Chefchaouen, in the Rif Mountains of Morocco’s North, is a popular destination for visitors. Nestling in a valley beneath the “horns” of the mountains to which its name alludes (Ichawen means goat’s horns in the local Berber dialect), Chefchaouen is famous for the blue-painted houses in the steep and winding alleyways of the medina. This northern area of Morocco was once a Spanish Protectorate and there are many elements of Spanish culture and language still in evidence.
The city of Chefchaouen is well worth exploring for a day or two; the medina is attractive and small enough to navigate easily and you will find shops and artisans offering many local crafts. Near the river, you can see women washing laundry in the way they have for centuries, in their colorful striped aprons which are typical of the region.
However, if you have a little longer in the north of Morocco, the region around Chefchaouen is easily accessible and deserves some exploration. The city sits right on the border of the Talassemtane National Park. The park was designated in 1989 and covers some 145,000 hectares (358,000 acres). It is a great location for hiking and trekking and a number of routes are available for short half-day or day hikes as well as longer trekking and camping excursions. The park has a Mediterranean ecosystem including Rif Monkeys, native bird varieties and more than 239 plant species, many of which are endangered, such as the black pine, the Atlas cedar and the Elbow Tree (abbies marrocana), which grows only here in the whole of Africa.
A great day hike takes visitors to the Akchour Falls and/or the Bridge of God. The starting point is a short journey (around 40 minutes by car) outside Chefchaouen. From the same starting point at the small hydro-electric dam, paths run right and left. The easier hike is up to the right, to God’s Bridge, a steep cavern traversed by a wooden bridge with the river flowing far beneath it. The track is hilly but not too challenging and it takes less than one hour from the start to the bridge. In the tourist season, there are small cafes along the river bank offering cans of soda chilled in the river and tajines cooked on charcoal burners.
Either from the starting point, or from God’s Bridge (creating a large loop back to the start), the path to the stunning Akchour waterfalls – known as the Blue Pearl Falls – is more challenging, but very rewarding. To reach the falls from the starting point (or vice versa), it is necessary to cross the river several times. The ease of doing this depends on the season – after the spring snowmelts the river can be high and fast-flowing. A local guide can offer advice on the safest routes and times of year. Take a picnic with you from your hotel, or stop off on the way at one of the riverside cafes or roadside restaurants.
Another worthwhile excursion heads south out of Chefchaouen to Auberge Dardara. The Auberge is run by Jaber Elhababi, a charismatic Tanjoui (native of Tangiers), who has returned to his roots and the land of his forefathers to establish his business and social enterprise. The small complex features a restaurant, simple accommodation and a pool in summer. The trip is worth it for the restaurant alone, which uses local recipes and techniques and sources many of the ingredients from the Dardara market garden. A meal on the outside terrace with views of the surrounding Rif Mountains takes some beating!
If you feel like something more active, Dardara offers a number of activities such as local trekking in the Talassemtane National Park, cookery classes and mule riding. The emphasis is very much on sustainability and a respect for local communities and their traditions. Dardara also serves up daily three course lunches which and is noted for the best gastronomic farm-fresh cuisine in the region.
The city of Chefchaouen is a not-to-be-missed element of any tour of northern Morocco. However, a well-planned itinerary will also include time to get out of the city and into the stunning surrounding area of dramatic hills, wild rivers, rich agriculture and centuries of tradition.
Written by Lynn Sheppard
Lynn Sheppard has lived in Essaouira, on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast for more than 2 years, supporting local non-profits, writing and becoming an expert on all things Swiri (ie. Essaouiran). She blogs at Maroc-phile.com and for other travel industry clients.