Exotic Morocco has been near the top of my bucket list for at least 15 years. I actually purchased my first Lonely Planet Guide to Morocco way back in 2003. Shortly after, the second Gulf War broke out and made travel to a Muslim country seem unwise so I never made it.
Recently, my friend Laura created her Bucket List and Morocco was among her “Top 22” destinations to visit, so we made a plan. FINALLY – Morocco!
Our “planning” was very loose, deciding on more of a “go-with-the-flow” style. We’d figure out the details once we got to Marrakech. One thing we completely agreed on – a night in the Sahara Desert in a Bedouin tent! So, we arrived at our luxurious Riad Ghali in Marrakech and decided to book a 3-day / 2-night Sahara tour with Pascal, the Riad owner.
The Mystery Tour
“What time do we leave on Friday?“- really the only question we asked Pascal. As we drove out of Marrakech early on a Friday morning we realized we were on a “mystery tour”. All we knew, and all we really cared about, was our camel ride and a night in the Sahara desert under a billion twinkling stars.
While I usually choose to avoid group tours, this seemed the most convenient way to get to Merzouga, located in eastern Morocco and one of the gateways to the Sahara. We were fortunate to end up with a wonderful group of strangers and bonded by the end of our little adventure. Thankfully, a Dutch guy in our group actually had an itinerary for the tour and was able to shed a little light on the Mystery Tour.
So, what does the 3-day / 2-night low-budget Sahara tour include?
Excellent question! It’s one we should’ve asked before jumping in the van.
The most important thing that the lowest budget tour does NOT include is a guide. Seriously. The Dutch guy read a disclaimer from his itinerary: “Please be advised – your driver is NOT a guide.”
This explained why the driver didn’t speak to us. Also, he really didn’t speak much English.
(Hmmm. Interesting start.)
Day 1 – the Magical Mystery Tour
Our van left Marrakech on “Morocco time”, departing the chaos of the city and heading toward the towering Atlas mountains. I knew they towered because they were clearly visible as our flight arrived into Marrakech just a few days prior. Unfortunately, on this day they were hidden beneath a heavy cloud layer.
We crossed the winding mountain road over the 7500 foot Tizi N’tichka Pass and caught occasional glimpses of the majestic Atlas mountains. Stunning view, I’m sure, on a clear day.
Ait Ben Haddou
Around noon we arrived at our first stop. Our driver pulled to the side of the dusty road and an English-speaking guide popped in to introduce us to Ait Ben Haddou. (Here was an actual guide!)
This traditional mud-brick village is a UNESCO heritage site and has appeared in movies and TV shows such as “Gladiator” and “Game of Thrones”, usually playing the part of ancient Jerusalem. We strolled through the narrow pathways of this fortified village as our guide told us stories and introduced us to one of the local families still living a very simple life there. Truly a fascinating place!
Just a few miles from Ait Ben Haddou lies the (mostly) untouristy village of Ouarzazate. Vans of tourists heading to the desert usually make a quick stop near the shopping area by the Cinema Museum, but the rest of the town lacks tourism (with the exception of me and Laura on the way back from the desert…)
Gorges du Dades
The terrain along the main highway in this area of Morocco was very moon-like, almost volcanic landscape and reminded me of the Kona side of the Big Island of Hawaii. And then suddenly we’d come upon an unexpected and beautiful palm tree-lined oasis.
In the late afternoon, the landscape changed again, as we approached the Gorges du Dades (gorge) area. The windy road revealed stunning views and landscape dotted with historic kasbahs. (Of course, we could only guess at the historical significance of these kasbahs, since we had no guide!)
Finally, after a long day on a long and winding road, we pulled into the most popular place in this small, dusty town – the tour group hotel. After battling the crowds at the front desk all clamoring for limited rooms, Laura and I were assigned a triple room with our new little Japanese friend, Keiko. (Didn’t see that one coming. Poor Keiko.)
Day 2 – the Magical Mystery Tour
We woke at the crack of dawn for breakfast, suddenly realizing our departure time was a complete mystery since our silent driver had failed to communicate any plan. So, we took a vote and decided on 8:00. At 8:30, we waved goodbye to all the other groups as they hit the road and we sat on the curb waiting. And then, finally, he pulled up…
Todra Gorges – Berber Village Tour
After a brief photo stop along Gorges du Dades, we continued our drive east and a few hours later, we pulled into a beautiful traditional Berber village where we were greeted by an English-speaking guide. We followed him through this communal village as he explained their communal farming system and the history of the settlement.
The Bedouins who live in this village used to be mostly nomadic and lived in the neighboring caves. But in order to improve their lives and increase access to education for their children, they settled in this village although they still spend some time in the caves.
The tour continued across a small footbridge, passing local women doing laundry in the river, and ended up in an ancient building now used as a carpet shop.
Abraham, a Bedouin carpet man, greeted us at the door and offered a tour of the 500-year old building. He explained the time-consuming process of creating this traditional Berber art as one of the local artists demonstrated her technique.
As the demonstration ended, I wandered to the top floor of the building and chatted with Abraham who invited me and Laura to stop by on our way back from the desert to spend time in the family cave. (“Wow, a true Bedouin cultural experience complete with a stay in their cave! How cool!”, I thought. Laura didn’t agree.)
Merzouga – Camel Caravan
In the late afternoon, we finally caught our first glimpse of the golden dunes of the Sahara Desert! Arriving at the Merzouga dunes, we found our camels lined up and ready to take us the rest of the way to our camp for the night, led by a local nomadic Berber guide. He spoke English well and was a sweet and fascinating character!
The 45-minute camel ride was just slightly uncomfortable. It’s hard to gauge the rolling gait of the beast while attempting to take selfies! And after 45 minutes, I was ready to get off of that sweet beast!
One question I’ve been asked a lot – “Do camels really spit?” Mine didn’t and the camel tethered right behind my left hip didn’t either. The lead camel, however, was foaming at the mouth. (I’m still not sure why.)
Another question, a vital concern when camping anywhere – “Where is the loo?” Our guide pointed to a small tent just a short distance away from the mess tent. According to one brave enough to check it out, it was unbelievably disgusting! So, sadly, the Sahara has actually become one big litter box and became our temporary loo during our brief stay. (Bring plenty of kleenex packets!)
Arriving in the dimly candlelit mess tent, two table were set with six chairs around each, just enough for our group of 12. Our guide brought us two large plates of food (chicken tagine and vegetables) for each table. In traditional bedouin style, we didn’t have individual plates – we just dug in. Be sure stock up on bottles of water (or wine) before your arrival since generally, nothing is available in camp.
Climbing a Sand Mountain
After dinner, it was time to find our sleeping quarters for the night. “We need to hike about 10 minutes to our camp for the night”, our Bedouin guide said.
Yeah, right. Ten minutes (Morocco time) – straight up a huge sand mountain! (My dramatic recap…)
My quads burned with every step into the deep Sahara sand and my lungs felt like a Chinese fire-breathing dragon. I staggered a few steps and collapsed face first into the soft sand, gasping for air. Then a shadowy figure appeared in the dark. It was one of those damn “twenty-somethings” who stepped over my lifeless “fifty-something” body blocking the route. Cursing a little, I pulled myself to my hands and knees and continued to crawl up the monster sand dune. The night was dark, lit only by the glow of cell phones held by those stepping over me. My old, aching body refused to be defeated! Slowly, I dragged myself up the monster sand dune and collapsed in a heap at the top…
Once we’d recovered from climbing that sand mountain, Laura and I stashed our overnight backpacks in one of the communal tents and joined the group already gathered around the campfire. The fire blazed as a hookah was passed around, the flavored tobacco creating a mellow vibe. Bedouin nomads entertained us with traditional music while Laura, Keiko, and I laid back on a blanket and watched stars. We picked out Orion’s belt and other constellations and made wishes on falling stars on this truly magical night in the Sahara Desert. (My favorite Morocco memory!)
Day 3 – the Magical Mystery Tour
The next morning we were up by 6 am for the short (easy) hike to the top of a nearby dune for a perfect view of the daylight spreading across the sands of the Sahara. The morning was stunning and silent except for the wind.
Shortly after sunrise, our camels were rounded up for the 45-minute return trek back to the edge of the desert. We said goodbye to our sweet Bedouin guide and then feasted on breakfast and much-needed coffee provided in the small cafe.
After breakfast, our group said some goodbyes, with half the group heading to Fes while the rest jumped into the van for the long drive (10 hours?) back to Marrakech. Well, except for me and Laura. We had plans to create our own tour for the rest of the week, totally winging it and hitting some less touristy cities, ending up in the coastal city of Essaouira.
“Just dump us off in Ouarzazate“, we told our driver.
When we reached Ouarzazate, he pulled over in the market area along the main road and disappeared into a small shop. A few minutes later, he returned to the van with a carpet shop owner who knew of a great Riad (hotel) he could take us to. (Great!)
So, we tossed our bags into the trunk of the small, rickety car and drove off with Aziz, the random Moroccan carpet shop guy. (To be continued…)
A few tips for planning your Sahara tour:
Low budget tour – prices range from $70 – $90 depending on where you book the trip. If you choose this option, do some research before departing since you probably will NOT have a guide.
Private tour options – the higher price may be worth the money since you’ll have the luxury of stopping for photos and will actually have a guide to explain the history and significance of the area.
Morocco Travel Trips – my Facebook friend Rachid Fadel leads private tours into the desert. Contact him on their website for details.