Odyssey to the Sahara Desert from Marrakech

If there is something that we thoroughly investigate months before heading to Morocco is how to go to the Sahara desert from Marrakech. Firstly, it should be noted that in the vast majority of tours, “Sahara Desert” means going to Erg Chebbi (in the vicinity of Merzouga), a sandy region at the gates of that desert with a length of 22 km and 5 km Of width, and its dunes have a maximum height of 150 m. That is, although you will feel surrounded by sand, fortunately you are not in the middle of the desert.

After sending emails to at least 30 travel agencies and reading travelers’ comments online and talking to friends who had already done the tour, we made the decision to hire the tour from the Riad where we stayed in Marrakech.

In this post we tell you what is the shared tour of the Sahara Desert from Marrakech. If on the other hand, you are interested in planning the tour 100% on your own, then perhaps you are interested in: Tour the Sahara Desert from Marrakech – DIY.

What is the difference between the shared tours that goes to the Sahara desert?

In Marrakech you will get two types of “shared tours” (i.e. in a minivan where there are at most 17 people) that go to the Sahara desert. The 2-day and 1-night tour (2D and 1N) is for people with a limited amount of time and will visit the sand dunes in Zagora. These dunes are much smaller than those of Merzouga and less impressive than the ones you will see if you take the 3-day and 2-night tour (3D and 2N) which reaches Merzouga and leaves you at the gates of the Sahara desert.

Should I book the desert tour in advance?

If your idea is to do the tour of 3 days and 2 nights (3D and 2 N), we do not think it is advisable to book it in advance. Simply because you are going to pay it more expensive and you will receive the same services as if you hire it in Marrakech. Believe me there are endless agencies offering it. Ideally you hire it from the hotel or riad where you stay in Marrakech.

The following items could be helpful before making any decisions:

  • How many days and nights does the tour last and what characteristics does it have?
  • How many people at most will go?
  • What type of lodging is offered?
  • What is NOT included in the price?
  • And especially, how and where are you going to spend the night in the desert?

Of course, if passing three full days with 17 strangers is not your thing, then there is the option of taking the tour privately (it can be 3D and 2N or longer). Going to the desert on a private tour is quite more expensive though, but if for example you are in a group of 6 friends, you can split the cost. For this type of private excursion, expect to pay between 300 € – 500 € in total.

The “shared tour” to the desert (from Marrakech) of 3 days and 2 nights, should cost between 80€ -90 € and is the one that the vast majority of agencies, hotels and riads offer.

Some data of the “shared tour” to the desert (from Marrakech) of 3 days and 2 nights

  • It leaves and returns to Marrakech. If you want to continue to Fez (our case) you will have to get your transport. More on this on how to go from Merzouga to Fez.
  • The average travel time per day is: Day 1: 5hs. Day 2: 4hs. Day 3: 9hs.
  • You travel in a minivan with approximately 17 people.
  • It includes a night at a hotel in Todra Gorge, a camel trek (i.e. you are going on the of camel while someone will take you from a rope) and a night in the desert (in tent).
  • It includes all the dinners (which in most cases will be cous-cous or tajin) and the typical Moroccan breakfast (infusion, orange juice, toast, eggs and some pastries).
  • It does NOT include any type of guide, lunches or drinks.

Odyssey to the Sahara Desert

Desert Tour: Day 1

Tizi n’Tichka mountain pass

At about 8am a good man came to the riad and took us to a small van along with two spanish guys. We thought that would be our transportation to the desert, but no. That van took us to another bigger van that began to fill with more people until reaching the maximum of 17.

If you’re lucky you might arrive early and you can choose a seat. But keep in mind that humans are animals of habits. Once you’ve chosen your seat, it would probably be the same throughout the tour. Choose wisely!!

We leave from Marrakech to the south, and from there to the Tizi n’Tichka mountain pass that reaches its peak at 2,260 m and that is why it is one of the highest steps in North Africa. The van stopped a few minutes so we could see the breathtaking views across the mountains. Then, we stopped for an hour in the Berber village of the High Atlas called Telouet, we had breakfast (not included) and those interested bought some handicrafts.

Ait Benhaddou

One of the highlights of the tour: Ait Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a traditional city of mud and brick in the high mountains of the Atlas that served as the stage for important films like Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia. At the moment of arrival, we were imposed a guide to whom we had to pay 20 Dhs. You can probably avoid this and explore the site on your own, but you will be frowned upon.

After visiting Ait Benhaddou, they took us to lunch in the vicinity. Lunch is a little more expensive than what we were used to in Morocco. Fortunately (or not …) we felt very sick and we skipped it.

Ouarzazate and the Dades River gorges

We continue our way to the city of Ouarzazate. Our van stopped right in front of the Film Museum for about 20 minutes. The kitsch decor of the entrance to the museum called us to enter, but there was no time. The desert is far, far away!

After a few more hours of travel in which we took the opportunity to nap, we finally reached the river Dades. Next to the river Dades the deep gorges appear; there we stop to take some photographs. As we posed for the photos, we contemplated the ruins of the ancient Kasbah scattered among the traditional Berber villages.

At dusk we finally arrived at the first hotel where they served us dinner (guess what: Cous-Cous and Tajine!). The lodging was old and modest, but could be a lot worse.

Accomodations near the Dades river.

Desert Tour: Day 2

Tinhir and Todra gorge

After breakfast, we climbed again aboard the van, this time we headed to the Tinhir village. Once there, they again imposed on us a guide who took us on a tour of the little medina and then invited us to a shop in which they sold carpets (supposedly run by a local Berber family). While the owners of the shop were very subtly displaying one and another rug on our feet, of different sizes, colors and drawings, a full hour passed. We did not buy anything. On the one hand because they were out of our budget and on the other because we had several days ahead and we did not want to carry so much weight.

Finally we left Tinhir and took a stroll through the imposing Todra gorge where a deep crack of orange limestone is crossed by the route offering spectacular views.

Merzouga and night in the desert

From Todra Gorges we continue to Merzouga, our final destination before the desert. A couple of hours before arriving at destination, a curtain of sand began to rise to such an extent that the road could hardly be seen, we felt the nearness of the desert. Luckily by the time we reached Merzouga, the sand cloud had dissipated. At that moment, both of us and the two Spaniards (of whom I spoke at the beginning of the post) were separated from the initial group. We thought that we were “special” and that we would go to a kind of luxurious tent in the desert. We were very wrong.

We left the luggage in the hotel that we were assigned and grab the minimum to take to the desert: coats, water, camera and more coats! The 4 camels that were going to take us to the tents in the middle of the desert were waiting for us. The camels looked tired, the four were in a row tied together and were led by an Ewok who walked at the beginning of the line. The camels took 2 hours to reach the tents.

When we arrived at the camp (three sad tents forgotten in the middle of the desert) the cold from which we had been told so much, began to feel.

We headed to our “luxury tent” which had a considerable hole in one of the ends and the floor was essentially sand plus a randomly thrown blanket. We were supposed to sleep there.

We had dinner again: cous-cous and tajine! And then began the dance and music show. In reality the three “artists” were the three Berber guides who ran the camp. The boys were half drunk (it is assumed that in Morocco is frowned upon drinking alcohol), grabbed a pair of drums and put them to play while they sang songs in their language. An unforgettable experience without a doubt.

The night fell, the tiredness of the walk on the camels began to feel. We went to the tent to “sleep” and spent the worst night of our trip to Morocco. We never felt so cold even though we slept dressed in sweater, scarf and hat.

Desert Tour: Day 3

Luckily at 5am we were woken up to return to the Merzouga hotel. We would have preferred to walk those two hours through the dunes than to follow on the top of the camels. Seriously, the cold in the desert in winter, is real.

We arrived with the sunrise. An orange line lit the moon that perched on Merzouga and we were happy to have survived. We had breakfast, we charged the cell phones and we stayed in the hotel waiting for the taxi that would take us to Fez.

We booked the taxi that will take us to Fez through the owner of the riad where we would stay. The employees of the hotel in Merzouga asked us where we hired him, who the taxi driver was, why we hired him, etc. The situation was very tense and it was not that they were worried about our security. They wanted to see if they could somehow get some commission for hiring the taxi.

Moha (by Mohammed) who would be our driver for the next 8 hours arrived on schedule.

Without planning, those 8 hours would be the most beautiful and unexpected we would spend in Morocco.

Watch the Odyssey to the Sahara Desert Wandervideo

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