Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sidi Ifni, Spanish Saharan art deco town.

Sidi Ifni is a peculiar art deco Spanish town, marooned upon the southern desert coast of Morocco. How did it come to be here, and why have you probably never heard of it?

Sidi Ifni is little visited, and therefore little reported on. This is primarily because of its being isolated from the rest of the World by a winding mountain road, and the Atlantic Ocean. In this respect it is reminiscent of cadaques, which is isolated by the Cap Reus Pyrenees, and the Mediterranean, in the North Eastern corner of Spain. This similarity must be coincidental to Sidi Ifni having been a Spanish colony until 1969. It is this factor which is directly responsible for Sidi Ifni being such an interesting peculiarity, because before the Spanish arrived there was not so much as a building, where now stands a town.

Although Sid Ifni was ceded to Spain in 1860, it was not until 1934 that Spain engaged its time and resources into the enclave. There then occurred a bold social and economic experiment to create an outpost of Spain upon the African coast, East of the Canary Islands. Like most state organised social experiments it failed. But it has left behind quite the strangest art deco Spanish town, crumbling on the arid Western cliffs of the Moroccan Anti Atlas mountains.

The threat of maritime fog, rolling in from
the Atlantic, has so far kept the “sun set”
away to the north, in Agadir.

This part of the Moroccan coast is a kind Northern Hemisphere version of the skeleton coast in Namibia. Along the coast around Sidi Ifni a sea mist, and occasional fog, is invoked on hot days by the cold sea currents crashing into the baked flank of the Sahara. A similar process creates fog over the Grand Banks, when warm air passes over the cold Labrador Current, off the coast of Newfoundland.

Back to the 1930s, and Sidi Ifni must have been something of a boom town, judging from the number of buildings from this period. There was also a large investment in infrastructure from this point. An airport, lighthouse, military barracks, and most impressive of all a sea to land cable car conveyor for the import and export of cargo. This was an innovative and dramatic way to solve the problem of there being no natural harbour, or even deep enough coastal water to build a harbour. This cable car conveyor facilitated lucrative trade between the African enclave and the Canary Islands.

The boat design of this house may seem unusual, but it is well suited for its original purpose. It housed the officers’ mess for the Spanish navy.

After Moroccan independence in 1956 the Spanish did not depart the country wholesale in the same way that the French did. Instead they were gradually displaced by the Moroccan state as it exerted its territorial claims. This is a process that continues today. After independence something of a siege mentality must have set in, as various towns and territories were handed over to Morocco. First the Spanish protectorate of Northern Morocco disappeared to combine with former French Morocco in 1956. Two years later Tarfaya province, just to the South, reverted to Morocco in 1958. Spanish Sidi Ifni was left in place, secluded behind the mountains, and occasionally hidden under maritime fog. It seems that the abandonment of Sidi Ifni by the Spanish was ultimately caused by political, rather than economic and military pressures. According to the locals the Spanish left en masse in 1969.

The beach will be your destination for most activities, although relaxation is the primary reason for visiting Sidi Ifni.

Perhaps because the infrastructure and architecture left behind by the Spanish was of a high standard, in comparison to other areas in Morocco, it has luckily been left alone. Investment in housing, and sanitation, had, and still has more dire need elsewhere. So to a large extent Sidi Ifni has frozen in time. It has not been left to ruin. Instead its 1930’s kitsch has been patched, repaired, and boarded up. It has not suffered the blight of European urban regeneration, which is a fixation of the bureaucratic, trying to conquer culture. Instead it has just been left to exist.

There is not a great deal to do in Sidi Ifni other than look around, at the buildings, and history surrounding you. There are two bars upon the beach front below the Spanish steps. The bar at the hotel Ait Baamrane is good for watching the sun go down over the Atlantic. Next to this is the Ifni Beach Bar. Which is somewhat livelier. You may witness the odd local attempting a sort of chicken dance to loud Moroccan pop music. This is played inside the bar and outside on the terrace facing the sea. The terrace can be observed from within the male toilets by specially constructed peepholes at eye height above the urinals. Draw your own conclusions. The beach in front of these bars consists of clean golden sand and a strong rip tide. This is handy if you are a surfer wanting to be drawn out to sea past the breakers, but not if you are a swimmer who does not. A bit of caution will ensure safety. The beach continues out of sight to the North and South. To the North it is rocky and to the South sandy.

What we did 40 summers ago.

It is well worth the walk South, along the beach to the Port. The Port itself is modern, and is commercially active for fishing. You can see schools of fish fighting for scraps in the harbour, and sometimes fishermen fighting each other over the landed catch. While walking there you will see looming out of the mist what appears to be a single large concrete dock, stuck in the middle of the sea beyond the modern port. This is exactly what it once was. This construction was the loading dock for ships to deliver and receive their cargo from the land to sea cable car conveyor. It is accompanied by two monstrous concrete Pylons that supported the long gone cables and cars on their journey through the sky to the hill station up on the cliff, a few kilometres inland from the dock. I can find no documentation on the subject but our guide, Mohammed, stated that the cable car conveyor was constructed in 1940. This would put it easily at the cutting edge of 1940’s technology. One of those grandstand infrastructure projects that litter the 20th century. According to Mohammed it ceased to work in 1970, a mere year after the Spanish left. The damp climate meant a heavy maintenance schedule. Lack of resources in the new Moroccan state, and the departure of Spanish engineering skills made its demise inevitable.

The cutting edge of 1940’s technology!

The cable car hill station is an immense concrete bunker within which Barbary Falcons make their home in its upper recesses. By European standards it is all remarkably un-vandalised. Although the cable cars and cables have deteriorated through rust and scavenging, the larger structures remain intact. Outside the hill station hanger lie the last abandoned
cargoes to be transported ashore. Piles of 37 year old telegraph poles lie cracked and split, after years of exposure to the desert weather. A whole fleet of white and blue fibre glass fishing boats had been rescued from the sea, only to be abandoned up in the desert. Today they are falling apart at the seams. Witnesses to a strange aborted salvage mission, only partly completed. This sums up the fate of Spanish Sidi Ifni. There was nothing unviable about the enterprise; it just ran out of time. This was because of events and pressures from the outside World. This seems all the more strange 37 years later when the outside World feels so remote from Sidi Ifni.

And the next cable car departure will be … … never!


Air traffic continued between Sidi Ifni and the Canary Islands after independence for a number of years, but now the airport is abandoned.

Independence Day is celebrated on the 30th of June with a commercial fair and a “Fantasia”, involving horse mounted riflemen.

There are now only 3 Spanish families left in Sidi Ifni.

The new port was completed in 1998. The King stayed in the former Governors house, now a royal palace, for the inauguration ceremony.

Visiting Sidi Ifni:

The Hotel Suerte Loca.
Cost €17 for a double room with shower and toilet.
Tel. 00212 (0)28 875350. Located at the end of Avenue Moulay Youssef.

Bank Populaire (with ATM, but do not rely on it to work).
Avenue Mohammed V.

Getting there:

A single seat in a collective grand taxi from Agadir (Inezgane) costs €8.
From Tiznit €4.

Further Information:

The following web link provides further information, and practicalities, for travellers visiting Sidi Ifni:

The following web link provides a portal for investigating the final years of Spanish Sidi Ifni:

Un-maintained maintenance access ladders upon the cable car pylons.

Renovated Spanish architecture. In 2005
more Europeans bought
properties, in Sidi Ifni, than in any other
year since independence.