Essaouira

“An investment in travel is an investment in yourself.” – Matthew Karsten


Essaouira is one of those places that makes you question, “why haven’t I heard about this place before”? Or maybe you have. For me, I came across Essaouria from researching popular beach spots in Morocco and ideally a place to relax and escape the heat of the Sahara. Voila!

Essaouria is a stunning beachside city on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. It’s managed to keep its charm despite the large influx of tourists. It’s beautiful historic fort was built back in the 18th century and interestingly enough catered to a diverse range of religions including Muslims, Christians and Jews. I think this is a part of its charm – a church, next to a mosque, behind a synagogue. Not sure how many places in the world you can find that.

Because its such a popular tourist spot now, getting there is quite easy. I arrived on a bus with a tour group from the Sahara desert (a whole other story!), however from Marrakech you have a variety of options. Click here for regularly updated details from Wikitravel.

Hidden entrance to the oldest church in the city

Hidden entrance to the oldest church in the city

Where to stay?

Although on a backpacking trip, there are times when you need a break from hostel accommodation and get comfy nights sleep. I stayed at Riad Chakir Mogador. It is perfectly located within the old town with a very short walk to the beach. Beds were comfy and the bathrooms were all antique and quirky. There are many hostels around though so check out hostelworld.

TIP: Many sweets here are disguised as ‘space cakes’ and locals will try and tell you that it is legal to consume small amounts. Do not listen to them and watch out as there are undercover police.

FUN FACT: Game of Thrones had numerous scenes filmed here from Season 2.

3 TOP ESSAOURIA EXPERIENCES

1.  F O O D

Essaouria can cater for fine dining all the way down to a backpacker budget. I was lucky enough to try both ends of the spectrum.

1. Elizir – I had heard about this place from Tripadvisor actually. It had some strange reviews like “not what we expected but had an amazing time” and “loved the quirky setting” so I needed to try this for myself. Ultimately, the restaurant is a converted residential mansion in the main street. Each table is privately placed within alcoves, balconies or small lounge rooms with fire places. It actually feels like you are sitting in someones living room. It has a very exotic yet homey feel. We went in a group of 8 so managed to order a wide range of dishes and share (which is always my preferred dining option) My favourite dishes were the tagines. We had both the lamb and apricot as well as the chicken and fig. It was incredible. If your hungry – get the mint gnocchi!

For a local experience head to Le Sirocco or Tara Cafe for its famous traditional pastilla!

2.  H O R S E  R I D I N G  O N  T H E  B E A C H

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Galloping on the beach

horseWe had stumbled across a man with a sign advertising horse riding. It was a very spontaneous decision but for only 150MAD – we couldn’t pass it up! We got picked up from our hotel early one morning and was driven there. We honestly had no idea where we were going because the beach was literally 100m away. Why did we need to get into a car? But the driver didn’t speak English. We decided to go with the flow. After a 10 minute drive, we made it to a very quiet area of the beach. We were put straight onto a horse. There was no questions such as “have you ever ridden before?” or “do you know how to ride a horse?” or even “welcome”. Bang! It started. We were expected to be able to ride the horses immediately which we found hilarious. At home, the OH&S introduction would take up half the riding time! But anyway, one man on another horse started trotting away through a parkland and we kicked the horses to follow.

My horse was really disobedient. He kept breaking into a trot when I just wanted to walk so I had to keep pulling the reigns back. We soon got the hang of it and really started to enjoy it. Then we reached the beach. It was breathtaking. It was a sandy, white stretch of deserted beach and he turned to me and said “OK Gallop now hold on”. Ahhhhh no I don’t think I am ready to gallop. No choice. The horse broke into a high speed gallop down to the shore line before I could even answer him. The man had my camera so galloped along beside me taking pictures. He made it look really easy and I was gripping the horse for dear life. He stopped me and told me to relax. The horse was GALLOPING I couldn’t relax or else I would fall off but he gave me some really good advice about how to lean and where to hold and before i knew it – the horse broke into a run again and it was EASY! I was LOVING it! It was one of the best experiences I had in Morocco. We could ride the horses around wherever we wanted to go. The guide didn’t even care. The freedom was amazing.

3.  L E A R N  A B O U T  A R G A N  O I L  P R O D U C T I O N 

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A local Berber woman grounding argan seeds

Argan oil has been a key component in Moroccan traditional medicine for centuries. Today there is great exploitation of the argan forests because of the cosmetic values of argan oil. It has also become very expensive. You need 40 kg of raw fruits to extract 1 kg of oil and it takes about 8 hours of manual work, mostly by women. It is now in huge demand by global cosmetic companies so there are literally thousands of women working in cooperatives across the country. Although it’s hard work, it has empowered women and created many many jobs. By visiting a cooperative producing oil, you are supporting these women. They produce there own products too and the profits benefit them directly rather than large global giants.

I visited a factory in the nearby town of Agadir which is about 20km south of Essaouria. We were taken through the process by an English speaking guide. She explained how the oil is extracted and we saw women first hand undertaking each step. She explained some of the benefits of argan oil and why is has become so popular. Some of the benefits are listed below:

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  • Anticarcinogenic
  • Lowers high blood pressure
  • Reduces “bad” cholesterol levels
  • Improves Rheumatic and joint pain
  • Stimulates brain capability
  • Facilitates digestion
  • Strengthens hair and nails
  • Moisturizes and stimulates skin regeneration and oxygenation
  • Provides elasticity to skin
  • Anti wrinkle properties
  • Promotes cell renewal
  • Healing qualities for scars
  • Treats skin conditions such as: acne, eczema, pregnancy stretch-marks, burns, psoriasis, and chicken pox
  • Neutralizes free radicals

At the end of the tour we were shown to their local shop where they mix the oils with other herbs and creams to create their own line of products. I bought a beautiful skin cream (probably the same ingredients as an expensive Estee Lauder) for a very cheap price. (For the record the cream was amazing!!) Definitely worth a visit. Many tour companies organise trips there or you can simply grab a taxi to the nearest one and walk through for free.

TIP: On your way, keep your eyes out for goats climbing argan trees! They enjoy eating the berries at the top and its amazing watch!

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Goats climbing argan trees!

Chefchaouen – The Blue City

“We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us” – anon


I had heard about Chefchaouen from a guy at my local cafe at home in Sydney. It had been described as “picturesque” and despite being difficult to get to, it was quickly growing as a number one destination in Morocco. I wanted to see it.

Coming from Spain, my friend Laura and I decided the cheapest way would be to enter the country by ferry from Tarifa (Southern tip of Spain) costing us 35 euros. This was surprising actually, considering the trip was only 30 minutes to the closest port – Tangier. Be aware that Tangier (on Moroccan maps) and Tanger (on your ferry ticket) are in fact the same location. Don’t fret! It is simply the Spanish spelling variation. The ferries are really comfortable – you can even sit at a cafe on deck and observe the boat slowly move between continents. Although relaxing, I would recommend using this time to approach the customs and immigration desks and get your passport and visa sorted. We were too busy chatting and didn’t realise we had to do this until we filed off the boat and had to get back on through the crowds to do so (argh!)

TIP: Get your passport stamped and visa obtained on the ferry BEFORE getting off. 

Once off the boat, we had zero plans. We knew Chefchaouen was 120km away but read it was difficult to organise transport prior to arriving so decided to wing it. We didn’t even make it off the ferry wharf before being bombarded by taxi drivers fighting for our business. Many of them offered a direct lift to Chefchaouen city. Great! We had met 2 Canadians on the ferry who also had no plans – in fact, they knew nothing about Morocco and decided that tagging along with us to visit the Blue City sounded very appealing. We now had a full taxi and started negotiating prices. It got very hairy, very quickly! They were angry – all of them. They were shouting at us, pulling our bags into their taxi trunks and forcing us into their cars. I soon realised we had come to Morocco at the worst possible time… Ramadan. (To learn more about Ramadan, click here)

I would recommend avoiding travel to Islamic countries during this period. For us, it ultimately meant that many of locals were agitated and easy infuriated anytime from midday onwards. To avoid the arguments, we quickly settled on 550MAD (50 euros) which at the time, was well worth it between 4 people. We learned later that we got ripped off and that our taxi driver was probably taking the week off thanks to us. We should have paid no more than 200MAD between us (or 50MAD per person). The trip took approximately 2 hours.

TIP: Don’t pay more than 50MAD per person for a taxi to Chefchaouen from Tangier port. 

map

Here is a basic map to help you find your way into the medina!

The minute we stepped out of the taxi in Chefchaeoun, we were bombarded again. This time – with hash. A well known group of men hang around the bus station waiting for vulnerable and curious tourists to sell hash to (which is in fact not hash, but just small balls of play dough). If you have booked a hostel/hotel in advance, make sure you ask them for a map or exact directions from the old town entrance so you can avoid the harassment and get on your way. The small city itself is impossible to navigate around using google maps. There are no obvious street names or numbers, just rows of stunning blue cave like walls and ‘hole in the wall’ shops. My friend and I were not that organised so had a local man guide us to our hostel for a small tip. Beware, he will (without a doubt) take you the long way in order to show you his brothers carpet shop, his mothers leather shop and maybe the shops of his cousins, in laws and friends too. Just go with it!

hostel roof chef.

The rooftop view from Riad Al Baraka Hostel

We stayed at Riad Al Baraka Hostel. A fantastic choice! It had a stunning rooftop overlooking the whole city. We were lucky enough to be able to sleep on the rooftop in comfortable beds. We had 3 walls and the 4th was a thin shutter to allow a beautiful breeze into the room. The “dorms” are not really dorms but a series of separated rooms so it feels really private! Great value for money.

Be prepared to hear the ‘Lafki’ (call to prayer) which is projected from the mosques 5 times a day – including 5am everyday! Bring your earplugs!

TIP: Ask for a “rooftop room” at Riad Al Baraka Hostel if available


5 TOP CHEFCHAOEUN EXPERIENCES

1.  F O O D

meatballs chef.

Traditional Moroccan meatballs (aka kefta) with eggs, cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika and nutmeg. Yum!

Chefchaouen is full of cafes and restaurants however unlike most tourist cities, it doesn’t offer the same variety. You can really only order 3 things in any of these restaurants. Tagine, cous cous or kefta. If you head to the main plaza you will see beautifully decorated restaurants but don’t bother checking out the menu at each one. I can guarantee you they are all the same! You can get plenty of food for under 70MAD (approx. USD$7). They will harass you in the main street, each dragging you into their own cafe so you have the power to negotiate on price (especially in low season). If you head away from the main square (which i recommend) you will find a labyrinth of very small family run restaurants, or even ask a family to join them for a small price! Remember alcohol is not permitted, however if you have your own, you could tip the waiter and ask him to disguise it for you.

TIP: Chefchaeoun is ‘dry’ so if you can’t last without your alcohol, make sure you buy it before coming to the city and tip the waiter at the restaurant to pour it into a discreet jug for you. This way you don’t offend the locals.

Hidden away from the main square is a place called Restaurant Bab Ssour. Ask your hostel owner or a local where to find it (it’s not easy) and go and introduce yourself throughout the day. The owner is a sweetheart! Make sure you let him know how many people are coming and what time you will be there (especially with a group) so he can begin to prepare the best meal you will have in Morocco. I highly recommend coming here with a group of people so you can order a feast and try a bit of all the local foods. 

pastilla chef.

Moroccan Pastilla – (aka bastilla) Chicken, almonds, cinnamon and sugar slow baked in a pastry case. My favourite dish!

I had read about this ‘secret place’ in other blogs but no one was able to provide a name. It was our English hostel owner who encouraged us to go and gave clear directions. It was the best night I had in Morocco. We had spiced goat tagine, spiced zucchinis, chicken pastilla, kefta meatballs with spices, freshly baked bread and local olives. It was all delicious! At the end of the meal, he will likely offer you dessert. Although feeling stuffed – we just wanted to keep trying everything so we ordered a few to share among 8 (a bite or 2 each) He brought us a “magic yoghurt”. It is unbelievably good. He doesn’t tell you what’s in it but Chefchaouen is widely known for its marijuana so eat wisely!

If breakfast isn’t included with your accommodation, head to the main square. Each restaurant offers a similar deal but you can get pancakes, a banana smoothie, freshly squeezed orange juice and toast with jam all for just 25MAD (approx. US$2.50)

2.  M O R O C C A N  H A M M A M

There are lots of places around town to get a Hammam. If you haven’t had one before, read about my experience below before going. It is certainly not for everyone.

“The art of the hammam (steam bath/bathhouse) is an ancient and integral part of Moroccan life as water, which is considered sacred, and cleanliness, are essential elements of Islam” insightguides.com

Locals head to the bath houses once a week – generally on Fridays so it is best to avoid this time. It was my first time getting a hammam and I had not read into it properly so I wasn’t sure what to expect. My friend and I went with another girl we had met at the hostel. We visited a beautiful hotel called Lina Ryad & Spa. A hammam is something you don’t necessarily want to go cheap with so I would recommend heading to a nice spa or one recommended by your hotel/hostel. Our bath cost 150MAD (US$15) each and lasted approximately 1 hour. I didn’t realise we needed to be naked. Awkwardly the 3 of us agreed to take our tops off but would leave our bikini bottoms on. The women didn’t care, they were dressed the same. The 3 of us were taken into a small room and laid down on the floor beside each other. This poor girl didn’t know myself or my friend so was feeling super uncomfortable. We were washed down completely with warm water which felt fantastic. The floors of the wet steam room were heated too so it was warm and inviting. Within 5 minutes, I had forgotten how little I was wearing and was completely relaxed. The 3 women then washed us down with a delicious scrub, covered our body in clay, washed our hair, massaged our head, conditioned with mandarin oils and gave a full body massage on the warm, heated, wet floor.

I absolutely LOVED it. Unfortunately the other girl felt utterly violated and hated every minute. We both had the exact same experience and came out with very different thoughts. Therefore, if you don’t like being massaged or touched – this is not for you. If you don’t feel comfortable being topless (girls) in front of other women, then this is also probably not for you. But if you are okay with the above and want to give it a go – it is a truly rewarding cultural experience!

3.  V I E W  T H E  C I T Y  F R O M  T H E  H I L L

If you head outside the old town to the edge of the city, you will find a small bridge over a small flowing river. Its a great photo opportunity to see the locals all doing their washing here. Ask a local how to get to the ‘mosque on the hill’ and he will point you in the right direction.

washing

local laundry

TIP: The children are well rehearsed with tourists so ensure you ask before taking photos of kids, or they will demand money.

Once you reach the river here, cross it, and walk up the small stairs on your right. It will take you about 15-20 minutes to reach the top and you will find small shops along the way. The views from the top are stunning and well worth it! Bring a picnic with you and soak it in.

view from the hill chef.

View of Chefchaoeun from the hill

FUN FACT: Many believe the city was painted blue back in the 1930’s by Jewish refugees from Spain to deter mosquitos!

4.  S H O P P I N G

If you are visiting other cities in Morocco, you should do the majority of your shopping here. Prices are significantly cheaper than other cities like Casablanca or Marrakech.

I spent a few days in the Medina sussing out how much I could get things for. Below is a short list representing a rough price of how much I paid. This will hopefully help you with your negotiating!

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  • small lamps = 25MAD
  • small tagine = 110MAD
  • 30×30 wooden mirror = 65MAD
  • intricate cushion cover = 80MAD
  • leather bag = 130MAD
  • earrings = 15MAD each
  • leather ottoman = 90MAD
  • ceramic plates = 20MAD
  • big ceramic salad bowl = 45MAD
  • handmade ceramic pot = 150MAD

Hope this helps! Happy bargaining!

5.  W A N D E R  T H E  M E D I N A

One of the most rewarding things to do, in any city, is to put on some comfortable shoes and simply get lost. Sure – take a map, but focus on exploring the quieter laneways and interacting with the locals.

TIP: You don’t need a guide for the Medina (unlike Marrakech) It is small enough to walk around yourself without getting lost no matter what they try and tell you!

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