“I compare you to a kiss from a rose on the grey” – Seal.
I was ready to explore the capital city of Western Sahara in 2017 and it was time to be a backpacker in another unrecognised country, this time on the west coast of Africa. I used Morocco as an excuse to visit Western Sahara. I love to count things and make lists so this was officially country 158 on my global journey. And yes, I counted Morocco as 157. But now things had changed.
“Now you understand that this is not the promised land they spoke of” – Noel Gallagher.
There was no promised land, no cherished destiny and certainly no travel dreams left in my wandering soul as my bus ventured south from the over-visited Moroccan city of Marrakesh. I don’t even have the willpower for this excrement anymore. This is a website destroyed by liars and wannabe Guru Gods, people who live a perfect life without depression and don’t understand how it feels. But simply – nasty liars who don’t know how to admit their faults, and say sorry. Honesty never hurts. Yet I still don’t know why I chose to spend Christmas 2017 in El Aaiun, away from Poland, but it completed a personal selfish milestone of having spent Christmas on every continent (except Antarctica which I backpacked in November instead). I was alive and that’s all that mattered. Here I was.
“It’s 12 o’clock till midnight there must be someone to blame” – Nicky Wire.
As well as curbing my curiosity for another disputed country, adding another dot on my globe, I was here to understand what Western Sahara is. It was in my Atlas as a kid. I always thought it was a fully recognised country, but since the Spanish left in 1976, things haven’t been so simple here. I crossed the border from Morocco into Western Sahara and arrived at dawn into El Aaiun, the country’s capital. It’s also known as Laayoune. I set about exploring the city while being based in the Hotel Jodesa. I found it hard to believe that I was in Western Sahara but there was no border checkpoint, no currency change, no language change (well except that here is mostly Arabic – they don’t really understand French here like they do in Morocco), no visa, no passport stamp and NOT even a Western Sahara flag.
But I found 17 top sights in the capital city of El Aaiun and these are what I recommend.
1.Hôpital Militaire/ Prison
On the edge of the town I was surprised to see the location of the prison, or was it the military hospital? From the outside it didn’t look so secure, but apparently it is. It was guarded by armed soldiers and sat by the river. One source told me this was a prison, Google Maps told me it was a Military Hospital. Choice is yours – go check it out.
2.Edge of City Views
The edge of the city offers some truly scintillating views over a river and some deserted land – if you head east towards the wilderness of Africa. You can get a local taxi (5 Dirhams) or a local bus (I didn’t use them) or do as I did and just walk it, when you get here you will see that the city ends and leads into another small village. From here, across a bridge and a river and you are into pure wilderness. The Sahara Desert.
3.Banque Populaire Headquarters
The only building in the city with a lift (elevator) caused quite a stir when it opened and all the locals wanted to test the lift! Even the Hotel I stayed in had 6 floors and no lift. A novelty in these parts to be able to go up and down with the press of a button. Inside, it’s a bank.
4.Murals of El Aaiun
I saw quite a few murals on my walks around the city. One annoying thing was that I liked one mural a lot (it was near the prison) but there was a local guy standing there and he refused to move for me to take a photo. I managed to get a photo of the pro-Morocco mural on the other side. The football stadium also has some murals outside it and on your walk through the town you will find many more.
- Fountain Roundabout (the number FIVE will NOT move over, sorry as it changes the next point to FIVE!!)
Apart from the reception in the Hotel Nagir (what seemed to be the most swanky venue in the town), I found it hard to get a map of the city or for locals to tell me the names of places. So I’m just calling this place “Fountain Roundabout”. It is a roundabout with a fountain in it, plus flags of a few arab countries – Morocco, Libya and Algeria plus a few others.
I heard that Sheria Mekka was the place to go shopping and to be honest, it was little more than a small row of vendors. But I liked it as it was uncommercial. Souvenirs are hard to find here, and I was looking for Western Sahara specific souvenirs, but I found some postcards at least.
If you read my tourist guide to crackpacking the top 5 sights in a city in a country, you will know that I love to include a SQUARE or meeting place of some description. At first it can be hard to tell exactly which is the main square here. At one point, I was told it was the one where the DickMonalds, but that seemed a crazy idea.
8.Western Sahara Flags
There aren’t any. This was a shock to me. I think it is the only country I have been to that I class as a country yet there are no national flags flying from the capital city. Instead though, there are some flags flying in the downtown area of nearby Muslim countries.
9.Stade Moulay Rachid
The Stade Mouley Rachid is a small football stadium but was the closest one to my hotel so I backpacked it on foot and it was easy to find and see. What was lucky was that one guy was in working on the stand (which is being built / renovated) and he had a key! He kindly let me in and took photos of me! I walked on the pitch – it was plastic.
10.Stade Mohammed Laghdaf
I visited two stadiums in El Aaiun. I was lucky again when I got to the Stade Mohammed Laghdaf. This is the National Stadium – well to all intents and purposes of course as the country’s existence is still not recognised. There was a guy cutting the grass and his mate had the key! He let me in and took some photos of me and I made a video.
Hotel Nagir seemed to be the most fancy hotel in the city. It was on a prominent corner and also had the fastest Wi-Fi. It was Christmas time so I popped in here for a cup of tea and called my family using their fast Wi-Fi. The reception staff were great but it was a bit above my budget hence why I backpacked to the nearby Hotel Jodesa instead.
How can I do a “first” on here? Well I am doing it! The DickMonald’s is worth checking out here in El Ayoun and I mean it. I despise large corporate commercial companies like DickMonald’s normally but I am putting this on the list as it was just so out of place. I didn’t dare go inside and order a BigDick (or whatever it’s called) as to me – the only place I want to visit McDonald’s in is the USA – where it’s from. The DickMonald’s was by the main square and was always packed!
13.Place Oum Saad and Place El Mchawar
Place Oum Saad is the current large city park area and the Place El Mchawar is the future of El Aaiun and I was glad I saw it when it is under construction. This is a huge project in the city to build a swanky and leafy park for the locals. Once it is complete it will look amazing – it sits opposite the Palace of Congress. I am not sure whether the two parks will be joined together or not but currently Place Oum Saad is finished and Place El Mchawar is across the street and still being built.
Place Oum Saad and Place El Mchawar14.Palais Des Congres
The Palais Des Congres is an administrative building opposite the Place El Mchwar. This city is not so famous yet nor does it attract big name politicians but when it does, this will be where the meetings are held.
15.Mosques – Mosquée Moulay Abdel Aziz
To be honest – Morocco and Western Sahara were very very different to other Muslim states I have been to. The reason is that here – Mosques are harder to find and just not so obvious or blatant. There are quite a few of them in El Aaiun but for me my favourite and the only one to visit was the Mosquée Moulay Abdel Aziz. It is new, in a courtyard, clean and looks great. I heard the call to prayer here on my final night in the country.
16.Reminders of War
I couldn’t photograph everything in El Aaiun and all the time there were police and army on the streets. They don’t bother you and they don’t even flicker an eyelid at a foreign tourist, until you stand out. Apart from some littered streets, ruined building and burnt out cars, reminders that there is political tension here are few and far between. In fact – it’s one of the safest cities I have been in yet. I mean it.
17.El Aaiun International Airport
There was something so so special about the El Aaiun International Airport and that is – it is in the city. It is walkable from your hotel. I was shocked by this and when I went over in my mind all the hotels I had stayed in and all the flights I had taken, I couldn’t recall a time when I was a 5 – 10 minute walk from the airport.
In fact, I went to leave the country and was far too early for my flight. This is actually the best airport I have ever been to for speed. I was checked in within 1 minute, through passport control in the second minute and in the third minute my bag had been scanned and I was sitting with a coffee in my hand in the departure lounge. I decided to leave Western Sahara by air, having flown in and I headed to the Moroccan city of Casablanca next…
Here are some videos of my time in El Ayoun, Western Sahara: