During your visit Morocco you are probably interested in experiencing a tour into the Sahara desert. There are a lot of options and a lot of guide companies to choose from. I have compiled a quick guide to give you an idea of what you can expect on most of the Marrakech desert tours available. Most of all you can also follow this guide if you are interested in completing the experience yourself without a tour.
Marrakech Desert Tours
These are the most common tour options that almost all of the tour operators will offer. Most of the guide companies will follow a similar route. The main difference is the length of your visit, the quality of accommodations, and the number of people in your group.
Most tour operators will offer an overnight trip to ride camels and sleep in a Berber camp in the Sahara desert. There are two Erg (sand dunes) locations to choose from: Erg Chebbi and Erg Chigaga. Erg Chebbi is located adjacent to Merzouga, it is the easiest to get to and the most accessible location. Because of this it is also the most visited.
A trip to Merzouga from Marrakech will take at least 3 days. Most tour operators will offer 3 and 4 day tours with an end point in Marrakech or Fez. Depending on the company the 4 day tour will simply be a longer version of the 3 day tour. Some companies will have one overnight in Zagora and a second in Merzouga. The 3 day trip is good but tends to be a little rushed. You won’t have a lot of time to hike or explore at each of your stops. If you have the time you should consider taking one of the 4 day tours.
This trip will take you through the northern route through Ait Ben Haddou, Ourzazate and the Dades valley.The return trip will usually be the southern route through Tazarine, the Draa valley, Agdz, and back through Ourzazate.
The dunes of the Erg Chebbi are located very close to the town of Merzouga, requiring only a short 30-45 minute walk or camel ride to your camp. Although your camp will be small you will not be alone in the desert. Many tour companies offer these tours and there are dozens of Berber camps nestled among the dunes. The golden dunes are truly spectacular and the sunset ride to the camp offers great shots of you and your camel casting a shadow on the sand.
This is the most minimal overnight desert trip offered. Zagora is located near the edge of the desert and does not have any of the large golden sand dunes like you would at Erg Chebbi or Erg Chigaga. If you are looking for the “authentic” desert experience with a backdrop of large rolling sand dunes you will need to look into a 3 or 4 day trip to Mergouza.
Zagora is a great opportunity to get out into the Atlas mountains, experience some authentic Berber villages and sleep in a tent under the stars. That being said it is a good option for families or people without enough time to experience the 3 or 4 day tours.
The tour bus will pick up in your hotel in Marrakech. You travel over the Atlas mountains through the Tizi n’ Tichkla pass at about 7,415 feet. The bus will stop at a small café where you can get coffee or buy some oil at the Argan Oil Cooperative. Next you travel to the berber village of Ait Ben Haddou, stop in Ourzazate, then continue through the Draa valley to Zagoura. The drive to Zagora is about 7 hours with a 1.5 – 2 hour ride on camel back to the Berber camp.
Most tour companies will offer you an option of a final destination in Fes instead of Marrakech. Since the desert is so far away this is a great option if you are headed to Fes anyway. The final day of your tour will be mostly driving to your final destination anyway so you don’t lose any experiences by taking this option. This is essentially the same trip as the 3 or 4 day trip to Mergouza except you end up in Fes instead of Marrakech.
The return trip to Fes has you travelling through the Ziz valley, Errachida, Midelt, monkeys in cedar forest near Azrou city at Gourrou forest. Some tour companies will send you off to Fes in a taxi so be sure to inquire before you book your trip.
Make sure to read the fine print of your tour company. Some companies that run trips from Marrakech to Merzouga will drop you off in a taxi to take you the rest of the way to Fez.
Erg Chigaga is the more remote of the two choices of overnight desert trips to sleep in Berber camps in the Sahara. This is probably the most “authentic” experience as it is more remote and has fewer visitors. You will need a 4WD vehicle or camel to get here. This is a good option for people who are more adventurous and want a less crowded desert experience.
Erg Chigaga is located south of Erg Chebbi yet the first part of the trip will be the same. You travel from Marrakech over the Tizi n’ Tichka pass, visit Ait Ben Haddou, then Ourzazate. Your first night will be in a hotel in Zagora. From here you travel south to the small town of Tamegroute, M’hamid, the dry lake bed called Iriki. The return trip travels west through Foum-Zguid then Taznakht before arriving back in Ourzazate to head back into Marrakech.
Private vs. group tours
The size of your tour group will have a large effect on your experience. Small tours offer you the ability to add additional stops, are more flexible with timing, and give you more face time with your guide. Larger group tours however will get you to all the same destinations for a lower price. Generally the more money you pay the smaller vehicle and fewer people you will have.
Group tours are offered either in a minibus or a smaller 4X4 vehicle. Private tours will be in a minibus or 4X4 vehicle similar to a depending on group size. You will also want to consider your agility and proneness to car sickness. It can be difficult to crawl in and out of the 3rd seat of a Toyota 4Runner. The roads over the Atlas Mountains are steep and windy, take motion sickness medication with you if you are prone to car sickness.
What’s Included in Most Marrakech Desert Tours
Tour companies will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel or riad in Marrakech or they will ask you to meet you at the corner if your hotel is in an alley. Most tour companies offering Marrakech desert tours will provide breakfast and dinner during your trip. They will generally stop at a nice restaurant for lunch which will be around 10-15 euro per person. If you are visiting in the summer you will want to make sure the tour operator has an air conditioned vehicle.
All accommodation during your stay, including hotels and berber camps will be included as well as camel rides. The only thing you will have to pay for is lunch, snacks or tea, and tips (optional in Morocco).
Ait Ben Haddou,
Constructed in the 17th century as a defensive outpost the Ait Ben Haddou is now a UNESCO heritage site
The structure is a group of buildings constructed from large blocks of mud and straw. The living quarters are surrounded by a large wall with defensive towers on the corners. It should take between 1-2 hours to visit the complex. Be sure to hike to the top to get the best views!
There is no entrance fee to access Ait Ben haddou and you are not required to hire a guide. There will be women asking for money at the entrance but you are not required to pay them to enter. You will have to walk across a shallow river where children offer to help guide you across water for a fee.
This is an extremely touristy location. Expect to be hassled by hard bargaining vendors who expect money for taking photos of their goods.
Argan Oil Cooperative
There is an argan oil cooperative located on one of the stops near the Tizi n’ Tichkla pass. You will see a small group of women cracking argon nuts and preparing the oil. It is unlikely that the women are actually making the oil here and it is probably done with a machine. They do have a nice selection of argan oil products including argan paste mixed with almond butter which is delicious on bread.
Riding a camel is different from riding a horse. They have a small wooden saddle with a metal handle which is propped on the back with blankets. You will sit on the camel’s back while it is sitting down, the camel will stand up with its front legs first, then its rear legs. The ride can be a little jerky, you are going to want to make sure you are holding on tight!
If you are taking a trip to Merzouga you will likely stay in the Dades Valley your first night. The gorge is located about a 10 minute drive north of the town of Boumalne Dades. There is a steep winding road that takes you to a lookout of the deep canyon. It’s worth the drive just for the photo!
You are travelling into the Moroccan desert and you are told you will be staying in either Erg Chebbi, Erg Chigaga, what in the world is an Erg? It comes from the Arabic word that means “dune field.” It is simply a large flat area covered with wind-swept sand dunes and sparse vegetation. There are many formations like this found in the Sahara desert.
Lake Iriki (Iriqui)
Lake Iriki is located between the Draa valley and the Atlas Mountains. The area was established as a National Park in 1994 with the intention of rehabilitating the wetlands. Outside the lake bed you can find North African ostriches, barbary sheep, gazelles, oryxes and hyenas.
Ourzazate is located at the base of the Atlas Mountains and is considered the “door of the desert.” It is also the capital of the Moroccan film industry and is home to many of the country’s biggest studios. The two main attractions you will find here outside of the studios are the Cinema Museum and the Kasbah Taourirt.
Each of these attractions will cost you about 3 Euro to enter. They are interesting but probably not worth the money to go into both of them. The Museum has an odd collection of props and sets from various movies filmed in Morocco. The signage however is lacking and the layout is confusing. There also aren’t any props from any of the famous movies shot in the area like Lawrence of Arabia and The Mummy.
The Taourirt Kasbah is one of the most beautiful kasbahs in Morocco. However visiting this building right after Aid Ben Haddou is a bit anticlimactic. Some parts of the Kasbah are in disrepair while others are restored and maintained as UNESCO heritage site. You can hire a guide for a few dollars to show you around and tell you about the history of the structure.
If you are looking for a drink there is a small liquor store located on the main drag of town to stop and buy drinks before heading into the desert. Muslims don’t drink so keep any alcohol consumption in Morocco low key.
On your way to Erg Chigaga the tour will probably stop in Tamegrout. This small town served as a hub of learning in this region and is famous for its Quranic library. The library houses some 4,200 manuscripts is one of the richest collections in North Africa.
Morocco can be a shoppers paradise or a hard sale nightmare depending on your perspective. There are many opportunities to purchase pottery, rugs and lanterns to your heart’s desire, especially in Marrakech and Fes. The rugs and carpets you find in the souks of Marrakech are produced in smaller towns like Taznakht. If you are interested in purchasing a rug from the source away from the hassle and pressure of Marrakech this may be a good opportunity.
Todra Gorge is a beautiful steep walled gorge popular with climbers. Have a glass of Moroccan mint tea in one of the cafes or take a stroll down the gorge. Keep your eyes on the lookout for climbers perched on the giant cliffs.
Traditional Berber Camp
I would consider this to be more of a bivouac than a traditional camp. They will have small rooms with metal cots, a thin mattress and blankets. The rooms are usually set up side by side so don’t expect much privacy. The sandy ground is covered with rugs to make a path. There will be an eating room and a bathroom. These camps do not have plumbing and will not have modern facilities. There will be a toilet and a sink which is supplied by a water tank and electricity is supplied from a generator. The camps also do not have air conditioning or heat. Expect it to be very hot in the summer and very cold (below freezing) in the winter.
Valley of the Roses
An area of rose cultivation stretching from Kelaat M’Gouna to the city of Boumaine Dades. The more productive growing area runs north from Kelaat M’Gouna for 25 miles to the town of Bou Tharar. You probably won’t have a chance to visit this area during your desert tour. Consider visting from mid-April to mid-May if you want to experience the rose season. The Rose Festival takes place on the second weekend in May.