Pont de Dieu / Outside Akchour, Morocco / May 2016
On hiking in the Rif Mountains, finding your way without signage, and the Bridge of God.
On the way to Chefchaouen, driving through endless stretches of patchwork farmland, we passed a mahogany horse galloping full speed down the opposing lane, riderless and with a line of cars behind, its mane flying wildly in the wind. Soon after this appropriate harbinger, we entered the Rif – the mountainous coastal region known for its fiercely independent people who long resisted and rebelled against Spanish rule. The region, of course, is also known for being Morocco’s center of hashish production, smuggling and export. This fact is inescapable in Chefchaouen or likely any city in the Rif; a whispered undertone follows most offers of assistance (“Want some hash?”), or the more brazen tactic of inviting al fresco diners to smoke things other than cigarettes while whiling away the day at a café.
The ubiquitousness of hash, and the fear of inadvertently wandering into a growing zone, led me to believe we almost certainly needed a local guide for our hike in the mountains outside Akchour. The village serves as the trailhead for two hikes – a long one to the Cascades (waterfalls), and a shorter one to the Pont de Dieu (Bridge of God), a natural red stone arch between the mountains. Short on time, we chose the latter. Outside Chefchaouen, we made our way to Akchour on a long, rocky, winding and near-empty road. We arrived at the village to find a few cafes with fewer customers, and the dam marking the trailhead. For the first and only time in Morocco, there were zero people waiting there to offer guiding services. Even worse, there were no signs in any language indicating which of the two paths led to which landmark.
In other words, we were at a crossroads. Both of the paths looked relatively well-trodden, so we just picked one, telling ourselves we’d see whether any signs or guides appeared along the way. Not far in, we reached an improbably luxe hotel tucked behind a small hill, with soft jazz flowing over expensive furniture artfully strewn with pillows. We walked toward it, not unlike how travelers lost in the desert might chase a mirage. Inside, we asked the way and received a hesitant answer, and so we reluctantly continued. As we climbed we passed numerous cafés, each a series of multicolored plastic chairs and tables straddling the river or perched on a cliff overlooking the valley. Nearby to each was a black iron rack holding tagines cooking over open fires and wafting delicious, earthy smells our way: a worthy reward for completing our trek.
At one of these cafés, the path split again and we had to ask a young boy tending the tagines which way to go. In a mix of Spanish, French and English, he told us that we could go either way – down led through the river partially for swimming, and up led through the mountains.1Possessing inappropriate shoes for the former, we headed upwards, quads burning as we navigated the switchbacks. Each time we rounded a corner, we told ourselves we would not turn back until at least the next one, though nagging doubts remained as to where we were actually headed. We passed almost no one on the trail, which ascended the mountain until the river below looked no more than a faint glistening thread below.
Then, suddenly, we rounded the mountain and there it was: right ahead of us, the fabled Bridge of God. It was an enormous arched formation wedged between two mountains, formed of red rock and with a narrow opening for the river far below. The trail led straight over the formation as if it were an actual bridge. After a few minutes of standing in disbelief/relief for having actually made it, we spied the multicolored chairs and tables of a café far below us and were reminded of a the victory tagines that awaited us.
After a shorter return trek (downhill really is much easier), we reached the trailhead and watched as our tagines were pulled straight from an open fire behind us. When the lids were pulled off, we gasped at the enormous mounds of carrots and potatoes hiding meat underneath, all smelling of pine and rosemary like the mountains. Fast forward a half hour of continuous eating later and our ravenous hunger had been sated, though the tagines somehow looked remarkably untouched. Sometimes you can only conquer one mountain a day.
And . . .