Even before I finalised plans to visit Morocco this August, I was dreaming of riding camels through the Sahara Desert and sleeping in the dunes― the quintessential Moroccan experience. I did extensive research on desert tour companies in Morocco that would take us from Marrakech to Fes via the desert in Erg Chebbi, but we ended up waiting to book until we actually arrived in the hopes that it would be cheaper. It definitely was!
All the details: Sahara Desert Tour
Cost: If you book through a local agency in Morocco, expect to pay about 750Dh. Head straight to Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech’s Medina to check out your options. If you book online, it can be as high as 300€ for a similar 3D/2N tour!
Getting there: Most tours depart from Marrakech, which is best reached by a flight through Marrakech Menara Airport. From there, take a taxi to the Medina (Old City) rather than troubling with buses. Expect to pay about 15€ to get to the Old City, but be sure to agree upon this price before you get in! In all likelihood, the taxi won’t be able to carry you all the way to your riad, as the roads become too narrow in the Medina, but you can usually ask them to call your riad and one of the staff will meet you where the taxi stops to help you navigate through the maze. After booking your tour, the company should set a time to pick you up from your riad for the departure.
Where to stay: Spend a few days in Marrakech’s Old City before you depart on the tour— Riad Dar Nael offers comfortable rooms surrounding a lovely courtyard and pool for 20€ per night. While on the tour, your accomodation should be covered in a nice hotel (night 1) and at a Sahara Desert camp (night 2).
Top tips: Read my post on booking the best Sahara Desert tour for heaps of advice!
Arriving in the amazing city of Marrakech, it took only a few strides across the buzzing medina square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, to find a local travel agent advertising excursions. A man hustled us inside a shop full of Moroccan dresses and scarves to a tiny office in the back, covered wall to wall in maps, where another man invited us to sit and discuss the tour. The whole experience was very similar to what you find in Southeast Asia and South America when booking excursions: slightly dilapidated office, very dated photos of the tour on a PowerPoint presentation, promises that sound instantly too good to be true, but large amounts of bargaining room in the prices.
I never like booking at the first place I speak to, but I did read typical prices for the tour on the internet and managed to get the agent down to 750Dh per person for the 3D/2N tour, which is honestly quite reasonable (about ¼ the price of buying a tour online). I also knew from my research that most of the tours would be exactly the same in terms of specific stops and food provided, so we decided to save ourselves hours of haggling in the heat and just take two seats on this tour departing tomorrow morning.
At 7am, we are met at our riad by a driver (on foot, because the car can only get within a few minutes of our riad due to the narrow network of streets in the medina) and walked to a car that drives us to the vehicle we will actually take. Despite what was promised when we booked the tour, I am expecting to find all 8 of us crammed into a 4×4—I can’t help but compare this trip to the tour I took in Bolivia across the altiplano where I basically sat on top of a large German family for 3 days. However, I am pleasantly surprised to find that the mini bus is spacious, even has spare seats, and has aircon just as promised. Katy and I even manage to snag the front seats, since we get carsick, so the tour is off to a swimming start in my book.
Over the next few days, we travel from Marrakech towards Merzouga through beautiful towns, high mountain passes, lush valleys, dramatic gorges, and finally rolling sand dunes in the Sahara Desert. It is the perfect way to take in the varied Moroccan landscape and really get a feel for this magical country beyond its main cities.
Tizi n’Tichka Pass & the High Atlas Mountains
After an early morning pick-up from our riad in Marrakech and a rendezvous with several other travellers also on the tour, we are off, driving southeast out of the city and heading almost immediately up into the Atlas Mountains. Since it’s the dead of summer and temperatures are threatening to overextend the mercury/boil my eyeballs, we don’t get to see the light dusting of snow across the mountains that features prominently in Instagram photos, but the views from the Tizi n’Tichka Pass are still plenty to keep my fingers on high alert, snapping dozens of photos in every direction and barking directions at Katy (“stand over there, look casual, just a little to the left”).
Next we pass through the walled city of Aït Benhaddou, a picturesque terracotta-coloured fortress that still houses several families, but is most known for its appearance in big Hollywood films as a stand-in for ancient Persia or Jerusalem.
After a much-needed lunch of chicken tajine, which is a traditional Moroccan dish (and often the only dish on the menu at restaurants) of basically slow-cooked chicken and veggies, we see a bit of Ouarzazate, “the Moroccan Hollywood”. We opt to skip the studio tour, but still admire the impressive red-earth exterior of the complex.
Finally, we reach our destination for the night, a quaint little Berber hotel with fantastic private rooms (with desperately-needed showers), delicious food, and a rooftop covered with cushions and rugs where we while away the night playing drums with our group and the wonderful Berber people working at the hotel.
After a delicious breakfast and one last cold shower, we depart from our little hotel and make a stop almost immediately to survey the beautiful peach-coloured town we are leaving behind. Despite our reasonably early start, it’s rapidly approaching boiling temperature and only a view this amazing could wrench me from the comfort of the air-conditioned van.
As much as it pains me to admit this, I just can’t remember the name of the exact village we stop in.. But we make our main stop of the morning in some charming Berber village, nestled in a valley overflowing with surprisingly lush vegetation. Our driver organises for us to rendezvous with a local Berber guide and we depart on foot through the fields, learning about the Berber way of life and the history of the (nameless) town that we are in.
There are local children lurking about, which is always uncomfortable because I know they’re going to ask for money and I feel guilty saying no, but they give us these adorable little camels woven out of leaves (i.e. force us to take them) so we reluctantly drag some coins out and they leave happy.
Everyone sporting their woven camels around their necks, we walk for about an hour while our guide, an incredibly amusing man who is frequently inclined to climb palm trees for a photo op, narrates our journey in English, French, Spanish, and German for the group. I’m feeling a bit like I’m going to pass out from the heat at this point, so I’m just counting the seconds until I can have a sit, but that does not prevent me from laughing at his business card for 20 minutes straight (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The ubiquitous rug shop
After our walk through the fields and the village, our Berber guide take us to a traditional rug shop, where we are basically given an hour-long sales pitch on camel hair rugs, but it does involve really delicious mint tea and it is surprisingly interesting to learn about how the rugs are made. The shop owner even offers me 500 camels in exchange for Katy, an offer I am very tempted to accept. In the end, it is truly amazing that I leave without a rug (and thankful, too, because I have negative room in the 20L backpack I’m travelling with), but Katy brings home a beautiful cactus and camel masterpiece and I’m green with envy for days.
Taking a hurried leave from the rug shop (while the shop owner shouts out ever-lower prices at my receding back), we drive through Tinghir and stop briefly to enjoy the beautiful view before getting back in the van and carrying on along the road to Merzouga.
It’s a very short drive to arrive at the impressive Todra Gorge, finding ourselves surrounded by high red cliffs (“the Grand Canyon of Morocco”) and the most glorious desert oasis. I waste no time hopping immediately in― I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to see water, I’ve been feeling like a human cactus for the past few days and I can practically feel myself rehydrating like a dried mountain meal. There are definitely a few people around, but the excitement of being in the water and returning to a comfortable temperature by far outweighs my annoyance at having to share views with other people.
After our refreshing dip, we eat lunch at a lovely little restaurant on the river and are even joined by some feline friends, with whom Katy and I happily share our chicken tajine.
Much happier after my cool dip in the Todra Gorge and with a belly full of tajine, we continue on towards Merzouga, where we finally disembark from our van and meet the camels that will take us to our desert camp. We set off in a little 5-camel convoy through the Erg Chebbi dunes, taking nearly two hours to reach our secluded Sahara camp. The guy in front of me, Yun from South Korea, is having an absolute mess of a time trying to stay on his camel, which is particularly amusing because he’s spent all day telling everyone in the group how this is his third time in the Sahara and he’s basically a seasoned desert traveller. Descending down a particularly steep dune, both he and his camel take a rather comedic spill and he refuses to get back on, instead walking alongside our camels for the last half hour and lagging hugely behind because it’s sand and it’s actually quite a challenge to walk in.
Once at the camp, Katy and I have plenty of time to laugh about Yun’s fall from the camel and resultant tantrum over a piping hot meal of (what else?) chicken tajine. We’ve made good friends with an Austrian couple in our group, Yasmin and Johannes, so we all sit together for dinner and then move our bedding from inside the tents to a nice sandy spot outside where we can sleep under the stars. It feels like a slumber party in the most exciting of locations, and the mood is dampened only by the unrelenting heat.
When we wake up, Katy, the Austrians, and I trek out from the camp to watch the sun come up over the Erg Chebbi dunes, revelling in the overwhelming beauty of Morocco and the magic of the desert. Upon our return to camp, though, my happiness is cut somewhat short as we see, now visible in the light, the tiny bodies of several dead kitties laying in the sand, not more than 50 metres from where we ate our dinner. Katy and I carried around a bag of meat in Marrakech, handing out scraps to all the starving and horrifyingly emaciated kittens in the city, but we didn’t do anything to help these kitties and it absolutely breaks my heart that I might have been able to save one if I had just set aside some meat from my dinner and carried it around the camp. I try not to let it ruin my day, but my heart is definitely heavier as I pack up my things for our trip back through the desert.
Tears dried and smiles back on, we opt to take the 4×4 out of the desert instead of the camels and enjoy an incredibly wild ride through the dunes. About 6 of us sit on the roof of the vehicle and hang on for dear life over the steep crests and terrifying plunges. The drive is much faster than the camels, so we arrive back to Merzouga in about a half hour and set about organising our drive to Fes.
Given my intense aversion to organised tours and traveling in groups, I’m always reluctant to sign up for these sorts of things, but I have had a phenomenal time on this trip and would readily recommend the experience to anyone and everyone visiting Morocco. Not only is the 3 day trip inexpensive ($100AUD), it covers a large amount of gorgeous landscape in reasonable comfort and provides unparalleled access to amazing sites without the stress of driving yourself.