Like all places in Tarfaya, its beach is a very special place as well. Just to the north of the town you'll find a large sandy area that is definitely worth a visit.
The area around Tarfaya is known as a very rough place for ships: many of them stranded throughout the years, and many of these shipwrecks were never taken away. I saw some pictures of a huge one on the beach near Tarfaya and we went looking for that one, but we ended up at another one that was a lot smaller but still an interesting sight. The road along the beach is still pretty for from the water and therefore it might be difficult to spot a shipwreck: pay attention and maybe even take binoculars: it's well worth the walk!
But before you reach the coastline when you come from the road, you will have to cross some different worlds first. First there is a dry and rocky desert area, the last part is the real beach, and in between there is a real sanddunes landscape! These dunes are not that high (10 metres max.) but it's a great place to walk through, great to take pictures, and great to play around a bit. And the surprising this: these three landscapes are all within one kilometres!
Walking along the "boulevard" of Tarfaya is a real treat for your imagination. Just like the boulevards in touristic places there is a blue sky above you, a blue sea in front of you and a beach between the sea and the boulevard. But in Tarfaya it still is slightly different.
The first difference: here in Tarfaya the boulevard is almost completely covered by the sand that is moved by the wind every day. The pavement is only visible in a few places, and the benches are half-covered by the sanddunes that show up around them. There are no charming lampposts, nor any shops or terraces. You only see a bit of old rusty iron and that is it.
What you do see is the old Spanish fortress just off shore. They built it during their period of colonialism here in Tarfaya to protect the bay of the town. Today the fort looks like a square-shaped rock in the waves: very rough and not a lot of details. As far as I know it is not possible to visit it, but it's definitely an interesting sight: a proof of the historical value of Tarfaya.
Tarfaya is a strange town. Strange for its surroundings, for its seaside, for its atmosphere, but also for simple things like the things you see in the town centre. In Tarfaya there are probably about 4 roads that are paved, right in the centre there still are some roads that are only sand, but the worst parts are the roads that used to be paved: potholes everywhere and almost impossible to drive on.
Along these roads there are some nice, old buildings that are -like all other buildings in town- plastered with a light yellow, light blue or light pink colour. Some other buildings however are completely abandoned, and can be found right in the middle of Tarfaya as well. At the same time there are other, used buildings, in the middle of the desert outside of town.
And another thing that makes Tarfaya so strange is the fact that you hardly see any life on the streets. You hardly see any shops, no restaurants, and when you see a person they will look at you like they see the reincarnation of Saint-Exupéry or Le Petit Prince himself, but they won't say anything. When you're in Tarfaya you're just as big an attraction for the locals, as they are for you.
Again: it is very hard to explain what makes this place so bizarre. Go there and say (or better: feel) it for yourself!
In the first decades of the 20th century, France had a lot of colonies in especially West-Africa. Since good connections and good communication became more important by the day, the French decided to establish a mail-service by airmail in 1927. An important hub on this line was positioned in Tarfaya. The service was called the "Aéropostale" and the young Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was made leader of the base in Tarfaya. He stayed in the desert for 18 months.
He was only a beginning writer when he came to the Tarfaya-base, but here in the desert he wrote his first big success: Southern Mail, in 1929. Lots of his books afterwards were influenced by this tough period, and his most famous book, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) is clearly influenced by the mysterious atmosphere of this area.
In 1944 St-Exupéry disappeared after a planecrash, serving the French Army. Sixty years later, in 2004 a museum was opened in Tarfaya to honour the writer, the most famous inhabitant of the town ever. A monument, a small airmail-plane is put on the boulevard right in front of the museum.
Officially the small town of Tarfaya is not in Western Sahara, but in Morocco. Officially Western Sahara doesn't even exist actually, but Tarfaya is just north of the inofficial border. From historical point of view the town belongs to the Sahara however (it used to be a Spanish base), so I will count it in as well.
Tarfaya is without a doubt one of the most bizarre places I've ever been. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry lived here for a few years, and used this as inspiration for his famous book Le Petit Prince. The surrealistic world that he discribes in his book is exactly what you see here. It is hard to explain what makes it so bizarre, but the sand that covers everything, the pastel colours and the fact that all people look at you like you're some kind of alien, surely are part of this effect.
I'll try explain a little bit about the mystery of Tarfaya in the following tips, but there really is only one way to experience this place: go there!
The mainattraction of Dchira is the Spanish Fort, or actually the ruins of the Spanish Fort. This was the base that was attacked by the Liberation Army of Sahrawi in 1958. The Spanish were beaten here by the Army that was a collection of different tribes who were fighting to end the colonialism in their country. 17 years later the Spanish were finally defeated, but this was also the start of a new period of imperialism: this time by the Moroccans.
The remains of the fort of Dchira are impressive when you imagine what took place here. The views from here are great, with the dry canyon right below you. The fort consists of some severely damaged walls, guardtowers on the corners, and some old abandoned buildings inside the walls.
When you have a good look at the walls you can find some political carvings, most of the in Arabic, but a drawing of the national flag of Western Sahara is a clear sign: it's forbidden by the Moroccan government.
The town of Dchira, right next to the fort is a very strange sight: a lot of abandoned buildings and no living soul. This is really a goast-town!
When you are on your way to Dchira, you will get a good view of what the real Sahara looks like. It is not all the big pile of sand that most people think of, and not only dunes of a few dozen metres high. In reality the Sahara can be a very rough landscape with mountains, valleys, rocks and dust. And yes: there is some sand as well.
One stereotype is absolutely true: camels are everywhere. Some are guided by a shephard, some walk around freely enjoying the small camelgrass bushes that you find everywhere. When you want to stop to take pictures: watch out that there are no very young ones in the group, because their parents can get agressive out of protectionism.
And then the landscape: Dchira is built right next to a (mostly dry) riverbed. The river that floats here from time to time created a true canyon in the desert, offering great views from both sides of the valley. On the canyons you will find several very small oasises: a collection of palmtrees where most of the times houses are built as well.
Around sunset it's a great time to be in this area: the colours of the rocks turn from almost white to yellow and even orange. Too bad the pictures you find here were taken 5 minutes too late... :(
When you drive into the desert straight towards the east Laayoune you'll end up in the tiny goast-town Dchira. There is a small road leading there along a dry riverbed that is just good enough for a normal car. The scenery along the way is fantastic and the place where you're ending up is just as bizarre as breathtaking.
Dchira is a famous town in the history of Western Sahara. In 1958 a liberation army, that existed of soldiers of all different tribes of the Sahara, fought in a heavy battle against the Spanish that were positioned here in Dchira. The Sahrawi won, although many of them were killed. This was the beginning of the end for the Spanish in their Sahara-province. 17 years later the Green Marsh was organised by the Moroccans, finishing the work that was started in Dchira.
What remains in this town are the ruins of the Spanish fort that was attacked here, and just a few houses that are still used. Silent, impressive remains of what used to be a bloodshed. For the Sahrawi who were killed here there is still a monument that you can visit.
Western Sahara is a mainly islamic country, especially since the Spanish left. This results in a situation where tea is basically the strongest drink you can get when you go somewhere in the evening. Laayoune-Plage is slightly different from this: here there are more foreigners and quite some Spanish people who stayed here. The result: alcohol!
Don't think I'm such an alcoholic that I would drive 15 kilometres to get a beer; Laayoune-Plage basically has a very nice place to hang out and meet friendly people. This place is called "Josephina's", a restaurant/bar that is owned by an old Spanish man. English, French and Spanish are all spoken here and the public is international. The local people that come here are progressive people that often have an interesting opinion about the status of Western Sahara.
You can have great seafood meals here as well as beers and red wine. And because there are hardly any other places in the area where you can get alcohol it happens a lot that people buy 10 cans of beer and take them out in a plastic bag.
Western Sahara is not a rich country, but still they have quite some export. Almost all of this export goes out from the harbour in Laayoune-Plage. Officially this harbour is closed for public, but if you go with a local, or if you ask kindly they might allow you to have a look.
The biggest part of the harbour is occupied by the many fishing boats on the docks. Fish is a popular product in the area (something you should really try here!) but it is also exported a lot, although the export to Morocco is officially not "export" but national transportation. When you come here late in the afternoon you have a good chance of seeing some fishermen with they freshly caught fish and shrimps. When you are interesting in buying some: you cannot get it any fresher!
A bit further in the harbour you can see the bigger boats where they load minerals that are found in the desert, and where they transport another interesting product: sand. Many beaches in Europe loose a lot of sand every year, and if there is one thing that they have enough in Western Sahara, it is sand. And so there are boats full with sand shipped out here heading for Southern Spain all the time.
A few kilometres south of Foum El-Oued, you will find Laayoune-Plage. When you think of all the places in France that have the addition "plage" you might think of long boulevard, palmtrees, beaches, bars, resturants, shops and a lot of tourism. Well: that's in France: this is Western Sahara. Here "plage" means something different.
Laayoune-Plage basically is a business town. This is the mainharbour of the country and from here almost all export is shipped out. This results in a town where concrete buildings is all you see, there there are lots of trucks driving around and a lot of boats in the water.
What makes "Plage" interesting to visit? It is interesting to see how a country like Western Sahara, where there really is nothing, can still earn a living by being creative. And here you can find places to buy and drink alcohol: something that is very difficult in Laayoune. This is a place where foreigners and progressive locals come to: the place to be for an interesting conversation!
Who knows: maybe in a few years there will be more tourism in Western Sahara and there will be a luxurious resort close to Laayoune where tourists can enjoy the ocean, the beach and the sun. If that would ever happen, it would happen here in Foum El-Oued. For the moment however there is nothing more then a bizarre seaside here.
Already on the road towards "Foum" you'll see the sand-problem everywhere. Sand is blowing everywhere and roads would be disappearing if they weren't cleaned every hour. Camels are a normal sight on the side this road.
And then you end up at the coastline where there are good beaches, some rough ones as well, but no single tourist! The boulevard is there, but there are only some small, concrete houses of some local fishermen, and sometimes a second house of a rich person from Laayoune.
This dream of development of the locals, in combination to the total emptyness that is actually there, make Foum El-Oued to a fascinating place.
The capital of Western Sahara, Laayoune, is located a few kilometres inland, right next to the point where two rivers meet. The biggest part of the year there is hardly any water in these rivers, or even no water at all, but still there is a place that is names after these dry riverbeds: Foum El-Oued, which means something like Mouth of the River.
This place is situated at about 10 kilometres west from Laayoune, at the coast. There are plans, or maybe better "ambitions" to exploit this area for tourism since the climate here is very soft and the beaches are naturally sandy. At this moment however, Foum El-Oued is not more then some concrete houses, a few camels and a whole lot of sand...
5 kms after the turn-off to Dakhla, just after a short pass through the hills, on your right hand side is a hot sulphur spring. This is free, but the person operating the pumps does expect tips. It is even written on the wall !!!!! Very good for all manner of soreness after a day spent driving.
If you ask me, the most interesting part of Laayoune definitely is the old Spanish part of the city. This part is situated in the north of the city, at the banks of the river that indicates the northern border of Laayoune. To get there from the modern centre, all you have to do is walk to the north and go downhill: the Spanish town litterly is "Downtown Laayoune".
Walking around in this area is walking around in a ramshackle area: the streets are full of ditches and the houses are in bad need of some renovation. But if you manage to look through this mess you see a very interesting area. Laayoune might lack historical remainings, but the Spanish part is the closest it gets.
The most interesting thing here are the bizarre Spanish houses that you can find here: huge concrete iglo-houses that are still used, or complete quarters with only houses topped with a dome, and also some houses in the shape of a tunnel. All this was done to keep the heat of the desert out of the houses: the result is visible everywhere and is spectacular.
Besides this the view you have from here over the dunes in the desert at the other side of the river is also impressive and another highlight of the Spanish town is the old Spanish cathedral. It is no longer in use today, but from the outside you can still see the special shape: the same domes as used in the houses are used in this cathedral as well.