What I Learned From Spending 3 Months in an Instagram Hotspot

Morocco’s culture, Instagram tourism, and what’s not on the pictures

Does that alley look familiar? If you follow any travel-themed Instagram accounts, it should.

This is Chefchaouen, Morocco, a.k.a. “The Blue City” or “The Blue Pearl.”

Chefchaouen (or just “Chaouen,” as the locals call it) is a small town nestled in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco. The entire medina (old city) is painted various shades of blue, as you see above. This makes Chefchaouen, as you can imagine, incredibly photogenic.

Travel Instagrammers have grabbed hold of this city and haven’t let it go.

A sampling of the photos on Instagram under the hashtag #Chefchaouen

Instagram was the reason I too came to Chaouen, actually. My sister and I had been kicked out of our bed-bug infested hostel in Tangiers and needed a place to stay. “Ah, the blue city is just south of here,” we said. “Let’s go there, take some pictures, and move on. Can’t need more than a day or two.”

We took jobs volunteering at the hostel and stayed for 10 weeks.

Here’s what I learned from watching tourism in a place that most people know only as an Instagram destination.


“The Flower Pot Alley”

You can’t deny it’s a nice spot for a group picture, though.

You’d be hard-pressed to take a bad photograph anywhere in the medina, but Chaouen has a few particularly Insta-famous spots. The most popular of these is the “Flower Pot Alley”.

This alley is so popular on Instagram that there is almost always a line of people waiting to take pictures. Sometimes you might need to wait half an hour to take a picture here. Of course, you never see those crowds in the pictures.

Because it’s so popular, there are always a few Moroccan men hanging around, trying to sell you things or offering to take your picture for a few dirhams.

As a receptionist, I eventually just started marking this spot on the map we handed out to all our guests because they were sure to ask about it.

Best Instagram spots in Chefchaouen:

  • The Flower Pot Alley (Off of Avenue Hassan I)
  • Callejon El Fasi (outside Hostel Aline)
  • The Spanish Mosque (Day & Night)

The “Stuff” That Isn’t Photographed

Oh yes.

Chefchaouen is known for a few things besides the blue walls. In fact, the local Moroccans say Chefchaouen is famous for three things:

  • The clean water from the mountain (I drank tap water my entire stay in Chaouen and never had any serious problems)
  • The hashish
  • The “relax”

Those last two might have something to do with each other.

The mountains outside Chaouen (source of the fresh water).

You cannot walk a meter in the streets of Chefchaouen without being offered hashish. As a tourist, every single Moroccan you encounter will try and sell you hash. Learn to practice your strong denials. You’ll need ‘em.

This is because hash is grown and harvested in the mountains around town — and it’s cheap. The “Moroccan price” is so low that they can make a serious profit selling to tourists.

But you won’t see this on Instagram.


The Locals Are Grateful

“Six, seven years ago,” my local Moroccan friends told me on more than one occasion, “Chefchaouen was nothing. Nowhere. Nobody knew it — even Moroccans didn’t know it.”

“But now, the last few years —incredible. Every year, more and more people!”

It’s been a boon for some in Chefchaouen — the young men who can speak multiple languages can earn enough to live for a few months, just by selling the right thing to one tourist.

Everything in Chaouen operates on kind of a kickback system — Moroccans will refer you to their friend, their friend will overcharge you as much as he can for his tour, his restaurant, whatever; and then he’ll share some of the profits with the guy who sent you there.

It’s kind of a “share the wealth” type of arrangement. By the end of my time in Chefchaouen, I’d become trusted enough that these guys started cutting me into their ecosystem. I’m sure if I stayed a while longer, it could have become a pretty profitable enterprise (by Moroccan standards, anyways).


Morocco Isn’t Exactly Female-Friendly

A young Moroccan couple overlooking the town

Moroccan society is heavily divided between genders. Men are in the streets, at the forefront of business, and in general, are just more visible than women. The women are hard to track down, especially as foreigner. In my time in Chefchaouen, I was able to get to know one young Moroccan woman. She didn’t wear the headscarf.

She’d grown up in Chaouen, and complained: “It’s a small town, everyone knows your business. And they’re conservative. My mom needs to know where I am at all times. And at University, it was all American-style… coming back to this was… difficult.”

So you don’t want to stay in Chaouen? I’d asked her.

She laughed in my face. “The tourism is changing things, bit by bit… but we still are not very tolerant. Especially if you’re Moroccan here — if you don’t work in tourism, there is no future.”

For the rest of my life, this will be “Chefchaouen Blue”

Tips for female travelers in Morocco:

  • Expect harassment in the streets. An unfortunate part of Moroccan culture. You will be harassed a lot less if you’re with a man.
  • Dress conservatively. Cover shoulders, legs. No need to wear a headscarf. You are not at home; do your best to respect cultural practices.
  • Don’t be afraid to be firm with people in the street. Moroccans are pretty persistent — sometimes raising your voice and making a scene is necessary. Learning a word or two in Arabic goes a long way here.
The New City of Chefchaouen at night

Life Beyond the Frame

The locals might be grateful for the tourism dollars (and Euros), but for the most part, they couldn’t give a sh*t if they’re ruining your Instagram photo.

It’s always good manners to ask people if you can take their photos, too. If you think you’re being surreptitious — you’re not.

And beyond the walls of the colorful media lies the New City — much less photogenic, and much less visited by tourists. If you want cheaper prices and a glimpse of what life is like for most ordinary Moroccans, I recommend heading out of the medina and down.

This part of the city rarely appears on Instagram.


When It Comes to Travel, A Photo *Isn’t* Worth A Thousand Words

Quintessential Chefchaouen

Sitting at that hostel desk, I saw hundreds of people come, take their pretty pictures with the blue walls, collect their likes, and catch the bus to the next city. Usually, they stayed one night, sometimes two. They have the same pictures I do. The mosque, the alleys, the cats.

But they don’t know Chaouen. I barely know Chaouen.

But hopefully, you know Chaouen a little better now than you did before. Give it a visit. Get lost in the medina. Enjoy “the relax.”

And try to find the experiences you can’t capture in a photo.