Morocco cannot be visited without seeing the desert. Riding massive sand dunes on camelback and spending a night in the middle of nowhere under the most starry skies you’ve ever seen is a magical experience that is often rated as a, (if not THE) highlight of one’s trip to Morocco. Multiple places make a good point of entry but the best and most popular is Merzouga, the gateway to Erg Chebbi. It get’s even better: this trip can be combined with visiting Hollywood-famous ruins, lush green datepalm-gorges, monkey-forests and the rocky Atlas-mountains! We did the research and ventured out there to come up with the best plan to maximize your visit to the magical Moroccan desert.
– Practical Information –
When: the Moroccan summer heat is just too intense to properly enjoy the desert in these months. Better are spring (end March – mid-May) and fall (end September – end November) when the sun shines from dusk till dawn and the daily highs average out at around 25-30 degrees Celcius.
In & Out: The gateway to the Erg Chebbi desert is Merzouga, which does not have its own airport. If you wish to fly, your best option is to fly into Ouarzazate and then continue on by either a rental or by bus.
From Marrakech or Fez you can take a CTM line, the Marrakech line also stops in Quarzazate. There are no trains running to Merzouga.
The best two options in my opinion, however, are either taking a desert-tour from Marrakech (or Fez) or venturing out on your own wheels. If you prefer renting a car you’d be best adviced to following a similar route as the one I describe below under ‘- The Trip-‘ as it includes incredible stops and places of interest along the way to and from the desert. Equally important: it is the road most traveled. If your vehicle breaks down, chances are high you won’t be stranded for too long.
Budget: A 3 day 2 nights tour will set you back anywhere between 900 – 3000 MAD (although there will probably be extreme luxurious tours that top that). This includes accommodation, breakfasts, dinners, a camel-ride, a guided tour in the (Todra) gorge but excludes a guide in Ait Benhaddou (50 MAD extra). Take into account 100 MAD p.p.p.d. for lunch, 10 MAD for a 1.5L bottle of water, a few extra Dirhams for some snacks and some to tip guides, the driver and maybe to buy some souvenirs.
Car-rental in Morocco starts at 250 MAD a day, but it is advisable to pick a 4WD for this trip which will set you back at least double. Take into account a one-way fee of around 700 MAD if you are not returning your car to the same place. Petrol is not too expensive in Morocco (about 10-15 MAD a liter) an d accommodation fully depends on the level of luxury you desire. for 300MAD you’ll find a basic room in an authentic charming Berber guesthouse. expect to pay 100MAD extra for a heated room (nights can get very cold in the high Atlas).
– Options –
As I stated before there are several places where you can enter the desert. The two most popular options (because of their accessibility) are the Erg Chebbi dunes near Merzouga and the Erg Chigaga dunes near Zagora. The latter is a bit more off the beaten path and normally this would be my pick, however, Erg Chebbi’s location (further to the North) is more favorable for seeing others sights and for continuing on to Fez. The trip I describe below is not just a trip to the desert, it is a 3 day fully immersed programme that takes you deep into the Altas Mountains, brings you to green valleys and gorges with lush date palms, up into cold cedar-forests where Berber-Macaque monkeys roam and on top of that all into the mighty sand dunes of the Sahara desert.
Going into the desert can either be done using a tour or going out on your own wheels (but you’ll still need to go with a company to actually ride into the desert on camelback – this can be arranged on the spot in Merzouga). Private-tours are costly but due to low labor costs not as costly as you might expect in other places around the globe. They provide the added benefit that you can stop to take photos or make detours/ skip sights on request. I would recommend taking a group-tour if you are not traveling around Morocco by car. It will take all stress out of your hands, provides excellent value for money and combines transportation between cities with a visit to the mountains and the desert which saves out valuable time when on holiday (embrace the ‘no-road-back travel style‘!).
The best option is starting your tour in Marrakech with a drop-off in Fez. You can go the other way around but since fewer people choose that option, prices tend to be higher. If you want to travel from Marrakech to Fez directly the bus will take at least 9 hours. The train around 8, taking you along the coast passing by Casablanca, Rabat and Meknes along the way.
– Taking a desert tour –
Choosing the right company There are dozens of companies that provide similar trips. The joke is that most offer literally the same tour. We booked our tour with I Go Morocco but were accompanied in our mini-van with people from 3 different companies. The only difference is the accommodation, and since this is where you have both breakfast and dinner the meals also differ. Choosing a more luxurious tour equals better hotels and better beds. BUT NOTHING MORE. We had a few people on our minivan that had chosen a very luxurious tour and people that booked with a budget company. Same minivan, same stops, same guides. Choosing the right company therefore really comes down to trying to fish out those tours that provide excellent value for money and fit your style of travel.
I Go Morocco Tours After some research I decided on going with I Go Morocco and I can recommend their tour as they are very neatly organized and provide good value for money. While they would not classify as a budget-tour they are one of the cheapest mid-range companies. Accommodation is basic but very charming and authentic. Expect delicious home-cooked meals, warm fireplaces in the corridors and lots of woodwork everywhere. On the third day of the tour, some people in our van had booked a return-trip to Marrakesh instead of going on to Fez. They got a very long direct bus drive back while we got a full extra day of touring in a private-car (with 2 others). Driving through incredibly diverse scenery and stopping at a few very interesting sights! It costs around 1500 MAD + 100 MAD for heating in your room on the first night and another 100 MAD for a private tent in the desert (both not necessary – the first hotel has plenty of warm blankets and the private tent is still shared but only gives you a private cabin (divided by wall carpets)).
– The trip –
The trip described here is how 90% of all tours look like. The route, the stops the transport. Apart from giving you an impression on how such a tour looks like it also forms an excellent base-itinerary for those who prefer driving the route themselves.
Just after dawn (around 7:30 AM), you’ll get picked up from your ho(s)tel by the ‘tour-guide’. After you’re transferred to the mini-van that will be your home for the next few days you say goodbye to this guide and never see him again.. not to worry the tour uses local guides for the major sights and the driver understands and speaks good English. In a few hours, you drive to Ait Benhaddou, a centuries-old fortified town that was partially rebuilt to form the decor for many Hollywood blockbusters such as Jewel of the Nile, The Mummy, Gladiator and the HBO-series Game Of Thrones. The old ‘Kasbahs’ are quite the sight and you’ll feel like a proper Indiana Jones when you walk between century-old sandstone walls and vaguely start to remember some movie-scenes that were shot here. The guided walk takes about an hour after which you head back to a nearby place to have lunch.
We were ushered into a very touristy eatery with many levels and many tour-groups eating there. If you’ll find yourself there (and you’ll recognize it when you do) – leave. Since you’re paying for your own lunch you are free to have it somewhere else and there are better alternatives out there. The food at the big tourist stop is dull and lacking taste. On top of that, my girlfriend and I caught food-poisoning there, which resulted in a full night of explosive vomiting. Not the best preparation for going out into the desert.
After lunch, you’ll drive through vast desert and mountain scenery and have a quick stop at Quarzazate, a very charming town that also played host to many Hollywood films. If you’re driving yourself this might also be a good spot to spend the evening and night and explore a little more of the town. The tour continues into Date Country where you’ll have dinner and spend the night. The minivan will drop off each tour-group at their respective hotel/guesthouse starting with the most luxurious one and so forth. With I Go Morocco you’ll stay at a very charming and authentic guesthouse. Mom’s cooking tonight and is a hell of a cook so you’ll be assured to go to bed with a full tummy. Make sure you’ll have enough blankets as the nights here get freezing and remember you followed my advice to not pay extra for heating? Yeah…. so your room will get freezing too.
Next morning you’ll realize you slept in a beautiful valley as you rise to a spectacular view. You’ll head deeper into date-country and make your way to Todra Gorge. First, you’ll pass along the valley and see the wide gorge from up top filled with luscious green datepalms all following the Todra River. Next, you’ll head down into the gorge where you’ll pick up a guide and head out into the gorge by foot. You meander through a very peaceful landscape, along the river and through farmlands and olive trees. The visit ends at a carpet-weavery where they show you the different techniques they use to weave carpets. Of course, there is the option to purchase a carpet but the salesmen are not pushy at all. The walk and visit take about 2.5 hours. After a small ride, you’ll have lunch at a nice little restaurant at the riverside. Again, you are free to pick your own spot but the restaurant is actually quite charming and the choices are a bit more limited than on the first day.
After lunch, the tour continues to Merzouga where the paved road gets replaced by a dirt path. Here is where the real adventure starts. You’ll get off at one of the many hotels in Merzouga where you’ll leave your big bag to venture out into the desert on camelback with only a small daypack for the night. Riding a camel on massive sand dunes (up to 300 meters high) that constantly shift colors because of the slowly setting sun is just magical. After 20 minutes you find out that riding a camel is less comfortable than you hoped and after another 20, the increasing soreness between your legs helps you to overcome your fear of falling off and try out the side-ways seat (two legs one side), incredible relieving.
After an hour and a half, you’ll arrive at the desert camp, where you’ll stay for the night. Dinner is served in tents after which drums and shouts around the campfire will draw you back out (but make sure to put on some extra layers against the cold of the night). What follows is a performance of Berber-music. Interesting for a while but quite repetitive after 30 minutes. The music is made by the camel drivers and they are more doing it to enjoy themselves than to perform for the guests – which I guess makes it more authentic but does not contribute to the quality of the music and the performance alike. When you have had enough, head out into the starry night. The amount of stars is just mindboggling, and I can honestly say I have never seen so many stars in my life (and I’ve also spent nights out in the Australian outback and remote Panamanian Islands). Afterwards, you’ll spend the night in a desert-tent that is equipped with a full-sized mattress – so there is no need to worry about an uncomfortable night.
Next morning you wake up before dawn and it is freezing. TAKE GLOVES. The camel-ride back is another hour and a half before you’re back at the hotel where you have breakfast.
After breakfast, the ride to Fez will be in a private car that can stop and take detours on request. You’ll slowly see the scenery change to more green and fertile lands A great stop for lunch, is Midelt, a town famous for its apple orchards. As you continue to ascent the terrain gets more alpine and cedar trees start to pop up. Around 30 kilometers south of Ifrane are woods that are inhabited by a large population of Berber Macaque-monkeys. Ifrane itself is worth a short visit too. This alpine town is transformed into a ski resort in the coldest months of winter (that’s right, there is skiing in Morocco!) and the king of Morocco has a large palace here. Ifrane was awarded as cleanest town in the world in 2017.
From Ifrane it is only an hour drive to Fez where you’re dropped off at your hotel – or a stop close to your hotel (as the old medina in Fez is impossibly difficult to navigate – make sure you get picked up by someone from your ho(s)tel in Fez. By now it will be late in the afternoon or early in the evening – the three packed days will probably have played its toll on you and all you really crave for tonight will be a pillow to rest your head on.
Whether you decide on going on a tour or heading out on your own wheels, visiting the Sahara desert in Morocco is a must. And by following the above route you’ll be sure to not miss out on many other gems of rural Morocco.