When you think of Morocco, it’s likely that two things will come to mind: the bustling souks of Marrakech, and the vastness of the red Sahara Desert.
(Okay, maybe you also think about the blue pearl, aka Chefchaouen. But we didn’t make it there this trip so that sadly won’t be covered on here…yet!)
Back to the Sahara, the desert was truly a highlight of Morocco for us. It was UNFORGETTABLE to sleep under the Milky Way, climb atop a dune for the sunrise, try our hand at sandboarding and meet our friendly camels—Mahmoud and Jimmy (YEP, my camel’s name was JIMMY).
The first thing you really need to know before you plan a trip like this is Morocco is BIG. You might be thinking, “Let’s do a day in Marrakech, a day in the Sahara, a day in Chefchaouen.” Nope, it doesn’t work like that. Driving from Marrakech to Merzouga (the city bordering the Sahara) will take you about 8.5 hours. And then Merzouga to Fes would take at least 7 hours.
We did the tour in November (American Thanksgiving week), which was good for smaller crowds and cooler weather. It did, however, make the mountains and Sahara Desert feel very cold indeed (30-40 F / 0-4 C)! Also, with the shorter daylight hours, we felt pressed for time to see locations in the daylight, and sort of wished we could have traveled either in earlier November or October to make the most of our time.
So what do you see on the way to the Sahara Desert from Marrakech? Or from Fes? Well, let me tell you!
We booked a tour with Explore Sahara Tours based on my dear friend Amelia Leung’s recommendation. Hassan picked us up at 8am sharp from our hotel in Marrakech (the lovely Le Riad Yasmine), and with that we were off. He was a young man who was incredibly kind and insightful about the local Berber culture and knew various fun facts about Morocco. But he often spoke softly with the window open, so we struggled to understand him at times.
We stopped in Tizi N’Tichka to gaze out at the Atlas Mountains, the terrain of which reminded me much of the meandering hills in California. We also swung by an Argon oil cooperative, where a local Moroccan woman walked us through the process of extracting the oil and also had different oils and butters for us to try. We had run out of our Moroccan Dirhams at this point because we forgot to withdraw more from the ATM in Marrakech, but they allowed us to pay for some oils and soaps in Euros.
We spent a good amount of time in the car after this, but by lunchtime, we had arrived at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ait Ben Haddou. Seeing the breathtaking ksar was truly a highlight for us, and we only wish we had more time here.
Crossing a bridge over to the famed film location (famous for GAME OF THRONES, GLADIATOR and more), we learned that only a couple families still lived within this ancient fortified town on the road from Marrakech to the Sahara—most moved across the river for running water.
We climbed to the top of the ksar and enjoyed the view, but were unable to stay to find the rooftop tea house that I had been curious about. Oh well—guess that just means we’ll have to go back!
After this, we dined on a traditional Moroccan lunch at the town across with a view of Ait Ben Haddou behind us. Since lunches weren’t included in the tour, our guide loaned us cash (lol!) since we were out, and we just had to wait until we got to the next big town (Ouarzazate) to withdraw more to pay him back.
We only briefly passed through Ouarzazate and saw Atlas Film Studios from the outside, but did not enter. Since we were traveling during winter, our daylight hours were brief and we could tell our guide wanted to spend minimal time at locations and hit the road as quickly as possible. I completely understood why he didn’t want to drive in the dark, but it was still a bit of a shame to feel rushed in all these interesting locations.
We arrived to Hotel Babylon in the Dadés Valley after sunset, and gladly accepted hot mint tea upon arrival. We sat outside with our guide, Hassan, where we finally got to learn a little more about him, his family, hobbies and had conversations about the different languages he spoke and kinds of tourists that would come through.
After dropping off our bags in our room, we met in the hotel’s dining room to have soup and tagine. We explored the hotel a bit, but turned in early so we could begin our next day first thing the next morning!
We awoke at 6:30am to a buffet breakfast equipped with yogurt, fruit, breads and OF COURSE, mint tea. Hassan met us at the reception desk at 7am, and we took off to see the Monkey Finger Rocks (formations created by winds and weather) on our way to the desert.
We continued our drive up and down meandering mountainous roads to reach the Todra Gorge, where we were informed many rock climbing enthusiasts would go. A river ran through the valley, and we strolled along it for a bit.
We then were taken to a cooperative to look at rugs. We enjoyed mint tea as the shopkeeper explained to us the method of weaving and whether they used camel or sheep hair to do it. We were then shown a wide assortment of rugs.
While this was an enjoyable experience, even with our bargaining, the rugs we ended up purchasing were not in a price range that we felt comfortable with. The stop at the rug cooperative blindsided us a bit because although we knew we wanted to purchase a rug on our trip, we hadn’t researched at this point to see what a fair price would be and how to inspect the rugs to ensure we weren’t being cheated.
Ultimately, we bought two rugs that we love for half of what we were being asked to pay, but I think we could have bought the rugs cheaper elsewhere (like Marrakech or Fes). The people there were very kind, and we did love the designs we got as well as the explanations for each Berber symbol we were given. We just felt obligated to make our purchase there, and I wish we could have done rug shopping on our own accord.
We stopped for lunch somewhere along the way, and continued onto Merzouga, the last town before the Sahara Desert. Here we dropped off our bags at a local hotel where we met the tour owner, a different Hassan, and we took out the bare minimum of what we’d need in the desert and packed the items in our backpack.
Finally, the moment we had been waiting for. We climbed on two friendly camels that took us into the Sahara desert!!! Michael and I were led by a friendly young man named Mohammed, and there were two Canadians in our caravan. We chatted with them both until our group stopped halfway to the camp to watch the sunset over the sand dunes.
We separated from the new Canadian friends we had made who were en route to a different camp. When we arrived at our campsite, I was thoroughly excited with what I saw.
I was surprised by how luxurious the campsite was! Not only was there electricity, but there was running water, showers and beautifully decorated tents.
The campsite was extensive, but because it was off season, we were literally the only people there apart from an Australian couple that we quickly befriended. We were originally put on the “regular” side of the campground, but our local Berber staff Mohammed and Ali offered to move us over to the “luxury” side of the campsite to be closer to our Australian friends. We jumped at the opportunity to check out another fun space, but both tents were positively lovely and we would’ve been happy with either one.
We gladly drank mint tea to stay warm, and ate a deliciously filling homemade dinner. After dinner, we gathered around a fireplace together and joined our new Berber friends in singing and playing African drums.
My favorite part of the campfire experience is a silly one—the staff had a desert cat named Bissy that lived at the campsite. Bissy came over to hang out with us, jumped in my lap and slept there for the rest of the evening!! So everyone else had drums, but I had a warm friendly cat in my lap, and I think I really won.
We learned about the history of the Berber people, about their thoughts on religion and life, their carefree perspective on education and learned a charming love story about a Japanese tourist who got lost in the Sahara, met a Berber family that saved her life, and married the son of that family who now lived in a bordering town where they opened a Japanese-Berber restaurant. Talk about a life-changing experience!
When we asked the staff about the stars, Mohammed nonchalantly said, “Oh, shall we turn out the lights so you can see shooting stars?” We were surprised and asked if there was a meteor shower, but the staff said that no, every night you could see shooting stars! I guess when you’re so far into the desert and disconnected from light pollution and civilization, you can see all the beauty of the galaxies that God created.
We laid out together atop the campsite picnic tables and were in awe of the Milky Way sprawling out before us. I had seen a lot of stars in French Polynesia out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but this might have been the most stars I had ever seen in my life. Around 11pm, we finally decided to try to sleep in our private tents. It was below freezing, but my husband and I huddled together for warmth and stacked probably five different blankets on top of us.
We woke up a half hour before sunrise (around 6am) to climb a sand dune to see the sun come up. This ended up being one of the best experiences ever, but it was MUCH harder to climb the dune than I expected!!!
I was thinking, “I hike up sandy hills all the time, this is like sand at the beach, right?” NO. Not at all! We were huffing and puffing up the hill, and had to stop multiple times to take breaks. We finally made it in time for sunrise, but oh my goodness, I have a newfound respect for camels!!!
After the unforgettable experience of seeing the sun rise above the sand dunes, we had fun trying our hand at sandboarding down to the campsite! We then were able to have some nice warm cups of tea before hopping back onto our camels (JIMMAYY) and heading back to civilization.
Although, naturally, we stopped to take pictures.
Once we got back to Merzouga, we were able to consolidate our bags and have a quick, delicious breakfast before hitting the road again. Hassan (not our tour guide but the owner of the tour company) gave us each an ornate glass bottle filled with Sahara sand, which was such a kind and wonderful gesture.
The trip from Merzouga to Fes took about seven hours. While there were many familiar views of rugged landscapes and hidden valleys, this drive also took us through many an autumnal forest, which took our breaths away.
We stopped near Ziz Valley quickly and got out of the car to look out over the beautiful oasis of palm groves, which we were informed contained the best dates in Morocco. After the quick pit stop, we again drove for a long time until we made it to Midelt to stop for a delicious lunch.
From Midelt, we drove through the Atlas Mountains and Cedar Forests. The scenery was unlike anything we had seen in Morocco so far, and there were even monkeys that we were able to feed peanuts to!
Some monkeys were a little aggressive, but then there was a very wise-looking quiet monkey that we really enjoyed feeding and photographing.
Then, we drove through Ifrane, which is known as the Switzerland of Morocco. It apparently has its own airport, an international university and the most European-style homes of anywhere in Morocco. We were completely surprised by it, and Hassan showed us pictures of himself snowboarding here when the snow would fall.
While there was no snow here in November, there were lots of gorgeous autumnal trees and I begged to get out and explore a bit. Hassan kindly pulled over the side of the road for us to hop out and take a few pictures, and I would love to return to this charming little town someday!
From there, it took us a couple more hours to get to Fes, where we were dropped off at our hotel around 7pm. We were tired, but happy after our once-in-a-lifetime trip!
MOROCCO TRAVEL TIPS
Tours: From my understanding, pretty much any tour you do with any group to the Sahara will be roughly the same and take the same route. We had friends book with a completely different tour group (and starting in Fes), but they hit all the same stops as us—and even had a camel named Jimmy! So I would say that you could even wait until you arrive in Morocco to choose a tour.
Cost: For two people with a private tour guide/driver, hotel pick-up/drop-off and inclusive of meals (apart from lunch), gas, lodging, water, camels and sandboarding, we paid 595 euros. However, this price will vary depending on the number of people and the start/end location of the tour.
Currency: MAD – Moroccan Dirhams (I would advise to have cash on you, but some places do take credit cards and some will also take euros if you have them)
Languages: Arabic (official), Amazigh (aka “Berber,” official) / French (unofficial) – some also speak English)
Transportation: For this trek around the country, a car was a must. We hired a driver as part of a 3-day tour, but we also met other travelers who rented a car and drove around the country themselves. I think this is certainly a viable option!
Food: Tagines are a must-try, as are various barbecued meat options! And I think you already know my obsession with Moroccan mint tea.
Safety: As I’ve stated prior in my Marrakech blog post, we never felt that our safety was threatened, and going around with a guide we knew we were never going anywhere sketchy. However, there were certainly times we felt pressured to purchase things. The hardest thing about doing a guided tour was getting taken to co-ops for rugs or argon oil factories where you felt obligated to purchase something and couldn’t exactly walk away because your guide was your only mode of transportation.