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Tips for Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

November 9, 2017

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Mesmerizing sand dunes, fuzzy camels, starry skies, and incredible Berber hospitality. Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco was one of my all-time favorite travel experiences. And I almost left without doing it!

I worried about cost and time. Maloney had to convince me to squeeze the three-day excursion from Marrakech to Merzouga into our round-the-world itinerary. (Note: This almost makes up for her tossing around in the bottom bunk of every single hostel we stayed in. The struggle, guys.) To save you the hassle of bringing along a Maloney to convince you to do fun things, I’m just going to tell you right now: Absolutely, under no circumstances leave the country without visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco.

Yes, Erg Chebbi‘s singular scenery is the jaw-dropping sort that Instagram eats up. But a Sahara trip is much more than the ultimate photo op. We got a crash course in the culture of the Berber people — indigenous desert dwellers, herders and nomads who the pre-date Arab colonization of North Africa. Fun fact: (The name they call themselves is “Amazigh,” and they definitely live up to the title 😉  

There was so much to see, we could have easily added a fourth day. I’ll tell you how we did it at the bottom, but first! here are some highlights:

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

The fortified village of Aït Benhaddou, setting to more than 20 films and television shows.

Aït Benhaddou: a picture-perfect fortified village

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Can’t believe I’m sitting next to movie star Cous Cous!

Aït Benhaddou was the most camera-ready stop on the way to Erg Chebbie. A UNESCO world heritage site, this fortified village has provided the backdrop for 20-plus movies. Mostly a tourist stop, you’ll recognize the town in scenes from GladiatorGame of Thrones, and Prince of Persia.

It’s true star? A tall, gregarious man who goes by the name Cous Cous (and who occasionally plays an extra). He ushers us into his home to see a collection of movie props, a rug-strewn room where his family gathers for meals and his indoor goat pen.

On our way out, Cous Cous shows us photos of his family with Ridley Scott and press clippings that have spread Aït Benhaddou’s fame worldwide as well as some artisan jewelry.

Ettiquette Note: Bring extra cash for handmade souvenirs, which locals sell in lieu of collecting tips for their services.

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Dashing driver Ahmed, in traditional Berber garb, led us to the best rug shop anywhere in Morocco. Photo by Kerry Maloney @TravelerBroads.

Our favorite rug shop in all of Morocco

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

A craftswoman shows us how to spin camel hair into rug fiber. (We tried it! It’s hard!) Photo by Kerry Maloney @TravelerBroads

The most dangerous man in Morocco is an very nice rug dealer we visited on the way to the Sahara. Berber carpets — known for their bold designs and bright colors borrowed from natural sources like pomegranate rind, saffron and henna — hang in every dazzling hue throughout his Teneghir shop.

In a large showroom, a craftswoman patiently combs and hand-twirls camel hair into yarn. (We try. It’s tough!) Rug weaving techniques have been handed down through the Berber culture since the Paleolithic Era. Over mint tea, we’re shown several, but I already know the one I want.

Neon and primary colors pop from a slate gray field. Our host explains that the triangle-backed shapes represent camels, squiggly lined squares are casbahs, and so on. He gives a price much lower than similar carpets in Essouira or Marrakech. And, did he mention, they ship AND take credit cards. What did I tell you? Dangerous!

(Not our first carpet rodeo. We’re easy marks. Read about how we did in Istanbul.) 

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

The beautiful riad where we overnighted in the Dades Gorge on the way to the Erg Chebbi dunes in the Sahara Desert. Photo by Kerry Maloney @TravelerBroads

Morocco’s greatest natural resource? Kindness

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Host Omar and I chat over a killer Moroccan breakfast he just prepared. Photo by Kerry Maloney @TravelerBroads

When it’s so tough getting from Point A to Point B, you don’t turn away travelers, Ahmed explains. Cities even set up camping areas with wells outside of town to give a resting place to the remaining nomadic goat herders.

For Western tourists, this innate graciousness means long and fascinating conversations in pantomime and broken English about our very different ways of life. Luckily, the Moroccans we run into are excellent storytellers with wicked senses of humor. (Our driver, “Are You Crazy?” Ahmed, makes us try to recite impossible Berber tongue twisters, for example.)

We stayed one night at the oasis-like riad Le Jardin de la Source in Boumaln de Dades (a great resting spot after a long travel day) just off the Dades Gorge. There we found another excellent example of Berber hospitality: Omar, who explained everything we asked about, from traditional Berber dances to the riad kitty Meow’s love of tea biscuits.

(You know who else is kind? The Balinese. Read our favorite tips for visiting Bali.)

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Yeah. We’re in a band now. No big. Photo by Ahmed! @TravelerBroads

A sneak peak at desert life

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Women process nuts into argan oil.

We saw a woman’s co-op hand processing argan oil beauty products, walked through a string of hand-carved underground wells that brought water to desert people, saw an actual oasis and sat in for an impromptu music sesh with instruments upcycled from oil cans and other debris.

It’s a long day-and-a-half drive from Marrakesh to Merzouga, but the roadtrip showed us a side of Morocco invisible to travelers who stick to the cities.

True, the stops were all brief and definitely set up for tourists like us (and we felt obligated to purchase something at each). But, when you’re traveling without a language in common, sometimes you need some help scratching the surface.

(We’ve definitely been on tours where you get zero interaction with the culture. Here’s how to avoid that fate in Brussels.)

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

They time the ride for sunset. Photo by Kerry Maloney @TravelerBroads

On the backs of legends

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

See? So basic. Photo by Kerry Maloney @TravelerBroads

In Merzouga, we lock up our luggage at a small inn, grab overnight bags and meet two music icons — Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. (True story: Shakira couldn’t make it)

Both camels appeared well treated — no sores, no missing teeth. When we asked our driver about the treatment of camels in the Erg Chebbi area, he said they were treated like friends. (At first I thought he meant they stole each other’s jewelry, but I think he just means “kindly.”) While Berbers don’t typically ride their camels, they use them to transport goods far heavier than us across the desert as they wander great distances, he told us.

In a tilting, back-to-front process, Bob Marley gets to his feet and sets off between three story dunes. With the setting sun bathing the scene in bright orange, it feels like wandering through another planet. In all, it’s an hour-long ride to camp. We take a million selfies, because we’re basic like that. We ask our guide Mohammed if he likes music, and he makes the mistake of saying yes. Surprisingly, he’s never heard Toto’s Africa before.  (Or maybe our rendition is unrecognizable.)

(Like your sand with a little more water? Here’s how to pick the perfect Greek beach.) 

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Our host Hassan invited his friends out to camp along with their instruments. Photo by Kerry Maloney

The ultimate camp out

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Thick fabric walls form cozy tents in the desert.

Imagine perfectly prepared tagine, comfy beds with thick blankets, a crackling campfire, a zillion stars and — best of all — guys with musical instruments who know how to play something other than Jack Johnson. How could you not fall in love with the Erg Chebbi?

We arrive at a surprisingly well appointed camp — I mean, running water and a toilet? — just in time to climb a massive dune and watch the sun set over cups of mint tea. Then, after dinner, Maloney and I pile onto thick mats around the bonfire. Our host Hassan (who has the funny habit of raising his hands in the air and shouting “Africaaaa!”) and his buddies play traditional songs until the moon rises. You can tell these guys really love hanging out with each other.

Bonus: The Sahara boasts some of the darkest skies in the world — perfect for stargazing on a clear November night.

(You know where else has crazy good star-gazing? Ireland. Here’s where to find dark sky.) 

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Moonrise over the Sahara. Photo by Kerry Maloney @TravelerBroads

Tips for Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Okay, as promised, here’s how we did it!

Tour Company: Morocco Excursions. (We set everything up through email, and paid in cash. It made us nervous, but it worked out fine.)Tour Company: Morocco Excursions. (We set everything up through email, and paid in cash. It made us nervous, but it worked out fine.)

Our Host: Hassan

Our Driver: Ahmed

Pick-up/Drop-off: At our riad in Marrakech. (They also pick up from bus stations, airports, etc.)

Itinerary:  Day 1: Drive Marrakech to Dades Gorge. Overnight at a hotel the tour company arranges.  Day 2: Drive Dades Gorge to Merzouga, a small village on the edge of the Erg Chebbi dunes. Lock up bags at Hassan’s inn. Ride camels ~1 hour to the desert camp. Overnight at camp.  Day 3: Leave desert. Drive 9+ hours back to Marrakech.

Cost: ~$275 USD per person

Included: Driver, gas, hotel and camp acommodations, most meals.

Not included: Some meals, money for souvenirs along the way.

Some advice: 

  • The cultural stops along the way are free, and they don’t ask for tips. But it’s expected that you purchase handicrafts from the presenters. Be sure to bring cash, and save room in your budget for souvenirs.
  • Western women are often told to be scared of traveling in Muslim countries. I cannot express enough how safe and welcome we felt. And we were two women traveling alone.
  • You will be given the option to ride a camel back to the village or take a vehicle out of the desert. Unless you have an ass of steel, you will want to take the vehicle, or you’ll be in for a world of hurt on those hard saddles.
  • If you’re against riding a pack animal — aka Bob Marley — they offer other transport to the desert camp.
  • This tour is totally possible – and totally worth it — in three days. But if you have four, take four.
Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

Don’t let the ads fool you. Jimi Hendrix never once offered us cigarettes. Photo by Kerry Maloney @TravelerBroads

Visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco

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17 Comments

  • Reply Candy December 6, 2017 at 11:04 pm

    I’ve never been to Morocco and would love to visit someday. Great tip about bringing extra cash. I love buying souvenirs that are handmade 🙂

  • Reply Richa December 6, 2017 at 11:07 pm

    Haha, you are too funny!! The most dangerous man in Morroco 😉 I am still laughing.. A great narration of your tour. Was the accommodation provided in the tour cost good?

    • Reply Fender December 7, 2017 at 4:08 pm

      Girl, you have no idea. I had already bought two rugs! Yes, our stays in the riad and in the desert camp were both included 🙂

  • Reply Yamkins December 6, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    That is a great price for a very interesting trip! I love that amidst the brown sands, they have all these popping colors in their fabric/clothing!

    • Reply Fender December 14, 2017 at 2:02 pm

      Right!? The Moroccans are geniuses. They use all kinds of creative natural dyes to get those vibrant colors.

  • Reply Sylvie Anne Hanes December 6, 2017 at 11:34 pm

    The camel looks like it’s smiling, and the spinning of the camel hair is unique. What beautiful photos you have and certainly presents a gorgeous look at this location.

  • Reply Sujenne December 7, 2017 at 12:58 am

    Omg. I so want to go to Morocco. Just need to plan my trip to make it lobg enough to visit everything. Thanks for sharing your experience. You have really nice pictures to show everything.

    • Reply Fender December 14, 2017 at 2:02 pm

      If you need any advice, just let us know! Happy to help!

  • Reply Joy Generoso December 7, 2017 at 2:22 am

    That was an awesome adventure! Love your photos, made me want to pack my bags and visit Morocco. Thanks for the guide. I’m checking the website of your tour company. Just interested to learn more. 🙂

  • Reply Sapna December 7, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Wow…. Great experience in Sahara desert. Great advise and tips on the budget. I personally like camel ride.

  • Reply angela December 7, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    So worth it! I bet you’re happy she talked you into going — it looks like such a unique experience! I have always wanted to go to Morocco, this just looks so fun and good guides always make it a bit more of an adventure!

    • Reply Fender December 14, 2017 at 2:04 pm

      It’s definitely one of the good things she’s talked me into… going totally nude at a Turkish hamam? Not so much 😀 But, you live and learn!

  • Reply Samantha December 7, 2017 at 3:13 pm

    This looks like such an amazing experience – one for the books! I’m glad that you mentioned about feeling safe as a woman; and that you two felt welcomed into the country. Wonderful!

  • Reply Samantha December 7, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    I loved reading this post.. I felt like I was along for the ride with you!

    • Reply Fender December 14, 2017 at 1:58 pm

      Thanks! It was even better in person 😉

  • Reply Bianca December 7, 2017 at 9:55 pm

    You had me at perfectly prepared tagine! I’ve been trying to perfect some dishes with my tagine for a whole year now. I would say I’ve had some winners! This is amazing! Love the photos and I’m considering a girlfriends trip would be good now!

    • Reply Fender December 14, 2017 at 1:56 pm

      Yes! Go! You won’t regret it — especially if you’re a foodie. I nearly bought a tagine myself, but I was worried about shipping 🙂

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