During our visit to Morocco, Mark and I travelled from Marrakech to Merzouga to spend a night camping in the Sahara Desert. While most destination experts will tell you that Erg Chebbi, the sand dunes close to Merzouga isn’t actually the Sahara Desert, I think that it offers a pretty good experience for anyone looking to tick that off their living list.
Getting from Marrakech to Merzouga
There are a few options available to you if you plan to travel from Marrakech to Merzouga. The first option is to hire a private taxi and driver to take you there. A second will be to join a group tour, starting and ending in Marrakech or Fes. These kinds of tours usually take about 3-5 days depending on the stops they make along the way. Then there is a third option, where you can rent a car and drive down by yourself.
The option you choose should largely depend on your budget, time and travel style. If you enjoy your privacy, want to make as many stops along the way and are willing to splurge, then the first and last option might be best for you. However, if you are on a time crunch and want a super affordable option, the small group tours are a good idea.
This option is easy to find especially from the major cities. They can also be quite affordable and convenient since they take away the stress of planning, especially if that isn’t your thing. However, for travellers who love the challenge, renting a car or even trying to figure out public transportation options available would be something to consider.
Mark and I settled with the option of renting a car. It was perfect us since we weren’t on a tight budget and we wanted to be flexible with our stops.
The drive from Marrakesh to Merzouga is quite long. The entire trip, with no major stops, could take up to 10 hours. This can be quite exhausting and you would also be missing several exciting stops along the way. The best way to enjoy this road trip would be to allocate at least 3-4 days to it. This way, you can stop at sites like Kasbah Aït Benhaddou, Ouarzazate, Todgha Gorges, amongst others.
Merzouga: Gateway into the Sahara Desert
Most tours that take you camping in the Sahara Desert begin in Merzouga, if you are visiting Erg Chebbi. Here, there is no shortage of guides available to organize your trip to the desert and back. In fact, when you drive past the city gate, into what I will refer to as the last frontier before the desert, several of these guides will flock around you trying to sell you a bargain. It can get pretty intense. Just based on our experience, I would advise that you book your guide beforehand.
For our trip, we found Omar, a tour operator who runs a company called Camel Trekking. We trusted the reviews we read online and luckily, we were not disappointed.
Our tour package with Omar included a 1-night stay at Hotel Nomad Palace, a mid-day desert drive in a 4×4 vehicle, afternoon tea with a Berber Nomad, breakfast, lunch and dinner for the duration of our stay and finally, a camel trek to lead us to the main event, camping in the Sahara Desert.
The camel trek into the desert usually begins in the evening. So, if you arrive early, (or a day before your trek, like we did), you can spend the entire morning and afternoon exploring the areas close by.
Also, this time could be excellent to take some pictures with the stunning backdrop if that’s something you are interested in doing. We took this trip in January, which happens to be a winter month in Morocco. At midday, the weather warmed up nicely, making it extremely pleasant to be outside, striking poses in a summer dress!
The Sahara Desert Tour…
The Sahara Desert Tour
Around evening, the camel-back ride to the desert will begin. It is usually done in a convoy, so you might find yourself grouped with other travellers. Also, the trek can last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how far your camp is. Contrary to many experiences I’ve read about, the ride was not too uncomfortable for me. Getting atop and off the camel was the main challenge!
A few minutes into our ride, our convoy stopped to allow us to enjoy a gorgeous sunset in the desert. Then we continued onward to our camp.
Camping in the Sahara Desert…
When you think about camping in the Sahara Desert, don’t let your mind wander off to traditional camping experiences. It is more of a glamorous camping experience popularly dubbed as ‘Glamping’. So, you shouldn’t be surprised to find your tents fitted with an actual bed and an indoor bathroom and toilet.
Be aware that accommodation options differ and some camps are more glamorous than others. If your tented accommodation is very important to you, I would advise that you book them by yourself or communicate your preferences clearly to your guide or tour operator.
As far as activities in most camps go, there is usually a bonfire after dinner. The guides and guests gather around the fire to play and listen to Berber music. This lasts for a while before everyone goes back into their tents. Some people emerge again when the moon goes down to watch the stars.
I’d say that one night of camping in the Sahara Desert is all you need. But perhaps you might choose to stay longer if you checked into a luxury camp. After a frigid night in a barely warm tent, I felt very happy to leave the next day.
Because sunrises are also a desert tour highlight, guides go around to each tent to wake guests up for a spectacular show of nature. There aren’t many sights that compare to the beauty of the desert sun rising up from behind the dunes. Your body might tell you otherwise, but this is a sight you should not miss!
The camps serve breakfast shortly after sunrise. And after, the guests make their way back on camel back to their various hotels and the tour comes to an end.
Marrakech to Merzouga: Itinerary
If you are in the process of planning your trip, here’s the itinerary we followed. Feel free to adjust and switch out stops based on your time and preference.
- Day 1: Drive from Marrakech to Ouarzazate. Stay overnight. Total drive time is about 4 hours.
- Day 2: Visit the Kasbah Ait Benhaddou and then drive to Todra Gorge. Stay overnight at Todra Gorge: Total drive time is about 3 hours. You may also choose to visit Dades Gorge instead*
- Day 3: Explore Todra Gorge and drive to Merzouga. Total drive time is about 3 hours.
- Day 4: Morning dune bashing, Evening Sahara Desert trek
- Day 5: Leave Merzouga (onward to Midelt and Fez)
10 Tips to Enjoy a Beautiful Night Camping in the Sahara Desert
- Book your trip (before getting to Merzouga) with a trusted operator. Several operators are on Trip Advisor. It makes sense to check them out and read reviews from other travellers.
- Allow enough time to rest after your road trip before your desert experience.
- Have realistic expectations for your accommodation.
- Leave your heavy luggage at the hotel and pack a small overnight bag with only your essential items.
- What to wear for the camel ride: comfortable pants and closed shoes (only 1 is enough, trust me!), a fleece or jacket and a scarf. PS: our guide gave us scarves for the ride and for keeps. So you can ask for one before your trip to the desert. And when it comes to tops, think layers.
- What to pack for an overnight stay: Nights in the desert can be very cold. I’d recommend packing a pair of thick socks, gloves, comfortable pants (preferably sweat pants or thermal leggings as I find jean pants to be extremely uncomfortable against my skin during cold weather). Also include basic toiletries.
- Food and Drinks: There’s no need to pack snacks. Food during the tour is actually quite good and the guides ensure you have enough water to stay hydrated.
- Charge your devices before leaving. Many tents do not have outlets.
- Stargazing in the desert is spectacular, so don’t rush off to bed.
- Sunsets and Sunrises in the desert are magical moments. Try not to miss them!