Travelling through the North of Morocco, I took the measure of the Spanish influence of Morocco. Spanish is still widely spoken in places like Tangier, Chefchaouen and Tetouan, which was a surprise to me… But there is an even bigger remnant of Spanish influence in Morocco. Believe it or not, there are islands or rock-fortresses gently nestled against the Mediterranean Coast where the Spanish flag still flies. It’s been like this since the 15th Century and is a serious point of contention between the two nations. You can’t actually visit them but here are a few tips on how to get close to the controversial Spanish Islands of Morocco.
The Moroccan government disputes the ownership of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Whilst they are now autonomous territories, they have a diverse population and are like a small Spanish province in Africa. The controversial Spanish Islands of Morocco, however, are merely military outposts and a somewhat touchy subject for the proud Moroccan people. Named peñon in Spanish, or rock-fortresses, they are a fascinating and little-known secret:
- Peñon Velez de la Gomerra
- Peñon de Alhucemas
- Chafarinas Islands
Peñon Velez de la Gomerra
The Peñon Velez de la Gomerra is located near Cala Iris, a charming fishing village on the Mediterranean Coast. While staying in Chefchaouen, my father and I took a road trip through the Rif Mountains and went searching for this mysterious island. The village of Torres de Alcala was known in Ancient Times as Bades. In 1496, an agreement was signed between Portugal and Spain to establish their zones of influence in North Africa. Spain could only occupy land east of the peñon. Since then, the peñon has been under siege many times throughout the ages, up to the end of the 18th Century.
Today, the peñon or rock-fortress connects to the Moroccan coast by a sandy isthmus. The isthmus is 85m long and is the world’s shortest single land border segment. It wasn’t always like this, the rock was indeed an island until 1934 when a huge storm washed large quantities of sand, therefore linking to the coast.
Torres de Alcala
Access to the peñon is not easy and there are no directions anywhere, so some of the Spanish islands of Morocco can be hard to find. The whole thing is politically sensitive and there aren’t many tourists in the area. This could change, however, as Cala Iris is getting some development and the neighbouring 13th century Almohad fort is being restored.
We had an interesting conversation with the engineer in charge of the project and it seems that the European Union is funding some development projects in order to steer the local population away from cultivating marijuana…
How to Find the Peñon Velez de la Gomerra
The peñon is not quite visible from Cala Iris or Torres de Alcala and you really have to search for it. So here’s the secret, at the back of the village of Torres de Alcala, if you turn your back to the coast, there is a dirt road that climbs on the side of the mountain. The dirt road clings to the mountain and turns into a rocky road. If you drive 5 km along the side of the mountain, you will come into the most extraordinary sight: the most secretive Spanish island of Morocco. The road effectively stops and you are at a viewpoint that overlooks the Peñon Velez de la Gomerra. The sight is absolutely stunning and is probably my favourite and most extraordinary discovery on my trip to the North of Morocco…
The rock-fortress is mostly built-up with white buildings, some streets and a helicopter pad… Only soldiers live there and you can’t access the island from the beach. In 2012, Moroccan activists from the Committee for the Liberation of Ceuta and Melilla placed Moroccan flags on the rock and were arrested by Spanish soldiers. The soldiers released them quickly of course, but this gives you an idea of how sensitive this issue is…
The Rock Fortress
The road is beautiful but dangerous. Indeed, the engineer we met suggested it was only suitable for 4×4 vehicles. Of course, coming so close to the Peñon and giving up wasn’t an option for my ever-daring father so we pushed on… On a dry day, we managed well and very carefully in a small car, but I have to admit I was absolutely terrified. I love a good road trip but some of these Moroccan roads are really scary! I’m fine with driving in Morocco but I really wouldn’t recommend this road on a wet day…
In the end, it was absolutely worth it. We discovered a well-kept secret of the Moroccan Coast and there we were, looking at a small piece of Spain… The rock-fortress seems to have been forgotten in time. Why Spain holds on to it, I don’t know… This situation probably won’t last forever so if you are driving along the Mediterranean Coast, go and have a look…
Peñon de Alhucemas
The Peñon de Alhucemas is east of Al-Hoceima, also on the Mediterranean Coast. It is really an archipelago of three islands: Peñon de Alhucemas, Isla de Mar and Isla de Tierra. The penon and islets have been under Spanish rule since 1559 when the Saadi dynasty ceded the islands to Spain in exchange for their help against the Ottoman armies.
The name of the rock-fortress actually means Lavender Rock. As for the other controversial Spanish Islands of Morocco, there is an ownership dispute since the independence in 1956.
Also known as Islas Chafarinas in Spanish or Iles Zaffarines in French, these are one more archipelago of three small islands, 46 km south-east of Melilla. Visible from the Moroccan village of Ras El Ma, the two smaller islets have no inhabitants and the Spanish have been ruling them since 1848. However, some building works began in September 2017.
Today, there is a military base on Queen Isabel II Island, with some 200 military personnel and coast guards. And for good measure, a few meteorologists and scientists visit from time to time.
Mysterious Spanish Islands
These controversial Spanish islands of Morocco are a reasonably well-kept secret. Along with the Spanish enclaves, they offer a very different side of Morocco and an intriguing historical point.
Did you ever get the chance to catch a sight of the controversial Spanish islands of Morocco? Would you make it a reason to travel to Morocco? Tell me about your experience in the comments below.
For more Morocco inspiration, check out my Morocco packing list and my 20 things to know before travelling to Morocco. And after all this road tripping, you are going to Marrakech and Essaouira for some shopping, I have some great tips for successful haggling!