Visiting the Sahara Desert was one of those things I thought I might only dream about doing in my lifetime, but when I realised it was not only possible to do during our stay in Marrakech, but affordable, too, it quickly became the thing I looked forward to the most on our first trip to Morocco.
Although it’s possible to make the journey to the Sahara independently, I decided to take the easier option by joining this small-group tour from Marrakech to the dunes.
I’m not a fan of big tourist buses that chauffeur dozens of sightseers from one place to the next, but even though our organized tour was far from being that, I think even a coach trip filled with your worst enemies might just be worth enduring to step foot onto this incredible corner of the world.
Marrakech to the Sahara Desert (Erg Chebbi)
The gateway to the Sahara Desert is Merzouga, a small Moroccan town near the border of Algeria. It’s located around 10 hour’s drive away from Marrakech, and as such, cannot be visited in one day. Most desert tours from the Red City will take you to the smaller, rockier plains at the Afagay Desert, but you’ll have to venture further if you want to see the bigger, more impressive dunes of Erg Chebbi as I did.
We’d actually been on the road for much longer than 10 hours already, having spent the last day and a half driving up to 3 hours at a time, travelling across the High Atlas Mountains and detouring to other points of interest to break up to journey along the way.
My anticipation of reaching the desert had definitely been building, and I was beginning to wonder if it would live up to the expectations I’d struggled to keep in check.
From the long open road we’d been on for several more hours, I finally saw it in the horizon – giant sloping pyramids of amber-orange in the distance, looking so alien in this landscape that it could have been picked up and placed here seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
We stopped at a hotel right on the edge of the desert to drink some Moroccan mint tea, and to pack our important belongings into a small overnight bag, because we weren’t just visiting the Sahara, we’d be spending the night too.
But first, we had to get there, and what better way to do so than on a camel ride? Despite being probably the smallest in our group, I was allowed the biggest camel, Alibaba, who lead our train at the front of the pack along with our Berber guide.
Merzouga’s dusty concrete path gradually faded away underneath Alibaba’s flat feet to the bright orange sand that I’d spotted in the distance just an hour earlier, and the surrealness of where I was began to grow deeper with every step into the desert.
I took off my sunglasses and breathed in the warm desert air to try and soak up every last ounce of this unique landscape into my pores – the calm and tranquillity of near silence, the afternoon sun on my face, the wisps of sand that glistened across the surface of the dunes with each gentle breeze.
We followed the sandy footsteps left by the rest of our group who’d ventured ahead of us, and Alibaba comfortably navigated across the edges of each sandy slope that grew impossibly tall.
I have no idea how it’s possible to find your way through this barren landscape, but somehow we made it to our camp, a cosy site with tented bedrooms sitting around an array of beautiful Moroccan rugs placed over the sand.
Before even looking at our room, I raced to the top of the nearest dune to make the most of the remaining daylight, and to soak up the last of the sunset views.
Looking out at the endless dunes from the peak where I stood, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect escape from the world than this.
As the sun sank into the horizon, we settled down for dinner with the rest of our group and filled our rumbling stomachs. We chatted and joked across the table with one another about everything and nothing, and not for the first time, I felt incredibly lucky to be sharing this experience with a genuinely nice group of people.
The temperature fell by the time we finished our meals, and as the night drew in the stars came out, spreading out so brightly across the dark sky it made me realise just how much we’re missing out on in the light-polluted city.
We spent the rest of the night gathered around a campfire, listening to our hosts play music on their Berber drums, and singing our favourite songs. We laughed and clapped along as the Spanish travellers in our group sang harmonies of their favourite melodies (reminding me I really need to learn some more Spanish) until we all ran out of songs and the last ambers on the fire had died.
The night had come all too quickly to an end, but as I laid in bed and wrapped myself under several layers of blankets, I actually looked forward to my early alarm for a change, as we were due to ride our camels back through the desert at sunrise.
Stepping wearily out of our tent, the cold morning air helped to wake me up more than any alarm could. In the dark, we began to make our way up the sand dune for the last time.
I couldn’t tell whether we were returning to Merzouga the same way that we had come, but the windy night seemed to have already erased the footsteps we’d left in the sand the previous day.
We stopped halfway to look out at a large dune to our left and stood in near-silence as we watched the sun appear gradually from behind it, bringing its much-needed warmth onto my face, and its golden colour back onto the sand.
As the sunrise came, we climbed back onto our camels once more and made the rest of the journey back to the hotel from where we had started.
And just like that, my desert adventure was over. I only wish I could have stayed longer, but for now, I left this beautiful place with a shoeful of sand and a headful of memories.
How to visit the Sahara Desert from Marrakech
Our guided tour to the Sahara was over 2 nights and 3 days. The journey might be long but you’ll stop at some really interesting places along the way (like Ben Ait Haddou and the Todgha Gorges), while also getting to see some beautiful landscapes in Morocco – I never knew the terrain was so varied in North Africa. Be warned though that the last day of the tour is just a full day of driving back to Marrakech, which I personally didn’t find too bad thanks to having regular breaks.
Some other info and tips for your own trip:
- I’d recommend bringing something warm to wear at night as it does get quite cold – I travelled in late February and the weather during the day was perfect.
- Bring a smaller bag with you to pack belongings for your night in the desert camp – you’ll need to carry this bag yourself on the camel. The rest of your luggage will be stored safely on the minibus at the hotel in Merzouga.
- The facilities at the desert camp were even better than I’d expected. The beds were comfortable, the rooms were a generous size, and there were very clean and modern toilets onsite. Don’t go expecting luxury, but glamping style accommodation.
- The first night of the tour is spent in a hotel – dinner and breakfast the next morning was included in our stay.
- Hotel/riad pick-up and drop-off are also included.
- The small trade-offs for an organised tour like this are you’ll be taken to eat at some pretty average restaurants along the way while paying tourist prices, a stop to learn and buy some rugs, and a very long drive back on the last day. Personally, I thought it was all worth it.
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