Trekking Chefchaouen to Bab Taza

This is the best introductory walk to the Rif Mountains. Within the Talassemtane National Park and starting from Chefchaouen, it takes in some spectacular scenery, including the geologically improbable God’s Bridge, a natural stone arc spanning the Oued Farda. You are also likely to meet troupes of Barbary apes.

The full trek takes five days, but there are plenty of ways to shorten the distance or duration. One option would be to arrange transport from Akchour back to Chefchaouen at the end of day two. Transport isn’t too hard to find in Akchour, or you can arrange for a grand taxi from Chefchaouen to pick you up at a specified time. Alternatively, you may be able to hike back along an alternate route.

The Talassemtane National Park is one of two parks in the Rif Mountains (the other being Bouhachem). It’s a largely undiscovered area and yet these mountains make perfect trekking country, blessed with magnificent ranges, gorges and valleys, with forests of cedar, cork oak and fir. Being close to the Mediterranean, the Rif are also the greenest of Morocco’s mountains, and springtime, with its riot of wildflowers, is one of the most delightful times to walk here.

One thing that does deter trekkers is the region’s reputation as an area of drug production. But although cannabis takes up over three-quarters of cultivatable land east of Chefchaouen, trekkers have little reason to feel threatened, especially if travelling with a guide – villagers will be genuinely interested and welcoming. The trek detailed here, setting out from Chefchaouen, is well trodden and unproblematic in this respect. In a concerted effort to reduce reliance on the cannabis industry, local organisations, backed by the government, are setting up rural tourism facilities such as gîtes (basic homestays or hostels), managing routes and training guides.

The Rif Mountains rarely top more than 2500m in height, with most treks only occasionally venturing over 2000m, so altitude sickness isn’t the worry it can be in other parts of Morocco.

Trek at a Glance

Duration Four to five days

Distance 56km

Standard Medium

Start Chefchaouen

Finish Bab Taza

Highest Point Sfiha Telj Pass (approximately 1700m)

Accommodation Gîtes and camping

Public Transport Yes

Summary The walking here is relatively undemanding but the mountain scenery is spectacular, the tiny Riffian villages worth a detour, and the gorges and weird geology fascinating.

Before You Go: Chefchaouen to Bab Taza Checklist

Weather Trekking is possible year-round, though it can be bitterly cold with snow between November and March. There’s frequent rain between late September and June. It’s fiercely hot in summer, when some water sources dry up.

Guides Organise trekking guides through Abdeslam Mouden in Chefchaouen. Guides charge Dh400 per day.

Accommodation Many villages have simple gîtes that cost from Dh200 per person including dinner and breakfast. It’s also possible to arrange gîtes in person during the trek, though there is a risk that the guardian may not be around and the gîte may be closed – not uncommon.

Camping is not encouraged as local people don’t benefit. But in some areas there are no gîtes, so it’s the only alternative. There’s one official camping site at the village of Talassemtane. Permission to camp (free) must be obtained from the Eco-Museum in Chefchaouen in advance. Staying with families en route is an option in some villages and it is possible to stop for tea with locals and to visit weaving and cheese-making cooperatives.

Maps From the government 1:50,000 topographical series, survey sheets Chaouen and Bab Taza cover the Chefchaouen to Bab Taza trek. The Eco-Museum at the entrance to the park has maps of the routes.

Equipment Where there are no gîtes, a tent is necessary. A decent sleeping bag is essential, as is a light waterproof jacket – rain showers are common. Food and fuel supplies can be bought in Chefchaouen. Mules to carry your luggage cost from Dh250 per day including muleteer. From August to October, mules can be hard to organise as they’re used for the kif harvest, and prices increase accordingly.

Wildlife

The Rif’s climate and proximity to Europe endows it with a Mediterranean vibe – the area closely resembles the sierras of southern Spain. Cedars make up the majority of tree species, including a rare endemic species Abies maroccana, a high-altitude variant of the Spanish cedar. In addition, cork oak, holm pine, wild olive, juniper and the rare carob are some that dot the limestone mountains. The stony land is hard to cultivate and thin in nutrients; deforestation is an issue here as in other parts of Morocco. Various herbs such as lavender and thyme thrive and are used by the local population as medicines.

Locals may tell you that there are wolves in the mountains, but it’s a mistranslation – there are foxes. Wild boar are also native, but have a retiring nature that makes them hard to spot. The Rif’s most famous mammals are the Barbary apes (known locally as mgou), whose range extends south into the Middle Atlas.

You’ll have better luck with birdlife. Raptors easily spotted wheeling on thermals include black-shouldered kites, golden eagles and long-legged buzzards. Ravens can also be seen against the limestone cliffs.

Scorpions present a small risk in the Rif, although less so than further south. Be wary of the red scorpion; stings are extremely painful. The venomous fer à cheval viper (named for the horseshoe-like mark on its head) is more likely to flee from you than vice versa.

Day 1: Chefchaouen to Afeska

  • Duration 5½–6½ hours
  • Distance 14.5km
  • Ascent 1200m
  • Descent 600m

An early-morning start is recommended for the first day, starting on the 4WD track behind Camping Azilane, with an initially steep ascent climbing through trees to give great views over Chefchaouen’s medina. Skirting the southern slopes of Jebel El Kelaa (1616m), the track evens out to follow the stream passing through the hamlet of Aïn Tissimlane, before once again rising in an arc to a high pass by the jagged limestone crags of Sfiha Telj. The views here are astounding in both directions, and on a clear day you can see the Mediterranean in the distance. The climb is a killer with a full pack – the hardest of the trek – which explains the necessity for a cool early-morning start.

The track turns east before descending. Stopping regularly to enjoy the fine views, take the right (southern) fork where the track splits – this takes you down in an hour or so to the village of Azilane, where there’s a homestay option and a gîte. If you don’t want to stop here, continue for another hour along a mostly level path to Afeska, where there’s another homestay and a gîte.

Day 2: Afeska to Akchour

  • Duration 3½–4½ hours
  • Distance 10km
  • Descent 860m

From Afeska, the wide piste you’ve been following deteriorates to a smaller track. Heading north, you pass through more oak and pine woods to Sidi Meftah, where there’s a marabout (mausoleum of a saint) and spring, before leaving the woods and descending the switchbacks to Imizzar on the Oued Farda. Once beside the river, turn left (away from the village, northwest), then cross the river below some impressive overhanging cliffs and continue heading northwest. You’ll join a well-worn mule track that eventually leads down to Pont Farda, an ancient bridge over Oued Farda.

Cross to the west bank of the river and continue north, dwarfed by the surrounding scenery. After an hour, the trail bears left away from the river towards Ouslaf, which is overshadowed by a giant rock buttress, but keep on the same path while it bears right, descending to rejoin the river on the outskirts of Akchour (398m), which sits on the Oued Kelaâ.

Akchour is strung out along the river. As you approach it, you first come to a small cafe with very welcome river-cooled soft drinks, and a dam with a deep pool that seems made for swimming, although the water temperature means short dips only!

Akchour has a gîte that’s very comfortable and provides excellent meals.

From Akchour, it’s usually possible to get transport back to Chefchaouen – most likely one of the rugged vans or 4WDs that battle it out on the piste. If there’s nothing going from Akchour, try Talembote, 2km further north, which has a market on Tuesdays with regular transport to Chefchaouen (Dh15). Most passing vehicles will stop to pick you up if they have space – a case of paid hitchhiking. They may drop you at Dar Ackoubaa, the junction town 10km north of Chefchaouen on the N2 highway.

Side Trip: God’s Bridge

With an early start from Afeska, you can reach Akchour by lunchtime, allowing time for the short hike (1½ hours, 3km return) to God’s Bridge, an unlikely geological structure that shouldn’t be missed.

The path south from Akchour’s dam up the Oued Farda is rough in places, but well worth any scrambling. You’ll also have to cross the river twice but this is quite easy where it’s not deep – if you don’t mind the occasional splash. (However, if you’re trekking in spring, check in Afeska that snow melt hasn’t made the river impassable.) God’s Bridge is about 45 minutes from Akchour. A huge red stone arch towers 25m above the river and it almost beggars belief that it was carved by nature and not by human hand. Over countless millennia, the river flowed as an underground watercourse, eroding the rock and carving a path deeper and deeper, leaving the bridge high and dry.

Day 3: Akchour to Pastures above Abou Bnar

  • Duration 4½–6 hours
  • Distance 12km
  • Ascent 977m

An early-morning start (with full water bottles, since there are no springs on the route until you reach Izrafene) sees you leaving Akchour by heading to the north, crossing the bridge over the Oued Kelaa and then cutting right (southeast) along the track to Izrafene. It’s a particularly picturesque walk as you climb up and around Jebel Azra (1375m). Your eyes lift from the steep gorges you’ve trekked through and out over the sweep of open mountains. If you’re up for some scrambling, add half an hour to attain the peak, from where you can drink in further gorgeous views.

Having cut around the mountain, the countryside becomes gentler – rolling even – as the trail heads south. The village of Izrafene marks the halfway point of the day’s trek. Just before the village, a track bears east at a col, tempting the adventurous to abandon the Bab Taza hike and walk to Taourarte (where there’s a homestay and a gîte) and on to Bou Ahmed on the coast, a further two to three days’ walk.

From Izrafene, the track turns into a 4WD piste (dirt track) – the first since Afeska. It follows a narrow valley, gradually turning east up onto a ridge with gentle views. Where it forks, turn left, and then, just 25m later, turn right onto a trail that heads southeast to Abou Bnar through a pretty stretch of oak wood. There’s little to detain you here, so continue alongside the river (not the 4WD track) through the open, grassy country to the marabout of Sidi Jil. This is a pretty area for camping, but if you continue for another 30 minutes, you’ll come to an even more beautiful spot, set in wide pasture near the El Ma Souka spring – an idyllic place for a night’s rest.

Return to Chefchaouen

It’s possible to trek back to Chefchaouen from Akchour in a day by an alternate route. The route goes via the villages of Ouslaf, Arhermane and El Kelaa. El Kelaa is the site of the fascinating Mosquée Srifi-yenne, with its strange leaning tower. This route takes a quick six hours and avoids any major climbs or descents.

Day 4: Pastures Above Abou Bnar to Talassemtane Village

  • Duration 2–2½ hours
  • Distance 6km
  • Ascent 352m

From the camping site southwest of Abou Bnar, walk back to the 4WD track. Turn left and cross the river, and walk south into the pine woodland. You will quickly come to a T-junction, where you should keep on the right (the left goes downhill to Beni M’Hamed) where the path starts to ascend again.

Keep on the main track, ignoring further side tracks and junctions. As you rise and go through several mini-passes, the views return. To the west, the huge mass of Jebel Lakraa (2159m) dominates the countryside.

By late morning you’ll reach Talassemtane village. A small sign indicates that you should turn left off the 4WD track to the house of the park’s Eaux et Forêts guardian. There’s an official camping site here.

Side Trips

The short walking day allows plenty of time to explore the area and watch wildlife, particularly Barbary apes.

Head north, back along the 4WD track above the guardien’s (caretaker's) house to a clearing and junction. Here you turn right and follow the track east into mgou country. Troupes are relatively common here, although they quickly retreat into the safety of the trees if you get too close. The track bends south, giving great views out across the valley to the long ridge of Jebel Taloussisse (2005m), before turning briefly east again. Here a trail on the right leads south over the spur of Talassemtane (1941m) to a football pitch – strange, but true! – on an area of flat land. From here it’s possible to make a rocky traverse west, back to the campsite.

Climbing Jebel Lakraa is another alternative for gung-ho trekkers. The best approach is from the north of the mountain, trekking along the ridge to descend one of the stream gullies southeast of the summit. However, there’s no fixed path and it’s a scramble in places. Allow around 3½ hours return.

Day 5: Talassemtane Village to Bab Taza

  • Duration 2½–3½ hours
  • Distance 13.5km
  • Descent 825m

The final day is a quick descent along the 4WD track to Bab Taza, where local kif cultivation is much in evidence. The trail swings through a wide pasture and on through the cork woodland of Jebel Setsou (1363m) before revealing the sprawl of Bab Taza (or so it seems after a few days in the mountains) below.

In Bab Taza, there are quite a few cafes and a couple of grotty-looking hotels strung along the main road. The main business seems to be in huge sacks of fertiliser used for growing kif. Grands taxis leave regularly throughout the day for Chefchaouen (Dh12, 30 minutes) from the western end of town.

Climbing Jebel El Kelaa

Looming over Chefchaouen at 1616m, Jebel El Kelaa might initially appear a daunting peak, but with an early start, it can easily be climbed in a day if you’re in reasonably good shape.

The hike starts from behind Camping Azilane, following the 4WD track that takes you to the hamlet of Aïn Tissimlane. Rocks painted with a yellow- and white- stripe indicate that you’re on the right path. The initial hour is relatively steep as you climb above the trees to get your first views over Chefchaouen, before cutting into the mountains along the steady piste (track). You should reach Aïn Tissimlane within a couple of hours of setting out, after which the path climbs and zigzags steeply through great boulders for nearly an hour to a pass. Turn west along the track, which leads to the saddle of the mountain, from where you can make the final push to the summit. There’s a rough path, although you’ll need to scramble in places. The peak is attained relatively quickly, and your exertions are rewarded with the most sublime views over this part of the Rif.

It’s straightforward and quick to descend by the same route. Alternatively, you can head north from the saddle on a path that takes you to a cluster of villages on the other side of the mountain. One of these villages, El Kelaa, has 16th-century grain stores and a mosque with a leaning minaret. From here, a number of simple tracks will take you back to Chefchaouen in a couple of hours.