Visiting the Sahara Desert was the main reason why I decided to travel to Morocco.
I love exploring different types of landscapes when I travel, but I hadn’t yet stepped foot in a desert. What an oversight! And so, I wanted my first time to be special; I wanted to take a trip to the largest desert in the world. Go big or go home, right? And I certainly wasn’t planning on going home.
Fortunately, visiting the Sahara Desert is really easy from Morocco. Simply step foot anywhere touristy in Marrakech and you’ll be greeted by a hundred tour operators begging you to follow them into the sands.
There’s tons of different options, too, ranging from one to three nights; from sleeping on a mattress on the sand to glamping in a luxury tent. The abundance of options can be a little overwhelming, to be honest.
Well, that’s why I wrote this article, because visiting the Sahara Desert is the best thing I’ve ever done — on of the highlights from 10 years of continual travel — and I want to ensure you have just as wonderful an experience that I did.
Let’s take a look at the different options that are available.
Should You Spend One, Two, or Three Nights in the Sahara Desert?
To start, let’s narrow down what you’re looking for from your experience.
If you’re short on time or tight on money, you’re probably going to want to opt for spending one night in the desert. After all, this will take up just two days of your itinerary and cost the least amount of money (around $100 per person).
If you are at all able to afford the time or money to visit for two nights and three days, I would highly recommend going for that option.
The main reason for this is that the one-night tour takes you to see the sand dunes in Zagora. Well, I say sand dunes, but they’re not like the ones you’re picturing. These dunes are rocky, with shrubs scattered across them, so likely not really what you’re picturing when you imagine stepping foot in the Sahara Desert. It’s not super impressive, to be honest. In fact, the desert at Zagora isn’t part of the Sahara Desert at all — it’s actually 100 km from the start of the Sahara!
Still some desert is better than no desert at all, so if you really can’t squeeze an extra day into your itinerary, I’d still recommend going for the Zagora tour. This Zagora tour on Get Your Guide receives excellent reviews from hundreds of guests.
So what about the three-day-two-night tour?
This is the tour that I took.
Well, on this tour, you’ll venture into the Sahara Desert proper, and spend a night camping in amongst those beautiful orange sand dunes. That is exactly what you’re picturing when you’re imagining the Sahara Desert. It looks a little something like this:
Now that’s what I’m talking about.
And let me tell you that riding a camel over the Erg Chebbi sand dunes was one of the most magical moments of my life. Within minutes, you’ll be engulfed by dunes of orange and unable to see where you came from; you’ll feel as though you’re in the middle of nowhere, all of a sudden, days away from humanity.
I paid $120 for this two night tour to the Sahara Desert and it was more than worth paying that extra amount for an additional night. In this article, I’m going to share everything we did on the tour, and why it ended up being one of the highlights of my life.
But before I jump into that, I first want to quickly cover the four-day-three-night tour option. This one combines both the one night and two night tours, so you’ll see the Zagora sand dunes first before heading over to Erg Chebbi. In my opinion, it’s not really worth doing this, as you’ll be wasting a day at the smaller, less impressive dunes, when they’re going to pale in comparison to the more impressive ones!
Okay, so let’s take an in-depth look into my time in the Sahara.
What I didn’t realise when I booked my three-day tour was that the Sahara Desert is really far away from Marrakech.
Like, two days of driving away.
And you only reach the dunes just before sunset on your second day.
Before you get worried about having to deal with an inordinate amount of time inside a minivan, I want to reassure you that there’s actually tons to do on your journey out to the dunes. We were making stops all the time to take photos of beautiful viewpoints and explore interesting places.
The first place you’re going to experience is the excellently-named Tizi n’Tichka, which is the highest mountain pass in all of North Africa. It’s regularly described online as one of the most dangerous roads in the world, which is quite the dramatic statement! I could only find accounts of one fatal bus crash and one car crash over the past decade, so I’m not sure how accurate that claim is. However, with more than 100 switchbacks to navigate, and few crash barriers to protect you, it can feel a bit nerve-wracking at times.
Next on the list was Ait Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a traditional mud-brick city in the high Atlas Mountains that has been featured in so many famous movies. Most notably, it set the scene for both Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator.
Fortunately for us, we had much of the village to ourselves and we able to wander around its alleyways without much disturbance from our tourists or touts.
After a very long and very tiring day of over 10 hours of driving we finally reached our hotel for the night, where I nearly passed out at the excitement of having wifi in the almost-desert.
And then I actually passed out from exhaustion.
The second day began at a horrifically early hour but today, I wasn’t complaining.
Today, I was finally going to see the Sahara Desert!
However, like the previous day, the journey wouldn’t be complete without visiting even more Berber villages. These ones were even more interesting — dry, dusty mountains, enormous gorges, spectacular waterfalls and lush green valleys, which looked wildly out of place in the middle of the desert.
Then, finally, we reached the start of the desert.
Over the next two hours, I watched the surrounding landscape get flatter and flatter, the rocks get smaller and smaller and the sand get more and more orange.
At 6pm, we arrived.
I was finally in the Sahara Desert and it was all I could do to keep from crying with happiness.
It was so magical. I’d never seen sand so orange, never seen so much sand before in my life. I loved it.
We were greeted by our Berber guides and taken over to meet our camels.
This was the moment I had been dreading.
Knowing the ridiculous things that always seem to happen to me, I knew that there was no way I’d be able to successfully ride a camel without having a near-death experience.
Which is why I was completely astonished to find myself gracefully hopping on top of the camel with perfect poise and courage.
Hey, I’m good at camel riding!
For the next two hours we rode deeper into the desert. I soon realised that although riding a camel on flat surfaces is a piece of cake, going up and down sand dunes is a bit of a nightmare.
You see, when you’re sat on a camel and start going down the steep edge of a sand dune, every step it takes has its feet sinking immediately into the sand.
Whereas to climb up a sand dune, camels perform some some sort of gallop that had my camera banging against my ribs as I fought to stay upright.
This was a lot harder than it looked.
There were a few moments of relief, however. The first of these when we dismounted to watch the sunset.
Our guides motioned towards the largest sand dune, at least 100 metres high, and we soon realised that we were going to have to climb it. It took at least 15 minutes to reach the top and I quite often felt like I was genuinely taking one step forward and two steps back.
It was absolutely worth it though, as the view at sunset was one of the best I’ve ever experienced.
An hour more of camel riding and we reached our camp for the night. Our evening was spent eating chicken tagine, listening to our guides play Berber music as we danced around the campfire, and racing each other up the sand dunes until we were too exhausted to move.
Of course, we all wanted to sleep under the stars that night, so we excitedly dragged our mattresses out of the tents and onto the desert sand.
Having spent my entire life in polluted London, I always squeal with excitement when I go somewhere without light pollution and can actually see the stars for once.
And these stars were incredible. With zero light pollution, you could see the Milky Way over the sand dunes and I was completely transfixed.
So. Many. Stars.
Once the campfire had been extinguished, we all settled down into bed and it was at this point when I felt an entirely new and unexpected sensation.
It was unexpectedly freezing and I had travelled with only light clothes in preparation for the desert heat. I had just a thin sheet to cover me. I was not going to be getting much sleep tonight, but for once I didn’t mind.
I lay awake for much of the night and saw more shooting stars than I thought possible, and before I knew it it was 5am and it was time to hike up another sand dune to watch the sunrise.
The sunrise was just as spectacular as the sunset from the night before. There was something so peaceful and relaxing about watching the sun rise over a landscape that had no buildings or people in sight. There was nothing but sand stretching out in every direction, fading out into what seemed like infinity.
We dejectedly traipsed back down the sand dune to our waiting camels and eased ourselves back on, grimacing at our rapidly appearing aches and pains from the previous day’s riding.
It wasn’t going to be a gentle ride back.
As I’ve said a hundred times before, the Sahara Desert has been the highlight of, well, my entire life. It is the best thing I’ve ever done and has kick-started my new-found obsession for deserts.
I can’t wait to return…
How to Book the Same Sahara Desert Tour as Me
I loved my trip to the Sahara Desert and I’m frequently contacted by people who want to have the exact same experience!
The first thing I’d say is that you have two options.
If you want things booked in advance: If you’d prefer the peace of mind that comes with having everything booked before you arrive, go for the tour I took. It’s $120 for the two-night trip, so slightly more expensive than turning up and booking on the streets of Marrakech, but the tour has amazing reviews (over 4,000 people have taken this tour!) and you’ll be in great hands. You’ll have the time of your life on the trip!
Where to Stay in Marrakech
In Marrakech, Riad Carina ($43 a night for a double room; rated 9.1 on Booking) receives a whole lot of love. So what’s so wonderful about it? Not only is it a stunning and well-designed riad, but it’s located just a five-minute walk from all of the main tourist attractions in town and is home to some seriously friendly staff. It’s quiet and peaceful, has a beautiful swimming pool, and an even more beautiful rooftop terrace.
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