"Laayoune" Laayoune by maykal

Laayoune Travel Guide: 19 reviews and 54 photos

First of all, this is a page about Laayoune itself, not Laayoune Plage. Oddly, VT doesn't have the main cities of Western Sahara in its database, but instead has these little settlements that hardly anyone goes to. Oh well.

Laayoune was unexpectedly nice. I have an old Morocco guidebook from the 90's at home which only includes Laayoune to say that there's no point going there, no sights at all, totally boring, not worth the long trip down there, all hotels booked out by UN, etc. Not very encouraging, but for some reason that sort of place intrigues me, and so after several years of thinking about it, I finally found the chance to visit Laayoune for myself. Some people I've spoken to have found it odd that Laayoune should be one of my first destinations in Morocco, given priority over Fes and Marrakesh, Essaouira and Tangier, but...well, it was somewhere I had to go. If I had gone to Southern Morocco and not made the trip down to Laayoune, I would have regretted it.

Laayoune doesn't have museums. It doesn't have ancient ruins or crumbling kasbahs, mediaeval mosques or covered souqs. It doesn't have good beaches, or mountain backdrops. There are no camel safaris on offer, no son et lumiere shows, no chic riads. As the only other tourist I spotted in town said, "there's **** all here."

But that's not quite true. Laayoune does have sights, just they are offbeat ones, sights you have to hunt out with no tourist signs or guides around to point you in the right direction.

Laayoune feels strange. It is Moroccan and it isn't. Up until 1975, it was the capital of Spanish Sahara, a wholly Spanish settlement with a cathedral and plazas and calles. the Spanish brought with them their own brand of architecture, incorporating domes into almost everything to stop sand building up on the roofs. The population was a mixture of Spaniards and Sahraouis, local nomadic tribes who gradually drifted towards the towns. Spanish and Hassaniya (a distant dialect of Arabic) were the languages on the street. Then in 1975, the Spanish left and the Moroccans filled the gap, in an event known as Al-Massira al-Khadra' or the Green March when 300,000 civilians marched south from Morocco to take up residency. Every southern town has a monument to the Green March, and there's always a cafe or a hotel called the Massira.

Since then, Layoune has ballooned in size, with Moroccan urban planning adding enormous empty squares, gigantic monuments, mahusive stadiums and entire new quarters of modern apartment blocks. Nowadays, you're more likely to hear the seemingly vowelless Moroccan dialect of Arabic on the streets, or even French. But Spanish influence, as well as a handful of Spanish residents, is still there, in the names of the quarters Colomina and Ejercito, in the Parador Hotel, in the cathedral, in the Plaza de las Canarias, in the odd street sign saying Calle or Avenida, the occasional Spanish tile hidden under layers of dust. The Sahraouis are still there too, their men in blue derra'a robes and women in colourful malahfas (similar to the Sudanese tobe and the Indian sari), but culturally they've been relegated to a handful of craft workshops in the Ensemble Artisanal and the occasional demonstration. If it wasn't for the dunes on the outskirts of town, the heat and the UN presence, this could be any other Moroccan city.

I found this mix of cultures to be fascinating, and I rather liked Laayoune. I liked the perversity of its grand squares, empty of people. I liked stumbling upon an old Spanish domed house among new apartment blocks, and coming across a snippet of Sahraoui culture under a Moroccan flag. I liked the lively Moroccan quarters with souqs busy until midnight, and the dozens of cafes and patisseries on every street. I also loved being able to walk through the oldest quarter, across some rubble and over a patch of wasteground, to climb some of the best sand dunes I've ever seen without a single other person around to spoil the view.

Laayoune isn't for everyone and I doubt very much if it will ever become a popular destination. But if you get your kicks from quirky urban landscapes with a side order of desert dunes, then maybe give Laayoune a couple of days.

***VT has placed this city under Western Sahara. Some will disagree and say it is Morocco. Whether Morocco or Western Sahara, I'm not getting into a political debate over it...and if you visit Laayoune, it is wise to do the same.***

  • Last visit to Laayoune: Jan 2010
  • Intro Updated Jan 24, 2010
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maykal

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