“Look, here it is, Colombia, Colombia!”
We were in the Colombia of Morocco, apparently.
Our driver turned to show us his toothy grin and the car swerved to the edge of a lush, green marijuana plantation – just to prove the point. We managed to avoid squashing any plants, before continuing our trek through the Rif Mountains, towards Tangier.
The ‘Kif in the Rif’, is one of the largest economic activities in the region, due to the ideal altitude and growing climate for marijuana. The Rif Mountains are also home to Jews, Berbers, Andalusians, ancient villages, rare and protected species like native Barbary Macaques and scented cedar forests.
However, the first time you drive through the area, it’s hard to notice anything but the astounding size of the plantations on the trip to Tangier’s port. We tried, without much success, to question our driver on the logistics; especially as he was so enthusiastic about it. Instead, he pulled over at a roadside shack with the usual display of dusty Coke cans and Marlboro Lights on a wooden plank.
“You want snuffy?” he asked.
We started to laugh, somewhat because the word, ‘snuffy’ is really funny and somewhat out of nerves for what he meant.
“I show you.”
He bought some ‘snuffy’ – unidentified brown powder in a zip-top plastic bag – and proceeded to ‘snuff’ it. If we weren’t so intrigued, though we graciously declined to partake, we may have been concerned about his ability to get us to our destination. As it happened, he was perfectly fine, though decidedly more animated than before.
I still don’t know exactly what the ‘snuffy’ was. Some swear it’s just tobacco, others say it’s mixed with magical Berber herbs and when we heard that, we immediately regretted not trying any.
Before long he became very excited about showing us ‘Shou-wen’, which we eventually discovered was the nickname for Morocco’s Chefchaouen. Anxious to make the ferry to Spain before nightfall, we politely refused his offer.
“For free, I take you for free! Beautiful, beautiful town. Best town in Morocco.”
Oh, well if that’s the case…
Morocco’s Chefchaouen: An Ocean-Coloured Haven for Bohemian Travellers
So, we diverted to Chefchaouen. The town tumbles down the edge of an arid mountain landscape, stone houses shining blue and white in the sun. It’s the Spanish influence of the exiled Moors that’s most striking on arrival, so, if you go, keep your eyes on the architecture rather than the tour groups crowding the scene; they’re surprisingly easy to escape.
A maze of cobalt to sky blue to aquamarine alleyways weave through bougainvillea-lined arches, leading to shops and restaurants. The smells of mint tea, kif and tagines waft from rooftop cafes and sleepy cats curl into ceramic pots. It’s literally like walking through a dry ocean, if one could do such a thing, and the spiritual overtones are evident in the vibe created by the colours; which is perhaps the point.
Women swathed in red and white Berber skirts with straw hats deliver bread around town, kids play ball games among the legs of strolling couples and local taxi drivers, chefs and labourers smoke and chat against blue-rinsed walls.
The Medina makes for a relaxing shopping experience, in comparison to Fez and Marrakech, with leather goods, hand-made knitted hats, rugs, lanterns, teapots and all the typical Moroccan souvenirs you can possibly cram into your suitcase. At the end of a long trek up and down the narrow streets, the town square, Plaza Uta el-Hammam, provides a shady haven for a seat, served with a dose of lazy people watching. It’s a travelling bohemian’s dream spot, with views of the Grand Mosque and friendly locals doing the same thing as tourists, which is just chilling out.
We could smell lemon chicken and saffron tagines, so we demolished two, followed by pastry layered with custard and fragrant, orange-almond sauce.
Sitting nearby, a man with a mane of dreadlocks sketched a woman in a wide-brimmed, floppy hat. Four local men sat in a perfect circle, puffing on intricately patterned shisha pipes and the smell of apple tobacco mixed with our decadent desserts.
We were approached by a local trekking guide, offering trips to the limestone rocks at Sfiha Telj and Ain Tissimlane spring. He mentioned we might see wild boar and talked a lot about a natural arc called ‘God’s Bridge’, wildflowers and views of the Mediterranean. Trekking in the Rif Mountains is both easy and rewarding, with options to go for the day or camp for a few nights among the cedar trees.
He also offered to show us all the unique guesthouses, invited us to dinner with his friends at one of the town’s best restaurants and said we could check out his house to see how the locals live. Naturally, he was trying to sell us something, but the effort he put into the sales pitch and the friendliness with which he delivered it, was delightful all the same.
By this time though, I was nearly crying in my pastry. In all of my travels, the places I find spontaneously are nearly always the ones I never want to leave. Looking around, I realised many of the people lounging in the square were foreign to Morocco. Not tourists, but long-term travellers, content to stay still in the contradictory atmosphere of peace and busy local life.
Morocco’s Chefchaouen is that kind of place.