Exotic Morocco has been near the top of my bucket list for at least 15 years. Recently, my friend Laura created her Bucket List and Morocco was among her “Top 22” destinations to visit, so we made a plan. 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. However, one thing we completely agreed on – a night in the Sahara Desert in a Bedouin tent! So, we spent 3 days in Marrakech at our luxurious Riad Ghali in Marrakech and then booked a 3-day / 2-night Sahara Desert tour with Pascal, the Riad owner.
The Mysterious Sahara Desert Tour
“What time do we leave on Friday?“- really the only question we ask Pascal. As we drive out of Marrakech early on a Friday morning we realize we were on a “mystery tour”. All we know, and all we really care about, is our camel ride and a night in the Sahara desert under a billion twinkling stars.
Typically, I avoid group tours, but this seems the most convenient way to get to Merzouga. This city is located in eastern Morocco and is one of the gateways to the Sahara Desert. Luckily, we end up with a wonderful group of strangers and bond by the end of our little Sahara Desert adventure.
One of the Dutch guys in our group actually had an itinerary for the Sahara Desert tour and was able to shed a little light on the Mystery Tour.
So, what does the 3-day / 2-night low-budget Sahara Desert 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 reads to us a disclaimer from his itinerary: “Please be advised – your driver is NOT a guide.”
This explains why the driver doesn’t speak to us. Also, he really doesn’t speak much English.
(Hmmm. Interesting start.)
Day 1 – the Magical Mystery Sahara Desert Tour
Departing the chaos of Marrakech, our van leaves on “Morocco time” and heads toward the towering Atlas mountains. I know they tower because they were clearly visible as our flight arrived into Marrakech just a few days prior. Unfortunately, on this day they are hidden beneath a heavy cloud layer.
We cross the winding mountain road over the 7500 foot Tizi N’tichka Pass and catch occasional glimpses of the majestic Atlas mountains. Stunning view, I’m sure, on a clear day.
Ait Ben Haddou
Around noon we arrive at our first stop. Our driver pulls to the side of the dusty road and an English-speaking guide pops in to introduce us to the magical 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 stroll through the narrow pathways of this fortified village as our guide tells us stories and introduces 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 is very moon-like, almost volcanic landscape and reminds 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 changes again, as we approach the Gorges du Dades (gorge) area. The windy road reveals stunning views and landscape dotted with historic kasbahs. (Of course, we can only guess at the historical significance of these kasbahs, since we have no guide!)
Finally, after a long day on a long and winding road, we pull into the most popular place in this small, dusty town – the tour group hotel. The crowds at the front desk all clamor for limited rooms, and Laura and I are assigned a triple room with our new little Japanese friend, Keiko. (Didn’t see that one coming. Poor Keiko.)
Day 2 – the Magical Mystery Sahara Desert Tour
Waking at the crack of dawn for breakfast, we suddenly realize our departure time is a complete mystery. Our silent driver had failed to communicate any plan the previous night. So, we take a vote and decide on 8:00. At 8:30, we wave goodbye to all the other groups as they hit the road and we sit on the curb waiting. And then, finally, he pulls up…
Todra Gorges – Berber Village Tour
After a brief photo stop along Gorges du Dades, we continue our drive east and a few hours later, we pull into a beautiful traditional Berber village where we are greeted by an English-speaking guide. We follow him through this communal village as he explains their communal farming system and the history of the settlement.
Interestingly, 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 continues across a small footbridge, passing local women doing laundry in the river, and ends up in an ancient building now used as a carpet shop.
Ancient Carpet Shop
Abraham, a Bedouin carpet man, greets us at the door and offers a tour of the 500-year old building. In perfect English, he explains the time-consuming process of creating this traditional Berber art. In the corner, one of the local artists demonstrates her technique.
As the demonstration ends, I wander to the top floor of the building and chat with Abraham. He invites 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 think. Sadly, Laura doesn’t agree.)
Merzouga – Camel Caravan
Finally, in the late afternoon, we catch our first glimpse of the golden dunes of the Sahara Desert! Arriving at the Merzouga dunes, we find our camels lined up and ready to take us the rest of the way to our camp for the night. The caravan is led by a local nomadic Berber guide. He speaks English well and is 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 points to a small tent just a short distance away from the mess tent. According to one brave enough to check it out, it is unbelievably disgusting! So, sadly, the Sahara has actually become one big litter box and is our temporary loo during our brief stay. (Bring plenty of kleenex packets!)
Arriving in the dimly candlelit mess tent, we see two tables set with six chairs around each, just enough for our group of 12. Our guide brings us two large plates of food (chicken tagine and vegetables) for each table. In traditional Bedouin style, we don’t have individual plates – we just dig 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’s 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 burn with every step into the deep Sahara sand and my lungs feel like a Chinese fire-breathing dragon. I stagger a few steps and collapse face first into the soft sand, gasping for air. Then a shadowy figure appears in the dark. It’s one of those damn “twenty-somethings” who step over my lifeless “fifty-something” body blocking the route. Cursing a little, I pull myself to my hands and knees and continue to crawl up the monster sand dune. The night is dark, lit only by the glow of cell phones held by those who step over me. My old, aching body refuses to be defeated! Slowly, I drag myself up the monster sand dune and collapse in a heap at the top…
Once we recover from climbing that sand mountain, Laura and I stash our overnight backpacks in one of the communal tents. Then we join the group already gathered around the campfire. The fire blazes as a hookah is passed around, the flavored tobacco creates a mellow vibe. Bedouin nomads entertain us with traditional music while Laura, Keiko, and I lie back on a blanket and watch stars. We pick out Orion’s belt and other constellations and make wishes on falling stars on this truly magical night in the Sahara Desert. (My favorite Morocco memory!)
Day 3 – the Magical Mystery Sahara Desert Tour
After a restless night on the floor of a Bedouin tent, the morning comes early. At 6 am we set out for the short (easy) hike to the top of a nearby dune. Once there, we settle in for a perfect view of the daylight spreading across the sands of the Sahara. The morning is stunning and silent except for the rush of the desert wind.
Shortly after sunrise, our camels are rounded up for the 45-minute return trek back to the edge of the desert. We say goodbye to our sweet Bedouin guide and then feast on breakfast and much-needed coffee from the small cafe.
After breakfast, our group says some goodbyes, with half the group heading to Fes while the rest jump into the van for the long drive 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. Hitting some of the less touristy cities, we end up in the beautiful coastal city of Essaouira.
“Just dump us off in Ouarzazate“, we tell our driver.
In the late afternoon, we finally reach Ouarzazate and he pulls over in the market area along the main road. He ducks into a small shop. A few minutes later, he returns to the van with a carpet shop owner who knows of a great Riad (hotel) he can take us to. (Great!)
So, we toss our bags into the trunk of the small, rickety car and drive off with Aziz, the random Moroccan carpet shop guy. (The rest of the story…click here.)
A few tips for planning your Sahara Desert tour:
Low budget tour – prices range from $70 – $100 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. More importantly, you will have a tour guide to explain the history and significance of the area.