As my taxi pulled into Cairo International Airport in advance of my flight to Casablanca, Morocco, the driver informed me of one destination I’d missed during the marathon two weeks I spent in his country. “Camping in the Western desert near the Libyan border” he said, “is something you must do the next time you’re in Egypt.”
Never one to wait for a “next time” — or to count on it, for that matter — I began researching trek’s into the Moroccan Sahara almost immediately after landing.
Although the dune-y portion of the Sahara desert within Morocco is small by African standards, a huge variety of tour options exist. Decide on how many days you want to spend in the Moroccan Sahara, what you want to do there and where you want to sleep before you commit to a tour to ensure your expectations match up with what you find among the dunes.
How Many Days?
When you begin investigating Sahara desert tour options in Morocco, you’ll notice headings for all tours offered specify the number of days you spend on the tour. When I visited in October 2011, tours were available for durations as short as one day and up to four days, although fine print always specifies that longer stays are available.
Morocco is a huge place: Most of the tours depart from Marrakech, located near its eastern seaboard, while the Sahara occupies the eastern frontier of the country. As a result, you have to understand that even getting to the desert takes a pretty significant amount of time, so if you choose a one- or two-day tour, I don’t know how much of the actual desert you’re going to see.
As a general rule, I would say you should book as long an itinerary as you can afford — the longer your tour, the further into the Sahara you can get. I embarked on a three-day, two-night tour at the advisement of my hostel’s owner. Shorter tours, she warned, don’t permit you access to the dunes of the Sahara. You know, the portion of the desert that actually looks like desert.
Making Sure You See the Dunes
I actually wish I’d booked a four-day, three-night instead. The first day was comprised of a long drive over the beautiful Atlas mountains and ended with us barely entering into the “rocky” portion of the Sahara, spending the day exploring the Kasbah of Ouarzazate, where several of the movies in the “Mummy” series were filmed. We slept in a hotel near the Dades Gorge in the Draa Valley, admittedly one of the coolest places I’ve ever been.
It wasn’t until just before sunset the second day that we arrived in the town of Merzouga, the gateway to the dunes of the Moroccan Sahara near the Algerian border. We hopped promptly onto camels and traveled a few kilometers into the desert, where we set up camp — as in tents, fires and sleeping bags, oh my! That night, the adventurous among my group (present company included) smoked hashish with our Berber guides and climbed to the top of a 300-meter sand dune, which provided incredible views of the entire desert.
Unfortunately, morning came quickly: By 6, we were on our dromedaries and en route back to Merzouga, where the “third day” of the tour was about to begin. Again, I will emphasize that you should book as long a tour as possible, particularly if being among the dunes and camping are your highest priorities in seeing the Sahara. The longer your tour, the less of it (percentage-wise) you spend in a motor vehicle.
Onward Destinations from Merzouga
The last day of whatever tour duration you select is spent completely in transit — either back to Marrakech, the starting point of most tours, or onto other places in Morocco, namely the city of Fez in the country’s central valley.
Do be aware that if you choose not to continue back to Marrakech, you are responsible both for facilitating and paying your way onward. Two of the German girls in my tour group wanted to continue on to Fez as well, so I wasn’t alone in my struggle — and I’m going to be honest, it was kind of a struggle.
From Zagoura, you need to take a “petit” taxi to the town of Er-Rachidia. The cost of this taxi is negligible if you have several people, but be warned: You will share this cab with five other passengers, in spite of its (rightfully) being labeled as “small.”
Several onward options exist, including a government-owned CTM bus directly to Fez. After a few days in the desert, however, I have a feeling you’ll be like me and wanting a bit more luxurious transport. If you have some extra dirhams to spare, a car to Fez can be yours for 720 DH, or about $86. That sounds like a lot — and it is — but if you have three or more people, the extra cost is well worth the comfort and freedom.
Another advantage of taking a private taxi to Fez is that you can make your driver stop along the way so that you can enjoy the stunning views you get descending out of the Atlas mountains into Morocco’s vast central valley.
Where and How to Book — And How Much
I’ve mentioned several times in this article that I departed from Marrakech and accepted advice on which tour to take from a hostel owner there. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Marrakech is the place to book.
I’d also recommend you follow my advice and book directly through your hostel. Although you will certainly be placed on a third-party tour with people from other hostels and hotels in the city, booking through your hostel ensures you get a fair price and gives you an outlet for recourse in the event that something goes wrong with your tour — it shouldn’t, but I’m just saying.
As far as price, I paid 950 DH for my three-day, two-night trek — the worthless (inasmuch as I detailed above) one- and two-day treks are slightly less, the longer ones slightly more. Unless you are spending a huge amount of time in the desert, I wouldn’t pay more than 1,200 DH.
So what does the price include? All your transportation and lodging — including a camel ride in the Sahara and a camp there — as well as breakfast and dinner. That means you’re left to pay for lunch, incidentals and drugs out of pocket.
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