. On the street, the cleaning is sometimes continued by brushing the area around the home and pushing the cleaning solutions toward the drains in the street.

Local on his phone standing on the steps of a street in Chefchaouen the blue pearl

Brief History

The city of Chefchaouen located in the Rif Mountains was founded in 1471. It started as a kasbah to defend against the invading Portuguese. The ensuing city was populated by Moors, Jews, and Spanish who fled Andalucia during the reconquest along with the indigenous.

According to Wikipedia painting the city blue started in the 20th century. Other sources indicate that blue paint has been used for centuries. Maybe it just became more prevalent in the 20th century.

The Jewish population was known to paint their homes blue, the color of the sky, to point people to God and heaven. Muslims view blue as the color of calm and peace like the sea nearby. Still, others say it is simply used to deter mosquitoes. One source said it was mandated to attract tourism.

Maybe there are bits of truth in all the origins, but today it is a tourist attraction. No matter when it started the blue reflects the colors of the Mediterranean Sea and the sky and there is a feeling of calm and peace when the city rests.

Trin walking down an alley in Chefchaouen
Exploring the blue streets and alleyways of Chefchaouen.
Cat and dog resting together on the street of Chefchaouen.

The Grand Taxi: Routes with no Schedule

Public transportation in Morocco has been quite good and the fares are cheap. One of our primary modes of transportation has been the Grand Taxi. It is a small van that provides transportation between towns and cities. Routes are well established but there are no scheduled times of departure.

Upon arriving at a grand taxi stand we make our destination known, then we wait for four other passengers going that way. Each van holds six passengers. If one is truly in a hurry you can pay for the empty seats to leave immediately. The driver might still pick up other passengers along the way – that doesn’t mean you get a refund.

Archway in an alley of Chefchaouen

Climbing to the Medina in Chefchaouen

The Grand Taxi into Chefchaouen terminates in the valley below the medina (old town). Our accommodation was located 1.7 kilometers uphill from there. There’s a section along the way that is not just an incline, it’s a 45° climb straight up. Okay, I didn’t measure it, nor could I find the measurement online, but it looked and felt like 45°.

We hefted our packs onto our backs and began the slow tread upwards. Soon we reached the city gate and then wound our way through the souk eventually navigating the narrow alleys to find the door to our place. Our front door was blue by the way.

“Trinity?” The seller of carpets nearby inquired. We turned and nodded our heads.

“I was looking for you. Follow me, your apartment is this way.”

Next, we climbed a narrow flight of stairs up to our apartment. Our space was probably no more than 250 square feet but it had a kitchen shower and bathroom and it looked out over blue alleys. It was perfect for our week-long stay in the Medina. Or so we thought, it was perfect till 3:45 AM the next morning.

Trin wearing his djellaba as he walks down a blue Chefchaouen street in the evening
Chefchaouen in the evening

Smokin’ Prayers and Sleep

“Prayer is more important than sleep,” is one of the lines in Arabic blasted over loudspeakers at 4 AM all over Morocco. In some towns, we slept through it. Often it would wake us up but lasted only a few minutes and we could get back to sleep quickly.

In Chaouen (as the locals call it), the minaret next to our building went off at 3:45 AM. It felt unbelievably long so I timed it on our second night. The yell to pray was 45 minutes! It is like a siren that wants to ensure everyone in the vicinity is fully awake for its entire duration. By the time the torture was done, we were angrily tossing and turning with thoughts of malice coursing through us. Probably not the desired result of asking people to pray.

Later in the week, the loudspeaker prayer was a bit shorter, thankfully.

Maybe that is why we encountered more irritable shop owners in Chefchaouen than in any other town. While it is still a minority it was enough to make shopping not quite as fun.

Or maybe it was the hashish smokin’ pushers. The kif dealers were the ones who harassed us the most and were often very rude especially when we told them we did not want to buy hashish no, not even at a very good deal.

Powdered color pigments for sale
Pigments of Chefchaouen
Colorful soaps for sale in Chefchaouen. The blue street can be seen behind the shelve of soap.
Soaps for sale in Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen in the Rain

We spent a week in Chefchaouen, long enough to experience rain in this pearl. As expected the blue of the city turned a darker hue. The walls of light powder lost their soft cotton finish and made reflections with their sheen of running water.

Thankfully I still had my rain shell that we purchased for Scotland. It protected me from getting drenched. Well, at least from head to thigh. Where the rain shell ended halfway above my knee the water poured and drenched my legs and shoes. Still, it wasn’t a frigid day and water dries, all was well.

Most of the shops were closed and none of them hung their wares along the walls as they do on a normal dry day. The dogs huddled under overhangs protected from the rain but looked up as I passed in pleading misery. The cats sat around prim and proper but a little worse for the wear with looks of disgust.

Art shop in the Chefchaouen medina

Crazy tourist in the rain

As I approached the gate on the far side of the medina the skies opened up their fury turning the fine steady rain into what felt like a waterfall above me. The few locals that were out crowded under awnings and in doorways. Water ran down the center of the alley like a brook bubbling over the cobblestones. The walkways were slippery and every street is an incline.

I giggled at what the locals must think of me strolling along happy as a clam as if it were a dry sunny day. What other choice did I have, might as well enjoy. Days like this were one of the reasons I upgraded my phone a few years ago to a water-resistant model. I can still take pictures in the rain without worrying about destroying the phone.

Trin and a goat staring at each other on a trail above Chefchaouen
A goat showing Trin how to climb the rocks, then looking back to make sure he got it.
The blue Medina of Chefchaouen resting on the base of the mountains
The “horned” mountains behind Chefchaouen

Wandering the Medina

Even after a few days of wandering around the medina, we were still finding new corners that we somehow missed.

The Chefchaouen Medina in the morning is almost a different place than it is in the evening. The city sleeps till mid-morning and then begins to decorate the walls with their wares anew each afternoon. Even at 9 AM as I wandered around, the streets were empty and the blue walls were bare. In the afternoon color is added as carpets, hats, leather bags, and spices are displayed on the walls and makeshift shelves along each street. It adds a whole different life to the medina, just as beautiful as the solid peaceful blue of the morning.

The old city wall still stands as a backdrop between the medina and the towering horn of mountains above it. The word Chefchaouen translated from Tamazigh means, ‘look at the horns’ referring to the mountain peeks on either side of the city.

Wares for sale hanging on blue walls

Hiking near Chefchaouen

We hiked up to the city gate where the river cascades from the mountain (more like a trickle this time of year) and continued out the gate on a small mountain trail. This footpath follows along the edge of the steep mountain and leads to the saddle high above Chefcheouen. There are beautiful views of the valley all along the path.

A shepherd and his herd of goats wandered past us going in the opposite direction. Along one especially narrow spot, a few of the goats stepped aside and watched me as I passed. Then they continued on their way, how polite.

A few homes cling to the mountainside with a dog or two resting lazily outside each home. Halfway up the mountain, we found a small cave to enjoy the shade while eating an orange (they seem especially good here) and studying the landscape.

The cliffside trail we followed meets up with a narrow mountain road in the saddle between the two mountains. Here, a small farm takes advantage of the sway-backed, shallow valley. Two yoked horses were pulling a plow across the narrow field. Another horse grazed lazily by cinderblock home at the edge of the field.

We followed the small dirt road back down the mountain to Chefchaouen stopping often to take more pictures of the spectacular view of the valley. Once we arrived on the outskirts of the city gate the hashish dealers greeted us all so friendly, but quickly turned mean when we declined their offers to sell us weed.

Trin jumping into the river in the Talassemtane National Park
Talassemtane National Park
Trin swimming in the clear water of the river in Talassemtane National Park

Talassemtane National Park

Southeast of Chefchaouen is the Talassemtane National Park. It is a biodiverse area with streams of crystal-clear water.

There are multiple route options for trails but the two primary sites to see are the Bridge of God and the Akchour waterfalls.

The water was so beautiful Trin just had to jump in. He swam a few yards and then hurried over to the shore clambering to get out already numb from the frigid water.

Trin on a rock in the river just below the waterfall in Talassemtane National Park
Waterfall in Talassemtane National Park
The bridge of the gods, a natural rock bridge high above the clear river water in Talassemtane National Park
Bridge of God

Cafes and restaurants line the main trails within the park. Many of them have plastic chairs near or even in the water so one can enjoy the views while immersing your feet and sipping tea or enjoying a tagine.

One of the reasons many people hike is to immerse in nature and get away from shopping, somehow the setup here still has just enough integration with the natural environment to make it not too annoying. Then again, many of the places were closed, either because of the season or because it was not a weekend. Either way, there was a lot of modification to the natural valley to fit in the plastic chairs and little kitchens to make food.

It is tipping its way toward an amusement park but still a wonderful hike. It is not as bad as Siquijor, which has shanties built directly on every beautiful view, but it is inching that way. I still highly recommend the hike. It’s a great day trip from Chefchaouen.

Dog sleeping in front of a blue door in Chefchaouen
Find your blue door

4 thoughts on “The Blue Pearl of Morocco, Chefchaouen”

  1. Thank for sharing your travels, I always enjoy seeing your pictures. I might add your story and writing this time have a sense of melancholy to them. Also, how did you make the apartment reservation?

    1. Hi Lisa, Thank you, we are enjoying Morocco. The apartment reservation was made through Airbnb. We search for “whole house” to find the private fully furnished places.

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