For as long as I can remember, I was obsessed with visiting the Sahara Desert in Morocco. I wanted to sleep in the Sahara Desert.
The bustling souks, humid hammams and North African cuisine were all enticing, but having grown up in a cold northern country, Canada, I had never experienced a desert, let alone sleeping in one. The barren vastness of a desert intrigued me, and I was determined to experience one of the most well-known deserts of them all.
Most tourists visit the Sahara Desert or the Zagora Desert in Morocco. Zagora is an easy sell to tourists because of its proximity to Marrakech. But after some research I was not sold: the Zagora is a rockier desert than the Sahara, meaning that it does not have the miles of sandy dunes that the Sahara is so famous for. The staff of the hostel I was staying in warned me that the trip to the Sahara would be significantly longer, and uncomfortable. But I wanted the real deal: sand dunes for miles. So, I paid the (approximate) 100.00 USD to book my night of sleeping in the Sahara, and early the following morning I boarded the bus that would take me south. I was off to visit the Sahara Desert!
I knew very little boarding that bus, beyond the fact that it would end in a camel ride and overnight sleep in the Sahara. The bus driver was a man of few words and many exaggerations. He did not tell me (or my bus-mates) where we would be stopping on the drive south. When we asked how “long the drive would be” he told us, always, “1 hour, we will be there soon.” I learned quickly that this was “Moroccan” time: his time estimates were meaningless. Sometimes 1 hour meant 5, other times 1 hour meant 10 minutes. The two day drive down to visit the Sahara Desert was going to be long, hot and tiring, but to my surprise the trip included several beautiful stops.
Driving through the High Atlas Mountains
Our first stop on the drive south was for a view of the High Atlas mountain range. The mountains serve as a home to some of North Africa’s Berber communities, who live there in remote villages. Views of this mountainous landscape were barren and rocky, at times I thought, are we on Mars? The High Atlas mountains stretch on for ages, and this is part of why the drive to the Sahara is so long. Although we simply drove through the Atlas Mountains (making many stops for views and pictures), a visit to the High Atlas Mountains can also be done as a day trip from Marrakech. Others choose to visit the mountains for trekking. The most famous is trekking Mount Toukbal, which is the highest peak in North Africa.
Visiting Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO world heritage site, was our next stop on our trip down to visit the Sahara Desert. To reach this fortified village, we hopped from rock to rock, crossing a shallow river. Most Moroccans no longer live in Ait Ben Haddou itself, but in a newer village on the other side of the river. While visiting Ait Ben Haddou, it looked oddly familiar to me. Our local guide explained why: This site has been used as a film location for films since the 1960s, including The Mummy, Gladiator, Prince of Persia, and television show Game of Thrones. Visiting Ait Ben Haddou in midday heat was exhausting, but, because of the heat it was exceptionally quiet. Only a couple families continue to live in the fortified village, and you’ll meet them as they are out selling goods to visitors.
Exploring the Dadès Gorges
The Dadès Gorges are a series of rugged wadi (an Arabic term for “canyon”) gorges that were carved out by the Dadès river. The walls of the gorge range from 200 to 500 meters high, and appear in various colours. On your way to visit the Sahara Desert, it is necessary to drive through these gorges. We made a couple stops for beautiful views, photo-taking and for exploring the Dadès Gorges. We learned that some parts of the gorges are used to grow roses, which are then used to produce rose-water. If you’re lucky, you’ll make a stop somewhere along the drive like we did, to buy some rose water to bring home. It has many purposes - from handwashing, to use as perfume. On your way to the Sahara, exploring the Dadès Gorges is worth a stop!
Driving through the Todgha Gorge
So many more gorges in Morocco than I imagined! The Todgha Gorges are limestone river wadi, carved out by the Dadès and Todgha rivers. Driving through the Todgha Gorge proved more exciting than the latter, with its winding roads and majestic cliffs. We had a long rest stop to wander, explore and take photos. You had to hop from stone to stone to navigate the river, and it was fun to watch locals playing in the water. I could hear music echoing through the gorge, and sure enough, down river was a group of young Moroccans, playing drums and guitars, clapping and singing along. The Todgha Gorges had a bustling energy to them, and it was clear that it is a spot popular to tourists and locals alike. The continued drive through the Todgha Gorges was exciting, with beautiful views of the gorges, the mountains, and the town of Tinghir.
Sleeping in the Sahara Desert
Finally, the moment came. That night, I would be sleeping in the Sahara Desert. As we’d driven south the landscape had become more flat. The gorges and mountains faded away and were replaced with rocky terrain mixed with pockets of sand. Sweating profusely, I stared out the window in awe. Was I seeing what I thought - ? Camels. I glimpsed for the first time a procession of camels, trudging behind a Berber man. As we ripped down straight highway, the terrain became sandier, and suddenly I could see it. Sand dunes. Sahara. I remember the first time I looked at the coliseum, imagining the vast history that it held, and the first time I stepped off the train in Venice, into a seemingly dream-world of cobblestone and rivers for roads. Those moments overwhelmed me. In seeing the Sahara I was overwhelmed by the immense beauty, and by the notion that I had made it to the Sahara.
We arrived in Merzouga, a seemingly abandoned town (we didn’t see a single soul on the streets.) Our driver dropped us at a small shop. “Water. For Sahara!” We did not know how to interpret this, so everyone in the bus assumed: bring as much water as you can carry. How much water does one need when sleeping in the Sahara Desert!? With 4 litres of water weighing down my backpack, I opted to go into the Sahara with the basics: clothing, toothbrush, camera, and a light sweater - just in case. We drove to a final stop, a warehouse where we would leave our bigger luggage for the night.
Our driver pointed to the sand dunes, and sure enough, over the Saharan dunes came young Berbers with camels. They greeted us, one by one tying scarves around our heads to protect us from the sun. It was near evening, but still scorchingly hot. Headscarves secured, we wandered over to the lounging camels. These animals were larger than I’d imagined, and full of character. Camels appear always to be smiling, and seemingly are always chewing. One of the Berbers explained that camels regurgitate their food so that they can continue to chew it. This is called “chewing the cud” and it helps them to digest. Soon enough I found myself awkwardly throwing one leg over the back of a camel as a Berber steadied my arm. “Lean back!” he directed me as he commanded the camel to stand. Lean back indeed, because as the camel stood up, first by its back legs, I had to hold on for dear life. One by one the camels stood up, and were positioned in a line-up, led by a young Berber boy. And off we went, into the Sahara.
Our procession of camels began to slowly make its way over the dunes. The homogeneity of the landscape felt calming, it was like a silent, yellow ocean. I chuckled at my camel, who was preoccupied with trying to catch bugs, assumingly to eat. His head bopped around and I could hear his teeth clatter as he attempted to snatch the tiny flies out of the air. Our camel journey was to last only an hour, but not long into the ride our group discovered that our collective idea of riding camels had been a wee bit romanticized. It isn’t particularly comfortable.
By the time we arrived at the camp my legs were numb, and those first few steps after dismounting were wobbly. We were shown around the camp tents: the main tent where we would eat, and various smaller tents where we would sleep. It was a permanent camp, and it was clear that the camp serviced an ongoing cycle of tourists, there for one or two nights. The Berbers who worked for the camp were indeed “real” Berbers, but the modern kind. No longer nomadic, these Berbers make their living by showing foreigners their landscape and way of life. This was the Sahara commercialized for tourism, but, it was the Sahara nevertheless.
As soon as our things were settled, the shoes came off and all of our group took off to explore. We went wandering from dune to dune, the warm sand enveloping our feet. Climbing the massive dunes was a work out - I see now why desert survival is notoriously difficult. While the climb up a dune was difficult, it was worth the fun of leaping and bounding back down them. We spent the evening enjoying the views, snapping pictures of each other, and chatting with the Berbers. The Berbers cooked us a lovely meal, which was followed by a desert bonfire. As soon as night fell, we had a view of the stars like no other. The sand retained the warmth of the sun well into the night, and we lay on the dunes taking in the night sky. The Berbers told us the names of the camels, and explained that one of them had to stay awake all night to make sure the camels weren’t stolen. I eventually tucked myself into my tent for a short sleep before waking just prior to dawn. Sleeping in the Sahara was everything I dreamed it would be, and I dozed off feeling enthused and accomplished. It was important to get out of the desert before the heat hit, and so we were back on the camels just as the sun rose.
As we meandered out of the Sahara and back to the road where we would be picked up, I took in the last moments of the experience. I laughed when one of the camels leads fell free, and the camel took its opportunity to wander off in another direction. It took the Berbers some time to notice, they were busy chatting on their smartphones (there’s service out in the Sahara!?). I laughed more when one camel decided it didn’t want to walk anymore. They have minds of their own. The rugged, quirky nature of the camels fit so perfectly into the desert landscape. The peace of the Sahara desert reminded me of the peace I’ve felt at home in Canada, sitting on a dock on a lake, or as I slowly make my way through snow-covered woods on skis. Perhaps this is why I felt so at home in the Saharan sand dunes. Canadians might not have deserts, but we know the peacefulness of landscapes.
If You Go
My visit to the Sahara Desert was the highlight of my time in Morocco, and remains one of my most memorable travel experiences, ever. While you can visit as a day trip, I recommend sleeping in the Sahara, for the unique experience. Here are some tips to keep in mind, if the Sahara Desert is on your bucket list:
Keep in mind the temperatures in Morocco. The summer months (June - August) can be excruciatingly hot, and from what I was told during this period the trips to the Sahara tend to be shorter because the heat in the desert is unbearable. For pleasant weather, aim to go in the spring (April/May) or fall (September/October). The winter months are a good time to visit if you don’t mind cooler weather - there will be far less tourists! Deserts do get cold at night no matter what time of year, so if you will be sleeping in the Sahara, make sure to bring something warm.
Morocco is a conservative nation, specifically when it comes to gender roles. Women dress very modestly and tend to take on domestic duties. Although it can admittedly be very frustrating, especially as a woman raised in the West, to have to adjust to these customs, as travelers we are visitors, and I think it is best as a visitor to educate yourself and be respectful of local tradition. I took care to dress modestly (loose pants, shoulders and chest always covered) and I avoided prolonged eye contact with men in public. It is wise to carry a light scarf with you to cover your head, if needed.
For the budget traveler, your best bet is to shop around for a tour to the Sahara Desert once you’ve arrived in Marrakech. Booking tours on arrival is always cheaper than booking in advance. I prefer to book through hostels, as I find they cater more often to budget-savvy travelers. Drop by a few hostels to see what they are offering before making your decision. The tour I took included transport to and from the desert, two night accommodation, two dinners and two breakfasts. For about $100 USD this seemed very reasonable.
I did not investigate traveling to Merzouga independently in order to visit the Sahara Desert, but I am sure doing so would be a cheaper option! My conclusion was that I felt safer with a small tour, and for what was included in the tour, it seemed like good value. That said, it is definitely an option to go by public bus and organize your camping out of Merzouga. I have also met travelers who opted to hitch hike across Morocco with great success. They mentioned that in some cases they did pay some money to families that gave them a lift.
Bring toilet paper. Once you’ve left Marrakech, many toilets will not supply toilet paper, so if this is a western comfort that you can’t bear to live without, make sure to bring your own tissue. When you are out at the Sahara camp, there will not be toilets (time to squat in the sand!).
You have the option to stay in Merzouga after the Sahara. I opted to travel from the Sahara straight to Fes (in the North) by private taxi, because returning back to Marrakech did not make sense for my itinerary, Others opted to skip out on the drive back to Marrakech so that they could stay a couple days in Merzouga.