Christmas in Laayoune/ El Aaiún (Western Sahara)

I am only half-heartedly ticking off territories these days, with 47 still to go, (and at least 17 I am not that keen to see), but sometimes I can’t resist visiting somewhere new…. and I found a cheap flight to Laayoune (El Aaiun) in the disputed territory of Western Sahara for Christmas

Disputed between Morocco and Sahrawi Western Sahara is a disputed territory in the Maghreb in North Africa. A former Spanish colony, it was annexed by Morocco in 1975. Since then it has been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Sahrawi people, led by the Polisario Front. A 16-year-long insurgency ended with a UN-brokered truce in 1991 and the promise of a referendum on independence which has yet to take place. The Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), declared by the Polisario Front in 1976, is now recognised by many governments and is a full member of the African Union. (More here). The United Nations considers the Polisario Front to be the legitimate representative of the Sahrawi people, and maintains that the Sahrawis have a right to self-determination. Morocco have flooded the territory with people and investment since the green march of 1975 and have military and economic control over much of the region.

As far as Morocco is concerned Laayoune is firmly in Morocco, hence why I found myself sitting in the grim domestic section of Casablanca airport at 6.30am on Christmas Day after a few hours sleep at the airport hotel, with a motley crew of Chinese business men and brightly robed Sahrawi women and their families.

Laayoune airport

One of the few strangers arriving ….We landed in Laayoune and almost everyone knew the two immigration officials, and were waved through. Only the foreigners had to stop and have their details registered, and I had a few minutes of questioning as to why I was here – the questions were slightly hard to answer as they didn’t really believe tourists would come here, but given the political situation it would have been a poor idea to say I was here to tick off a disputed territory. I asked for a passport stamp but was refused as I had been stamped in in Casablanca.

It took me a while to find my bag. Uncharacteristically I had checked luggage as am heading next to go hiking so have a tent and pegs which I can’t take on board. Everyone left with their luggage and I was feeling the inevitable sense of dread at my hiking holiday being slightly palled without my gear…… but I took a closer look at some of the intensively plastic wrapped bags, and found my pack which had obviously been diligently wrapped in transit at Casablanca. It was barely recognisable it had so much plastic on it (they clearly haven’t heard of Greta Thunberg in Morocco)

Why pay for a taxi, it’s a nice day for a stroll…..The airport looked like a 20 min stroll from the hotel, and it was a glorious day so off I meandered. Taxi drivers always look so aggrieved when I walk out of airports, it’s like a personal insult. I attracted quite a few stares en route to the hotel, so I changed out of my leggings t-shirt and jacket into a more appropriate but hideous dress I had bought for the occasion – covering all potential vestiges of flesh like a big sack. That helped, but I still had people stop and stare, including a van full of Moroccan soldiers

First up, caffeine…The light was lovely so I headed off for a stroll, not getting far before stopping for a coffee. There were a multitude of nice cafes around the incongruous McDonalds, and I recce’d a few to see if I could find one with a woman inside, but gave up at the fifth cafe full of men, and took a seat in the cafe Lima for two coffees to compensate for my early wake up and four hours sleep.

Grandiose construction……Caffeinated, I started meandering around town, no one seems to move that fast here. The town appears to be a construction zone with grand plazas and gardens being constructed all over the pace with some extremely conformist palm trees. The wiry men who are the labour force, wrap their scarves around their heads to keep out the wind and sand. The spaces are grand but not particularly welcoming.

Place Oum Saad ….There is not much to see – Trip advisor lists four sites (the top two have a huge six reviews each). I started with the Place Oum Saad, which they are making into a football stadium.

The two main sites….I then wandered over to the mosque, which was largely closed and then across town to the st Francis of Assisi cathedral.

Main mosque

I stopped for another tea and then headed down to see the Dait um saad the edge of the desert

Dait um saad

I much prefer the quiet pink alleys with interesting doors and mangy resident cats. The locals were friendly and numerous women smiled and said hello (I pretty much ignore men who smile and say hello, as no well behaved local man would be saying hello to an unaccompanied woman).

The grand place mechouar is vast, and I stopped for a while to enjoy the sun and read a book. The guys cleaning the square were most fascinated and after much discussion they sent one of their number over with some cardboard to keep my butt warm instead of sitting on the marble bench

Looking across to the palais de congress

Tea anyone …..I whiled away the afternoon drinking mint tea and reading a book, watching the local men actively engaged in sitting around chatting. I had a pizza at the recommended La Madone (with my brain not properly engaged it took me a while to figure out what was wrong with the menu – no ham, pepperoni or bacon. It was pretty good though.

McDs as a women’s study group…..I popped into the McDs after (clean loo), and made a surprising discovery. This was the only place I had been in Laayoune where women were eating and mostly in twos and threes. Actually they were eating and studying. 80% of the clients were women and most of the staff. It never occurred to me that McDonald’s could be a safe haven for women to study!

Breakfast with a view…. The sun doesn’t come up early here…. I had a leisurely breakfast (the buffet seemed to consist mainly of cake and pastries) and enjoyed an epic slow sunrise (8am) over place oum saad (no filter or editing)

Wandering….I wandered up to the hotel Massira to check out the mural which I am assuming is commemorating the green march.

After a cursory stroll around the souk and then wandered back to the gardens at place mechouar. I amused myself for a good hour alternating between watching the school kids do their PE lessons and the elderly wandering around the park on their morning constitutionals.

After another stroll around the hood, I shouldered my pack and wandered back to the airport. It was an interesting sojourn. I appreciate coming to random corners of the world not least because it makes me learn more about things I wouldn’t have otherwise – the history here is quite harrowing and I will now start paying more attention to the Sahrawi refugee challenge.

Additional notes

  • Flew to Laayoune via Casablanca with (not so) Royal Air Maroc.
  • There are cheap flights out via the Canary islands with Binter if you want some sun on the way back
  • There isn’t much in the way of hotels in Laayoune, so I stayed at the Emilio Moretti, a relatively new place on the plaza
  • I tried out a new airport hotel in Casablanca- the onomo, which is the same standard but better organised than the atlas sky and the relax. It’s walking distance from the airport (1.5km) in the daylight (there was not much in the way of light or footpaths when I tried walking it late at night on arrival, so I gave up and waited for the shuttle (which runs every 30 mins for free)
  • Not much in the way of travel info on Laayoune is available …. but a couple of good articles here and here

Laayoune, December 26, 2019

Jewellery stores near the mosque
Place mechouar with the tower from the mosque in the background
Water towers
Obligatory selfie

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