During my five-night stay in Marrakesh, I also took an overnight tour out into the Sahara desert, a geographical spread of northern Africa which covers an area as large as the United States itself (incredible!). Visiting the Sahara desert is a very-popular, touristy thing to do, but since I’d never been there before, I wanted to experience it while in Morocco. Plus, I had the strong desire to ride a camel over the sand dunes, so why not?
Now, I had chosen to book a packaged tour with my hostel, which guaranteed me to two nights in Marrakesh before heading out to the desert for the third night. For 75 euros, it wasn’t a bad deal. Although there were other (and possibly better) options for two, even three nights, in the Sahara desert, I couldn’t book them because of limited time for traveling (I needed to return to Marrakesh after the tour to meet my friend and from there head to our next destination in Morocco).
Any case, after a rather hasty breakfast early in the morning, I headed out around 7h30; one of the tour drivers showed me over to the minivans that would be taking me, along with other tourists, to the Sahara desert. There was actually a bit of confusion concerning my reservation: for some reason, the drivers thought I’d reserved for a two-night excursion, even though I firmly said it was only for one. After almost heading off with the two-night minivan, I got into the right one and at 8h00 took off for a long day of traveling.
From Marrakesh, the trip would take the entire day, for the desert is located at the very southeast of the country. Believe it or not, Morocco is bigger than you might have imagined- don’t let its size on the world map fool you! That said, it was a matter of settling in and enjoying the scenery outside as I, along with twelve other passengers, zipped along the mountain cliffs to the Sahara desert.
What amazed me during the ride was how diverse the Moroccan landscape was. Before even setting foot in the country, I had the impression that Morocco was just dry, barren desert, but the scenic journey that day proved otherwise. Instead, I saw a blend of lush, mountain vegetation, Grand Canyon-esque valleys, and colorful irrigation sweeps of farmland. Although the drive was super long, I had the beautiful and varied countryside to admire and observe, as means of passing the hours ahead of us.
*note* The following photos were taken from random stops on the road for photo opportunities, as seen fit by our driver. Since it’s almost impossible to know the names of the valleys and landscapes because I lack knowledge of the driver’s route, I’ll list them numerically in the order I took them. Apologies!
Around noon, we arrived at Aït Benhaddou, a village where we toured its medina and had our lunch break. What made this place special was that it used to be a notable center for salt trade along the caravan route, along with its distinctive Berber culture. Not only that, but also it’s a popular filming location for movies and shows such as Gladiator and Game of Thrones. From the layout of its medina from the distance, I could see how it has that “otherworldly” atmosphere to it!
With a tour guide, we visited the medina. By then, the sun was at its highest peak and beat down mercilessly on our unprepared bodies as we sweated through the steps up to the top, at the same time taking refuge inside of the cool, adobe-styled houses. Don’t get me wrong, touring the medina was a worthwhile experience, but the timing of doing so at high noon was a bit much. I admit, we were all glad that the tour ended within an hour and we were given a lunch break at one of the restaurants in the newer part of town.
After lunch, we continued the drive to the Sahara desert. After passing Zagora, a city (and region) where our desert tour was based, we arrived at the start of our camel ride close to 19h00. Interestingly enough, the camel ride service was located alongside the highway in the middle of nowhere, but in any case, our driver instructed us to bring a small bag (tiny enough to carry on the camels) for the night. Soon enough, we got on randomly-selected camels before heading off on a one-hour ride to our camp site. We were also there just in time to watch the sun set, all the while being on the camel’s back.
We made it to our camp site an hour later, where we settled into our tents; I shared with three Russian tourists, who were incredibly nice. Soon after, we were invited outside to an outdoor-carpet seating place, where all of us gathered in a circle and were treated to an apéritif of Moroccan mint tea, which is absolutely delicious (can be with or without sugar, but I prefer the former). Dinner was served afterwards, with a rustic, three-course meal of soup, chicken-vegetable tagine, and honeydew. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of melons, but that honeydew was amazingly tender and sweet; I even went for seconds!
There was music and dancing afterwards, but I was too tired to take part in it. I wanted to shower and brush my teeth, but unfortunately, the bathrooms had no running water at all- rather, it’d worked for an hour when we arrived, but stopped altogether for the rest of the time we were there. Couldn’t shower, so instead I just brushed my teeth and washed my face with the massive water bottle I’d brought, before turning in for the night.
We were woken up around 6h30: after a quick, simple breakfast of bread and more Moroccan mint tea, we mounted our camels again and set off back to the highway from where we’d came, at the same time catching the sunrise. If the sunset was beautiful the day before, then the sunrise was just as gorgeous!
An hour later, we made it back to the highway where our driver was waiting for us. We got back in the minivan and proceeded to spend the rest of the day driving back to Marrakesh. We stopped for more landscape-photo opportunities on the way, as well as a brief pause at Ouarzazate, a city known as both a “gateway to the Sahara desert” and another popular filming site for films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Mummy. Its legacy as a filming location is seen in its Musée du Cinéma, which we didn’t actually visit, but was cool to see from the outside.
Finally, we returned to Marrakesh close to 18h00. Our driver dropped us off at places near our respective hotels and hostels, so I, along with a Japanese couple, got off at Jemaa el-Fnaa. I got a light dinner at the same cafe I’d gone to my first day in town, before returning to my hostel where I ran into my friend, who’d just arrived then. Tired, but feeling pleased with the Sahara tour, I showered and, after talking with my friend a bit, went straight to bed.
I would say that the one-night Sahara tour was worthwhile, despite it being brief. Granted, I’ve heard that doing the three-night tour is the most worthwhile, just because you venture deeper into the desert and see the high, Merzouga sand dunes that you’d otherwise seen in National Geographic magazines. Of course, I didn’t venture out that far (only to Zagora), but all the same, I was glad at least to see a sliver of the Sahara in my short time there. When it came down to it, I just wanted to see some sand dunes and ride a camel, both of which happened. Save the fact that I got a massive butt burn from rocking back-and-forth against the camel hump twice (to the point that it hurt to sit for two days straight- TMI!), it was a solid, albeit archetypal, experience to do while in Morocco.
More adventures to come soon. Next: Chefchaouen, Morocco!