To get to Chefchaouen, I was told by a hostelmate in Tangier to go to the bus station and start yelling “CHEFCHAOUEN!” It felt strange, but everything in Morocco was a massive culture shock. I followed his instructions, and I was immediately ushered by a line of grand taxi drivers to the proper car, where five other passengers were waiting for me to share their transportation costs. I threw my bag in the trunk and we were on our way to the blue city.
There are three main reasons that people go to Chefchaouen: picturesque blue architecture, the towering Rif mountain range, and locally grown hashish. Not being a consumer of option three, I spent my first full day exploring option one and my second full day hiking option two.
I walked out of my hostel the morning after I arrived and began to wander around the medina. It was a maze of painted alleyways like the one below, sometimes adorned with tiled fountains or intricate rustic doors. I stopped in shops and observed the various items for sale, ranging from modest spices to hand woven Berber rugs. Shops also sold various types of bakhoor, a type of incense burner which spilled earthy scents out into the tiny streets.
Back at the hostel, I asked one of the workers about hiking options. She told me that I could walk just outside the gate of the medina to find Ras el Maa, a small waterfall where villagers come to wash their clothes. Then, to the left would be a path into the Rif Mountains. I found this fantastic guide to climbing the highest mountain, Jebel El-Kelaa, and decided to set out on my own the next morning.
I packed a few liters of water and some cookies and walked to Ras El-Maa, where I picked up a few rocks as I was told they may be needed to defend myself against wild dogs. The guide said the entire hike could take six to nine hours, so I planned to hike until I was in danger of running out of water.
On the first leg of the hike, the trail would often disappear, but I made it to the second checkpoint by sticking to the instructions: stay right and not left, go and up not down. After a mile or two of a thin and disheveled path on a steep mountainside, I reached a dirt road that would take me a few miles up the mountain. As I approached a bend, I saw an animal. I paced forward and gripped the stones I had picked up as weapons in case it was a wild dog.
A man appeared, and as I got closer, I found that the animal was in fact a goat. Turning the bend, I saw that it was one of at least two hundred goats that were being shepherded up the mountain. I asked if I could walk through, to which I received a “go ahead” gesture. I continued up the road through a sea of goats.
Passing the herd, the barnyard scent slowly faded into a more herbal aroma. I remembered another hostelmate mentioning that the mountains were home to marijuana farms, the owners of which are easy-going and accustomed to tourists. I saw some small structures with gated plots, but most of them seemed to already have harvested whatever crop was once there. As I gained altitude, more greenery appeared, and I finally spotted a thriving marijuana farm, complete with recent harvests sun-drying on a roof. After the first, the farms popped up everywhere, and wild marijuana plants even grew right on the hiking trail.
As I followed what I thought was the trail, I came upon a house with a few teenagers walking in and out, seemingly doing some chores. One of them yelled something at me, so I turned around and asked whether I could walk this way. They didn’t understand, but clarified their own objectives: “hashish?? hashish??”. I politely declined, and asked again whether I could hike past their house. They said, “it’s good” as I pointed in the direction I was going and took a step forward, so I ventured on.
Until I hit a cow. I froze when she appeared about fifteen feet in front of me after turning a corner, but having almost reached the summit, I was not about to turn back because of a cow. I inched forward to test whether I could squeeze past her. Just as I caught a glimpse of the marijuana farm she was guarding, she charged. I darted backwards and climbed up an incline where I could not be followed. I was forced to climb upward and blaze my own trail.
Ten minutes later, I reached a saddle point where I could look down into two colossal valleys. I was tired, and had only a third of my water left, but I could see the summit. I pulled aside dried bushes and hoisted myself up steep footholds. After three and a half hours, I reached the plateau’d peak of Jebel El-Kelaa. The hazy view across miles and miles of the Rif mountain range and dead quietude made for nothing short of a spiritual moment.
Worried about the light and my water supply, I had to get moving down the mountain quickly. I could hardly control my momentum as I trudged downward and often fell into an involuntary jog. One of the boys from the house I passed on the way up was tending to a well as I came down. I used one of the only Spanish words I know, “agua”, to which he happily filled my water bottle for me. I reached Ras El-Maa about two hours later, and hobbled back to my hostel. I would realize later that the prior month and a half of overstimulating experiences and interactions provoked my escape into the mountains. After exploring the urban landscape of a dozen foreign cities, it was crucial to step back into the wild.