The “Blue Pearl” is a Moroccan city made more famous in recent years by Instagram and travel bloggers. Images show tranquil, beautiful blue scenes and blogs suggest a bit of village mystery inside a city, with blue doorways in a maze of small streets and alleys. At first glance, Chefchaouen looks like a place that might challenge the intrepid traveler who is willing to go to this somewhat remote and unusual place in Northern Africa.
Chefchaouen (also spelled Chefchaouene, or called Chaouen) is really just a tad out of the way, and it’s not difficult to get to. Tourists make their way to this small city on a mountainside almost solely because of the famed blue walls, buildings, alleys, and stairways. Not every building is covered in blue paint, but the bases of most in the medina are. Looking at the old city from nearby hillsides, tan and white building tops are easily seen. But at eye-level and lower, blue pervades.
There are several theories out there on why this is, including: blue is the color of the sky and ocean, and therefore god; blue was the most available color; blue keeps mosquitoes away. Regardless of the original reason, today the color keeps tourists coming. And that – a massive influx of people – is kind of a problem.
Aging infrastructure challenge
All of the old town – or the medina – of Chefchaouen is built with narrow alleyways and its infrastructure is aging. It’s a mid-17th century city updated over the years, but the sewerage system leaves a most unpleasant smell at certain points. Since the city is built into a hillside, if a pipe gets backed up outside a building high on the hillside, or even halfway up, one way to clear that blockage is to open a manhole and literally flush it with a hose – running the water as long as it takes.
It took us a minute to put two and two together when we saw this happening, the smell a clear indicator of a big problem. In fact, most manhole covers we walked over smelled, regardless of any flushing attempt. While this issue is not limited to Chefchaouen – we noticed it in the medinas of Marrakesh and Fez, as well – it is a little more obvious in the blue city.
The continuous work needed on this infrastructure is a constant challenge to the building owners who try to keep everything as clean and functional as possible for the hordes of tourists that come through with cameras around their necks and phones in their hands. Without tourism, some people might find themselves in dire straits.
As with all areas we’ve seen so far that are saturated with tourism, there are good and bad points to foreign visitors. The most obvious good point is the money they bring for the local economy. The most obvious bad point is the mess they leave behind – not only by taxing the sewerage system but also the garbage on the streets.
More people: more photos and trash – and less privacy
Trash is a problem all over the earth. But it pained me to see tourists leaving garbage behind at Chefchaouen’s hot spots. Case in point: the famous blue stairway with colorful plant pots. This is a spot where tourists pose for pictures. If you’ve ever read anything about Chefchaouen, chances are you’ve seen a stock photo of this exact location. Our rental was literally around the corner from this spot. Nearly every day for a week whenever I passed, I saw trash left behind by tourists.
One evening after dinner, Tedly and a local man got into a back and forth about taking pictures. One of the man’s points, made in basic English: “cameras have ruined this.” More deeply, I believe he meant: the magic of experiencing reality is lost when people pose for a manufactured moment to show the rest of the world as their authentic instant in time, while reducing the privacy of local people (notice the woman over my shoulder in the picture above). And many of the visiting picture-posers are so self-centered and inconsiderate to the locals that they leave a mess behind.
I wish people were more considerate to their hosts around the city and cleaned up after themselves. I also wish visitors would take into consideration that most locals are not as well-off as the tourists they serve.
For heaven’s sake – please leave a tip!
For example, we tipped each of the staff at our bed and breakfast Airbnb 200 dirham – the equivalent of nearly $22 USD. The maid and cook was so happy that she kissed Tedly’s hand before he could stop her. And the waiter tried to give us a souvenir gift to take home. These people were kind to us, fed us, did our laundry, answered our questions. Based on their reactions, we doubt they are tipped often, and that’s a damn shame. (We had a great Airbnb place, by the way – and on any return, I would stay at the same place again.)
In fact, we saw several other people come and go in this small B&B during our week-long stay, and I know for a fact none tipped the staff. Jet-setters fly around the world to take pictures with their fancy phones and expensive cameras for social media accounts– and yet they don’t tip staff that clean their rooms, feed them, answer questions in a language that’s not their native tongue. This really bothered me.
A clean bathroom in a clean restaurant
The best, cleanest restaurant we visited in this city was Morisco, on the square by the kasbah. Overall, the food was better than good, but not quite excellent (although their vegetable tagine was excellent).
What made me return here four times in one week was the view from the third floor – and – most importantly: the bathroom. This must’ve been the cleanest public bathroom in all of Chefchaouen. It had soap, paper, a toilet, running water, and it was regularly cleaned.
We went to other restaurants where the bathroom situation was appalling – even though by now, I’ve become accustomed to less-than-clean facilities in different countries on a few continents. Maybe the overall public bathroom problem in Morocco over the course of a month had finally gotten to me, but there was one restaurant where I refused to eat the food after I used (or tried to use) their facilities.
Cats, cats, cats — and more cats
Cats are everywhere in Morocco – but especially Chefchaouen. Apparently, Muslims believe that every life brought into the world will somehow be provided for by God. Therefore, there’s no need for the procreation prevention of cats. That, and also, the locals don’t have a ton of money — there are other things they’d rather spend money on instead of sterilizing cats.
People leave fish heads, chicken heads and other animal parts they don’t eat or use out on the streets for the cats. Some restaurants have cats sitting all over the tables and chairs. Cats can be bold and will jump on your table while you are eating – or onto railing near your table.
I am allergic to cats, and I found myself a bit sniffly around town. I won’t even begin to wonder about the possible diseases they deposit. And the smell of cat spray is strong, and it’s nearly everywhere. (Don’t put your bag on the ground.)
It’s worth stressing: cats are everywhere in each part of the country we visited – Chefchaouen is not unique in overpopulation. However, it did appear more troublesome here.
If there would be one good thing about all of these cats, as Tedly pointed out, it’s that the felines probably keep the rat population under control.
Day trip outside the Blue City
When life in the medina feels claustrophobic and too settled, head out into the countryside. We took a day trip to the waterfalls at Akchour, and this was a much needed side-trip for me. It felt so good to get out of the city. We’d been in a city by this point for several weeks since our desert trip. Because we went in February, we had to wait a bit longer for a cab to head out. The cab has to fill up with people before it will go, unless you are willing to pay for all seats.
Trip Advisor has a ton of information about how to get there, and it’s a pretty straightforward batch of info that will be helpful to budget travelers.
Is the aging medina infrastructure, tourist trash, cat overpopulation, and less-than-clean-bathroom facilities at most restaurants deal breakers for a stay in Chefchaouen? Nope, not for me. Hopefully, also not for you.
Is Chefchaouen worth your time and effort for a visit? Hell yes. It’s a cool place to see, for sure. That said – for me, personally, a few days would have been enough. We were there for a week in February. (By the way – nightly temperatures were around freezing during our visit. Thankfully, Tedly made sure our Airbnb rental came with a heater before we booked it. Not many rentals have heaters, and I needed one every night.)
These imperfections may be different than what you are accustomed to, but that’s not a bad thing – these facts of life don’t have to be deal breakers for open-minded travelers. Just know going into this place that there’s more going on behind the scenes of those idyllic blue pictures than most travel bloggers reveal in glossy posts and Instagrammers show you in their manufactured moments.