laayoune moroccoLaayoune is the largest town in Western Sahara, the desert region south of Morocco’s Anti Atlas Mountains. Occupied by Spain until 1974, Western Sahara remains in legal limbo as a disputed territory. After the “Green March” of November 1975—when 350,000 Moroccans marched across the border into the Sahara—a conflict broke out between the Moroccans and the Polisario Front, a group that demanded independence for its native Sahrawi people. Talks have been underway between Morocco and Polisario since a UN-sponsored cease fire in 1991.

The town tends to serve as a stopover point for travelers going between Mauritania and southern Morocco or for those on the way to try kite surfing at Dakhla’s desert lagoon.  From Marrakech, it’s a 16-hour plus bus ride to Laayoune. Although you’ll be driving through desert, don’t expect spectacular scenery like you’ll find at Erg Chebbi; this part of the Sahara is all hamada—flat, rocky desert.

Bus companies that serve Laayoune include CTM, Supratours and SATAS. You can also book bus tickets from Marrakech as part of a combined ONCF train fare. Destinations that connect with Laayoune include Dakhla (9 hours), Agadir/Inezgane (10.5 hours), Goulmime (6.5 hours) and Tan Tan (3 hours). From Laayoune, you can find grand taxis (share taxis) going to Tan Tan and Goulmime, but you may need to wait a few hours until the seats fill up and the taxi is ready to leave.

Royal Air Maroc operates daily flights to Laayoune from Casablanca, and flights run four times a week between Laayoune and Dakhla.

Laayoune’s most interesting facet is its quirkiness. You can visit the colonial Spanish church where many UN workers now meet to worship, or spend an afternoon chatting with soldiers over a cup of mint tea. Check out the main square at Place du Mechouar, watch a match at the football stadium to the northwest of town or visit the aviary at Colline des Oiseaux. For women, a fun activity is shopping for malhafas, the colorful sari-like garments worn by Sahrawi women.

Finding high- and mid-range accommodation in Laayoune can be tricky, as many hotels are block booked by UN personnel. Some have come to resemble mini fortresses with barbed wire surrounding the premises. On the high end, try Hotel al-Massira, Sahara Line or Hotel Parador, a colonial era throwback complete with bar and swimming pool. One mid-range option in Place Dchira is Hotel Zemmour, and budget travelers can look for cheapies around Souk ez-Zaj and Souk el-Jamal.

Dozens of affordable cafes and restaurants can be found in and around Place Dchira. A favorite with the international community is Pizzaria la Madone, a restaurant that serves up freshly baked, thin-crust pizzas as well as pasta dishes. If you’re craving authentic Chinese food, head over to House of Chen on Avenue Talha Bnou Zoubeir.

About 14 miles south of Laayoune is a large beach at Foum el Oued. Buses run from Laayoune to Foum el Oued during the summer months, and during the rest of the year you can hire a grand taxi to take you there. Campsites and several hotels and rental villas are available at the beach.

Written by Heather Carreiro.

Photo by Rafa