When we decided to go to Morocco, we knew we had to go to the Sahara desert. That was an easy decision, but fitting it into our itinerary was a bit trickier. The desert camp is 350 miles from Marrakech, through winding mountain passes. Tour providers suggest a minimum of two nights (one night in a hotel en route, one night camping in the desert). The travel time is normally divided into 8 or 9 hours the first day, 4 hours on the second, and then a long 12 hours back to Marrakech (with sightseeing stops, meals & toilet breaks!)
I contacted several online tour companies to ask for quotations. Most encouraged me to book a private tour, but the prices were alarmingly high – ranging from €250 to €375 per person. More than our flights and several nights’ accommodation! I sought advice from Girls Love Travel, one of the largest travel communities on Facebook. A member told me she’d recently done the same tour I was interested in and had paid €80, booking on arrival in Marrakech. Many people on her tour had paid more – either by booking online beforehand, or not haggling assertively enough with the travel agent they booked with in person.
Deciding to book once we were in Marrakech provided some extra flexibility, as tour companies offer tours every day of the week. We booked through the manager of the riad we were staying in. I drove the price down from €95 to €80 per person, by referring to ‘another company that had offered me the same tour for €80’. I thought that was a good deal – but another couple in our tour group paid €70 for the same package – I should have haggled harder! Included in the €80 was two nights’ accommodation, two breakfasts, two dinners and all the driving. Not included: lunches, a guided tour of Ait Ben Haddou, water, snacks and souvenirs.
Unless you use a private driver (who will let you customize your route somewhat), a desert tour leaving from Marrakech will probably look like this:
- Day One – early departure drive from Marrakech. Cross the the Tizi-n-Tichka Atlas pass and enjoy view of the High Atlas Mountains. After lunch, do a guided tour of Ait Ben Haddou, then onto Dades Valley where you will spend the night in a hotel.
- Day Two – Dades valley, Todgha Gorges then onto the Sahara Desert. Overnight stay in tent in the desert (private or shared tent, depending on your booking)
- Day Three – Wake up early to catch the sunrise. Take a camel or jeep ride back to the minivan. Drive to Ouarzazate then back to Marrakech.
You may find a route which goes via Erg Chigaga, instead of Merzouga. I’ve heard those sand dunes are higher and the area is less populated by tourists, so that might be a good idea if you want something off the beaten track.
Fifteen strangers squeezed into a minivan, excited for what was to come but also rather in the dark about the day’s events, as our driver spoke very little English and only one member of the group could speak sufficient French to translate some of the driver’s instructions (Such as “Ten-minute toilet break here, then we go!”). We enjoyed a scenic journey through the Atlas mountains, making a short pit stop for photos. I wasn’t expecting such stunning scenery; snow-topped mountains, lush forests and dramatic rock formations.
We stopped for lunch and were told there was a set menu – 120 MAD / €12; three courses – a starter of soup or salad, any main dish from the set menu, then fruit or pastry. Drinks were not included. The food was fine, nothing special but we were hungry and glad to be able to stretch our legs, outside of the compact minivan. After lunch, we had our tour of Ait Ben Haddou – a really impressive site, which has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 1987. It was once an important stop along the caravan routes that carried salt from the Sahara and on return, gold and ivory. More recently, it’s been the location for many famous films and TV shows, including Game of Thrones, The Mummy, Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia.
One couple in our group agreed a meeting time with the driver, then sloped off by themselves but the rest joined the guided tour. Our tour guide moved quickly around the site, but allowed us time to take photos and appreciate the grandeur of Ait Ben Haddou. This tour was an addition €5 per person (paid in cash to the guide).
After exploring Ait Ben Haddou, we were taken to some farmland; fields surrounded by olive trees with a thin river running through them. We weren’t really sure what the significance of the farmland was, as we were led in single file and our guide spoke in a very quiet voice so only the people standing directly behind him could hear him. It was quite frustrating, walking in silence, knowing you were missing out on key information about where we were.
Leaving the farmland, we were taken on foot to a small town, and into a Berber carpet museum. We were served mint tea and given a very informative presentation about how the Berber carpets are made, how they each have a unique design and how the different Berber tribes use varying techniques. After the presentation, we were encouraged to make a purchase, if we wanted (using cash or credit card!). The men in the carpet museum were very polite and didn’t use aggressive sales techniques, but no one in our group bought anything. We probably weren’t their target market as we’d all chosen the budget, shared tour option!
After leaving the Berber carpet shop, we reunited with our driver and headed off to the hotel, where we had chicken tagine and bread for dinner, followed by fresh dates and mint tea. Before getting into bed, we made sure to charge all our electronics – cameras, phones, kindles, power banks – as it would be our last chance before we were back in Marrakech.
The next morning, we ate breakfast at the hotel then set off for the next leg of our journey. Our first stop was the Todgha Gorges. They were really spectacular, and it would have been good to spend more time wandering around. There were several men selling scarves and souvenirs by the side of the road. Some of the women on our tour were interested, but the driver urged them not to buy anything from them. After leaving the Todgha Gorges, we stopped for a toilet break next to a fancy scarf shop, with hundreds of colours and patterns available. The staff there greeted our driver by name and encouraged our group to buy scarves here, which were considerably more expensive than the ones sold near the Todgha Gorges! Bear in mind that many of the stops along the way to the desert are designed to get tourists to spend more money – but you can always refuse! I’d come prepared and already had a scarf, in case the desert was windy and sand was blown in my face.
Soon, we arrived at the stretch of desert where our camel trek began. We were instructed to prepare a small backpack to take with us to the desert. All suitcases and larger bags would be taken to the hotel where the driver would spend the night. It was rather amusing watching some disgruntled members of our group trying to persuade the camel trek guides to let them bring a wheelie holdall case with them. The guides were having none of it – luckily for the camels, who already had a heavy enough load with the passenger and their backpack. I felt unsure about the ride – not only because I’d heard it was very uncomfortable, but because I try to avoid animal tourism as much as possible. The camels seemed to be treated well, as far as the eye could see; they were sitting and standing around looking pretty chilled out. If you don’t want to ride a camel, ask one of the guides for an alternative way to get to the camp. One member of our group paid €10 to get there by jeep. Spoiler alert: I should have done the same!
We clambered onto the camels, as gracefully as we could, and tried to get used to the hard seat jabbing and digging into our legs and crotches. Don’t wear shorts or jeans – loose trousers are best as the saddle chafes! My boyfriend and I were on one camel, but other couples were on separate ones (and probably a lot more comfortable). All the camels were roped together in a line. Unfortunately two camels started fighting at the front of the line, and the guides rushed to get the passengers to safety before they were thrown off. It was very stressful, hearing the camels screech at each other and seeing them bashing together. I’m impressed that the two passengers on the unruly camels agreed to climb on other ones and do the trek. I would have chickened out at that point! Luckily my camel seemed to be oblivious to the drama. The unruly camels were taken out of the caravan line and we started our journey.
As mentioned before, communication was very lacking on the tour. We were completely unaware of how long the trek would be. One member of our group thought it would be a 30-minute ride (not sure where she got that number from). After 30 minutes, I was definitely ready to get off – but the guide leading us gave no indication of stopping. Two members of the group asked the guide if they could dismount and we quickly made the same request. It turns out it was a wise idea – as the entire camel trek lasted two hours! It did mean however that instead of riding on an incredibly uncomfortable seat, on a camel that kept lurching forward and backwards over sand dunes, we had to walk behind and alongside the camels. It was exhausting – the sand was so soft, our feet kept slipping and sliding. Walking directly behind the camels was easier, as their feet had hardened the sand, but we were worried about getting left behind as they could move much faster than we could. As darkness fell around us, I started to get very anxious due to some serious fatigue. The guide was very considerate, telling me we didn’t have much farther to go and he made the camels walk more slowly. I was so relieved when we got to camp and could finally rest. Those of our group who had stayed on the camels were quite unhappy with the lack of communication from the guides. Several of them said if they’d known it was a two-hour trek, they would have paid to take the jeep instead.
We were allocated tents to sleep in. We were sharing with another couple; each tent had two double beds and a heap of blankets. There were no bathrooms, toilets or taps – it was real camping! After resting for a little, we had dinner with some other tour groups (chicken tagine again!) and then listened to some of the guides playing traditional Berber music. After dinner, we lay on the sand, staring at the constellations above us. It was incredibly peaceful. There were small patches of clouds drifting lazily overhead, but for the most part we had a canopy of stars overhead, twinkling away, undisturbed by air and light pollution.
Before heading to bed, we asked one of the Berber guides about taking a jeep back to the minivan. It would cost €10 per person and we’d be able to have a lie-in. Those travelling by camel would leave at 5am to catch the sunrise, while those of us going by jeep could sleep until 7am, watch the sunrise then drive back to the minibus. After paying the guide, we went to bed. It was very very cold, so I wore my tracksuit bottoms, a T-shirt, a jumper, thick socks and piled the blankets on top of me. Make sure to bring as many layers as you can!
We woke up in time for the 7am sunrise. About ten of us had opted out of the camel ride. We took photos of each other in front of the gorgeous sky, with streaks of pink, purple, blue, orange and yellow. Of course none of the photos could do it justice! Riding in the jeep was also really fun – the driver sped up and down the sand dunes like he was on a rollercoaster, whilst we laughed and shrieked. We met up with our driver, those who’d travelled by camel (who were wincing and walking like John Wayne!) and our luggage. We drove to a nearby canteen, which served breakfast to us and some other tour groups. Then it was time to head back to Marrakech. The twelve-hour journey home felt really long. We made as few stops as possible as everyone was ready to get back to their Marrakech accommodation (to have a warm shower and change clothes!). I was glad to have so many books on my kindle and podcasts downloaded on my phone to entertain me.
We arrived back to Marrakech’s main square. There was an awkward moment when he gestured for a tip and we realised we didn’t have a decent amount to give him. We hadn’t been near a cash machine in days! Everyone pooled together their coins and notes, but he seemed to think it was insufficient and left without saying goodbye. I suggest keeping extra loose change with you to tip your driver when back in Marrakech.
I wish we’d had another night in the desert – one was not enough! It was such a beautiful, relaxing place to be and it would have been good to spend more time there. If you are able to afford a private driver, that would be ideal as it’s a long drive from Marrakech to Merzouga and being able to control when and where you stop, shop and eat would be better. However the private tours were out of our price range, and we were generally satisfied with the group tour. I would have preferred better communication – such as a tour overview at the start of the tour and our driver telling us the plan for the day each morning. Bear in mind that the €70, €80 or €90 you pay for the tour will not be the total amount, as you have to add in lunches (ranging from 90-120 MAD/ €9-12 set menus), bottled water, tips and any souvenirs you might want to buy.
Some of the stops along the way were definitely worth seeing – like Ait Ben Haddou and the Gorges – whilst others I could have skipped. Hopefully the people on your tour will be good company – as ours were – as you’ll spend a lot of hours squeezed into a minivan with you, with permanently numb bums and aching legs! When I wasn’t feeling cheatty, having my Amazon kindle, audio books and music definitely saved me from boredom.
If you’ve done a Sahara desert tour, what was your experience like?
**I used Airbnb to book all my other nights in Morocco. You can get €29 off your first stay with Airbnb by using this referral code **
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