Going to Morocco but not sure where to start with planning the perfect Sahara desert tour. Well, look no further.
There are several different types of trips to the Sahara desert depending on your budget and the time you have.
Merzouga vs Zagora- which Sahara desert tour is better?
Compared to a one day and one night excursions which will only take you to Zagora. The dunes in Erg Chebbi are bigger and less rocky. It has more of that Sahara look and feel that most people have in their minds when thinking of the desert. If you don’t have the time to travel all the way to Merzouga though, I still recommend to go on two day trip out to Zagora. Just because it’s a bit more rocky doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful and worth a visit.
Merzouga pro: Beautiful sand dunes all around you. The true Sahara feel.
Merzouga con: Longer traveling times and it’s more expensive.
Zagora pro: It’s quicker to reach from Marrakesh and cheaper.
Zagora con: You don’t get as many sand dunes. The ones that are there are not as tall as the ones in Merzouga.
We were told by a friend to book directly in Marrakesh to get a better deal. I also read about that on several websites, which is why we didn’t bother looking at tours online prior to our trip.
Sure enough, as soon as we got to our Riad and talked to the manager he recommended a “cheap” trip, that his friend organizes. His offer included a private hire, driver and all the amenities which are usually included in this kind of trip. The price added up to 450 Euros for two people. It wasn’t really as “cheap” as we hoped it would be.
From what we learned though, this price is pretty standard for a private tour and average hotel/ Bedouin camp.
If you’re looking for more of a glamping experience, prices easily start at 300+ Euro per person for two nights.
Since we didn’t find anything cheaper in Marrakesh we ended up booking a tour online for 89.- Euros. We got a three days trip in a small bus, half board and rather low standard accommodation.
Is it worth paying more?
Ultimately, it seemed that no matter were you book or how much you pay, you’ll end up on pretty much the same kind or a similar tour (unless you do a private tour) with slight individual adjustments.
Some people in our group had booked the same trip with a Moroccan travel agency directly in Marrakesh. They ended up paying more than what we had for the exact same trip.
Some people from our group stayed at more luxurious hotels or Bedouin camps. They had booked slightly different/ more expensive packages, but were still on the same car ride as us.
The hotel we ended up in the first night seemed to be the go to one for backpackers and most other group tours. Rather basic but it did its job.
I didn’t mind touring in a group or not having the most luxurious accommodation ever. Since I had read a few things about these tours before, I was prepared for some rather rough three days anyway.
Things to keep in mind
It can be a bit of an uncomfortable experience.
Out of three days you will spend roughly two days of your Sahara desert tour in a car. Some of the roads are not great so it can get quite shaky even in the best of vans.
The roads over the Atlas Mountains can be scary as the they are narrow and high, which can also lead to uneasiness and sick.
And like I mentioned before, you can end up in a rather simple accommodations. This means that if you book a cheaper package you might not get heated rooms, wifi and simple meals.
Although the food might also not be a gourmet feast, we were never left hungry after a meal. A lot of times I read that these tours don’t provide enough food and you end up starving. That wasn’t true for us (and we eat a lot!).
Plans can change on a Sahara desert tour due to various circumstances
Sometimes the weather will be too bad to make it in time to a certain place/attracting. You might miss out on seeing something that’s in your itinerary. And there won’t be any compensation for that most likely.
As for us, we basically missed out on a whole camel ride. When we finally got to Merzouga (late as they told us although the driver said we were on time) they had run out of camels.
We ended up taking a 4×4 jeep to see the sunset and to get to the camp which was a pretty crazy experience in itself. It also felt extremely dangerous sitting unsecured on the roof of the jeep while it jumps over the highest dunes in high speed.
We made it to the camp alive only to learn that they were out of wood and no camp fire would take place that night.
Apparently the nomads of the camp didn’t expect us that day.
They still did their best to entertain us with their music and dancing though and it was a magical night regardless.
What I learned is that it’s always good to expect the unexpected when going on a tour in Morocco.
There can be extra costs (which are not mentioned beforehand)
None of the Sahara desert tours that I have seen include lunch. Drivers usually stop at places with a nice terrace or a pretty view but these places can be overpriced and might even add a hidden service charge at the end that you HAVE to pay. Some people in our group barely had any cash on them as they didn’t expect such expensive meals. They ended up having to skip a lunch or two until we found an atm machine two days in.
Tip: if you don’t like the menu or the prices of a place, ask your driver to take you with him to where he has his lunch. Usually the drivers eat in less touristy places which are less expensive and might even serve better food.
Some other hidden fees might include the “tips” that you pay to your tour guides. Usually a local guide will join you in the car for a couple hours. He will take you to certain historical or cultural relevant locations in the area.
These guides normally ask for tips at then end. In our cases our guides were so friendly and serious about teaching us about Moroccan culture and history that it was impossible to not tip them well at the end.
As it’s their main means of income it would be good to keep this extra cost in mind for your trip. They usually ask for around 20-30 MAD.
My Experiece- Trip to Merzouga and the Sahara Desert
The Atlas Mountains
We started off early in Marrakesh for our Sahara desert tour. Most trips begin at 7.30. We were picked up directly from our Riad an met up with the rest of the group at a meeting spot.
After a two- three hours drive and several small photo and snack stops later we were slowly ascending the Atlas Mountains. I am pretty scared of high and narrow roads and some parts were absolutely terrifying. Trust me, the Atlas Mountains are really, really high but the, at times scary roads, are worth it though. When we finally stopped for another photo stop right next to a snowy mountain peak, most of my fears were instantly forgotten. The day was pretty rainy and the fog was lying heavily over the roads making for a beautifully moody view over the windy roads beneath us.
Once the Atlas Mountains were behind us it wasn’t long for our first stop. Most famous for being one of the filming location of Game of Thrones and the Gladiator Aït-Ben-Haddou is a place you don’t want to miss on your Sahara desert tour.
The mud brick fortress is an UNESCO world heritage site and absolutely beautiful.
It was actually raining when we got there so the climb wasn’t the most pleasant. We had to jump on sacks filled with sand to cross a small river (which was actually fun!). By the time we got half way up the mountain though, we were all drenched and our shoes were heavy with mud and clay that stuck to them like glue. The top makes for a gorgeous photo op even when it’s raining. Luckily the sky cleared up quickly and we were already bathing in the sun again on our way back down.
Valley of Roses and Gorge du Dades
Since there are quite a few sites in Morocco which have been and are still used in various TV shows and movies, Morocco is also dubbed second Hollywood or Hollywood of Africa (pretty cool!).
There are several different movie studios which you can visit around the country. We passed a few close to Zagora which looked quite interesting.
The next stop on our Sahara desert tour was in the Valley of the roses were we had lunch and went for a stroll through the old town of Tinghir and its old, narrow roads.
After our tour we parted with our tour guide and a few of our group members who had booked different kinds of (much better) accommodations.
We were staying in the same hotel as our driver who kept “jokingly” telling us all sorts of horror stories about the “rather cold hole”, which was our accommodation for the night. Ultimately dubbed the hotel of the poor we made our way 50 minutes down the Gorge du dades. It was a bit creepy how far we were driving down into the valleys and away from any lights and signs of civilization.
Once we arrived at the hotel though, all worries were forgotten though. Although no luxury hotel, the place was actually quite nice!
Sure, our bathroom was flooded somehow and the heating wasn’t working in our room, but we had blankets for 10 people and a decent enough meal. We slept quite well that night.
And trust me, staying in the Dades valley is worth it for the view you get during daylight. The valley is really mesmerizing.
And the gorge du dades has a few attractions on its own. Watching the sun go up while driving through the valley the next morning was also one of the highlights during our Sahara desert tour.
Day 2-3 of our Sahara desert tour
On our second day of our Sahara desert tour we continued our journey by learning how people in more rural areas farm and make their living. We visited a small, old town where we had tea with a local family who make their livelihood by selling hand made carpets.
To be honest, while interesting, these stops seemed a lot like tourist traps. I enjoyed the tea with the locals. Especially since Moroccans are just nice and charming people in general. But in the end we got shown one carpet after the other for around 40 minutes. Although they told us we don’t have to buy anything, it definitely felt a bit awkward to keep rejecting things over and over.
Usually I wouldn’t mind or even bring this up but these small “detours” made us “late” for the actual dessert trip of our Sahara desert tour.
We arrived at Merzouga at 5.30pm. We were dropped of at the camp, where we got separated from the “richer half” of our group. Unfortunately the guides didn’t tell us that we wouldn’t see them again which was a shame. I would have loved to exchange e-mails and properly say good-bye! In general though, the communication at the camp wasn’t the best. Luckily some people from our (now much smaller) group spoke french. That helped a bit.
We were driven to our own drop off further down where we are were instantly told that we were late. And there were no camels left!
The nomads shouted at us for being three hours late, although our driver was doing everything according to his time plan. We were then hurled on the roof of a 4×4 Jeep to get to the middle of the desert in time for the sunset.
The Sahara desert
The jeep drove us around the dunes at high speed. A couple of times it felt like just holding on to the rails wasn’t enough. Sometimes the jeep didn’t make it up a high dune and it felt like it was way too close to tipping over. In a way I am glad I didn’t know how “bad” it would be as I would have never done it otherwise. Looking back it was definitely and awesome experience. And awesome experience that I wouldn’t mind to never repeat…
But regardless we stopped for some sunset photos (just in time!) and it was a breathtaking experience.
Taking your shoes off and feeling the soft sand under your feet while seeing nothing but sand dunes and the most beautiful, pastel colored sky is an experience everyone should have at least once.
By the time we got to the camp it was almost time for dinner. We chose our tents that we shared with some of our newly found group friends and went for a walk along the high dunes. Ever tried climbing up a really high dune? It’s so much harder than it looks!
Although they nomads didn’t expect us and didn’t even have any wood prepared for a fire. They still did everything to make us feel welcome though. The food at be Bedouin camp was one of the best ones we had in Morocco!
After the meal everyone was invited to participate in some music making and dancing.
It was really a great night- and a short one. We had to get up for our first camel ride of the trip at 4.30am.
Seeing a sunset while riding a camel is an amazing experience. It does come with it’s fair share of crotch pain though.
After a short breakfast at the camp we were back on the road. 12 hours of amazing landscapes, interesting villages and lots of scary mountain roads later, we were back in busy Marrakesh.
Would I recommend it?
Seeing the Sahara dessert was worth anything to me. If I did this again, I would probably pay more to go with a reputable agency for a slightly better organized (one can hope) Sahara desert tour. Just to avoid certain disappointments.
I still had a great time though!