Morocco’s Land of Lawlessness
“Look, here it is, Columbia, Columbia!”
The Columbia of Morocco, apparently.
Our driver turned to look at us in the back seat and the car swerved towards the edge of the road towards lush, green marijuana plantations. Mercifully straightening up just in time, we managed to continue our trek through the Rif Mountains towards Tangier, in Northern Morocco.
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 home to Jews, Berbers, Andalusians, ancient villages, rare and protected species like the 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 the region. Unable to verbally describe what he needed to, he pulled over at a roadside shack with the usual display of dusty cans of Coke and Marlboro Lights lined across a wooden plank.
“You want snuffy?” he asked.
We started to laugh, somewhat because the word, ‘snuffy’, is funny and somewhat out of nerves for what he could mean.
“I show you.”
He bought some ‘snuffy’ – black 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, albeit a little happier than before. I still don’t know exactly what the ‘snuffy’ was.
Before long he became very excited about showing us ‘Shou-wen’, which we eventually discovered was the nickname for the town, Chefchaouen. Anxious to make the ferry to Spain before nightfall in order to find accommodation, 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…
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 as you enter the town, so, if you go, keep your eye on the architecture rather than the tour groups huddled there; they’re easy to escape.
A maze of of cobalt to sky blue to aquamarine alleyways weave through bougainvillea-lined arches, leading to shops and restaurants. The smell of mint tea, kif and tagines wafts from rooftop cafes and sleepy stray cats curl into ceramic pots. The doors are blue, the cobblestones are blue, the roofs are blue, the shutters are blue. It’s literally like walking through a dry ocean, if one could do such a thing, and the spiritual overtones are evident simply in the vibe created by so much blue; which is perhaps the point.
Traditional community life abounds with women wearing red and white Berber skirts and straw hats as they deliver bread around town. Kids play ball games among the legs of strolling couples and local taxi drivers, chefs and labourers lean against blue-rinsed walls, chatting and smoking.
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 hilly streets, the town square, Plaza Uta el-Hammam, provides a shady haven for a seat served up with a dose of lazy people watching.
It’s literally a traveling bohemian’s dream, with views of the Grand Mosque and friendly locals doing the same thing as tourists – chilling out. We could smell lemon chicken and saffron tagines, so we demolished two, followed by pastry layered with custard and orange flavored almond sauce.
Sitting nearby, a man with a mane of dreadlocks sketched a woman in a wide-brimmed, floppy maroon 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 touted to be 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. Yes, he was trying to sell us something, but the effort he put in to his sales pitch and the friendliness with which he delivered it was sincere. Throughout Morocco, we found this sincerity among the locals, no matter the topic of conversation.
By this time, 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 realized some of the people lounging in the square were perhaps foreign to Morocco. Not tourists, but long- term travellers, content for the moment to stay still in the contradictory atmosphere of peace and busy local life. It’s that kind of place.
As we reluctantly did leave Chefchaouen to continue the mere 120km to Tangier, we had to agree with our driver. The town does have a special kind of magic, with its blend of cool, otherworldly beauty, long upheld traditions and the infamous, openly flaunted drug trade.
Chefchaouen is a destination worth diverting for, if you get the chance. As for the ‘lawlessness’, the danger in it disappears in a wash of blue. Despite the overt evidence of its most profitable economic activity, the overall feel is that of laid-back beach town; so as long as you avoid the ‘snuffy’, you can visit the ‘land of lawlessness’ and simply find yourself in a land of Moroccan bliss.