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The Sahara Desert is the largest in the world, apart from Antarctica and the Arctic, both of which are cold deserts. It runs through 11 countries in North Africa and as a wonder of Africa is a lifetime bucket list item. But, apart from all these things, why make a trip to see a bunch of sand? Well, mostly because it’s magical. The amount of sand and rolling dunes you see surpasses any other desert I have seen in my lifetime. The colors of the sand change throughout the day and the memory of a true African sunset will ring true in my mind for the rest of my life.
From the camel ride to the stars at night, the Sahara Desert is a must while you are in Morocco.
You can get to the Sahara Desert in a myriad of different styles, the most comfortable being by car. Tour buses are available, but after taking on the mountain roads I would not ever want to be on a bus, nor would I want to be the one driving. From both Marrakech and Fes (where most tour operators depart from) a pass through the Atlas Mountains is required. The roads are winding, not well paved, and though the government is working on them, that means there is also construction.
For the most comfortable journey, opt to hire a private car. In a car, from both Fes and Marrakech, the drive is about 12 hours. I don’t think you want to spend that (or longer) on a bus. A private car is an awesome experience when traveling as a couple or group, and you will learn more than you would if you were on a tour bus. Other perks of a private driver? You get to meet more locals, are much more comfortable, and run on your own time. Decided you want to stay in the desert an extra day? No problem. Want to leave a day early? No problem. Wanted to make a pitstop at some weird Game of Thrones filming location? NO PROBLEM!
My trip was through Jrana Tours Morocco– and they were awesome. The owner, Idriss, (who was also our driver) is from the desert and knew the answer to all of our questions. Hit them up if you are heading to the Sahara Desert.
I feel like it should also be noted; even if you do choose to drive yourself to Merzouga/the desert- you should NEVER attempt to enter the desert without a guide. Conditions in the desert are unpredictable and it is quite barren and there are no distinguishable landmarks unless you’ve lived there your entire life. PLEASE get a tour guide when you arrive if you do not opt to have one the entire time.
I know you’re struggling to pronounce those, so I’ll help you out before we continue. Erg Chebbi (urgh sheh-bee) Erg Chigaga (urgh shee-gah-gah). Moving on.
There are two main ergs to visit when you go to Morocco. (An erg is a large area of windswept sand piled up into dunes.) Erg Chebbi is the one most people choose to visit, and the one I chose to visit as well. The reasoning behind this? These are amongst the highest dunes in Morocco. We’re talking piles of sand of 150 meters here. Dramatic crests and valleys and more sand than you can imagine. (Have I said there’s a lot of sand?) Erg Chigaga is more expansive and rolling, but the dunes are not as high and dramatic as the ones at Erg Chebbi. This means that Erg Chebbi is more touristy (naturally, as this is the one most people choose to visit) and Erg Chigaga is much more remote and significantly less touristy, though also harder to reach.
Which one you pick is totally up to you, but if it is your first time in Morocco and you want some amazing desert pics, head to Chebbi. If you want peace, quiet, and it will be your second or third time in the desert, try out Chigaga.
Wherever your departure city is, you will most likely arrive at the desert at night, grab dinner and go to sleep. In the morning you will wake up, look at your window and realize the Sahara Desert is in your backyard. Seriously. In Merzouga, there is an entire strip of hotels (they’re quaint) that line the edge of the desert. It’s like someone placed the desert there on purpose. It doesn’t look real-like someone painted it on, but I promise you, it’s real.
Next up, breakfast, and with the Sahara as a backdrop. Boujee? I think yes.
Here is where having a tour guide was the best thing that could have happened to us. We rode out into the desert in the 4×4. Just us, cruising along, listening to Arabic music, and riding through the dunes like it was our last day on earth. The great thing about this was, we were able to get out, take photos, really take our time without worrying about anyone else being in the photos or feeling pressured to just take the picture quickly so someone else could have a turn. Super relaxing. Super Moroccan.
During this time we also made a pit stop at one of the luxury camps for the super fancy people. The only difference between the ‘luxury camp’ and normal camp that I noticed was the luxury camp had full electricity and private showers and bathrooms in each of the tents. The luxury camp hosts gave us tea and snacks and were eager to strike up a conversation- they seemed a little bored. And then we were on our way.
Well, nothing went wrong. But, let me tell you a little something about camels. Camels are extremely awkward. And uncomfortable. Riding a camel is nothing like riding a horse. A final warning: when you get on, they are sitting down. They then stand up. You feel like you will fall off. You might. Hold on tight. Also, going downhill requires some core strength.
I hope I didn’t scare you!! It’s quite fun to ride a camel, and the experience is all worth it. BUT my buttcheeks were sore for about 3 days after the whole experience and I wish I had a more padded bum.
The ride itself was stunning. After about 10 minutes into the dunes, you lose sight of the hotels and all which surrounds you is sand and camels. And the guy leading you. Most of the time this is a fairly uneventful trip. Ours, however, included a thunderstorm. Yes, a desert thunderstorm that lingered in the distance, slowly encroaching upon our caravan. I asked Azu (our desert guide and camel owner) if it was common and if the storm would come closer- his response “maybe”. OKAY AZU.
We started to get sprinkled on, tied up one camel and Azu started running with us to the camp. We got under our tents and it magically stopped raining. So of course- the sun was setting (and fast) so I grabbed my camera and hit the dunes. The reward was worth a sore butt for weeks. A glowing red sky. Purple rain clouds spritzing in the distance. Miles of giant dunes, and cool desert air. A wasteland of beauty. I kicked off my shoes and started running through the hills.
Drink wine (which by the way you should bring your own- have your tour guide make a pitstop for you in Ouarzazate), chat, make friends and eat dinner. There were only two other Americans in the group, two Canadians, two Spanish People (that funnily enough had studied abroad two hours from my hometown), and about a group of 12 from Barcelona. Dinner was loud, and so was the after-party.
The party truly got started when the drum circle broke out. Azu was the leader and he may have been making the lyrics up as he went along, I’ll never really be sure. They got us all up and made us sing and dance. There were laughter, riddles, and jokes
I asked Azu what the songs were about. “The desert.”
It turns out Azu was from the desert. Where? He doesn’t know exactly. None of the boys in camp knew where they were born. A set of twins that weren’t really twins didn’t even know their birthday or how old they were. Azu lived about three hours into the desert from where we were staying. By foot. By camel took four hours. Just wandering in a general direction and he said he would find it. Azu had never been to school in his life, but in the short time I knew him, I listened to him speak eight languages fluently. EIGHT!? I can barely speak two. Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, English, Catalan, Chinese, and Dutch. Astounding.
The night grew later and later and games were played that were the same in every language. The Moroccan version of duck, duck, goose among them. We also broke out the snowboard (or sandboard really) and made our way down the dunes for some fun. The adventure turned to chatter, the chatter to laying in the sand and sighing.
For the first time in a while, I was at peace. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, only me, the sand, the stars, and 10 other people feeling the same way.
The morning came too early, and after a brief nap, it was time to watch the sunrise and load back up on the camels. A sore butt made this round not quite as exciting, but there were still beautiful colors and of course, sands to see.
Pretty much everything I just described in the last section 🙂
For more available Morocco Itineraries visit Jrana. Also note, any trip can be customized!
I can’t imagine having gone to a different company. I’m sure the other tour operators out there are great, but Jrana was exceptional. Our guide, Idriss, was funny, informative, kind and helpful. Overall such an amazing experience, and the highlight of my Morocco trip. Even when the roads got hazardous due to flash flooding, we were able to safely navigate where other cars and buses could not! 10/10 would recommend Jrana!
We were blessed with really mild temperatures, but please be aware that the desert weather can be drastic from extreme heat in the day to extreme cold at night. Make sure to pack layers.