Morocco’s blue-painted Chefchaouen is an Instagram darling—but not for Africans

Although Morocco has a plethora of incredible destinations like Marrakesh, Fes and Meknes, a tiny city in the North African nation is proving to be a beautiful alternative to the colourful bazaars, breathtaking palaces, and bustling town squares of more popular choices. Morocco, famous for its natural beauty, has largely remained unexplored by Africans themselves.

Africans make up less than 3 percent of the world’s passengers and one of the primary reasons for this is intra-region visa restrictions. According to the Africa Visa Openness Index, on an average, Africans need visas to enter 55 percent of states within the continent, resulting in travel to destinations such as Paris or Dubai over African cities which continue to be a draw for international tourists. 

The African Union (AU) has attempted to address this issue of free movement within the region for the last 30 years, introducing a common African passport in 2016 with a goal to distribute them to all citizens by 2020. The current reality, though, is that travelling within the region for Africans equates to visa formalities that are time consuming, cumbersome and expensive. Meanwhile, Americans can travel to at least 20 African countries without restrictions. Despite challenges however, a number of African millenials are exchanging the desire for accumulative lifestyles for a more conscious travel experience around the continent.

Basking in the warmth of the Red City. @tarabelmarrakech #rushhourkech

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Enter Chefchaouen, or Chaouen as it’s often called by the locals, the blue city of Morocco. It is famous for all the houses and shops painted a variety of calming shades of blue yet relative inaccessibility keeps Chefchaouen as one of Morocco’s best-kept secrets. Known as Morocco’s “blue pearl” or “blue city”, the buildings in Chefchaouen are painted using a talc or chalk-based paint that gives the city an enchanting feel.

The small, conservative, Berber city was founded in 1471 with the construction of its walled kasbah and fortress which served as defense against the Portuguese, located in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco. The city was infact closed to all the foreigners, especially Christians under the threat of death, until the beginning of the Spanish occupation in 1920. But with the proliferation of social media, its visibility is already commonplace on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest, and is only going to rise further.

The labyrinth of narrow blue alleyways dotted with spice, incense, flowers, and fresh oranges, and Chefchaouen’s ancient medina (old quarter) offers a thousand Instagram worthy opportunities, the souks brimming with undiscovered gems, artisans and craftspeople who sell a variety of wares, including the colourful flower pots which clash against blue walls.

Of Chefchaouen’s medina, it is often believed that Jewish refugees from Europe who lived there during the 1930s first painted Chefchaouen blue, some say to symbolize peace, safety and the power of heaven, others, as a mosquito repellent. 

The city of Chefchaouen, Morocco. Photo: Expertvagabond

After the WWII, most of the Jewish families left for Israel, but Moroccan Berbers continued the tradition of painting buildings blue. The town still keeps the tradition alive: Each year, the terracotta-tiled houses are washed with new coats of paint. The local government supplies special paint brushes to assist in efforts to keep Chefchaouen’s history alive. The tradition is also actually present in other places, such as Safed in Israel.

The easiest way to get to Chefchaouen from Marrakech in Morocco is an overnight train to Tangier. The journey takes approximately 10 hours. If you’re flying into Morocco just to see the blue city, you have two choices: Tangier Airport or Fez Airport. Travelers can drive or take a bus—the trip takes about two hours from Tangier and four from Fez. Also, guesthouses over hotels. A lot of them are over thousand years old and come with beautiful decor, history, and friendly talkative owners well versed in English, Spanish, Arabic, and French.

While there are many Instagrammable places in Chefchaouen, there’s a lot to learn from a people well steeped in mint tea, culture and tradition. Bring cash as there are very few ATMs. You may want to visit an old Spanish Mosque perched on a hilltop overlooking the blue city, built by the Spanish in the 1920’s or the Cascades d’Akchour, a pair of waterfalls nestled in the Rif Mountains about a 45-minute drive away. 

So far, the AU’s common African passport has only been issued for heads of state, foreign ministers, and other top-level officials. The hope is that even more countries follow suit as the African Union (AU) chases its ambitious goal of open travel and, by extension, open trade, across the continent. Ensuring smoother pan-African travel and increasing the ease with which Africans travel on the continent will also definitely come with significant upside in form of tourism earnings.