There are some destinations which surprise you. Morocco is one of them! When I first looked into Marrakech desert tours, I didn’t care how I got to the Sahara Desert, I just knew I had to get there, my eyes were on the prize so to speak. It turns out, the route from Marrakech to Merzouga is just as incredible as the desert itself!
Sahara Desert Tour From Marrakech
The Madness That Is Marrakech
Let’s start right at the beginning! Marrakech desert trips start fairly early to be able to squeeze in a day of sight seeing on route so we booked to stay in the Old Town Medina that night before the tour. Stay in a Riad. They. Are. BEAUTIFUL. I would never have been able to find it without the help of the guy that picked us up from the airport…I don’t even know if I’d be able to find it again if I returned now!
The alleyways are like a maze but behind the doors are these amazing (no pun intended!) accommodations. They are built around an open air courtyard and may even have a rooftop terrace. I stayed at Riad Chouia Chouia, whose central focal point was a small swimming pool. The decor of the hotel was white and bright blue with lots of green plants, a complete contrast from the dusty orange brick work of the outer buildings and alleyways. The roof terrance was a sun trap with views of the Andes and Atlas Mountains, giving us a little taster of where we’d be heading to on our Morocco desert tour!
I don’t think I can even put my thoughts of the Medina into words. I kinda found it exciting but my travel buddies were overwhelmed by it. It’s crazy and attacks all your senses (including your hand if you get scammed into an unwanted Henna tattoo…just putting it out there, as a woman I never received unwanted attention from men, I had more problems with the local women). There are monkeys and snakes, amazing freshly squeezed orange juice and lots of opportunities for souvenirs. I think anymore than an afternoon would have exhausted me!
Marrakech to Merzouga
Through The Atlas Mountains
Our guide for our desert trip met us at one end of Jemaa el Fna square around 7.30am. It was TOTALLY different at that time of the morning. It was so peaceful. We set off in Toyota Land Cruisers and headed for what I had read, to be one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Of course it has a million switch backs, it has to go up and over a mountain range! Our drivers were over taking on blind bends and all that, but I surprisingly never felt like my life was at risk…even with the driver hanging his foot out of the window, despite driving a manual (I think we went the whole way in 4th gear…)
Our first stop was at Tizi Aït Barka, a restaurant with an outside deck overlooking the mountains (not the above picture). This was our first opportunity to go to the toilet (for a fee) and stock up on snacks from their little snack counter. FYI, I think I drunk around 5 litres of water on the first day of my Morocco desert tour, so it’s worth stocking up! I travelled in May and it was HOT.
Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou
Ait Ben Haddou is considered a kasbah which was often built as a type of walled fortress to protect the inhabitants. (We stopped at the ruins of a second kasbah on route to the desert…and if I had £1 for every time I sung The Clash song ‘Rock The Casbah’ in my head, I would have been rich.)
Before taking a tour of the Ait Ben Haddou we stopped for lunch at La Rose Du Sadle restaurant just across the street. It’s also a hotel and has a swimming pool which we were allowed to use. I was the only one that had a swim kit and the pool felt AMAZING, as the temperatures felt like we were sitting on the sun.
Ksar Ait Ben Haddou is located in Ouarzazate was first built in the 17th century as a stopping point on the ‘caravan trade route’ for people travelling between Marrakech and the Sahara. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The buildings are made from clay and they have to be rebuilt every 100 years due to weathering. There are a lot of tourist souvenir shops within the walls. Only a handful of families still live in Ait Ben Haddou, the others that run the stalls live nearby. It’s also appeared in lots of films and TV shows including: Gladiator, Game of Thrones and Indiana Jones.
Atlas Corporation Studios
Speaking of films. We stopped at a viewpoint which overlooked the Atlas Corporation Studios, the largest film studio in the world! Our guide told us that American film companies would hire out the Atlas Corporation Studios, as it was cheaper to film there than it was to film in similar looking US desert locations. The Mummy was apparently partly filmed at this location and so was the UK’s ‘The Grand Tour’ (the Top Gear spin off series on Amazon Prime).
One amazingly awesome surprise of our Marrakech desert tour, was our overnight stop in the Dades Gorge in the Dades Valley. After a quick stop for a photo opportunity at the Monkey Fingers Valley, we arrived at The Hotel La Gazelle Du Dades, located right in the bottom of the narrow Dades Gorge. It was the same colour as the gorge wall, completely blending in to its surroundings! In all honesty the beds were as hard as sleeping on a table, but the location more than made up for it. In true Moroccan fashion, we were greeted again with mint tea (I think I drunk the whole pot of it) and shown to our room, which had a balcony with views of the gorge.
We were served a dinner of: soup, chicken tagine, bread and fruit and for breakfast we had pancakes. Both meals were delicious (and the giant ants stayed well away from us)!
At one end of the Dades Gorge is a CRAZY switch back road, that we got to experience and view from the top. There’s also a hotel perched right on the edge, which looked a little bit scary, like it might topple over the edge at any moment…I’m kinda glad we stayed at the one in the bottom of the gorge!
The Todra Gorge
The following morning we had a short stop at the Todra Gorge. This narrow gorge was created by the flow of the Todra and Dades Rivers. When we visited in May, the river was only a shallow stream passing over a rocky river bed with a road (good quality) running alongside it. In places the walls of the gorge are over 500ft high! Just like our hotel in the Dades Gorge, the Hotel Yasmina is the same colour as the rock of the gorge, it almost looks as if it’s been carved right out of the wall (I used the toilet in the hotel).
The Todra Gorge was mainly filled with what looked like large local family groups on a weekend day trip, the kids were splashing around in the stream, they were eating picnics and cooking food, playing drums and having what looked like a great time! It was so interesting to watch this snippet of daily life! It also looked like a resting point for shepherds, as there were groups of donkeys and goats that were being herded through the Gorge and the animals were drinking out of the stream.
The Last Stretch To Erg Chebbi
After the Todra Gorge, we stopped at the Cafe Touroug for lunch (read as: “2 ice creams”…), they even had free WiFi, which is mad considering that at this point we were starting to get into the middle of nowhere!
The rocky, dusty desert started to become more sandy. We stopped at a small dune to stretch our legs and then again at an oasis type area which had views of the Erg Chebbi dunes, before reaching Merzouga to begin our night in the sand dunes.
You can read my experience of camping in the Sahara in my post: Things I Wish I Had Known Before Camping In The Sahara Desert
The Sahara Desert is the largest ‘hot’ desert in the world, covering an area the size of the USA. The Sahara is mainly a rocky landscape and only a small part of it actually falls in Morocco. Erg Chebbi is one of only 2 Saharan dune areas in Morocco, an ‘Erg’ being the name given to a ‘sea of sand’ and what people typically consider the Sahara Desert to look like.
After our night in Erg Chebbi, we hit the road early and drove 9 hours straight, back to Marrakech, only stopping a couple of times to go to the toilet, fill up with fuel and buy snacks. Our guide did ask if we wanted to stop for a longer lunch or just plough on, our group decided just to keep on going.
I booked my Morocco desert tour from Marrakech with CamelTrekking.com and was very happy with my experience! You can either join the whole tour which goes from Marrakech to Merzouga, or they have other options if you just want to do the overnight stay from Merzouga!