We had been driving for about 4 hours when we turned off the bumpy road onto the flat expanse of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. You could see for miles. There were no roads, just a few tire tracks and a bunch of signs sticking in the sand advertising various hotels that were nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t help but smile.
I was anxious – similar to the feeling I had when I first turned into a game park in Kenya for my first safari; entering a world in which I had only previously seen on television and movies. A world that I never thought I would experience in my lifetime. A world of sand that was unthinkable to me. I had never really seen a desert before. Sure, I had made the drive from San Diego to Las Vegas before, but it didn’t prepare me for what I was about to see. This was remote and it was the Sahara! I knew immediately this was going to be an adventure unlike any I had experienced before.
This was my journal from the first time I visited the Sahara Desert in 2007 on my original Career Break. Twelve years later I made another turn off the asphalt and into the fine Sahara Desert sand again and was equally giddy about this unique desert experience!
Morocco Desert Trips
On my recent trip, I stayed 2 nights in a different part of the Morocco Desert doing different things from my first trip. There are a number of ways you can see the Sahara Desert; it just depends on your travel style.
Group Desert Tours
Many people travel via small group tours in Morocco. It’s a great way to see the whole country and let someone else deal with the logistics. The Sahara stop is normally just a small part of a Morocco group tour experience, however it’s normally the most anticipated one! My two trips to the Sahara Desert were with group tours but each offered quite a different desert experience.
Luxury Sahara Desert Tour
I went with Collette on their Colors of Morocco Tour to Erg Chebbi, the northernmost dunes in Morocco. Erg Chebbi is the more densely populated are of the desert. Hotels line the edge of the desert, giving travelers the option of spending the night in the comfort of a traditional hotel room and then exploring the nearby desert by day, or staying in one of the many luxurious tent camps.
I stayed in a tent camp on the Collette trip and was treated to an incredible night’s sleep on a king size bed, and a full bathroom in my tent. It was more of a glamping experience as the tents really were beautiful and had all of the amenities – evens lights run by generator.
In addition, I had some special visitors in my tent – kittens! The mother cat would come in and look in on them and feed them, but they were likely only 3 weeks old or so. Cats and kittens in the desert? I made sure the staff at the camp knew about them so they would be taken care of!
There was so much to do in the desert that I didn’t actually spend much time inside my tent except for sleeping! But we did have breakfast and dinners at the camp. The temperature of the tents get really hot during the day, so it’s best to be out exploring at that time. In fact, my tent was so hot inside that my stick deodorant in my toiletry bag melted!
A group of drivers picked us up after breakfast and took us to a variety of cultural activities throughout the desert including a camel ride into the dunes. It was a way to see more of the culture of the region and understand how people survived in the desert.
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Basic Sahara Desert Tour
On my first trip to the Sahara Desert I went to the Erg Chigaga dunes, located further south. These dunes are located off of a road less traveled; they’re located over 60 kilometers away from the nearest, lightly traveled road. I traveled with Intrepid Travel on a 3 week tour of Morocco which included one night in the desert. Intrepid is a bit more basic style of group trip, but it also happens to be more immersive and local.
Without access to nearby hotels, Erg Chigaga was a bit more rustic experience and the camps were more basic; realistic of a Berber culture. We drove the 37 miles into the desert and arrived at a basic hotel. There we left our large suitcases at the hotel and took just a small pack with the things we would need for the night. We rode camels another hour or so into the desert to stay at a basic Berber camp.
I brought my toothbrush, a long sleeve shirt, a sleep sheet, and my cameras wrapped in bags to try to protect them from the sand. I actually decided to leave my telephoto lens behind at the hotel as I didn’t even want to be tempted to change lenses in this environment. The sand particles were so small that there would be no way that I would be able to keep my sensor clean.
Our Berber guide, Mubarek, provided us with bright colored turbans and taught us to tie them in order to protect our faces from the sun and the sand. The camel train took off into the dunes. We rode deeper and deeper into the sand dunes; this is definitely a more immersive experience than what you get at Erg Chigaga. As I wobbled back and forth on top of the camel, I could see the fine sand blowing off the tops of the dunes, reminding me I was experiencing an ever-changing, ever-moving landscape.
The tent camp was nestled in the dunes near a little water source. We ate tajine and slept under the stars for an authentic Berber experience. No bed, no bathroom, but so many stars!
Independent Drive and Stay at Sahara Desert Camp
If you don’t want to take a group tour, you can also rent a car and drive yourself to Merzouga near Erg Chebbi and book yourself into a desert camp. Most of the luxury camps will come pick you up in Merzouga and drive you out through the sand to the camp. From there you can book day activities through the desert camp accommodation.
If you drive from Fez or Marakesh – it is a full (long) day’s drive. Marrakech is roughly 350 miles from Merzouga, and Fez is about 300 miles away. The roads are well maintained, but you do go through winding, mountain passes which slow you down; hence taking you a full day of driving. Most tours will split it up into a 2 day drive, but if you are driving yourself you can do it in a day.
You can also book your stay in a desert camp independently via Booking.com! Here were some of the popular camps in Erg Chebbi.
Where to stay in the Morocco Desert
Map of places to stay around Merzouga/Erg Chebbi:
A Word About Sahara Desert Sand
I’ve been on many beaches around the world, however I’ve never experienced sand like this. It was a fine dust that immediately coated you and everything you were carrying. So imperceptible that you didn’t really realize it was there until you ran a hand over your arm and felt the layer of sand coating your skin. Apparently, they’ve found sand from the Sahara as far away as Greenland on the icebergs.
In fact, the Sahara sand is the gift that keeps giving – for months and months after the trip I still was collecting and pouring sand out of my bags!
Things to do in the Sahara Desert Morocco
When you think of the desert you think of sand; a barren land devoid of life. To my surprise I found it quite full of life, especially around Merzouga. In fact, on my most recent trip, I barely had time to relax there was so many things to do!
This is what most people come for; the chance to ride a camel across the dunes and get their ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ experience! And I must admit – it is a highlight of things to do in the Morocco Desert! When doing a camel ride in Erg Chebbi, you normally have an hour excursion where you pick a camel, ride a little way into the dunes, sit on a dune for a while, enjoy the view, and then turn around and come back.
Whereas when I went to the more remote, Erg Chigaga we rode for an hour deeper into the dunes to a camp and then the next morning rode for another hour back.
My ride in Erg Chebbi was assisted by the amazing Aziz! One of the many young men who were our personal camel ‘handlers’. He walked with us out to the dunes and was full of smiles and laughter. He had named my camel Bob Marley; Bob was pretty cool and laid back…just as you’d expect someone who was named after Bob Marley! Aziz and the other camel handlers were incredible at getting pictures and footage of this fun experience! They were all surprisingly good photographers.
Most of the camps have agreements with various camel riding companies and will book this for you. Bring a camera and give it to one of the boys, and make sure you tip them for their great work!
I tried a little sand sledding thanks to Aziz. As we sat on top of the dune giving the camels a rest, Aziz looked at me with a mscheveous grin and asked, “Do you want to go on a Berber sled?” I’m always up for an adventure, so agreed as he grabbed one of the gray camel blankets and told me to get on! Before I knew it I was staring down the steep orange dune as my fellow travelers watched on. Aziz was in front of me with the corners of the rug in his hand and he took off running down the dune with me in tow! I screamed in excitement as I slide down the dune on the blanket. Only one problem, we had to get back up the dune when the fun was over!
There are various places where you can sled down the dunes on proper ‘sleds’ but this was a great way to get a taste of it…and a taste of the Sahara sand!
Visit a Bedouin Family
If you are like me and look out into that vast, endless sand and wonder, who can ever live here, then you’ll love the experience of visiting a real Bedouin family. This really was my highlight of my time in the area, probably because I have such a fascination with nomadic living. Not only was I a nomad myself for 11 years, but I have spent a lot of time with nomads in Mongolia too.
We drove a ways out into the desert until the desert camps could no longer be seen. We came to a small tented area out in the middle of nowhere; that’s where we met Bahamir.
Bahamir is 72 years old, but that would have been hard to decipher from the wrinkles on his kind face. His father and his grandfather were all nomads. He was born in a tent and never lived in a village or a structure until these last 8 yrs. They moved around about 4 to 8 times a year based on the stars in the sky. He ‘retired’ from being a nomad due to a shortage of water, and had settled here in this little encampment made of mud bricks and tents.
Our Collette guide translated for us as Bahamir welcomed us into his tent structure and we all sat on rugs on the ground and let him pour us tea (a typical social pastime in Mongolia). This was our chance to ask him anything, and I had so, many questions. I mean really, can you imagine living 72 year moving around the Sahara Desert?
There were currently 6 people living in his little tent compound. His son, son’s wife, and 3 kids. Bahamir was a widow and actually had 6 kids total, but only one of his sons wanted to still live the life of a nomad, the rest lived in town. This just reminded me that where once the earth was full of roaming nomad families, sadly they will be extinct soon.
I looked around at the sparse surroundings and asked him if he had any hobbies. I mainly wondered what they did all day! He said he had no hobbies, instead there is always work. after breakfast he takes the goats and watch them all day. The women get water by burro, and they also make bricks made of mud. It’s conversations like this that stretch my brain, and help me understand that there are many ways to live in the world.
His granddaughter was full of smiles as was his daughter-in-law. Their family history is all oral. No one in this nomadic family can read or write, and they really have no need to read or write. Their life is simple, and I understand that it’s really hard for most people to comprehend. But the Bedouins are a fascinating part of the Sahara Desert in Morocco that everyone should learn more about if you are going to stay there!
After sharing tea and exhausting all of my questions, he left us with this gem. “You have a great life, and as 4×4’s come to visit us here, it gives us a good life too.”
Definitely do this when visiting the Sahara Desert!
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Visit a Sahara Desert Farm
Yes, you read that right, there are actually farms producing incredible vegetables in the Sahara Desert! If you are a curious person like me, then this is a great little desert tour that will give you further understanding of local life.
We walked through fields of dates and pomegranate trees with the local farmer as he told us how he grows and harvests fruit and vegetables. His father came to Erg Chebbi and found a water source about 9 feet deep. They built a pump and then designed the field downhill from the pump and let gravity do the work.
Little ‘canals’ are built in the sand around the crops and they deliver water via gravity to different fields and controlling the sand canals. The farmer said the water 2 times a week in the summer.
They mainly sold dates from the lush date trees at the market and used the rest of the produce grown for his family and friends.
Enjoys the Stars and Darkness
The first night I was in our luxury camp, I stepped outside to look at the stars and saw one shooting across the sky. My heart jumped; I quickly made a wish.
The Moroccan Desert is one of those rare places in the world that has no light pollution. This makes it an incredible place to do stargazing. Some camps even have telescopes set up so you can get a closer look.
Get up early and watch sunrise and feel the world heat up
There’s nothing more beautiful in the Sahara than to watch the sunrise and sunset. I was up at 5am to watch sunrise the first morning. The sand under my feet felt cold and refreshing, so I went out walking behind our camp into the dunes. I looked at the little tracks in sand and wondered what creatures lived here and what they we’re doing.
It’s a beautiful time to watch the desert come alive. The sand glowed orange as the sun rose and my shadow was long across the sand. I felt like a tall, skinny giant walking around taking pictures!
Drive in the Sahara Desert
One of my favorite things to do was simply drive. Granted, I was just a passenger, and I much rather would have liked to drive myself. But until someone puts together a tour where they let tourists drive in the desert, I’ll have to be happy with being a passenger!
The desert has no roads, instead you have the freedom of being able to drive wherever you want to get from point a to b. Driving in the sand is a unusual experience; the car weaves back and forth like a poetic dance or sway. We would oooohh and ahhhh as we went faster and the sway increased.
The driver had to continuously move the steering wheel so that we wouldn’t get stuck in the sand. It reminded me of Bo Duke driving the General Lee in the Dukes of Hazzard – moving the steering wheel back and forth to make it look as if he was really driving a car instead of a prop. Every so often the tire tracks would split off into a ‘Y’ shape and we would choose a side and continue driving deeper into the desert. Every so often we would pass a random camel, wandering around grazing…on what, I have no idea.
A few times our one of our caravan of 4×4’s would get stuck and we’d have to go and help dig the truck out! Some people might be annoyed by this, but I loved it. It was better than any amusement park ride, driving fast in the desert sand made my heart race in excitement!
When is the best time to visit the Sahara Desert in Morocco?
The Sahara Desert is the world’s largest hot, non-polar desert and stretches across Northern Africa. Temperatures can swing 30 to 40 degrees from night to day, so you have to be prepared for both extremes. With temperatures well over 100 F during the day in the summer, and nights below freezing in the winter months – it really depends on your own preferences. After doing research on the best time to visit the Sahara, I found answers that included all seasons online; it really depends on your tolerance for heat/cold. You can go any time, but for me, I prefer fall and spring as they have less extreme temperatures.
What should you pack for your Morocco Desert Trip
Water bottle – I think this is pretty self-explainable…drink water, lots of water! Most desert tour operators will give you plastic bottles of water, but I highly suggest that you just bring your own reuseable water bottle. During my time in the Sahara, one of the hardest things to see was all of the garbage that was buried in the sand, much of it plastic water bottles. We can do better than that people!!!
Sunglasses and a big brimmed hat – Get a hat treated with SPF if you can. My favorite hat company, Wallaroo Hats, has SPF50 hats! Plus you can use my discount code for 20% off your hat! Just use OTTSWORLD20 when you check out!
Pashmina/wrap – it’s a great idea to have one of these for a turban and protection for the sand that is in the air, plus it can also be used for some more sun protection if needed.
Long pants for camel ride – I highly suggest you bring some sort of long pants for the camel ride else you might have some annoying chaffing.
Chaco Sandals – open toes sandals are best for the desert. I loved my Chacos because the sand could easily flow through them.
Layers/Fleece – Dress in layers as it will get cold as soon as the sun goes down. You’ll also want a wind/jacket as that will help at night when the wind starts to pick up.
Turtle Fur Tube/Buff – I can’t recommend this enough! These are great for about anything! Use as a mask, headband, neck warmer, as a wrist band, or as a beanie to sleep in the cold nights! I’ve started using Turtle Fur Tubes as they are softer on my face and a little warmer. They are known for their soft brushed fabrics!
Sunscreen – duh.
Sleepsheet – if doing more basic camping in the desert like I did on my first trip, then bringing a silk sleep sheet is a great idea. In basic Bedouine camps, you’ll get some blankets, but it’s nice to have that layer of silk next to your skin!
Camera and tripod – Of course you’ll want to bring your camera to the Sahara Desert so you can capture those spectacular landscapes and colors! I don’t recommend changing lenses though, the sand is finer than you can ever imagine – and it’s everywhere. Don’t even risk taking off your lens. The best thing to do is bring a good zoom lens that will give you a variety of reach.
See my recommended travel photography gear at my Amazon Store
LensCoat – I recommend using LensCoat lens covers to help protect your lens from the sand. Or a LensCoat RainCoat is also a good option. A RainCoat will provide protection for your camera and lens from the sand and dust while allowing you easy access to the camera and lens controls.
Rocket Blower – This small device is your best friend when it come to taking care of your camera or phone, or earphones. You’ll be able to blow the miniscule sand off of your equipment and try to keep it a bit more safe from the elements.
Now you are all set to head out into the desert sunset and live out your Lawrence of Arabia moment! Enjoy!
PIN IT FOR LATER!
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I was a guest of Collette on my second trip to the Sahara Desert. However I was a paying customer on my first trip with Intrepid Travel. All opinions expressed here are my own.
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