For many people, exploring the sand dunes of the Sahara to witness sunset and sunrise are a must when visiting Morocco. I was no exception.
You Don’t Need to Book the Tour in Advance
So, as I was planning my trip, I booked my tour in advance as I was not going to miss the experience. As it turns out, every hotel and riad in Marrakech can book the tour upon your arrival, and for less money! Oh well. I opted for the 3 day/2 night tour from Marrakech to Fes via Merzouga (you can also opt to return back to Marrakech). The standard cost for those who booked in Marrakech was 900 dirham (approx. $90 USD) and, if opting to go to Fes, another 300 dirham (cash only) for the taxi. Some tours are longer in length, and, if you are looking for a luxury stay in the desert, I would recommend booking in advance.
What to Bring
- Backpack – max allowance for luggage on the camel trek (check-in luggage stays behind in the van)
- Pack layers – the days are hot and the nights are chilly!
- Portable battery charger
- Toilet paper & wet wipes
- Water and snacks
Driving out of Marrakech on the first day, we made our way through the snowcapped Atlas Mountains, going as high as 2260 meters. If you have a really good driver, they will stop along the route so you can stretch the legs and admire the views. And, the views in the Atlas Mountains are amazing. The main stop of the day was the kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou, an imposing city on a hill. To get to its gates, you need to cross a river jumping from sand bag to sand bag. For a small fee, the local children gladly lend a hand for the crossing. Our group toured the site winding our way up to the top. From there, the views of the surrounding area, with the green valley and Atlas Mountains towering in the distance, are impressive.
If on a Budget, Bring your own Lunches and Water
Each day we stopped for lunch, which is the only meal of the day not included in the tour (along with all beverages, so bring water but there are stops where you can refill). However, lunch was always at overpriced restaurants catering to large groups with mediocre food. You can save at least $15 a day by bringing your own food. Large bottles of water that cost about 7 dirham in the cities cost about 20 dirham at these restaurants.
The first night accommodation was a hotel where you either shared a room or paid a little extra for a private room. The dinner that night was delicious (chicken and vegetable couscous and soup) and was served in front of a large fire. The one downside, being that we were in the mountains in January, was that the room was freezing with no heater!
An early start began the second day to ensure that we got to the dunes in time to make sunset. The first stop was a small hike through a traditional town in the mountains that included a history of Berber rugs. Afterwards, there was a brief stop at the Todgha Gorge where the walls tower above you. Unfortunately, we weren’t given much time to explore the area, which I regretted. The scenery along the rest of the drive was full of hills and smalls towns with always something to keep your interest. However, the closer you got to the sand dunes, the landscape became quite flat and barren until the sand dunes appeared in the distance.
The Camel Trek
Finally, we arrived at Merzouga! We quickly got our packs and hopped off the bus. Before you could say camel, I found myself sitting on top of one. Laughs were shared as we all watched each other’s expression as the camel stood up. This was the part I so looking forward to – the camel ride. To me, nothing said old world exploration quite like riding a camel in the Sahara. Well, let me tell you, riding a camel is painful. After five minutes, I couldn’t wait to get off. However, the scenery certainly helped to distract from the discomfort. As the sun was setting, the dunes were a sea of bright orange. Gorgeous!
My itinerary said it would be a two hour camel ride. Turns out, it was only a 20 minute trek to the campsite. I was partly relieved. When booking there was the option to upgrade to a private tent; but, upon arrival at the site, there were no private tents in the camp, only those sleeping 8 people. So, save your money. You don’t spend that much time in the tent anyways. Entering the tent is like crawling into a black hole so a flashlight comes in handy.
After throwing our packs in our sleeping space, it was up a sand dune to watch sunset, which is easier said than done. It’s a laborious trek to the top. But once there, it became all about watching Mother Nature’s colorful show before you. Truly a beautiful moment to just be still and reflect.
After sunset, dinner was provided in a tent with campfire and music outside afterwards. The best part of being in the desert came when darkness descended. The night sky was an endless sea of stars. The depth and multitude of stars in the sky was astounding. I’d forgotten that there were so many up there!
In the morning, we were gently awoken by the guides and asked to gather our things. We were then led to the camels for another 20 minute ride before getting off to take in sunrise. It was certainly a different mood in the morning compared to the boisterous atmosphere of the evening. Everyone distanced themselves from one another to take in sunrise. The air was very still and you could hear a pin drop. The sand dunes transformed from the bright orange to a very pale off-white while the sky above was exploding with color.
After the sun revealed itself, it was a short walk to a hotel where breakfast was waiting for us – Moroccan pancakes, bread (a staple at every meal), and coffee.
It was then back on the bus where there were now two – one to Marrakech and the other to Fes. Heading to Fes, it’s a straight drive of about seven hours before arriving with one stop for lunch. As my riad was located inside the medina where cars are not permitted, I was dropped off at the Blue Gate. There was nothing left to do but gather my luggage, and enter into the unknown for the next part of my adventure.